Can Europe Make It?: Opinion

The tale of Maglaj: a story of war and peace

How a documentary film bringing together war veterans from opposing sides of the Bosnian War can help heal national trauma

Ian Bancroft
20 October 2021, 12.00am
A view of Maglaj Old Town in Bosnia and Herzegovina
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Adel Bašić / Alamy Stock Photo

While the rest of the world marked the International Day of Peace on 21 September, a date on which warring parties are asked to put down their weapons for 24 hours, many from the town of Maglaj, in north-central Bosnia and Herzegovina, recalled the first assault on the town by the Army of Republika Srpska back in 1992.

Over 25 years later, three veterans of those dark days – Rizo, Boro and Marko – are spearheading efforts to ensure that younger generations, many of whom were born after an uneasy peace was reached in 1995, do not repeat the mistakes of the past. In a documentary entitled ‘Maglaj – War and Peace’ (or ‘Maglaj – rat i mir’), supported by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s Mission to Bosnia and Herzegovina, they share reflections about a war that consumed their lives.

The power of their testimonies derives in part from the fact that each of the three protagonists fought on different sides. Rizo ‘Talijan’ Salkić was commander of the Recon-Engineer Company of the 327th Army of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina Maglaj Brigade; Boro Jevtić was company commander of the Army of Republika Srpska 3rd Ozren Brigade; whilst Marko Zelić served as the chief of military police in the Croatian Defence Council (HVO) covering the Maglaj area. Despite the war, their friendship has flourished.

'We all lost'

Maglaj is like any one of numerous places throughout Bosnia and Herzegovina. A sizeable river, in this case the Bosna, flows through its centre, before winding its way through valleys and hills to merge with the Sava. Before the war, it was a quietly prosperous industrial town in what was then Yugoslavia, home to a paper and print plant. When war broke out, Maglaj had a population of 43,388 – 45% Bosniak, 31% Serb, 19% Croat and 5% of so-called ‘others’. A reel of clips from the documentary captures the normality of life back in the 1980s, with people dancing in a restaurant as a band play, and sitting together sipping coffee under parasols.

Even when they could hear explosions coming from neighbouring towns, many still believed that war would pass them by. Rizo explains how Maglaj was “a multi-ethnic town before the war… We all lived together. No one cared about names or origins,” adding ruefully how they were all “comrades”. It is a sentiment you will hear expressed across the country; a disbelief that the very social fabric of communities could so rapidly fray and unravel.

In the film, Marko describes how “we were simply set against each other… And, when it all ended, we realised that no one had won or lost.” After pausing for the briefest of moments, he concludes, “I mean, we all lost, after all.” Rizo concurs. “We were at war fighting each other, but we didn't know why.” His words underline a shared sense of futility that appears to motivate the sharing of their experiences. As Boro puts it, “You defended your house, your family, but you didn’t know who you were defending it from at the beginning of the war.”

During the war itself, encounters with the other side often occurred through what Rizo describes as exchanges of “the living and the dead”. In the nearby village of Moševac, where the river Bosna served as the front line, they would come to yell information to one another across the waters. Such encounters in the vicinity of Maglaj itself were simply too dangerous given the presence of snipers and heavy artillery, but here they found sufficient calm for dialogue.

People “never spoke about war… only about daily things”, Rizo tells me, as if they were still seated in a pre-war kafana (cafe). More often than not, the voice on the other side was a familiar one. Maglaj is a small town and as Rizo notes, “Everyone knew each other – people used to work together.” Relationships established in times of peace found ways, no matter how precarious, to transcend the very horrors of war. Today, nurturing such bonds is vital for Bosnia and Herzegovina’s future.

The example of Rizo, Boro, and Marko can help other individuals and communities find the language they need to address the past and its legacies. They can serve as an inspiration to other war veterans to put their own testimonies into the public domain, even if they do so anonymously, creating a powerful collection of reflections. Such voices are potentially vital resources for peace-building, particularly bearing in mind the standing war veterans often enjoy in their own communities. Yet there is still something of a reluctance to engage openly with those who fought on the opposing side; a reluctance that this documentary, and the conversations it sparks, can help tackle.

Psychological consequences

Many in Bosnia and Herzegovina grapple daily with the psychological consequences of war. Trauma remains taboo. People are left to cope or suffer in silence. It needn’t be so. By facing the camera, the courage of Rizo, Boro and Marko will hopefully persuade others to open up about their own experiences and dilemmas, their fears and frustrations. When asked, Rizo expresses surprise that he hasn’t heard anyone talk negatively about him sharing his own perspectives, whilst noting that the film doesn’t attempt to accuse anyone. “We just speak in the name of peace,” he insists.

It is individuals like Rizo, Boro, and Marko who could inspire change in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and elsewhere. They have travelled throughout the country, screening the film and debating with audiences of all ages. Their engaging manner and disarming honesty can persuade others to pose difficult and critical questions, and ultimately to renounce violence. Through their personal testimonies they give voice to others – to those who’ve often found themselves silenced or marginalised.

Their example demonstrates the importance of talking openly as a pathway towards empathy and understanding, and as a means of overcoming misconceptions and misunderstandings. Ultimately, each of them shares a simple wish – to live a normal life where they do not have to worry about their children. It is a wish that resonates everywhere.

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