Feature 22 Dec 17

Sarajevo Siege Mothers Remember Their Lost Children

In the year that Ratko Mladic was convicted of terrorising Sarajevo during the wartime siege, two mothers of young children who were killed by the shelling recall the horror they lived through, and explain how they survived.

Igor Spaic BIRN Sarajevo
Radislava Habul and Zlatka Imamovic in Sarajevo. Photo: Beate Simarud.

“Ah, there she is,” Radislava Habul’s eyes light up when she sees her friend, Zlatka Imamovic, walking down the hill in a park in central Sarajevo.

The two women share a long, close hug and chat for a bit.

Among the hundreds of names listed on a revolving pillar, the two women immediately find what they are looking for - the names of their sons, engraved on the Sarajevo Memorial for Children Killed During the Siege.

“We all know each other’s stories - the dates when our children were born, when this happened. We always understand each other the best,” Imamovic said.

Their sons, Alen and Mirza, are among the 11,541 civilian victims of the siege of Sarajevo, which lasted for 1,425 days from April 1992 to February 1996 - the longest siege of a European city in contemporary history. They were only six years old.

Their mothers, Habul and Imamovic, are now part of Sarajevo’s association of parents whose children were killed during the siege. Imamovic is a Muslim Bosniak, while Habul is an Orthodox Serb woman who declares herself to be a Bosnian.

Many of those responsible for the siege have been convicted by domestic and international courts, most recently Bosnian Serb military chief Ratko Mladic, who was sentenced to life imprisonment last month for masterminding a shelling and sniping campaign that targeted the city’s civilian inhabitants.

But despite this, the pain the two women feel remains the same - and everything around them reminds them of that pain.

Imamovic sometimes comes across the boys from her street who were born around the same time when her son was born – except that they are, now grown men.

“When I see those boys now, my heart tightens up. I can tell they also feel uncomfortable. They greet me, give me a hug, and then there is this silence,” Imamovic said.

“Then you start thinking to yourself - what would he look like today? What would he be like?” 

She is also reminded of her loss in autumn, when the school year begins.

“It’s on that day, when you go to school for the first time when they are seven years old and you hold them by the hand – which I never experienced with my son. It is very difficult for me,” she said.

Habul listened to Imamovic carefully, nodding her head in silent approval.

“It is sorrow, a large wound on my heart. But you have to stand up and say ‘let’s keep going’. We cannot go back in time, but we can remain decent human beings,” she said.

The two women begin telling their stories.

‘It was such a beautiful spring’

Senad and Zlatka Imamovic, their son Mirza, and a family friend in the early 1990s. Photo: Beate Simarud.

“My boy’s name was Mirza,” Imamovic recalled with teary eyes.

“Everyone loved my Mirza in our street, he was the favourite kid. It was probably God’s will that he spread all of this love around in his short life,” she said.

When the war began, Imamovic lived in the family home with her son, husband and her in-laws in Podhrastovi, near the outskirts of Sarajevo and the separation line between the conflicting armies.

“We had a beautiful and happy child, a beautiful marriage, everything was great.”

Those who lived outside more urban areas had it a bit easier during the war than those living in apartments, Imamovic said, as she had a yard where she grew onions, green salad and potatoes.

It was the first day of spring, March 21, 1993, that would change her life forever.

The family gathered in front of the house just after eight o’clock that morning.

Imamovic and her mother-in-law were picking herbs in the yard, and her husband was preparing jerrycans to collect water. Her brother-in-law was also there. Imamovic’s father-in-law was joking around with Mirza in his lap.

“It was such a beautiful spring,” Imamovic remembered.

At one point, Imamovic and her mother in law went inside, and her husband went to the basement to get more jerrycans.

Then something happened outside.

“I felt a strong bang, shaking, I could not understand what was going on. Now when I think about that day, I have some darkness in front of my eyes, and a lot of dust,” Imamovic said.

She and her husband ran outside immediately, calling out for Mirza.

“I look through the dust, and...” Imamovic paused shortly, then broke down in tears.

The bodies of Mirza, her father-in-law and her brother-in-law were laying scattered in front of the house.

“I remember Senad [her husband] taking me to the house. I don’t remember what happened next, I fell unconscious,” she said.

Imamovic later woke up and saw the whole neighborhood had gathered, but soon she fainted again.

“All I saw was my husband carrying Mirza. His head was dangling down. Every night I see this image in front of my eyes when I go to sleep,” she said.

A piece of the shell’s shrapnel had hit Mirza in the neck.

Her father-in-law died on the spot, while her brother in law was wounded.

Many things remind Imamovic of Mirza. For example, she never eats bananas these days.

One day, not long after the war began and food ran short in the city, Mirza came up saying, “Mama, I would like to eat a banana.”

“What? How did you think of a banana?” she recalled asking him.

Mirza had seen a picture of a banana when they were outside that day.

“Now, after the war, I never eat bananas, because I didn't have them to give to my child to fulfil his wish during the war. My child wanted a banana, but we didn't have it.”

‘He is in the children’s department’

Radislava Habul’s son Alen. Photo: Beate Simarud.

Radislava Habul and her family lived in an apartment in the Alipasino neighborhood during the war. For them, tragedy struck on November 9, 1992.

Her daughter, Izela, 18 at the time, was finishing high school. Her son, Alen, was six.

Her husband Izet was also at home, healing from a heavy injury to his back.

There was no water or electricity, so Izela took jerrycans and went to collect some. When she came back, Habul built a fire and cooked the children macaroni.

“Water was very scarce, so it was like winning the lottery when you got some,” she said.

Nevertheless, little Alen was treated to a luxury that day - he got to bathe.

At about two o’clock, a neighborhood boy called Mirza (unrelated to Imamovic’s son) came to the Habuls’ door.

“He was 12 years old and he liked my Alen a lot. He came to my door and said, ‘Please let us go out for a while to get some air, there is no shooting,’” Habul remembered.

Alen, Izela and Mirza went outside.

“After about a half an hour, I saw a burning ball dropping over the building. I went to the balcony, and I saw people lying around,” she said.

They had left the house because it was a beautiful sunny day and there was little gunfire.

“I thought about jumping down from the balcony right then and there,” she said, her voice increasingly shaky.

Habul ran down and saw Izela laying there, with blood all over her.

“I began looking for Alen, and then I saw him and Mirza in front of our entrance - they were running towards the building when they were hit,” Habul continued, breaking down in tears.

Local boys, teenagers too young to join the army, were guarding neighborhoods and residential buildings at the time in most of Sarajevo’s streets at the time. Those in Habul’s neighborhood immediately mobilised.

“They put me in some car, Izela on one arm, Alen on the other. Izela was bleeding heavily, so one of them gave me tissues which I pressed against that fountain of blood on her back,” Habul remembered.

“They gave me water for Alen, but he had already bled out. When we arrived at the hospital, he was dead already. Izela still gave off some signs of life,” she explained.

Little Mirza was also at the hospital, heavily wounded.

The shell had killed and injured many others as well - Habul said there was a soldier who had just returned from the frontline, an old man who later died from his wounds, and another boy who was hit in the stomach by shrapnel.

At the hospital, alongside Sarajevo’s well-known doctor Abdulah Nakas, she was met by doctor Jasna Gutic, who oversaw Habul’s pregnancy when she had Alen.

“She just said, ‘Is this really our baby?’” Habul remembered.

The doctors did not tell Habul that Alen had died right away.

“All they said was, ‘We will fight for Izela,’” she said.

The doctors took the children to the surgery room, and gave Habul some shots to calm her down. When she later went to the operating room, she saw Izela and little Mirza hooked up to a machine.

“There were no lights, they worked under candlelight. This is when the doctor told me, we will know if Izela will survive after the next 72 hours,” she said.

Habul rarely left the hospital for 40 days, until Izela could come home. But until that moment, they did not have the heart to tell the girl that her brother had passed away.

“She always asked, ‘Where is Alen?’, and I would tell her...” Habul starts crying heavily, “he is in the children’s department.”

“When we finally took her home and told her – it was terrible”.

Life had changed completely. The hospital psychiatrist called Habul in and told her: “Now, when she is fighting for her life, she cannot see your sorrow. You must be brave!’”

“So I kept my sorrow in my heart,” she said.

‘We, thank God, have our other children’

Zlatka Imamovic prays for her son and the other children killed during the siege. Photo: Beate Simarud.

On the day Imamovic’s son Mirza died, before the tragedy happened, he and his father had a playful chat.

“Senad asked Mirza, ‘Do you want mama to give birth to a sister for you?’ Mirza said ‘Yes, I want a sister,’” Imamovic said.

A year later, Imamovic gave birth to a girl, Mirnesa, who is today nearly finished her engineering studies. She also has another daughter, who is going to forestry college.

“This is what brought me back into life, what is holding us, what is giving me the strength to fight on,” she said.

“In one moment I only live in my memories, while in another moment, they shake me up, as if they are saying, ‘Mother, we are here,’” she added.

Habul said one of the biggest reasons her daughter survived after being heavily wounded was love - from Almir Sabanovic, a boy who had a crush on and who kept visiting her while she was healing.

“He would come over every day, bringing jerrycans of water so I could bathe Izela,” Habul said.

She remembered how Almir once brought her a rose he had picked for her despite heavy shelling.

Almir and Izela have been now married for 12 years. They have a daughter - her name is Alena, after Alen.

Despite everything she went through, Izela completed her studies in English and French language at the local philosophy university, became a teacher, got a masters’ degree, became a university professor, and finished her PhD in linguistics three years ago.

“That is what life is!” Habul said.

Habul and Imamovic also know many parents who lost their only child, however.

“What must it be like for them? Waking up in the morning, alone,” Habul said.

“We, thank God, have our other children. My granddaughter brought me back into life, but there are those who will never see their grandchild. For them it is much worse,” she added.

‘You must fight injustice’

Radislava Habul recalls how she lost her child. Photo: Beate Simarud.

War is not all black and white, and many of Sarajevo’s Serbs and Croats stayed in the city during the siege, defending their homes together with the Bosniaks. The tight local community was key to their survival.

“I had neighbours who would bring whatever they could because we had nothing,” Habul said.

She recalled an old Croat woman, Mrs. Marija, who one day asked her priest for help. He gave her an apple and a kilogramme of sugar.

Sugar was a luxury – Habul said that at the time a kilogramme would cost about 100 Bosnian marks (50 euros) on the black market.

“She came over and said, ‘I can't eat this, I brought this for Izela,’” she recalled.

“This was our neighbourhood! One that stayed how it was before the war, not poisoned by nationalism and atrocities,” she said.

“I know how much the Serbs and the Muslims in our neighbourhood protected each other. In my building, we all breathed with one soul,” she added.

She also remembered how some soldiers from the Marshal Tito barracks, Serbs serving the Yugoslav People’s Army, took off their uniforms when it all began and brought guns to Sarajevans so they could defend themselves.

“Not all Serbs are war criminals, and not all Bosniaks were good either. However, we know exactly who waged this war, who was killing us,” Habul said.

“They talk about reconciliation - yes, we want it. But first be a human about it, confess to what you did and ask for adequate punishment! Be honest in your remorse! Then we will forgive, but we will never forget,” she said.

“I would personally like to meet whoever did this to me, and if they had children, I would like to tell them that whatever they experienced with their child is what they took away from me,” Imamovic added.

Ratko Mladic was convicted in November of being responsible for terrorising the population of Sarajevo, among other things. He will appeal against his life sentence.

“He may be punished with life in prison, but that is nothing to him, compared with what he did to us all,” Habul said.

Both the women agreed that they have to speak about what happened to them so it does not keep happening to others.

“Unfortunately, however, it is happening right now with the children of Syria and the Rohingya,” Habul said.

She recently joined a demonstration in Sarajevo in support of the children who are suffering in the Syrian war.

“You must fight injustice, and not always think, ‘OK, this is not happening to me,’” she explained.

“Whoever does not have emotions for his fellow human being is not a human! If I can’t help, at least I will help with my words!”

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