“Resolve to be tender with the young, compassionate with the aged, sympathetic with the striving, and tolerant of the weak and the wrong. Sometime in life you will have been all of these.”
― George Washington Carver
As the world reels from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, many Americans are focused on gas prices and the stock market. But I know the real cost of war. That price is paid in loved ones lost, crushed dreams, experiencing terror, and leaving everything you know – your home, your family, your friends, your hometown – because soldiers are coming.
I learned the real cost from my father and his sister, who had kept their personal stories about war a secret until I was old enough to understand.
Although my family was from Bosnia, they never talked about the Bosnian War (1992-1995). My father’s parents had a mixed marriage, which was common in Bosnia before the war. He was Muslim and she was Eastern Orthodox. Likewise, my parents followed the same pattern. Mixed marriages were very common in Bosnia before the war, but during the Bosnian War, these two faiths suddenly became mortal enemies. In the United States, it would be like Catholics and Protestants suddenly deciding to start killing each other.
War is not simply a concept. It affects the oldest to the youngest. It’s personal.
When I was 15, I was unexpectedly handed a dusty pile of letters written by my father and aunt during the war. When war broke out, my father and aunt were only 11 and 15 years old. Learning about my family’s history was like opening a Pandora’s Box. All the evils and miseries were exposed as my aunt explained her childhood to me. Her stories were as rough as a punch in the face.
My aunt felt a great deal of release just by talking about it with me, and all the secrets gushed out of her like water rushing through a broken dam. She was just a child back then; a child, like any other, who needed affection and love. But love for the children of war is frequently hard to find.
At first, my father was reluctant to talk about the war. But I was tenacious and persistent. It took me almost two years to pull his story from him, piece by piece. As that story unfolded, my interest in the Bosnian War grew. I not only did exhaustive interviews with my aunt and father, but I also researched the history of the conflict under the guidance of my English and history teachers.
These interviews and research has made it obvious to me that my generation lives in a world of fantasy. With all the access to new technologies and social media, we end up creating a barricade making it easier to judge rather than act out of compassion. Because of this, many stigmas arise, and it is easy to start creating an “us vs. them” mentality. It’s easy to say you understand. It’s far harder to truly empathize.
I realized someone from my generation needs to speak for the children of war. Someone needs to say what it’s like when the cameras aren’t rolling, when the world’s not watching, when hope is scarce. So, I began my book, “Trees Without Roots.”
“Trees Without Roots” details those two children’s heroic and painful journey dodging mortars and seeing death all around them – including seeing a man being blown to bits just a few yards ahead of them. As children, their only desire was to go back to the lives they had before the war. Slowly they begin to understand that will never happen. Separated from their parents due to the war, the children eventually made a harrowing escape out of Bosnia aided by both family and strangers.
Of course, all this research, and the intensity of what I’ve read, has impacted how I feel about the Russian invasion of Ukraine. America, as a country, has never been invaded, so Americans haven’t experienced how wars affect families when fathers, mothers and children are ripped apart from each other, and they are suddenly thrown out of the homes where they thought they had a secure future.
No one can justify the amount of suffering that has been inflicted on the Ukrainian people.
I worry about the refugees the war will create. Just like the Bosnian war, the Ukrainian war is generating many refugees. The world is not ready to handle another refugee crisis and yet the BBC estimated that, as of early May 2022, over 12 million people have fled the Ukraine.
The American Academy of Pediatrics published a study titled “The Effects of Armed Conflict on Children.” From that study, it was concluded that, in addition to physical harm and suffering, “Pooled estimates from a systematic review of nearly 8000 children who were exposed to war revealed that the prevalence of PTSD is 47%, that of depression is 43%, and that of anxiety is 27%.” Even when war is officially over, the damage is consequential.
After I published my book in America, it was also published in Bosnia, where it was met with great acclaim because many families experienced, or knew others that experienced, similar gut-wrenching scenarios. I met so many talented young people who’ve evolved from this environment - especially a young woman, Azra Pargan, who worked on the translation of my book.
In cooperation with BMG (Bosanska Medijska Grupa) and NVO Association for Peace, Education and Creativity, the idea for the project “My First Book” was born.
We had our first festival in December 2021. As ambassador for the project, I made the opening speech. My message was simple: Our goal is to inspire young people to write and to establish goodwill and cooperation with people who are living outside of Bosnia and Herzegovina. We support those who are marginalized or oppressed, whether it’s because of race, sex, age, or religion, so we don’t focus on young people alone. In fact, seven books by female authors have already been published, thanks to our efforts.
With the proceeds from the Bosnian translation of my book, and my additional sponsorship, we were able to publish a book called Bosansko Dijete (translation: "Bosnian Child") by Enes Hodžić. Enes Hodžić was a 13-year-old talented musician and poet who wrote about politics and the fear children experienced in war. He was killed by a grenade in front of his home. In his memory, his poems have been published.
Both his poems and the stories like the ones my father and my aunt told me are extremely important. They force us to see the harsh reality of war. These stories must be heard for future generations in order to avoid something like this happening again.