We have all seen the horrific images of Ukraine. It is unthinkable.
Yet it has only been 27 years since the end of another bloody war in Europe.
The Bosnian War, 1992-1995, was an ethnic war caused by the breakup of Yugoslavia. Under communist dictator Josip Tito, republics of different ethnicities had cohabited for 35 years. After his death, they fought wars to become independent states.
The Bosnian war was the last and bloodiest of these wars. For three years, the Army of the Republika Srpska, whose goal was to cleanse Bosnia of its Muslim population to create a unified Serbia, committed atrocities against the people of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
How can one recover from such human brutality? I asked Leila Lyon, a brave and beautiful Bosnian who is a stylist at a popular hair salon in Dunwoody.
Raised in the ancient town of Kostajnica, on the Croatian border in the Republika Srpska, Leila was only five years old when Tito died. She fondly remembers her early years.
Both of her parents worked, her father as an electrician and her mother in a textile factory. Family and friends lived nearby. Their beloved river Una was at the end of the street.
“Even though it was communist under Tito, we had a decent life,” Leila said. “We were mostly happy. Everyone got along, with many intermarriage.
Leila still doesn’t understand how her friends and neighbors have become enemies.
“War was everywhere,” she says.
His own city totally closed. No one could enter. Nobody could get out. They had one hour of electricity a day. His paternal grandparents living in a nearby village had to flee when their town burned down.
“The Serbs did that,” she added.
The Serbs did a lot of other things too, including the 1995 genocide of 8,000 men and boys in Srebrenica for which the leaders were later tried and convicted.
“People have been tortured and killed every day,” Leila said. “We barely had any food and we were hiding all the time, wondering who would be taken away next. Sometimes they didn’t come back.
Her great-grandmother was murdered with her throat slit by Serbian soldiers just outside her house. The bones of his great-uncle were found nearby.
Help finally arrived on July 23, 1992, with the UN Bosanski Novi convoy carrying thousands of Bosniaks to safety in Croatia.
As people began to board the convoy trucks, Leila’s mother was in a dark hospital, giving birth to Leila’s baby brother. Three hours later, the baby and the mother were in an ambulance convoy, and Leila, her sister, her father and her paternal grandmother were crammed into a truck with many others.
Leila was wearing only the clothes she was wearing and a backpack full of baby diapers and her favorite book, “Heidi”. The normally one-hour trip took 17 hours.
In Hanau, Germany, the six of them lived in a room on a former US Army base. After a year and a half, they moved to a one-room apartment where they shared a kitchen with other families.
During the family’s five years in Germany, Leila learned to speak German fluently, graduated from high school, studied cosmetology and apprenticed in a hair salon.
“I graduated in May 1997,” she says. “In July, we came to the United States”
At first they didn’t know where they were going. Sponsored by the First United Methodist Church of Roswell, they arrived in New York, where they were detained for days due to clerical errors on his father’s papers.
“We were afraid he would be fired,” she said.
Then one night a man named David called and said, “Hey, you’re safe. You come to Atlanta.
Their first home was an old apartment on the corner of Roswell and Abernathy roads in Sandy Springs. After three months, the church found them a rental home in Roswell.
“My father worked as a clerk in a grocery store. My mom worked overnight at Kroger as a storekeeper for 16 years,” she said.
Since then, the family has endured more hardship, including the death of Leila’s mother from cancer nine years ago.
“It hurt me more than the war,” she said. “She had suffered so much.
Leila is now an American citizen. She loves the freedom of being American and being able to provide a better life for her children. Her father and siblings live nearby and she has had a job she has loved for 25 years.
She still misses her homeland and often visits her, staying at her grandmother’s old house.
“I am both Bosnian and American,” she said. “If I could live in both places, that would be magical.”
Leila holds no grudges.
“I still have Serbian friends. We have all been affected. You cannot live in the past.