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“We never thought it would happen to us,” Smajo says. “And If it can happen there, it can happen anywhere.”

Smajo Beso

Smajo Beso - Smajo's Story

Smajos Story: Background 

“I think people forget that you have your normal life beforehand. We weren’t always refugees, we weren’t always used to war, we weren’t used to fighting. We had everything we have here.

Then one morning you wake up, there’s no electricity, there’s no water, you hear shooting in the background.

It’s instant like that.”

In March 1991 Smajo Bešo turned six and had just registered for school. He was an ordinary little boy living in an ordinary European village, where his dad worked at a factory and his mum looked after her three children while neighbours popped in and out to share traditional Bosnian coffee.

Things were looking up: the Bešos had just built a new house, they were earning a little extra money growing and selling tobacco, and Smajo’s dad had a tractor that he shared with his brother.

Smajo and his cousin Irma were the only children in the village who hadn’t started school yet, so their mornings were spent excitedly preparing for the older kids to arrive home:

“We were always planning to jump out and surprise them!”

So much of our childhoods is spent in excited anticipation: whether it’s looking forward to seeing the Big Kids, or celebrating birthdays, or gathering for Christmas, Eid or Hanukkah. Like children in every country in the world, Smajo was excited to be growing up, to be gaining more freedom by joining his siblings at school.

“I couldn’t wait! I’m going to be a big boy, going on the bus with everybody, make friends, I’m going to go into town!”

I am sure all of you remember that feeling from your own childhood. As a small child, life can seem as if it is promised to us: we see older siblings and friends move through the milestones of their lives and assume that we will follow the same course. But for Smajo, the promise of starting school in Stolac would never be kept.

As we begin Smajo’s story, there will be many parts that you recognise from your own childhood: the excitement of your parents giving you permission to ride your big brother’s bike; the care-free fun of chasing a chicken with your cousin.

But for Smajo these innocent childhood moments lie in the shadow of a catastrophe that no child should ever have to experience.

This catastrophe did not unfold in a Failed State, or in some medieval society riven by superstition and barbarism: it happened in a European country that had hosted the Winter Olympics in 1984, a place where Brits and Germans holidayed on sun-drenched beaches. Just five years after Torville and Dean enthralled the British people with their gold medal in the Bosnian capital, Sarajevo, the term ‘ethnic cleansing’ had been coined and massacres of Bosnian Muslims had begun.

As Smajo says, Bosnia was an ordinary country in the 1980s, where neighbours of different ethnicities and religions drank coffee together, sent their children to school together and exchanged gifts and well wishes across religious divides.

“We never thought it would happen to us,” Smajo says. “And If it can happen there, it can happen anywhere.”

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