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Bosnia: First War, Now Peace Torments Sarajevans

  • Kitty McKinsey

Sarajevo, 9 September 1996 (RFE/RL) -- Many of the survivors of Bosnia's war are now tormented by nightmares. They are the lingering casualties of the 43-month war, some of them carrying memories of experiences which stretch the limit of human endurance.

One of the survivors, a 43-year-old Bosnian Muslim soldier, returns in his sleep to the trenches in the suburbs of Sarajevo where he saw his younger brother killed and then faced the decision of whether to retrieve his body or save the life of his best friend.

He chose to save his friend's life, leaving his brother's body in the hands of enemy Bosnian Serb soldiers. He has been reviled for that choice ever since by his three sisters.

For a 42-year-old Muslim woman, the recurring nightmare is of the day she saw her husband killed in their home town of Gorazde in eastern Bosnia. After his death, she spent 17 days without food, walking more than 70 kilometers through forest and over mountains with her 12-year-old son to reach the relative safety of Sarajevo.

Now, several years later, she is severely depressed, obsessed by the fear that she will die before her son finishes high school.

These are only two of the milder cases treated by Dr. Nermana Mehic-Basara, a psychiatrist who cares for hospital patients at the Center For Mental Health of Sarajevo University and counsels outpatients at the Corridor Mental Health Center in downtown Sarajevo.

"I could tell you more," she said to an RFE/RL correspondent. "But you wouldn't have the strength to listen."

Throughout Bosnia, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that more than one million Bosnians -- out of a pre-war population of 4.4 million -- are suffering from war-related psychological problems.

Dr. Jo Asvall, WHO's European Director, estimates that in Sarajevo, which was under siege nearly three years, 60 percent of the city's 370,000 inhabitants suffer from post-traumatic stress syndrome, depression, personality disorders, alcohol and drug abuse. He said these problems lead to increased suicides, homicides and domestic violence.

Mental health professionals say that the breakdowns Sarajevans experienced were to be expected during a war in which civilians were targeted, primarily by Bosnian Serb forces.

Doctor Mehic-Basara says fewer people now need to be admitted to hospitals for acute problems. But she says more and more people are coming in off the street for counseling at Corridor for persistent problems resulting from the war.

After the siege of Sarajevo was finally lifted last autumn with the signing of the Dayton Peace Accords, people no longer had to worry about surviving shelling, evading snipers and carrying water home in canisters. But they then had time to take stock of how much they had lost during the war.

"This process of grieving could not be expressed normally during the war. It's only now after the war that people become aware of the losses they have suffered," says Mehic-Basara.

Having lost her 23-year-old brother during the war, Mehic-Basara can empathize with her patients, and sometimes finds her professional discipline dissolving into tears as she listens to their tales.

"I think because of my own process of grief, I can much better understand people who have lost someone," she says.

She also credits a WHO project called "Help for the Helpers" for enabling her to keep her own sanity while coping with the traumas of her patients.

Ironically, peace is bringing its own set of psychological problems. Mehic-Basara says people are not as happy as you would expect them to be at the end of the war. Rather, Sarajevo residents are suspended between joy at peace and depression over war losses.

Mevlida Ovuka, a psychologist with a mental health counseling service set up by the Dutch branch of Doctors Without Borders, also sees the fears that peace has brought.

People who have not worked for four years are suddenly terrified that they will never be able to rise to the challenge of a regular job again and will never work as competently as they used to, she says. Others among a population that was entirely dependent on humanitarian handouts for four years are frightened that they will not be able to provide for their families now that the city is rapidly shifting to an economy based on private enterprise.

Mehic-Basara says the biggest boost to help the war survivors recover would be economic progress.

"What we really need for that is for the international community to provide money to create jobs," she says.

When she observes her fellow Sarajevans the psychiatrist is satisfied that they are coping well with all the traumas and stresses they have suffered and continue to suffer.

But, she warns, "these scars which we bear, which I call scars of the soul, will remain with us always."