“The word ‘war’ was used more and more often in 1991; I was six years old, so I knew what it meant. That people were killing each other. Then, slowly but surely, bombs started to drop, the air-raid warning sounds, and we, as school children, had to gather in the gym, there was no shelter. Later on, you think about what if a bomb had hit right there.”
Loud noises, for example on New Year’s Eve, don’t affect him. But the monthly air-raid alarm here on Mondays, those sirens, “I find that difficult, that’s when the memories come back.”
Bakir was born in a country that no longer exists, Yugoslavia, in the Bosnian federal republic. “My parents grew up under Tito [Field Marshal Tito, president of Yugoslavia from 1953 to 1980], ‘Bratstvo i Jedinstvo’, Brotherhood and Unity was the slogan. Ten years after Tito’s death, everything exploded. Even the neighbours turned their backs on you. My parents were so disappointed.”
“We lived in Livno, a small town of about 50 thousand inhabitants close to the Croatian border in the west. Livno is oriented towards Split, which many people here know. My mother studied Law, but didn’t complete it, she was a secretary for the mayor, so she heard a lot. My father was the director of an electricity company, he is a business economist. We had a lot of family living nearby, my grandparents on both sides, uncles and aunts. We made trips by car, in a Yugoslavian Zastava, often going to the seaside or picnics along the river. We lived well.”
Bosnia has various population groups: Serbians, Croatians and Bosnians, mainly Muslims. The Bulic family belongs to the last group.
“Yes, we are Muslims, but the super liberal kind. My grandmother didn’t even wear a scarf; my grandfather liked a glass of raki. My parents were almost non-practising, anything I know about religion, I learned from my grandparents. But the point is: at the time you didn’t stop and think about who was what. Everyone celebrated everything, the more the merrier, Eid, Easter; any chance to celebrate something was welcomed. We lived in a predominantly Croatian area. At one point, more and more nationalist party flags appeared in the streets. The country was already starting to disintegrate, Slovenia had separated from the federation, Croatia followed, and there was a referendum in Bosnia. Serbians resisted Bosnian independence, and our city of Livno was threatened by the Serbians. My father went to the front line; he was simply called up, initially the Bosnians and the Croatians fought together against the Serbians. He served in a Bosnian-Croatian unit.
“Yes, everyone was emotional with each farewell, when he left again, but he always returned. The rest of the family fled to the coast a few times, to Split. When it was no longer dangerous, we went home again.
“I was terribly scared. We lived in an apartment, as soon as the bombs started to fall, we had to go to the air-raid shelter, I was always the first one there. You stayed there until the morning. At the time that the first bombs were dropped, I was playing outside with a couple of friends on one occasion when a grenade exploded close by, just behind the next apartment building. I was shocked to the bone. There was lots of stuff lying on the ground, bullets from which we extracted gunpowder to play with. There were also a lot of hand grenades going around, I once saw someone commit suicide with one, I still remember seeing pieces of denim material with blood, and pieces of his body.
“The strange thing is, you grow up amid the tension and it becomes normal, you get used to it. A child grows up quickly during wartime. Still, I don’t think that I am traumatised. I suffered from nightmares when we first arrived here in the Netherlands, but after about three years they stopped.
“At one point something changed. Croatia demanded parts of Bosnia, ultranationalist Croatians turned against the Bosnians. A large part of the Croatians did not agree with this - we are still friends with many of them – but they couldn’t stand up to the nationalists. The atmosphere changed, almost from one day to the next, I was called names when I was outside, and where you used to never see soldiers, there were now men in black uniforms everywhere. My father was arrested while at work and brought to the primary school for interrogation; the schools had been closed for some time. He was a prominent figure in Livno, one of the intellectuals, he was often on the radio and things. People like him were first in line. They were interned in an indoor stadium. I remember that we went to visit him; you had to go down through the grandstand and somewhere in a hall you could look for your father. Everyone was smoking, the air was blue.
"Later, we heard that the militant Croatians’ original idea was to shoot the internees. They were already in buses on their way to an abandoned mine; the body bags were lying in wait. Mesic, who later became prime minister of Croatia, managed to prevent this. My father was lucky on more than one occasion; he had many friends in the city. We know about a director of a large company who was tortured by his Croatian employees. There were also doctors from the hospital who had to stand in the freezing cold river, washing cars.
“My mother immediately lost her job, on the principle that ‘all Muslim women had to leave’. So after my father was released, they both had no work and no income. By that time - it was 1993 - they decided to flee. I was eight years old.”
They were not the only ones. The fact that the Bosnians were packing their bags en masse, spread through the city like wildfire.
“Then you get people at the door who know you need money and have to sell your belongings. I thought that was horrible, there was practically nothing left, there was only a carpet left in the bedroom; when I heard my mother negotiating the price of the vacuum cleaner, I was furious. They gained from our misery.
“We were the first of our family to leave, saying goodbye was very emotional. The train journey took us through Zagreb and then on to Germany. My father’s nephew had arranged a visa from there. But my parents wanted to continue on to the Netherlands, they had heard that it was a very tolerant country. So from Bonn we were smuggled across the border by a Bosnian immigrant worker, for free, he did it for his fellow countrymen.
We applied for asylum in the Netherlands and ended up in an asylum seekers’ centre in Harderwijk, in a small caravan. Then we went to the AZC in Amersfoort, where our family was given a large room. It was a warm welcome here in the Netherlands, we were really grateful. My father bought a Dutch dictionary within three days; he wanted to learn the language as quickly as possible. He came to this country with a suitcase, a couple of plastic bags and a briefcase: he wanted to work. When we were given the A status after nine months, we moved to Maastricht. That is where they wanted to be, not in the Randstad: too big, too much crime. We lived in Malpertuis, back then you were given ten thousand guilders from the government as a loan, to set yourself up, but a large part of that went to family in Bosnia, food parcels, money in envelops; they were much worse off than we were. It did mean that we bought second-hand furniture at the Emmaus in Itteren, and that my sister and I, she was four years younger, did not have designer clothes.
"I was different, and I was bullied because of it. Fortunately, I was good at sports so I could prove myself that way. And I occasionally punched a guy. I felt like an outsider until the first year of secondary school, at the Montessori College. Fleeing like that makes you ‘different’, I often felt older than the rest. Even a little deprived, others had more than we did. It was only towards the end of secondary school – we were naturalized after five years – that I felt like a real Dutch citizen. Although that is a little ambiguous, I speak better Dutch than Bosnian, which feels a little like treason against your roots.
"My father quickly found work through a project for those with higher education, at the CBS, as an economist. My mother worked in care for the disabled, a workfare job. I’m absolutely convinced that working is the best way to integrate. They always said: we are not going back. I wouldn’t want to live in Bosnia anymore. My mentality is very different; I am a very positive person, while over there negativism rules. People begrudge each other everything; people do not believe in democracy, they are not moving forward. If you want to study there – a cousin was planning to do so – you don’t go to the open days to choose a good university; no, you have to bribe the dean to get admitted.
“Srebrenica, that mass murder of Muslim men in 1995, we were very angry about that, and still are. Without firing a single bullet, Dutchbat handed them over to their killers. Someone like Karremans, when I see him on television I feel like shooting him. I don’t watch documentaries about it, I can’t, it gives me sleepless nights. Anyway, we don’t blame the Netherlands for what happened, the UN played a role, the support that was requested was not given. And the fact that Kok as prime minister resigned and gave up his cabinet because of the investigation report on Srebrenica, was greatly appreciated by us. It is great to see how Dutch democracy works in cases like that.
“The atmosphere surrounding asylum seekers has changed a lot. I wonder if those who are against them realise what it is like for people who have to flee. Just imagine - my father was not much older than I am now, about 30 - that I would have to flee with Lian and Nina, leaving everything behind. You simply can’t think about it. And when the discussion is about Islam, I always feel it’s me who is being addressed, I am part of that group. But well, those idiots in Cologne, or that devilish IS sect; I try not to go with my reflex and start explaining the good things about my religion, what it really entails.
“Bosnian history still makes me angry. Especially angry towards the nationalists, on all sides, also the Bosnians. This nationalism just continues. I mustn’t read too many news sites; they are narrow-minded, primitive souls, always ‘them’ and ‘us’. That is why I cannot tolerate types like Wilders. I know what that kind of rhetoric can lead to.”