The Voices of War

2. Dejan Mujkanovic - From Bosnian Refugee To Australian Army Officer

VOW 2 | Bosnian Refugee

 

My guest today is Dejan Mujkanovic. He is an Australian Army officer with 19 years of military experience. He has completed several tours of Afghanistan and also deployed to East Timor. He was born in Bosnia in 1980 and experienced the full brunt of the civil war in the 90s. His hometown of Prijedor made global news due to the campaign of ethnic cleansing committed by the Bosnian Serb forces seeking to forcefully remove the Bosnian Muslim and Bosnian Croat populations from the area. As a result of these crimes, many of Dejan’s extended family members were lost in concentration camps, which sadly includes his father, Senad Mujkanovic killed in the Omarska concentration camp in 1992. In the ensuing chaos, Dejan got separated from his mother and siblings and have lived apart ever since. During his journey, he got forced to spend over two years in various refugee camps in Croatia and Austria, and in late 1995, he was fortunate to settle in Australia with his grandmother. Now, 25 years later, Dejan is married and a proud father to his son.

 

Some of the topics we covered are:

– His reason for joining the Army

– How the war in Bosnia started for him

– The loss of his father and other members of his family

– Fleeing the war and time as a child refugee

– Issues of identity

– Genocide and collective guilt

– The idea of forgiveness

– What good soldiering looks like

– Settling in Australia

– How his experience influenced his military service

Listen to the podcast here

 

Dejan Mujkanovic – From Bosnian Refugee To Australian Army Officer

My guest is Dejan Mujkanovic. He’s an Australian Army officer with many years of military experience. He’s completed several tours of Afghanistan and also deployed to East Timor. He is the only other Australian Army officer of Bosnian heritage I know, which is why this conversation is particularly close to my heart. He was born in Northern Bosnia in 1980 and experienced the full brunt of the war in the ‘90s. His hometown of Prijedor made global news due to the campaign of ethnic cleansing committed by the Bosnian Serb forces seeking to forcefully remove the Bosnian Muslims and Bosnian Croat population from the area.

As a result of these crimes, many of Dejan’s extended family members were lost in concentration camps. Sadly, this includes his father, Senad Mujkanovic, who was killed in the Omarska concentration camp in ‘92. In the ensuing chaos, he was separated from his mother and siblings. They have lived apart ever since. During his journey, he was forced to spend a few years in various refugee camps in Croatia and Austria. In late 1995, he was fortunate to settle in Australia with his grandmother. Several years later, he is married and a proud father to his son. Thanks for joining me.

I would like to applaud you for your initiative in starting this show. Thank you for giving me an opportunity to share my story and for others to share this. I would like to remind our readers that what I share in this show are my views and do not represent the official ADF position. I want to acknowledge that my stories can never do justice to those who went through similar events but who suffered beyond that experience and were part of my story through the war. We will talk about the source of my strength, and I’m eternally indebted to those many who are far better human beings than I ever was, whoever will be.

He is also known as Boz, which is the nickname you picked up. He is of Bosnian heritage. Perhaps throughout this show, I might even refer to him as either Boz or Dejan, but Boz rolls off the tongue. The other thing I want to mention as a short disclaimer to our readers. I met Boz back in 2007. You were several months ahead of me at the Royal Military College, Duntroon. I was coming across from the Australian Defence Force Academy into the college. We were asked to choose which building or company we wanted to go to. For those who are not aware of our readers, there are five companies in the college. You go to one of those, and that’s where you do your training.

I had no idea. I had no affiliation with any companies. Some people had family members who had gone there before. The only thing that was told to me by one of my supervisors was, “There’s another crazy Bosnian shaved head and smokes like a chimney. He’s in Capion.” I was like, “This sounds about right. Why don’t I also go to Capion?” That’s how I met Boz. Before we dive into the details of your background deeply, we can start with your decision to join the Australian Army. What motivated you to first become a soldier and later an officer in the Army?

When I first moved to Australia, like many young refugees, we found ourselves not necessarily on a good path. All the elders in the Bosnian community, my family members specifically, were supportive of the military because our fathers all serve as conscience. They believe that a young man’s life should include some military service. I thought that a young man’s life should include military service. I was walking through Parramatta. I have not flunked out of a few meets at the age of 21. I was like, “Where do I go from here?” I got some courage. I walked into a recruitment office and never looked back.

Everything I have done since has been with the help of the Army. The Army was the family I was looking for. I’ll always be indebted to traditional defence, specifically the Army, for giving a refugee a chance to structure his life back after the events of Bosnia and refugee camps. The other side of that is having experienced bad soldiering and good soldiering. I have observed bad soldiers and good soldiers during the Bosnian war. I wanted to make a change. I wanted and aspired to be a good soldier. Here we are several years later.

You made an interesting comment right at the start that many refugees end up going on the not-so-good path. What do you mean by that?

A lot of refugee kids here in Australia, or what I’ve observed in Austria and Croatia, are like lost boys and girls. A lot of kids are orphans. They are traumatised and scared. On top of that, they’re dealing with the normal stuff the kids are dealing with being a teenager. Can you imagine the turbulence of becoming a teenager, and you combine the true effect of becoming a teenager as you’re going through refugee camps? It’s inevitable that your outlook on life is pursuing more immediate happiness and pleasure than long-term success.

VOW 2 | Bosnian Refugee
Bosnian Refugee: The turbulence of becoming a teenager combined with the effect of going to refugee camps, your outlook on life pursuing more immediate happiness and pleasure than long-term success becomes inevitable.


 
The reason that struck a chord is because I can certainly relate to that myself. There were specific moments in my life that you either go left or right. That particular track that you take is where you end up. There were certainly a couple of points where I could have easily gone down that path or the not-so-good path. We can track back to that as the story unfolds. You were born in Northern Bosnia. You were born in Prijedor. The war started in ‘92. You would’ve been 11 or 12. You were born in 1980.

I was twelve years old when the war started in that part of Bosnia. I remember that lead-up to war issues in Croatia, which I believe started. It was the second half of ‘91.

I have a distinct memory of the day the war started in Serbia. I’m a year younger than you. I was eleven. The night before the war started, my mom could hear the river that flowed a couple of kilometres from our house. That was the first time she could ever hear the river. It was eerily quiet that my parents both realised something was going on. The next morning, we grabbed the bag and went to my aunt’s house further inside Serbia, but inside the city. That day, the barricades went up. The city was closed. The next day, the guns started firing. What do you remember of those first days? How did the war start for you?

This is where Bosnian war experiences differ a little bit. For us, the Balkan War was more about ethnic cleansing. It was certainly shooting. It was 1992, and the Serb forces occupied the city. They occupied a coup or key city installations. All I remember is waking up in the morning. My mom and dad were talking feverishly about something. I said, “Should I go to school?” Mom said, “Yes, you will go to school.” I remember seeing it because we lived right next to the tallest building in Prijedor. There was a different flag on there.

I went to school. Normally, in class, there were about 30 of us. That day, there were about twelve of us. I remember talking to one of the girls. All the kids said, “What’s happening?” She said, “The city is liberated.” I said, “Liberated from home.” I was convinced it must have been the Germans, but you are talking about liberated. She said, “From Muslims.” I heard my family talk before this. We have a Muslim background. My dad was strictly not religious. I went back home and told Mom.

There was a fear in the city. There was less movement. Everybody is looking at each other. I went back home and said to Mom, “Are we Muslims?” My mom was angry at me. She’s like, “Stop talking like that.” I was confused. My experience of war was utter confusion. It was uncovering an identity that I wasn’t quite aware of. A lot of women are necessarily attuned to our ethnicity. That’s how it started.

We woke up to an identity. My experience was similar in that sense. We are a secular family. I have never had generations that I know, 2 to 3 generations back. We haven’t had any religious affiliations but overnight, my mom became Croat, which is bizarre because she’s anything but. My dad became Muslim. It’s an identity that was ascribed to you against your better judgment. It also was the identity that meant life or death. How did that unfold in Prijedor for you? You were now marked as Muslim, even though you didn’t know up until that point.

My dad was a police officer. A couple of days into the change of government, my grandfather came. We all packed in his car. We were going to drive out to a village called Kozarac between Prijedor and Banja Luka early on the way to Omarska. We went to Kozarac. We went into hiding there and lived with my grandfather. It is a small township that was destroyed in the end. The majority were Bosniak Muslims. It was my mom’s side of families.

We spent several weeks there. In the ensuing period, the Yugoslavian National Army drove through the little township, occupied artillery positions, and held some high ground closer to the mountain. Dad came and said, “We have to head back for one reason or another.” When we went back, he told me that I would go into hiding at my other grandmother’s place in the city, which was the grandmother that I was living with.

You were going to come back from that.

As we came back from several weeks’ worth of hiding, they dropped me off at my grandmother’s. I stayed there with my grandmother and grandfather. He went with my mom and my sisters back to the apartment. That was the last time that I saw him. As he dropped me off, he came out to check up on me. Shortly after that, he was taken and killed, but it unfolded like that. The terror and horror slowly built up. We found ourselves in a difficult situation by mid-‘93.

Why were you separated at that point? Why did they drop you off?

My parents were afraid because of my age. I was going on thirteen. I was becoming a teenage Bosnian boy. Unfortunately, they feared for my safety. They feared that I would draw a lot of attention as a young male as much as my father did. I suppose they didn’t want to run that risk. They were happy for me to stay with my grandmother. It was also an area I grew up. The neighbours knew me. They felt it was a little bit safer there.

You said that was the last time you saw your dad when he dropped you off. You told me that he was lost later in the Omarska camp. What do you know of the circumstances?

This is something I have pieced together over the years. My dad went to the markets to buy some milk for my youngest sister at that stage. She was 2 or 3 months old. He took my other sister, who was at that stage, five years old. The security police picked him up at the market. He threw him in the car and left my sister crying in the middle of the city in the market. Some people returned her back home to my mom.

He finished up being taken to an interrogation camp called Keraterm. A lot of people were killed there. They were tortured there. There was systematic targeting of ex-police and people of the importance of Muslim background and Catholic background. He was swept up in that wave. A friend of his, who was an Orthodox Serbian soldier, came over to my grandfather and told my grandfather. I was there when he came. My dad was taken. He said that Dad was cold and he needed a jacket. My grandfather went and grabbed his warm winter jacket and gave that jacket and a bottle of cognac to be taken to my father.

VOW 2 | Bosnian Refugee
Bosnian Refugee: There was systematic targeting of ex-police and people of importance of Muslim and Catholic backgrounds.


 
That bottle of cognac played a huge impact on his life from the people who were coming to my dad. What I gather is that all these men were sitting on this huge mining hangar next to each other. Dad took out the bottle of cognac and shared it around. A soldier came in and saw the bottle of cognac. He demanded that the people in captivity who brought the cognac. My dad put his hand up. My dad was told to get up. He walked up, and nobody ever saw him again.

Around 2005, we started finding some bones from that. In 2006, we had some over 75% bones. I talked to my family, and we agreed that we would conduct the funeral. We can have some closure. The issue was these men were killed. They were buried immediately in the mine pit there. As the world found out about the horrors that were committed by that state, they started covering their tracks. They moved bones to different pits.

We finish up having a lot of bones scattered around the city. When we buried that in 2006, I believe it was over 300 people. It was a mass funeral for over 300 people. I went there. I was at that stage. It was as if you were coming into the Army. I went there for a couple of weeks, came back and continued my training. That is how Dad died.

It feels like such empty words to say, “I’m sorry to hear that.” The pain and torture that your family has gone through is hard to capture in words. I congratulate you on having the courage to join the military and retain a sense of normalcy. You’ve also lost other members of your family in the same camps.

When Dad disappeared, my mom’s brother and his family came in. They stayed with us for a little bit. My uncle was taken eventually, but he finished up going to a different camp called Trnopolje. In Trnopolje, the people were still maltreated, but it wasn’t on the level of Keraterm. From there, they were either taken into the worst places or released in some cases. They can travel to Croatia as refugees and get out.

I was in Trnopolje because my uncle’s friend was a guard at the camp. I asked to bring some food to some men. I went inside the camp. He told me to go to a little hole fence. I found all these men. I brought them some bread and food. I saw these 20 guys who never made it out alive. I have a memory of as I brought all this food to these guys that they sat down and they made me eat first. It was epic. It was a lot of family members.

That’s skimming over that point. You were twelve at the time, and you snuck in through a hole in the fence line to bring in food to about twenty men who were prisoners of war and a lot of whom didn’t make it out alive afterwards. What was that like for you at that time? What goes through your mind at that stage?

If there was something positive, it was my age. I was too young to understand the gravity of what was happening around me. Everything seemed like an adventure. Military equipment, driving around tanks, all of us were excited to see tanks, whereas the adults were concerned. We thought it was amazing. As far as the hole in the fence line, the guard was a friend of my uncle. I wasn’t sneaking in. He told him, “Go to the hole in the fence line.” They found him and gave him some food. That was it. I’m not claiming at all to understand. I was a child. Several years later, you go, “That wasn’t normal.”

You’ve made a point. As a kid, you’re excited. I was in Sarajevo. The city was under siege. We couldn’t move around. We were sitting in the cellar because we were being bombed all day, every day. I was sitting in the cellar, drawing tanks and planes with the Bosnian flag on it. We were going to war. It was exciting. We had a little target at that point in time. We threw darts and little rocks that me and my brother used to compete with who was going to get more points.

We left in a UN convoy. When the time came for us to leave, I remember crying that whole night. Not because I was going to leave my dad, which was part of it because he couldn’t leave. He was a fighting-age male, but because I was being torn away from the war. That’s it. I’m going to fight. What do you mean, I’m not going to be here? There are the Army, tanks, and weapons. I need to defend my country, which is a bizarre experience to have. Only later, you reflect on how unnatural that experience is. When did you first reflect on that experience and realise that this is not something that most kids go through?

It was in mid-‘93 that my uncle and his family were leaving Bosnia. My mom put me on a Red Cross bus with them. I was never going to leave with my mom again after that, and all my sisters. We left for Croatia. In Croatia, my grandmother found me. My uncle had to continue going on because he had papers to move to the US with his family. I couldn’t come along. My grandmother found me, the one from my father’s side. She took me with her to the refugee camp in Marijin.

It was in Marijin that we freed ourselves from the propaganda and information warfare that was going on at that stage. When we were in Prijedor, we could see that Bosnian and Muslims were teaming out. We know that our father was gone, but there was hope at all stages. All these young men and women are outside waiting for us. We thought they made it out. It was embarrassing that we started being confronted by the possibility that something bad was happening there and something was not going fine.

You have to remember it was some hard and brave work by Western media that uncovered these camps. It was the same for us to live there. When I look back, the signs were there, but I was young, and people were optimistic. People did not expect that something like that was going on. That is a fact. They didn’t expect it. Going to refugee camps in Austria, I started encountering more orphans. The stories started surfacing the distinct possibility. Rumours started that a lot of men were killed. It wasn’t that my second group of relatives were killed in Manjača.

VOW 2 | Bosnian Refugee
Bosnian Refugee: It was some hard and brave work by Western Media to uncover the experience of camps.


 
Omarska and Manjača were death camps. The people we weren’t seeing in the city had no chance that they were killed than they were alive. That is something that was pieced together. It was something that was uncovered by the media. It was something that we found out talking to other people, but we knew things were bad. We didn’t understand how far some people went in harming their fellow citizens during the war.

How many members of your family perished in the war?

On my dad’s side was my dad. On my mom’s side, it was her brother. In Kozarac, I can think of at least 3 or 4 men who were related to my grandfather. The youngest one was seventeen. My grandfather’s brother had one son. That son was killed. When I went back to Bosnia, I found out that that son was adopted. From what people understood of that child when he was adopted, he was a Serbian child brought up by Muslim men. He was killed because his dad served. If you go to Kozarac, there are lines of gravestones, around 992.

What happens? How do you understand it? How is this possible? What makes a neighbour kill a neighbour? How does this transition happen? How does it happen quickly and viciously?

I can only speculate. My sister is a PhD candidate at the University of Pennsylvania. Her area of research is conflict studies. We were talking about the notion of collective. I thought about this a little bit, and I have a theory that it has much to do with the fact that people do this to belong and amplify their belonging to a particular side.

We had some great presenters. I did this stuff in college. It was under the leadership. The theory is that social identity theory is a self-categorisation theory. We try to become members of this bigger collective. That’s what drives people. They do it because they think, “My collective demands me to do this.” Hence, people do it to belong.

An interesting thing about that same collective is that as that collective is winning, people can have a common experience of joy, happiness, and pride. You can see it in different types of groups, but what a collective is unable to do is accept responsibility and experience guilt collectively. People do it as a bind into the collective and group to amplify the membership of that group.

As the horrors start, in the beginning, it might be slapping a man or woman. That deteriorates because there is no mediating factor. That law doesn’t play a role anymore. You have to do worse things in order to show your allegiance. It’s a theory. I refuse to think that people are inherently evil because they’re not. People are not evil, but mobs are. To become part of these mobs, we leave some of our ethical and moral compass aside. We go forth and do what the mob wants us to do so you can be part of this mob.

People are not evil. Mobs are. We leave some of our ethical and moral compasses aside to be part of this mob. Share on X

When the mob is found to have done or committed something horrible, we distance ourselves from it. People find it difficult. On the day that we buried 304 people in the city of Prijedor, that wasn’t even announced on Prijedor radio station because people there could not comprehend that this was done around them.

It was the same there as it was for experience during World War II with concentration camps. People are refusing to accept that something was done in the name and it was right under their noses, and they could have seen it if they wanted to. Human beings are incapable of taking on that much pain, responsibility and guilt, at least, I theorise.

You’ll find there’s plenty of literature supporting that, particularly with social identity theory. One of the things that it espouses is that galvanising these groups, us and them, or me and the other, is easy once these boundaries have been drawn. We exaggerate the similarities between our perceived inner group, and we also exaggerate the differences between the imposed other.

VOW 2 | Bosnian Refugee
Bosnian Refugee: With social identity theory, we exaggerate the similarities between our perceived inner group and exaggerate the differences between the imposed other.


 
You are speaking to that now. It’s the imposition, perhaps through the information operations you mentioned and the fear of the unknown or other. That’s what drives the creation of these groups. You were marked as Muslim. You were, all of a sudden, an other. I was classified as an other. I’m falling into various different groups. By definition, for an other to exist, there needs to be an us. Whatever that us is, is what drives it. It’s a fascinating topic.

I would like to flag this to our readers. My name is Dejan. It is a uniquely Serbian name. My father gave it to me because he liked the name and he didn’t care about the ethnicities and these little things. The fact that my father and my mother were not part of some Muslim conspiracy can be found in the name of their firstborn.

Most of our readers who are of our background will know that Dejan is explicitly a Serbian name. My name, Vedran, is a Croatian name. Some of those responsible for Omarska and other camps have been found guilty in the ICTY, the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in Hague. How do you feel about those convictions?

Firstly, I’m happy that we created conditions for us to prosecute these people at an international level. I’m happy that the International Court of Justice exists. The alternative was that nothing gets done about it. How do I feel about convictions? I’m glad that they were made accountable, at least. I understand, especially now, having moved out of that and become more of an adult, the difficulties in doing more than was done.

A lot of people throughout the ages face this issue. You go, and 5 or 6 people get put on trial. They were the leadership that oversaw this. The fact is none of them killed my dad. A lot of criminals who committed the actual murder got to walk free. In some sense, that does hurt. On the flip side of that, I’m happy that ICTY existed because, at an international level, we repudiate the idea of ethnic cleansing as a means of creating mono-ethnic countries. As a world, I’m proud of us. We went and said, “This is not what we do.” I said at the beginning that I had lost. When we went to bury the dead, it was 304 people.

VOW 2 | Bosnian Refugee
Bosnian Refugee: In ICTY, we repudiate the idea of ethnic cleansing to create mono-ethnic countries.


 
There was this old lady who was sitting on the ground. She was crying. A lot of women were comforting her. I turned to my auntie and said, “Who is that woman?” “She said, “She buries her husband and 3 or 4 sons.” Every time you get angry, you go, “You were lucky.” I was lucky when you think about it. I know for the readers, it may be hard to understand but I was lucky because there are people who went through indescribable horrors.

Not to mention the female family members and friends who were used as sex slaves in different types of camps, they underwent horizontal and were released and still struggled to put their lives together. In a lot of senses, I was lucky. That’s why ICTY matters. We got to talk about what happened and agree, at an international level, that it is wrong.

What does the word forgiveness mean to you? Does it resonate?

It does, on some level. We all experience forgiveness differently. I experience forgiveness, maybe more as an acceptance. I accept what happened to me. Do I forgive? I don’t hold a grudge against old Serbs. My godfather to my son is Serbian, who went through a similar experience because he found himself being a Christian on the Muslim side. I have friends who are of different ethnic backgrounds. I do not hold a grudge. Do I forgive the individuals who are responsible for organising concentration camps? I don’t forgive them. I’ll never forgive them. They can live with it, as far as I’m concerned. If they have to live with that regret, that’s going to be the only justice they get on this earth.

That’s completely understandable, which is why I asked the question of whether that is something that’s possible, particularly since you say that some of them are still walking freely around Prijedor. Have you been back since?

The first time I went in was in 2006 with my wife. My wife is Australian-born, and she’s Queensland and of different Anglo. She came along to help me out. I went and stayed there for ten days. I didn’t want to stay a minute longer. The second time was after I did a tour in Afghanistan because, at that stage, my grandparents were still alive there. I went to visit them. I would go to Kozarac, but I can’t. This is with people. When you leave something on such bad terms, you don’t want to go back. I’m a bit mistrustful. It eases up some issues, and I don’t like necessarily subjecting myself to it unless I have to.

You don't want to return when you leave something on such bad terms. Share on X

When you left Prijedor, you went on the Red Cross bus. Your mom put you on the bus. It was later on in Croatia that your grandmother found you. Describe that a little bit. What do you mean? Your mother left you. Was she going in another direction? What happened there?

The way it panned out was my uncle, who was in Trnopolje, was released. My auntie’s family sent her travel papers from the US for them to go across to the US. I had him, my auntie and two of their sons on there. My mom asked for me to come along with them to Croatia. It was a Red Cross bus, but you still had to pay money. That’s how we got out. Mom gave whatever money she had.

That’s to get on the list on the bus.

A few buses got cancelled. We finished up travelling from Prijedor to Croatian territory. I’m finishing up in Zagreb. In Zagreb, we met some other family members who had stayed at this particular place. My uncle had to move on with his family. At the same time, I don’t know how my grandmother had connections, but she found out that I was in Zagreb. That’s still a mystery. I asked my grandma, “How do you find out?” She goes, “I was talking to a woman, and she said you were there.” I was like, “Okay.”

That’s another thing. A lot of information we found out was through these refugee networks of people tracking each other and passing stories. That’s how she found out. She came to Zagreb. She said, “They’re off to the USA. Come with me.” Not only was she my grandmother. We went together and spent several years living together. We went from Zagreb. She checked me into a refugee camp in Marijin, which was run out of an old Army barracks in Marijin. We stayed there for a few months.

You stayed there together now.

It’s also worth mentioning that during that time, it was the first time we interacted with Western militaries. The first one was the soldiers in the UN checkpoints. We saw them as we were driving out of Prijedor. Everybody started crying because we were happy we survived. We had a rough bus ride. People got beaten up, and everything was taken off them. As you’re making an out on Red Cross bus, you are making it out of the city. Every checkpoint is stopping. They’re looking for gold. They’re taking every last little bit of those unfortunate human beings trying to escape.

Every last bit of dignity as well with it.

They are leaving nothing at all. The refugee camp was run by some British engineers. I have immensely happy memories working with those individuals. I rocked up to Marijin, and I spoke some broken English. I got much better since then. The soldiers didn’t have any interpreters. I remember this moustache British engineer one day going, “Is everybody speaking English?” I said, “Hello, sir. I speak some English.” He’s like, “You are our interpreter.”

They did a lot of work for the kids. They built us a little disco. Because I was interpreting for them, I had first deep zone humanitarian aid that was arriving extra food. I was famous in the refugee camp. Kids are like, “Look at him. He’s talking to the Englishman.” I still have some pictures of them. They gave me their little Union Jack they wear on their shirts. I saw good soldiering. It shaped me towards serving in the Australian Army. I saw kindness. We finished up in Marijin. From there, we went to six refugee camps in Austria.

VOW 2 | Bosnian Refugee
Bosnian Refugee: I saw good soldiering, and it shaped me toward serving in the Australian Army.


 
How did you even get into Austria? Back to our experience, we stayed in Croatia for a little while. We ended up in Germany. I’m not sure if I should make this public on a show, but it was my mom’s uncle who had worked in Germany. He caught a bus down to Croatia, where we were staying. He threw us in the bus. We occupied the last seats in the back. We went through the Croatia and Slovenia border, no problem. Slovenia, Austria, no problem. In Austria and Germany, we got stopped. Everybody’s passports were checked. My uncle left outside with a bit of cash.

We walked out of the bus to resolve the question of our passports, my mom, brother, and I. Fifteen minutes later, we came back without any issues, just a few hundred marks poorer. We cross the border into Germany, where we get asylum, which, thinking of it now, is slightly crazy. You make do with what you’ve got at the time. Survival is the only option in trying to make do with the circumstances with the cards you’ve been dealt. How did that pan out for you? How did you get into Austria?

I managed to get out, thanks to the abilities of my grandmother. My grandmother is an extraordinarily strong woman. She was also an orphan herself when she was little. She had ways of dealing with issues. The way we dealt with it was, firstly, we knew that the borders were closed. Grandma said we fly. That’s what we did because Grandma said, “Nobody knows Austria wants refugees. We’re going to put on our best clothes, get on the aeroplane from Croatian City and go on holiday in Austria.”

What passports did you have at the time?

We had Bosnian passports. They were like, “You’re not tourists. You are stateless.” The Austrians did an extraordinary job for the Yugoslav refugees. The small country has taken on hundreds of thousands of people. The system needed a breaking point. They were like, “You have to continue on.” We had my auntie and uncle, my father’s brother and sister, living in one of the refugee camps there already. They took us into that refugee camp.

The NGO that was running those refugee camps were happy for us that we couldn’t register as refugees. Our family shared their meal rations with us. We slept in their rooms until there was a situation where we could register as refugees. We were advised to go to Traiskirchen. From what I gather, it’s still a refugee migrant camp outside Vienna. We went to registration. Once we got registered, we got a portion. Traiskirchen at that stage worked. It’s a big refugee camp, but everybody gets there. The NGO works with other refugee camps around the country. When there’s a spot open, you get sent there.

It’s like a funnel.

We were in Traiskirche. It was destiny that I was going to be there because, whilst at Traiskirche, I was walking through the refugee camp. I saw an ad that talked about Australia and Australian refugee intake at that stage. My other family, my aunt and my uncle, have already put their hands up for Australia. They said, “Let’s go to Australia.” Grandma was scared. My grandfather was still in Bosnia. She was like, “It’s so far away.” I begged her. I said, “Please take me there, and you can come back.”

We put our hands up. The whole series of tests as you do is hard. We still have refugee intake progress, but you go to medical, dental, and security tests. A year passed, and we were still going from refugee camp to refugee camp in Austria. One day, we found out that we had been successful. We get ready to go. That was after a couple of years of being a refugee in Australia. We got our ticket to Australia. I have the visa framed. I had a mullet. It was scary.

The fact that you have it framed doesn’t surprise me because it’s a special moment. We arrived on the 25th of October 1995. Several years later, we still, as a family, collectively send each other a message every 25th of October because that’s the day our lives changed as a family. It’s the day that a new life started.

We arrived on the 25th of November 1995.

You’re from 12, 13, 14 into 15 around all these different refugee camps. What was life like? Describe that for us.

It was a strange time. I just became a teenager. It’s a time when a lot of teenagers seek belonging. Belonging couldn’t be there. You are changing friends every 4 or 5 months. There were no ways to meet a girlfriend. Everything was passing. At the same time, I had issues in certain schools and places with racism and bullying. I’m being chased. As you find in all countries, there are always certain fringes, including kids who are harsh for being different. It was easier than Bosnia, but in some sense, it was more difficult because you couldn’t spread your roots somewhere and go, “I’m going to stay here for a while.”

Everything was passing. You couldn't spread your roots somewhere as a refugee. Share on X

Did you go to school?

Yes, I did. I finished up in Traiskirchen for a few months. I finished living in a little place which is an idyllic place you can imagine. It’s in the middle of Stadtgemeinde. The sound of the music is gorgeous. We live inside a small camp, which used to be a Catholic convent, and the nuns donated to the refugees. There were about twenty families in there. It was a small township. I went to school there for several months. I had to change schools after about three months because I had some bad bullying occurred at that stage. I found myself as being the only refugee there. The kids were unkind. I finished up going to a different school again.

What happened?

It was mainly for being a foreigner. Kids would chant, “Foreigners, get out.” They would chase me and try to beat me up. It is the usual issue you find when the plague of bullying captures school. Age 14 was difficult, but at age 15, I started growing rapidly. I’m not exactly a small guy. I became a relatively large fifteen-year-old. That drove off some bullies. I changed schools. I finished up for the final year. It was year nine. I continued my schooling. Needless to say, that schooling was disrupted for a few years.

It was in Germany.

Yes. I came here speaking German.

How was that? Back to my experience, I ended up in Germany, in Munich. We weren’t too far off. We were on the other side of the Alps. I remember that experience being, on the one hand, somewhat exciting because you’re like, “I’m in a different place.” It is also exceptionally frightening. On my first day in a German school, I didn’t speak German at the time. They came in, and I had to do a physical health check. I had no idea what they were doing. All of a sudden, I was in a room. They were asking me to take my clothes off. They had the stethoscope and check-in. I realised it was a medical.

They asked me to take my underpants off. This is where the fear kicks in. I started striking out and kicking the people away there. There was a lady and a guy. They were both going, “It’s okay.” They are calming me down. All they wanted to do was to check everything was okay. Even now, I think back, it was exceptionally frightening.

Everything else was okay, but that was the final straw of my modesty and privacy. At that stage, I was 12 or 11. It was an exceptionally intimidating time because we harboured this idea of Germany and Germans. The German and German government have a special place in my heart for letting us stay when it was hardest, but it certainly wasn’t easy being there.

I finished one year of schooling in occupied Prijedor. It was not pleasant for the Muslim kids who were left behind. We were bullied. We were made feel unwelcome. When I came to Austria, I already had a harboured fear of going to school because I didn’t want to be that kid again who finds himself being the oddity. That’s what happened to me.

I found myself on a path where I didn’t want to be in school anymore. I couldn’t hack it. Things changed in the last place. It was getting a bit better. When I got to Australia, it was the efforts of our teachers and our social workers. They got me back into the education system. It was more difficult and scary for a child. That is something worthwhile.

Having been a soldier for a reasonably long time and having experienced war, I find that war is easier on soldiers than civilians because the destructiveness that war brings to social systems and lives is enormous. In many ways, it shapes people’s lives for generations to come. It is harder on the civilian population when the war has fallen amongst them.

War is easier on soldiers than civilians. The destructiveness that war brings to social systems and lives is enormous. It shapes people's lives for generations to come. Share on X

That’s what this show is about. It is about the cost of war through those who have lived it. We don’t understand this. It’s easy to cast judgment on those who you perceive as different or remote. We found this during the 2015 refugee crisis. We misunderstand or misinterpret what the reality of a refugee is like.

Think back to the language surrounding being a refugee in Germany. I love Germany and the German people. We were there as refugees on this permit called Duldung, which roughly translates to bearing or tolerating you. The formal translation is the tolerated state permit. The language of that in itself is about belonging. How important is that? Within the term itself, you are told, “You don’t belong. We are tolerating you because we can’t deport you for one reason.”

That’s an important insight to unpack from our discussion. Both of us have been refugees, which is something that stands out for me, but listening to your story, this idea of belonging and of otherness keeps coming through. Now that you’re in Australia, you’ve been here for many years. How do you identify now? What is your identity? Are you Bosnian or Australian? Are you something else? What are you?

I identify as Australian. I have been here for a long time. When I came to Australia, it was the first time I took free breath. I went to the first school I went to. We went to a school called Intensive English Centre. It was all for different refugees all around the world. None of us could speak English. We were hanging out and smiling at each other.

Where did you land? Where did you first arrive in Australia?

Sydney.

Which IC did you go to?

I went to Holroyd High School. It is outside of Maryland. Prior to my journey, I spent around Maryland. It is a multicultural area. I felt a sense of belonging in Australia. The way my grandma and I were accepted into this country and the opportunities I was afforded, it would be a miss to say that I feel anything but Australia.

I acknowledge my Bosnian heritage. I speak the language or listen to music. When I say sense of belonging, my sense of national belonging lies with Australia. My sense of cultural belonging is shared by who I am. I identify myself as Australian. It gives me a sense of freedom. In Australia, you can choose to tune out to hatred that I can hear in where we came from, rising again.

You’ve mentioned your experiences in the refugee camps with the British soldiers. You saw good soldiering and kindness. Thinking back now to your entire experience of Bosnia, the war, refugee days, and all the tragic loss of experience, how has that shaped your own service in the Australian Army?

In preparation for this interview, there are two stories I want to contrast here. They are held vividly in my memory. They shaped what soldier I am. The first one starts in Bosnia. It was one of the scariest experiences I had there. It was a raid on our apartment by some Serbian forces. They had big beards as they did in the blackhead. They came in and smashed the door.

My dad was away already. He was taken away. My uncle was living in our apartment. They were looking for somebody. They busted the door and stormed the apartment. I was in a small apartment. It was maybe 50 to 60 square meters tops. There was the living room, and there was a spare bedroom. The living room was my uncle and aunties. The spare bedroom is with all the kids. They were in the living room. They started asking my uncle questions. Who was he? What was he? Was he a sympathiser?

My uncle replied to him, “I’m not, Brother.” In Bosnia, you can finish with brother. This guy looks at him. He was like, “I’m not your brother.” He started screaming at him and abusing him. My mom and auntie started begging for mercy. All of us were crying. We were all traumatised. At that moment, there were five soldiers who entered there. There was a young guy. We had coats. They kicked some coats. He turned around and started putting coats back up. He left his rifle outside, closed the door, sat down with us kids and started interacting with us. He is joking and telling us it’s all going to be okay. He provided an absolute contrast to the horror.

He stayed in my memory because it shows a human being coming out behind the unit, going, “These kids are scared.” He showed me what I consider kindness and consideration. He influenced me in the way I go about my business. I’m more careful of the mess I’m creating around myself. I’m acutely aware of the impact of what I do.

The second part was about the British soldiers in the refugee camp and the efforts they made to help us out. When I say good soldiering, it is because they went above and beyond. They tried to help us all. Day in and day out, they are fixing stuff and painting walls. They are contributing, enhancing, and building something for us.

The camp wasn’t a great state, far from it. It was their interaction and them coming out. During their breaks, they are playing soccer with us. They are organising a disco. It was them. You can see that they were doing more than they had to do. It is good soldiering because the effect it creates is I, who was influenced by that. I still treasure the pictures I have of them.

I had built a relationship with British people. That’s why I say good soldier. That soldier in Bosnia who fixed up stuff is an attribute of a soldier. He’s trying many things. That’s how it shaped me as an officer. I’m aware of the mess that is made by war. I’m not saying that because I’m a realist. I understand that wars will always occur, but I’m acutely aware that the second-order and the third-order effects are creating people around us. It is not simple for them. We fall into the trap of simplifying the experiences of the civilian population.

It’s an important insight, particularly for those who are like both of us, wielding military power in times of war or peacekeeping. You’ve deployed a number of times to Afghanistan. You’ve also been to East Timor. Were there times when you remembered your experience of war and that changed the decision that you made or how you approached the particular situation?

Yes, I’m always acutely aware of it. East Timor was the first time. Several years after I arrived in Australia, I found myself as a soldier. It was a similar theme of misery amongst the civilian population of seeing those kids. It did assist me. I readily connect with people. Some people take longer to understand the human side. They’re seeing outside of the vehicles they’re driving. I felt an immediate connection and sense of empathy, and I always do.

For Afghanistan, what I found is there are some cultural traits that we inherently share with Afghan people. Coming from being from Bosnia, a lot of those cultural traits were brought on by the Turkish empire. Hence, some of our sayings and foods. I felt empathy. I understood a bit better. It helps us because you can build a construct of the opposition’s framework. I’m not saying I understand what the opposing side is trying to achieve, but I can’t build a construct in my head on how they came to their conclusions and what they’re going for because I’ve seen people buy into some unreasonable ideas and be part of this collective.

Every time I go overseas, and I’m amongst the civilian population, I remember something else from when I was a refugee or when I was during the war. It helps me come to terms with things because there’s nothing worse than it is you, who experienced the absolute horror, and nobody else has. As bad as this sounds, I’m not promoting people’s experience of horror. I’m saying that when you see that this condition is shared, it helps you go, “Crack on it at night.”

To contextualise your experience, what tools or methods do you use to keep yourself going?

I like reading history. At the beginning of this show, we talked about how I found out about the horrors that occurred. I tried to research what happened in that all year. I tried to research the history of people. I tried to contextualise it so we can get away from this lazy duality that we apply to everything, good and evil, black and white. Everything is simplified. Everything is grey. I go and research. I’m reading about building a better picture. Along the way, it helps me contemplate and bring it along.

The most important thing is that people in my life helped me. My wife, family, you, and the great military family are always there. There is no simple solution to dealing with this. I suppose what you have to guard against these is building a deep mistrust against everyone. You have to understand that your perceptions of something occurring may not necessarily be shared perceptions by everybody else. If you truly want to understand what happened to you, you have to apply some academic rigour along the way to understand the human condition and why I got there.

You must understand that your perceptions of something occurring may not necessarily be shared by everybody else. If you truly want to understand what happened to you, you must apply academic rigor to understand the human condition. Share on X

You keep reiterating the idea of the narratives that people embrace. You have to unpack your own narratives. Having seen people who have committed horrendous acts through misinformation, I’m reminded of Voltaire, those who make you believe absurdities will make you commit atrocities. The fact that you are linking education to that point is hugely important.

You’ve been generous with your time, but maybe one last question that builds on this. Since joining the Army, you’ve completed a Master’s in Military and Defence Studies. You’ve done a Master of Business. You’ve got a graduate certificate in justice. You are a perpetual student to keep nurturing, understanding, or unfolding. What drives this thirst for knowledge?

Firstly, I have to acknowledge my mother, who yelled at me even before the war started. If I don’t study, I’m nothing.

If you don’t study, you’ll end up in politics.

It’s a form of therapy. That is the great thing about knowledge along the way. It’s not specifically the subject that you are studying. It’s not a certain field that you’re studying. It’s what you’re exposed to as you’re researching that field. You come across some amazing points and observations about the human condition or somebody’s view on how the world functions. I use the study as a form of meditation and to keep my mind sharp.

I love studying. I’m not a huge fan of writing essays. I’ll bring that straight up. I don’t go out of my way to write randomly. When I commit to something, I stick to it. It’s like a pool with red. I go for it. At times, that world would be a better place if people read and studied a little bit more. Along that journey, you learn more things. You get rid of these simplifications. Stereotypes and prejudices form the groundwork for greater evils. I strongly advocate for people to study.

The world would be a better place to live if people read and studied a bit more. Along the journey, you learn about more things to get rid of the groundwork for greater evils. Share on X

You are now a father to Senad. It’s your dad’s name that your son carries. What are your hopes for him?

Many people think that having a dad who lived through all this, I would be a realist. I’ll declare to the readers, I’m a helicopter parent. The great thing about fatherhood is you have a chance to shape somebody’s life and create a life that you wished for yourself. A life surrounded by love, of not wanting, and of not being hungry. What I hope for him is that one day, when he is a grown man, along the way, Katie and I will impart some good ethical and moral goalposts for that kid. He’s a good human.

He can turn around and say, “Dad arrived in this country as a refugee. He served and committed himself to Australia. He feels anchored to this country.” I want him to have an uninterrupted childhood. I want him to have friends that he met in daycare. He’s still friends when he’s in year twelve. I want him to be happy. He can make a choice if he wants to travel. I’m going to make a boring life for him. He can make it more exciting. I do it because it helps me as well.

It’s been an absolute pleasure. I’m deeply touched by your story. Thank you for sharing your experiences. You’re an exceptional human being. You’ve gone through so much, and you’ve turned all of that negative energy into something positive where not only are you serving, but you are a respected leader at that, somebody who looks to expand his understanding of the world on a day-to-day basis.

Thank you for taking the time to speak with me. This is an important conversation. You were one of the first people I thought of when I thought of doing this show. Your story needs to be told because it is uniquely relevant to the message of this particular show. There are many unseen wounds in a war that we rarely speak about and cover in any great depth in our media or social media, and that is not seen. There are scars that are carried internally. Thank you for your time. It’s very much appreciated.

Thank you also for giving me the opportunity to talk. I’m proud of you for starting this. I hope all our readers draw something out of these conversations. During my conversation, these are my views. If I offended somebody, I apologise for the stories as it is. Thank you very much for having me.