War in the Balkans: The Search for Jusuf

Zehra holds a photo of her family. Zehra is the youngest, sitting in the front. From the left is her sister, her mother, her grandmother and her brother, Jusuf. Photo: Australian Red Cross/Rodney Dekker

Jusuf Spahic was a pacifist, a bohemian; he loved art, yoga, reading. His younger sister, Zehra Zenunovic, adored him to bits.

“My sister and I read Pearl Buck romance novels, and (Jusuf) would be saying, ‘You stupid girls, you don’t know’. He would read Leo Tolstoy, books that you have to do a lot of thinking while you’re reading,” says Zehra. “He saw things differently from other people in a positive way, and (was) very intelligent.

“All three of us were very close. But with my brother, I had a different sort of connection,” she says. “We had a beautiful childhood. He was an athlete — he played handball — and we had a really nice life. It was like a fairy tale.”

Jusuf Spahic was also Bosnian, and was shot by a sniper’s bullet in 1992 as his country, the former Yugoslavia, was torn apart by war.

A heartbroken sister

“My brother was in house arrest and he was taken to do forced labour. I was told he was shot in his left eye when he was digging trenches.”

It would take more than two decades before his remains were identified, with the help of Red Cross’ global Ante Mortem Data Project, and before his heartbroken sister could lay him to rest.

Zehra, who came to Australia as a refugee in 1998 with her husband and two children, struggles to describe what it was like to live for two decades without knowing where her brother’s body was. “My feelings, which can’t be explained, I will never be able to forget that. Even now when I talk about it, I feel it.”

Tell me the truth

As war ripped through her country, Zehra and her family fled, packing whatever they could fit into their car and escaping to safety across the border. But her brother, who lived in another part of the country already occupied by Serb forces, remained behind.

“A friend of my friend gave me the phone (and) I talked to my brother. He was saying just ‘Everything is fine. Everything is okay.’ And I was repeatedly telling him, ‘Tell me. Tell me the truth.’ ‘No, no, my sister, everything is fine? Don’t worry about it, everything is okay’. That was the last time I talked to my brother because the phone connections were all cut.”

Communications into the former Yugoslavia were like a lottery.

Zehra holds a photo of her family — her brother Jusuf is on the right. Photo: Australian Red Cross/Rodney Dekker

It was more than two years before Zehra, now living in Slovenia, heard any news. An old neighbour got in touch and told Zehra that Jusuf had been killed — just a few months after that phone call.

“I couldn’t believe it was true. Everybody knew but nobody was brave enough to tell me. She wrote a long letter to me and in it she wrote that he did not suffer.”

Authorities informed her that Jusuf had been buried but later exhumed and his body was believed to be in a morgue in the city of Visoko — not far from where he was killed. But circumstances — and the sheer number of bodies waiting for identification — meant nothing could be confirmed.

Then in 2004, after years of waiting, Zehra learnt of the Red Cross Ante Mortem Data Project and how Red Cross’ tracing service was helping families of the missing to supply DNA and other vital information, like dental and medical data, to forensic experts in the Balkans.

Losing hope

Zehra, along with Jusuf’s remaining relatives in Europe, provided the needed information but with so many thousands missing, so many bodies exhumed from mass graves, there would never be a quick answer. “There was a time when I lost any hope to get any information, to know, will I ever be able to find the remains of my brother.

“But then I realised it was not just one case, my case; they had so many cases, so many papers and DNA samples. There were so many people.”

An estimated 140,000 people — brothers, fathers and sons, sisters, mothers and daughters — lost their lives during the wars in the Balkans in the 1990s. Some 12,700 still remain unaccounted for today — their relatives live in hope that an answer, and the peace it can bring, will come one day.

Support and kindness

Zehra says the regular contact from Red Cross caseworkers over the next 10 years was an enormous source of psychological support and emotional comfort. It meant a lot to know that someone cared. “I felt some sense of security. It is a nice feeling to know that we have somebody in Australia who is fully supportive — there is someone here who will always help. That is
a big thing.”

Red Cross’ tracing service helps people find lost loved ones, reestablish contact, exchange family news and clarify the fate of the missing. It’s a free service and helps families that have been separated by war, conflict, disaster or migration.

Finally last year, a decade on from that first contact with Red Cross, a match was made in a laboratory on the other side of the world; Jusuf Spahic was no longer one of the missing. “It was a relief at that moment when they told me they found the remains, like a huge stone fell off my back.”

A kind of peace

Within a month, Zehra and her family were on a plane to what is now Bosnia, to finally bury Jusuf. She asked that he be laid to rest in Vlakovo on the outskirts of Sarajevo, where her mother and sister are also buried.

“There were eight normal funerals (that day) and the ninth one was my brother’s, who was exhumed. When I saw his name, Jusuf Spahic, on the stone, I was beside myself. I said, ‘Is it my brother?’ And I just burst into manic grief.

“I wouldn’t forgive myself, that after so many years waiting to find him, and then not to go to the funeral.

“It was a psychological relief, knowing that my sister was there and he was there too.”

Vlakovo, where Jusuf rests, is also the city of their childhood: those fairy tale days when the future had yet to unfold. “At least now I know where he is. I can go to his grave.” And it brings with it, a kind of peace.

The right to an answer

Every year Australian Red Cross provides answers to hundreds of families looking for missing loved ones.

Red Cross’ network of Red Cross and Red Crescent societies in 189 countries means it is in a unique position to help. Red Cross’ principles of neutrality and impartiality ensure it has access to people in the most difficult of circumstances — in conflict zones, disaster zones, refugee camps and places of detention.

Red Cross believes everyone separated by war, conflict, disaster and migration has a right to know where their family is. The right to know the fate of a missing relative is enshrined in international humanitarian law and in international human rights law.

Words by Kim Batchelor — Australian Red Cross