filed for The Guardian, 28 June 1993
When we first saw Amira Halilovic, she was sitting crying amongst a dozen children in a tiny, dark room on the outskirts of Zagreb in Croatia. She had a picture of Elton John on her jeans and was 16 years old.
We were filming her talking to Norwegian child psychologist, Magne Raundalen, about her recent experiences as a muslim in Bosnia. Her horrific images and memories of war came tumbling out like a kind of frenzied confession.
Magne, a leading international authority on the psychological impact of war on children, offered something that might help her come to terms with her trauma. Giving her an exercise book and a pen, he suggested that she try writing down what had happened.
When we returned two days later, Amira had filled the whole book. She was so proud of what she had done that she couldn't stop laughing. This is what she wrote.
If someone were to ask me what I thought of the future, I would say I don't know. I could plan it out the way I want it to be. But I cannot think about it. It is too difficult. I am too sad.
All I can think and hope is this: what is now going on in Bosnia never, ever, happens again anywhere in the world, in anyone's future. Still, I would not seek revenge. But I would like some answers from our neighbours, the chetniks. Why did they do this to us? Why did they want us to suffer so much?
I have decided to write my memories. I am not sure that I will be able to describe the pain of my people, the Bosnians, but I will try. I do not know if people outside Bosnia realise the terrors that we are living through today. Even if they do not know now, they will one day.
I do not know where to start. Only those who have suffered themselves can understand. I am glad that there are people who want to help us, who are ready to share our pain and feel it with us. It is very painful to write all this down but I hope that by putting my feelings on paper, it will be better.
I had just started my first year of intermediate school. I was so happy. I cannot describe the joy of it. I had many friends, all that I could wish for. I had a best friend whom I loved as a sister. But it soon ended, passing as quickly as a dream.
One day in May the school closed early because soldiers moved in and put up barricades. I felt very uneasy. The next day was a holiday and I was helping my mother prepare some food. It was a nice morning. In the afternoon my youngest uncle came and told us that there had been shooting in nearby villages. We slowly begun to understand that the war had started.
We were told to leave the village. Everyone was supposed to pack a bag with basic things and be ready. We went to our cousin who had a lorry. When we had all gathered, we did not know where to go. Where would it be safe?
He drove us to some woods where we thought we could hide. In the evening we decided to go home, get some food, feed the animals and come back to sleep in the woods. We did not dare sleep at home. The men stayed to guard the village with guns.
We left like thieves, creeping from house to house so that the chetniks could not hear us. Women and children settled down near a stream but could not sleep for the cold. We did not even lie down. We just sat and waited.
Around midnight we heard gun shots. They seemed to come from Horvacani, the next village. It looked like a film, or a New Year celebration, more like fireworks than a war. But it was real ammunition and real grenades falling on the houses.
When the sun came up we started to go home. I was thinking that what had happened in the night must have been a bad dream - until I saw where Horvacani used to be. There was nothing there, just rubble. Everything had gone in one night, the whole village that took so long to build.
We were all very upset. We had friends and relatives in Horvacani. We were anxious about what had happened to them. We realised that the same thing was going to happen to our village as well. It was just a matter of time. We walked home slowly, dirty, uneasy and frightened.
Luckily there was hot water in the boiler so I had a bath while my mother and sister did the housework and drank coffee. Before I had finished, my mother knocked on the door and told me to get out. Her voice was strange.
I did not get out immediately because it was so enjoyable in the warm, clean water. Then she hit the door really hard and yelled "Chetniks!". I froze. Then I started to shake all over. Without realising what I was putting on, I was dressed and out in a few seconds.
We grabbed our bags and ran to our cousin_s hoping to escape again in his lorry. He took us to the village of Plicka. In the lorry I noticed that my hair still had soap in it so my mother gave me a shawl to put around my head so I didn't catch cold.
Women were crying so much that in the end they only had the strength to moan. I was completely lost. I did not know what was going on around me. I did not understand anything until one of our neighbours explained what had happened.
Apparently some chetniks had been seen entering our village with knives in their hands. They were White Eagles, well known killers. Someone said they had orders to kill everything that moved. I got goose pimples all over my body. Was this my destiny? To fall into the hands of some monster and beg for my very life?
Did we sin so much that we should be killed like animals? Should we be tortured by people who were our friends until yesterday? It was not possible. My head was all mixed up. I tried not to think such thoughts, but they kept coming, more and more horrible.
We slept at Plicka, but then went back home the next day, realising that we always had to be ready to run. I went to help my grandmother dig the corn. Although the corn field was near a Serbian village called Serdora, we relaxed after a while. Then I suddenly looked towards the village and saw a chetnik. I told my friends and they slowly looked around and saw him too.
We were nervous but carried on with our work. Less than five minutes later, they started shooting at us. We quickly grabbed our things and started to run, staying very low, sometimes moving on our stomachs. We were running for our lives with bullets whizzing all around us.
We came to a little river where we stood to get some breath. There were others there who were also very frightened and told us to run as fast as we could. We tried to reach some woods. There was gunfire from all directions.
We crawled into some thorn bushes to hide, from where we could see our village. One by one the houses burst into flames as they set fire to them. It was terrible to watch so we covered our eyes. It was so strange. We all knew that the war had started but we did not understand what it meant. We did not understand why. Why should they want to burn our houses? Why kill our people?
When darkness fell, we started slowly to go home and see what had happened. We met a girl who told us that the chetniks had been to the village. She was looking for her mother. She was the first wounded person I had ever seen in my life. Blood was running down her leg and she was shaking all over. I imagined myself in the same situation. What would I do?
When we arrived in our village there was a terrible smell of burning. Some people ran to put out the fires and some cried over their charred houses. Our house was still standing, but my uncle's house, the garage, the barn and the dog kennel were all aflame. The dog was all dried up and half-burnt when we found him. We buried him, taking care that no-one saw us.
Somehow we got through the night. We were all very frightened. There was no electricity and we did not even dare to light candles. We talked in whispers. Several families were together because most of the village had been burnt.
Next day around noon my friend came with her family from Vrbanjci. They told us that chetniks had come to their village. They had tortured and killed about 40 men and sent away the women and children. We knew some of the men, the fathers of my school friends. My friend and her family were saved by their Serbian neighbour.
Chetniks went in the house of the Vrbanjci shopkeeper, Safet, and massacred his family: him, his wife, his daughter and two daughters-in-law and I don't know how many children. They slaughtered them all, except one of the sons whom they ordered to walk in front of them so he would be the first to die if there was shooting.
He took them towards some Muslim guards and shouted "Shoot! Do not let them kill your people." And they did shoot. He saw what the chetniks had done to his wife and children and he did what he could to stop them doing it to others.
Days passed. Every night someone would disappear and every family mourned somebody. We felt sad and lost. We could not show our pain in front of them - those feared, hated, disgusting chetniks. Those bloodthirsty criminals, thirsty for our blood, raping our women, hating our men and terrifying our children.
We became more and more exhausted. Somehow you start thinking of killing yourself. Drinking something and never waking up again. Such was the suffering of our people.
Chetniks came to our village every day to collect cars, tractors and other machinery. Whatever they wanted they simply took. We were supposed to greet them happily.
One evening I was washing the dishes when there was a noise. I looked out of the window and saw an armoured car with the crew all drunk. They chased my grandfather and stole one of his sheep. One of them pulled a gun on my uncle. My mother and I were watching through the window but we could not hear what was being said.
A short time later, when my mother was preparing dinner, they came up to our house. They were all armed, five or six of them. Without saying anything, they just barged in. When they saw the television set they said "This is it," and took it. They went away but came back later because they forgot the remote control.
One of them asked my mother if her husband would be home that night and she said he would. "Pity," said the chetnik. "I was going to come but it would be too crowded." Then my mother got too scared to sleep at home and stayed with a relative.
Every day it was worse and soon the village looked deserted and lifeless. One by one the houses were disappearing. We heard that the chetniks had tried to enter the village of Vecici, which was under heavy bombardment from grenades and planes. They had used women and children like a living shield in front of the soldiers.
They had given a knife to a 16-year-old boy and ordered him to slaughter his own father. When the boy refused, they took the knife and cut his father's throat in front of him and then killed him too. They threw their bodies into a wooden shack and set fire to it. It was like a living nightmare.
How could people sink that low? An animal would not do such things, so how come people can? Did they teach them how to do it in school? To kill each other, to hate, to slaughter? To think of new ways to hurt each other? I can never understand how it is possible to do such terrible things to your neighbour.
People like my father were still in hiding, just coming home for food. Chetniks were also hiding and ambushing people. One evening my mother told me that my father had no food left. Early in the morning she packed some provisions for me and my cousin to take to him.
We walked very fast to get through the village before the chetniks arrived. When we entered the woods, it was safer. We knew where our people were and quickly found my father. I told him to throw away the dishes because I did not want chetniks to catch me with them on the way home.
On the way back we picked some hazelnuts. Suddenly we heard a noise and I tugged my cousin by the sleeve. We stood still. I don't know what we thought, if we thought anything. Then we noticed a neighbour and his wife tending some cattle.
I told them that I thought chetniks had entered the village. I was afraid for my mother and sister in our house. But then about 30 chetniks, all armed and with dogs, appeared near us. When I saw them fear turned me into ice. I pretended to be looking after the cows.
The chetniks took my cousin. He was scared stiff and crying. I heard them say: "Now you will come with us and show us where the men are hiding." I prayed to God that they would not find them, because I knew what would happen if they did. They went off towards the woods.
I waited and returned to my village later with my neighbours and their cows. Again it smelled of smoke because they had been burning houses. I looked at my house which was still standing as if to spite the chetniks. I really wanted to cry.
My mother was waiting for me, afraid that something had happened. My cousin's mother went off to look for him, although I told her not to. They did not find our men, but they wounded an old man. Our men never came back to the village after that day.
That night our windows were shaking because of the continuing explosions in Vecici. No-one slept. We were just lying down, not talking, waiting for the chetniks to bang on our door. We jumped at any noise, thinking they were coming. And then we heard knocking.
No-one was brave enough to get up and open the door. We were terrified of what might happen. But the knocking continued. Then we heard a whisper - "Please, open the door!" It was my uncle who was supposed to be in Vecici, fighting. I don't know how he dared to come home.
We talked in whispers in the dark. He told us that my youngest uncle, Djemil, had been killed. Djemil, so young, so good. We had many questions to ask but all we could do was stare without speaking. I had a feeling that a huge stone fell on my heart. We all cried. We could not understand that he was no longer with us.
War is very strange. We all agreed to keep this terrible news from my grandmother because he was her youngest son. Whenever someone came from Vecici, she kept asking about Djemil, but no-one told her the truth. She still hoped that he was alive.
Never in my life have I felt so bad as when she brought out a bag of Djemil's things: his documents and his clothes. She was hiding them from the chetniks. "When my Djemil comes home there will be nothing left so I am keeping these for him so at least he will have a change of clothes," she said.
My heart was breaking with sadness. I remember him wearing those clothes. He will never wear them again. I could not bear it any longer and left the room. Tears just kept running down my face. Oh God, what has happened to us?
Each day that passed felt like a year. We all waited for something awful to happen. Whenever we saw the chetniks coming we thought that was it, they had come to get us. We had less and less food. There was no help from anywhere.
In the evening we would all meet in one of the houses and spend the night talking, too scared to sleep. One night the chetniks came to get some things, but their car broke down. They ordered two elderly women and a man - all over 60 - to given them a push. They pushed but the car did not start. Then they told the poor people to strip naked and push again.
The next day chetniks came again, searching all the houses for anything of use. They were like hungry wolves searching for spoils. They seemed to be drugged. We learnt that they had raped a woman, a relative of my aunt. My aunt tried to find her but she had been taken to hospital by her Serbian neighbour.
The next day she came to see my aunt. She was all black and blue from beating. Instead of her usual lively self she was very serious. She did not cry but just stared fixedly in front of her. I wondered what could have so changed her. She told us what had happened.
A few days earlier they had taken away her husband. Then they came and took a calf. Angry, she decided to go to their headquarters and complain. _What kind of army are you, thieving around?_ she told them. The next day they sent two soldiers to her house. One stood at the door and the other came in.
When she realised what he wanted, she fought. She even managed to take his gun, but she did not know how it worked. Then the other soldier came in and the two of them beat her up. She called her Serbian neighbour and friend, but she did not come until both soldiers were gone. She lost consciousness.
Every day was darker than the day before. One day we ate lunch in a field above our house. I went back to the house with the dishes and heard my mother calling me to get out at once. The chetniks were rounding up people from the village.
We ran away, with more and more people joining us. We were almost out of the village when someone yelled "Stop!" We did not stop, so they yelled "Stop or we shoot!" Bullets whistled over our heads. We fell in the dust.
We did not see the soldiers until then. Old people from our village had been made to stand in front of them. The soldiers were laughing and saying "Look how many there are here!" We were terribly scared.
I realised that my brother and sister were not with us and had somehow managed to escape. My mother started crying. A chetnik asked what she was crying about and she said she did not know where her children were. "There is a war on and you let your children go where they like?" he shouted.
He hit her in the back with the wooden part of his gun and told us to move forward. We had to walk with our heads held low because we were not allowed to look at them. We were terrified because we knew where we were going - to our deaths. The only thing we did not know was where it was going to be.
Walking slowly, we reached our mosque. There the women and children were told to stand in the shade. The men had to stand in the sun, sweating. They stood in a group about ten metres from us. Chetniks - all of whom we knew as neighbours - stood around pointing guns at them.
I was watching their last minutes. Our men, unarmed and older, were absolutely helpless in front of the chetniks. One chetnik went up close and looked them over carefully as if he was going to select some. He approached a relative of mine, Suljo, and hit him with his gun. He cried out in pain as he fell.
"Get up!" the chetnik screamed. Suljo hardly had enough strength. But as he was slowly trying to get up, the chetnik hit him again and he fell down. Other chetniks joined in. I dared not look any more. In front of my eyes, all was getting dark.
Women were breathing deeply. I heard men crying out in pain: "No, please don't!" They cried like children do, but there was no relief. My mother looked at her father knowing they were facing their final moments. Slowly it was coming to an end.
The men on the ground had no strength left to cry. They only stared with empty eyes. They were bloody from merciless beatings. Somehow the chetniks pulled them inside the mosque. They threw some skins on them and set fire to them. They closed the door so there was no way out.
It was all too horrible. I had never imagined that I would be watching so many men being killed. What pain! To burn and not be able to escape! The chetniks were laughing and yelling "There goes a mosque!"
They pushed us on, but I didn't care any more. I thought that it would be better to die now than to watch something like that again. As we went they threatened us but I do not remember much of it.
Like cattle they drove us to Vrbanjec. We were told to climb onto some lorries which went to Kotor Varos. There they put us in a large room, where we found some friends who told us the chetniks had been asking for members of my family. Every time a chetnik came in we were frightened he was going to ask for us.
After a while they put us in timber plant store room. It was empty and very dark. The floor was made of concrete. We had nothing to sit on until we found some thin pieces of wood. Tired and lost, we huddled together like chickens awaiting our fate.
They watched us with contempt. In the evening they switched off the lights. Then they came in, struck a match and pointed at the young women. "You, you, you and you, come with us!" They had to go without a word. One woman had a young baby and it was crying but she had to go.
I held onto my mother. Never in my life was I so afraid. Women did not return all night. The quiet was interrupted by painful wailing. In the morning they came back, one by one, not daring to look anyone in the face. They were so ashamed.
I understood how they felt. They were so terribly lonely. It was so dark in that room. Some of them had been beaten blue, all were bloodied. I felt so sorry for them. I did not know what was waiting for me. But I was lucky, they did not touch me.
Some time around midday, people from the Red Cross arrived and wrote down all our names. They told us that we would all be taken to Travnik. If only we could get out of here! It was two days since we had last eaten, although food had been promised.
After the Red Cross left, chetniks came in and started to attack us. They threw around a young man called Zvonko like a sack. I remember they cut his identity card into pieces and made him eat it. Then they kept hitting him until he threw up. They forced him to drink petrol. Horrible things. I don't know how we survived all this.
The next day we had to board buses which we were told were going to Travnik. My mother was crying. Everyone was crying. We had to leave my brother and sister behind, not knowing whether they were dead or alive. In the buses we had to hand over all our gold and money. They kept telling us that they would kill us all.
But, thank God, we reached Travnik alive. But we will never accept the loss of our home and country, where mothers left their children. I will never be able to forgive them. I often try to forget what has happened but it can never be forgotten. How much fear we suffered from chetniks, from neighbours, from people like us!
I will never be able to understand this war. Did we deserve it? How many tears have been shed, and why? Why did they do it to us? This question is in my head all the time. But whoever I ask for an answer, they just shrug their shoulders. Who knows?
Now that I have written all this down, I feel better. Someone else will read it and try to understand.
I want all this to end as soon as possible.
Amira's book was translated by Blanka Segovic and edited by Rob Edwards. She features in 'Children under Fire' which is due to be screened as part of Channel 4's People First series at 8.00pm on Tuesday 29 June. The programme was directed by Wayne Derrick and produced by Rob Edwards for ASA Films.
This article is also available to download here (Word)