A Refugee Journey Former Bosnian refugees speak exclusively to The Guardian and tell the story of their journey. We learn how they endured extreme circumstances as they were forced to flee their homes and embark on a dangerous journey to safety.

War inevitably creates victims. With endless news coverage we often lose sight that these victims are no different to you and I, except these are civilians running for their lives. Refugees are merely in desperate search for the safety of their families, but unfortunately through media portrayal somehow they become a statistic. They become solely represented by a number that pin points how many have fled or perished.

The vast majority of people in Britain cannot comprehend what it must be like to have no choice but to abandon your entire life, your career, education and your home, because we have never experienced anything of this sort. The decision to leave is not a straightforward one, it is a flee of desperation and uncertainty.

In this unique multimedia project we get to know the stories of two refugees and explore the journey of Ermina and Vahid Kesedzic who are survivors of the Yugoslavian war.

Ermina's story

Ermina Kesedzic, age 47, Teacher.

A once calm and peaceful Bosnia fell under attack in 1992. Houses were being raided and set alight, women horrifically raped and bombs fell from the sky like raindrops, randomly destroying houses each day. The country had been cut off from food rations and people were dying from starvation. Ermina knew if she stayed in Bosnia, her days would be numbered.

A happy home

Ermina Merdanovic, (Ermina's maiden name) grew up in the busy, popular city of Preijdor. She recalls her youth, smiles fondly and reminisces on what was once a joyful and safe city.

The slideshow below takes you through some of Ermina's happiest memories, whether it's at home with all her family, on holiday or with her university friends, Ermina remembers her youth in Bosnia as carefree.

(from L-R) Taken in 1976: Ermina's mother and father, Ismeta, (25) and Vehbija, (37) and their children, Ermin, (3) Ermina, (7) and Edina Merdanovic, (9).

The family are pictured above holidaying in Croatia, where every year they would spend two weeks. Croatia is only a 4 hour drive from Bosnia and it was a beautiful and popular destination. The family would also visit Germany twice a year where Ermina's father, Vehbija, had a business. these family traditions are something Ermina remembers with strong nostalgia.

Ermina's journey began. She packed twenty-three years of her life into one small suitcase, and squeezing into her mother's car with her sibling, they began their journey in search of safety.

You had to pay a wealthy amount of money if you wanted to cross the borders and leave Bosnia securely, not everyone was fortunate enough to have these funds available. The map above shows the lengthy journey Ermina took to seek refuge.

Ermina quotes what the morning of the day of the first attack felt like...

"You had two choices, stay and be killed or attempt to escape. Neither choice guaranteed your survival, but we couldn't sit idle anymore, I wouldn't let anyone decide my fate for me."
A map showing the break up of Yugoslavia. Most countries wanted their independence and to have their own government. However, there were countries which disagreed with this notion and wanted to stay united as Yugoslavia,.
A map which highlights the places Ermina's family found refuge in, (not pictured is also Australia), she is the only one from her side of the family to now live in England.
"The first 23 years of my life were spent in Bosnia, and the last 23 years spent in England. Bosnia was my home, and now I proudly call England my home."

Vahid's story

Vahid Kesedzic, 2016, security engineer.
"Even after all these years, I still feel lost."

Vahid's story

(This interview has been translated from Bosnian. Vahid speaks good English, however he is much more confident speaking in Bosnian. Therefore, this interview has been translated into English.)

2016 marks twenty years since the end of the Yugoslavia war. We met with Vahid to discuss his youth in Bosnia and what he experienced throughout his journey...

How old were you at the start of the war in 1992? - "I was young, only 24 years old but I was in a very good place in my life. After I finished a degree in mechanics I ran my own garage. It was very good, I worked as a mechanic and rebuilt engines for my town. My garage got a lot of business, I'm a people person, people liked me and I gave them brilliant service in return."

It sounds like you have a very strong work ethic. What were your hobbies in Bosnia? - "Cars are my passion, they are my life's work and my favourite past time. I custom built a car for myself, it was one of a kind. I dedicated three years of my life building it to be perfect for me. I often bought cars, rebuilt and renovated, then sold them along. But I didn't sell my custom, that was special, then of course that was stolen from me during the war."

What was a normal day in Bosnia like for you? - "A normal day for me; I would work at the garage from 7 in the morning till 4 in the afternoon, then in the evening I would ride my motorbike across the towns. I owned three motorbikes and two cars and enjoyed riding them. I had many friends from university and people who I'd gotten to know through my work, and we would go to the local bar and relax. I would then come back to my family home where I lived with my two brothers and parents. The house was four stories, we had more than enough room, we were comfortable and happy. I worked hard and in the end it was all taken from me."

Was there a pivotal moment when you knew something was going wrong in Bosnia? - "The build up to the war was slow but long, there weren't many rumours as none of us believed the disagreements in the government would turn into a war. I do remember, about 6/7 months before the war, I waited hours and hours at a petrol station to fill up my car tank, when it came to pay, the price had more than tripled. This was because the petrol supply had been cut off by the enemy in the time leading up to the war. So I bought a good amount of petrol, built a tank underground near my house, and that was my personal supply. I was able to drive when I needed it most. Business in my garage died eventually, shops weren't able to restock properly with food, everything happened slowly. There was no pivotal moment, suddenly we were under attack."

Did the community/army prepare for anything like this? - "No, terror reigned before we could gather our thoughts or prepare. I was in the army for a year and even the officers in high command did not believe a war on that scale would happen, no one was prepared. The attacking soldiers took all of Bosnia's arms and defenses, how could we fight back?"

Who did you feel you could trust? - "Friends I'd grown up with. Those who used to turn to me for help, turned against me, they turned against anyone Muslim. We were a multicultural country, Mosques, Churches and Cathedrals stood peacefully side by side yet when the war began, it was the Muslims that were being targeted, ethically cleansed. The very same people that only a few months ago I had around my dinner table just enjoying each other's friendship, were now stealing from me, threatening me. A man I knew from my childhood didn't hesitate to hold a gun to my head in the concentration camp. I find it very hard to trust people now."

What happened to you when the war began? - "The Muslim men were taken away to concentration camps. For three days they bombed my town non-stop. My parents, two brothers and I stayed sheltered in the cellar in our home. On the third day the attacking soldiers discovered our home, and a few thousand of them walked the streets of Klujc. They were very vocal about their mission to 'clean the streets' of Bosnian Muslims. They marched in sync from one side of the town to the other, killing as they went by, checking in every house and that's how they found us. They tied the men up and we were stuffed into a truck full of people. I was separated from my two brothers and my father. We were sent to different camps, this is when my journey began as a prisoner in a concentration camp."

How would you describe your time in the concentration camp? - "Horrific, soul destroying. It was something I do not wish upon anybody. I slept in minus temperatures on the floor in a small room with 20 men, they took our belongings, our clothes and beat us daily. I was good at shielding my head so I didn't take as bad a beating as some of the other boys and men. But you could not fight back, they'd shoot you on the spot. At noon every day they'd give you a piece of bread, no bigger than the palm of your hand and we had to drink from a nearby river. One of the first jobs we were forced to do in the camp was to build the very fences that imprisoned us for the 6-8 months we were there."

During your time in the camp, did you ever think about leaving? - "At first yes, I prayed I would leave soon. But as the months went by, my body became more fragile, my mind I wouldn't say was in one piece and I got used to my environment, the torture methods kill your spirit. We were conditioned to follow their orders like dogs, there did not seem like a way out. I stopped counting the days. I narrowly escaped death when the soldiers tried to use water to electrocute myself and three other men but the electricity did not work for some reason. They told us to go back to our room and said they would try another day, but lucky for me they never did. The killings were not systematic like in Nazi concentration camps, these soldiers picked a random number of men daily, and did as they pleased with them. As if for fun..."

Do you think about your time in the camp, can you cope with these memories? - "Every day. I can't avoid it. Each morning I wake up with aching joints and a very painful back, and I flash back to those cold, hard floors I slept on for months and the lashings my body took.The camp I was imprisoned in was called Manjaca, and it was very high up in the mountains. It was winter at the time I was there, and sleeping on the floor in minus degrees has completely destroyed my body. It affects me now, even in the height of summer I need to wear warm thermals as my body will ache at the slightest breeze.

We were robbed of our lives, we lost everything we held dear. The few Bosnian friends I know here in England say half of their life is in Bosnia and half in England and my wife, quite rightfully, calls England her home now, but I personally still feel lost. Even after 23 years in England I don't feel I belong anywhere.

I like to keep myself busy with projects around the house, I bought a car and spent a few years renovating and rebuilding it, to replace the one I lost in Bosnia. I only recently passed my test to drive a motorbike in England, I have my hobbies back. I need things to keep my mind from remembering what I saw, otherwise I'm afraid I'll turn to alcohol or sink into depression.

The stress and trauma I experienced has affected me psychically but also mentally. My months in Manjaca have affected my behavior now, I have extreme trust issues, with that I am probably too protective over my two daughters. My stress and anger are sometimes not in my control. I hate that. It upsets me that it is not only I that the war affected, I raised two wonderful daughters but they will never see the man I was before the torture. However my love for my family is unbreakable, my work ethic is still strong and after everything I do not despise the world, I enjoy life."

How did you leave the concentration camp? - "The British Red Cross nationally uncovered the inhumane conditions we were being kept in, intervened and freed surviving camp prisoners in Manjaca and other camps across Bosnia. I was sent to Croatia where I could finally get in touch with Ermina, who was safe in Germany at the time, and tell her that I was still alive. Ermina was safe in Germany, she had a place to stay with her family.

However she still left for Croatia to come and be with me, it was in Croatia that I was reunited with my two brothers and father who had also miraculously survived. Many journalists from different countries wanted to interview my wife and I. I remember this English lady, she was very compassionate and kind. She was the one who suggested we find refuge in England, and so we did."

A refugee identifies as an individual who has been forced to flee their homeland which has become unsafe due to war or natural disaster. Vahid was saved after seven months in the Manjaca concentration camp in Bosnia by the Red Cross, and Ermina travelled from Germany to meet Vahid in Croatia where they were finally reunited. This is when their journey to England as refugees began...

How were you received by the UK when you arrived? - "During the journey to England I was overcome with a mixture of emotions; I was grieving at the fact that my homeland had been destroyed, I was left with nothing to my name. I was angry at the abuse that my body had been through for so long but also relieved and happy my wife and I were together, and finally safe.

I received medical attention very quickly in England, I can't appreciate that enough. They prepared rooms for the refugees when we arrived, it was a relief but I was still on edge, the future was uncertain.

England gave us the necessary encouragement and financial help we needed to restart our lives; we learnt English, my wife went to university again, I got a job in electrical engineering. I often think about Bosnia and how different our lives may have been if the war had never happened, but I am now content with my job, my health and my family.

This year UK MP's voted yes to retaliate against terrorist attacks from extremist groups and to motion air strikes on the so-called Islamic state in Syria. Recalling back to your time in Bosnia during the war, if you had you heard this decision was made in regards to the Bosnian war, what would your reaction be? - Well it’s hard to say. Back in Bosnia, we couldn’t defend ourselves, the opposition took everything we had and we saw no end to the war. Bosnian Muslims were being massacred and my people were being wiped out, their goal was to ethnically cleanse the country and fast. We were so desperate for an end; personally I would have wanted some sort of action to end everything even if consequently I became one of the causalities.

My story

My name is Selma Kesedzic. I am the daughter of former refugees Vahid and Ermina Keseszic and was born in Bradford twenty-one years ago. Growing up with two Bosnian parents meant I was surrounded heavily by the Bosnian language, however my parents ensured English was my first language as this was my home. I identify as British with Bosnian roots. As my parents were brought up in a trying-communist country there was no particular religion pressured onto them, it was their own choice. I had the same choice growing up; no religion was pressured onto me. Which is why even though I identify as Muslim and celebrate Eid, I do not practice it religiously.

Growing up I celebrated both Eid and Christmas, and although I am not a Christian, I am surrounded by British culture. So ever since I can remember, every year we have had a Christmas tree. As a child in school all of my friends would ask, 'what did you get for Christmas!?' and I am grateful to my parents that I was able to join in, understand and celebrate the culture of the country I was born in and call England my home. My parents think it is important to embrace the culture of the country you are living in. I don't have many family members in England, most of them were separated and dispersed throughout the world at the time of the war and I still have distant relatives I've never met due to location. It is difficult around Christmas and Eid time when my friend's families come together to see one another and if I want that I'd most likely have to buy a plane ticket.

Many of my peers at school in Bradford had never met anyone from Bosnia before, and even though Bradford is a very multicultural town there are not many Bosnian s. It was in high school when my classmates began to question the origin of my name and why is it that I don't sound like I'm from Bradford if I was born there. To this I have no response. It could be due to the fact that I grew up learning two languages, perhaps the way I speak was moulded on my parents Bosnian accents and also English. I could tell that my peers at school could not comprehend how I could be a Muslim, yet white. As a child I explained countless times, 'I am a white European Muslim, everyone in Bosnia looks like me, and no I am not from Asia.' Most individuals my age have never heard of a European Muslim and it was difficult having to explain each time.

Even as children they'd ask questions I did not even know the answer to. I felt silly. Some individuals were ignorant and because they didn't understand it, they made fun of it. Eventually I stopped giving out too many details about myself and kept the fact that I was Muslim and Bosnian quiet. I didn't lie, I just never brought it to light.

Now, as a twenty-one year old, I understand Bosnia and my religion more. I've learnt about Bosnia's history through discussion with my parents and can answer any curious questions I will most likely receive in the future. I will never hide my roots or background again. I want to write about my mother and father's story as I find their journey a unique one, and to me they are inspirational individuals. Both of them overcame the greatest grief and restarted their entire lives. They are hard working individuals who give back to the community and the country which saved them. I respect this.

When I see or hear news in the media about the current refugee crisis I strongly sympathise as the situation of these refugees is not much different to my parents. Refugee's seek safety for their families and the majority of them most likely did not want to leave their homes, but if they wanted a chance of survival, they had no choice.

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