Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Childhood Bonds That Outlived Bosnian War

Two neighbours who fought in opposing armies reached out to each other as they rebuilt their lives.
By Alen Bajramovic
  • Muhamed Bukva (left) and Jovan Jovanovic (right) with friends from the local refugee return committee. (Photo: Alen Bajramovic)
    Muhamed Bukva (left) and Jovan Jovanovic (right) with friends from the local refugee return committee. (Photo: Alen Bajramovic)

Muhamed Bukva and Jovan Jovanovic have been friends since their childhood days, when ethnicity was not an issue in Bosnia.

Muhamed is a Bosniak from the village of Bukve, and Jovan a Serb from Miljanovici, just 200 metres away. Both settlements are in eastern Bosnia in what is now Republika Srpska, one of the two entities that make up the country. Miljanovici is populated by Serbs, while the residents of Bukve are Bosniaks.

“Back then, we visited Serbs in Miljanovici at Christmas, and they’d come and visit us in Bukve on Eid,” Muhamed recalled. “People mixed and celebrated all the important events together.”

While conflict was raging in Slovenia and Croatia in 1991, Muhamed and Jovan were still spending their spare time in the cafes of the local towns of Gorazde and Cajnice. Even when the first shots were fired in Bosnia, they still refused to believe that anything bad could ever happen in Bukve or Miljanovici.

“We first realised that war was inevitable in Bosnia when we saw reports in the media,” said Muhamed. “The last time we saw each other was in a café in Cajnice. We were just hanging out, and we didn’t talk about the war. But it was looming over us”.

The 1992-95 war in Bosnia forced communities apart – quite literally in the case of Bukve and Miljanovici, whose residents fled their homes to take refuge on either side of the conflict divide.

“Each of us went with his own people,” Jovan said. “I joined my people’s army, and Muhamed joined his. It was very hard for both sides, because war can never bring anything good to anyone, just pain and suffering.”

Jovan and Muhamed both spent the next three-and-a-half years in the trenches, on opposing sides. Jovan served in the Bosnian Serb army, while Muhamed was in the Army of Bosnia and Hercegovina.

Now soldiers, they frequently recalled one another.

“I often thought what would happen if we met as soldiers from two opposing armies. Would we be able to shake hands and hug each other, or would we shoot at each other?,” Jovan said. “But despite the war and everything that had happened, I don’t think we would have been able to shoot at each other, because we’d been friends longer than we were enemies.”

Muhamed agreed, adding, “I wouldn’t have been afraid of him if I’d met him when we were both in uniform. We would never have shot at each other.”

The war ended, and another nine years went by without either man knowing the other’s whereabouts. And then, one day, Jovan saw in a TV report that Muhamed had returned to Bukve.

Since Bukve, like Miljanovici, had been burnt down during the war, Muhamed was living in a tent.

Although he was afraid of how his friend would react, Jovan decided to go and look for him in Bukve in March 2001.

He soon realised he had nothing to fear. Muhamed greeted him as an old friend, invited him into his tent and offered him coffee. He even invited Jovan to stay with him and his family while his house in Miljanovici was being repaired.

Instead, Jovan decided to follow Muhamed’s example and put up a tent of his own for his family to live in in Miljanovici.

“At the beginning it was hard,” he said. “We came to this bare field and took it one step at a time. First we had to rebuild our houses, then we needed barns so that we could get some cattle. But things gradually improved.”

Muhamed said representatives of the international community, on whose aid they all depended in the early years after the war, were highly suspicious of him and Jovan. They just could not believe that the Bosniaks of Bukve and the Serbs in Miljanovici would be able to get along well.

“They thought it was some sort of act, a scheme we’d devised to get more money out of them,” Muhamed explained. “Sometimes they’d tell us, ‘This aid is for Bosniaks, so don’t give it to the Serbs’, or vice versa. But when they realised that this wasn’t working, and that we were sharing everything among ourselves, they accepted it. They accepted the fact that we had started living together again, as normal people and as good neighbours.”

More residents of Miljanovici and Bukve have been trickling back gradually, and attempting to heal old wounds and restore the good relations in which they once prided themselves. Fourteen families have come back to the two villages so far.

Muhamed now has a wife and three children, while Jovan lives with his mother and a brother.

The situation in both villages is still grim, though. Although they rebuilt their homes, neither man is in employment, and they live by farming and raising cattle.

Still, they insist life is easier when they are together. They celebrate each other’s festivals once again, and are baffled by the persistence of ethnic divisions in Bosnia.

“Politicians have separated us into these three tribes, Bosniak, Serb and Croat, which isn’t good,” Muhamed said. “But if the economy takes off, their plan to keep people divided will fail. We all have an interest in working and supporting our families, in sustaining ourselves through our work, and that will unite us.”

Jovan says he will never again put himself in a position where he could kill or be killed.

“War is the stupidest thing in the world. If there was another war here, I’d pack my suitcases and leave this country for good,” he said.

Despite the fact that they fought on opposing sides, the recent past is not a taboo subject for either Jovan and Muhamed.

"We do talk about it, but we’re both aware that we had no influence whatsoever on what was happening back then,” Jovan said. “We were just two specks of dust in the wind, unable to prevent or change anything."

Alen Bajramovic is a reporter for RFE and IWPR in Gorazde.