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Bosnia: Sarajevans Who Spent War Abroad Struggle To Fit In At Home

  • Kitty McKinsey

Sarajevo, 10 September 1996 (RFE/RL) -- A 17-year-old Muslim girl recently came to the Sarajevo counseling center on the verge of suicide. For the past three years -- ever since she was just 14 -- she had been living abroad, caring for her older brother, who had been wounded by a shell in Sarajevo and evacuated to a hospital in Italy.

They returned to their home city, but after three years of premature adult responsibility, the girl found it impossible to fit back into her family. She couldn't tolerate her parents and found it difficult even to get along with her pre-war friends.

Today, after four months of intensive psychological counseling, she's beginning to adjust to family life again. She doesn't yet feel completely comfortable, but thoughts of suicide have been banished.

All over Sarajevo, mental health professionals report, people who sat out the war in the safety of a foreign country are struggling to fit back in as they return to the shattered Bosnian capital, where those civilians who stayed endured nearly four years of artillery bombardment, sniper attacks, and long periods without food, water, electricity or heating.

Mevlida Ovuka, a psychologist with a Sarajevo mental health counseling project funded by the Dutch branch of Doctors without Borders, sees these problems every day. Mothers who coped with children alone for four years while their husbands were on the front lines are thrilled to have their men back, but have gotten used to doing everything for themselves. Men who remained in Sarajevo while their wives and children were abroad -- and found wartime girlfriends in the meantime -- now have to adapt to the return of their families.

"These are huge problems," says the psychologist.

Senad Pecanin, editor of the Bosnian magazine "Dani" (Days) freely admits that during the worst of the shelling of the city, many Sarajevans bitterly resented those who had escaped to safety abroad.

"We felt that people who left the city betrayed the city and us, their friends," he said.

Indeed, Ovuka counsels returnees not to mention that they suffered torments being separated from their loved ones and never knowing whether their families and friends in Sarajevo were still alive. Ovuka says that people who stayed can't sympathize with the mental anguish of those who didn't have to live through daily artillery bombardments.

She's speaking from personal experience, because she sent her two sons out of the country at the start of the war. Now 22 and 25, they have decided to stay permanently in London.

"I have a bad conscience because my children are abroad, but I would rather be exposed to criticism here than to have my sons killed," she said.

But now resentments have diminished, Sarajevans say. Most residents of the battered capital realize that they desperately need the professionals and bright young people who left during the war -- and are welcoming them back.

Aisa Muzurovic, a 51-year-old seamstress who shared her 54-square-meter apartment with 11 other family members during the war, sums up the attitude of many ordinary Sarajevans.

"The people who could afford to, left. If I had money and friends abroad, I would have sent my children abroad too," she said.

Sladjana Jovanovic, now 25, who left with her brother in the first days of the war and spent the time in Germany and Canada, was apprehensive when she came back home for the first time last week. She feared she might not be accepted -- but she was happy to find out, as she put it, that "nobody blamed me for anything." The reaction of everyone she met was "they hope everybody will come back."

Sanjin Kapetanovic, now 22, who spent the war abroad in Asia, Africa and finally Norway, has returned to Sarajevo for good to study medicine. He was also relieved to find he was readily accepted.

"Nobody has even asked me where I was during this horrible war. People are very friendly," he said.

More dramatic than the psychological adjustments of returnees and war-scarred residents to each other are the practical problems of finding housing for all the returnees in a city where thousands of apartments were destroyed by shelling. Many who left their apartments four years ago now find they are occupied by families of dead Bosnian soldiers, or by rural Muslims who were expelled from their own homes in eastern Bosnia, sought refuge in Sarajevo and fought to defend the city.

Stjepan Kljuic, a member of the collective presidency of Bosnia-Herzegovina who happens to be an ethnic Croat, sums up the housing dilemma.

"If someone left his home four years ago and a refugee or person who defended Sarajevo settled in that flat, then it really would not be honest if we expelled this person who has been defending Sarajevo," he said.

As with much else, the smooth re-absorption of the tens of thousands who left the capital and would like to return will depend on financial aid from the West. Kljuic calls for an immediate apartment construction program funded from abroad.

"It's much cheaper for the West to build housing here than to keep refugees in Europe," he said.