SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina –– In July 1995, the Bosnian city of Zepa fell to invading Serbian troops and Amir Omerspahic, then 21, fled along with the city's other Muslim men. They hid in forests and fields by day and ran under cover of darkness at night until their pursuers ultimately captured them, five days later.
"They singled out one man and accused him of being an officer. They shot him on the spot and threw him over the mountain. They beat my head severely and took us to camps," Omerspahic recalled in an interview with the Catholic News Service, 18 years later.
"We'd heard that at Srebrenica they had already killed so many (Muslims), so we were panicked. They threatened to put wires through our heads and kill us (and) they forced us to make the sign of the cross before letting (us) go to the bathroom," he said.
Omerspahic said he and about 800 Muslims were kept for six months in two separate camps made up of small wooden huts "with 30 people per room (and) concrete floors." Their captors, he said, routinely "put our hands behind our heads and beat us (and) called us 'Turks.'"
Such scars of war, he told CNS, had left him "shocked, traumatized" and unable to sleep or hold a regular job since, but he said he finally found some solace in speaking publically about his ordeal.
"It helps a lot, I am not going to the doctor as much as before and I am helping others now," said Omerspahic, who currently receives counseling for trauma and training in public speaking through a peacebuilding project that has given a voice to victims of the 1992-95 war in Bosnia-Herzegovina.
"I speak to schools and universities, especially to the younger generation, in order that this war isn't repeated. I like it when children are listening to us," Omerspahic said in an interview earlier this summer from the Sarajevo offices of Catholic Relief Services, the U.S. bishops' international relief and development agency.
Under the CRS project, "Choosing Peace Together," former war prisoners like Omerspahic are provided spaces where they can meet to share their different pasts. For those among them interested in addressing a wider audience, the project schedules public meetings with mostly young audiences who have little first-hand knowledge of their country's violent past or who even reject outright that their particular communities share any blame for the ethnic conflict that killed an estimated 97,000 people and displaced almost 2 million others.
"We are making human connections," said Goran Bubalo, who directs the peacebuilding project for CRS in Sarajevo. He said the project had involved more than 200 former war prisoners from among the region's Muslim, Catholic and Orthodox communities, but that only about 60 were ready to speak publically.
"Many are still heavily traumatized. Often when they speak about their experiences, they start crying," he said.
Omerspahic said that, through the peace project, he had met others like himself, who also had suffered long detainments, beatings, torture and loss of family members during the Bosnian war, and that he had become good friends with some of them, including a Catholic Croat and an Orthodox Serb.
"One of our fellow speakers, a Serb, died suddenly last year, and all of us collected money for his family and the funeral service," Omerspahic said.
Omerspahic said one of the best things the project had done was to reunite him with a Serbian doctor who had shown him kindness during his time in the prison camp.
Omerspahic said his arm had become infected due to continuous beatings, and the pain became so unbearable that he begged camp guards to take him to a doctor.
"There were good guards and bad guards and the nice guards took me to a doctor, who was also Serb. I was scared but the doctor told me 'Do not be afraid. Your arm is poisoned but I will save it,' and for the very first time since entering the camp, I got a feeling of hopefulness," recounted Omerspahic.
"When we were united two years ago, we hugged and I started to cry," he said, adding "that's all I remember."