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.
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 it separation has been based on ethnic principles. Since the country was ethnically mixed in many areas, 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 in a way 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.
In our conversation we touched upon many topics, but here I will focus on the process of integration and its outcomes.
Tell us, when did you came to Croatia and what was further sequence of events? You came to Croatia in 1992?
Yes, 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 came in 1992 and stayed in 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. After a couple of months, my mother arrived from Bosnia. Then in the end of 1992 when the Bosnian Posavina fell (part of Bosnia, close to Croatia border in the East) my dad came too. 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. In the end of 1993, my parents came back from Germany and found a job near to Vinkovci, in the Eastern Croatia. Then I went there with my granny, grandpa and my brother; we stayed there until the winter of 1994. After that my parents got a job in Križevci, where my aunt and uncle also got a job. My parents were both doctors, and they got jobs there because the hospitals in Croatia were lacking with educated doctors. So we moved then in 1994 to a village near Križevci, in the North of Croatia, where we got to live in an apartment owned by public health center. I started my primary school there, and my brother continued with second grade. Grandpa and granny were there with us. We stayed in that village up until 2001 when we moved to Križevci and bought a house. There my mother, dad, brother, granny and me lived together. So from 2001 on we were living there. 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, me, my brother and his girlfriend 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 managed and how were you received in Croatia?
In general, I would say it’s quite complex set of experiences and treatments. We came to apartment that was our apartment, since granny, grandpa, dad and my aunt worked and bought that apartment. My cousin was with his mother and dad situated somewhere near Varaždin, in the Croatian North. I remember, that was something very rudimentary, you know, rooms divided with curtains etc. But I have to say that Croatia accepted refugees, you got to admit that. They accepted half a million refugees. Some went further to the West, but there were a couple of hundred thousand refugees in Croatia at that time.
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, which is somehow self-evident that you should get a citizenship if you are Croatian by ethnicity, we didn’t get anything. I mean I acknowledge to Croatia that they have given accommodation to refugees because that was not easy. But in general people managed their living completely on their own. So did my parents, and they didn’t got anything for their property in Bosnia – really nothing. They have done everything on their own. I mean and 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.
When it comes to how people reacted to us, I mean it’s hard to say. Dad was pediatrician in Križevci, and he was respected, but on the other hand there was this story that we are usurping here and that we are some foreigners who mess with their domestic stuff.
And what about local community, the city or municipality? Did they helped in any way?
No, we didn’t get any support. Only when we got a job in Križevci, 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 organizations?
No, nothing. There were this charity packages which you could pick when you went to this 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 had a car until 1995 or 1996, because we didn’t had 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?
Well, mom and dad, they had a good relationship with neighbors, and we also got along with neighbors. But that was, how to say, you know, everybody needs a favor. I remember, my parents were called for an intervention in the middle of the night, at 2, 3, 4 in the night to help to some guys, who were drunk and who almost froze in the winter. It’s hard to talk about that, my parents were always treated as those academics which created a distance. Granny, she was hanging out with those other grannies from the village. I don’t know how they communicated, partly deaf, while my granny was speaking in her specific Bosnian way and the local grannies were speaking in their local dialect. Also, my aunt and uncle were there so, they were hanging out with them.
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 Križevci, 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 integrated 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 Križevci, but there I always felt some… well some distance which grew as I was getting older. I mean, it didn’t felt 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 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 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.
So I can’t say that I don’t fit here, and I can’t give some general estimate; I might be some exception in that sense. I am bothered by this things, where I am from, where did I live, where my ancestors are and what will happen with tradition and continuity. I mean here we are talking about communities in Bosnia that are old couple of centuries. I am also bothered that someone works hard his whole life, you build up for years and then suddenly that is gone in a second. Even more, there are no elementary assumptions that this continuity of Croatians from Bosnian Posavina can be continued. It is a bigger problem, it is a problem to me. I don’t know how the others see this, do they see their places in Bosnia as weekend settlements now or do they want to go back? There are different impression. Maybe I am not representative person because I care more then I should, when nobody does. I can say that this is somehow clearly forgotten history, and since it is like that then it is ipso facto forgotten future.
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 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 when you open your mouth and start talking. It is the unmistakable power of detecting 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 its 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 this 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 to 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. Sometime later, he finished his studies in sociology and anthropology at Central European University in Zagreb. 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.