Written By Dino Zelenika
I was number 84667/A on my first birthday, spent in a refugee camp. Although I live in England, many people don’t realise that I started my life in a distant country, speaking a different language and surrounded by many relatives and friends. In April 1992 tank shells and rockets began to fall on my home town, Mostar, in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Suddenly there was panic, explosions, screams. My mother, 22 at the time, decided to leave. She took me, my grandmother and some belongings before droving us to Makarska, in neighbouring Croatia. We checked into a hotel, expecting to stay for a week or so, not realising war had come to our city. I was 10 months old.
Very soon, other people started to arrive in Makarska. They spoke of shooting, shelling, being forced out of their homes at gunpoint. Before long, every hotel in Makarska was full, and people were camping in the streets. One morning, the receptionist told my grandmother she didn’t have to pay any more, as our status had changed to “refugees.” We were then given these cards and relied on aid agencies and kindness of strangers. She and her mother, my great grandmother, are smiling in the photo below. But away from the camera their hearts were broken and the tears flowed. We don’t look like “typical refugees”, do we? Yet, how exactly does a refugee “look like”?
Not everyone was kind. Some made it plain they wanted us to “go back to where we came from”, even though it was dangerous. Others asked “why didn’t you stay and help, why didn’t you do this, why didn’t you do that?” But we were just ordinary, peaceful people and we were desperate. What could we do? Then there was the propaganda, saying that the soldiers attacking were “fighting terrorists, fascists and murderers” in “security operations” and such like. They said people were burning their own homes down to make them look bad. Then as now, some people genuinely believed this propaganda. But who on earth would burn their own home down with everything in it, especially a middle class family like ours who was content? And how can young children be terrorists?
The enormity of the situation finally hit my grandmother. She spent days walking around with tears streaming down her face. “I never felt so helpless and humiliated” she always used to tell me. She was always too proud and dignified to ask anyone for money or help, but now she was forced to. Everything we had we left behind in Mostar; we didn’t even have our family photos. Who would swap all that for a bit of “free stuff”? She made it clear being a refugee and relying on aid was the worst time of her life, and she never got over it.
We eventually came back to Mostar but, during nearly 4 years of war, it was largely destroyed. Look at the pictures and tell me: would you really want to raise your child in a place like this? With huge unemployment, criminals and murderers walking the streets who became rich through theft and looting? So in 1999 my mother left for the last time, and we came to England. I have been here ever since.
Fast forward to 2018, and other desperate people continue to stream across borders. As in the 1990s, I see the same distinct lack of kindness. I see the same desperate faces in different people being shunned and turned away. Right now, I see it in Hondurans and other Central Americans. But, from the bottom of my heart, I ask you: take a step back and listen to them. Ask them WHY they left, and REALLY listen. I was once one of those same people. And I can promise you: very, very few people would abandon their homes and entire lives for a bit of “free stuff.” Just remember my grandmother’s words of the same experience: “I never felt so helpless and humiliated.”