Surviving the war years in Sarajevo

Adnan Hasanbegovic, a survivor of the Bosnian war.

Adnan Hasanbegovic, a survivor of the Bosnian war.

Published Aug 27, 2017


It’s a clear, tranquil summer night sky. The mysterious twinkling universe enchants weary Adnan.

Philosopher Emmanuel Kant’s words dreamily drift into his thoughts: “Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.”

Like Kant, Adnan connects these with the consciousness of his existence. He feels a strong sense of peace, a spiritual connection and discovers that he is a religious person, that he believes in God.

As he communes with the celestial starry heavens, the 20-year-old wonders, “how could something so beautiful be so awful over here?”

Suddenly, the serene Sarajevo sky shatters with piercing flashes of nocturnal terror. Shrieking sounds of Serb rockets rain death and destruction on distraught, besieged Sarajevans. Rifle in hand, Adnan quickly takes cover in a trench below Mount Trebevic, ready to defend his beloved Bosnian city.

Twenty-five years later, on a hot summer July afternoon, I am sitting at a downtown Sarajevo café with Adnan Hasanbegovic, the lush green Trebevic Mountain looming large in the foreground. His colleague, Davorka (Dada) Turk, briefly joins us.

I am fortunate to have an audience with a former defender of this historic city, now a peace activist, recovering from "burnout" and busy preparing for common actions by 40 war veterans - former enemies - the next morning in Doboj, a two- and-a-half-hour journey north of Sarajevo. Doboj was a site of intense battles in 1992 with thousands of civilians killed, tortured or raped.

Lighting a cigarette, the sleep-deprived Adnan orders a Coke and a cup of strong Turkish coffee. For the next two hours, and eight cigarettes later, I am fixated at the poignantly narrated journey of his life: his search for identity with the collapse of Yugoslavia, coming of age as a soldier during the horrors of the Bosnian war from 1992-1995, his political and religious enlightenment, and peace activism.

I am drawn to his internal conflicts and tensions with his identity in his late teens and early 20s during the war in Yugoslavia. “My identity was linked to socialism, to Yugoslavia, to emblems of Ché, Tito, Lenin.

"In the late 1980s this was part of our popular culture. Then, in 1990, the elections for independent states in Yugoslavia saw nationalistic parties winning 70% of the votes. Nationalism explodes in Croatia and Serbia. I was confused, it was very shocking. I started to read about politics to make sense.

“Bosnia also had a nationalist explosion in different ways, not transparent, because we lived here together. You couldn't have your nationalistic party here in Bosnia as others will say 'what are you doing, don’t do that here'.

"I came from the position of radical Yugoslav and not as Muslim or Bosnian. My argument was that a socialist Yugoslavia or democratisation of Yugoslavia was the best solution."

When Croatia had elections, Adnan and his friends sprayed anti-nationalistic graffiti and removed posters of the nationalist leaders. He asserts that nationalism came from the communist party leaders and army generals. He realised even though the nationalists were not ready for war, war happens, for example, through political killings and terrorism.

Adnan and many other Sarajevans didn’t expect a war in Bosnia that strongly embraced former president Josip Tito’s ethos of brotherhood and unity. He reflects solemnly: “Nobody is crazy to make war. There was not enough hate between us. We were brothers.”

In 1991, when war started in Croatia, Adnan was confused: “I didn’t know on which side I am. On the Serb side soldiers still had Yugoslav symbols, and one part of me believed that they fight for Yugoslavia, and that Croats are evil and want to get out of Yugoslavia.”

He started reading and engaging with his friends, becoming politically aware. He was shaken by the horrific massacres by Serbs in Vukovar, north-east Croatia.

“I realised what the Serb army was doing was very, very bad. After a while they lose the Yugoslav identity, taking on Serb identity, putting Serb symbols on uniforms, and they start to fight for a Serb territory.”

In April 1992, when war started in Bosnia, he was shocked at the brutality of the attacks in Sarajevo. “I didn't believe they would do that. Sarajevo had about 150 000 Serbs, some were my best friends. The son of Radovan Karadic, the president of Bosnian Serbs, was my friend at school. One day his family disappeared, then we realised that something was happening. Only when the bombs started to shower over Sarajevo, then I started to believe war will happen.”

Last year, Karadic was found guilty of genocide in Srebrenica in Bosnia and war crimes and crimes against humanity. He was sentenced to 40 years’ imprisonment.

Adnan found it difficult to choose a side. He hadn’t developed a strong Bosnian identity as he was “too much Yugoslavian”. To him Bosnia was a “small Yugoslavia”, an expression of Tito’s dream of brotherhood and unity. His friends joined the Bosnian army with a motivation that they were defending “small Yugoslavia from evil Croats and Serbs who were attacking us”.

In September 1992, the 19-year-old Adnan went to the frontline with no experience of fighting in a war, teaching himself how to use a gun. Soon he was disappointed with the political ideology of the Bosnian army units he served in, as they were Muslim radicals that supported Bosnian Muslim nationalism. It was at odds to his political narrative, once again, confusing him.

“The Muslim radicals' fight was against Serbian and Croatian people, while my fight was against fascism in Serb and Croat people. In ’92 and ’93 I was young and had motivation to fight, but in ’93 or ’94 I realised my army is also involved in war crimes, that it is nationalistic, and they have different political goals. I had friends in other parts of the city that were in multi-cultural units with Serbs and Croats fighting together, with similar ideas as mine.”

Adnan became disappointed and lost his motivation to fight, thinking of escaping from the army. During the war he took drugs like morphine. At the end of 1994 he was admitted to hospital and spent six months away from the front-line recovering from psychological trauma. He returned to his fighting post in 1995 with little motivation to fight, trying to stay alive. He had lost his political motivation.

After the war ended in December 1995, he became addicted to drugs and alcohol and had post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

“I lose motivation to study, I was confused and lost. I was trying to find peace without drugs. During the war I had strange spiritual visions watching the stars, reminding me of Kant’s words of the starry heavens.

“I was agnostic before the war. After the war, I read philosophical books on Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, and others. This really gave me peace. I became religious, I started going to mosque, pray every day. When I discovered I am a religious person, that I believe in God and after-life, that gave me peace, cured my PTSD, cured my addiction, I stopped to drink, to take drugs, I was cured.”

In 1999, he married his Muslim girlfriend, Mirna (“Peaceful”) and they had a daughter Adna in 2001. Also in 1999, Adnan met peace activists in Sarajevo who organised peace training. He realised he was growing his religious and non-violence identity. In the same year he joined the Centre for Non-violent Action (CNA) and became a trainer in non-violence transformation and a training organiser.

In 2001, CNA started working with war veterans from the former Serbian, Croatian and Bosnian armies.

Together with his peace activist colleagues, they travelled across the three countries visiting hundreds of veteran associations to select veterans for peace-building training and organising common activities with veterans from different armies, such as visiting atrocities sites, placing flowers for victims of war from all sides.

“Through peace-building work, I understood why war is going on, and we have to work on peace. Muhammad and Jesus were peace builders.

"We are doing this for our children. There is still a very strong post-war narrative, we are far away from reconciliation here, the nationalists are in power. It's very hard to work on peace building. If we don't do anything we will have new wars in future.”

As I bid farewell to the passionate and fatigued peace builder, I feel the warmth of hope from the loving human spirit of Adnan - a modern prophet of peace in our turbulent world. Later that evening, I drive to Mount Trebevic.

I am entranced by the dazzling shimmer of Sarajevo’s city lights below, and the twinkling starry heavens above. Standing in serene solitude, I am overwhelmed by tears of pain and tears of hope.

I imagine Mandela’s words emblazoned over the city: If people can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart.

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