The war in Bosnia

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Jenny Newman

The war in Bosnia

Posted by Jenny Newman 1515 Days Ago

My Return to Bosnia

My decision to return to Sarajevo was mixed with the desire to treat the brave people of the city and to try and understand the reasons why the war was started and the results of the horror. I travelled with one of my students, Danielle, from London, and Sandy, an Aromatherapist from Somerset.  We immediately bonded and became firm friends. This would carry us through the highs and lows of our trip. 

When we eventually landed at the city airport, we were greeted by Salhil, our driver and his lovely smiling face. He hadn't changed at all from when we met three years earlier! The only thing that had changed was his car, it was bigger and worked!  The previous one barely moved, and each time we travelled up a hill we wondered if we would get to the top! We drove through the city and the difference was amazing - the re-developement had started, some of the bombed buildings were already rebuilt, even though it mainly appeared to be public buildings such as banks etc. The homes of the victims of Sarajevo were sadly neglected. The energy felt new and more positive, very different from the energy of three years ago.

Healing Hands Network

The Healing Hands Network is a charity born in response to the atrocities of the Bosnian war. It began its work there in 1996 after Vicki Poole a Bowen Technique practitioner, was moved to do more following a visit to Sarajevo. She recruited a few more therapists and in 1997 the charity was formed. Since then the continuous flow of volunteers has grown and expanded the original concept of HHN;  Around 25,000 voluntary treatments have been given with up to 3,000 treatments being achieved each year. Four or five therapists operate on a fortnightly roll over basis, meaning there are always two practitioners to show new arrivals the ropes. There are two translators, one in the clinic and one in 'outreach'. Nadja and Enisha translate to the clients and to give us feedback on their requirements. Reiki is very popular as touch is not necessary for a treatment, especially for a victim of torture, rape and beatings, who often don't want to be touched as it can make some of them feel threatened.


We arrived at the house which serves as a treatment centre. This old house looked very different from the bombed and damaged building from my previous visit. The Mortar holes had been filled and the lightness of the house was very profound.  The last time I was there the atmosphere was very oppressive, almost 'closed in' and painful. Sue, who had arrived the previous week, and gave Reiki treatments, was there to greet us, she told us the house had new owners from Sarajevo, the previous owner being a Serb who couldn't return for his own safety. 

The following day was Sunday and our day off.  Sue had organised Salhil to drive us to Trevik a couple of hours away to visit the oldest hand painted Mosque in Bosnia. The Mosque certainly fitted its description. It was beautiful and very peaceful, sitting on top of hill overlooking the small town. The interior on the ground floor was hand painted and many men were sitting in prayer as this was the season of Ramadan. We decided we were intruding on this very special moment and went outside.  Women and young girls were entering the Mosque and Salhil explained to them who we were. The women had their own prayer area on the first floor, the men had theirs on the ground floor. As we were leaving some of the women smiled and through Salhil asked if we would like to sit with them, what an honour! We went back in and up to the first floor, the peace and tranquillity in that building was truly amazing; the gentleness and love of these people was very humbling and the emotion we felt was almost overwhelming. This was an unforgettable experience.

Treatment Day

The next few days were very hard work, the lists of war victims had grown, people were still waiting for treatments even after all this time!  Children during the war who were now adults, were desperate for relief from their horrors. Some people ask me if it is still necessary to go Sarajevo and I always say YES! YES! YES! They are forgotten people, but their pain and suffering will continue probably for the rest of their lives, almost all suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome and physical pain; these lovely people always say that if it wasn't for their regular treatments some of them wouldn't have survived; the care they receive has brought them to some level of peace, so how could we stop going to them?

Emina's Story

Emina is 24 years old, with thick black long hair, pale luminous skin and enormous dark, thick lashed eyes. She has Multiple Sclerosis, kidney failure, a problem with her pelvis, an enlarged hernia and many other physical problems. This is all due to the trauma of her experience during  the war.

When she was 8 years old, she was arrested together with her mother and father and taken to a concentration camp by the Serb soldiers. She was repeatedly raped as were her mother and father. The conditions they were living in were appalling; sleeping on concrete floors with no blankets in the middle of sub-zero temperatures, very little food and water, and living with the fear of being shot, tortured and raped. Emina and her father were eventually released, to go back to what was left of their home. Emina and her father were completely traumatised with the experience. Her mother was still a prisoner in the concentration camp and raped repeatedly until she was so badly injured she was of no use to the Serb soldiers and finally released.

Emina's father fell into deep depression/anxiety and blew himself up. Emina found his body bits, she was nine years old. She has never recovered from this and suffers terribly, her prognosis is very poor but her spirit is very strong!

Highland Villages

We visited the highland villages of the Bjelasnica Mountains on our second day off. The mountains are hauntingly beautiful with breathtaking views surrounding them. Many of the villages were burnt and destroyed by the Serb army during the war, and many of the people killed or badly injured, however some rebuilding has begun. We drove to Lukomir which is perhaps the finest example of the highland villages; it is the highest and most isolated village in the country at 4,500ft and very cold! The villagers who live here are mainly shepherds who live off the sale of the sheep and milk products. 

Their lives are hard and the winters very cold. The shepherds live in huts, and on closer inspection we could see they were built in a certain way for maximum insulation. The roof is made of tin and there are two small rooms on ground level, one being a store room. Below ground, underneath the rooms is a shelter for the cattle, their body heat helps to warm the room above! There is no sanitation or running water and no electricity or gas, they rely on a log burning stove to cook on and to heat the room. They sleep, eat and live in this one room, the women knit and sew and the men attend to the cattle.  I wonder how we would get on living in this way without our creature comforts!


My return was another humbling journey of discovery; understanding the dignity and pride of these very damaged people who try to live their lives in the best way possible. The difficulties for them are indescribable. Their pain and grief will live with them forever but if we at least can give them a little of our time and treat them with compassion, love and dignity then there is hope.

It is now 20 years since the genocide in Sebrinska, one of the survivors was being interviewed on radio 4, this was the first time since the horror he has spoken about it. His harrowing story and his pain is palpable, he will carry this for the rest of his life, the memories may dim a little but his injuries (he was shot in the abdomen and legs, his hands tied behind his back and was naked, together with a great number of boys and men) are his reminder.