Bosnia's Girl Refugees
The Evening Standard 25-05-1992
From Christopher Long, in Split, the first foreign correspondent to visit the last vital Bosnian refugee escape route in Hercegovina. An excerpt from a larger article for The Observer News Service, this is part of an item filed to The Evening Standard, describing the mounting refugee crisis in Croatia as Serb advances through Bosnia drove tens of thousands of homeless women and children to safety on the Dalmatian coast.
By Christopher Long
... All along the coast near Split refugees fill the hotels that are so well known to tourists refugees relieved to be safe, heart-broken to be homeless and mildly alarmed by the increasingly visible spectre of Croat nationalist extremism. The cohorts of intolerant Croatian HOS 'Rambos' , the sinister black uniforms of freelance paramilitary fascists and the walls daubed with Swastikas and 'Deutchland Uber Alles' are unforgiving and ominous signs for those Muslims whose presence in increasing tens of thousands may one day be resented by their Croatian 'hosts'.
Zenaida, aged 16, is typical of thousands. She arrived in Split on April 24, from her home town of Donji Vakuf in Bosnia-Hercegovina after a hair-raising 24-hour journey in which buses ahead of hers were shot up by Serbian snipers and machine-guns. In Split she was immediately sent, with her mother, brother, sister and grandmother to one of the two large city sports stadiums where she has lived for four weeks with dozens of other families in a squash court.
The food is monotonous but adequate. The lavatories and washing facilities are quite inadequate for the unexpected thousands who sleep cheek-by-jowl amid screaming babies and quietly weeping grandmothers. Her father, an illegal worker in Germany, cannot come to the aid of his family without being called up to fight which would help no-one, she says. No-one from the aid agencies has visited them in four weeks or asked them what they need or told them when or where they will go next.
At the plush Hotel Split, a semi-permanent home to more than 1,000 refugees, two little girls arrived at reception. Hana Kafedzic, 12, and her sister Nadja, 16, said they had no money, no food, no water and knew no-one. They had arrived the night before on a Children's Embassy bus from Sarajevo, evacuated by their father, a mathematics professor, who stayed behind. Their mother was trapped abroad and they had walked four miles to the hotel.
The hotel at first refused them baths, food or any assistance because 'they haven't got the proper documentation', until furious foreign journalists shamed the manager [Tonci Pejkovic] into action, demanding to know how a 12 year-old was supposed to know how to jump the hoops of bureaucracy after two sleepless nights, a machine-gun attack on their convoy and no idea whether their father and the rest of their family was alive or dead. 'Did he have children of his own?' the journalists asked. 'How would he react if a hotel in London or Paris had turned them out onto the streets at night, homeless, unfed and unprotected?' Clearly shocked, the manager instructed staff that these girls at least be taken in while the journalists themselves adopted them, making arrangements to escort them to safety.
Despite months of warning from those on the ground (Nov 1991 Feb 1992), Western governments were caught off-guard and quite unprepared for the human disaster which swept across Bosnia-Hercegovina in the Spring of 1992.
As Serbs and Croats pushed west and east respectively grabbing territory, destroying houses and villages and slaughtering or driving homeless refugees before them only popular frustration persuaded European politicians to act as the irrational brutality spread unchecked. Their response was to send EC Monitors to 'observe and mediate where possible'. This policy only reassured the brutal militias that nothing need stop them in their plan to partition Bosnia along ethnic/nationalist lines.
Pictured left: is the author and Hana Kafedzic on a ferry heading north from Split to Rijeka in May 1992.
Much of the Dalmatian coast surrounding the port of Zadar was then in the hands of JNA/Serb forces which put ferries at risk and required shipping to make wide detours to avoid coastal batteries and possible air attacks.
Hana and Nadija were safely handed over to an elderly couple in Rijeka before spending months in a refugee camp in Croatia. But they were among the lucky few who were allowed to escape the appalling conditions in Sarajevo during the siege.
The large Kafedzic family, like thousands of others, escaped Sarajevo in ones and twos and eventually found themselves scattered throughout Europe.
After meeting the author in Split and travelling together to Rijeka, Hana (12) and Nadja (16) spent months alone in refugee camps in Croatia. Some weeks later the author took a train to Smethwick, near Birmingham, to meet, interview but mostly to reassure their mother Fatima who was then staying there in a refugee centre for women.
In October 1992 he was based in Zagreb while making front line tours in and around Sarajevo. It was in Zagreb that he frequently met Fatima, Nadja, Hana and their 17 year-old sister Ekrima.
Eventually, following the relentless efforts of their elder sister, Atka (greatly helped by her war-photographer husband Andrew), the entire family was slowly reunited and offered a home in New Zealand. Each of them reacted to the traumas of the Bosnian war in their own way none of them easy.
Left: The Kafedzic family on the day they were granted New Zealand citizenship five years after being scattered throughout Europe.
The author has remained in contact with the Kafedzic family and particularly with Nadja.
Left: Nadja Kafedzic with her son Luca. She now lives in New Zealand with her daughter Romana.
In July 2009 the author was very happily reunited with Hana who visited him in France 17 years after they had last met.
Newly married and accompanied by her husband James, Hana and the author found it much easier than they had feared to re-live painful memories as she prepared a book, co-authored with her sister Atka Reid, on their family's Bosnian war experiences.
Left: The author (left) with Hana Kafedzic (right), reunited in July 2009 in Normandy. Between them is James Schofield, Hana's husband since their marriage in New Zealand in January 2009.
In May 2011, Hana Schofield and her sister Atka Reid published Goodbye Sararajevo (Bloomsbury Publishing), an excellent and touching personal account of the Balkan wars and in particular the consequences, for them and the rest of their large family, of the war in Bosnia. Their Goodbye Sarajevo web site says:
"May, 1992. Hana is twelve years old when she is put on one of the last UN evacuation buses fleeing the besieged city of Sarajevo. Her twenty-one-year-old sister, Atka staying behind to look after their five younger siblings, is there to say goodbye. Thinking that they will be apart for only a few weeks, they make a promise to each other to be brave.
But as the Bosnian war escalates and months go by without contact; their promise to each other becomes deeply significant. Hana is forced to cope as a refugee in Croatia, far away from home and family, while Atka battles for survival in a city where snipers, mortar attacks and desperate food shortages are a part of everyday life. Their mother, working for a humanitarian organisation, is unable to reach them and their father retreats inside himself, desperately shocked by what is happening to his city. In Sarajevo, death lurks in every corner and shakes the foundation of their existence. One day their beloved uncle is killed while queuing up for bread in the market square, in a massacre similar to the one three months earlier which prompted a cellist to make a lone protest in the deserted street. But when Atka finds work as a translator in an old smoky radio station, and then with Andrew, a photojournalist from New Zealand, life takes an unexpected turn, and the remarkable events that follow change her life, and those of her family forever.
Set in the middle of the bloodiest European conflict since the Second World War, Goodbye Sarajevo is a moving and compelling true story of courage, hope and extraordinary human kindness.
In November 2008 the author was delighted to get the following message regarding the 16 year-old refugee, Zenaida/Zinaida/Zina, who appears in this article. He had not had news of her for 16 years and until then had no idea if or how she had survived the tragic war in former Yugoslavia.
"Christopher, I was with the U.S. IPTF (Police Task Force) in Bosnia 98-03. You wrote an article in 1992 including a refugee Zenaida... I thought you might like to know what happened to her as she shared with me how you were really concerned and had the respect of the refugees. 'Zina' is now in the Atlanta Georgia area working for me... now the manager of the business with a modest salary and bonuses, a beautiful daughter and, of all the bad she went through, she remembers those that care. After leaving Split the journey was still hard ahead for all of them. Thank you for being a reporter that cares. You should know that years later your impact of kindness may never be forgotten. I hope this mail finds you and in good health."
© (1992) Christopher Long. Copyright, Syndication & All Rights Reserved Worldwide.
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