“I don’t have a photo of my grandad. One of my dad’s cousins died when he was 21. He was such a big part of my life growing up, he was a giant of a man… I’d love to have a photo of him, but I don’t. So much of what we left behind can’t ever be replaced.”
Smajos Story: Muslim Families Are Expelled
At the height of the migrant crisis in 2015, when dead children, men and women washed up daily on the beaches of southern Europe, some turned their attention not to the plight of desperate human beings, but to the question of why those human beings had smartphones.
It felt as if the dehumanisation of refugees and migrants was so intense that some people could not even bring themselves to admit that a person from a middle-income country like Syria might own a mobile phone in the 21st century.
So what would you take with you if you were given minutes to leave your home? Which would be the items you would grab?
Are we really to believe that those frothing twitter users who directed so much venom at refugees would ditch their smartphone and take an extra pair of socks instead?
Or perhaps the truth is that a refugee from Syria or Iraq takes exactly what a Briton or American would take if they had to flee - what they need to survive, what they need to connect with others, and, if possible, whatever will remind them of the life they are leaving behind.
On 4 August 1993, a month after his father was arrested and taken to a prison camp, Smajo, his older brother and sister and their mother were expelled from the home of Smajo’s aunt, where they had been staying since they had been forced to flee their home in the village of Barane.
Smajo was 8-years-old. His family’s only crime was that they were Muslims in a country where the term ‘ethnic cleansing’ had just been coined to describe the genocidal persecution of mothers, fathers and children.
In the days before their expulsion, rumours had been spreading that Muslims in other nearby towns had been expelled, and a Bosnian-Croat neighbour told Smajo’s mother ‘Your turn is coming.’
Smajo still remembers the intense fear and anxiety of the month between his father’s arrest and the day that the rest of the family were forced into a sabrini centar (collection centre):
“Our German Shepherd, Lesi, became worried. He started burying his food and he wouldn’t eat.
We started to imagine what might happen next. We thought maybe we would be taken to somewhere safe in northern Bosnia, or that we would be tortured and killed - and everything in between.
My sister had heard stories about earrings being ripped out and fingers chopped off to take rings. It was so hard to verify facts, but rumours were everywhere.
I still remember the day they came for us.
It was really, really early. My mam had stayed up really late. At dawn we were woken up by loud noises, trucks pulling up, soldiers shouting and ordering people to get out of their homes.
British people love that desert island question - what would you take? I always found that question funny - it always just made me think about the war. People would give stupid answers - “I’d take a bag of M&Ms! I love M&Ms!”
But that isn’t how it really works. You don’t have much choice about what you take, you just grab what you need to survive.
I was supposed to start school that year, so I had my new school bag that had never been used. My mam had packed it with clothes and some school books when my dad was taken.
We could only bring one photo album.
I don’t have a photo of my grandad. One of my dad’s cousins died when he was 21. He was such a big part of my life growing up, he was a giant of a man… I’d love to have a photo of him, but I don’t. So much of what we left behind can’t ever be replaced.
My mam had been making bread every night in case we were forced to leave. On the morning the soldiers came, she cut the bread in half and gave half to Lesi.
He didn’t even look at it. We had to leave him there, and we never saw him again.”
The photograph accompanying this article is part of a project by the Bosnian photographer Ziyah Gafić.
He has photographed hundreds of objects found in mass graves across Bosnia in an attempt to identify the people in those graves. The family featured in the photograph were Europeans living in a world where ‘The Simpsons’ and ‘The Fresh Prince of Bel Air’ were the keystones of youth culture, but where genocide was nevertheless perpetrated against innocent families in a European country.
We don’t know this family’s fate. Their photograph stands as a reminder of the millions of lost photographs of Bosnian Muslim families, and for the millions of survivors who have nothing left of their loved ones but their own fading memories.