She was unremarkable in appearance, but there was something of steel and fire beneath that soft-spoken shyness. It was apparent that the young soldier holding her hand represented welcome moral support, but not an irreplaceable element in achieving her purpose. Though she would not have recognized it in herself, she had come to the local office of the European Community Monitoring Mission not so much to petition for help as to enlist us as the chosen instrument for her inexorable campaign.
Amira was a Bosnian Muslim in her mid-twenties. The men of her immediate family were all dead, and when her escape from ‘ethnic cleansing’ took her to Croatia she had become separated from her beloved sister, Sabina, who had remained behind to give birth to a son that the father would not live to see. As a result they had ended up on the opposite sides of an embattled front line. Amira was unwavering in her intent that they be reunited – which side of the border didn’t matter – determined that they would face the remaining challenges of their lives together.
In the months which followed we were privileged to become a link across that seemingly impossible barrier. We met Sabina and her infant son unexpectedly, after intervening at the outbreak of another round of ‘ethnic cleansing’ that had driven her, along with hundreds of fellow Muslims, from a transitory refuge in Bosnia-Herzegovina across the border to a squalid and overcrowded Montenegrin town on the border of Kosovo. From then on we visited whenever possible, discreetly delivering messages and small parcels. In one of the many coincidences or small miracles which abound in war, I was later to meet the mother of Sabina’s murdered husband (we called him that, even though his death had prevented the intended marriage, so that the brutality would not succeed in illegitimizing the child). Happily, some years later I heard that the sisters had been reunited and succeeded in escaping the Balkans to find homes in Europe.
At this Christmas time of celebrating family, peace and joy, my mind goes back to hundreds of people like Amira, Sabina and the infant child, no matter what their ethnic identity (whatever that actually means). I think, too, of the many wartime villages populated almost exclusively by the elderly. While mothers, children, men of fighting age, and women acutely aware of the implications of brutal ‘ethnic cleansing’ had little choice but to leave, the elderly remained, almost always for the same reason. “I have lived my whole life here, and here I will die.”
In late 1992 we were based out of a hotel that also housed a large number of refugees – their ethnic identity is not important to the story because misery is universal. We had a Red Cross meeting to attend on the other side of the front and so offered to take letters and parcels to those who had remained behind. We were also tasked to transport a photographer documenting our mission for the British government. Along the way, destroyed vehicles and buildings, pock marks (and worse) on the road, all showed how fierce the fighting had been. A white vehicle with a large red cross painted on the side was mangled unrecognizably – who knows if the symbol was genuine or a not-unknown ruse.
After the meeting we set off to find the villagers, stopping to ask directions from a dear old lady who was clearly disappointed that we had nothing for her. With no interpreter it was difficult to explain. On reaching the place we found an old man herding sheep along the road, and two elderly women. One gestured for us to pile the parcels beside the road, Then, slowly, more elderly women started emerging from surrounding buildings; joy on the faces of those who received parcels, resigned disappointment on the others.
One lady spotted our car phone and gestured whether it would be possible to use it. My young Spanish teammate had picked up enough of the language to understand that her relatives were billeted in the same hotel as us. And so we agreed, knowing perfectly well that it was against the rules. The burst of joy on her face at the moment we connected her to her family brought tears to everyone’s eyes, my own included. That night I wrote this in my journal. “The next time I see Christmas presents under the tree and watch family Christmas calls, I will think of that village of lonely old people, a pile of roughly tied and labelled boxes on the side of a cattle track, and a dozen radiant faces clustered around the car.”