New Internationalist

The hardest journey

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Mirzeta Trnka, now settled in Australia, fled Bosnia during the country’s war in 1995. Her story has a happy ending, but for 20 million others, the struggle to survive as a refugee continues.

Photo by Adam Jones, Ph.D. under a CC Licence
A half-restored facade in Mostar, Bosnia. Photo by Adam Jones, Ph.D. under a CC Licence

My name is Mirzeta Trnka. I was born in Sarajevo, capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina – a country that from 1992-95 was at war. More than 200,000 people were killed and more than 1 million became refugees or internally displaced persons.

Not so long ago I was a refugee too.

When the humanitarian crisis started, the exodus of people started as well. People fled for their lives – people from all walks of life became refugees.

I fled the country in 1995. I was seven months pregnant. My husband couldn’t leave at the time, so I left the town with my mother-in-law. Not the best experience, I must admit. We had to cross, at night and on foot, a mountain called Igman. My mother-in-law was suffering from asthma and a serious heart condition. Needless to say, we had had to leave everything behind: first and foremost our spouses and families, but also all our belongings. At the time we didn’t know if we would ever return to our homes – but it is impossible to take much with you, except memorabilia.

I learned what it means to be classified as a refugee. In a sense it was more humiliating and dehumanizing than living through the hell of three years under siege

Along with a few bags containing our essentials, we had a carrier bag with food and water. Since food and water were scarce on the journey, our bag got stolen very early on. So we had to continue our 24-hour walk across the mountain with no food or water. I was terrified at the thought of what might happen to me and my unborn child without food and water. Luckily there were always good people who were willing to share their food with us.

It usually takes five to six hours to drive, or 45 minutes to fly, from Sarajevo to Croatia, but it took us two days to get to Zagreb. When we finally arrived at our destination I thought that we were saved and that our misery and suffering were over.

What does it mean to be a refugee?

However, just a couple of days after our arrival I learned what it means to be classified as a refugee. In a sense it was more humiliating and dehumanizing than living through the hell of three years under siege, under constant bombing and sniper shooting, starving, without food, water or proper clothing in minus 20 degrees in the winter.

Even though I lived in Croatia as a child and tried to fake Croatian accent, everyone recognized me as a refugee. As soon as I opened my mouth I was greeted by locals with the question: Are you a refugee from Bosnia?

Local passersby yelled obscenities at us, telling us that their government was feeding us for no good reason, and that we should go back to where we came from

I remember once sitting on a wharf at the Croatian coast. A local approached me and although I said nothing, he asked the same question. I was astonished by his explanation that all Bosnian refugee women looked the same – lost, old-fashioned, with long, dry and damaged hair. And I believed at the time that I was assimilating and blending into society! As Croatia was still at war, many local people considered us as a burden to society and the economy and they were openly telling us that we were not welcome.

To make invisible people visible we, refugees, were made to wait outside in hot and cold weather, in long queues, with people pushing in, for food rations. It was the most humiliating experience. Local passersby yelled obscenities at us, telling us that their government was feeding us for no good reason, and that we should go back to where we came from. I was holding a month-old baby and sweating from 40 degrees Dalmatian heat and from humiliation. At that moment I thought: if I didn’t need milk and diapers for my baby I would go back right now and die in dignity in my home country.

The journey has come full circle: from being a displaced refugee to finding a new life and home in a new country

The hardest time for me was when I delivered a baby in a refugee camp in Croatia, without my husband, my family or any support at all. I was on my own with my first child and had no-one to help me. Now when I think back I don’t know how I did it. Becoming a mother for the first time is difficult enough with all the support that women can get in a safe and secure environment, but becoming a first-time mother in such conditions is a true challenge.

A brand new status

Several months later my husband joined us in Croatia. We were looking for ways to leave for a so-called ‘third country relocation’. We heard of UNHCR offices in Zagreb helping refugees from Bosnia. We went to the office in Zagreb and the same day we got registered as UNHCR refugees. So we had a brand new status, we were no longer ordinary refugees; we were refugees under UNHCR’s protection programme. At the time UNHCR was working in co-operation with IOM (the International Organization for Migration) helping relocate refugees to third countries. Two months after our application we got visas and arrived in Australia. UNHCR and IOM helped us with our applications and to gather necessary documentation; we got a visa after our first interview with the Australian Consulate in Zagreb.

So here we are today, living normal lives, lives rebulit from ashes. I have been lucky enough to be offered a job at UNHCR in Australia. The journey has come full circle: from being a displaced refugee to finding a new life and home in a new country – a dream came true. A dream of living a free, independent life, working and – most importantly – raising children in a safe environment.

What I lived through now seems like a distant nightmare. But this is the reality of 20 million refugees living through the same nightmare today.

Today across the world there are 20 million people classified as refugees, waiting for their case to be resolved. That’s more people than the whole Australian population

Refugees are a special category. Eighty per cent of refugees are women and children – the most vulnerable group. They need immediate help, because being a refugee, although in theory an interim period, is a situation that can last for many years, even decades: an ‘interim period’ in which refugees live in extreme conditions and poverty.

Today across the world there are 20 million people classified as refugees, waiting for their case to be resolved. That’s more people than the whole Australian population. Refugees live solely on humanitarian aid – if they are lucky to receive any aid at all. They are totally dependent; there is no way that they can earn a living.

I am lucky that today I can speak out about the plight of refugees, but there are 20 million silent voices waiting for our help.

UNHCR’s World Refugee Day is observed on 20 June each year.

Australia: www.refugeecouncil.org.au

New Zealand/Aotearoa: www.refugeeservices.org.nz

Britain: www.refugeeweek.org.uk

Canada: www.refugeeweek.com

USA: www.unrefugees.org

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