As fighting intensified, the signifiers of war became normal for Smajo and his family. The sound of gunfire became as routine as bird song, and a soldier in uniform as much a part of everyday life as a postman.

Emlyn Pearce

Smajo Beso - Smajo's Story

Smajos Story: Bullets, Nutella and Emotional Resistance

Resistance in a war can take many different forms.

It is often physical resistance that we think of first: communities resisting oppression by arming themselves, organising militias, refusing to concede their territory.

But wars are not only about physical territory: emotional territory is also at stake.

Civilians in a war zone must often fight incredibly hard to preserve who they were before the fighting came. The protection of relationships, hopes, values and emotions must be defended with just as much vigour and determination as roads, bridges and cities.

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Before the war, when he worked in a local factory, Smajo’s dad had a ritual with his three children: at the end of the working day he would bring home a small container of Nutella - half milk chocolate, half white chocolate - for them to share.

It wasn’t an extravagant gift, and there were times when he couldn’t afford even that small treat, but the Nutella acquired a value far beyond what it cost. It was a way for Smajo’s dad to tell his children, “Even when I am away from you, you are always with me.”

As fighting intensified, the signifiers of war became normal for Smajo and his family. The sound of gunfire became as routine as bird song, and a soldier in uniform as much a part of everyday life as a postman.

Bullets also became part of the fabric of daily life, just as car keys are for children in peacetime. And, like car keys, bullets had a strange allure: they were shiny and smooth; they came in different shapes and sizes; they worked with different makes of guns. Just as a child in our society might marvel at the power that resides inside a key that can start a car’s engine, so children in a war marvel at the awesome power that is hidden inside a bullet.

“I think it was also that they were forbidden,” says Smajo. “They were dangerous. And they were part of an adult world, a world of soldiers that we looked up to and admired.”

When the war began, Smajo’s dad became a commander in the army, teaching younger recruits how to use artillery.

As his job and his routine changed, and he started to be away from his family for longer periods of time, so the ritual of gift bringing changed too.

“It was almost ceremonial,” says Smajo. “Before the war, the car would come and we would run out and dad would give us the tub of Nutella. During the war he would bring a bullet home and we would sit down together and look at them. It was his way of continuing the tradition.”

The bullets were kept in a khaki bag that was hung up behind a door, and were taken down occasionally to be examined and arranged, just as children in peacetime collect and arrange stickers, cards, precious stones or seashells.

The old games that Bosnian children had played before the war were quickly replaced with games about war, featuring shooting, grenades and tanks. Smajo’s grandmother, who had lived through the Second World War, would say that children playing war games was an ominous sign: what was happening on the frontline was moving closer, permeating the minds of the youngest members of the community.

But Smajo’s interpretation of the bullet collecting is slightly different:

“Collecting bullets stopped us from becoming monsters. You have to let a child be a child. It protects the child’s humanity - things that are ancient and instinctive - playing, collecting small precious things - create some continuity from a child’s old life.”

And so, just as a war can make people less human, so people can also humanise a war. The facets of the war are adapted to fit into the way that things were in peacetime.

A war exerts its power through physical dominance and destruction - but even in the midst of war, people (and children in particular) can emotionally resist violence using imagination and ideas.

When Smajo and his brother collected bullets, they changed the meaning of the bullets. What had been deadly pieces of metal became mere curiosities, as harmless as a precious seashell or a beautiful stone. By collecting small objects, as children all over the world have done for thousands of years, Smajo and his brother were performing their own small act of resistance - and preserving part of who they had been before the fighting started.

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