George Alagiah interviews us on the BBC
Thursday 17 May 2007
“Like Landing on the Moon”
Owen Powell – 17th May 2007
“So, one day, our home was searched by Serb soldiers,” says Jasminka. “They were carrying guns and butcher knives, and were throwing things around. My son, who was about three years old, pointed his toy gun at them and told them to go away - "Don’t shoot on my Sarajevo!" he told them … There was this awful, awful pause - eerie silence in the house.”
Jasminka leans forward to take a sip of coffee. I realise I am not breathing. She continues the story. “One soldier stepped forwards and reached out his hand towards my son. And then he ruffled his hair and told him to go to play in another room.” I start breathing again. “They were looking for my brother, but we had hidden him in our neighbor’s house, in their wardrobe – they were Serbs, so their house did not get searched.”
It’s probably at about this point in the conversation that I think back to last October, and how Alex and I had started this project in a fairly jokey frame of mind. It almost felt as if we were doing it for a bet, like one of Dave Gorman’s projects (and the comparison has been made a number of times since). We’d just collect 192 people, tick all the boxes, and that would be that. Rather fortunately, I think, we’ve come on a bit of a journey since then. (Not quite as impressive as Jasminka’s journey, but we’ll come to that soon). I’m now totally amazed to be living in a city that contains so many fascinating people and so many unexpected stories, and which represents hope, or stability, or escape. And Jasminka has certainly escaped. As she says, she was one of the very lucky ones.
“In Sarajevo, everything started on April 5th 1992 when we turned up for a peace rally in the central square in the city. I saw three soldiers with balaclavas and guns watching from the hillside, over the bridge. When the crowd approached the bridge, demanding these soldiers to leave, I saw them lowering their guns.” Jasminka mimes the soldiers training their guns on the crowd, and shivers, and suddenly I’m not in a café in Primrose Hill any more. “They opened fire. The firing went on for about thirty seconds. Thirty seconds is a long time. Many people were killed … This happened in Europe, fifteen years ago. A girl standing a few yards from me was hit and killed. She was the first person to be killed in Sarajevo. On that day the four year siege of Sarajevo began.”
Jasminka had grown up in a non-religious household. For her parents, the main doctrine in their life was Socialism. Tito ruled Yugoslavia, and the socialist outlook informed everything, including school text-books. (A typical problem would begin, “You have two loaves of bread. If you do not need the second one, then share it with someone else who does ...”). Unfortunately, during the war everyone got put into boxes based on their perceived religion or ethnicity. Jasminka’s father was labeled a Muslim, her mother a Serb. “Mixed marriage was common, especially in the big cities. It was said that the war divided many marriage beds in half. My parents have been married 45 years now, and they were only briefly separated in the war – my mother stayed behind to look after the house when the rest of the family moved out. Even though she is Serb, she was still taken hostage and exchanged for Serb soldiers later on.” A month after the shooting at the peace rally, it became clear that Sarajevo was in danger of being overrun. Women with young children were given a chance to leave, a chance that Jasminka took. “It was so hard to say goodbye to my family, but I felt I must save my kid. We had only 200 marks at home, banks were out of business – it’s about 60 pounds – which my father split with me when I left. Now he jokes about it, he says, “Oh, I sent you out into the world with a small kid and thirty pounds,” but it’s true. When I left Sarajevo, I had a plastic bag (with few photos of my family in it!) in one hand, and my son, who was three and a half, in another. I didn’t see my parents again for about eight years.”
Sarajevo was besieged and totally sealed off the day after Jasminka left. A friend of hers, also with a young child, had decided not to join Jasminka, so she was stuck in Sarajevo for nearly four years. Jasminka stayed in refugee camps in Bosnia and Croatia, traveling on buses that were periodically stopped and searched by soldiers with guns. "My son would call them 'ninjas' as they had balaclavas over their faces". After a few weeks, her parents’ phone was cut off and her only contact from them was through Red Cross messages, often three or four months out of date. Despite her best efforts, she couldn’t let her parents know how she and her son were getting on (or even if they were alive) for six months.
She gradually made her way to the UK, her temporary travel papers causing lots of problems at every border she crossed. The border guards at Dover, by comparison, “were used to this kind of thing. They immediately gave me the asylum seeker application to fill out, even though I protested that I wasn’t a political refugee. They looked at me, and looked at my papers, and told me that really, I was. They told me that I would probably have to stay in the UK for a while. Only then I realised that the war would not finish in few months time, as I hoped. Being in England was like landing on the moon. I was aged 22, but I had to learn from the beginning – like being a toddler learning to walk and talk - all over again.”
Jasminka was sent to the Lake District, where she stayed with a family for three months. “Now, if I was offered the chance to live in a country house in the Lake District, I would grab it, but at the time it was not ideal. There was no full time nursery for my son, nowhere for me to continue with my education, or improve my English, no work. I am still in contact with the family, and I am very grateful to them, but I had to move out to progress. I came to London and found a hostel for Yugoslavians where I stayed for a while. I began working – to start with, jobs like cleaning, waitressing and gardening – that was the most fun as at least it was outside. But these weren’t great jobs. I had studied in Sarajevo, so I thought I should continue with my studying.”
Here begins the next chapter of Jasminka’s life. After her early experiences, it’s difficult to say it’s the most remarkable but it’s certainly a testament to her hard work, and perhaps also to the opportunities afforded by London. She began studying in 1993, graduated in 1997 and got a job with a big travel company. “This was the early days of the internet. People and companies were still adapting to it. I was a part of their website team – in fact, even today, when you book a flight on this website, it may be a code I wrote that you are using.” Jasminka laughs. “I suppose I am quite proud of that.” She has now moved into the one of the top investment banks in the City and is in charge of a team of eight people. Interestingly, she has found more problems with sexism than racism in the (notoriously male) environment of a city bank, although it doesn’t seem to have affected her drive and ambition at all. “After my early twenties, nothing is difficult now. I’m never afraid of hard work ... but I have been helped by lots of people along the way. There was lots of understanding from social services and from council. In my experience, things are quite fair and equal here.”
She continues: “Nobody wishes to leave their homeland, and their families behind, to be a refugee in a foreign country, with the foreign people with a foreign language, and a foreign weather ... but if you happen to be one, then I think the best place for you is London. My brother lives in New York now, and it is quite a segregated society over there. I prefer London, and I have lots of international friends who live here now. ”
Since arriving in London in 1993, knowing nobody and hardly speaking English, Jasminka has moved a long way. She recently bought a flat for herself and her son, and he is about to start art college in Chelsea. “I think we are good friends,” she says of him. “We have been through a lot together. He was always a very curious child, asking questions – about his own past and what happened in Bosnia. I always thought that if he was old enough to ask the questions, he was old enough to know the answers.” I ask if he remembers being in Bosnia. “He does … when he was seven or eight, a friend of mine who knew he liked painting asked if he wanted to do something for an exhibition at the Riverside studios, something about Bosnia and how he remembers it. After few days he produced these two massive paintings. First one was of him and me before the war, where we look happy. Second one was of two of us during the war. They are very impressive paintings … He speaks fluent English and Bosnian, but he has not learnt yet to swear (on the rare occasions that he does) in the opposite language – so he is always being caught out.”
Jasminka is hopeful of a better future for Bosnia. For the first time you can now fly direct from London to Sarajevo with British Airways, and once the UN peace-keeping troops leave (possibly this year) it should appear more attractive to tourists. Skiing and winter sports are popular (Jasminka remembers watching Torville and Dean winning gold in Sarajevo in 1984) and the opportunities for tourism seem extensive, with mountains, historic cities and coastline all on offer.
I ask how she defines herself now, having spent most of her adult life in the UK. “I am trying to introduce a new phrase into English vocabulary…” she smiles. “I call myself ‘British Bosnian’, but I have not heard anyone else using it yet. I used to call myself Yugoslavian, and was proud of my country, but obviously some other people did not feel the same.” Jasminka took British citizenship in 2001, and feels fairly settled here.
“I always remember what I was told once. I used to work as a cleaner for this lovely, elderly Jewish couple in St John’s Wood. They gave me advice to travel around the world as much as I can, try living somewhere else if possible, but to remember to come back to London to grow old. I think that is a good advice.”