War graveyard from 1992-5 Bosnian war. Demoted/Sulejman Omerbasic.All rights reserved.The news of 35 people, including 14 babies and children, drowning in the Aegean Sea last week wrenched my heart. What does it take, I wondered, to make a mother lift her child onto a rickety, overcrowded boat? How does she swallow her fear? And what does she whisper to her child as they climb aboard, knowing full well they may not make the crossing alive?
I know the fear that drives a mother to make such a journey, but I also know the hope. My mother made a similar decision in the autumn of 1994, as war ravaged my country, Bosnia and Herzegovina. When she put her and her children’s lives into the hands of smugglers it was the only choice she had – just like thousands of others today.
I was eight when war broke out in my country in 1992. I learned the fear of being woken in the middle of the night to the horrific sound of artillery fire. I learned the heartache of losing my first love - my dad - then my grandpa, then my best friend, Ilma. Then I stopped counting. I learned what it meant to be internally displaced, hungry, malnourished, cold, scared, wishing for the nightmare to end.
In mid-October 1994, just before the third winter of shooting and hunger was to hit Bosnia and just after my sister recovered from jaundice, my aunt – who had left for Sweden at the beginning of the war – told us she had found someone to help us escape the country. She said we could join her in Sweden. To me, Sweden sounded strange, unknown and exciting.
I asked Mum. She explained there was no war in Sweden, no shooting, no grenades, that we would have electricity and water, all kinds of food we desired -- chocolate included, she reassured me -- and that we could go to school. No shooting, chocolate and going back to school sounded just like heaven to me.
But getting to Sweden was far from heaven. With nothing but what we could carry in our arms, the three of us headed south to the border with Croatia, where we spent weeks in a makeshift refugee camp. One evening in late November two men came to get us. The smugglers didn’t say much, just put us in the back seat of their car and drove us first to a bar, where they drank beer and joked about the war while my mother, sister and I clung to one another. “Just don’t separate us,” I prayed.
A couple of hours later they put us back in the car and drove us in the dead of night through forest on gravel roads into Croatia. Once in Croatia we were held for weeks in a house until my aunt could gather enough money to pay smugglers to provide us with false Croatian passports– absurdly, we could freely cross European borders as Croats, but would have been turned back as Bosnian-Herzegovinians. Travelling by bus, we crossed five European borders in 36 hours, reminding ourselves of our false identities, reminding myself not to call my sister by her real Bosniak name, for fear of being identified and sent back, separated or hurt.
Once we arrived in Sweden, our ordeal wasn’t over. The police questioned us, and finally let us go to an asylum centre. We had to be cautious because we didn’t want to cause trouble for my aunt, and it was weeks before we finally were reunited with her.
We were lucky enough to survive our journey all those years ago. But, two decades later, hundreds of families like ours are not. They are drowning in boats which overturn, washing up on Europe’s beaches, and suffocating inside overcrowded lorries.
If I could send a message to European leaders it would be this. Understand why people risk everything to reach Europe. Show them the same humanity being shown by ordinary citizens. And find ways to help Syrians and others reach safety legally, without having to rely on unscrupulous smugglers.
As for my family and me, Sweden provided us with a temporary but welcome sanctuary. Four years later, we were able to return to Bosnia, where I attended university and later trained as a lawyer. I now spend my time documenting the plight of refugees, asylum seekers and migrants.
When I speak to those trying to reach safety in Europe, I remember my joy and relief when our family eventually reached Sweden. I could finally forget my fear that as well as taking my father and my friends, the war would steal my mother and my sister from me too.