Ubavka Dizdarević trained as a doctor in 1980s Sarajevo. With her children, she fled Sarajevo for Zagreb during the war, where she worked for the Center for Torture Victims. She returned to the city because the separation from her husband and family members was unbearable. After the war, she started working for the UN Development Programme (UNDP)—a job that has taken her and her family to Bratislava and New York, where she now lives.
Ubavka Dizdarević, UN Auditor, New York, USA
Ubavka, you vividly remember the Sarajevo golden years. Back then you studied, got your first job, found your partner, and had your first child. What are your memories of this period?
It seems as if we were living some kind of prolonged, happy childhood back then. I worked as a general practitioner and enjoyed my job. It bothered me a little that I could not get a medical specialization because it was complicated to go back to school – the Workers’ Council, a collective of all those employed at the Department of Health where I worked, made decisions about these kinds of things. When I asked them to give me an unpaid month off so I could go to Zagreb for graduate work (which I would have financed myself), a few people immediately reacted with anger: “You just started working and immediately you want to stray. Work a little bit first…” This is how professional development was viewed and… nothing was consensual. Then I became pregnant with my second child, due in May 1992. Sometimes my patients, upon seeing my belly, said, “Doctor, you decided to get pregnant now?” How they amazed me – how amazed I was at their question. And then there was so much talk about how there would be a war that I would irritably say, “What war? Nonsense…”
You were in Sarajevo when the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina began in 1992. You were just about to give birth. This was an important period that would later determine your life’s path. What were things like for you at the beginning of the war?
On May 2, 1992, I was going to lunch at a friend’s with my husband and daughter. This day is still clearly etched into my memories. It was a fine May day – sunny, warm, beautiful. There weren’t too many people on the streets. So…we head out from our apartment by the Eternal Flame, and in the middle of Tito’s Street, some kind of shooting started (back then I still didn’t know how to distinguish between types of weapons). Suddenly, the few people who were in the street disappeared, and we were so bold that we didn’t go back home but continued forward. Because, for God’s sake, a woman had invited us to lunch! We come to the Presidency building and on the corner a soldier, with a shotgun in his hand, was taking refuge behind sandbags. I approach him and ask him: “Excuse me please, can we cross this intersection?” He looks at me with a pale face, sees my pregnant belly (at this point I was eight days before giving birth) and my 4-and-a-half-year-old child and my husband, who is beside himself because he cannot convince his pregnant wife to go home, and says, “OK now… if you can, go ahead and cross.” And he gestures to the left side and… Trebević cracked above Skenderija… the shots from above rang everywhere. Of course, we crossed, at that point not realizing what could have happened to us. So we arrived at Olja’s and as we were eating lunch, the shelling began. Everything after that was like some kind of terrible dream… the telephone lines were cut.
So you gave birth during the shelling. Did you try to leave Sarajevo with the children?
Our second daughter was born on May 10, 1992, in a maternity ward that was under constant shelling. Doctors who left the premises couldn’t return because of the shelling. I told Dr. Dragan Bukvić, “You, Dragan, cannot leave from here while I am giving birth!” Then began our unsuccessful attempts to take our children out of Sarajevo. Finally, at the end of November 1992, we left with the Children’s Embassy convoy – me with a five-month-old baby and a five-year-old child, my mother-in-law, father-in-law, and two of my husband’s sister’s kids – a boy and girl of 10 and 12 years old. That exit and the goodbyes – I was 100% sure I’d never again see my husband, parents, and brother. That was heartbreaking.
Where did the convoy take you?
Traveling into the unknown, everyone is full of fear, prejudices, and disinformation. People from Ilidža who came to follow the convoy gave us fruits and sweets and cried. We headed out on the road to Baška Voda (Croatia) where we spent eight months, still not realizing that this would last, that the children had to go to some kind of normal school. We then moved to Zagreb.
Zagreb would later become key in the formation of your professional path that would then lead you to a successful professional UN career. How did you begin?
In Zagreb we rented an apartment from some amazing people with whom we are still friends. My first job was cleaning the apartment of a young married couple that worked for UNPROFOR. When they realized I was a doctor, they would always apologize that I had to do that work, and I told them each time that I needed the money and I did not have another way to make it. My husband’s uncle secured us with the basics – during the whole time as refugees, he paid for our apartment and food but… the kids had to start studying foreign languages on time, play sports, go to dance, and all that requires money… this didn’t last long, thankfully, because I started to work in the Center for Torture Victims, a Danish NGO in Zagreb.
You returned to Sarajevo during the war. How did you come to this decision – for what reason, and what are your memories from this period?
Our disjointed life and worries for my husband and his life became unbearable. In one moment, I felt a scary need to return. A physical need. A mad urge. That craving for Sarajevo was something that surprised even me.
As well as fearing for my children, my family, and myself, the feeling of injustice tortured me. The feeling I had when I was nearly crawling on all fours to go to the terrace where the diapers were drying in the sun since I had neither power nor water for the washing machine, while in the same moment someone was firing up their car and going to lunch in, say, a restaurant on the beach… and an idiot is firing at me, and firing above my head as not to kill me but just to drive me crazy. This very much bothered me, the fact that we were detained in this ring where those on the outside didn’t allow you to leave, but they weren’t on the inside – they were part of the living world, they were mobile, they opened the Olympic games, they travel, go on vacation, work. Later, after everything, when the first excitement over the cessation of the war had passed us, a few more things began to bother us.
This is just where the story about the decision to leave begins. But before that, what did you hope for upon the end of the war—for yourself, for Bosnia and Herzegovina, and for Sarajevo? What came before the decision to leave again?
That maybe everything would be as they said it was after WWII. We all thought that we’d all come together and work for the well being of the entirety of BiH.
Later, there were hundreds of conversations regarding my work, but there was always a negative answer. Then they recommended that I shouldn’t even try because I wasn’t there during the war and my last name (both maiden and given) just weren’t very favorable. Thankfully, the Danish organization I worked for in Zagreb gave me the task of opening an office in Sarajevo and thus I had a job and a salary. A year later, an opportunity opened itself up and I started to work for the development program UN Development Programme (UNDP). I quickly became a team leader, and after a few years, I had the most seniority out of all the locals.
My husband couldn’t find a job despite all of his qualifications, experience, and references. There was an inadequate educational system, and an ignorance of essential functions. We are a family that has Orthodox, Catholic, and Muslims. We are not atheists, but we understand spirituality differently and don’t associate with organized religion, especially with the hypocritical imposition of organization religion as exists in Bosnia. For example, we had to write a statement about why we didn’t want to send our kids to catechism. This wasn’t the Sarajevo we knew; all of a sudden it felt different to us. Your kids are the only ones in their grade that don’t go to catechism but the only ones who go to musical school, for example.
Generally, my husband and I underestimated the extent of the complete collapse of the social system. We underestimated the power of ignorant people who suddenly started to take positions in the city. Amazed, we saw sophisticated, educated, and respected people retreat, become unemployed, and leave. I remember sipping coffee in a cafe on Ferhadija somewhere around 2001 and the person on the other side of the table saying to me, “All those bastards from mixed marriages should get out of here.” The person was famous, a professor, and now has changed his story a little. And this wasn’t the first time he said something like that. In the end, why would someone waste his or her life and energy on such a battle today, in the 21st century? So I took the opportunity to get a job outside of BiH – I welcomed it with open arms – and in the fall of 2005, we left for Bratislava, where I worked in the regional office of the UNDP in Bratislava. Because work in the UNDP requires occasional moving from country to country, we left Bratislava in 2011 and moved to New York.
How were the first months of your assignment abroad?
Integration was no problem for us because we are part of the “UN Family” and there’s always a team of people who wait for and help newcomers.
The kids had to get used to a totally different system in school. There’s not this “ex catedra” collection of facts in your head – everyone works together, in projects, doing research and in teams. The kids have the teacher’s cell phone number and call them when they can’t come or aren’t feeling well, and nobody abuses this. Cheating on tests doesn’t exist; it doesn’t even occur to anyone. I will never forget when my husband and I went to their new school and when I told my daughter’s homeroom teacher, “You know, we come from a totally different educational system from this one here. So tell us, please, what can we do from our side, and how can we make this easier for our kids?” The person said, “We ask you, beg you, not to work with your kids. We are here to help, we’ll work them after school, during lunch break, you don’t have to do anything. We are pedagogues and it’s easier for us to explain the material!” We didn’t know how we got out of school after years and years of hearing, “You must work with your children, we can’t do anything if you don’t work… and if you don’t know, I can recommend a great teacher who will give you private lessons, very reasonable…”
Once you left, how did Sarajevo look in your eyes?
We immediately started to notice things we hadn’t seen before. For example, people were very nervous, explosive – you’d get hysterically attacked if you didn’t go fast enough, or if you don’t park in 10 seconds, they’d start to go wild and scream. Everyone builds what they want, where they want; there’s not enough lighting on the streets, and there are so many street vendors that you sometimes cannot walk Ferhadija. This really saddened us – general hopelessness and ever-growing poverty, material and spiritual. Of course there are bright examples of great, creative people who are changing Sarajevo’s outlook, but it’s all inadequate, partial.
Nevertheless, I love Sarajevo and see it with loving eyes. It’s the same for my family. I hope that people will turn to good, reconciliation, and understanding. They will understand that after two decades of mismanaging their country, the leaders of Bosnia and Herzegovina neither love nor respect their homeland. I hope that people will wake up and realize that religion and ethnicity are not important, that it doesn’t matter if you’re a Serb, Croat, Bosniak, Bosnian, Jew, Roma, atheist, agnostic, only that you have to work together going forward. Finally, I hope that one day people will be able to think critically when they choose their representatives – who fulfills their pre-election promises and who doesn’t. Also, that they vote.
How do you feel here? What are the advantages and disadvantages of living in such a big city compared to Sarajevo?
When it comes to life in New York, I don’t know who could say that it’s not beautiful here – again, taking into account the way we got here and how we live here. I understand when someone says that the New York lifestyle doesn’t agree with him or her but to say that life here is wrong is not acceptable. First, this is a cosmopolitan atmosphere that liberates an individual. We’re happy when our daughter’s best friends come over – one is Mongolian, another is Malaysian, a third is Georgian, and a Chinese girl… Our youngest daughter already speaks six languages. New Yorkers really love their city, accept all people and at the same time respect everyone’s identity and integration. Maybe this reminds us of Sarajevo in the olden days… culture, art, and every other offering is world-class. Parks, galleries, libraries, countless activities, everything is accessible to everyone. During the whole summer, sports trainers offer free training to kids, there are open-air yoga classes, film projects, winter ice skating. It’s not unusual to close a part of the street, bring out a grill, music, and everyone eats, drinks, and hangs out outside. People value work and money. It still surprises me how sincerely the doorman thanks us when we give him a few bucks for helping us bring stuff in from the shop. Back in Bosnia, we once saw someone give a waiter a 5-mark tip (around 2.5 euro) for a coffee, and that’s not to mention my shock when I saw someone give 300 euros for one song in a tavern. Our people somehow expect to get a lot of money for a little effort, and we have the need to throw money around in order to show that we have it and nothing is an obstacle. This is not good.
The disadvantages are that since we got used to life in smaller cities, everything here is enormous, the distances are great. And in the end, New York is a very expensive city. In Bosnia we have the misconception that everything is cheap in America and we always laugh at our guests who are surprised that it’s expensive.
Will you return to Sarajevo someday?
Yes, my husband and I will return to Sarajevo when we’re done working with UNDP. The kids will probably be somewhere in Europe, but Europe is small and you can get around with a car within an hour or fly. It’s not a decision, just the natural course of events. We are Sarajevans and we’re at home only in Sarajevo.
Translated from B/C/S by Jordan Maze