Bosnians relive past war trauma as Russia invades Ukraine

When Serb forces bombed my home in Sarajevo, I was hiding in a neighbour’s house just across the street. It was July 19, 1995, and I was four years old and putting on my red socks – the socks my father had exchanged a packet of cigarettes for, the only socks I had during that last year of the war.

My mother had promised to take me to play in the front yard of our neighbour’s house – a small patch of grass, concrete and freedom in a city that was under constant Serb shelling.

But first, my mother returned to our family home to take a quick shower. That was when the air raid siren that had become such a feature of our daily lives sounded.

Then came the blast.

The next few minutes felt like an eternity. My uncle tried to stop me from running towards the house. I screamed and screamed for my mother, until she eventually emerged from the smoke.

Instead of playing that day, we cleaned the rubble from our home and I collected my doll’s body parts, carefully putting her back together again.

When Russia attacked Ukraine on February 24, I kept refreshing my Twitter feed and reading the news, trying to understand what was taking place on the ground. On the night of February 27, when the first footage emerged of a residential building in Kyiv being hit by a missile, I couldn’t sleep. The memories of my own family home being hit all those years before flooded back to me.

“When a child goes through a war trauma, they experience things in a different manner [than the adults],” explains Selma Bacevac, a psychotherapist focusing on the Balkans who is based in Florida in the United States.

“The child doesn’t have the capacity to understand that somewhere out there, there is safety. [The] child doesn’t remember the time when things were peaceful, nor does [the child] understand the concept of time and how it works.”

Now, as Europe braces for the possibility that the war in Ukraine could spill over into other countries, this fear feels particularly real for those that have had previous wars with Russia or were at one time invaded by the Soviet Union.

“This collective trauma that Europe or any other society carries, makes people feel like they are in this together, but it also makes them feel more fearful of new attacks,” says Bacevac.

In a photo from April 22, 1992, smoke billows from a building in downtown Sarajevo after a Serbian mortar attack during the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina [File: AP Photo/Tanjug/H Delich]

Bosnia and Herzegovina, which marked 30 years of independence from the former Yugoslavia on March 1, feels particularly vulnerable to the possibility of a new war. Bosnia’s independence, shadowed by the brutal four-year war that claimed more than 100,000 civilian lives, and gave birth to Republika Srpska, is once again hanging by a thread as Republika Srpska’s Serb leader, Milorad Dodik, has threatened to secede from the country.

“I barely slept during the night that led to [Russia’s] invasion of Ukraine,” says Faruk Sehic, a 52-year-old poet and Bosnian war veteran.

“I stayed awake until 2am, worrying and anticipating the worst. I knew that the war would erupt [in Ukraine], and I didn’t want that to happen.”

Like me, Sehic had been following the latest Russia-Ukraine updates in the news and through social media. For Sehic, many of the events surrounding the war in Ukraine were far too similar to those that had played out in the days leading to Bosnia’s 1992-1995 war: the open threats, the refugees fleeing, the heavy shelling.

Sehic’s friend and fellow poet from Ukraine, Andriy Lyubka, found himself in the midst of this latest war. On the second day of Russia’s invasion, he sent Sehic a text message: “They’re bombing Kyiv.”

The message left Sehic in a state of deep distress.

“I told him it’s imperative that you write everything down,” Sehic recalls.

During the war in Bosnia, Sehic had to flee his hometown of Bosanska Krupa, which was controlled by Serb forces. He lived in several Bosnian cities during the war, including besieged Sarajevo. The war helped him to understand the importance of writing down the history of a country that could disappear before his eyes. That is why he has advised Lyubka to write – so that he can use those notes in his future work.

Drawing of soldiers walking past a building
The liberation of Bosanska Krupa, in September 1995; a drawing based on an actual photo [Drawing courtesy of Lejla Zjakic]

News of the attacks on Kyiv bring a particular trauma for people like Sehic, who still remember living under what was later described as the longest siege in the history of modern warfare. During this time, Sarajevo also experienced constant sniper attacks from occupying Serb forces, killing close to 11,000 people, including 1,600 children.

“Those of us [in Europe] who have experienced war trauma, are watching these [events] on TV from a different standpoint,” says Bacevac.

“I’ve received a lot of messages from people in the Balkans saying, ‘this looks like me, this looks like my aunt, my father’. [People] are being retriggered, retraumatised.”

Bacevac says this can manifest in many ways, including as panic attacks, survivor’s guilt, flashbacks, an inability to sleep, emotional outbursts, nightmares and a feeling of worthlessness or helplessness. Some people may find themselves buying food to store and making other preparations for worst-case scenarios.

For Amina Agovic, a 41-year-old legal expert, this worry is doubled.

Agovic escaped the war in Bosnia as a 10-year-old, with her mother and younger sister. She spent most of her early childhood living in exile in Australia, but today lives in Finland with her husband and their four children. Although Finland has a 1,340km-long border with Russia and was invaded by the Soviet Union during the brief 1939-1940 Winter War, the country’s President Sauli Niinistö has sought to assure citizens that the war in Ukraine will not spill over into their country.

But Agovic and her family had been hoping to permanently relocate to Bosnia this year. Now, she is no longer sure that it will be safe to do so.

She says that, despite Finland’s history with Russia, she feels it is safer to remain where she is.

Refugees on a plane fleeing fighting in Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1992
In a photo from May, 1, 1992, refugees settle in aboard a Yugoslav air force plane in Sarajevo prior to their departure to Belgrade, after fleeing the fighting in Bosnia-Herzegovina [File: AP Photo]

In recent months, Dodik, who is an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, has been more vocal about wanting Republika Srpska to become an independent state, possibly joining Serbia. For Bosniaks, who were ethnically cleansed from these areas, this secession is unacceptable.

But these threats by nationalist Serbs have been supported by Russia, and Russian government-backed foundations have been accused of promoting genocide denial over the Srebrenica massacre, in which more than 8,000 Bosniak men and boys were killed by Bosnian Serb forces in July 1995.

In March 2021, the Russian Embassy in Bosnia and Herzegovina warned Bosnia that if it joined NATO – something it also staunchly opposes for Ukraine – “our country will have to react to this hostile act”.

A day after Russia’s attacks on Ukraine, Germany’s Die Welt newspaper published an article suggesting that former Yugoslavia countries, Bosnia in particular, are next on Russia’s agenda. It is yet unclear whether this would mean a direct invasion.

“I’ll just monitor the situation and see how things evolve,” Agovic says.

But with Russia also threatening Finland and Sweden with “serious military-political consequences” should they decide to join NATO, other European countries, including Poland, have started to expand their militaries.

For survivors of past wars in Europe, these developments are troubling.

“[My mother] insists on us having passports ready, and she plans for a possibility of a war, even though she lives with me in Florida,” says Bacevac. “People who have survived war as adults have the need to feel physically safe, to feel prepared in case of the worst.”

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