“That night, as everyone was gathering and talking about what might happen next, all I wanted was to see my dad.”
Smajos Story: Smajo's Dad is Taken Away
Twenty-six years after his dad was taken away by Bosnian-Croat forces, Smajo still remembers saying goodbye to him on the morning of his arrest:
“Every little boy looks up to his dad, and wants to be just like him.
That day my dad left for work - he was training troops in the use of artillery - and it was the same as any other day. We said goodbye, hugged him and wished he wasn't going.
I think we were always aware that it could be the last time we would see him.”
Smajo told me this story in detail for the first time last Saturday, in a cafe at Newcastle University where the warm sunshine streamed through huge windows and all around us people laughed and drank coffee.
But as he remembered that terrible day, it was as if he was a thousand miles from where we sat.
We often think of trauma as being something in the past, something looked back upon and remembered.
That is not the case.
Trauma lives in the present, and a person who has experienced trauma may experience it again at any moment, simply by seeing something related to the event, by telling the story of what happened, or even by the random occurrence of an intrusive thought out of the blue.
As Smajo recounted the day of his dad’s arrest, there were times when he had to pause to regain control of his emotions, or when his eyes filled with tears.
Even in a place of safety, decades later, Smajo still carries what happened when he was seven years old.
It is always there; it probably always will be.
“I remember we were playing in an abandoned cafe or bar. There were no doors. We would just go in there and play, smashing bottles and stuff like that.
That was our playground, it was normal for us.”
Normal boundaries had been completely shattered by the war in Bosnia. Children could now enter abandoned houses; could walk behind the bar in a cafe; could jump on tables and smash things with impunity.
Breaking a bottle hardly matters when your entire country is broken.
And likewise, the boundaries in people’s minds had been breached too. Limits of morality and decency that had recently seemed immutable were now breached on a regular basis, as Bosnian-Croat soldiers began to turn on their Muslim brothers-in-arms.
“Someone saw trucks coming, full of soldiers. It was like the Coca Cola truck in that Christmas advert: you can see the trucks coming in the distance, you can’t wait for them to arrive.
We all ran down to the road to wave.
It was so exciting… seeing that many soldiers, thinking they were going on some kind of assignment. Someone had seen their uncle or their dad, so we realised they were our soldiers.”
At this point Smajo has a gap in his memory - did they carry on playing in the abandoned cafe after the trucks passed? Or did they all run home together? How long did it take to realise that the movement of soldiers was not as innocent as it seemed?
Smajo’s sister, who was 13 at the time, saw her dad on one of the trucks, although Smajo doesn’t remember this happening. She realised that something awful was happening, and ran home to tell their mother.
“All I remember is that that night there were lots of people at the house, and lots of rumours. Some rumours were optimistic - that the Muslims were just being taken to be interrogated, that it would only be for a few days until things settle down, they were only being taken away to avoid fighting.
But some people were saying that they were going to kill them all. Some people said that we would follow them soon.”
As Smajo remembered that terrible day, it became obvious that we are foolish to think of wars as having an end.
Fighting might cease, guns may be put away and barricades removed, but the effects of war live on in damaged bodies and scarred minds; they are inherited by children who weren’t even born when the peace agreement was signed; and they dissipate through entire cultures and echo for generations.
What scars do I carry because of what my grandparents lived through during the Second World War?
Who would we all be if there had been no transatlantic slave trade, no holocaust, no Irish potato famine? What damage are we unable to see because it has been there since before we were born?
But whenever Smajo talks about his dad I am reminded of another truth, something just as important as an appreciation of the legacy of trauma:
People who have experienced trauma are more than their pain.
Trauma is only ever a part of a person, it can never be their entirety.
When Smajo talks about his dad, it is obvious that although there is sadness there, there is something inside him that is a million times greater than the trauma, and that has infinitely more power: the love and admiration that he feels.
It is a love that has grown stronger not in spite of what happened in Bosnia in 1993, but because of it.
“That night, as everyone was gathering and talking about what might happen next, all I wanted was to see my dad.
Every little boy looks up to his dad. To me, he was a real life superhero.”