My guest today is Džemil Hodžić who was born in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and was only nine years old when the war started in 1992. In this episode, Džemil describes in intimate detail the hugely traumatic and emotional experience of watching his brother, Amel, killed by a Serb sniper while playing in the street. As such, this episode may be quite disturbing to some listeners.
Having survived the war, his experiences inspired him to launch the ‘Sniper Alley Project’ in 2019. The mission and goal of the project was initially to find photos of his brother. However, since its inception, it has grown immensely and today, together with the help of other survivors, his aim is to establish a database to record and archive the life of his brother as well as the lives of thousands of children who experienced the war in Sarajevo. By collecting photos of the Siege and preserving the memory of survival through the eyes of children, Džemil seeks to tell those long stories that have been forgotten as a way of preserving the truth.
Some of the topics we covered include:
- ‘Normalcy’ of life under siege in Sarajevo
- Coming to terms with death and eventually opening up about his own trauma
- Murder of his brother
- Remembering and memory
- Life after tragedy
- The ‘Sniper Alley Project’
- The power of narratives
- Importance of preserving history
- On forgiveness
I was deeply moved and impacted by this conversation, and I thank Džemil for his openness and courage to be vulnerable.
Listen to the podcast here
Džemil Hodžić – Finding Light In The Dark
Before we get to the next episode with Džemil Hodžić, I feel that a short introduction is necessary. Džemil will describe in detail the hugely traumatic and emotional experience of watching his brother killed by a Serb sniper in the besiege of Sarajevo in May 1995. This episode may be quite disturbing to some readers.
Additionally, some might judge this episode as somehow political. It is not, but it is a story about the true cost of war as lived and remembered by a child whose innocence and youth were taken by the actions of an unknown murderer hiding behind his scope and protected by distance. That’s what this episode is about, and I thank Džemil for his raw honesty and willingness to be so vulnerable and to do so publicly.
His story is immensely sad, yet it has given birth to an amazing project that is keeping his brother’s legacy and the legacy of all too many victims of war alive. It is also an important story that should leave us in no doubt about the horrors of any war. Finally, I want to let you know that I will be releasing new episodes. I have already done a number of interesting interviews that are timely and relevant to events across the globe, and I want to share them with you sooner rather than later. Now, let’s learn from Džemil.
My guest is Džemil Hodžić. Džemil was born in Sarajevo, Bosnia, and Herzegovina, in 1983, where he finished primary school and high school. He was only nine years old when the siege of Sarajevo started. Being a survivor of the war, his experiences inspired him to launch the Sniper Alley project in 2019. The mission and goal of the project were initially to find photos of Džemil’s family, especially his older brother, who was killed by a Serb sniper in May 1995.
Džemil was only twelve when he witnessed the incident that changed his life forever. Since the inception of the project, it has grown immensely. Together with the help of other survivors, he aims to establish a database to record and archive the life of his brother, as well as the lives of thousands of children who experienced the war in Sarajevo.
By collecting photos of the siege and preserving the memory of survival through the eyes of children, Džemil seeks to tell those stories that have been long forgotten as a way of preserving the truth. Professionally, Džemil is now a Senior Video Editor working for Al Jazeera English, an award-winning International News & Current Affairs channel, and lives in Doha, Qatar. Džemil, as I’m from Sarajevo myself, your story and the message behind your project are very close to my heart. A special thank you for joining me on the show.
Thank you for having me. I appreciate your invitation.
We have spoken off-air a little bit, and we have spoken both our native languages, Bosnian. A special thanks as well for speaking to me in English, which for both of us has become our operational language rather than our mother tongue. Before we dive into your personal story, which is exceptionally moving, maybe we can start with life before the war. What do you remember of your life in Sarajevo before the shooting and the subsequent killing started?
I was nine when it started. The life before, I was finishing grade 3 or year 3. I remember endless freedom. Kids, before they hit puberty, are free and they are not aware of all the things that happen to them. They don’t acknowledge or they don’t see life as important as grownups do in a way. What’s interesting about kids, they don’t have nostalgia because there’s nothing to remember before. The kid who is 7 cannot miss their childhood when they were 4 because they don’t remember it. Whenever someone asks me about before the war, my brain doesn’t see it that way because my brain sees it as before my brother was killed and after my brother was killed.
His murder erased my childhood before the war and my childhood during the war that I had in my childhood. In a way, I see it as a happy childhood, even though it was war, killings, murder, and everything was happening. I don’t see it as such as other kids because it was during that time my brother was alive. My childhood before the war and up to 1995 is like 1 piece or 1 childhood because I didn’t change school and I didn’t relocate. Peace and war merged into one another. Sometimes I would remember things that maybe happened in 1991 but were happening in 1992. It’s very difficult for me to separate those two. It might sound bizarre to some, but that’s how I have perceived it, which is strange.
I don’t think it is. While my story is vastly different from yours, I can certainly empathise with that. If I think of it properly, you are spot on. If I think of my childhood, it was of happy one. I’m only a year and a half older than you, so I was ten and a bit when the war started. You are right. I remember life before the war started and life after the war started. For me, that’s a rather distinct line, as for you, the killing of your brother must be. What do you remember about the start of the war? How did it start for your family? To give some context, the reason I ask is because I have a very vivid memory of how it started for us.
We lived in Ilidža, which is to the far West of Sarajevo. It was the first time my mother could hear the river in twenty-odd years or something. It was eerily quiet the day before the war started or the barricades went up. She had a sleepless night, but the following morning, she had the feeling that something was very wrong. She grabbed me, my brother, and my dad, and we went into the city centre. That was the day that the barricades went up, and all hell broke loose. How did it start for you and your family?
I remember I was playing outside, and we lived in an old town. I don’t remember the date. It could be May the 10th or 15th. It was heavy shelling. I remember that. I remember I was counting grenades. I would track them. I tried to locate them, “That one hit there and there.” I remember people were collecting and gathering in the street, trying to organise some defence to join the Army. That night, I remember my mom and my father talking about the two of us leaving with my mother for Germany.
I don’t remember all the details and this one is tricky one because after the war, maybe a few years back, my mom told me all the details. I don’t know if I heard them back then or if I knew all of these because she was telling me. She wanted to leave for Germany with the two of us and my father immediately said that he was not leaving. He’s not going anywhere. He’s here to defend because he was a member of the Patriotic League.
What’s interesting is that my brother was thirteen years old, and they asked him what he thought. I never shared this story, but it’s interesting to show how my family operated in a way and how free I was. He’s a thirteen-year-old and my parents asked him what he thinks. He said, “I don’t want to leave. I want to stay here with you,” my father. He wanted to stay and be as one family, and that’s how they decided to stay.
My mom was working in a hospital from day one, and my father was a soldier from day one to the last day. I’m very proud of that. Some people would think differently. They would say, “If we left, my brother wouldn’t be killed,” but I don’t see it that way. It doesn’t come up to us. Sometimes I get asked, “Who is your hero? Who do you see as a role model?” I have my mother and father in my house. My father passed away a few years ago. Everyone thinks greatly of their parents. That’s the way it should be and they are ordinary people, normal people like thousands of others.
I remember that we stayed. I remember my father would go to the frontline. My mother would go to the hospital. We would stay alone, cook, and wash. I would collect the firewood. I would go to school. I didn’t see it as a burden or work. I saw it as life. It’s like some people have a better memory of the start of the war. I don’t. My birthday is on the 24th of May, and I remember I had it in the shelter. Even then, having it in the shelter, it was cool because it was twenty kids. We didn’t have a cake. We had something else. It was a normal school. I don’t see it as a trauma because, as I said before, nobody pushed me out of my house. I haven’t seen anyone dead yet. It was like an adventure.
It’s exciting. I can echo that. In the cellars, just the kids hiding and counting grenades. I remember being told by the older people, if you hear the launch and you hear the whistle of the grenade, you are safe, but if you hear the launch and you don’t hear the whistle, take cover. It’s coming your way. These things that years later have finally made sense why people would say that, but as a child, you are taking that as your mission.
As you said, count the grenades and try to guess where they are going to land. My brother is three years older than me. We were in the cellar and planning our little defences of how we were going to save the country. I was in the cellar drawing the new Bosnian Army, which didn’t exist at that time, winning the war, and so on. I can certainly empathise with the reality of the child’s perspective.
You started talking a little bit about life under the siege. This is where our story certainly changed. We did what your parents talked about doing. My brother, mom, and I left for Germany because I needed to have ear surgery. I had a tumour in my right ear. It wasn’t a question of I had to get out, especially with all the shelling and so on. It was impacting my eardrum and whatnot.
What was life like under the siege? You have made some comments, and I know that you are talking about it from a perspective of a nine-year-old. I want you to think about it as though you are speaking to people whom most of my audience will be, who have never experienced the hardships of war, have never heard grenades falling, and have never been on the other side of sniper fire or machine gun fire. Can you describe that a little bit?
I would say that the worst part of it would be winter. I vividly remember it, and I can feel it now. I was colder inside the house than outside the house because we didn’t have enough firewood. Even if you had to, you would burn fire to cook stuff and not for the sake of heating because you had to save stuff. We burned books, old shoes, plastic, and everything.
1993 was the worst winter ever. It was cold. I would go out as soon as possible to play to be moving so I keep warm. If you wanted to take a shower, you had to heat the water in a bucket or something. If you want to take a shower, someone needs to help you. The toilet is cold because there’s no heating. The worst experience is the winter. I don’t remember, for example, food, that much. I remember that we ate macaroni and rice a lot. After the war, I thought, and I still think, that I don’t have any bad memories of that and trauma, but then I realised I didn’t eat macaroni until 2007.
When I ate it for the first time in 2007, it was in someone else’s house. I was hungry, and they prepared it, and I couldn’t say, “I’m not eating this.” It’s rude. From then, slowly, I started to eat it, but for me, even now, it’s something that I despise even in a picture. Rice, I started eating maybe in 2005, and I’m not a huge fan of it because it stayed with me. I don’t remember being hungry, for example, but it was terrible.
You didn’t have chocolate and new toys. You didn’t have clothes. I was taking clothes from my brother while he was four years older than me. Sometimes it would be much bigger, but still, I would wear it. I remember I didn’t have shoes for football, and I would wear his shoes, but then I would put two pairs of winter socks so they would fit. All these small details may give a bigger picture to someone who never experienced anything like it. Not having water, electricity, and heating, you get used to it, but these things, you don’t have school equipment like pencils and paper.
If you go to school, you don’t have food. You bring something from your home. The one thing that was, I wouldn’t say good, but we were all in this together. There was no exclusion, and no one was prioritised. If you are hungry, everyone is hungry. You can’t complain to anyone. It’s similar to COVID, but now COVID is so international. For example, jokes about COVID, when you tell them, you don’t have to explain any context. Everyone gets it immediately.If you are hungry, everyone is hungry. You cannot complain to anyone. Click To Tweet
During the war, everyone understood everything immediately. If you say, “I didn’t wash for 2, 3, or 10 days,” or, “I don’t have enough salt,” people get you. That’s it. I have to say, if I were a parent as I’m now, it would be much harder from this perspective. I always imagine that I’m changing diapers or buying organic baby food that’s expensive, I immediately imagine those times, let’s say, 1993. How did people survive? Even if you had money, let’s say you sell something, there is no place to buy. There were certain channels and everything, but not all the time.
Not for everyone.
You had to have connections. My father stopped smoking immediately and his cigarette rations in the Army, we used them as money. We bought firewood, food, and eggs. My mom, in 1993, stopped smoking as well. Many people started smoking, they quit, which is interesting, and then they use it as money.
Necessity drives you towards when the priority is changed so quickly. My dad tells me of those stories as well. He wasn’t smoking during the war, but as a member of the Army, they were getting the rations or however many packets they were getting. He was able to trade cigarettes for things like meat, which might sound absurd to most people nowadays, but cigarette on the frontline has a certain value. Meat in the home equally has a value. It was a barter system that was well-established. Did you go to school for most of the time? How did that work?
That period when it comes to school is foggy. I remember memories of school. I remember going to school. I have homework and stuff like that, but I don’t know which year is which year. All these three years merged. In the beginning, we went to 3 different places and all these 3 different places were shelters. It was makeshift schools in someone’s basement or an old market shop protected with sandbags. Later on, we did go to my school from before the war. I remember we didn’t go only when we had the sirens. Those were sometimes every second day, but then sometimes we wouldn’t have any sirens. The school was something normal.
You go there. There is a bell if there is electricity. I remember that we would make a fire in the classroom. We had a stove to keep us warm. We used to get some help or aid. Pencils, pens, and notebooks. All of them were from the UN and they were all the same. You couldn’t be different or you couldn’t have a Real Madrid or a Batman notebook. It was all the same.
I do remember school and I remember passing or failing some classes. I remember computer lessons and I was good at it. I admire teachers and those people who organise it because they don’t give up. You would think, “Who cares about school now?” However, we did go. Even when we had shooting, we would take cover and then continue. People were taking it seriously. It’s something to admire.
It’s an important point to acknowledge as well that despite the war, and even if in the short time I was there, war wasn’t 24/7. You were under siege. You couldn’t leave. Electricity was coming intermittently, but shooting wasn’t nonstop, and life tends to go on and find ways around the adversity to keep going.
Miss Bosnia made world headlines when a Miss Bosnia contest was held in the cellar. It might have been the Holiday Inn Hotel or somewhere. That’s almost an expression of resistance to the aggression, to force life to continue. Perhaps going to school and trying to normalise whatever’s happening is a small way of also showing resistance that life can keep going.
It’s similar to the tram street car. When they launched it, I remember I ran away from school. I skipped a few lessons to have the ride on it. I was maybe 10 or 11. From this perspective, that was mentally idiotic because they did shoot, but we wanted normality. We wanted life before the war. We wanted something like, “I was riding the tram.”
I remember I would skip lessons to go to swim in the Baščaršija area. For some reason, they didn’t shoot much there. I don’t remember anyone getting killed there because it’s protected. It’s in between rocks. Sometimes I have a few photos from some of the photographers, but not much was recorded back then. I do remember it was going to Croatia.
It’s war and everything, but you are swimming and enjoying life. Most of the time, my parents wouldn’t know. They had no idea. My mom was in the hospital and my father was, for one month, on Mount Igman. One month he was in Mount Bjelašnica. He had no idea. Older people or older boys and girls had the other stuff to do, the bars and concerts. Life was going on.
That’s an important aspect of it. Maybe we can pivot now to that horrible day when your brother Amel was killed by a sniper. Can you describe what happened that day?
When I started writing the story, I had never shared the story in full with anyone in 35 years until I wrote it for the project. I don’t know why. I have to be honest. Nobody ever asked. Just to share something I wanted to share for a long time. It’s interesting how nobody cared. I was a child when the war finished. In 1996, I was thirteen years old.
Since then, nobody ever asked, “How are you? Can you tell me more?” Primary school, high school, university, and later on, when I was working in companies. It’s interesting. Maybe that part of me or part of my life didn’t let me write this story because I thought nobody cared. Why would I write it? Nobody is asking.
Through the project, when I started writing it, I had eleven drafts until the final one. I was always trying to write it from my perspective, not only about myself but about everyone else who suffered or who got killed. It was May 3rd, 1995, Wednesday. We were home alone. My father, I don’t remember him that morning, to be honest. He was on the frontline and in 1995, he had some other stuff to do. That day, he was not on the frontline. He had a day off, but he was not at home. I remember that. My mom came home from the night shift at the hospital and she didn’t go to sleep. She went to make us lunch.
Maybe 8:00 or 9:00, she came home and my brother and I had breakfast. I remember the breakfast. I remember the chocolate we shared. I have the chocolate cover still. I saved it. I preserved it, and we went out to play. I remember he was a very good tennis player. What’s very interesting, he’s an artist and a lefty. Besides being an artist, he was good at tennis, table tennis, and chess. He was brilliant.
I remember they were competing for who could hit the ball the farthest. That was maybe 11:00. We then came back into the street that’s close to our house, and they started playing tennis. I was playing marbles with my friends and it was a truce, a peaceful May, beautiful and sunny. When he was shot, it was one shot first in his chest. I almost lost my hearing. It was that loud.
A few days before that, they were saying that we had a sniper nest that would try to kill the Serb and try to attack them. When I heard the shot, I thought it was our guys. It was so loud, I thought it must be closer to us. Within seconds, I saw him leaning forward and holding his chest. My friend, she hugged him and she was holding him. I was twelve, and I didn’t think of crying. I didn’t think of helping him. I went straight inside the house, and I told my mom. I grabbed a blanket. I called the ambulance, and I went outside to cover him with the blanket. When I came back, my mom was already trying to help him.
Even now, what I remember is people screaming. I don’t remember faces. Only one face, but it was 30 people crying and screaming, except me and my mom. I was so focused on helping her. Maybe I was not aware at the time, brave or anything. It took me years to realise that, most probably at that moment, I grew up. It was a shift from a boy to a grown-up man. People asked me, “How did you call an ambulance?” I was so focused. It was like a movie like I was a professional medic or something.
She was trying to help him with CPR. She was trying hard. When the ambulance came, we put him inside, and I was standing outside the car. My mom was saying, “Come. Don’t stay. Let’s take him to the hospital.” For some reason, I thought, “Maybe I should stay here because they are going to go to the hospital.” The story I’m going to tell you now, I shared only with two people. I never shared it with my mother. I don’t know why, but when you have a false hope, you get so happy, and then you drop it, it doesn’t happen.
We are driving to the hospital and my brother is gargling because the air in his chest is coming out. I tell my mom, “He’s alive.” She had the face because she’s a nurse. She knows these things. She’s like, “No. He’s gone.” That was the second time he was killed. The first time when he was shot, I thought, “Maybe he’s injured,” but he’s on the ground. He’s killed.
My brain is still processing or hoping that he’s killed, but maybe inside the car, I saw him alive again. It was like somebody telling you that you won $1 million, and then the numbers were wrong. It was from 100 to 0. We came to the hospital. I don’t know when and why, but I took off his watch. As soon as we arrived, they took me to one room because they would try to operate him.
My mom’s friends are the nurses. They took me to another room and gave me water, and I was holding his watch. I remember it very well. It didn’t work because it dropped. It’s a SEIKO Classic, SEIKO 5, like older people have, automatic. It dropped and it was full of blood. I was holding it like I was holding him like it was something that he was with me and I don’t know why I took it off. I’m a child. It’s not that he’s going away forever. I could take that much later, but maybe I was afraid that someone would take it off from him.
Finally, maybe after 10 or 40 minutes, that period was like a second to me, but I don’t know. Maybe I was sitting there for one hour. They called me to see him. I entered the room. He’s on the concrete bed or whatever it is. It’s not a morgue, but it’s one bed and the room is full of doctors and nurses. I see my father there and my mother and nobody is crying.
My first initial thought was, “He’s alive,” because nobody was crying. My mom, I don’t think she had any pills at that moment, but she had that face. She was not happy, but she had the face of a person who was relieved of a huge pain. She said, “Come, Džemil. Kiss your brother.” When she said kiss your brother, I thought, “He’s alive.” I was approaching the bed to hug him, and then she said, “Kiss him for the last time,” my whole world crashed at that moment. I never shared this before, and I realised that day he died three times in front of me. Sorry.
Thank you for sharing that.
All of this, what I do, is to bring him back to me.
I’m speechless. I’m in awe of what you are saying and what you are doing. The pain in your voice is ripping a hole in my heart. I’m sorry that you get to go through that.
I have to say that it’s difficult, but it’s helping. I hope it helps someone else. I didn’t share it for 35 years, and who knows why. When I do now, I don’t care anymore what someone will say and how someone will perceive it. It’s liberating, so why not?
If it can help other people in their past to some resemblance of peace in their mind or their heart, or if it brings them closer to the ones that have been killed, then you are also honouring your brother’s death.
I’m sure that there are other people who never share their stories, and I truly understand them. I don’t judge them. I don’t agree with them that they shouldn’t share them. They should because it helped me and it helped so many others, but I do understand them because people don’t want to. Some people want to forget it and leave it behind, which is fine. I don’t agree with that, but I completely understand it. If someone asked me a few years ago, I would be the same. It would be judging myself a few years ago.Some people just want to forget traumatic memories and leave them behind. You may not agree with them, but you have to respect such a decision. Click To Tweet
Everybody deals with pain and suffering in their unique way, but you are spot on getting it off your chest. Speaking, sharing, and connecting with others over pain in some small way helps alleviate that pain. That’s through your story, but also many other stories of survivors of horrible instances of war to speak for that as well. I’m interested. You said you only saw one face and there were 30 faces. Are you referring to your brother’s face?
No. I saw his face and him trying to be saved. I remember my mom, but I remember one friend crying and screaming. I remember voices. I remember girls and boys running around and everything. If you don’t look, there’s nothing to be remembered, and then you forget. One friend I remember well and he was the one who said, “Let’s go to our house while your mother is in the hospital.” I remember that as well when my mom said, “Come with us.” He was offering to take me to his house. It’s a childhood friend. It was like a matrix. Everyone was blurred and gliding, and I was focused on my mom and my brother.
That’s why they say sometimes it’s important to speak to people who were there. I have this idea about who knows about the project and everything. There are too many things to do, but I would love to find all of them and interview them, then overlap it and make a short movie or a document of that day. I would like to see and hear how they saw it and where they were when they heard it, but it’s difficult to do it. It’s difficult for them and it’s difficult for me and I would have to cut it because I would be either directing or editing it. It’s not easy psychologically, but I would love to do it. It’s something that I was thinking of saving and preserving.
Me and friends who had been playing marbles, for a long time, I thought we were going away from that spot when we heard it. My friend corrected me. He said we were coming back because we wanted to drink water. It’s important not because someone will say I lie. There’s nothing. If I was playing marbles or football, that doesn’t change the fact that he was killed. That’s how memory works. If you don’t correct it or don’t check it, it’s blurry. You might think that you had a red T-shirt, but it was yellow and then if you persuade yourself it’s red. It’s red. That’s it.
Same with that day. Maybe I thought it was 30 people, but maybe it was 10. With the project and with all of this when I was speaking to my mother, I learned a lot from her, and then I decided to interview her. We recorded almost three hours of interviews with her. I asked some questions that I never asked before and there were things that I didn’t know at all. The one thing was I would make a film. That’s no question. I don’t know when, but no question. She was making Halwa, usually made during Ramadan for a special night, during eating, or when there are happy occasions.
It comes from an Arabic-Muslim tradition, and she doesn’t know why. It wasn’t Ramadan. It was nothing special. She was making Halwa while she was making lunch. When he was killed, she turned off the stove. We went to the hospital. When we came back, she continued and she finished it off. Her brother came and he said, “What are you doing?” She said, “I’m finishing it off.” He won’t have graduation, a job celebration, or a wedding. “Let me finish this,” and that’s it.
In 2019, she told me in an interview that she had never made it in many years since then. She said, “I can’t.” For the interview, we made one and it went bad. It overcooked. She said, “See. I can’t make it.” Those small details you don’t share, but they leave a mark. They leave a scar. It’s not the same. I don’t eat macaroni, but for example, the one thing that I never do is I never say to anyone brother or bro, because of my tongue, I can’t. I have only one brother. It’s not that I don’t respect people.
When they do to me, I feel uncomfortable. I know they mean the best. There are these small details that impact us, but you cannot explain them to anyone. I would have to explain all the context. If someone doesn’t know that my brother was killed and then they go, “Brother, what’s up?” “Don’t call me that.” I say, “Hey, hi, or how are you,” but I feel uncomfortable. It’s not that I don’t like it, but I cannot accept it.
It feels dishonest, maybe.
I don’t know. That’s trauma. That’s a scar.
What was it like for your family in the days afterward and the following weeks?
My mom couldn’t stay there. She couldn’t stand it. Everything was reminding her of my brother and the whole place, the house and the street. We moved within two weeks. We asked people, “Is there any place anywhere?” We moved away in two weeks because she couldn’t stand it and it was difficult for her.
My father took it hard, but he didn’t show it. He got diabetes later on and I know he took it hard, but he never showed it. He died without crying. He never cried. If you don’t cry or if you don’t show any pain or sorrow, it reflects your inside, I would say. He died of cancer and most probably, that cancer came from that.
When we moved away, she was overly protective of me because now I’m the only one. Even though I don’t see myself as one, I never say I’m the only child. I always say it’s 2 of us, but 1 of us was killed. They tried to have a baby, but my mom had a miscarriage. She was old. She was 39 at that time. Already maybe bad dieting and it’s still war. It was in 1996 that she had a miscarriage.
She confessed. Maybe I never asked that she was on pills from almost day one. She suffered a lot. I would say even now, she suffers. She’s a very hard woman. Very brave and dedicated, but she suffers a lot. I have to say maybe myself and my family give her some, not hope, but my son is named after my brother. There’s his legacy. There’s something.
Even now, she calls me by his name sometimes by mistake. I don’t mind it. I heard it happens a lot. For some people, never, but my mom, sometimes calls me Amel and I like it, I have to say. Maybe I remind her of him. When we talk about my brother, we don’t cry. We don’t remember sad stuff. We remember the good stuff.
That’s the process that people should do. Whenever someone dies, let’s say COVID, I don’t ask people to dwell or to feel sad. I ask the good stuff and it’s helping because whoever dies, grandfather, child, or spouse, there is always good stuff that you can ask and people love to talk about good stuff. My brother was sixteen years old when he was killed, but he left us so many memories behind him, but we don’t have to be sad all the time. He’s not there.
What are some of those positive memories that you look back on?
He was very calm. When he was shot, my father thought it was me because I was the “wild one.” I was very naughty and he was very calm and responsible. At the age of sixteen, he was taking care of the household when my mother was in the hospital. He was like a father to me and I was safe with him around. It was like having a father and he’s sixteen. I remember him as a role model. Usually, you try to copy your father. You have a brother who’s older than you, so you know what I’m talking about.
My brother was a bigger role model than my father. I don’t know how to explain it, especially when he was killed because he is not there anymore. It’s not that I wanted to fit in his shoes, but I needed to give something back to my parents. For example, I’m a video editor. I don’t know how to draw, but I went into arts and most probably, that was my way of continuing his legacy.
Whenever I needed something, he would be there to help me. Those memories. My mom has more because she knew everything even before I came. For example, he’s four years older than me and she would say that he would take care of me when he was five. He’s almost like a grownup. He would feed me and take care of me. He never hit me.
We used to sleep together in one bed. We used to eat together. I couldn’t wait to wear his clothes. Even now, I have some stuff that he was wearing and I have many drawings he did. Those are the memories. I have the watch. I don’t wear it anymore. It’s preserved and saved. Those are the stuff that I cherish.
It kept you connected to your brother as well. This is what motivated the Sniper Alley project, as you said, many years afterward. As you alluded to, it came at a time when you were ready for it as perhaps a path or a part of the journey of your healing, maybe as well. For those who are not aware, why is it called Sniper Alley?
Sniper Alley is a term coined in Bosnia. I don’t know who did it and who did it first, but it was widely used in the media from 1992 onwards. It’s part of the street in Sarajevo Downtown. All the journalists, or most of them, were placed there, and they were protected by the UN and treaties between the Serbs, so they wouldn’t shoot at them.
That part of the street was called Sniper Alley because snipers would be shooting at those crossroads. It goes maybe 700 metres or 500 metres. When I was naming the project, I wanted to name it something in Bosnian, but then I realised it didn’t make sense because I wanted a wider population to see it, so everyone in Bosnia knows what Sniper Alley is, and outside Bosnia, everyone, if you are interested. I named the Sniper Alley, and then a photo came to my mind because when you are naming something, I thought in the beginning, maybe I’m making a mistake, or maybe it’s too limiting, just Sniper Alley.
My brother is not killed in Sniper Alley, but he’s killed by a sniper. It doesn’t have to be only related to Sniper Alley, but the name itself is so meaningful or huge that I wanted to give some importance to it. The same terminology was used at the beginning of the Syrian War because Syrian snipers were killing kids as well and killing civilians.
They killed one cameraman from Al Jazeera. They used the same style of protection with old cars, buses, and shipping containers. That’s how I came up with the name. That’s the idea. I can explain a little bit about the project. The Sniper Alley photo project is an interactive database of all the photos or whatever we collect from the period of 1992 to 1996 made in Sarajevo under siege. I’m not focusing on other cities. I do collect. I keep them, I have them, and I know about them, but I don’t publish them yet. You could never know. Who knows? Maybe we will broaden it.
The project in itself is difficult to explain because right from the start, it only has one sole mission, but many. As time passes by, we are witnessing, and we are realising that it has branched out in many different directions. In short, the goal was always to collect as many photos as possible, but not only photos for the sake of photos to show them, “I have 1,000 photos.” Rather photos with their creators, photojournalists, and stories that follow those photos. It’s something to have a historical value and document to be preserved and used to educate more. Waking up some memories if you want.
Show the level of atrocity we endure to show the world different types of fights. We have cultural, military, and economic. It depends on what’s on those photos. It could be something nice. Not every photo has the same impact and purpose, so having said all of that. Interestingly, the bigger and broader motivation for this project came after I launched it, the project started from my personal story.
My mission is to find any photo of my killed brother or me, my mother, or my father. It evolved into something huge that is still finding its true form. Having many forms combined is not that bad at all, to be honest. Having it like this, growing day by day into unknown fields of human experiences, is something that I didn’t expect but, to be honest, I don’t mind.
Time will tell and show us what we have done. The puzzle is still small, and we are not even halfway there. Every photo has a story to tell, and every photo has a photographer behind it and the subject on that photo. Whatever it is, something big or small or something bad, happy, bloody, or some event, everything has to be preserved. That’s how the name, idea, motivation, and mission came into life together.
In the initial stages of the project, were you successful in finding photos of your brother or yourself and your family?
It’s a difficult one. Let’s say I’m sending an email to a photographer, and I share my story. Some of them would say, “I was there only in December 1995,” so there’s no way they took a photo of my brother, but maybe they took a photo of me. What they realised immediately, it was not the time after my photo that’s how the project started, and they said, “Sorry for your loss. I would love to be a part of it. Here are the photos I have to find.”
I would find photos. Let’s say they send me 20 or 30 photos. I go through them, and I don’t see anyone familiar or anything. I was not successful at all, and I was always telling myself, “I will give it five years.” I will find the photo. I will give myself five years. It has to be there because he was going downtown to high school and most probably someone took and we never know. Maybe he skipped classes. He went to wherever. You don’t know where you are roaming around the city.
I was always optimistic about the photos and I went to school and I went to skipped classes. Maybe someone took photos. I was not focusing so much on myself at that time. I started it. I’m after the photos whenever they come. Whenever someone sends me photos, so far, we have 86 galleries and 86 photographers on the website. Some of them would send me 5, 10, 20, or 30. I always find a few that are cool with lots of kids, and then I share them on Facebook and those kids find themselves and they tag themselves.
I was always wondering, “When will I find myself to be tagged like that?” It’s been many years. To be honest, I don’t track the time when I started and how long it will take because it has its own life. It takes a lot of time to be involved in everything because people send emails and I have to update, but I don’t have a deadline. That’s the main point or anyone to report to.
You alluded to the fact that it’s got a life of its own. What do you mean by that? Who are the other people that are involved in the project and what are they getting out of it?
I don’t have a huge team. Everyone that’s behind it is technical, but when I said it has its own life, for example, if I stop it now, you would be surprised that 86 galleries are there and not everyone saw them. I have one gallery that was there from day one. One girl recognised her friend in the photo. People don’t check them regularly.
When I say life on its own, if I don’t do anything, I have done 86 galleries and they will stay there. It’s more than 1,000 photos. At some point, people will start recognising more and more. Sadly, maybe some of these kids are dead and they are nobody to recognise them. I hope not, but what I do is update, fix stuff, and put details and dates if I have them. It’s big on its right now.
As I said before, we are not halfway through even because 250 photographers are on my list. There are 250 of them. I have collected the list and at least 30 to 40 of them promised to send me photos. Forty of them I’m waiting to publish and who knows what’s going to be on those photos because most of these photos are never seen before.
Why is this project important? I’m referring to making the point that or at least on the website you described, it is about remembering and telling the truth. Why is that important?
The project is different when it comes to remembering. It’s different because it’s not only about remembering for the sake of it as you remember. Let’s say music, films, concerts, or culture. It’s important. When was this treaty signed or when was this World Cup? I started collecting all these in my head. I don’t know why.
It’s been several years since No Man’s Land when everything started. I remember these but remembering the war and what the experience is about justice as well. Not only to remember events and important dates in history but remember the deaths and war is not only to preserve it in that way. It’s to save it from forgetting and to honour the deaths and survivors of the war.
That’s at least to show them some respect and justice, if not for now, then for future generations. Nobody was sentenced to jail and nobody was taken to court. For example, when it comes to Serb snipers killing people in Sarajevo on the siege. My brother’s killer is a free man somewhere maybe in Serbia, Australia, or America. Who knows? Maybe we never get him. Maybe we do, but the details and documents are here to show the world that my brother and other killed children and those who survived the siege are not some statistical figures but real people with names and faces.
Forgetting them would be unjust and would mean killing them a second time, as the famous quote goes. I would dare and say it’s one of the most important things regarding the war inside Bosnia and Herzegovina because if you forget, there won’t be anyone to remind people in the future. Someone fascist or some people might come and they could say, “It never happened or it happened this way or that way.” It is important.Forgetting those who were killed in wartime would mean killing them a second time. Click To Tweet
In a world of alternate facts and parallel stories, it’s very easy to manipulate information. You work in media and television now. You see the power of storytelling and narrative.
I would say it’s everything. It’s how people and the world see you. There’s not much you can do about it if it’s said the wrong way if I could say it that way. In Bosnia, we have enough voices in the country to defend our history and truth. We have fighters. We have people who do research, write books, and do films.
This project is a small contribution to that. I go under that category of fighting the alternative facts. I’m preserving at least for myself, and then I try to share as much as possible with the rest of the world. We have created something as a platform for ourselves and others who had similar or worse experiences.
With the project, we made a place where survivors can talk and share our stories without anybody whitewashing them or editorially changing them to be politically correct to oppressing and oppressed. Neutrality. For example, the EU constantly pushes us to sit around the table with those who murdered us and who would do it again if they could.
Killers and genocide deny us. People are directly creating different narratives regarding our war. They lie about the numbers killed and the crimes and say we did it ourselves. I sometimes joke about the Serb Army, and I say they are the worst Army in the world because whatever projectile or whatever shooting they had, they always missed. After all, whoever died, was not them. What were you shooting at, then?
History is on our side, but we can’t stop fighting now because if we stop, they won’t. They are like every fascist in the world. They are driven by hate. They don’t have a limit there. Their ultimate goal is to exterminate and ethically cleanse the land of everything different from that. We have seen it in America. They would have never been stopped if Trump was elected again.
Fascists then push and push until the goal is achieved. That’s why we have to talk about these things, label them and name them properly. Fascists are fascists, and there’s no debate with them. When they come to sit around and talk to you, they should be immediately labeled. “He’s a fascist. His views are like this, and let’s take everything.” As I said, the narrative is something that needs to be worked on almost constantly. You have to protect it and it has to be done by those who survive the genocide. We need to listen to them and the victims because they are the ones that should create it.
Not fascists, oppressors, and war criminals. Sadly, narratives are done by the majority and not by those who suffer. In our case, we have a good Army behind it, so we are fighting. That’s why it’s difficult and important not to give up and stop. One of the best examples of imposed narrative or narrative that went wrong so to say, systematically and planned.
Not by mistake, it would be a narrative of Palestine and how some people, if not the majority of the news outlets, report on them. Palestinian kids simply die as if the rain brings those bombs and drones that kill them. Those who murdered those children are killed in the counter-offensive. You can notice here that they don’t die. They get killed. Reuters said that the building collapsed after the missile strike.
I work in media and I noticed that, and then they put witness. This means it’s not confirmed and they are not sure about it, but everyone saw it. They put witness. People from AP and Al Jazeera were in that building that “collapsed.” If they are ready to do that to their colleagues for whatever reason, imagine what they would do or not do to Palestinian kids.
It’s written extensively about these books. Studies are done and films are made. People are aware and talk about it, but as we said in the beginning, it went wrong in this case for Palestinians. To be noted by their mistake and it will take a lot of time to be fixed. Justice accomplished, maybe. We don’t have that problem in Bosnia that much.
We had cases of camps when British media believed Serbs. It was our camp and we were doing it to other people. It was an actor. On the 27th of May, there was the Vaso Miskin massacre. There’s still an article on independence saying that we did it to ourselves. Even after many years, the article is still there. I wrote to them. I tagged them on Twitter. I told them to delete it. It’s still there. There are people who have been trying to impose those and intrude on the truth for the last many years. People are still doing it. They never gave up. That’s why our project is like this. No matter how small it seems, they are important. I would say we are more and not giving up and will prevail.
All the power to you. Congratulations on the project because you are spot on. It is about countering false narratives. Those narratives fuel the divisions and fuel, justify, and explain conflict. Maybe this is a question. I’m not even sure how to ask it, given your circumstances. In your mind, how is it possible, even for a professional soldier? Let’s assume it was a professional soldier. Probably was not or probably was a weekend warrior or something. How is it possible to take a side picture and then pull the trigger and kill a child? How does that mental leap happen in a person?
I would say that they are breeding them on hate. I wouldn’t justify him doing it because he was raised hating us or hating anything different, but I would say they are damaged. The one thing that everyone makes a mistake with are lots of foreigners or lots of foreign press. They always say that those are savages, lunatics, and idiots, but there’s an Army behind them. There is a commander. The general.
Karadžić and Mladić are highly educated people and they have the same views. They would do the same. We shouldn’t fall under this trap and say, “These people are uneducated.” People say they are peasants in rural areas. It’s hate that is driving them. We see it all around the world. Israel or Myanmar. Seemingly, those people are normal, but psychologically and ideologically, they are damaged for life.
I have a list of kids who are killed and some of them are Catholics and Orthodox. Not everyone is a Muslim and they didn’t know who they were killing exactly. They were killing anything that was not on “their side” or didn’t agree with their ideology. If you listen to Karadžić or Mladić from 1991, 1992, 1993, or 1994, now we have documents and leaks on what they were saying on the phone with Milošević and Tuđman in how they speak in private. You can tell that they are proper fascists like Hitler. We should never label them as idiots or stupid because it diminishes the size of their evilness.
He’s an idiot because he has a mental or medical condition. Calling Karadžić idiot, his actions are idiotic, but he’s perfectly healthy in terms of medicine. He’s a maniac for his actions. Even now, he’s defending it. I would worry because they have followers. They have people who protect them and follow them. They are proud of him and they are proud of what he achieved.
We have a Serbian president in Bosnia who is complaining that Karadžić will go to British jail because British jails are awful and not safe for Karadžić. Even in 2021, he’s protecting him. He’s not seeing him as a human being and I was like, “It’s not fair to him.” He sees him as his hero. It’s fair to say that he shares his views, meaning his ideology and he would do the same if he could.
It’s a difficult one because I don’t know what’s in their heads. It’s hard to comprehend because, on a daily basis, I read what they did. Some kids are six years old and they were shot in the head while riding a bike. My brother was playing tennis. He was sixteen years old. He was tall. I don’t want to justify any killing, but he saw him as the tallest among us, and it was true. It was one shot, and then after that shot, he tried to scare us a little bit. He shot just empty. He was shooting at the rooftops to show some “bravery.” Killing a kid, it’s not something you can approve or understand. I don’t know.
Are you able to forgive and what does that word mean to you, forgiveness?
It is, but I’m glad you asked that because maybe Islamically, we should forgive. I’m a practising Muslim. I always thought that forgetting is worse than forgiving because forgiving comes down to me and the perpetrator like the one who killed. Forgetting it impacts future generations. It impacts me like I’m erasing history because I was the one who experienced it. If I forget not to share, people won’t know.
Maybe I would be 100% honest with you, but the problem is nobody is asking for it. For me to give just for the sake of forgiveness and to be seen as open-minded is stupid. It doesn’t make any purpose because nobody in many years came forward and asked for forgiveness of those who did stuff. I’m not talking about activists. I’m not talking about nice and good human beings. Artists and musicians who are ashamed of the atrocity. What’s happening on the other side for those who were involved, they are proud of it. What’s funny, they say, “We never did that, but we would repeat it.” To make up your mind, it’s because they don’t want to confess, but they want to be proud of it.
If someone came forward and said, “Would you forgive me? I did this and that.” Maybe if he goes to jail and justice is served, but then he has a problem because my mother has to forgive him, my friends, my family, and my brother who’s not with us. Justice will be served in this life or the next. As a Muslim, that keeps me as a survivor and optimistic.
For some people, justice is only in this world. For me, it’s in the next as well. I wish we could catch him to teach the generations to show the lesson and the world, but the problem is bigger than that because the whole country is behind them. When I say the whole country, I mean the government, politicians, and police. I’m not talking about ordinary people. I’m not bothered by them because I’m sure there are many good, nice, and honest people, but sadly in Serbia, they are in the minority.Some people think that justice is served in this world only. However, it can be delivered in the next life as well. Click To Tweet
You have been exceptionally gracious with your time and I’m conscious that we have gone well over the time we have planned, but maybe one last question. You are a father now and you said your son’s name is Amel. Is that your only child, or do you have other kids?
I have five kids. I have 4 daughters and 1 son. I always wanted to have a lot of kids, even when I was a child. When my brother was killed, I immediately decided that if I ever got a son, he would be named Amel. When I got my son and when I got four children, I realised that subconsciously I wanted to do something for my brother as well.
Believe it or not, whenever I go to see the memorial plate with all the children’s names who were killed in Sarajevo. Let’s say a girl who’s 1979 or 1980, the age of my brother, and I always imagine her married to my brother. I always imagine how much potential was lost. My way of preserving the memory of him and that girl is to have 2 kids for me and my wife, 1 kid for my brother, 1 kid for his future wife, and then 1 child for them.
To some people, it might sound normal, but I did stuff for him in my life, in my head, because he’s not there, so I would do it for him, and that’s one thing that I did for him I have to say. I didn’t know it in the beginning, and then I realised I was making a big family to make myself, brothers, and sisters that I missed growing up after he was killed. That’s my thought. Maybe I want to believe this. My son, I see a lot of things from my brother. I see him as a buddy, a son, and a brother. That’s one thing that came out of this. Maybe if I had a brother, maybe I would have two kids.
What a story. I’m speechless. I haven’t been moved by a story. Truth be told, I also told my partner that I knew this would be one of those interviews because your story struck me when I first heard about it. It’s deeply emotional and powerful. I thank you firstly for being so open to sharing your story in such an intimate way.
Secondly, I congratulate you for finding the courage and the strength to turn all that pain into something positive, such as your project. As you rightly pointed out, it’s not just about you and your brother. It is about the stories of the thousands of children who suffered. Perhaps in this case, only in Sarajevo, but it’s broader than that. It’s about war and suffering, particularly children in war, and the scars that they carry for the rest of their lives. I’m in awe of what you are doing and I wish you the best of luck and truly thank you for giving me so much of your time. I appreciate it.
Thank you very much for giving me a chance to speak. They say that when you tap the child on their head, you tap the mother on their heart. Whenever someone invites me to talk about the project and gives me space and time, I see it as giving a voice to my brother because he’s not with us and I’m his voice.
Whenever someone shows me love, they show love to my brother. I’m respectful of that. His legacy lives on. Thousands of people heard his name. I’m happy about it because it’s more about him, not me. Your invitation is that. Love for my brother and understanding of everything that happened to us. I’m thankful to you.
It is and thank you for saying that. I look forward to meeting you face-to-face rather than merely digitally when the world gets back to normal again, whatever that means. Stay safe and we will be in touch.
You too. Thanks a lot.