“One day my mam went to dig up potatoes out of my uncle’s field. On the way back they saw one of the Croatian neighbours and she said, ‘I knew you were crazy, I didn’t know you were that crazy! In a couple of days from now you’re going to be gone from here, why are you digging up potatoes?”

Smajo Beso

Smajo Beso - Smajo's Story

Smajos Story: "People we knew well would not even look at us."

What makes us human?

Is it consciousness? Language? Humour? Sophisticated use of tools? A belief in God or science? Are we only human because of all of those features that separate us from animals?

The African philosophy of ubuntu says that we are human because others are human around us. It is in our relationships - in the richness that resides in the spaces between us - that our humanness lies.

Desmond Tutu describes ubuntu thus:

“Ubuntu is very difficult to render into a Western language. It speaks of the very essence of being human. When we want to give high praise to someone we say, ‘Yu, u nobunto’; ‘Hey so-and-so has ubuntu.’ Then you are generous, you are hospitable, you are friendly and caring and compassionate. You share what you have. It is to say, ‘My humanity is inextricably bound up in yours.’ We belong in a bundle of life.”

After Smajo’s dad and uncle Celo were taken away by Bosnian-Croat soldiers in July 1993, his family suffered a form of dehumanisation that was just as potent but much more subtle than violence - their rejection from the ‘bundle of life’ that Tutu refers to:

“Our Croatian neighbours started ignoring us. People we knew well would not even look at us.

Nobody checked if we needed anything.

We felt like the whole society turned against us.

Mam would call out to neighbours and they wouldn’t respond.

The normal rhythms of life all disappeared.”

With Smajo’s dad gone, the remaining members of the Bešo family entered a kind of half-life.

Smajo and his mother, sister and brother were alive, yes; they could see and breathe and speak and think, but they were totally trapped, powerless and cut off from the network of other people that we all need to feel fully human.

When neighbours did speak, their words could be as vicious as any act of violence:

“One day my mam went to dig up potatoes out of my uncle’s field. On the way back they saw one of the Croatian neighbours and she said, ‘I knew you were crazy, I didn’t know you were that crazy! In a couple of days from now you’re going to be gone from here, why are you digging up potatoes?”

The void left by the severing of relationships became fertile ground for fear.

“I remember the fear so well,” says Smajo. “Especially the fear that someone would take my mam and we would be left alone. I thought I would have to live with someone I didn’t like.

I thought I would never see either of my parents again.

We were all sleeping in the same room at my uncle’s house, and I remember lying awake and watching my mam standing at the window.

It was summertime so it was always very clear and very dark.

She would stay awake as long as possible, often till dawn. She thought if she saw soldiers or if someone came to torch the house maybe we could run or hide or she could stop them.

I remember feeling so sorry for her.”

**

If a human being has been rejected by other human beings and made to feel that they don’t exist, how can their humanity ever be restored?

How can someone like Smajo come to a point where he once again feels that he is fully part of the great bundle of life?

In South Africa it was the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, chaired by Desmond Tutu, that restored humanity to those who had been brutalised by apartheid.

People who had been voiceless all of their lives were suddenly listened to. They had their stories written in newspapers, shown on television, discussed in Parliament. Those who had been marginalised for generations were gently lifted up and carried to the very centre of things.

At long last, their stories were acknowledged.

And so Smajo and his family can be reconnected to the bundle of life through exactly what you are doing now: by having their story heard.

It is through all of us connecting with what happened in Bosnia 25 years ago - by remembering it, speaking about it, and using it to inform our ideas and our politics in 2019 - that those who suffered through that terrible war can feel that their experiences were not for nothing.

Because ultimately, it is only through feeling that we truly matter to other human beings that we can ever feel fully human ourselves.

Click here if you would like to read more of Emlyn's blog.