Amina Mujkic was just two when war erupted in Bosnia. As shells fell on Sarajevo, Serb military stormed Amina’s hometown. Families were sent scattering and the fight for survival began. Over many months, and with her ailing grandmother by her side, Amina was carried from place to place by her then 20-year-old mother. They had little food and few possessions. The trio lived in constant fear of the fate that had befallen Amina’s father and grandfather but they never lost hope they would one day see each other again. This is Amina’s story.
When the war started we were living with Dad’s parents in our hometown near the border with Serbia.
The political situation in the region was getting worse but people continued to live their lives. I don’t think anybody could comprehend what ended up occurring until it started to happen.
On the day we left our family home, Dad and Grandpa were at work.
Mum was giving me a bath and Grandma had bread baking in the oven. Suddenly, one of our relatives came running down the street yelling at us to look outside and run!
Looking out the window, Mum could see army trucks and tanks driving towards us. Everybody was in a panic.
The gunshots started immediately. Mum grabbed me, and a backpack with some baby clothes, and ran out with Grandma.
The only place we could run to and hide was the nearby mountain forest. People scattered through the foothills and into the forest.
Thankfully, Dad and Grandpa were somehow able to make it back and find us. We ended up at the top of the mountain. This was a safe place to hide because the forest served as camouflage and the cliffs were only accessible by foot. The trucks and tanks couldn’t get to us.
Life as we knew it was over.
The battle for survival started that day – to survive the guns, bombs, starvation, freezing cold, snowing winters. We lived like this for three years.
At the time it was still summer, so we had some supplies to last a little while including the fruit and vegetables that people had grown in their gardens.
But we had no shelter. We were living like animals in a forest, making shelter out of tree branches.
The enemy army had set up bases along the surrounding mountains so they could control and attack the towns and villages. My Grandpa likens it to being ‘in a bowl in their palms’.
From this point the attacks became a daily occurrence.
At nights, my parents would make the trek down the mountain to our home to sneak supplies out of the house or pick vegetables from the garden. They knew they were risking their lives but at least in the dark of night they were less detectable by snipers. Then they had to make the trek back up the steep mountain in the pitch black carrying 20-30 kilograms on their backs.
I remember going to a lookout with my family, looking through binoculars and watching near-by houses burn. Weeks later our house was burnt down too – there was no going back.
About that time, I got very sick. There was no access to doctors or medicine. My family thought I had eaten plums that may have had bomb residue on them. They thought I’d been poisoned. I barely ate anything for weeks apart from honey that someone had given to my family in hope of helping me. I eventually got better.
As the winter approached, people living in the forest built timber cabins for shelter. My Dad’s uncle built one for our family. The cabin was purely a place to sleep – we had no water or electricity.
Grandpa walked an hour each day to collect water from a spring so we could bathe in a makeshift bath in the woods.
One day when collecting water, a grenade dropped next to him and he was wounded. Thankfully, it fell into the mud, which lessened the explosion, otherwise he would have been killed. There was no medical help – you lived or you died.
When the winter started, life got even more difficult.
Imagine a freezing, minus 10 degree winter, two-metre snows… There were wood fires that kept people from freezing but then the food shortage came.
People were forced to trek through the snow, sometimes for 12 hours or more, to neighbouring towns to find food or beg for food. Money was worthless. People exchanged goods such as jewellery for cornflour, all the while at risk of an ambush.
Grandpa, Mum and Dad did this trek countless times. Grandma was too weak to go anywhere so she looked after me. Each trip was a goodbye, maybe forever.
When the cabins on the mountain became unliveable and we ran out of food, our only choice was to make the trek as a family to the nearby town of Srebrenica. At this point, we only had corn bread and homemade fruit syrup for me to drink, which ended up freezing in the snow anyway.
Eventually, the food supply in Srebrenica diminished too. Grandpa remembers going into someone’s house to ask for food. The woman in the house told him `I don’t have anything to give you apart from this matchstick, hopefully you can light a candle’. People wanted to help even though they had nothing to give.
People started to die of starvation. The Serb Army was controlling food aid – sometimes they’d let some food trucks pass, other times they wouldn’t.
Thankfully, we started to receive international food aid by air. Aeroplanes would drop food pallets into the snow attached with some kind of glow sticks so people could find them. Again, it was a trek through the snow to find the pallets, sometimes to fight with other starving people for food to feed your family.
It was impossible to leave the region and the bombings continued on a regular basis. Every day there was news of another relative and friend being killed.
Soon after we left Srebrenica for another town, Zepa, in search of food and shelter.
Somehow we survived that winter, and the next after that.
We were lucky to leave Srebrenica when we did because in July 1995, the Serb Army systematically killed more than 8,000 Muslim men and boys. This town had been declared a `safe area’ by the United Nations Security Council but to no avail.
In the same month, only a few days later, there was an arrangement made to allow the evacuation of women, children and the elderly from Zepa.
Buses and trucks were arranged for us in a UN protected area where we would board and be transported into a Bosnian controlled town.
That’s when we separated from Dad.
I remember the emotion of that day. Even though I was only five years old, I remember everybody crying. Everywhere I turned, people were screaming and crying and hugging. I didn’t realise at the time I was saying goodbye to my Dad, maybe for the last time.
He was going to try to escape on foot.
Grandma made him a packet of crushed walnuts and sugar; that was all he was going to have for food. We said goodbye and then we got on a bus.
We had to go through a few different Serbian Army checkpoints along the way.
At one of the checkpoints, Grandpa was taken off the bus under the pretence that they were going to verify his ID, but we all knew that wasn’t the case. They must have considered him too young to be let free.
I remember that moment. People were afraid to speak because there were men with guns entering the buses and patrolling around outside.
Everyone was shocked and afraid. I remember Grandpa standing by the bus as we pulled off. He had on a white shirt. I just remember him in the distance in his white shirt.
I can’t imagine what Mum and Grandma were feeling at the time. They had just said goodbye to Dad not knowing if they’d ever see him again, and then Grandpa.
Mum tells me that in the coming months as another cold winter came, she constantly thought of Grandpa, and how he had been left on the side of the road with literally nothing but the shirt on his back. She blamed herself for not thinking to give him a jumper as he left.
Sadly, he suffered more than just the cold because he was taken to a concentration camp.
Back on the evacuation bus, we were dropped off in no man’s land. We were to walk between enemy lines into the safe area. Everybody was running past us and we were falling further and further behind. Mum thought we were going to die there because she couldn’t walk fast enough. Grandma was extremely sick at the time. Mum was trying to carry Grandma, me and two backpacks across the line. She was physically and mentally exhausted.
Thankfully, a UN jeep had been picking up the stragglers, and we were the last ones to get away.
We went to a Red Cross camp where we were given food and water and could report who was missing from our family. Then we were taken to live in an abandoned house in a nearby Bosnian controlled town.
We had no news about Dad. We prayed for the best but were well aware of the danger he was in.
He began the trek with a group of friends but in the end found himself wandering alone. Landmines, barricades and ambushes had dispersed the group. Many never made it out alive.
On one of the days, Dad was taking a rest, sitting up against a tree in a forest when a Serbian Army soldier, holding a rifle, appeared walking towards him.
Dad thinks he was on a patrol – on the lookout for people like him.
They looked at each other and froze in shock. He said to Dad something like, “God help you’’ or “God speed’’.
Dad answered in the same vain and the soldier just kept on walking. He had a gun but he didn’t shoot my Dad. That has always stuck with me; the humanity of it all.
Here you are faced with another human being around the same age, probably having led a similar life up until the war started, and here you are now. What do you do? You do what comes to you naturally which is to say hello and wish them well.
Sadly, that was short lived. The soldier must have made it back to his base because the trees around Dad were then peppered with bullets. He survived.
One day he came across a road and heard people talking and laughing. He found himself in a hill overlooking a Bosnian-controlled town. He remembers hearing people calling out to each other by Bosnian names and seeing Bosnian Army flags, but he thought it was all a trap – he was exhausted and paranoid.
He says that he eventually made peace with the fact he was going to die and proceeded to walk onto the road in the path of an oncoming car.
As it turns out, he was finally safe. The people in the car were Bosnian soldiers. They were shocked to see him coming out of the wilderness – survivors on foot were a rare occurrence.
I can’t imagine how he must have felt at that moment. To finally be safe and have strangers hug and welcome him like an old friend.
They took him to a hospital where he realised he had no soles left on his shoes. He doesn’t remember how long he’d been walking for barefoot. He had blisters and sores on his feet but his brain never registered them.
Dad was able to reconnect with us through the Red Cross channels. At the time, we were sharing a house with another grandma/daughter-in-law pair. Dad was dropped off to us late one night by the Bosnian soldiers. We were afraid to open the door at first when we heard them knocking, but we did – and there was Dad.
The other women were so happy for us and just so glad that someone was back alive. It was a bittersweet experience for us because these women weren’t getting their loved ones back. Thousands of women never saw their husbands, sons, brothers again.
With Dad back, we tried to make moves further into safe territory where Mum’s brothers and parents lived. We found an abandoned house and stayed there for a while.
We still knew nothing about Grandpa, where he was, or whether he was alive, until one day we received a letter through the Red Cross channels.
He couldn’t write much in the letter because they were monitored by the Serb Army, accept for that he was fine and was being treated well, but that wasn’t the truth. He’d signed off by saying `look after my Amina’.
We didn’t know anything else until a few months later when he was part of a prisoner exchange. He got out. He experienced some horrific things in the months he was held captive, but he was one of the lucky ones.
Back when he was taken off the bus, he was one of 43 men to be captured. He thinks they were held in some kind of industrial animal sheds. I asked him if there were other groups of men there. He said they never saw them but he heard their screams and gun shots.
Despite all of this, my family was one of the lucky ones because we were reunited.
At primary school, I was in the minority because my father was alive. That was rough – so many kids were left fatherless by the war.
When I think about all of this now, and what my parents and grandparents went through with no support, I wonder how they kept going.
I guess their therapy was each other because they all lived through the same thing.
In 1995 the war finished and in 2001 we all came to Australia.
After the war, Bosnia was in ruins. Everything from government to infrastructure, education, jobs and healthcare was a mess.
By then, my little sisters had been born and Mum and Dad wanted to get out of the country so we could have a better future, a safe life and an education.
You go from one loss, where you’ve said goodbye to people during the war – some forever – to saying goodbye again, but this time to move to the other side of the world.
Mum didn’t know for years if her brothers had survived, and when they were finally reconnected, they faced a really tough decision to say goodbye again.
On the day we left Bosnia, all of our neighbours and relatives came to say goodbye. Everybody was crying again. I think people had simply gotten tired of saying goodbye. Masses of people were leaving the country at the time in search of a safe and better future.
We got in a van and went to the airport and that was it.
It was my first time in an aeroplane.
We landed in Adelaide with a bag each of clothes. I was 11 at the time. Landing in Adelaide I remember thinking Australia is so flat, and red, and calm.
Being so young, I was able to really fit in quickly and learn the language but it was tougher for my parents.
I knew some English from Bosnia and I was picking things up very quickly, but that meant I was a parent to my parents a lot of the time.
I was at the doctor’s, I was at Centrelink, the bank… Every adult conversation my parents had, I had to be a part of because I was the interpreter.
I grew up quickly from that point of view but we were really supported when we arrived by social workers and others in the community – people we’d never met before.
My parents wanted to build something of their own.
They worked hard doing various jobs so they could buy a car, then a house, and start over.
Grandpa appreciates life in Australia very much. Much more than I would have expected from someone who spent the majority of his life in Bosnia.
I think he feels let down by his own country and has many traumatic memories which are in contrast to a safe and welcoming Australia.
All of us feel so lucky and grateful to be here. Australia has such a welcoming, diverse culture.
We have all been back to Bosnia. We still have a lot of relatives there.
After each visit the goodbyes are always hard because every time you think you are saying goodbye for the last time.
My first return trip to Bosnia was very emotional.
The smell of the air brought back so many memories. Walking down the street and smelling the food and eating a tomato from someone’s garden; those sensory experiences brought back many memories.
In 2015, I went back to the cabin where we stayed at the start of the war. We found some of my old clothes in the rubble, a jumper, a pair of boots. It was incredibly tough being back there.
My parents hold a lot of nostalgia for their life in Bosnia.
They want to go back because their life was taken away and they think each time they do go back that they will regain bits of what they lost. But I think every time they realise that life is just so different now.
As I’ve grown older, I’ve gotten more appreciative of the sacrifices they made for us, their resilience but also of their loss.
They lost so much.
They didn’t have their twenties. They lost their home, their possessions, friends and relatives.
How do you ever make up for that?
*Harmony Week celebrates Australia’s cultural diversity. It’s about inclusiveness, respect and a sense of belonging for everyone.