Bosnia Is A Hidden Balkan Gem & An Object Lesson About War’s Lasting Impact

Last month, I returned to Bosnia. Ever since I was an infant, I’ve been brought there repeatedly by my parents, yet I still remain a tourist in my family’s home country.

trees without roots
PHOTO Trees Without Roots

As a US citizen, born in the heart of busy California, I was once again struck by the incredible wide-open spaces, the pristine beauty, the breathtaking contrasts between the relics of the Bosnian War (which ended in 1995) and the natural beauty of a country that is still being rebuilt, even to this day.

One of my favorite places is Mostar because of its liveliness, the stunning Old Bridge, and the presence of Ottoman-era architecture. I also appreciate Banja Luka, a city situated on the banks of the Vrbas. There is a Roman camp, Kastel, in the center of the city, and just across the street stands Ferhadija, the ultimate stamp to the Ottoman empire.

As I traveled with my family through Bosnia, I was stunned with its beautiful nature and scenic countryside. Our drives ended up going through the mountains, valleys, and all the way to the coast. We would stop to fill bottles with water from many natural springs, many of which are mineral water springs. I found it amazing to think that this is something that people did centuries ago and are still doing today.

It’s surreal to see this sort of “hidden” beauty, especially since many visitors associate this country with the heartbreaking war, but that does not stop Bosnian people from being hospitable and welcoming to visitors.

As I wrote in my book, Trees Without Roots,

“Based on observations on the culture and my family, they seem to be very welcoming. Whenever visiting each other, they would offer coffee, tea, or other refreshments and ensure that the guests are not parched. God forbid you enter their houses famished or else you would be bombarded with food. And you would have to accept it or else it would be seen as disrespectful towards the host. There is an immense welcoming nature present as everyone wants to make you feel comfortable. No matter the differences, they always try to make visitors feel at home.”

Coffee. It is the backbone of the social life here. It resembles Turkish coffee, but my family always mentions how much better it is than Turkish coffee. I always found this amusing, but found it to be a delicious, satisfying beverage. I even picked up on making my own Bosnian coffee in the mornings (or nights on occasion). The food is fresh and locally produced. Some traditional staple foods include pita, burek, and cevapi, which many restaurants and families make.

I also wrote,

“Bosnia and Herzegovina is a county with a rich history. Over several centuries, numerous empires conquered the land and left traces of their culture. There are cities built on the Roman camps, the smell of Turkish coffee ingrained in the walls of Austrian-Hungarian architecture. Empires come and go, but the religions remain.”

Although my family was from Bosnia, they never talked about the Bosnian War, which ended in late 1995.

My father’s parents had a mixed marriage. He was Muslim and she was Eastern Orthodox. Likewise, my parents followed the same pattern. Mixed marriages were very common in Bosnia before the war, but during the Bosnian War, these two faiths suddenly became mortal enemies. In the United States, it would be like Catholics and Protestants suddenly deciding to start killing each other.

In some ways, the country has recovered.

However, the hearts and minds of Bosnians remain impacted by a war that ended 27 years ago. And as we watch Russia’s unprovoked attack on the Ukraine, I know what a lasting legacy these atrocities will cause.

I learned the real cost of such war from my father and his sister, who had kept their personal stories about the Bosnian War a secret until I was old enough to understand.

War is not simply a concept. It affects the oldest to the youngest. It’s personal, with long-lasting repercussions.

When I was 15 years old, I was unexpectedly handed a dusty pile of letters written by my father and aunt during the war. When war broke out, my father (Denis) and Aunt Amela were 11 and 15. Learning about my family’s history was like opening a Pandora’s Box. All the evils and miseries were exposed as my aunt explained her childhood to me. Her stories were as rough as a punch in the face.

My aunt felt a great deal of release just by talking about it with me, and all the secrets gushed out of her like water rushing through a broken dam. She was just a child back then, a child, like any other, who needed affection and love. But love for the children of war is frequently hard to find.

At first, my father was reluctant to talk about the war. But I was tenacious and persistent. It took me almost two years to pull his story from him, piece by piece. As that story unfolded, my interest in the Bosnian War grew. I not only did exhaustive interviews with my aunt and father, but I also researched the history of the conflict under the guidance of my English and history teachers.

I realized someone from my generation needs to speak for the victims of war. Someone needs to say what it’s like when the cameras aren’t rolling, when the world’s not watching, when hope is scarce. So, I began my book, Trees Without Roots.

Trees Without Roots details those two children’s heroic and painful journey dodging mortars and seeing death all around them – including seeing a man being blown to bits just a few yards ahead of them. As children, their only desire was to go back to the lives they had before the war. Slowly they begin to understand that will never happen. Separated from their parents due to the war, the children eventually made a harrowing escape out of Bosnia aided by both family and strangers.

Of course, all this research, and the intensity of what I’ve read, has impacted how I feel about the Russian invasion of Ukraine. America, as a country, has never been invaded, so Americans haven’t experienced how wars affect families when fathers, mothers and children are ripped apart from each other, and they are suddenly thrown out of the homes where they thought they had a secure future.

No one can justify the amount of suffering that has been inflicted on the Ukrainian people.

Just like the Bosnian war, the Ukrainian war is generating many refugees. The world is not ready to handle another refugee crisis and yet the BBC estimated that, as of early May 2022, over 12 million people have fled the Ukraine.

The American Academy of Pediatrics published a study titled “The Effects of Armed Conflict on Children.” From that study, it was concluded that, in addition to physical harm and suffering, “Pooled estimates from a systematic review of nearly 8000 children who were exposed to war revealed that the prevalence of PTSD is 47%, that of depression is 43%, and that of anxiety is 27%.” Even when war is officially over, the damage is consequential.

After I published my book in America, it was also published in Bosnia, where it was met with great acclaim because many families experienced, or knew others that experienced, similar gut-wrenching scenarios. I met so many talented young people who’ve evolved from this environment – especially a young woman, Azra Pargan, who worked on the translation of my book.

In cooperation with BMG (Bosanska Medijska Grupa) and NVO Association for Peace, Education and Creativity, the idea for the project “My First Book” was born.

We had our first festival in December 2021. As ambassador for the project, I made the opening speech. My message was simple: Our goal is to inspire young people to write and to establish goodwill and cooperation with people who are living outside of Bosnia and Herzegovina. We support those who are marginalized or oppressed, whether it’s because of race, sex, age, or religion, so we don’t focus on young people alone. In fact, seven books by female authors have already been published, thanks to our efforts.

With the proceeds from the Bosnian translation of my book, and my additional sponsorship, we were able to publish a book called Bosansko Dijete (translation: “Bosnian Child”) by Enes Hodžić. Enes Hodžić was a 13-year-old talented musician and poet who wrote about politics and the fear children experienced in war. He was killed by a grenade in front of his home. In his memory, his poems have been published.

Both his poems and the stories like the ones my father and my aunt told me are extremely important. They force us to see the harsh reality of war. These stories must be heard for future generations in order to avoid something like this happening again.

But, there is hope.

Ukrainians are uploading videos and photos of terrifying destruction, but they also share the beauty of what remains. One Ukrainian woman recently posted a video of a park in the middle of a shell-torn city. The park was lovely, a vibrant green haven of peace in the midst of chaos.

It gave me hope for a future where the Ukraine may someday be able to move forward in recovery, just as Bosnia has. War has a horrific cost, but Bosnia shows us that open wounds eventually become scars, that it is possible to rebuild, and that, eventually, beauty can arise from ashes.

About the author

Ella is now 20 years old and a student at Occidental College. Although her literary credentials are not extensive, her young age and interest provides a new outlook into the historical world of her family and culture. Her curiosity for the past and a strive for a better future is what pushes her to be an upstander. Inspired by her Justice Immersion trip to Tanzania and living with the Maasai community as well as other forms of social justice activism, Ella plans to pursue a career into reconstructive surgery, focusing on the humanitarian aspect of the medical field. You can learn more about her at www.treeswithoutroots.com, and connect with her on Instagram @treeswithoutroots, and on Facebook.

About the book

Trees Without Roots

By Ella Čolić

Paperback, 302 pages, $33.95

ISBN: 978-1-63132-100-9

Published by ALIVE Book Publishing, Alamo, CA

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