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Smajo Beso - Smajo's Story

Smajos Story: "You took my dad, please don't take my uncle!"

In July 1993, the Bosnian-Croat soldiers in the HVO (the Croatian Army) turned on the Muslim members of the HVO and began to arrest them.

Smajo and his brother and sister had seen their father taken away in a truck, and had no idea where he was being taken or why.

Suddenly, almost all the Muslim men were gone. Boys as young as 12 or 13 were taken; men in their 80s were arrested too.

We now know that Bosnian-Croat and Bosnian-Serb forces were planning genocide.

In towns across Bosnia, Muslim men and boys would be executed in cold blood.

To this day, many thousands of families have not had the bodies of loved ones returned to them. Just two years after the arrest of Smajo’s dad, Serb forces under Ratko Mladić would commit the greatest atrocity on European soil since the Second World War: the massacre of more than 8373 men and boys in Srebrenica, 8372 of them Muslim and one Catholic.

Smajo remembers how his uncle Celo had been at home when his father and other Muslim men were taken away:

“Celo had a back injury, so he wasn’t fighting. But we knew they would come for him. We were constantly looking out of the window, waiting.

Rumours were flying around the whole time. People were talking about sites from the Second World War where Croatians had massacred Serbs and Bosnians, saying the men were going to be taken there and killed.

I remember a lot of people upset and crying. You would suddenly think of a man you knew, and realise, ‘They’ve probably got him’.

I don’t think my mam slept at all that first night. With Dad gone, we had lost our protector. We didn’t know if they would come to burn the house down, if women would be raped, if they would start killing us.

The next morning I remember the sun was out. We heard trucks, cars, commotion. There was a truck parked outside our house blocking the street. Soldiers were getting off and going into houses.

We ran downstairs. My mam told Celo to run.

‘Where do I run?’ he said. ‘Where can I hide?’

My sister was already crying, but I remember my uncle being very calm. My uncle was in his late thirties, early forties, the only reason he wasn’t fighting was because of his back. It was reassuring that he was calm. I don’t remember seeing fear in his eyes. It’s weird.”

Listening to Smajo describe the arrest of his uncle is surreal: it sounds like a story from the 1940s, not something that could happen in a European country which had hosted the Winter Olympic Games ten years earlier. On the day that ethnic cleansing was ripping European families apart, Take That were enjoying their first UK number one and Bill Clinton was in the White House.

For Smajo, there was some small comfort to be found in his uncle’s calmness as he prepared to be taken away to be imprisoned, possibly to be tortured and killed, because of his ethnicity:

“He reacted so bravely. I’ve thought about that so many times. I remember my sister screaming over and over at the top of her lungs:




I can’t remember if I saw him getting on the truck. My sister was still screaming.
I think my mam just took us into the house.

After that, we realised that anything can happen now. Emotionally you’re a wreck because you expect them to come back at any moment. It’s that crippling fear, and it made my dad’s disappearance more real because I knew what it would have looked like.”

Smajo’s description of his own emotions on the day his uncle was taken away is heartbreaking.

As is often the case for victims of trauma, he feels a kind of numbness:

“I remember it as if I’m looking down from above. Imagine there’s a drone, floating away. I can see myself there. I feel distanced from it.

I remember those moments as silent, as if I wasn’t there.”

Smajo’s description reminded me of the account of a woman who testified to South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission about her rape by a group of white policemen during apartheid:

“My soul left my body and I watched them rape me from the corner of the prison cell. My soul is still in that cell, because I have never been able to go back to get it.”

Many people who have experienced trauma report that feeling, of being stuck in the past, as if a part of them has remained at the scene of the event, frozen in time.

Most recently, Andrew Roussos, the father of 8-year-old Saffie Roussos, who died in the Manchester Arena bombing in 2017, has described how he and his family feel as if time has stopped for them:

“I feel like we’re stuck in 2017… it’s amazing how these two years have gone by.”

This sense of being frozen, of a kind of paralysing shock that lasts years or even decades, is common to trauma victims all over the world, across religious groups and ethnicities, and through generations.

The brutality of apartheid, the Bosnian genocide and of the kind of terrorist attacks supported by ISIS all rest on the assumption that it is OK to brutalise and murder others who are not like us, because they are somehow less human.

It seems ironic that in the very pain that is inflicted, the opposite is shown to be true: the experience of trauma is identical whether you are from Britain, or Bosnia, or South Africa; whether you are black or white, Christian or Muslim, male or female, old or young.

Our skin colour, our languages and our religions might be radically different, but our inner-lives - the architecture of our souls - is eerily similar to people with whom we often imagine we have nothing at all in common.

Click here if you would like to read more of Emlyn's blog.

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