“Later there was a foam mattress lying in the middle of the road. As I stepped over it I saw there was an old man underneath it. He was dead. He was wearing a black suit and a hat like my grandad used to wear. ”
Smajos Story: "That was the first time I saw a dead body."
In the chaos of a war, the passage of time can become as erratic as political events.
Sometimes months can pass excruciatingly slowly, full of dull worry and boredom.
At other times, events accelerate to a terrifying degree: everything seems to happen at once, and minute by minute ordinary people lurch from one new and horrific experience to the next.
On 4 August 1993, the Bešo family’s experience of war rapidly accelerated.
On that day, Sefika Bešo and her three young children were taken to a collection centre, had precious items stolen from them by Bosnian-Croat soldiers, and were herded onto a cattle truck.
They didn’t know where they were going, or if they were to be killed.
Smajo was just 8 years old at the time:
“We were on the truck for between an hour or two before we started moving,” he explains. “Then we were driving for 45 minutes to an hour. Fresh air started coming in, because somebody had made a hole in the plastic covering of the truck with a knife.
When we finally got off it was such a relief.
We were dropped off outside a place called Blagaj near Mostar. We knew where we were but we didn’t know what was going to happen.
We started walking, hundreds of us.
There were people struggling to carry babies, or helping sick or elderly relatives.
I saw this woman, a bit older than my mam, she was quite a big lady, she was panicking and afraid, maybe she was having a panic attack.
Then suddenly she hitched up her skirt and took a piss…
Actually, that’s not the right word. That’s such a degrading word. She wasn’t pissing, this wasn’t some drunk woman on a night out, this was a middle-aged woman, somebody’s mam, who would never normally do something like that.
I remember her so well. I remember the dress she was wearing, she had a scarf in her hair, I remember her blouse…
As a kid there was just the shock of an old woman urinating in front of so many people, I had never seen that before.
Now, as an adult, I realise she must have been absolutely desperate to do something like that.
People forget that refugees are still human beings.
Some people on the trucks were old, some were diabetic, some people might have cancer, some people might be disabled. You still get thirsty, you still need to go to the toilet.
It’s part of the dehumanisation. You’re so scared, so desperate, that you have to go to the toilet in front of all your neighbours. It’s something she would never normally do. It must have been so humiliating.
I remember there was a Croatian soldier giving out water but nobody would take it in case it was poisoned, in case it was a trick. There was so much fear, so many rumours.
The Croatians were firing above our heads, herding us like cattle. Along the way we saw elderly people by the side of the road, crying. Maybe they had been left behind by their families, I don’t know.
Next to the road there were bags and things that people had abandoned. It was chaos.
I remember I saw a chessboard lying by the road that was just like a chessboard we had. I was just a little kid, I was easily distracted. I told my mam, ‘Look! That’s like our chessboard! We’ve forgotten our chessboard!’
It’s funny the things that stay with you.
Later there was a foam mattress lying in the middle of the road. As I stepped over it I saw there was an old man underneath it.
He was dead. He was wearing a black suit and a hat like my grandad used to wear. He had obviously died there and somebody had tried to cover him, to give him some dignity.
That was the first time I had seen a dead body, but we just had to keep going.
I think we were walking for an hour or two, I can’t be sure.
When we finally got to Blagaj we saw our soldiers, Bosnian soldiers, and we were so relieved because we were finally safe.
But the soldiers shouted, “What are you doing? You can’t stop here! This place is full, people are dying every day here!”
We had to keep going. My mam remembered that she had an auntie near there and we decided to try and find her house.
I still think about that dead old man I stepped on. We had been through such a lot by then, but experiencing death was completely different. When you feel someone’s legs under your feet…
He had a black jacket, black trousers, and a shirt with stripes and a black beret. It always reminds me of the hat my grandad wore.
Up to then my mam was still shielding us.
After that day she started preparing us that we might have to live in a war for five or ten years. All of the things that had happened - dad being arrested, our village being burnt - they all culminated in that day.
That’s when we knew there was no going back.”