Muhamed Bukva and Jovan Jovanovic were best friends before the Bosnian war but found themselves on opposite ends of the four-year conflict, which left a quarter of a million people either dead or missing. RFE/RL correspondent Alen Bajramovic spoke to the two friends about life today and what it was like to fight on different sides of the front line.
Miljanovici, Bosnia; 1 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The village of Miljanovici is seven kilometers from the town of Gorazde, which was one of three UN-protected safe zones in eastern Bosnia-Herzegovina. During the Bosnian war, Miljanovici found itself on the front lines, first controlled by the Bosnian Serb army and then by forces from the army of Bosnia-Herzegovina.
The first shells of the war delivered hate, dividing the village's inhabitants. Neighbors burned each other's houses down and destroyed property. For four years, friends sometimes only saw each other through the scope of a rifle.
Jovan Jovanovic was born in 1967 and spent his childhood in Miljanovici.
"I had friends, meaning both Bosniaks and Serbs," he said. "Back then, nationality or religion wasn't important. I had a lot of Bosniak friends."
Muhamed Bukva, who was a school friend of Jovanovic's, is nostalgic about the years before the Bosnian war.
"We visited each other on holidays," he said. "They visited us on Bajrams [a religious holiday]. And so I had a lot of friends who were Serbs with whom I would hang out. Among them is one who I trusted most and who was my best friend from childhood -- my colleague Jovan Jovanovic. We went to school together, went to feasts in the evenings, visited bars, and village fairs together."
When the war began, however, the two friends found themselves serving as soldiers but wearing different uniforms. They were on opposite sides of the front line.
Jovanovic recalls the first days of the war.
"Everyone took a side. I went to the army with my people. Muhamed went to his. There were many difficult moments certainly, on both sides, because war brings no good to anyone. It brings only misery and suffering."
Both admit that when the guns were silent, they thought of one another. Bukva recalls that he was often hungry because humanitarian aid came rarely.
"I was wondering whether my friend had something better than I did, and where he could possible be. Is he here at all? Because no one could tell me if he was here or not. I kept asking and answering by myself -- is my friend here? Does he have anything to eat? Does he think that I have something to eat?"
Aware that each bullet fired could kill a friend on the other side, Jovanovic and Bukva try to answer the question of what would have happened if they had met by chance during the war.
Jovanovic said: "What would happen if I met my friend like this -- wearing a gun? I was armed, normally -- me as a soldier of the Army of Republika Srpska and he as a soldier of the federation army. And if two of us would meet in a situation, how would we react then? Would we shake hands? Give a hug? Give a kiss? Or would we maybe shoot at each other? I can speak for myself, but knowing him well, I believe he had the same opinion -- [that is,] we couldn't shoot each other, even though we were in war and after everything that had happened. The period of our friendship, however, was longer than the period of war."
Bukva said, "Knowing the prewar life and that we were very, very good friends and neighbors, we would still come to the same conclusion -- [that is,] put the guns down by a tree or on the ground, sit down, say hello and talk to each other, and afterward everyone would go back to his side."
Today, Jovanovic and Bukva are together again. Bosniaks and Serbs returned to their burned-out villages. After four years of war, they now realize the only thing they achieved was poverty and destruction.
"Those were the best years of our lives, wasted in a period where we could achieve something better for our future," Jovanovic said. "Both of us are aware that neither one is a cause nor a consequences of that war. We were only two grains of dust, which as people say, wind used to carry in one direction, so we couldn't predict or change anything. War is the biggest nonsense. I would probably never again put myself or anybody else in a position to kill or to get killed. With my current attitude, I think that I would probably pack my bags and, you know, put my rags -- if I had some -- in a bag and go somewhere where there is, you know, peace, where nobody thinks about war and where there is no war."
Now, former enemies are joining up in Miljanovici to rebuild the houses. Bukva said, "All that was burned down -- Serb houses by Bosniaks and Bosniak houses by Serbs. Now we try to build together."
The residents of Miljanovici are celebrating Bajrams and Christmas together again. They are socializing at feasts and village fairs. Their children play together and go to school. It is a tradition of forgiveness and reconciliation that many people find difficult to understand.
Jovanovic says he believes strongly in the idea that everyone in Bosnia can live in peace and sends this message:
"We need to look straight to the future, build a better future for us, our families, and our descendants -- and to try to act in such a way so as not to repeat in the future what has happened, neither to ourselves nor to our children."
(This story was originally broadcast on 1 March 2003.)