While the crickets chirped loudly in the scrub around, the families made almost no sound but the dull trudge of their shoes, as mothers, fathers and children walked towards an uncertain future.

Emlyn Pearce

Smajo Beso - Smajo's Story

Smajos Story: Two names on a stone

“There were lots of significant days early in the war - the day the conflict came to our village, the first time we were shelled.

But 18 June 1992 was the most significant. That was the day that we had to leave our home and everything changed forever.”

In the weeks before they finally had to flee, Smajo’s family had moved backwards and forwards between their own house and a friend’s house at the edge of the village, where they would shelter in the basement with other families whenever there was shelling, sometimes for three or four days at a time.

Eventually, soldiers from the Croatian Army (the HVO) came to the village and told the remaining Muslim families to leave.

There wasn’t time for elaborate preparations: the family could take only what they could carry.

Early in the morning, wearing several layers of clothing and carrying whatever they could, 7-year-old Smajo, his parents, brother and sister left the home they had only recently built, and walked out of their village.

**

In small groups, the Muslim residents of Barane walked silently along the dry riverbed of the Radimlja river away from their homes.

The valley was familiar to Smajo: the riverbanks had previously been a place of fun and laughter, where children would play and go swimming before the war.

But on that day, although the valley itself was the same as it had always been, the human world was totally transformed.

Nobody laughed; in fact, they barely spoke at all.

While the crickets chirped loudly in the scrub around, the families made almost no sound but the dull trudge of their shoes, as mothers, fathers and children walked towards an uncertain future.

It is striking how clear the emotions of those day still are for Smajo, even 27 years later.

“I felt like I needed to cry,” he says.

“I was hot, and I was tired. I was frustrated, but I had to keep going.

 

Finally, the emotional tension boiled over, and Smajo tripped - whether by accident or as a kind of release, a way of having a reason to stop walking, he isn’t sure.

A piece of burnt twig went into his eye, and, like the bursting of a balloon, it allowed all of the pent up frustration and sadness to escape in one unstoppable rush.

He began to sob.

Normally the comfort of a child would be an adult’s top priority, but if soldiers heard a child crying it could draw attention to the families, and perhaps put their lives in danger.

How would you react in a moment of extreme stress like that?

Perhaps the most pragmatic thing to do would be to aggressively shut down the child’s crying. There isn’t time for gentleness and kindness in a situation like that, no time to negotiate, no way of telling the child, “Don’t worry, we’ll be home soon.”

Perhaps you would even threaten the child - because no threat you could deliver could be as frightening as the mortal threat posed by soldiers ensconced in the hills all around.

But that was not the reaction of a cousin of Smajo’s dad, whose nickname was Lika.

Instead, Lika sat down with the little boy in the cool shade of a tree.

He picked up a small rock, and carefully scratched their names onto it with a smaller shard:

“Don’t worry, Smajo,” said Lika as he formed the letters. “This time of sadness will pass. We will come back here one day. When the bad people have gone, we will come and swim here, and we will find this rock - our special rock - and we will know it is our rock because it has our names on it.

LIKA and SMAJO.”

Smajo has kept that rock in his memory for 27 years; he has carried it everywhere he has been, across national borders and through the ensuing decades.

The memory of that rock is as much a part of who he is as his eyes, his hands or his heart.

“For years afterwards I would dream about that rock.

During the war, I would imagine walking back along the valley and finding our special rock under that tree. Then I could go back to our house in Barane, and life would be as it always was before the war. All of us living happily together, playing outside with my cousins.

That is what trauma does to you: it makes you more invested in the time before the trauma.

I still think about what life would be like if the war hadn’t happened.

Lika lives in Denmark now. I know him, but if the war hadn’t happened he would have been a much bigger part of my life. That divide can never be undone.

But I have always remembered that rock. It’s like a monument, it’s proof that we were there.”

We are all familiar with the tradition of carving names into stone to form a monument. It is a way of orientating a person in time and space that is more durable than our fragile human bodies, which is why it is most commonly used to honour the dead.

It is still our most powerful way of telling the world ‘they were here’.

Today, many of the names carved into stone in Bosnia are the names of those who were killed during the war - they include more than 8000 names of Muslim men and boys murdered at Srebrenica, the only legally recognised act of genocide in Europe since the Holocaust (the photo accompanying this post is of the memorial at Srebrenica).

But Smajo’s special stone was not about loss. It symbolised something very different:

“I think it represented hope,” Smajo says.

“Lika helped me to believe that there would be a future, that we wouldn’t always be frightened.

We wouldn’t always be running away.

One day we could go back, and find our special rock, and then we could trace our footsteps all the way back along the riverbank, back to our home in Barane, and back to the happy times.”

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