“It isn’t just the life that has ended, it is the life that must keep going with its most important part missing."
Smajos Story: Snipers target Muslim children
Irina Cisic was one year old when she was killed by a sniper one bright October day during the siege of Sarajevo.
"Four days after her birthday, we went out for a walk,” her mother remembers. “It was a beautiful day, and we used to go out when there was no shooting.
But a sniper bullet found her that day.
We rushed to the hospital and she had emergency surgery.
There were a lot of doctors there fighting for her life.
But her body was just too small and fragile. She died in her father’s arms."
When Smajo showed me the photograph that accompanies this article, he wasn’t just looking at the little girl in the red dress, with her gentle almost-smile.
“Look at that hand,” he said. “That is Irina’s mother’s hand. You can see old age beginning to be written on that hand.
That hand has aged twenty years since her daughter died, twenty years that hand has had to go without her daughter’s hand to hold.
That is the other part of this tragedy.
It isn’t just the life that has ended, it is the life that must keep going with its most important part missing.”
In August 1993 Smajo’s father had been taken to a prison camp; the rest of the family had been driven from their home in Barane, then from his aunt’s home in Stolac.
They had been taken on a cattle truck to the outskirts of Mostar, and left there with no food, no shelter, and no support.
When we encounter refugees in rich countries like the UK, we are only seeing a snapshot of a life.
We cannot see the desperation, fear and uncertainty that have gone before.
We cannot see the years of moving from place to place, the camps and collection centres, the trucks and boats used for transport in emergencies, the days spent walking without a clear destination, the hunger that is so intense that it becomes a searing pain, the harassment and persecution, the nights lying awake full of fear, the endless chaos that has become a human being’s only certainty.
After leaving Stolac, Smajo and his family were fortunate enough to be able to stay with his mother’s aunt and uncle in a village called Dračevice on the outskirts of Mostar.
“We were the lucky ones. My great aunt and uncle grew vegetables in the garden, peppers, garlic, tomatoes. We had a decent amount of food.
But some refugees moved into empty houses, and they had to live on rice and watery soup from the soup kitchen run by the Bosnian army. Some relied completely on the soup kitchen.
One cup of soup a day - people were struggling to survive, they were starving.
There was more shelling there than before. People were being killed all the time. We couldn’t go out, there was only a small yard where we could go.
One day we begged my mam to go to the soup kitchen with her, we were just desperate to get out of the house, and she agreed. Even when there is so much danger around, a part of you doesn’t believe that it will ever be you who gets injured or killed.
It was when we were coming back from the soup kitchen that the Croatians started shooting at us.
We managed to get into some woods, and we threw ourselves on the ground.
For a long time I couldn’t remember much of what happened next, but recently when I talked about it with my mam it all started coming back.
It’s always there inside you, the memory of what happened.
I had flashbacks of the sound of the bullets whistling through the trees.
I remembered lying on the floor, shit-scared, the sound of the bullets or the shrapnel going through the trees... It’s hard to explain how scary that sound is.
My mam says she remembers hating herself for letting us come. I remember her cradling me, trying to protect me.
Imagine hitting a tree with a stick, hitting the leaves. That’s what it sounded like.
When we were hiding there in the trees my mam said it was for 45 minutes of near constant shooting, lying in the dirt.
Imagine the hate you must feel when you see a mother with her three small children hiding in the trees and you keep shooting at them. I was only 8, my brother was 10, my sister was 13.
It wasn’t just to scare us, I am sure they were trying to kill us. In Sarajevo alone, 1600 children were killed, a lot of them by snipers.
What must it be like to see a child through a gunsight, and to pull the trigger?
I’ve been watching that programme about Chernobyl and there’s a guy in it who can’t shoot a dog because it’s a dog. And yet there were soldiers shooting at us, just because we were Muslims.
We were just children.
That was the first and last time we went to the soup kitchen.
On my first night in the UK I had a nightmare about a woman ladling soup from a big pot.
In the dream there was a house with red breeze blocks, and the woman was serving the soup through a hole that had been blasted in the side of the building.
I woke up screaming.
I had that dream a lot, but only after we got to the UK. I’m sure it’s about that day that the sniper tried to kill us. It’s as if your body relaxes when you’re safe, it lets the fear out.
The kids at my brother and sister’s school in Newcastle used to shout ‘Hyper, hyper, Bosnian sniper!’ at them.
They didn’t know that we had actually been shot at by snipers. They only saw us as foreigners, refugees.
They couldn’t see us lying there, among the trees, terrified, thinking we were going to die, with bullets smashing through the leaves.
They didn’t know our history.”