Staggering destruction: The civil war in Syria is reminiscent of the ethnic cleansing of former Yugoslavia between 1991 and 1999
I still remember seeing him in my parents' garden, fresh from a trek from hell, running for his life. What remains seared in my memory is how swollen his feet were — covered in sores and too big to fit inside a new pair of shoes without causing him more pain than he could bear. It was the summer of 1992, and the young man I shall call Sasha, then barely 18, had walked from Sarajevo to Italy, in a roundabout way that took him through central Europe and Austria.
His younger brother had arrived earlier with his mother, before civilisation abandoned their native Sarajevo and Yugoslavia, their country of birth, which was vanishing on the TV screens before their eyes. They had come because the younger boy had been diagnosed with bone cancer at 14. My hometown, Bologna, is the home of one of the most renowned orthopaedic centres in Europe. They had been recommended there. They left home and family to seek treatment and, while away, they had become refugees. Somehow, my parents adopted them.
The elder son followed later, to escape forcible draft into the Bosnian army to fight a war that was not his own. The father came last — years later, a pale shadow of the man he must once have been. He died young, never able to reconstruct the life and accomplishments he had in his native home. His family never returned to Sarajevo.
Their lives were shattered by the break-up of their country. The parents had been affluent and well-placed professionals in the twilight of Communist Yugoslavia. They were educated and had good jobs. Their children were on course for a successful future, all gone, crushed and forgotten by the grand scheme of history.
Today, many citizens of former Yugoslavia have put their ordeals and thousands of other personal tragedies behind them. Slovenia and Croatia are success stories — one an EU member, the other about to join. Montenegro and Macedonia are booming. Serbia, despite a decade of convulsions following the collapse of the Communist federation, has emerged from two wars and, in time, may join the other former republics as a member of the EU. Kosovo is stable. Only Bosnia-Herzegovina remains fragile — its patchwork of ethnicities held together by a complicated framework presided over by a benign European commissar backed by military presence.
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