Bosnia’s Last Yugoslavs – the Generation War Hit Hardest

Autor: Elameri Škrgić Mikulić  19 DEC 2017  Balkan Insight

Damir Marjanovic was about 17 when the war started in what was once Yugoslavia. Born in Sarajevo, he today works as a professor of genetics and anthropology. During the war – like many of his fellows – he served as a soldier.

“I know I was on the right side, but I also know that my best childhood friend, who was on the other side, for his parents, was also on the ‘right’ side in 1992,” Marjanovic recalls.

According to the statistics, Marjanovic belongs to the generation that was hit hardest by the war of the Nineties.

Bosnian data say 96,895 people died during the 1992-95 war. Most were between 20 and 24; almost 13,000 people in this age range perished.

The Missing Persons Institute in Bosnia says the largest number of those still marked as missing were 20 years old – more than 500 people.

Population data show Bosnia was left without a quarter of all people the born between 1968 and 1977, using figures from the censuses of 1991 and 2013.

While many died in battle, others left the country, both during the war and in the years that followed.

“An entire generation from my neighbourhood is almost gone now. Some left, some died in the same uniform as I wore, and some – like my best friend – in the uniform of the army I fought against,” Marjanovic says.

He says he comes from a generation of “good kids” who listened to their parents and followed their ideals. Unfortunately, he adds, his generation was also ready to fight the wars for which their parents voted.

His generation grew up in Communist Yugoslavia, where children were raised on ideals of “brotherhood and unity” that would be soon destroyed.

“In our heads, we were all heroes from the Partizan movies we grew up watching. Unfortunately, not long after, the leaders who led us into this war then turned us into the villains from those same movies – traitors and people who worked with occupying forces,” Marjanovic says.

Slaven Mistric

As the war was starting, Slaven Mistric was finishing high school in Velika Kladusa. Soon, he was forced to say goodbye to many friends who fled to Serbia.

In 1994, following a series of raids that occurred when Fikret Abdic, leader of a breakaway statelet, the Autonomous Province of Western Bosnia, was taking over the town, Mistric ended up in a one of several prison camps for Bosnian Army soldiers, holding over 5,000 prisoners.

Abdic’s fighters fought against fellow Bosniaks in the Bosnian Army who were loyal to the Sarajevo government, cooperating with Bosnian Serb and Croat forces.

In 2001, Abdic was jailed for 20 years by a court in Croatia for war crimes committed in the breakaway region.

“They would send us to dig up trenches with no food, while bullets were flying around. But when we went back to camp, everyone looked on us as traitors,” Mistric recalls.

Later, he joined Abdic’s army, following a rapid training course led by Milorad Ulemek “Legija”, who would later be sentenced for the 2003 murder of Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic.

“I was not into ideology… I was pragmatic… Sometimes I was a hero, sometimes I was ready to kill… but I did not do anything I am much ashamed of, except when I stole a book from a house, and broke some dishes when I was drunk,” Mistric says of those years.

He was still in Abdic’s forces when he learned of the death of his father, who was killed while fighting for Bosnian Army – the army that Mistric fought against.

Mistric says he has never got over the loss of his best friends from Kladusa.

“Regardless of whether we believe life was best in Yugoslavia, or are into nations and religion, we are the generation that missed its chance to be the first raised in a democracy,” he says.

Asked how he would define his nationality today, he says he has no national identity. He holds neither Bosnia nor Croatia as his homeland.

Djoko Pupcevic

Growing up in the village of Srpska Tisina, near Samac, Serbia, seemed rather idyllic for Djoko Pupcevic.

That lasted until he was 23, when Serbian refugees starting coming to his village from Croatia, bringing with them stories of destruction and terror.

“Then came the hard times… People came running for their lives from all across Croatia, bringing horror stories. All they were allowed to carry was a suitcase,” Pupcevic recalls.

He soon joined the Bosnian Serb army and was given a rifle. “I never said no,” he adds.

“We were all patriots. When the war started, we all said: ‘We will show them.’ Only once it ended did a man have a chance to see what really happened,” he says.

He refuses to discuss his wartime experiences, when he almost lost a leg. His three children never saw him walk without a crutch.

“My son is old enough to marry and I often advise him to do so. I tell him that I made him a country …  He always replies by saying: ‘You did a really good job’. He is right to be ironic,” Pupcevic says.

Later, he became president of the Samac veterans association. As a volunteer, he worked with care and devotion. He prides himself on making the local authorities pitch in to give money to two veterans to renew their bathrooms. He says he spent months hassling the local mayor.

Later, he became a volunteer for the Center for Non-violent Action. As an activist, he has been to places of suffering all over Bosnia, both in Republika Srpska and in the Federation entity.

“If they called me to war again, I would not go,” he says. “We have one life and we must guard it. I did not lose faith in men, but I did in leaders.”

He concludes: “We went and paid our respects wherever men suffered. No one wanted this war.”

Lejla Pasalic

The war found Lejla Pasalic in her hometown of Sarajevo when she was 19. She had enlisted into her first year of college, but instead of attending classes, she spent the next years hiding a basement in the besieged city.

She spent the war carrying water and cutting down trees for her family, often under shelling and sniper fire, in someone else’s clothes, sometimes even with borrowed glasses, which did not fit. She broke her own set while running for cover in 1994, holding hands with his brother, who was 14.

During the war, she fell in love with journalism. She started working as a presenter on Radio Old City in 1994, and for many locals her voice on the radio helped define the post-war years in the city. She is still a journalist.

Although most of her generation now lives far away, from Australia to Canada, she says they still “fit and belong to one another”.

“I can list on one hand the number of people who went with me to school and are still around,” she says.

“We still share the same ideals of humanism, secularism, tolerance … On the other hand, the generation of those born in war and those who grew up in that time is coming – and they scare me.

“But it is hard to blame them because their earliest memories are those of war, blood and death,” she says.

She herself rarely tells her son about the time.

“I fear I would victimize him, transfer trauma, cause hatred… I would not want him to become someone with baggage,” she says.

Dino Sose

Dino Sose is a child of Mostar and one of the lucky few who did not wear a uniform in war. He was 17 when soldiers and battles came to his hometown. A year later, he left and today lives in Austria.

He says that disappointments came one after another – nationalism in Croatia and Slovenia, the first mortars that fell on his old neighbourhood, and the ethnic cleansing that followed.

He feels it was “a good thing” that he got out before that started. ”I could have been dragged into being an accomplice. I think the trauma of being guilty would be worse than being one of the victims,” he says.

His generation had no graduation ceremony. However, 20 years later, they met up in front of the Aleksa Santic college.

Dino used the day to speak out about the ethnic separation of children in Bosnians schools under the so-called “two schools under one roof” program, calling it “classic fascism”.

He wrote signs that read: “You divide our children, take away their future, multiply the problem. Get a grip”.

“My generation was the first to have a Yugoslav culture and identity. So the break-up of this country made us more vulnerable than the generations that have built their identities on ethnic divisions,” he says.

Ramiz Huremagic

When the war started, Ramiz Huremagic was in Zagreb, Croatia. Born in Cazin, in Bosnia, he came to Zagreb to study criminology.

He would go on to finish the course, but in Sarajevo, and a few years later. Today he has a job and also writes poetry. He is the father of a 15-year-old, who Ramiz says teaches him how to live.

Seeing the war spread to Bosnia, he started an on-foot march to his hometown of Cazin with a group of several hundred Bosniaks.

Huremagic travelled with one thought; he had to get home and be close to his family. He says he knew what lay ahead.

He was 20 when he donned a uniform. “My two small sisters were back home and I thought it was my duty to guard them. And so it was … my mission is finished. I won my war,” Ramiz said.

But he mourns the fact that he cannot gather a single classroom from his entire generation in school. Those who were not killed have left the country.

“Maybe things will get better when we are gone, when the last person who participated in a war finally dies,” he says.

“Today I feel OK. I never worked or wrote as much [as now]… I also never tried to get anything from the fact that I was wounded. Too little was done to heal this country.

“We allowed others to talk, while those of us who know best how evil looks like stood aside,” he says.

Vedran Persic

Vedran Persic turned 18 in the autumn of 1992 in wartime Sarajevo, and describes that time very briefly: “I was cold, I was hungry and I was scared”.

Today, he has a successful career as a PR expert for an international bank.

“I was in the army. I fulfilled my civic duty,” he says.

Asked whether he ever killed a man, Vedran replies that he is pleased to say he never killed anyone. “This is why today I feel like a man,” he says.

In April 1992, there were about 300 people who finished high school in his generation.

In June 1993, less then a hundred attended the graduation party. At the 20threunion party in 2013, only 70 showed up.

“They came from all parts of the globe: three from Australia, several from France, The Netherlands, Austria, Britain, and other countries of former Yugoslavia,” Vedran recalls.

According to him, his generation never had a chance to grow up “naturally”, and each time they meet they, “awaken our unfinished youth.”

“It is as if we are missing that year together in our classroom,” Vedran says.

While life has twisted and changed, Perisic says his basic beliefs remain untouched.

“I still divide people into good or bad. I believe in humanity and common sense,” he concludes.