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Success out of the unspeakable horrors of war

Lance Neita

Sunday, July 22, 2018

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I once shared in this column the story of that Balkan girl from Bosnia, Mirsada Buric, who risked her life training under war-torn conditions in the streets of Sarajevo (the capital city) in the attempt to fulfil her seemingly impossible dream of running in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. A champion long-distance runner for the National Yugoslavia track and field team, Mirsada Buric was training for the Olympics when violence erupted in her homeland.

The background to this is that in the aftermath of World War I, 1914-1918, the Balkan states of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro, Croatia, Slovenia, and Macedonia were absorbed into the Federal People's Republic of Yugoslavia.

Yugoslavia was a country in south-eastern and central Europe for most of the 20th century. It was ruled as a monarchy until the royal family was abolished in 1945. Of local interest is that an exiled prince of that royal family, Stefano Cantucozino, was said to have attended Munro College in Jamaica during the 1950s. As a first former, I remember being much in awe of that portly sixth-former, “Canto”, who carried on his life without any fuss, played tennis and a little football, and for that brief year of my memory, misbehaved as any ordinary Munro boy would do. I leave it to other Munronians of that era and several forms above me, if still alive, to confirm that story.

Following the dissolution of the monarchy the country was renamed the Federal People's Republic of Yugosalavia and a communist Government was established. However, after the death of long-time Yugoslav leader Josip Broz Tito, in 1980, growing nationalism among the different Yugoslav republics threatened to split their union apart.

This process intensified after the mid-1980s with the rise of the Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic, who helped foment discontent between Serbians in Bosnia and Croatia and their Croatian, Bosniak and Albanian neighbours. In 1991, Slovenia, Croatia and Macedonia declared their independence.

During the war in Croatia that followed the Serb-dominated Yugoslav army supported Serbian separatists there in brutal clashes with Croatian forces.

Meanwhile, not to be outdone by their fellow Balkan states, the Government of Bosnia-Herzegovina declared its independence from Yugoslavia in April 1992. Over the next several years, Bosnian Serb forces, with the backing of the Serb-dominated Yugoslav army, perpetrated atrocious crimes against Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim) and Croatian civilians, resulting in the deaths of some 100,000 people (80 per cent of them Bosniak) by 1995. It is said to have been the worst act of genocide since the Nazi regime's destruction of some six million European Jews during World War II.

Widespread ethnic cleansing accompanied the wars (1992-95) as large numbers of Bosnian Muslims and Bosnian Croatians were forced to flee their homes. Ethnic cleansing is defined as, “A purposeful policy designed by one ethnic or religious group to remove, by violent and terror-inspiring means, the civilian population of another ethnic or religious group from certain geographic areas.”

We are told that the methods used during the Bosnian ethnic cleansing campaigns included “murder, torture, arbitrary arrest and detention, extrajudicial executions, rape and sexual assaults, confinement of civilian population in ghetto areas, forcible removal, displacement and deportation of civilian population, deliberate military attacks or threats of attacks on civilians and civilian areas, and wanton destruction of property”.

The ethnic cleansing by the Yugoslav Serbs in Bosnia and Herzegovina resulted in the murder of the athlete Mirsada's only brother and the break-up of her family. Her home village, Sarajevo, was ethnically cleansed two months after the war began on April 6, 1992, forcing Mirsada and her family into a Bosnian Serb-controlled concentration camp — a frightening detention where her uncles were badly beaten and only a cup of tea and a piece of bread were provided as their daily food ration.

Released from the camp two weeks later, Buric resumed her athletic training in the only place she could on the war-torn streets of Sarajevo. When air raid sirens signalled incoming bombs, she trained in basement parking garages.

“After surviving the concentration camp, death did not frighten me,” she said. “I had to run in the streets of Sarajevo, even though it was dangerous. It was my way of fighting back against the enemy.”

The horrors she witnessed ignited something in her — a flame of indignation. Her goal had always been to compete at the Olympic Games. But now her desire to get to Barcelona, and to use the Olympics as a stage to speak to the world, became a crusade.

She trained in the streets running through Serb sniper fire. Twice she was nearly killed, she says. One bullet whizzed over her head and slammed into a tree where she had stopped to stretch.

As newly independent Bosnia and Herzegovina descended into this ethno-religious war, Buric was selected to be a member of the inaugural Bosnia Olympic team for the 1992 games in Barcelona. Competing in the Olympic Games was a tangible goal to focus on amid the chaos in Sarajevo, but she could not be sure she would compete since the International Olympic Committee had not recognised Bosnia as an independent state. She trained anyway, dodging sniper fire during her daily runs.

Finally, just one day before opening ceremonies, the International Olympic Committee recognised Bosnia as an independent state. Buric and her teammates and coaches sat in the airport for 12 hours, enduring unrelenting shelling before finally taking off. They arrived in Barcelona just in time to change into their new uniforms before marching into the stadium to rousing applause.

She finished the 5,000 metres 31 out of 33, but to her the placing was as good as a gold medal.

But it just doesn't stop there. Out of that seething cauldron of fire known as the Bosnian Wars comes another story of courage and endurance, the story of neighbouring Croatia which has risen from the ashes of that war to reach the finals of a World Cup on centre stage.

Since 1993, even during the turmoil of war, Croatia has been representing itself as a football power. The team joined the international competition in 1996 with their successful qualifying campaign for the 1996 European Championships. Later, in 1998, they were formally admitted into the World Cup, where they assembled what they called their first “Golden Generation”. Following a loss to France in the semi-finals and a win against the Netherlands they placed third, providing the tournament's top scorer Davor Suker.

Interestingly Jamaica made their first appearance in World Cup that year as well, drawing Croatia, Japan and Argentina in the opening round. Many of us did not know where Croatia was and we had to run to the world map to find out. And I dare say we all thought Croatia would be a walkover. Not so, the minnows beat us 3-1, and have gone on to reach the knockout rounds in every competition thereafter barring 2010.

And, exactly 20 years later, anchored by their second generation “Golden Generation” Croatia reached the 2018 World Cup Final and secured second place to France, providing the tournament's best player, Luka Modric.

In 1991 Croatia was in no better place than Bosnia and the streets of Sarajevo where Buric did her courageous training. Tensions over the demand for independence led to war when the Yugoslav Peoples' Army and the Serb paramilitary groups attacked Croatia. The invading troops pursued a campaign of killing, terror and expulsion against the non-Serb population in the rebel territories, killing thousands of Croat civilians and forcing at least 170,000 from their homes.

Football Captain Modric's childhood coincided with the Croation War. In 1991, when the war escalated, his family was forced to flee the area. His grandfather Luka was executed by Serb rebels in December 1991 near his house. His family fled the house and it was burnt down.

He became a refugee. In those years, thousands of bombs fell around him and football became a way of life to escape the reality of war.

The two countries that we have storied today have gone through conflicts we hope Jamaica will never experience. But the stories also testify to the immense courage demonstrated that lifts the soul. Time and again stories emerge of great personal courage and endurance on the world's stage, at the Olympics, at World Cup, at the Paralympics.

On our own domestic front we are privy, every Sunday evening, to stories of Jamaicans who have overcome the odds as we watch Fae Ellington and remember Ian Boyne on the television show Profile.

Yes, Jamaica, too, has been there before, at Helsinki, in London, in Beijing, and with Usain Bolt. We have seen our youngsters with very little resources rise to the top and take the world by storm. We have demonstrated that we have the ability to rise from the ashes, like Moldic and Buric.

So from these stories we can reap hope, love, courage, and endurance — gifts of the Spirit that can transform our lives from the violence and death traps of our daily existence and place us on the same world stage of hope and endurance as exhibited in the lives of those heroes from the Balkan states.

Lance Neita is a public relations consultant and writer. Send comments to the Observer or lanceneita@hotmail.com.

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