“I remember hearing them shouting, and my auntie, who was never afraid to speak her mind, was shouting back at them. I was too scared to look out of the window. I remember clinging to my mam, and begging her not to go downstairs.”
Smajos Story: The rounding-Up of Muslims Begins
There are ten stages of genocide: classification, symbolisation, discrimination, dehumanisation, organisation, polarisation, preparation, persecution, extermination, and denial.
But these stages do not necessarily happen in the same order, and there is no prescribed timetable for their occurrence. They may develop over years; or they may unfold within weeks.
By the middle of 1993, Smajo’s family still hoped that the war could suddenly be brought to an end.
It still seemed that at any moment peace could return, and life could go back to how it had been before, with Bosnian Christians and Muslims living alongside each other in peace.
Although they had already lived through some frightening moments, and had had to flee their home in the village of Barane (they moved house 14 times between June 1992 and March 1993), the Bešo family still had enough to eat, still had electricity (albeit intermittently), and most importantly, still had each other.
But that was soon to change.
The genocidal forces of war criminals like Slobodan Milošević and Radovan Karadžić had been circling for years were about to encroach on the Bešo family themselves.
Bosnian Croats and Bosnian Muslims had fought alongside each other against the Serbs until 1993, but from our interviews with the British soldier Jimmi James, Smajo and I now know that members of the Croatian army (the HVO) had long been planning to turn on their Muslim brothers and sisters and carve up Bosnia between themselves and the Serbs.
As General Prailjak, who infamously killed himself by drinking poison in the dock at The Hague in 2017, told Jimmi: “A couple of million Muslims will die, but who cares?”
In April 1993, the betrayal of the Bosnian Muslims began to be put into action as prominent Muslim leaders - academics, journalists and politicians - began to be arrested.
Of course for Smajo, who was seven at the time, these complex adult power struggles were impossible to comprehend.
A child understands things on a much more emotional and immediate level than an adult: he comprehends his world not through politicians’ nationalist rhetoric or the grand sweep of history, but by observing his neighbourhood, his friends, his parents, his siblings, and his home.
By 1993, Smajo was starting to see the effects of the war on each of these parts of his life.
He had had to leave his home and the children he played with every day.
His dad had had to go away to fight; his mam lived in a constant state of fear; his brother and sister were no longer going to school.
One night, soldiers came to the house of Smajo’s aunt, while Smajo and his family were living in an upstairs flat.
The soldiers were looking for Smajo’s dad.
“I remember hearing them shouting, and my auntie, who was never afraid to speak her mind, was shouting back at them. I was too scared to look out of the window. I remember clinging to my mam, and begging her not to go downstairs.
I didn’t really understand who they were, or why they wanted my dad. All I knew was that I was scared that they would come upstairs and find us, and if they did I was sure they would kill us.
I was begging my mam not to go downstairs, holding onto her to stop her from moving.
Then I wet myself.
I remember I was wearing these black jeans. Mam felt it, but I remember feeling really embarrassed so I denied it - ‘I didn’t! I didn’t!’
I was just so scared.”
When we think about what a war is, or whether it is worth starting one, surely the image of a 7-year-old child clinging to his mother in fear, and eventually being so afraid that he wets himself, is what we should imagine.
This is what war really is: it is not the glory of conquest, or the hollow rush of patriotism as we see our enemy consumed in a fireball.
War is a small child, pure and innocent, being terrorised.
It is the scarring of young person’s mind; it is the tearing apart of families and the violation of joy, hope and personhood itself.
When you vote for a Tony Blair or a George W Bush after they have chosen to start a war, remember that you are voting for somebody else’s child to be so afraid that they wet themselves. You are supporting the creation of terror and pain that will stay with that child for the rest of their life.
Luckily, Smajo’s dad wasn’t at home on that occasion, and the soldiers left without him. But the rounding up of Muslim men would continue to intensify, and eventually his luck would run out.