The following interview was done by Miloš Vlaisavljević, a member of the Young Peace Journalists. It is the latest entry in the Young Peace Journalists project featuring the stories and voices of refugees.
Written by Miloš Vlaisavljević
Once upon a time there was a war in Yugoslavia, which dissolved during that conflict. That war was followed by a lot of attention from the international community and it was characterised as the bloodiest conflict in Europe, after World War II. Yugoslavia as a multi-ethnic state collapsed, and its separation has been based on ethnic principles. The war caused a lot of refugees.
During that time some kids were born who, while very young, became refugees. This is an interview with one of those small kids who have now grown up. The interview talks about their integration in their new communities. It tells how the refugees face serious challenges even in the communities where their religion and ethnicity is the same with those that have offered them a place to stay.
This interview can be telling for the current attempts to integrate refugees from all around the world into Europe. It tells how hard it is to integrate refugees even when they have the same religion and ethnicity. It seems that integration is something that has to be well thought through and worked on during decades, rather than years.
Our interviewee is a Croatian by ethnicity from Bosnia and Herzegovina, particularly from northeast part of Bosnia, Bosnian Posavina, which was dominated by Croats. In 1992 he had to flee from Bosnia because forces of the Republic of Srpska had taken over the territory. He is university-educated and he has graduated in philosophy. He is currently looking for a job.
Tell us, when did you come to Croatia and what was further sequence of events?
I came to Croatia in 1992, I think in April, but I don’t know exactly the date. I was three and a half years old. We stayed at my aunt’s apartment. It was me, my brother, grandmother, grandfather, and later my aunt came with her sons and my uncle, who stayed shortly there. Soon after that my mom and dad left to Germany where they spent a year, while we stayed with my aunt. It was 50 m2 apartment where seven or eight of us stayed. From 1993 to 1994 we lived in the Eastern Croatia. After that my parents got a job in North of Croatia, and we moved there. I started my primary school there, and my brother continued with second grade. Grandpa and granny were with us. My brother stayed there until 2005 when he went to study in Zagreb, while I left in 2007 also for studies. My mother and dad are still there, granny died in 2008 so more or less they are alone there. We are living now in Zagreb, my brother, his girlfriend and me in the building where my aunt has also an apartment, it is just another entrance.
How was the integration process in the Croatian society? How did you manage and how were you received in Croatia?
In general, I would say it’s quite complex set of experiences and treatments. Croatia accepted refugees, you got to admit that. Otherwise, what we got from Croatia is nothing, absolutely nothing and we would get even less if my parents weren’t university educated doctors. Except citizenship, we didn’t get anything. In general people managed their living completely on their own. All that is forgotten by the people today, and by politicians, too.
So you constantly have this bitter taste of life. The older you are the harder it gets. I really don’t know how I could go back to Bosnia, especially with my degree in philosophy. I mean I can’t find a job here, and what would I do there. I mean, I am displaced and I don’t know how to till land. Also, I don’t know how the others could get back there.
And what about local community, the city or municipality? Did they help in any way?
No, we didn’t get any support. Only when we got a job in the North of Croatia, we were in that apartment that was owned by public health center. But my parents got a job there, so technically that is not help because anyone coming there could get that.
What about international organisations?
No, nothing. There were the charity packages which you could pick when you went to these charity centers. You take what you find there – the clothes, this and that. My Aunt was working in Zagreb so she financed us, along with parents who were sending money from Germany during 1993. We didn’t even have a car until 1995 or 1996, because we didn’t have money to buy a car. We were riding with a bus or if somebody gives you a ride. So nothing from the state or international community, but help yourself in ways that you can.
How were you relations with neighbors or in general interaction with people there?
In general, those friendships and gatherings from Bosnia were broken, people left to all the different places, but that was a real thing, real friendships. This in North of the Croatia, dad hangs out with one of his cousin from Bosnia and one local professor, and so with some people. Mostly refugees or people that came there like that. But there is always this surplus of things untold, unconscious things which sometimes suddenly burst out because of various reasons.
How did you integrate in your school, how were things going on there?
In school I was hanging out normally with kids. I have learned the local dialect, more or less. I mean the local way of talking in the village. With time passing I lost that. At home, I speak in the local way of Bosnian Posavina, and when I am somewhere outside then it can be some mix. A bit of standard language, somewhere it will be more one or other dialect. I mean I was fitting in ok, expect certain incidents that were happening there. Those incidents were relatively often, for example they were saying ‘go back where you came from’ or ‘what are you doing here’. It is something that is not pleasant for anyone to hear, but what can you do. I remember after some time one guy was calling me Mehmed which was typically Muslim name from Bosnia. He wanted to offend me with that and say that I am not Croat, that I don’t belong here and that I am Muslim.
What would you say, did you fit in to Croatian society?
Well, in a way I did fit in. I feel good in Zagreb. It was also ok in the North of Croatia, but there I always felt some… well some distance which grew as I was getting older. I mean, it didn’t feel right. It is nice there, nice small city, the nature around is ok and so on. I went there in high school, partly in primary school. And in Zagreb, I mean I love Zagreb, it is good for me here, no matter the people.
I am integrated but I am not happy and satisfied. You feel that stiffness, that bitterness and how to fight that – sometimes easier, sometimes harder? I am not happy which means that I am not 100% integrated. It is clear. I mean you can live your life just for the sake of living and that you try to forget all the things that happened in one moment of your life, whether I would have kids or not. I wouldn’t like to live like that, I don’t want to live like that, but that is not only in my power. There is a whole set of things and life circumstances which define that, for instance a possible future wife. It is a question what will be with that. I am not sure and I am bothered with that. Also, I feel a need to write about that, but we’ll see about that.
What about your future?
When it comes to my future, it’s hard to go back (to Bosnia). There is the feeling that you are a stranger wherever you go. That is some constant, you are a foreigner in Bosnia because everyone from there went to different places, they have their specific jobs and lives. Also, you are a foreigner amongst Muslims in Bosnia. That relationship experienced a huge regression I would say. On the other hand, here in Croatia you are a foreigner at the moment you open your mouth and start talking. It is the unmistakable power of detecting any foreign element in the language – especially when you say where you are from.
Lastly, every year in the world there is another war or critical area where the focus shifts too. The wars in ex-Yugoslavia have lived through their star moments, and who will now come back to those injustices when there are currently ongoing quantitatively bigger ones. When millions of people are being killed or forced out of their homes, who will remember some couple of hundred or thousand people from these areas? Who will remember them, it’s a small number? That is miserable. So I don’t know, I don’t have much choice but to live my life further and try to help my local community and myself.
Miloš Vlaisavljević lives in Croatia. He was also a refugee during the 1990’s. He had to flee from Croatia in 1995 to Serbia. Some time later, he finished his studies in sociology and anthropology at the Central European University in Budapest. He also has finished Peace Studies in Zagreb. Currently, he is working on a different form of solidarity economy, while also following the situation about the conflicts in the Middle East and its devastating effects.