Perspectives | bosnia

What happens to human emotions in war?

By - 25.02.2022

Thoughts from Sarajevo on the outbreak of war in Ukraine.

This whole thing is unfolding so fast it’s hard to keep up. This whole war thing.

On February 24, I followed the news until 2 a.m. because it became clear that the attack would come that night. The United States had called it and everything was going in that direction. The Russians closed the airspace above their vassal parastates. Ukrainians followed suit. Volodymyr Zelenskyy, the president of Ukraine, announced the attack. The attack even happened as announced: at 4 a.m. Kyiv time.

I dozed off. Was hoping there would be no attack, even though I had a gut feeling telling me otherwise. I had sensed it long before the attack happened.

Images flashed through my mind. The sound of tank treads, the single most terrifying sound I’ve ever heard. You can hear it from miles away. It’s so ghastly and disturbing, and it makes you want to bury yourself in the ground even if you happen to be the bravest soldier on earth. But there’s no escape from that sound.

I was tweeting stuff in the days before the aggression. Felt hopeful. I didn’t want to be a prophet of doom, but everything was unfolding in line with the logic I had in my mental images, images like figures of speech. My mind produced metaphors that would soon cease to be such, because when a metaphor comes down into reality, it’s no longer a metaphor. It becomes a mere image. A devastating image. One of reality, of the destruction of the material world. Human destruction.

A virtual journal

As I write this, it’s February 25, 10:41 Kyiv time, and street battles are taking place against the Russian Army saboteurs in the Obolonskyi District. They reportedly disguised themselves as Ukrainian soldiers before entering the city in Ukrainian armored vehicles. This has been confirmed by a number of Kyiv-based sources as well as the government of Ukraine.

Here I need to stop and go back to the hours before the aggression, in the early morning of February 24, when I tweeted:

Whatever one writes this early in the morning may be trampled on and become meaningless, but even if so, it wouldn’t get as trampled as the Ukrainian borders and cities. I hope it’s only these words that will face trampling and meaninglessness.

The privilege of being safe, of not having to expect the sound of air raid sirens, missiles hurtling through the skies and squeaking tank treads or having to witness the course of history changing right in front of your eyes. If that happens, there won’t be a safe place for dreaming.

In the morning, my girlfriend shook me from a half-sleep and told me that Russians had attacked from Belarus. My tweets were coming true, sadly. What I was trying to say with the two tweets was that we would wake up in a new world, a world much worse than the one we fell asleep in. But I didn’t want to be a prophet of doom. Reality took the role on.

I kept a virtual journal. I’m unraveling the ball of yarn backwards.

February 21

Reality is more and more (pleonasm) turning into the fiction I write. When I publish a novel, it will be realistic, although it’s pure fiction, sci-fi and post-apocalypse right now.

February 21

Putin is holding an endless lecture in alternate history. A person who has this kind of opinion of a sovereign country and a nation of 45 million people (and hates them) can open the gates of hell with ease. And we’ll hear it when they squeak.

February 21

Putin: Ukraine a fake country, Ukrainians a made-up people. This is exactly how Karadžić used to speak about Bosniaks and Bosnia, which is mimicked by Dodik in the present day (the only difference is that the latter doesn’t have an army that would implement his delusions). Such a discourse is followed by crimes, more often than not.

February 19

Anyone who is willing to see and hear can very easily see and hear the machinery of war and the attack on Ukraine heating up, bit by bit. As a survivor, I know this hunch of mine never fails.

February 19

Field hospitals are being set up for the wounded, not for rag dolls. A general mobilization has been introduced for the purpose of war and not for ballet. People are being evacuated because the evacuation areas are soon to be either battlefields or battlefield backgrounds.

History is repeating itself at its worst.

February 12

The smell of a big world event is in the air. I hope it won’t turn into the stench of burning gas, tanks, dead bodies, the stench of cities on fire.

February 12

A friend of mine from Ukraine tells me that Ukrainians don’t think there will be war and that he’s watching American news from his Ukrainian home. No one’s buying flour, matches etc. I tell him that Bosnians were acting the same way even as eastern Bosnia was being downright burned to the ground: sipping coffee on their terraces and thinking war wouldn’t break out. 

February 12

Saw Munich: The Edge of War last night and kept thinking to myself that Ukraine is a 2022 Czechoslovakia. History is repeating itself at its worst. The so-called appeasement is just fueling bully states to continue pushing their agenda of chaos and destruction. As was exemplified by the Third Reich.

Dreams of Kyiv

Before anyone could even imagine that it would turn into a warzone, I was thinking about how beautiful Kyiv is and how I want to visit it.

The images feverishly produced by my mind were telling me that this beauty was going to end up destroyed. Ukraine had captivated me for many years, yet I never went there. My book Quiet Flows the Una was due to come out in Ukrainian soon, but books are not important now since the country is in flames.

It’s gut-wrenching to watch people lose their homeland, but due to shock, not be aware. I’m aware because I’ve already experienced all that. We have already experienced all that. Being exiled from your city and country is the greatest humiliation of all. It’s such an enormous trauma and sorrow, something you carry to the grave even if you manage to return.

One crime leads to another. This sort of aggression can only end in bloodshed.

While I was doing an interview with Andriy Lyubka, a young and very much talented Ukrainian author, at one point I felt my questions were really dull, so I asked him what would happen to humans, to human emotions in the case of war. The thing is, these images, these visions of death and great suffering had cropped up in my head even before it all came to be.

I had tweeted about Russians targeting civilians even before they started doing so on a large scale, because I knew they would. One crime leads to another. This sort of aggression can only end in bloodshed.

I’d be dazzled by Kyiv every time I saw the brave and composed Al Jazeera Balkans reporter Nadina Maličbegović standing on a balcony with Maidan behind her. A monolith with golden features dominated the backdrop — the Independence Monument. I wanted to be there, fall in love with that city even under a hail of missiles.

On the eve of the Russian attack, I asked Andriy how things were in Kyiv. He was there because he was catching a flight to Latvia, where he was supposed to do a launch event for the Latvian edition of his book.

He was telling me how malls were packed and how people were calm, how everyone was just bowling and having beer. I knew those were the last moments of human joy in Kyiv, but I felt it would be stupid of me to tell him that. I didn’t want to act all smart with that infallible sense of mine, the antenna us survivors have. This antenna would never let me down, or maybe I just have a nose for big world events.

I’m not apocalyptic, but I can sense apocalypse.

Those of us who survived the Bosnian War saw this whole thing coming. The aggression and war. The hope and terror. The glory and death. The fire and ruins. I had a flash-forward. It’s a gift we have that we never wanted. Nobody asked us to become survivors.

Everything was unfolding and heading towards what Serbia had done in Bosnia. Fake news, propaganda, dehumanization, war and genocide.

I watched the heroism of Ukrainian soldiers. I couldn’t hate the young Russian soldiers either; you can’t hate a poor trapped soldier.

Pandora’s Box

Ukrainian heroism may not be enough when faced with the Russian military machinery. If these were normal times, we, freethinking people, would be going to Ukraine in the thousands to join international brigades. Because all values of our civilization are being defended there. Ukraine is the last line of defense of our humanity.

Street battles are taking place in Kyiv at this very moment. Writing becomes pointless. However, we should always be pointing our fingers at evil. And writing about it.

In the morning of February 25, at 3:41 a.m. (Bosnian time), Andriy sent me a short message: “They’re bombing Kyiv.”

I felt guilty because I was in a warm bed, far from the horror my friend was going through. We lost communication after, but he got back to me from a town in western Ukraine. He had managed to get out of Kyiv.

The previous day, I was walking through the Hastahana park and saw a bunch of young people playing basketball. Hastahana is primarily a skater’s paradise, but also a place where you can walk your dog or just hang out. I could hear a bunch of skaters having a light-hearted chat. I thought about how fierce fights were taking place in Ukraine while I was strolling in a city where peace reigns.

People must have been strolling around their cities across Europe while all hell was breaking loose in April 1992.

Similarly, people must have been strolling around their cities across Europe while all hell was breaking loose right in front of us in April 1992.

I have this feeling and it’s never wrong. Pandora’s Box is open. What will come out of it no one can know at the moment. Nevertheless, it’s clear that it will bring only bad things. There is every reason for you to have apocalyptic visions and mental images in your head. You don’t need to have a vivid writer’s imagination for that. Nor do you have to be a survivor.

The pendulum of history is swinging back in full force. In a pamphlet poem by Adam Mickiewicz, Poland’s celebrated poet, Russia is depicted as a caterpillar that something unknown would spring from. He wrote this poem in the 19th century.

However, this piece ought to be wrapped up with a few verses written by another Polish poet by the name Adam, the 20th century poet Adam Zagajewski. Here’s an excerpt from his poem titled Russia Comes into Poland:

Russia comes into Poland, tearing cobwebs, leaves, silk ribbons,

ligaments and frontiers,


treaties, bridges, alliances,



the pansy, the wild rose,

hoofprints in the moss, tractor and tank prints

in the soft moss,

it overturns

chimneys, tree trunks, palaces,

turns off lights, makes great bonfires

out in the formal garden,

stains the clear spring,

razes the library, church, town hall,

flooding its scarlet banners through the sky…

Feature image: Courtesy of Azra Numanović.

This story has been produced with the financial support of the “Balkan Trust for Democracy,” a project of the German Marshall Fund of the United States and the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Opinions expressed in this story do not necessarily represent those of the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Balkan Trust for Democracy, the German Marshall Fund of the United States, or its partners.