Children of War to Children of Peace: “I wish no child would ever experience what we had experienced!”

Boys from Secondary Dental School with Mitar and Kemal (Photo: Almir Panjeta for UNICEF BiH)

Former belligerent party members and underage soldiers of the Army of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Army of Republika Srpska and the Croat Defence Council they now jointly speak to the youth about the harmful consequences of their wartime engagement. Through the project titled Children of War to Children of Peace, they spoke to young people in 30 workshops in secondary schools across the country about reasons why, after so many years, they now believe that their involvement in military formations as teenagers was wrong, and how it affected their growing up and today's life.

“The aim is to prevent new generations from making the same mistakes we made, to accept each other, to respect each other, and ultimately, not to kill each other,“ says Kemal Šalaka with the Sarajevo Canton Association of Underage Volunteers of the 92-95 Defence and Liberation War. “I find it beneficial for children to see us, once on opposite sides during the war, now speaking to them together about all the horrors we went through, to see that these are the very same horrors. This is one of our last workshops, and we did not expect such positive response as we have witnessed in all workshops.”

“We want them to hear what we went through directly from us, to learn from our experiences instead of finding themselves in a situation where they learn from own experiences”, says Šalaka in the introduction to one of the workshops. At the workshop in the Secondary Dental School in Sarajevo, Kemal was joined by Selvir Tabak and Rusmir Piralić of this Association, Mitar Popović, a former underage member of the RS Army, and Vladimir Perić and Robert Šuban, who joined the Croat Defence Council (HVO) as teenagers.

“I wish no child would ever experience what we had experienced. We say to young people that there are no unthinkable questions and answers, and that they should not hesitate to ask us anything they are interested to know. We lost our youth, we missed the chance to go to school, most of us have health issues, and for all these reasons, we have difficulties in finding a job even though we are still young”, remarked Vladimir Perić with the HVO Association of Underage Volunteers.

Aleksandar Tomičević also took part in the workshop. He was a teenager formerly active in the Medical Corps of the RS Army during the war.

“I was only 15 years old at the time and engaged with the Medical Corps; I was there to witness the worst consequences of the war, to live through all the stress and horror that we do not want anyone else to experience”, says Aleksandra.

 Rusmir, MItar, Robert, Selvir and Vladimir (Photo: Almir Panjeta for UNICEF BiH)

After the screening of a short documentary featuring former underage soldiers discussing their experiences, and the round of introduction to students, a Q&A session followed. Young students, among other inquiries, were interested to know if they were afraid during the war, if someone had forced them to join the army or they volunteered, whether they were wounded and if so, how many times, if it had an impact on their mental health, whether they fight for their rights today and if so, how, and whether they have any regrets.

“Of course I have regrets. If I could go back, never in my right mind would I do the same thing and go through all the horrors I went through. I do this for your sake, and for my children”, said Selvir Tabak in response to the students’ questions.

When asked about the number of times he was wounded, Perić explained, “Once physically, to my body, the second time in the head – mentally.” In his response to a question on psychological impacts, if any, Mitar Popović said that they all still, in a way, feel what they had gone through as children: “Of course there was fear. You watch your friends die, you carry them, and at that point, you are trying to save a bare life and then eventually, nothing seems horrible, but the consequences certainly remain”.

All participants confirmed that they were not forced to join the ranks, but that the war seemed fun at the time and they mainly ran away from home to join the units, while most of them grew up on stories about Boško Buha, a boy-hero of the World War II.

“It is estimated that military units in Bosnia and Herzegovina had 7,000 underage soldiers during the war. Being young and inexperienced, we were excellent “goods” at the time and they could manipulate us any way they wanted”, said Rusmir Piralić during the Q&A.

 Rusmir, MItar, Robert, Selvir and Vladimir (Photo: Almir Panjeta for UNICEF BiH)

The many questions and their content show that students were very interested in the topic addressed by the workshop. After the workshop, many wanted to take photos with Mitar, Kemal, Vladimir ...and even talk a bit more.

“I find this very helpful, and our generation needs to hear about this “first-hand” from those who were our age when the war started. I think there are some young people who, at least to their own account, would resolve some disputes violently, so I believe this is the best way to show them the outcomes of such approach”, said Šejla, a student of the Secondary Dental School after the workshop.

The project Children of War To Children of Peace is implemented by the Sarajevo Canton Association of Underage Volunteers of the 92-95 Defence and Liberation War in cooperation with the Foundation Wings of Hope, being one of the activities supported under the project Dialogue for the Future, as a joint initiative of the Presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the United Nations (UN) in BiH. The project Dialogue for the Future is implemented by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the United Nations Organisation for Education, Science and Culture (UNESCO), in cooperation with the Presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina.