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Girl from SOS SC Sarajevo Bosnia
By 1994, the war in Bosnia had affected countless young lives. SOS Children's Villages stepped in to help children and families suffering in the conflict, and has remained in Bosnia ever since, providing care to children who have lost their parents, and supporting communities in Sarajevo and Gracanica. … more about our charity work in Bosnia

Bosnia: Overcoming the trauma of war

This July marks the 20th Anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre.
This July marks the 20th Anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre.

As Europe marks the 20th Anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre, the Bosnian War continues to cast a long shadow. The conflict which dominated Eastern Europe from 1992-1995 was an ugly one, fought along ethnic lines between Bosnian Serbs, Muslim Bosniaks and Bosnian Croats. An estimated 110,000 people were killed, although the final toll is expected to be much higher. Bodies are still being found today.

A number of atrocities were committed in the course of the war, culminating in the killing of around 8,000 Muslim boys and men at Srebrenica – the last genocide to have taken place on European soil.

The road to reconciliation in Bosnia-Herzegovina has been slow and painful. The complex political system, based on a power-sharing agreement, often does more to hinder rather than help the recovery process. Many people are still haunted by the memories of what happened and trust between the different ethnic communities has been hard to re-establish.

38-year-old Belma’s family is still struggling with the after-effects of the war. Here, she tells her story of trauma and pain, and how SOS Children’s Family Strengthening Programme helped change things for the better.

"I wept in silence"

“War is terrible. I survived the bullets and the bombs and thought that would be that. I was wrong. War affects you far more deeply than you realise. It changes people. I know this because by husband become a different person.

We married young, just before the war started. My husband fought in the war. Thankfully he made it out the other side. After the war he got a job in the police. We were given a room to live in, and soon our daughter was born, and a few years later our son.”

A Bosnian family, helped by our Family Strengthening Programme, stand outside their home in Sarajevo
We run three Family Strengthening Programmes in Bosnia, helping families overcome whatever challenges they face

Belma was relieved that the war was behind them and that they were safe. But soon after their son began attending an SOS Nursery, things started to go downhill. “I noticed a change in my husband. I convinced myself I was imagining it, but he became increasingly distant, nervous and moody. He’d often yell for no reason. I thought this was because of the upcoming job cuts in the police. Sure enough, soon he was laid off and my family’s life turned into a nightmare.

His mood swings were so drastic that I feared being around him. One moment he’d be quiet and calm, and the next he’d be raging with anger. He was yelling, throwing stuff, kicking and beating the furniture, and me. I kept quiet at the beginning. I wept in silence. This is what happens to other people, you think. Until it happens to you.”

The realities of post-traumatic stress disorder

Belma didn’t know where to turn. But then SOS Children opened a Family Strengthening Programme in Mostar, above her son’s Nursery. “One day, after dropping him off, I walked up and told the first person I met that I couldn’t do it anymore and burst into tears.” Recognising the awful situation Belma and her family found themselves in, SOS Children quickly included them in the Family Strengthening Programme. The children benefited immediately, joining foreign language classes and sports clubs. They had somewhere safe they could go when things got tough at home. But for Belma and her husband things took much longer to improve. By now it was obvious that her husband was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

PTSD is a stress disorder caused by exposure to traumatic and distressing events. It is commonly associated with war veterans and those who have survived terrorist attacks. Some people affected by PTSD display symptoms almost immediately, for others – like Belma’s husband – it takes months or even years for it to surface.

“One day, after he beat me, I sat by the bridge for a bit to pull myself together and then I went to the SOS Family Centre in tears. When I walked into the office, I saw my husband sitting there. He was crying. He asked for my help and forgiveness. He knew he needed professional help. SOS Children organised for him to attend rehabilitation workshops for people with PTSD.”

"We feel strong enough to resume our lives"

Over the past 18 months, Belma’s husband has participated in more than a dozen workshops. He has met other former soldiers from the Bosnian War also suffering from PTSD, talked about his experiences and is now on medication to help him recover. 

A group of Bosnian children from SOS Children's Villages Sarajevo
We've been restoring smiles and hope in Bosnia for over two decades

For the first time in a long time, Belma is hopeful for the future.

“The Family Strengthening Programme has been helping us for two years. Now we feel strong enough to resume our lives. I have even started working as a cleaner at the Family Centre. I talk to other women affected by their husbands’ PTSD and tell them that there is hope and that they are strong enough to come out the other side.” He is back working, as a security guard on a construction site and he is getting promoted soon. The family have applied for social housing and are hopeful that his veteran status will get them one quicker.

We believe that war is something no family should have to go through. We’ve been working in Bosnia since 1994, helping Bosnian children and families overcome the trauma that has scarred their country. Find out more about our work in Bosnia-Herzegovina.