“I wore a gas-mask when I was seven”

Tanja Josić (35) was seven years old when the Yugoslavian war broke out in Bosnia. She talks about the fears she had as a child. Now she is a heart surgeon and lives in Frankfurt, Germany.

Full-quote Interview by Lena Knaus 

“In a conversation about the coronavirus, a few days ago, my colleague said: “My son is seven years old. It is difficult he has to wear a mask.” I replied: ” I wore a gas-mask when I was seven. When the sirens went off. ” He was shocked, but for me it was normal. I don’t want to shock anyone. No matter what happened to me, there was luck involved.

In Bosnia, I lived with my parents and grandparents in a house. When we were in my grandfather’s apartment playing games, he was watching the news on TV. They said: “Tomorrow the war begins.” My grandfather and my parents were worried, but as a child I did not understand what was going on. What was the fear? What was war? It wasn’t in my childhood vocabulary.

When Tuzla, in the north-east of Bosnia, was bombed we rushed into the bunker in our house. There were gas-masks lying around, because nobody knew if biochemical weapons would be used. I remember the smell of the slivovitz my grandfather kept there.

One night, a bomb hit the garden behind our house and knocked us out of our sleep. It was so loud, all the walls and windows were shaking, and a shock wave knocked me out of sleep. My sister, who was two years old at the time, cried and trembled so much that she could not be calmed down at all. I was seven. It was the first time I knew what fear is. My mother had enough and decided to leave the country. As a child, you don’t understand the situation. Your parents can’t explain it. They don’t want you to worry.

Fear was also when we fled in a bus, over mountains and canyons, so we wouldn’t be discovered. The bus always drove very close to the slope. I sat at the window, looked down and thought that this bus is full, and that if anything goes wrong, we will be are all dead. Maybe we wouldn’t be dead if we stayed at home.

We fled to Germany in 1993. That’s where we ended up, because we had a completely different goal. We wanted to go to my uncle in Switzerland, but then the borders were closed and we were stuck in Zagreb, Croatia. My uncle’s wife had an apartment there, where we lived for a year. My mother fled with my sister and me. My father stayed in Bosnia, there he had a job. Furthermore, he didn’t believe the war would really break out. When the situation in Bosnia came to a head, my father went to his cousin in Stuttgart, he could go there because he had found a job there. We were united a year later.

Starting over repeatedly was exhausting. In school, it was always like: “Okay, what will they think of me?” I was different than the others. I was a refugee. After one year in Zagreb, when I got used to living there, we left for Germany. I thought, “Will this ever end?”  I didn’t feel like I arrived anywhere. For the kids in the school in Germany, I was the foreign girl who didn’t speak their language. The first few days nobody spoke to me, then one of my current best friends just talked to me. Because she did so, the others dared to do so as well.

In 1998, after 5 years in Germany, we were deported back to Bosnia. At 6 am, the police came and said, “Pack a bag, we’re taking you to the airport.” Nobody asked if we still had a home in Bosnia. They put us on a plane to Sarajevo. At that time, I spoke German and only a little Bosnian, with my parents. I couldn’t speak “real” Bosnian anymore. That didn’t help me to make friends at school. They called me  “The German”.

After school I started studying medicine in Bosnia. 2015 I came back to Germany, to Frankfurt. I don’t know if the war changed me, it is part of my life. It has made me the person I am today. If there hadn’t been a war, we wouldn’t have fled. Would I be a heart surgeon in Germany today? Nobody knows what would have happened. You must look at it positively. War is terrible, but also opens many new ways.’”