It is just over 25 years since war in the Balkans erupted and ahead of Holocaust Memorial Day, Chris Bond talks to two Bosnian women who fled to the UK about their stories.
Jasmina Foric keeps her front door key in a little wooden box.
It isn’t the key to the house the mother-of-three lives in with her family in Dewsbury. Instead it’s the key to her father’s old house nearly 1,500 miles away - a reminder of who she is and where she comes from.
Jasmina has lived in West Yorkshire for the past 21 years along with her husband Ahmet. But while their three children were all born in England and have grown up here, she and Ahmet are Bosnian Muslims who found themselves caught up in the Balkans War during the 1990s - a conflict that claimed at least 100,000 lives and forced two million people to flee their homes.
At the time, Yugoslavia was held together by the bootstraps of Communism and when it collapsed in Europe in 1990 old simmering rivalries, previously held in check, bubbled to the surface.
First Croatia and Slovenia were embroiled in a bitter war with the Serb-dominated Yugoslav army. Then Bosnia, home to a complex mixture of Serbs, Muslims and Croats, found itself fighting against Serb forces led by Radovan Karadzic.
What followed was a process of ethnic cleansing including the massacre at Srebrenica where, in July 1995, Bosnian Serb forces killed more than 8,000 Bosnian Muslims who were meant to be under UN protection.
Today is Holocaust Memorial Day and Jasmina and her friend Suhra Kalabic, who also fled from Bosnia during the 90s, are among those determined to ensure this dark chapter in recent human history is not forgotten.
Jasmina’s story is a long and fractured one. She and her family - consisting of her, her mother and father, grandmother, two sisters and a brother, were one of many Muslim families living in Bosnia at the time.
Jasmina lived in Bosanski Petrovac, a town close to the Croatian border, and before the civil war started she says local communities lived in harmony. “Everyone had a house and car and families went on holiday. Most people had a job and life was good,” she says.
But in May 1992 the war spread to her country. “Serb Muslims, Croatian people, Catholics, gypsies, all these people were living in Bosnia. At the time people were saying ‘the war will not come to us’ because we all lived together. But the Serb army came and everything changed. All of a sudden we had to hide, there was a curfew in the evening and you couldn’t leave your house.”
In some towns families that had known each other for generations turned on one another. But Jasmina says her family was fortunate. “Our neighbours were kind to us, they brought food for us. They put it under a tree and told us to get it late at night so that we wouldn’t be seen.”
But there were other harsh impositions. “I was working in a clothes factory and for a whole year I didn’t get paid. None of the Muslim workers got paid but we just hoped that things would return to normal.”
They didn’t. As the fighting intensified many Bosnian families fled, ending up in refugee camps scattered across Eastern Europe. Amid all the fear and confusion many families were split up. But they were the lucky ones who got out. Not everyone did.
“The Serb army asked who were Muslims and they took men and boys into camps and left the women to look after their children,” says Jasmina. Her husband spent time in two different concentration camps, called Omarska and Manjaca, before he was taken to safety by the Red Cross. “My husband is from Prijedor and he and his father were sent to a concentration camp and so were his two brothers. My husband was put on a bus but his father was forced to stay behind and he was killed.”
Jasmina’s family was among those that became separated. Her youngest sister Emina was just eight years old when she arrived in the UK in 1992 - one of 20 refugee children taken in by a Scottish family. Four months later her mother and brother joined her in Scotland. But Jasmina along with her father and grandmother were left behind and sent to a camp in Croatia.
“I stayed there for a year-and-a-half and all that time I tried to get a visa for the three of us so we could be with the rest of my family. My dad was given a visa but me and my granny were refused.” Her father waited for six months but eventually had to leave. “On the last day I said to my dad, ‘your visa expires today so you have to get to England.’”
Jasmina, who was 21 at the time, remained in Croatia to look after her elderly grandmother. “It was very hard because it was the first time that I found myself alone without my family.”
In the meantime the situation continued to deteriorate. “It was so bad in Croatia during the last few months because the war was getting closer. The army would come to the camp and take away any man who could fight and the families had no idea where they were going, it was terrible.”
Jasmina and her grandmother moved to a Red Cross camp in the Czech Republic where she met her future husband. After 18 months she was finally granted a UK visa and in February 1995 she was reunited with her family, in Scotland - three years after she’d last seen her mother and siblings. “It was very emotional. It’s hard to describe what it was like because there were times when I didn’t think I would see them again,” she says.
A few months later Jasmina and Ahmet were reunited. They quickly got married before moving to Dewsbury, which was already home to a small Bosnian population, to start a new life.
Jasmina, now 48, has been back to her homeland since and says that though the country has recovered the wounds are still raw. “Lots of mothers are still trying to find out what happened to their sons and every year more bodies are found. We went back to my town and it has changed. Some families from other towns are living there now. Perhaps I will go back when I am older but my kids are here in England and their life is here. They will start their own families one day and I want to be with them.”
Suhra Kalabic is a friend of Jasmina’s who lives in Bradford. She, too, fled from Bosnia with her family, arriving in Scotland at the age of just eight in 1993.
“I come from a small town called Kljuc that was occupied by Serbs and it was no longer safe for us to stay. As a child I saw a lot of terrible things. I saw my neighbours getting killed and we were forced to flee. We had no belongings just a bit of food in a bag.” They fled in a convoy and escaped to Slovenia before travelling to the UK.
Now 32, Suhra has been to university and works for a national charity in Yorkshire. Like Jasmina she believes it is important to talk about the atrocities that happened in Bosnia.
“Some of the children killed were just a few days old and there were young women who were raped and then killed. I know of people who lost nine immediate family members, but at the same time life somehow still has to go on,” she says.
Suhra believes these days there is greater awareness of the genocide that took place in Bosnia. “Srebrenica is remembered now and every year there are events to commemorate what happened.”
But the fact such atrocities occurred within our lifetime is a stark reminder of the perils of intolerance and hatred. “It’s important that people learn what happened, that we talk about it and that we don’t forget because it must never happen again.”