We’ve all seen the gruesome images from Ukraine. It’s unthinkable.
Yet, it’s been only 27 years since the end of another bloody war in Europe.
The Bosnian War, 1992-1995, was an ethnic war caused by the break-up of Yugoslavia. Under communist dictator Josip Tito, republics of varying ethnicities had lived together for 35 years. After his death, they fought wars to become independent states.
The Bosnian War was the last and bloodiest of these wars. For three years, the army of the Serbian Republic of Bosnia, whose goal was to cleanse Bosnia of its Muslim population to create a unified Serbia, committed atrocities against the people of Bosnia-Herzegovina.
How does anyone ever recover from such human brutality? I asked Leila Lyon, a brave and beautiful native Bosnian who is a stylist at a popular Dunwoody hair salon.
Raised in the ancient town of Kostajnica, on the Croatian border in the Serbian Republic of Bosnia, Leila was only five when Tito died. She remembers her early years fondly.
Both her parents worked, her father as an electrician and her mother in a textile factory. Family and friends lived nearby. Their beloved Una River was down the street.
“Even though it was communist under Tito, we had a decent life,” Leila said. “We were mostly happy. Everyone got along, with many mixed marriages.”
Leila still doesn’t understand how her friends and neighbors became enemies.
“The war was everywhere,” she said.
Her own town totally shut down. No one could come in. No one could leave. They had one hour of electricity a day. Her paternal grandparents living in a neighboring village had to flee when their town burned down.
“The Serbs did that,” she added.
The Serbs did a lot of other things too, including the 1995 genocide of 8,000 men and boys in Srebrenica for which the leaders were later tried and convicted.
“People were tortured and killed every day,” Leila said. “We barely had food and were hiding all the time, wondering who would be taken next. Sometimes they didn’t come back.”
Her great-grandmother was murdered, her throat slit by Serbian soldiers right in front of her house. Her great-uncle’s bones were found nearby.
Relief finally came on July 23, 1992, with the U.N. Bosanski Novi Convoy that carried thousands of Bosnians to safety in Croatia.
As people hurriedly began boarding the convoy’s trucks, Leila’s mother was in a darkened hospital giving birth to Leila’s little brother. Three hours later, the baby and mother were in a convoy ambulance, and Leila, her sister, father and paternal grandmother were crammed into a truck with many others.
Leila carried only the clothes she wore and a backpack full of baby diapers and her favorite book, “Heidi.” The normally one-hour trip took 17 hours.
In Hanau, Germany, all six of them lived in a room at an old U.S. Army base. After a year and a half, they moved to a one-room apartment where they shared a kitchen with other families.
During the family’s five years in Germany, Leila became fluent in German, graduated from high school, studied cosmetology and apprenticed at a hair salon.
“I got my diploma in May 1997,” she said. “In July, we came to the U.S.”
At first, they didn’t know where they were going. Sponsored by the First United Methodist Church of Roswell, they arrived in New York City, where they were held for days because of clerical errors on her father’s papers.
“We were afraid he would be sent back,” she said.
Then one night a man named David called and said, “Hey, you guys are safe. You’re coming to Atlanta.”
Their first home was an old apartment at the corner of Roswell and Abernathy roads in Sandy Springs. After three months, the church found them a rental house in Roswell.
“My dad worked as a clerk in a grocery store. My mom worked overnight at Kroger as a stocker for 16 years,” she said.
Since then, the family has endured more hardships, including the death of Leila’s mother from cancer nine years ago.
“That hurt me more than the war,” she said. “She had suffered so much.”
Leila is now a U.S. citizen. She loves the freedom of being American and being able to give her children a better life. Her father and siblings live nearby, and she’s had a job she loves for 25 years.
She still misses her homeland and visits often, staying in her grandmother’s old house.
“I’m both Bosnian and American,” she said. “If I could live in both places, that would be magic.”
Leila holds no grudges.
“I still have Serbian friends. We all were affected. You can’t live in the past.”