My name is Amra Mujkanović and I am a Scottish Bosnian. I was born in 1995 in Scotland to two Bosnian refugees from a small town in Northern Bosnia between Prijedor and Banja Luka called Kozarac. This year, I celebrated my twenty-first birthday.
You could say that I am from a family of survivors, as three generations before me have survived concentration camps. My great grandfather survived Auschwitz – he walked all the way back from Auschwitz to Kozarac, and died not long after that. My grandfather and father survived the concentration camps in the 1990s.
My parents arrived alone and newly married in the UK in June 1993, after experiencing the worst year of their lives. My mother was aged 18 at the start of the war and lived on the outskirts of Kozarac, in the infamous town of Trnopolje. She lived five houses away from what was once her primary school, a building that was turned at the beginning of the war into a concentration camp by the Bosnian Serb Army, along with the town hall. At least 20,000 men, women and children passed through that camp, many never to be seen alive again.
My father, aged only 23, survived a grenade attack on his home, which led to him being separated from his family. He was then captured, starved and tortured by the Bosnian Serb forces. By some miracle he survived three separate concentration camps: Manjača, Keraterm and Omarska.
Along with the other detainees, he was saved by journalists Ed Vulliamy and Penny Marshall after Radovan Karadžić staged a propaganda visit in an attempt to show the world that those imprisoned were ‘grateful refugees’ and not victims of ethnic cleansing. My mother could not believe it when she saw my father again – she thought he was dead, so he must be a ghost! They decided to get married straight away, a real Romeo and Juliet story.
Amra’s mother, Elvira, who features in our documentary for the 21st anniversary of the Srebrenica genocide.
Growing up, stories of Bosnia were my bedtime stories. My parents would talk mostly about life before the war and what they did – going for coffee with friends, growing food on their allotment. The men would often go away to work in countries like Germany and send money home. It was a different way of life.
I can’t remember ever being told the whole story of my parents’ experiences during the war. You pick things up, bit by bit, like an archaeologist doing a lot of digging for a few precious fragments. My dad doesn’t really talk about his experiences during the war, but every now and then he will come out with something. A couple of years ago, we were watching the famous footage of Omarska filmed by Ed Vulliamy and Penny Marshall, something I have seen hundreds of times, when my dad pointed out that part of him is in the frame. I couldn’t believe that – if he hadn’t said, we’d never have known.
Another time, my dad told me that he was made to shave people’s hair and trim their beards in the camps. He joked about using the tools he had to take over the camp and break out of there. Humour is definitely a way that we Bosnians cope in the darkest of times – when we get together and talk there’s always that Bosnian humour.
It was only when I went to school that I realised that the stories I had grown up with weren’t exactly normal. The first time I can remember realising what it meant to be a Bosnian was in Year 4 of Primary School. We had watched a film about the war, and I started to talk about it in class. I saw the shock on my teacher’s face as she registered what I was saying.
Another time, there was a question in an exam about Zlata’s diary about the experience of a child in the siege Sarajevo. It was strange, realising that experiences of families like my own were so unusual that they were the subject of exam questions in the UK. For us, these kinds of stories were normality.
I am one of the few incredibly blessed and fortunate that can say all of my immediate family members survived. That being said, to this day we are still searching for the remains of family and friends. It’s like Chinese whispers – sometimes you will think a family member was killed, and it will turn out that they are alive, that they were moved to another camp.
I want to talk to people about the war, and to share my family’s story. It’s the only thing I can do to feel that what people went through wasn’t for nothing. It helps that I didn’t directly experience these harrowing events, so I find it easier talk to people about what happened. There are people from the generation who were there, particularly the men, who find it hard to talk about what happened and it is only as the years go on that they are able to break the silence. None of those people got psychiatric help and there were a lot of barriers – be it language or cultural – to them doing so.
Our war in Bosnia was not like other wars; it was people that my parents grew up with who did these things, not invaders. I think people need to understand that, and what caused our parents’ Serb neighbours to turn on them – the hatred and propaganda that was spread by leaders like Karadžić. Most people don’t realise that there have been subsequent genocides since the Holocaust, and there has always been a targeted group – now it’s Muslims, who will it be next?
I think people really need to engage with and learn from the lessons of history like ours. In November 2015, I was honoured to launch Remembering Srebrenica’s Scottish education pack, which I hope will educate the next generation of young Scottish people like me about the devastation of war and genocide.
I am also fortunate to be able to use my identity to challenge prejudice. If you look at and listen to me, I don’t look or sound like a foreigner, a refugee, or a Muslim. I don’t introduce myself to people as Amra, a Bosnian Muslim, even though I do consider myself as a Bosnian first and foremost. When I do tell them, once they’ve got to know me, the expressions on their faces are usually priceless. That’s really important – to move beyond stereotypes of ‘refugees’ or ‘Muslims’ or even ‘Bosnians’.
For me, the best way to move beyond stereotyping is to be curious and to learn about other cultures. A lot of people just stay within their own cultural comfort zone. They go to Spain and spend all their time with British people eating British food, but they should learn about other cultures and experience them. There is so much out there in the world to see and to experience.
Growing up in the UK, I witnessed first-hand how the nation remembered many global atrocities, yet there was never one for us. It felt as if our suffering wasn’t important enough to be remembered by the world. At a young age, I understood the importance of the next Bosnian generation remembering the war and the killing that occurred.
I attended last year’s Srebrenica commemoration event in St. Giles’ Cathedral, Edinburgh to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the genocide. The service itself was incredibly moving, but having the opportunity to speak with the mothers of Srebrenica is something I will never forget. Although my family is not from Srebrenica, having a space to commemorate what happened to families like mine during the war is incredibly important.
By holding Srebrenica commemorations in the UK, not only are you helping inform people of the war and events that took place, you are also helping Bosnians across the world to heal. You show us that we are not alone. For this I cannot thank you enough. Thank you for standing with us. Thank you for helping us fight our never ending battles, but most importantly, thank you for remembering our dead.