Refugees – the same story again and again

Genocide is the deliberate and systematic destruction, in whole or in part, of an ethnic, racial, religious or national group. The term was coined in 1944 by Raphael Lemkin.

My cleaner comes from Bosnia. She got a political asylum in the UK in 1992. She was 16 years old.

I knew that her father and 3 uncles were killed by the Serbs, but I never asked her about details. Today, I asked.

Shockingly, it reminded me of what my relatives went through in the war. 

Let’s call her Amina (not her real name). She is blonde, blue eyes, not your idea of a Muslim woman. She is not religious- none of them were and doesn’t wear a scarf. She eats pork. Like my Jewish family before the war in Prague.

Bosnia and Herzegovina had Serbs, Bosnians- the Muslims and Croats. I looked some things up.

They all speak the same language, Serbo-Croat, but their dialects have evolved differently and, when they speak, they can usually tell each other apart. The principal symbolic division between Serb and Croat is in their writing, for the Serbs use the Cyrillic script in which Russian is written, while the Croats use our Roman alphabet.

The Muslims are descended from Slavs living in central Yugoslavia who, in the Middle Ages, embraced the Bogomil heresy, a kind of Western Zoroastrianism, and were persecuted as a result. They welcomed the Turkish conquest in the 15th century as a release from this and converted to Islam.

Although there was fighting and hatred in the WW2 between Serbs and Croats, they seemed to have all lived happily together in Bosnia, and apparently, they do now again. I know another Bosnian family from Sarajevo, he is a Muslim ( blond, pork eating, blue eyed) , she is half Croat and half Serbian. It didn’t use to be a problem.

Amina told me that her niece in Sarajevo is  now dating a Serbian boyfriend, and she said it feels strange. “A Serb?!!” But she then said: “What can you do, and it is probably a good thing.”

I think that is generous, and it gives me hope.

This is a woman who witnessed about a hundred Serbian soldiers coming to her village and taking all the men away. Her 14 year-old brother was taken, too, but her father asked the Serbs to let him go, because he was just a child, and they surprisingly did. It saved his life.

The other men, including Amina’s father and uncles were marched away by the Serbs, forced to sing some patriotic Serbian songs they didn’t know. Amina told me that the soldiers beat and kicked the men, shouting “Sing! Sing!”

She never saw her father or the others again, all those men were killed by the Serbs.

The women and children were bundled into lorries and driven close to the Croatian border and told to get out. They had to walk for many kilometres and then were in camps not knowing what to do. They were hungry, and her mother at one point begged in somebody’s house for bread.

After living in those camps for a long time, many months, they were lucky, because their relatives who lived in the UK arranged them visas.

Amina met her husband, also a Bosnian Muslim, years later in London. He was in Srebrenica camp, and he was flown in to the UK by the Red Cross. He is over 6 foot and weighed only 80 pounds.

Theirs is a happy ending story, they live in England, have two healthy children, their daughter goes to university here, and their country recovered and went almost back to normal. At least it seems so.

But I remembered an article I recently read in The Economist.

The title was:

Never again, and again. Can the world stop genocide?

It seems we humans never learn. When something like this happens, like Rwanda, or recent Rohingyas tragedy, you hear “It must never happen again.” Yet, it does.

This is the reason I don’t want my novel to be just about the Holocaust.

We should really be able to stop any ethnic cleansing. For good.

I wonder if it is possible, or are we just savages, covered by a thin varnish of civilisation?

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