A trip to Sarajevo reawakened a painful truth about my Sierra Leonean heritage
To mark the 24th anniversary of the invasion of Freetown during Sierra Leone’s civil war (6 January 1999), Adama Juldeh Munu reflects upon a recent trip to Eastern Europe that brings to mind the war that ripped her country of heritage apart.
My mother would often say ‘Man proposes, God disposes’. I’ve often interpreted it to mean that we sometimes end up on a path that leads to an unexpected outcome. That was manifest when I embarked on a last-minute solo trip to Bosnia and Herzegovina in October for my 32nd birthday.
It wasn’t my first choice destination, as I previously banked on flying out to either Rome, Barcelona or Vienna to catch the last days of summer abroad. But by some ‘chance’ thought, I remembered my work colleagues recommending Bosnia and Herzegovina and decided to give it a go. It seemed like a perfect fit for me. I would be two hours away from Istanbul, where I live, in a beautiful hotel sat on river Miljacka, surrounded by beautiful greenery, possibly lavishing over Bosnian coffee while reading Chester Hime’s ‘A rage in Harlem’.
It was easy to fall in love with the country even more when I arrived in the old part of Sarajevo. The architectural hues of its Ottoman Islamic, Jewish and Catholic heritage, the primacy of its bronze-making culture and rich textiles stretched back centuries. I was even a few minutes walk away from the city hall, whose artifice was Moor-Andalusian inspired. On some walking tours, I got to see the spot where World War One is believed to have begun following the murder of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria. Beyond Sarajevo, I witnessed the splendour of the Old Stone Bridge at Konjic, traipsed through the remains of an old Bosnian fortress in the stone town of Počitelj, and watch the rare spectacle of young, dashing divers drop a hundred metres from the Mostar Bridge into the river Neretva. A tradition I was told came with a 50 euro price tag.
However, exactly thirty years ago, some of these places were touched by violence during the Bosnian War (1992–1995), a bitter conflict in the former Yugoslavia republic that mainly resulted in the ethnic cleansing of Bosniaks or Bosnian Muslims. It wasn’t a history that I was blissfully unaware of, but did not venture to the forefront of my mind when I chose to visit. I remember watching news broadcasts of the war crimes tribunal of former Serbian president Slobodan Milošević and explainers of the dismantlement of the last remains of the third Republic of Yugoslavia.
It was still humbling and disturbing to learn about a history that left behind stark reminders everywhere I went. From the ‘Tunnel of Hope’ used by besieged people in Sarajevo to funnel in resources away from unsuspecting gunfire from Serbian nationalists to the bullet holes visible on residential buildings in and around the city, and the ‘Sarajevo Rose, red-resin filled concrete scars in pavements marked by mortar shell explosions. I was told by a tour guide that at least three people would have been killed in those spots.
These experiences unexpectedly brought home to me a similarly timed event rebel war in Sierra Leone which lasted eleven years, from 1991 to 2002. Some 50,000 people were killed hundreds of thousands of people were displaced. There are of course marked differences between the two wars, down to the length of the conflicts, the disposition (ethnic vs rebel), their historical contexts (Sierra Leone was protracted by the transatlantic slave trade and colonisation) and the degrees to which they could garner a post-reconstruction programme (Sierra Leone went through an Ebola crisis some years later).
But the trip to Sarajevo brought to the surface reminders of the continental African geopolitical context that underpin my Black British identity, and which remains with me today. My parents emigrated to Britain as students in the 80s and had planned to travel back to Sierra Leone once they were done with their studies. That of course never happened. When I was born in 1990, the war was on the verge of taking place.
As a second-generation immigrant, I have never experienced an identity crisis of belonging. I’ve always prided myself in being proudly Black-British and African, thanks to my mother and father’s great parenting. Earlier this year, I came across a Facebook group, made by Sierra Leoneans, who post various pictures of what pre-war Sierra Leone looked like. It confirmed to me what I had already been told, that Sierra Leone was (and still is) a country of abundance, home to the first university in West Africa, and was once called the ‘Athens of West Africa’.
It is for these reasons that Sierra Leone was never too far away, but that did not mean that I was not blighted by the physical distance the war brought about during the 90s. Now when I reflect on it, there were so many things I missed out on that generally characterise the Black British experience, one being, that I never got to take back-and-forth trips, learning their native tongue in the way so many of my Nigerian and Jamaican friends had. In particular, I never met my paternal grandfather, Amadu Munu, a paramount chief who was killed by rebels. That unfortunate fate could have affected my male cousins, who had to hide in cupboards because of the recruitment of child soldiers that occurred in Freetown and elsewhere. Incidentally, I met Bosniaks born during and after the war, of similar age who had similar baggage, while others had much worse.
I like many others who subscribe to the label ‘Black British’, carry daily the knowledge that events like chattel slavery, colonisation and war are partially fundamental reasons for why we are in the United Kingdom. I learned that as a Black Briton, my experiences of identity and belonging could also be shared with people from outside of my community in a way that I had not intrinsically thought of. And I think as a community, it’s something we should be even more receptive to.
That said, Sarajevo was also an important reminder to me of what triumph looks like, or at the very least its pursuit. The lingering remnants of war rarely ever leave the place it scars, but I could appreciate the efforts made by Sarajoveans in how they’ve memorialised and continue to rebuild themselves following years of destruction. While Sierra Leone has been set back decades by weakened infrastructure in health and education, for instance, it is on the move to use tourism and the environmental industry as leverage. When it comes to addressing the effects of the war, the Center for Memory and Reparations has facilitated remembrance and common narratives through different events and programmes. In places like the UK. the Sierra Leonean diaspora has contributed immensely to the political, financial and cultural wealth of their respective communities. Any time I travel to Sierra Leone, I am just as proud of the resilience and fortitude that people display in their daily levels and in the different fields they inhabit. We have been through much, but just like other communities that have been impacted by war, the Sierra Leonean community have much to hope for.