SARAJEVO – He’s the subject of one of the
most iconic images of this city’s deadly four-year siege: a curly haired toddler crouched behind the iron bars of an open first-floor window, glancing with a mix of curiosity and caution at the sunny street below.
But as Sarajevo marks 20 years since the start of the siege, the boy in the picture, Skender Basic (pronounced Bah-shich), says he isn’t all that interested in the anniversary, and that his few memories of the war are far from unhappy.
“Sometimes, when the bombs weren’t falling nonstop, there were times when we could go out. There were some kids who were playing outside," he recalls. "Our street was a little bit isolated from the snipers. It was closed off, so we could play sometimes.
"I remember a friend called Mesa, and I also remember one friend Daco. You know the game Street Fighter? Everybody in the world knows that game – come on! We were collecting some stickers from that game. It was fun.”
Too Young To Understand
Basic, who turns 22 later this month, acknowledges that he was too young to understand the horrors of the siege, which claimed the lives of more than 10,000 people, including 600 children.
It was more frustrating for his parents, he says, Bosnian Muslims who had to care for Basic and his older sister amid increasingly perilous circumstances. The family eventually fled for a year to Western Europe, returning only after the war’s end in 1996.
Still, the war is there somewhere.
Basic, a devoted movie fan, says he found himself crying uncontrollably when he recently watched “Grave of the Fireflies,” the 1988 animated film depicting the relationship between a Japanese boy and his younger sister as they succumb to starvation during World War II.
“I’ve never been so touched by a movie,” he says. “My mother said, ‘Skender, everything that happened during the war is inside your head, in your subconscious, and it’s triggering those emotions.'”
Basic is decidedly less emotional, however, when it comes to his wartime portrait as a housebound baby placed in a window for a brief dose of sunlight.
The iconic photo of Skender Basic, taken by photographer Rikard Larma during the siege of Sarajevo. (Courtesy of Rikard Larma)
The picture was shot by Sarajevo-born photographer Rikard Larma, who captured some of the most enduring images of the 1,425-day siege. But the idea, says Skender, belonged to his father – the well-known Bosnian actor Senad Basic.
“The true story about that picture is that my father was the one who said to Rikard, ‘Hey, take this picture.’ [Larma] didn’t even recognize the picture in that. It was my father. And that’s the only reason he took the picture," Basic says. "Believe me, it’s a true story. I don’t want to overexaggerate, but my father’s a big artist. One of the best actors here. He’s very educated.”
Affection And Impatience
Basic has lost his childhood curls and is starting his first year of law school with an eye on a career in criminal law.
Despite his deep fascination with movies – even a short conversation is peppered with back-to-back film references -- he says he is slowly trying to extract himself from “brainwashing instruments” like computer games and social networking.
“I deleted myself from Facebook,” he says, laughing. “It was only 20 days ago, but I’m very proud. They throw too much stuff at us, just to keep us distracted.”
Twenty years after the start of the siege, Basic views his city with a mix of affection and impatience, saying it may be another 20 years before Sarajevo shrugs off its reputation for corruption and its crumbling infrastructure.
Nor does he rule out the possibility that war may once again return to the Balkans. But Sarajevo’s most famous wartime baby says he will not abandon his city, even in such an instance.
“I plan to stay. When you succeed in Sarajevo, it’s pretty good. And the war thing, it will come eventually, but I don’t think soon. That’s my opinion, my funny opinion," he says.
"When we’re sitting at our grandfather’s, when the family is together in the summer, and we ask about the war, they’re always like, ‘War will always be in the Balkans. We will always have war. It’s in our genes.’ If the Third World War happens, it will happen here.”