Holocaust Memorial Day: We must not forget

Jasmina Foric. PIC: Scott Merrylees
Jasmina Foric. PIC: Scott Merrylees
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It is just over 25 years since war in the Balkans erupted and ahead of Holocaust Memorial Day, Chris Bond talks to a Bosnian woman who fled to the UK about her story.

Jasmina Foric keeps her front door key in a little wooden box.

It isn’t the key to the house the mother-of-three lives in with her family in Dewsbury. Instead it’s the key to her father’s old house nearly 1,500 miles away - a reminder of who she is and where she comes from.

Jasmina has lived in West Yorkshire for the past 21 years along with her husband Ahmet. But while their three children were all born in England and have grown up here, she and Ahmet are Bosnian Muslims who found themselves caught up in the Balkans War during the 1990s - a conflict that claimed at least 100,000 lives and forced two million people to flee their homes.

At the time, Yugoslavia was held together by the bootstraps of Communism and when it collapsed in Europe in 1990 old simmering rivalries, previously held in check, bubbled to the surface.

First Croatia and Slovenia were embroiled in a bitter war with the Serb-dominated Yugoslav army. Then Bosnia, home to a complex mixture of Serbs, Muslims and Croats, found itself fighting against Serb forces led by Radovan Karadzic.

What followed was a process of ethnic cleansing including the massacre at Srebrenica where, in July 1995, Bosnian Serb forces killed more than 8,000 Bosnian Muslims.

Tomorrow marks Holocaust Memorial Day and Jasmina is among those determined to ensure this dark chapter in recent human history is not forgotten.

Her story is a long and fractured one. She and her family - consisting of her, her mother and father, grandmother, two sisters and a brother, were one of many Muslim families living in Bosnia at the time.

Jasmina lived in Bosanski Petrovac, a town close to the Croatian border, and before the civil war started she says local communities lived in harmony. “Everyone had a house and car and families went on holiday. Most people had a job and life was good,” she says.

But in May 1992 the war spread to her country. “Serb Muslims, Croatian people, Catholics, gypsies, all these people were living in Bosnia. At the time people were saying ‘the war will not come to us’ because we all lived together. But the Serb army came and everything changed. All of a sudden we had to hide, there was a curfew in the evening and you couldn’t leave your house.”

In some towns families that had known each other for generations turned on one another. But Jasmina says her family was fortunate. “Our neighbours were kind to us, they brought food for us. They put it under a tree and told us to get it late at night so that we wouldn’t be seen.”

But there were other harsh impositions. “I was working in a clothes factory and for a whole year I didn’t get paid. None of the Muslim workers got paid but we just hoped that things would return to normal.”

They didn’t. As the fighting intensified many Bosnian families fled, ending up in refugee camps scattered across Eastern Europe. Amid all the fear and confusion many families were split up.

But they were the lucky ones who got out. Not everyone did. “My husband is from Prijedor and he and his father were sent to a concentration camp and so were his two brothers. My husband was put on a bus but his father was forced to stay behind and he was killed.”

Jasmina’s family was among those that became separated. Her youngest sister Emina was just eight years old when she arrived in the UK in 1992 - one of 20 refugee children taken in by a Scottish family.

Four months later her mother and brother joined her in Scotland. But Jasmina along with her father and grandmother were left behind and sent to a camp in Croatia.

“I stayed there for a year-and-a-half and all that time I tried to get a visa for the three of us so we could be with the rest of my family. My dad was given a visa but me and my granny were refused.”

Her father waited for six months but eventually had to leave. “On the last day I said to my dad, ‘your visa expires today so you have to get to England’ so he went which was hard for us both.”

Jasmina, who was 21 at the time, remained in Croatia to look after her elderly grandmother. “It was very hard because it was the first time that I found myself alone without my family.”

She was finally granted a UK visa and reunited with her family in Scotland, in February 1995. “It was very emotional. It’s hard to describe what it was like because there were times when I didn’t think I would see them again.”

A few months later Jasmina and Ahmet were reunited. They quickly got married before moving to Dewsbury to start a new life.

Jasmina, now 48, has been back to her homeland since and says that though the country has recovered the wounds are still raw. “Lots of mothers are still trying to find out what happened to their sons and every year more bodies are found.

“We went back to my town and it has changed. Some families from other towns are living there now.”

Yorkshire, she says, is her home now. “Perhaps I will go back when I am older but my kids are here in England and their life is here. They will start their own families one day and I want to be with them.”