At Bosnian Orphanage, Children Cling to Hope; Parents Stayed Behind in Besieged Town

The Washington Post
April 30, 1993

TUZLA, Bosnia – Jasmin Sejmenovic’s mother faced a wrenching dilemma. Which of her children should she save from hell?

A month ago, U.N. trucks were evacuating women, children and old people from the besieged Muslim town of Srebrenica, but there was not enough room for the entire Sejmenovic family — only for perhaps one child. So Jasmin’s mother persuaded a soldier to put her only son onto a truck while the woman stayed behind with her husband and four daughters.

“She was crying,” Jasmin, 11, recalled later.

Sefka Begic also was sent away by her parents, and like Jasmin she said she fears she may never see them again. She is 16, and she recalls the day her father heard that U.N. trucks would be leaving Srebrenica for the Muslim haven of Tuzla, 45 miles to the northwest. He told her to get dressed, pack a small bag and hurry to the assembly point with him.

“My mother and father were afraid that the Chetniks {Serbs} would slaughter us all,” Sefka said. “They said that if the Chetniks are going to kill everyone in Srebrenica, at least the children should survive.”

Now, Sefka and Jasmin and more than a hundred other children are living at Tuzla’s main orphanage in a state of suspended orphanhood — wondering whether their parents are still alive, looking out the windows whenever a car pulls up, watching television for news about Srebrenica, screaming from nightmares.

“We talk mostly about our parents,” Sefka said, “where they are, if they are alive, do they have enough to eat.” She said she has trouble sleeping because of bad dreams and the crying of a younger girl in the room who “keeps calling for her parents.”

The separation of children from parents had been a regular occurrence in the chaotic U.N. evacuations from Srebrenica before the United Nations set up a demilitarized zone in the town last week to halt Serb shelling. Everyone, it seemed, was desperate to get out of a town that appeared to face a death sentence, but only a few could. Trying to escape the Serb artillery attacks, some refugees were trampled to death while boarding the trucks or suffocated during the day-long journey.

When the trucks arrived in Tuzla, aid workers called out over loudspeakers for “children without parents” and took them to the orphanage. Some are orphans; others’ parents are still alive — or so they hope.

The desperation of mothers in Srebrenica led to heart-wrenching acts, U.N. aid workers say. They saw mothers handing their babies to people crammed aboard the evacuation trucks. Death seemed so certain in Srebrenica that handing a baby to a departing stranger was the caring thing to do.

In some cases, the separation happened by mistake. Damir Ahmetovic, 13, wandered away from the apartment his parents shared with five other families when he saw a group of U.N. soldiers, near some trucks, giving biscuits to children. Damir hopped aboard one of the trucks, seeing other children aboard.

Suddenly, the engines started up, and the trucks began moving out of Srebrenica. Damir was panicked, but he was too small to fight his way out of the jammed truck.

“I feel very bad,” Damir said. “I don’t think I will see my parents again.”

Staff at the orphanage try to take the childrens’ minds off Srebrenica with crayons and Lego toys. The children draw pictures of houses without roofs, houses on fire, houses being bombed from airplanes. With the Lego pieces, they build midget tanks and armored personnel carriers.

Even before losing parents, many children experienced a lifetime’s worth of tragedy.

Sefka has been a victim of ethnic purges five times. At the start of the war a year ago, her family had to leave their village near the Drina River — Bosnia’s border with Serbia. They fled into the hills beyond the village when Serb tanks rolled in, she said, and watched as Serb soldiers looted and torched it.

“We could see the Chetniks burning our house,” she recalled. “My father spent his life working and saving, and in just one minute it was destroyed.”

The family took shelter in another village, but a few months later it was overrun by Serbs. They went to yet another village, and another after that and then to Srebrenica.

The orphanage rooms are tidy but bare, and the children are quiet. They get three meals a day, which few have had since the war began.

They cling to their hopes like the favorite dolls some brought with them. Occasionally, a mother would escape on a later convoy and come to the orphanage to fetch her child. When this happened, the others gathered around and watched, reminded of their own emptiness, according to staff psychologist Besima Catac. Some tugged on the sleeve of the mother who had just arrived and asked if she knew where their mothers were.

The answer was usually no.

Author: Peter Maass

I was born and raised in Los Angeles. In 1983, after graduating from the University of California at Berkeley, I went to Brussels as a copy editor for The Wall Street Journal/Europe. I left the Journal in 1985 to write for The New York Times and The International Herald Tribune, covering NATO and the European Union. In 1987 I moved to Seoul, South Korea, where I wrote primarily for The Washington Post. After three years in Asia I moved to Budapest to cover Eastern Europe and the Balkans. I spent most of 1992 and 1993 covering the war in Bosnia for the Post.