Bosnia’s Child Soldiers Abandoned by the State

An estimated 2,000 children fought in the 1992-95 Bosnian war, sometimes in horrific conditions on the frontlines, but their efforts to win special state benefits have been rejected.

Keno was 15 years old when he first picked up a weapon – and only because the war had arrived at his front door in Sarajevo.

‘Mother woke me up and said to run because the fighting was approaching our house,’ he said, recalling his first day as a child fighter.

‘While I got dressed, the fighting started in front of our building. One neighbour was wounded. He had a gun on his shoulder. They took him away and I took the gun. And that was the beginning.’

Keno volunteered for the Bosnian Army in April 1992. He still cries when he remembers how he lost his best friend on the frontline.

‘It is so hard to talk about all that now, and yet I just cannot say I regret that I did what I did. At that moment it felt right. I was with the people I loved, I felt like I was protecting my mother, sister, and that was all that mattered,’ he said.

When his time as a soldier was over, he said that he simply felt ‘terribly tired’.

‘When I turned 18, I felt like I was at least 36 years old,’ he said.

The war in Bosnia was not only fought on the frontlines, but also in towns and villages, where many ordinary people joined armed units in attempts to protect their families and homes – some of whom would have been considered too young to enlist in the regular army in peacetime.

Among them was Nenad, who comes from a village near the southern town of Trebinje, and joined the Bosnian Serb Army in 1992. He was 16 years old, and at the time, his village was full of men in uniforms, he recalled.

‘Back that time I was obsessed with movies like ‘Rambo’ and all that, dreaming about becoming like him. I joined the army to show off with my guns and uniform and pretend to be Rambo. Unfortunately, my life was not even similar to what I saw in movies,’ he said.

Over the next three and a half years, Nenad became a ‘real soldier’, ending up as a member of a Bosnian Serb special unit and one of the guards for his army’s commander, the war crimes suspect Ratko Mladic.

‘I was fighting all around the country. I wanted to stop, but there was no way out after some of the things I did and witnessed. You know all these stories about war crimes – I know them first-hand,’ he said.

‘I am ashamed of that, but I cannot do anything to change my past that is haunting me now.’

Nenad left Bosnia immediately after the war and never came back. He was interviewed by BIRN in Serbia.

‘Going back to Bosnia is like going back to war for me. Even here where I am living today, I am struggling with my past. In Bosnia, it could be even worse,’ he said.

‘To be honest, I would like to be arrested for war crimes one day, but it seems that nobody is looking for me and I am not brave enough to surrender.’

Nenad, like almost all the teenagers who went to fight, is suffering from post traumatic stress disorder. He said that he has problems with depression, nightmares, lack of concentration, that he has no confidence in people and that sometimes he can hardly control his actions and emotions. But he has never asked for psychological help and said he was unaware of any legal rights or veterans’ benefits to which he might be entitled.

Post-traumatic stress

Around 2,000 children could have fought in the 1992-95 war, but nobody really knows for certain, according to the Bosnian Federation entity veterans’ affairs ministry.

‘We have no any data on how many of them there is, what their really problems and needs are,’ Federation veterans’ affairs minister Zukan Helez said.

United Nations sources from 2001 claim meanwhile that the number could be between 3,000 and 4,000, while others put it even higher.

A total of 661 soldiers between the ages of 10 and 18 were killed during the conflict, according to data collected by the Research and Documentation Centre in Sarajevo. Of those who survived, many suffer seriously from post-traumatic stress disorder, Helez said.

International conventions and treaties for the protection of children forbid the involvement of minors in armed conflicts. Bosnia and Herzegovina has signed up to conventions promising to give former child soldiers special status and care, although it has not done this.

In fact, the state has firmly resisted former child soldiers’ attempts to win more rights.

Sanel Kruscica joined the Bosnian Army in Sarajevo when he was 16 years old, after leaving the Yugoslav military academy where he was studying at the time.

‘I left the academy on Friday, hoping that whatever would happen would come sometime later. However, the war started on Monday and I went back into uniform,’ he recalled 22 years later.

Several days afterwards, he found himself on the frontline, where he stayed until the end of the war, and when it was over, he was left with no proper secondary education and no prospects.

‘Today I am almost 40 and the only two things I know how to do are to fight a war and drive a car. With neither one can I find a job,’ he said.

A couple of months ago, Sanel joined the Sarajevo canton branch of the Association of Former Child Soldiers, which has about 200 members. There he discovered that as a former soldier, he has the right to free health insurance and other benefits that he had never known about before.

A special case?

But the association’s attempts to secure special legal status for former child soldiers have been flatly rejected by the authorities.

‘They’re asking to be treated differently than other veteran, they’re asking for special status and rights because they were child soldiers. But most of them were volunteers and, in some cases, their parents signed that they agreed for their underage kids to join the army. The state is not responsible in that case,’ said an official at the state human rights ministry, Saliha Dzuderija.

The association’s request for assistance has also been turned down by the Sarajevo office of UN children’s organisation UNICEF because the ex-soldiers are no longer minors. Local authorities meanwhile are reluctant to deal with the issue for fear of setting a precedent.

Sanel claimed that during the war, teenagers who were in the army often volunteered to go where nobody else wanted to.

‘Kids do not think about fear or consequences. But kids also fight with no goals. Today, I understand that we fought for somebody else’s ideas and goals, and when the war ended, we got nothing and they got everything,’ he said.

Sanel said that he was ‘very proud of that time in my life’. But he also accused wartime political leaders of using children for their own ends: ‘What I want to say to all these politicians who let us fight is, ‘Gentlemen, you needed us to fight for you, for your goals. I was 16. I did not have any goals.’’

At the beginning of the conflict, Sanel said, he felt like he was in an old movie about the Yugoslav Partisans. ‘But when you lose your first friend, after you carry who knows how many dead and wounded bodies, after you see the face of war, you are seriously damaged until the end of your life.’

Both Sanel and Keno said that it was time for the authorities to do more for the teenagers who went to fight in the 1990s.

‘I am sure that somebody who was of my age and a soldier for the opposing army feels the same today,’ Keno said.

But the struggle for their rights is proving more difficult than they imagined. ‘This war we have to fight today is much harder that the real war,’ he concluded.

Check Also

Bulgaria accepts Russian Lukoil’s tax cash for EU exports offer

Bulgaria’s caretaker government and Lukoil Neftochim Bulgaria have agreed that it can continue operating and …