The Trauma of the Memory

By Nadina Ronc

Disclaimer: These opinion pieces represent the authors’ personal views, and do not necessarily reflect the official policies or positions of Norwich University or PAWC.

N Ronc Article 2024

The gunpowder sets off a loud bang, almost reminding me of the sound of gunfire as the sky is lit in colour by celebratory fireworks. It is easy to assume that the fireworks could also be something more sinister, especially if you can’t see them. Just like the bombing that lit up the skies above Bosnia during the 1990s war, the resemblance could echo a memory.

By age 11, I had experienced life in two war zones. I experienced what it feels like to be different and hated for ethnic differences. Out of all the Yugoslav wars, Bosnia was the worst. It is estimated that over 100,000 people were killed, and up to 50,000 women and young girls were raped by Serbian soldiers in Bosnia. The Sarajevo siege was the longest of the capital cities in the history of modern warfare, lasting from April 5th, 1992, to February 29th, 1996 (1,425 days). In just one day, 3,777 shells fell on Sarajevo, shot from the surrounding hills occupied by the Serbian aggressor. On average, 329 projectiles were fired at the city daily, and nearly 50,000 tons of artillery projectiles were fired in total. During the siege of Sarajevo, 120 mortars and 250 tanks of the Yugoslav People’s Army (JNA) were stationed around the city alongside the Army of Republika Srpska, under the command of now-convicted Serb war criminal General Ratko Mladic, also known as the Butcher of Bosnia. Their goal was to terrorize, torture, and demoralize the population in the cruelest ways. During the siege of Sarajevo, over 11,000 people, including 1,600 children, were killed, and 50,000 people were wounded.  

The war in Bosnia was the most violent conflict in Europe since the end of World War II. The children, especially those in Sarajevo, were used as target practice by Serbian soldiers positioned on the mountains above Bosnia’s capital. Bosnia was bleeding, and hardly anyone came to help. The British and French were adamant that the embargo on weapons must stay in place, and with that, they prevented the Bosnian Army from defending us because Bosnia did not have the weapons, and Britain and France made sure of that.

The United Nations Security Council Resolution 713 was an international embargo on weapons and military equipment to Yugoslavia, and it was implemented six months into a war Yugoslavia waged against Croatia after the country declared its independence. Before the war, Yugoslavia’s President Slobodan Milosevic instructed Serb members of the military to remove all weapons from every military barracks in the Yugoslav republics and take them to the territory where Serbs were the majority. So, the embargo was pointless to the aggressor as he was already well-armed. Later, when Russia withdrew from East Germany, it also sent 4,000 wagons of weapons to Serbia. When Bosnia declared its independence in 1992, Milosevic’s army attacked us. According to the renowned American Human Rights lawyer and former counsel for the Bosnian government during the war, Professor Francis Boyle, in an interview with my father in December 1996, told him, “The embargo on weapons was never imposed on Bosnia. Resolution 713, which mentions the embargo, was imposed on former Yugoslavia. The Resolution, which states that an independent Bosnia is under that embargo, does not exist. That situation was made by Britain and France deciding to prevent the government of Bosnia, which did not only represent Muslims but also Serbs, Croats, Jews, and others – from defending itself from genocidal attacks by the Serbs led by Slobodan Milosevic, Radovan Karadzic, and Ratko Mladic.”

Over 2.2 million people were displaced from Bosnia, including my family and me. We fled Bosnia into Croatia, where we lived for almost a year, but only a month was spent not far from the front line. My childhood visuals no longer consisted of Disney cartoons and roller skates; they were quickly replaced by military fatigues and large weapons carried by soldiers. By the time we moved to Zagreb, military police were everywhere, catching young Bosnian men and returning them to the Bosnian front line. I don’t remember seeing a non-military policeman the entire 11 months we lived in the capital. I remember being taken to hospital for a broken ankle, only to find myself the only child amongst the heavily wounded soldiers with blood dripping everywhere in a public hospital. Yet, the doctor saw me before any of them and told me I was like a break from the horrors of the war-wounded who were moaning in agony in the waiting room.

About three years after that visual, Serbs committed genocide in Srebrenica, Bosnia, in July 1995. If there ever was a time for trauma, that was it. Combined with what I had already seen and experienced in the war zones, it ran on repeat like a flashback memory every night I closed my eyes for almost a year. The nightmare was as clear as day. I could draw the surface outline and how the grass was squashed as I stepped. The dirty boots worn by the soldier chasing me. I could tell you how it smelled and how the wind behaved that day, even the exact shade of the sunshine and the direction in which the rays pointed. It was like watching a short, horrible film on repeat. And then, one day, it ended. No explanation. It just stopped.

Even years later, the war leaves a permanent mark on a person. Anyone who has been in combat or who has been the victim of an armed conflict would have experienced trauma at some point. According to the United Nations Commissioner for Refugees, there are worldwide, around 41 per cent of whom are under 18.

Children are always the first victims of any war, whether it is in current conflicts like Gaza, Ukraine, or Sudan, not only by being killed but also by experiencing the fear of the situation and its consequences. Just imagine how many traumatized people have been born out of those conflicts. Now think of Palestine refugees that, under UNRWA’s mandate, stand at 5.9 million, and even more since October 7th. There are some people who were born in that land who have never known peace and whose children will be traumatized for life.

The surviving children would have grown up faster than any child in the West. They would learn to have responsibilities like an adult. Their childhood would be ripped from them, and there would only be before and after the war started. The bit in the middle would be the establishment of trauma, and if there were no family support or no family structure, they would carry that trauma for the rest of their lives. When Western politicians ask themselves why those people hold such animosity towards them, it is because those same political parties were the contributors to that trauma on those children by sitting in silence and not lifting a finger to end the massacre. How many children must die before the West stops the bloodshed? How many more countries, like Bosnia, must be soaked in blood before someone says enough is enough? Or before that, Never Again applies to every religion, not a selected few?  

Although the Bosnian war was the worst in Europe since the Holocaust, I believe that in terms of the Middle East, the genocide in Gaza is just as bad. The constant bombing is enough to make anyone traumatized. Some children are constantly in mourning over the parents and siblings they lost. Some children wish they had died with those family members because when they see that situation unfolding as it does, it can only mean that any quality of life that they may have will diminish due to untreated and ever-growing trauma that has taken hold of them like a predator. I was fortunate that my mother spent much of her time with me, taking me to museums and other cultural outings, encouraging my friendships with my friends and my love of music, movies, and writing. For my memoir, I had to place myself back to the memory of the war, not because I wanted to but because I had to tell the story objectively and authentically. Sure, it brought back things I hoped it wouldn’t, but as an adult, I no longer live with trauma, and I know how to deal with it if it were ever to rear its ugly head again. But this is unfortunately not the same case for many people who never had the support I had.

So, when I say Never Forget, I mean your memory of the war and what had been done, not the trauma that came with it.

Nadina Ronc is a Journalist, Author, and Political Analyst specializing in Russian foreign policy, energy security, and the Western Balkans. The Strategic Studies Institute of the US Army War College has previously financed her work on security issues in countries of former Yugoslavia. Her work on Russia’s interference in Bosnia was published by the Journal of Peace and War Studies. She previously worked for CNBC and Fox Business Network and wrote for Anadolu Agency. She has just finished writing her first book, a memoir.