The records don’t say that Smajo was bribed with a chocolate bar to tell the soldiers where his mother had hidden their money, or how he felt when he saw himself crying in the reflection of a soldier’s sunglasses
Smajos Story: "My mam gasped. I thought someone had died."
Just a few days ago, much of the world paused to remember the D-Day landings that heralded the beginning of the end of the Second World War, and to listen to the accounts of the few remaining survivors.
When we say ‘never forget’, for most of us that means never forgetting what those men have said about their experiences that day.
The words of those brave veterans are an important reminder that there are two kinds of history.
One is the history of records, numbers, maps and statistics: the graphic representation of what happened. This is the history of concentration camp blue prints, of the shifting boundaries of Hitler’s Germany, of six million Jews murdered by the Nazis.
But there is another kind of history, one that matters much more than numbers and graphs: the history of human experience.
This is the type of history that tells us how it felt to be a soldier parachuting into northern France, a child in a concentration camp, a refugee hiding in an attic and dreaming of freedom.
Often, the official records and the lived experience of human subjects not only tell different parts of a story, but stories that directly contradict each other. Powerful tyrants have a long and sordid history of using the simplicity of numbers to sanitise or obscure their brutality.
Any rounded student of history must begin by appreciating that the number ‘six million’ can only tell us part of the truth about the Holocaust: we need Anne Frank to tell us why that number matters.
On 4 August 1993 Smajo and his family were forced into a sabrini centar (‘collection centre’) inside the factory where his father had worked before the war.
There, they were harassed by Bosnian-Croat soldiers and had their possessions forcibly taken from them.
More than 25 years later, Smajo’s family were sent copies of the records that were made that day by his mother’s cousin.
The document opens with a declaration by the president of the municipal council:
THE MUNICIPAL COUNCIL OF STOLAC IS TAKING MONEY FOR THE USE OF RESTORATION OF STRUCTURES OF VICTIMS WHO HAVE DIED DURING THE WAR. THE COUNCIL TAKES FULL RESPONSIBILITY FOR THE RETURN OF THIS MONEY TO THE PEOPLE THAT HAVE SIGNED THIS LETTER.
The noble promises of the letter are starkly contradicted by the experiences of Smajo and his family:
“My mam’s cousin saw herself on the list and sent a screenshot to my mam. My mam and I were watching Britain’s Got Talent or Strictly at the time.
I heard my mam gasp - I thought someone had died.
It was so important to my mam because it was proof that it happened. At first she panicked. Her complexion changed, she went pale:
‘She’s found it!’
For the last 20, 30 years there has been so much denial of what happened - denial is the last stage of genocide.
That night, we stayed up talking for hours. I recorded her and took notes. My mam felt that she would finally be believed. It made it all real again.”
The document from Stolac says that Smajo’s mother, Sefika Bešo, signed over 2 earrings and 1 ring for safekeeping.
These are the truths that the document doesn’t tell us:
* The two earrings were taken from Smajo’s 13-year-old sister, Senada. They had been given to her by her grandfather when she was born, the only gift she had from him.
Senada has never had those earrings returned to her.
* The ring and earrings were not the only items taken. As other items were taken and not recorded, it seems likely that they were stolen by the soldiers.
* The items were not given over voluntarily. They were removed from families like the Bešos under duress:
“My mam pleaded, ‘muz mi je radio u metalu’, which means ‘my husband worked in the metal factory’ (factory pay was low and everybody knew that) and ‘we’ve been refugees for over a year now, we haven’t got money. You’ve got everything.’
As my mam signed he gestured with his hand and said ‘izlazite sta tu placete’, ‘Get out of here, with your crying.’”
* It was not only people’s possessions that were violated. At the collection centre several women were taken into separate rooms on their own. There is no written record of what happened to the women in those rooms.
* The records don’t say that Smajo was bribed with a chocolate bar to tell the soldiers where his mother had hidden their money, or how he felt when he saw himself crying in the reflection of a soldier’s sunglasses:
“I remember he had tongs or similar in his hands, I could see my self in his ray bans. It made the whole experience even more intense, because I couldn’t see his eyes, just a reflection of myself crying.”
* The records don’t include the sense of fear and powerlessness that Muslim families like the Bešos felt:
“My sister started crying uncontrollably out of fear.
They said “drzi je, imaju pare” (Hold her, they have money).
They saw her crying as a sign that we were hiding money, they couldn’t even recognise that a little girl would be scared in that moment. These were normal people, these weren’t monsters. Where was their sympathy?
I started crying as well. I was in shock seeing all of this. I was so scared.”
What do we mean when we say ‘never forget’?
Are we ‘never forgetting’ the formal records of some general or president that has distilled into numbers the bureaucratic mechanics of a brutal war - or are we never forgetting the recollections of an 8-year-old boy, frightened and humiliated, who still remembers 26 years later what it felt like to have his humanity reduced to a few scribbles on a government form?
“As a child, there was nothing I could have done,” says Smajo.
“But seeing my mam in pain more than 26 years later, it really hurt. The way she felt it. It didn’t feel like it was 26 years ago. It felt real. Like it was yesterday.
That document was important for me because I could feel more deeply than ever before what an awful and humiliating day that must have been for my mother and all the other families. Humiliating and dehumanising.
That’s why recording my story is so important. I understood better than ever how the experiences of war and everything that she has been through, how it all could have led to hate, how it all could have projected onto us.
But my mam always told us not to hate, that those men did not represent all Croats, or all Christians.
I think I realised then how incredible she is.”