The girl in the middle

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By Chris Rizidis

Three young girls are huddles in a crumbling concrete structure. They hold their postures tight and stare straight ahead. It’s their eyes, more than their frowning mouths, that give them a maturity beyond their years. Their black worried eyes peer out of the picture, accusing every onlooker.

The girl in the middle is Asja Ljuta, now a 21-year-old University of Toronto student. “They felt bad for us,” she says of the Italian volunteers who took the picture in a Slovenian refugee camp in 1994. The girl on the left is Ljuta’s cousin with whom she had just been reunited after a year. She is currently living in the city of Mostar in Bosnia. The girl on the right had recently found out that her father had been killed in battle. Today she lives in Sarajevo.

These are the faces of civil war.

“It was a religious war between the [Orthodox Christian] Serbians, [Roman Catholic] Croatians and [Muslim] Bosnians within Bosnia Herzegovina,” she says, describing the 43 months of strife in which 200,000 people were killed and another two million, including members of Ljuta’s family, were forced to flee their homes.

“We were kids, but we knew what was going on,” Ljuta says.

The war is now a memory for Ljuta, just as it is to all the Westerners who, through the media, became familiar with the term ‘ethnic cleansing’ and stories of mass murder and rape in Bosnia. The evening news still carries updates of the former president of Yugoslavia Slobodan Milosevic’s case in The Hague where he is on trial for war crimes committed in Kosovo, Croatia, and Bosnia.

As communism crumbled in Yugoslavia in the 1980s, an ailing economy fuelled ethnic tensions as nationalist politicians sought scapegoats to account for the economic hardships.

“Our history is not one of ethnic hatres. Our history was known for one group helping the other and of racial integration. Before the war there were many mixed marriages,” says Gordana Knezevic, a Bosnian journalist who now works for Reuters in Toronto. During the war she worked in Sarajevo for Oslobodjenie, the capital’s only multi-ethnic newspaper. “When the economy is backward and people can’t provide for their children, it’s so easy to blame ethnicity and persuade someone that all others are evil,” says Knezevic.

In 1990, communist parties only won elections in Montenegro and Serbia. In June 1991, Slovenia and Croatia, having abandoned the idea of a unified Yugoslavia, declared independence. The Yugoslav army attacked Slovenia and a Serb-led Yugoslav army attacked Croatia. In 1992, Bosnia declared independence after a referendum in which most Muslims and Croatians voted to separate from Yugoslavia. Bosnian-Serbs did not want to secede from Yugoslavia, which was dominated by Serbia at this time. Fighting quickly spread.

“Everybody was ready, the guns were where they were supposed to be. All that was needed was a spark,” says Knezevic.

The referendum was the spark. There was instant animosity between all ethnicities in most of Bosnia. In rural areas and villages ethnic relations were ruined overnight. “Most of the killing, cruelty and destruction took place where the people were split on the idea of independence,” says Knezevic. Ljuta calmly recalls the day members of the Serbian army, which had occupied her town, lined up her father and other Muslim men to be executed.

“The soldier who would have executed my father was young, he had blond curls, was wearing a green uniform with a hat. The soldier was shaking as he pointed the gun at my dad.

“I ran and hugged my dad. I was crying and telling them not to shoot my father. My dad had a chubby belly and I remember it trembling as I hugged him.”

But the order to carry out the execution never came. Ljuta’s Serbian mother knew the captain of the troop and begged him not to kill her husband.

Ljuta still remembers months later, at age 11, when her world changed forever. “I was outside sitting on the front lawn. My dad was in the garage and I heard ‘doof, doof, doof,’” Ljuta says, describing the sound of gunshots. Not far from her home, the Serbian and Croatian forces were attacking each other.

Her mother rushed home from the bar the family owned in town. Ljuta, her parents and her two brothers went down to their basement where they stayed for four days. Her father emerged from the basement at night to pile bricks in front of the windows to protect his family from gunfire. Remaining in the house for about a week before deciding to leave, they crept away at 2 a.m. one morning with few belongings and little money, crawling through fields to avoid sniper fire.

“The next day we went to the bus station and we were gone,” says Ljuta. This was the beginning of the family’s three-week trek through Europe by bus, train and on foot, traveling through Czechoslovakia, Poland and Hungary. At night, they slept by train tracks and in bus terminals. By day, they begged for food.

That same year, Knezevic sent her children out of Bosnia on the last commercial bus to leave Sarajevo before the city was sealed by the army. “It was important for people to get to Croatia or Serbia. If they managed to get this far they could go to an embassy and go to another European country, Canada, Australia, New Zealand or the U.S.,” says Knezevic.

To avoid being recruited by the army, Ljuta’s father went to stay with his sister in Slovenia, four hours away from Bosnia by train. Ljuta and her family left for Sweden, where they were turned away for unknown reasons and forced to go to Slovenia and reunite with their father. But without work, her aunt coujld not support the family and in late 1992, they moved to a refugee camp in Slovenia.

“The barracks in the camp used to be an army base. It was a huge room with 42 beds. We were fed beans, yogurt and bread everyday for breakfast, lunch and dinner,” recalls Ljuta, who passed the time taking English and French classes and playing soccer.

Many Bosnian Serbs are still haunted by the memories of a time when they were seen as terrorists.

“We [Bosnian Serbs] don’t feel very good. In the world we are seen and described as murderers,” says Radislav Zeojic, a second-year Centennial College student who came to Canada after the war in Bosnia.

“We are [portrayed as] the only bad guys and everyone else is innocent. Somebody’s head has to be on the plate,” says Zeojic of the reputation Bosnia Serbs acquired during the war.

Zeojic lived in the Serbian-dominated North Eastern part of Bosnia. During the war, he was almost killed on several occasions by bombs launched by Muslim forces that eventually demolished his school and home.

When attacks were taking place, citizens would hide in nearby bomb shelters until the fighting stopped, usually for one or two hours, says Zeojic.

Ljuta, however, recognizes that the Serbians were not the only aggressors during the war.

“It wasn’t always the Serbians striking first, sometimes it was the Muslims, sometimes it was the Croatians. Just like any war, there is no way to completely analyze what happened. People are always trying to figure out who started it and there is no answer. It’s a war, it’s a big confusing mess, a deadly mess,” says Ljuta.

After living in the refugee camp for two-and-a-half years, she found out that her family would be moving to Canada. Ljuta’s family was financially assisted by the Immigration Loans Program, a group that is funded by a $110 million advance from the Canadian government. These loans help refugees pay for transportation to Canada, medical examinations and travel documents.

Once settled in Canada, refugees repay the loan, replenishing the fund. After arriving in Canada, Ljuta’s family stayed at Noah’s Reception Centre, a refugee resettlement organization on Jarvis Street that has since closed down. At the centre, basic needs, such as shelter and some food, were provided and the staff helped refugees find work and a place to live.

Mehran Youssefi, an immigration consultant in Toronto says the vast majority of immigrants that come to Canada come through family members. The second largest category of people who come to Canada are independent immigrants, who are highly educated and skilled and can contribute to the Canadian economy.

In 1994, 4,468 Bosnian refugees immigrated to Canada — the largest ethnic group of refugees in that year. However, of all the 19,089 newcomers coming to Canada that year, Bosnians were the 10th largest group, being beaton out by non-refugee immigrants.

Potential humanitarian-status immigrants have to be approved as refugees, and referred to a Canadian embassy. Citizenship and Immigration Canada defines them as people who have to leave their country due to well-founded fear of prosecution due to race, religion, and political opinion or must flee because of war or massive violations of human rights. If they are not approved, refugees can try another country. Canada, like many other countries, is obligated to accept a certain number of refugee and immigrants a year, somewhere in the thousands. Ljuta’s family was lucky.

In 1995, a peace accord was signed in Paris by the presidents of Croatia, Bosnia and Slobodan Milosevic ( on behalf of the Bosnian Serbs), which retained Bosnia’s boundaries and created a joint multi-ethnic and democratic government. NATO stationed 60,000 troops to maintain the peace. In early 2002, about 18,000 remained. Due to international aid, many of the external scars have been mended.

“Everything is repaired. Roads have been reconstructed and things look much better. But people are not happy, they don’t like the politicians, there are no jobs. No real steps forward have been made,” says Knezevic.

“There are borders within the country and everything depends on what group you belong to.” Ethnic animosity is still high, even in Sarajevo, which was once a cosmopolitan city, says Knezevic.

“Before the war you could not say, ‘Serbians live in this apartment complex and Muslims live in that area.’ Now you can.”

But Ljuta still holds on to her good memories of her life before the war. “[Ljuta] told me about how she would climb trees in Bosnia, and hang out at the beach with her cousins,” says her best friend, Wei-Yee Kok, referring to Ljuta’s hometown, Nevesinje. It had a population of 3,000 and one primary school, one high school and one run-down theatre. Here, Ljuta’s lived in a three-story brick house with a yard that was home to 22 fruit trees and six gardens. Ljuta recalls camping with her family every summer.

“There was a ;ale a half hour away from where we lived. We would pitch a tent and literally stay on the beach for two months.” Nevesinje is now just a memory, like the three faces in the picture on her bedroom shelf.

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