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War. Any Time, Any Place – This is What Happened to Me in Bosnia

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If there is anything I would like the readers to get from my book, Not My Turn to Die: Memoirs of a Broken Childhood in Bosnia (AMACOM, March 2008), it is this: 

I realize that what happened in Bosnia [during the civil war in the 1990s] could happen anywhere in the world, particularly in places that are diverse and have a history of conflict. It only takes bad leadership for a country to go up in flames, for people of different ethnicity, color, or religion to kill each other as if they had nothing in common whatsoever. 

 “Having a democratic constitution, laws that secure human rights, police that maintain order, a judicial system, and freedom of speech don’t ultimately guarantee long lasting peace. If greedy or bloodthirsty leaders come to power, it all can go down.

“It happened to us. It can happen to you. 

I know that a lot of people will dismiss this right away. After all, the Western media portrayed us, people from the Balkans, as “savages” who don’t know any better than to brutally kill each other every once in a while.  

This portrayal in the Western media was one of the reasons I wrote my book. I wanted to show how my idyllic, peaceful childhood in Bosnia was turned upside down as the civil war broke out. I wanted to show that it was not our “savagery” but political turmoil after the collapse of communism that was exploited by nationalist politicians that divided people according to the ethnic and religious lines.  

The bloodthirsty politicians from all sides told their followers that their neighbors and friends were now their enemies who shouldn’t be trusted, and, after some persuasion, lots of ordinary people started believing them.  

I was thirteen when the war began. My sister, Sanja, was eleven. My parents refused to believe that politics could drive neighbors and friends to hate and kill one another. We’d never made enemies and we didn’t expect anyone to harm us, so we decided to stay in our home and our city, Gorazde. 

But nevertheless, being the same ethnicity as the people who were attacking Gorazde, we endured treatment that no human being should ever be subjected to. Our lives were threatened, we were shot at, terrorized, degraded, put in a detention camp, starved, and eventually stripped of everything we owned.  

Often, it was our friends and neighbors who led attacks on us. It didn’t matter that we knew each other for many years. Politics, propaganda, and ethnic tensions easily destroyed relationships. 

But you probably still don’t believe that your government, your constitution, your morals and values would allow anything like this to happen in your country.  

Ken Silverstein writes in the Harper’s Magazine about Gustave Gilbert’s interview with Hermann Goering, the Nazi Reichsmarshall during a break in the Nuremberg trials in 1946. When Gilbert said that he did not think that ordinary people are very thankful for leaders who bring them war and destruction, Goering responded: 

“Of course, the ‘people’ don't want war. Why would some poor slob on a farm want to risk his life in a war when the best that he can get out of it is to come back to his farm in one piece? Naturally, the common people don't want war; neither in Russia nor in England nor in America, nor for that matter in Germany. That is understood. But, after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy or a fascist dictatorship or a Parliament or a Communist dictatorship.” 

 “There is one difference,” Gilbert said. “In a democracy the people have some say in the matter through their elected representatives, and in the United States only Congress can declare wars.”

“Oh, that is all well and good,” Goering added, “but, voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country.” 

Remember when in 2003 Americans were told by their government that Iraq was an imminent threat and could attack them at any time. So many bought the lie and supported the war. Those who didn’t were called unpatriotic, terrorist lovers. 

Violence based on old wounds lives just beneath the surface of the United States or any other ethnically, racially, or financially diverse society. It is only a matter of degree before "citizens" start rounding up "illegals," or "red states" and "blue states" start shooting at each other instead of shouting at each other, or "ecoterrorists" stop marching and start burning things down on a large scale.

What if the police in your country are ordered by the government to start rounding up those labeled as "enemies" in house-to-house searches and the politicians take advantage of the strong emotions and the media blindly follows along, whipping people into a nationalistic frenzy? 

What would you do? Would you have the courage to speak out? Would you have the courage to talk down an armed mob?

War can happen in your country, too — wherever you live. Any time, any place. You should understand how quickly your world can change, as mine did, when I was only 13 years old.  

You should think now about things you can do to prevent war from happening in your country, to you and your family. Before it’s too late.

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About Savo Heleta

  • Dino

    Savo is one of few Serbs I have met telling the story without lies. First time since the war started, I hear from a Serb that Serbs were shelling even their own who stayed by accident or some other reason within the non-serb’s cities. I am sad to hear for his struggle but also have to ask Savo why did all this happen? Why was his family inprissoned? Who in his opinion is to blame? Bosnians/Croatians defending their homes or Serbs who crossed the border of 4 other countries to murder, steal, rape, torture, …
    Anyways, wish it never happened to you Savo just as I wish it never happened to the 200000 Bosnians and Croatians and who knows how many Kosovars or Slovenians who were victims of Serbian nationalists’ politics. Savo, with all due respect, I would like you to note one thing, it were Serbian nationalists and not somebody else as you may imply. You can confirm that even today just by going to any part of ex-Yugoslavia where serbs are majority. You can confirm that by going to video stores in Serbia where movies are rented with Serbian nationalists torturing everyone else. You will find very few cases like this on other side, very few.
    Good luck in your career Savo, hope in US, you will see that people can live together, just as you saw they were living together before the dream of Great Serbia became the major objective of Serbs. That dream has fallen apart, shattered. It is the time to wake up and build safe Balkan peninsula, Europe, and world.

  • HASAN

    Lamenting about what happened to him and his family during the “civil war” in Bosnia and theorizing on possibilities of occurrence of the same in other countries, Savo has skillfully wrapped the genocide and atrocities committed by Serbs on non-Serb peoples into the “civil war”. He does not mention who was keeping him in the detention camp and which one. He was thirteen with no idea of how a neighbor could kill a neighbor but has idea that it was a “civil war”, not a murderous aggression by paramilitaries trained, armed, paid and sent by Serbia’s government to commit atrocities, together with their proxies in Bosnia on innocent non-Serb population. He lived in Gorazde (majority Bosnian Serb population town), probably in the center where Serbs killed Bosnian Muslims and threw them from the bridge into the river Drina.
    This cannot happen in any environment if they do not have Serbia. I point out that I originate from a mixed family (30% of Serbs, 20% of Croats and 50% of Muslims). However, for the sake of truth and possible reconciliation it is necessary for the Serbs and Serbia to acknowledge what they did. And as for you Savo, I wish you best in your study and life, but when you write on the war in Bosnia, use reliable sources – at least those in possession of the International Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia and the International Court of Justice.
    Hasan

  • http://www.savoheleta.com Savo Heleta

    Dino,

    My family was imprisoned by the official Muslim police in Gorazde in 1992 only because we were Serbs. Who is to blame that my sister and I were arrested when I was 13 and she was 11? Maybe those who arrested us and held us under horrific conditions?

    You say that Serbs crossed the border to fight in Bosnia. If you check the facts, you’ll find out that Serbs constituted 31% of the population of Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1991 (Wikipedia quoting official census data). They were there in the first place.

    Hasan,

    You talk about the crimes that Serbs committed during the war. Yes, many of them did commit the crimes. Many were found guilty for those crimes. But what about the crimes committed Muslims and Croats?

    As I mentioned above, my family, with many other Serbian families – most of them old people, women, and children, was arrested by the Muslim police only because we were Serbs and we were held under terrible conditions for a long time.

    I believe that any civilized person would agree that arresting and oppressing children in a war is a war crime. What do you think?

    I also believe that, for the sake of truth and reconciliation, as you put it, it is necessary that all those who committed crimes acknowledge what they did and be held responsible for their crimes. Not only Serbs, but ALL those who committed crimes.

    I see that you are using very reliable sources. You say that Gorazde is a town with Serbian majority. Well, if you check Wikipedia or any other source, you’ll find out that in 1991, the population of Gorazde was 70% Muslim and 26% Serbian. Today, Muslims constitute over 90% of the population. Well done on the sources!

    I enjoy civilized debate and believe that disagreements are normal, but since your comments are full of hate, ignorance, and lack of respect for other people and their past experiences, I’ll stop my discussion with you here and now.

  • Bosnian

    The detention camps for Bosnian Serbs in Gorazde ?Wow, and you ,13 years old, were in the detention camp ??Please name that camp so we can start a process in Den Haag.
    Please,the whole city was a detention camp for many years,surrounded by chetniks. Please stop using phrase “civil war”.Everyone knows how that war in Bosnia was an agression, coming from the east (Serbia).
    Also , stop calling Bosniaks only as Muslims.That shows me that you are not real Bosnian , but a brain-washed Orthodox Christian. Can i call you Orthodox Christian?How does it feel to be call that?

  • HASAN

    Savo, you are utterly wrong. When you have no evidence then you say my “comments are full of hate, lack of respect and ignorance…” I do not hate anybody as hatred weakens power of judgment. That’s not the way of TRANSFORMATION OF CONFLICT. You are trying to bring the aggressor and the victim on equal terms. Don’t generalize the fact and appeal to suffering of children. I don’t want to mention the rape of two-year old girl (Maggie O’Kane in London’s Guardian – it’s too sordid, not to speak of rape of thousands of women, girls and children, not to speak about Srebrenica genocide, Doboj genocide (confirmed by ICJ), and many other Srebrenicas. And all this committed by Serbs and Serbians. I just want, for the sake of peace in this withered country of Bosnia, to reach a kind of reconciliation. However, you and similar to you and Serb politicians still keep on blaming the others as always or at least want to equalize all sides, forgetting that Serbia did aggression with the aid of Yugoslav Army after cleansing it of all non-Serbs, not only against Bosnia but against Slovenia, Croatia and finally Kosovars. Even Montenegro, “the other eye in the head” does not to be with Serbia. Now when the libraries, TV houses, publishing houses and courts are full of accounts, it is past time when Serbia had exclusive right to make and keep evidences. Reconciliation could come only after acknowledging the crime. You cannot say many are declared guilty. 50-60 criminals could not kill 150.000-200.000 innocent people.

  • JohnP

    Before you start labeling this book as propaganda, check out advance praise for Savo Heleta’s book by the International Crisis Group, the most important international organization working on prevention and resolution of deadly conflicts:

    “Savo Heleta’s account of life in pre-war and war-time Bosnia, and his experiences as a minority Serb in the besieged Muslim enclave of war-time Gorazde is a gripping and compelling story of the nobility of good and the banality of evil. Through the eyes of young Savo we watch the collapse of human moral values under the onslaught of hatred, propaganda, desperation and lies, while also seeing the attempts by some to maintain their humanity in the face of overwhelming odds. It is a fascinating piece of memoir literature from Bosnia that is certain to outrage the reader, while at the same time offering an exciting narrative.”

    Dr. James Lyon, International Crisis Group

  • Nick

    In Professionalism in War Reporting: A Correspondent’s View (September 1997), Tom Gjelten, diplomatic correspondent for National Public Radio who covered the war in the former Yugoslavia and earned the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award for the coverage, described the false multi-ethnicity of the Muslim government during the war in Bosnia:

    “Bosnian Muslim leaders exaggerated their determination to preserve a unitary Bosnian state where people of all nationalities would be treated alike. They argued that supporting their struggle was the best way to oppose apartheid and fascism in the heart of Europe. But while making those arguments abroad, Muslim authorities in Sarajevo and other parts of Bosnia were systematically discriminating against citizens of Serb and Croat background, and they were building a state in which Muslim interests would be paramount. They established close ties with Iran and other Islamic states and invited Islamic mujahedin fighters to join Bosnian army units. The international news media in Sarajevo needed to report these stories as aggressively as we highlighted United Nations cowardice, diplomatic dithering, and Serb or Croat war crimes.”

  • HASAN

    Nick, the “Muslim government” as you or Tom Gjelten call it consisted of 2 Serbs, 2 Croats and 2 Muslims who wanted Bosnia to remain as it was for ten centuries of its existence, something you obviously have never seen. And as for invited Mujahedeen, the facts emerging show that they were imported by western intelligence (just as they did with Wahabism) and even had Croatian passports at that time, just to make the conflict between Bosniaks (Muslims as you call them) and Croats. Some of these Mujahedeens were not even Muslims, but only dressed as Mujahedeens. But what’s about Russian, Rumanian, Bulgarian, Greek units who took the Serb side in this “civil war”. What’s wrong with Iran?
    As for JohnP’s comment concerning Lyonel’s review of Savo’s book, I can say only that I have not been commenting the book, which I have not seen, let alone read it. I read here the review which extracted a piece of text from his book where he said it was a”civil war”, so giving a quite different picture of what was happening in Bosnia during 1992-1993. Why call the war in Bosnia a “civil war” and not do the same with the war in Croatia, Slovenia, Kosovo? Just to justify the genocidal creature established on half of Bosnia – Serb Republic.

  • HASAN

    I just forgot to enclose a reading list:

    Philip J. Cohen: Serbia’s Secret War
    Norman Cigar and Paul Williams: A Prima Facie Case for Indictment of SLOBODAN MILOSEVIC
    Roy Gutman: A Witness to Genocide
    Frances R. Boyle: The Bosnian People Charge GENOCIDE
    Norman Cigar: Genocide in Bosnia
    Mark Almond: War in Euro’s Backyard
    etc

  • Nick

    Hasan, you talk about “facts” but you have nothing to support your “facts.” When you talk about Islamic radicalism, you are trying to invoke some Western conspiracy. Again, are there any proofs, or you have only hear-say gossip?

    Here is November 9, 2007 article from German Spiegel:

    “American diplomat Raffi Gregorian, deputy high representative for Bosnia, speaks of a growing number of al-Qaida sympathizers in the country…. Terrorism experts fear Bosnia could become a base for extremists, since many Bosnian Muslims have become radicalized through the influence of foreign combatants as well as the charitable Islamic organizations that spread their beliefs with money.”

    “Wahhabism is quickly gaining ground in the country, with polls showing that 13 percent of Bosnian Muslims support the conservative Sunni Islam reform movement. The movement is financed primarily by Saudi Arabian backers, who have invested well over a half-billion euros in Bosnia’s development — especially in the construction of over 150 mosques.”

    So it seems to be the Saudis who supported radical Islam in Bosnia as they are doing elsewhere, not the CIA or some other organization.

    And just because you and your side don’t call the war in Bosnia a “civil war” doesn’t mean it was not a civil war. German Spiegel, New York Times, BBC, etc. they all use the term “civil war” when talking about the conflict.

    As you may know, some see al-Qaida as freedom fighters, while others call it a terrorist organization. It’s all a matter of perception.

  • Dino

    It was NO official “muslim” police or army but police who felt loyal to state of Bosnia and not to a corrupted nationalist across Bosnian borders coming into OUR coutrny to spread fear and hatres among no matter what you call them Savo Muslims, Croats, or Serbs.
    You are doing all you can to present the world your point of view, something we all saw already for last 20ish years. You use adjective “muslim” but you ignore the fact that large percentage of those Serbs living in Bosnia fought on Bosnian side. As you know, even some generals from Serbia and Serbian army deserted over and are today commanding Bosnian army. Same can be said for Croats.
    So you call everyone a “muslim” who sees the world different than you do. Why? Are you trying to influence minds of those who realized your goal long time ago and as a result made you loose :
    1) Slovenia which in 1991 was described as a Serbian nation,
    2) Croatia, a beautiful country and a beautiful nation, proud and free that for which your leaders said in 1991 “never will Croatia be a country because it is a part of serbia and its people are brainwashed and think they are Croatian and not serbs. They better stop thinking they are not serbs because they will pay their desire to be independent with their lives”,
    3) Bosnia who was called hearth of serbia. Remember, Bosnians are those who wanted to stop the war before it started and as a result found them selves being massacred by serbian drunk barbarians, and finally
    4) Kosovo often described as Serbian hearthland when in reality was occupied and controlled by Serbia for 200 years only and most of other time was under Yugoslavia not Serbia. That Save makes you more a Turk because you were under Turks close to 600 years, way more than Kosovars under Serbia.
    One though Savo. You were not in a detention camp, you were in a detention camp inside a detention camp. Your city was in detention and shelled as you say by serbs. This is just one of Bosnian cities, one of many. People of your nation (Serbs) since you obviously feel not like a Bosnian destroyed a beautiful, respected country in the world, a country of freedom and place for everyone. You shelled Dubrovnik, a city that was not destroyed or attacked neigher by Romans, nor by Turks, nor by Austrians or Hungarians, nor by Germans in both world wars, just watch the link

    And at this link you can see how your serbs celebrate terorist attack on New York. Stop with the lies Savo dont you see the more you lie the more you are loosing. Remember the slogan of your nationalist “Dont worry mother, there will be food, there will be meat, we will slother Croats and Bosnians”, or another one “Knife, Wire, Srebrenica”, or another one “Serbia till Tokyo”, … well, there is a better one, “Serbia like Nokia”

    Question: When the war was about to start, didn’t you get the weapons, bombs, radi stations and sniper riffles and have been ordered to spread fear??? I am not refering to you and your family but I am partialy a serb and an orthodox so I am asking you didnt you get the same orders as we did???? Orders some of my family members did not want to execute and as a result were murdered. You people are the loosers of this century.

  • HASAN

    Nick, you can have your personal opinion about whatever you like, but don’t put your words in my mouth and attribute to me what I did not say. You are not an only one who would like to put the Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims) into the same basket with al-Qaida or some other extremist groups. I saw it even during the war. In addition, don’t skip so much – I was commenting the war, not the present. And don’t lay out me any articles, I can lay out to you thousands of articles which are contrary to your point of view. You force me to believe to your words not to my eyes.

  • Mike L

    Picture is worth a thousand words.

  • HASAN

    Nick obviously pretends to be a greater Serb than the Head of Orthodox Church. He should come to Sarajevo to see how the American Ambassador walks along the main street of Sarajevo among Nick’s “al-Qaida”. If he has to lie he should be short, it’s more efficient.

    “We lie to deceive ourselves, to console others; we lie for mercy, we lie to fight fear, to encourage ourselves, to hide our and somebody else’s misery. We lie for love and honesty. We lie for freedom. The lie is a feature of our patriotism and the proof of our innate smartness. We lie creatively, imaginatively, inventively.”

    Dobrica Ćosić on Serbian people, Spiritual leader of Serbian people
    Borba daily newspaper 1993

  • Hary L.

    Savo, whatever you smoke, you got to share it!