December 29, 2007
My Weekend Reporter
Weekend Post (South Africa)
Held as a teenager in a detention centre run by Muslim militias, this Serbian's heart is set not on revenge but resolution
Spring 1996 in Bosnia. The war ended only a couple of months ago. Savo Heleta comes face to face with a man who attempted to kill his family. He is 17 and has a gun in his hand.
This and other experiences about the incredible journey of a young boy from life in war ravaged Bosnia and his subsequent anger and search for revenge, to that of a young man committed to peace and reconciliation, are portrayed in the book by 28-year-old Heleta, Not My Turn to Die: Memoirs of a Broken Childhood in Bosnia, to be published in March.
Heleta, a master's student in conflict transformation and management at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University, was born in Bosnia in 1979 and lived in the eastern Bosnian city of Gorazde, with his parents and younger sister, Sanja. The family was known and respected in the city and Savo and Sanja had a wonderful childhood.
When the war began in Gorazde in May 1992, Heleta's family remained in their home. As Serbians in a primarily Muslim city, they lived through the horrors of war, terror, and hunger for the next two years. The city was also surrounded by the Serbian forces and this added a lot to the family's suffering and the perception of an "enemy" from their neighbors and fellow citizens.
''A hit squad broke into our home and took my parents hostage. They said they will come back for my sister and me after they kill our mother and father. Our parents somehow survived and after their release we went into hiding for 20 days. After that we were arrested and detained for four months,'' Heleta said.
At the detention centre 20 people lived in one two-bedroom apartment and 76 people used one wood stove for cooking. No food or water was provided to them. Projectiles wounded many people around them.
They were lucky to survive and escape from the city in April 1994, swimming in the freezing Drina river, after continuous death threats to the family.
The war ended at the end of 1995. Heleta said that adjusting to everyday life after that was very difficult, seeing those who attempted to kill his family walking around free.
''The book is not only about the war in Bosnia. It portrays the extremely bad experiences, but also great moments. It tells a story about good people giving hope to others.''
He gave an example of an old Muslim man who gave his last loaf of bread to Heleta's family knowing that they had nothing to eat. Heleta's grandfather did something good for the old man back in the 1970s. Many of the family's Muslim friends were almost killed for hiding them.
''The book helped me to move on and leave the things that happened during that time in the past.''
After finishing high school, Savo worked for PeaceTrails Youth Leadership Programme designed to help young people in Bosnia and Herzegovina to become leaders in their communities. In 2002, he received a scholarship from The Whalen Family Foundation to study in the United States. At the time he could hardly speak or write English. In 2006, he graduated from St. John's University in the US state of Minnesota, majoring in history and business management.
Heleta began writing Not My Turn to Die in July 2005 at Johannesburg International Airport, inspired by his American friends with whom he spent a semester at NMMU.
''I studied South African history in America, but I was triggered to write about my experiences when I visited the Robben Island Museum with my American friends.
"After we met two men who had each spent 14 years on the island in the apartheid era, my friends asked me about the war in Bosnia and whether I had ever considered writing about my experiences.
"Also, the research about the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the attempts to move on in South Africa had a great effect on me.
"It gave me hope that there could be a way to transform conflicts without first fighting and destroying countries and that there is an alternative to hatred and revenge."
In 2003, Heleta saw a man who had burnt his home, thinking that the family was inside. He felt no urge to kill or hurt him, even after a friend provided him with a gun.
''I want to be a good human being, for I know the gruesomeness that bad people bring about.''