As the 78th session of the UN General Assembly met in New York City this month to discuss challenges in promoting peace and preventing conflict worldwide, millions of migrants and refugees continued to suffer, including the thousands of migrants that recently overwhelmed the tiny island of Lampedusa, Italy.
I watched the sobering videos coming out of Lampedusa that showed people huddled at the port, waiting to be transferred to the mainland; it reminded me of challenges I once faced.
It was May 2, 1992. We had just celebrated International Labor Day a day earlier. I was living in a small town in the northern part of Bosnia and Herzegovina . At that time Bosnia was still a republic within former Yugoslavia. Every Labor Day, my family’s tradition was to roast a lamb and for us kids to go to a local fair to ride a Ferris wheel. The political climate in the region had been unstable for some time. There was speculation that war was imminent, but no one could have predicted what would happen next.
On the eve of May1, as dusk was settling over my hometown, from a distance we could hear unusual sounds of artillery and explosions. The jarring noise came from the direction of Slavonski Brod; the sky looked ominous. We later learned that the apocalyptic sky was from a refinery that was purposely set on fire. We retired for the night. The next morning, we were rushed into the basement. Before we ducked in for cover, we saw about a dozen tanks approaching our neighborhood. To this day, I can clearly see this image in my head. A loud megaphone was blasting a message on a loop for several hours, giving people an ultimatum to leave their homes. Everything happened so fast that day. I recall my grandfather Husejin saying women and children should leave immediately for a neighboring town to the south, and men will stay behind to protect our homes. This land was home to my family for generations dating back to the 1800s.
The next three months were chaotic, full of fear and uncertainty as we frequently had to move to seek safety. There was constant artillery fighting in addition to long-distance missiles and airborne attacks. The sirens went off frequently, sometimes multiple times day and night. Many of our family members were displaced, and we didn’t know their whereabouts.
By mid-August, our situation worsened. Even though we were able to find a place to stay, a small room where about a dozen of us slept, it was too dangerous to remain in Bosnia. Air attacks were more frequent and more deadly. There was little food, and we had no money, which didn’t matter because the store shelves were empty. There was no electricity. It was hot, and there was no running water.
We embarked on a journey on August 20 in hopes of reaching Croatia. We traveled in the back of a boxed truck, which our neighbor was driving as part of a humanitarian convoy. Our goal was to cross the border and then continue up to Zagreb. We reached the city of Jablanica near Mostar around 11pm, then had to pause until the curfew was over. It was summertime but that was one of the coldest nights. I remember pulling clothing from my backpack to cover myself and two of my younger sisters. We were cold and scared. The next day we continued our journey but were turned away at the border. I asked our neighbor where we would go next, I knew that he couldn’t take us back. He said there was a hotel nearby and he would take us there. I was a little naïve and believed him, but soon realized that this was a refugee camp, “izbjeglicki centar” in Posusje.
I lived here for about a week. Thousands of displaced people were living here, mostly elderly, women and children from Prijedor. The conditions were horrific. Once we ran out of our own food, we had to resort to the community kitchen just like everybody else. There were makeshift shower stalls, but there was no running water. Within a few days, we got lice. I was able to leave this place to continue my long migration journey, which had its own twists and turns, but, unfortunately, thousands of others had no place to go.
We managed to cross the border by early September and briefly stayed in Croatia, but it wasn’t until summer 1997 that my family successfully relocated to the United States under the UNHCR refugee status. According to the Borgen Project, because of the war in Bosnia thousands remain internally displaced.
Today, there are hundreds of conflicts around the world, which have significant impact on the affected populations. Ongoing mass displacement is an unprecedented humanitarian crisis that world leaders must address. Migrants and asylum seekers are more than mere statistics. They are human beings in desperate need of help. I know; I was once them.