I fled home under the barrel of a gun – now I return for what kept me alive

Sat onboard a war plane, Alma Aganovic tried to ignore the knot in her stomach. She focused on trying to get her little brother to drink water, and not the snipers she was certain would be targeting the aircraft.

Living in Bosnia in the early 90s, Alma, then just 15, was used to chaos. Fighter planes flew over her home, shattering the windows. Her family burnt wood from a local park to stay warm and ate weeds when food was scarce. Her father had been killed, and her brother was gravely unwell.

Now, she was on the way to England, and to safety – but she wasn’t just leaving her home behind. Alma’s best friend, Nudzejma, was still in war torn Sarajevo, with no idea that her best friend would soon be more than 1000 miles away.

Their friendship is an extraordinary tale which saw the two young girls exchange letters – offering each other a ‘lifeline’ amid so much darkness.

Now, 30 years on from the outbreak of the Bosnian war, Alma and Nudzejma are closer than ever.

Growing up Alma said she had been proud of her multicultural country, which was made up of of Serbs, Muslims and Croats. Her dad was Muslim and her mum was Christian Orthodox, although they brought her up as an atheist.

In April 1992, Bosnia declared independence from the former Yugoslavia. This triggered a war, as Serb paramilitary groups – backed by the Yugoslav army – besieged and shelled the capital city of Sarajevo.

Cities and villages across Bosnia were attacked, and over a million Bosnian Muslims and Croats were driven from their homes in ethnic cleansing. 

For Alma, it meant seeing her loved ones flee, her school closed, and her beloved city becoming unrecognisable: bombings occurred frequently, and things she used to take for granted, like food, electricity and water became scarce.

‘We ate dandelions and nettles, chopped wood in local parks to keep warm, and we fetched water at night to hide from the snipers, which targeted civilians,’ says Alma.

As she watched her friends leave the country with their families, she grew close to those that were still in the city. One of those people was her school friend, Nudzejma.

‘We were just starting to get to know each other when the school closed,’ explained Alma. ‘Because we lived on different sides of the city, it was too dangerous to go and see each other.

‘So, we talked on the phone a lot instead. We were two young girls trying to help each other make sense of what was happening.’

But soon, the phone lines were cut. ‘I found out that one my mum’s colleagues was Nudzejma’s neighbour, so I started writing letters, and my mum would pass them on for me.

‘We wrote a lot about what was going on, but we’d also talk about what we wanted to do when the war ended. We’d daydream about walks around the city, or going on holiday together.

‘Nudzejma was a good cook, and would make meals for her family, so she’d tell me what she’d been managing to make using the rations.’

Alma describes the letters she and Nudzejma sent as her ‘lifeline’.

‘They were a glimmer of hope,’ she says. ‘It brought us both happiness when we didn’t know if we were going to live or die. There’d be bombing outside, but I could just get lost in her letters.

‘We would both read them over and over again. They were a form of escape.’

Then, in April 1993, Alma’s father died in a car accident. He was hit by a driver who was trying to avoid the snipers.

An already awful situation became even more unbearable as she attempted to deal with his death – and more tragedy was to come.

That same summer, Alma’s younger brother, Alen, was playing outside during a supposed ceasefire, when a bomb was dropped about 20 metres away from him.

He sustained serious injuries to his jaw, stomach and leg, and many of his friends – just young children – were killed.

Two weeks later, Alma’s family were offered the opportunity of a medical evacuation. Alen was losing weight rapidly and needed further medical treatment. His doctor had put him forward – and the rest of the family – as evacuees. They would be due to leave the very next day.

Alma’s mum packed the family one suitcase, and with less than a day to leave, Alma couldn’t get in touch with Nudzejma.

Alma says: ‘I managed to tell a mutual friend, who said they’d get word to Nudzejma, but by the time she found out, we’d already left.’

The family arrived in London, before moving onto Birmingham where Alen began receiving treatment at Birmingham Children’s hospital.

In the UK, Alma was determined to keep writing to her friend – both because she missed her, and because she was her only link to home.

She says: ‘I got letters to her in various way. If anyone was going there, they’d carry our letters in and out – charities, journalists and even politicians helped us out.

‘There was also a secret tunnel that linked neighbourhoods in Sarajevo, so people were able to use that too.

‘It wasn’t easy, and we’d only get a letter once every one or two months, but it was so worth it.

‘Nudzejma wanted to know about normal life in the UK – what people were wearing, eating and the music they were listening to. I remember telling her that I was fed up of eating loads of different types of potatoes!

‘I also thought the fashion was odd. People wore big boots and military jackets, and the women didn’t wear make up. In Bosnia, everyone was dolled up and wore heels. In the UK, people seemed more casual.

‘But we could also be very honest with each other – in a way that we may not have been face to face. We wrote about everything from the war, to boys we had crushes on!’

But Alma says she was also constantly worried for her friend. ‘I was in safety, but she was still in a warzone.’

In February 1994, a massacre took place in a market in Sarajevo, when a mortar bomb exploded, killing 68 people. ‘Nudzejma lived in the building above the market,’ explains Alma. ‘I just had to wait for her next letter to find out that she was okay.’

The war ended in December 1995. Despite what she witnessed, Alma says she was determined not to let negativity and hatred consume her. She rebuilt her life, learning English and studying marketing at university. Nudzejma remained in Bosnia, eventually becoming a dentist.

‘We kept writing to each other until a few years after the war finished,’ says Alma. ‘Then we switched back to phone calls and emails.’

Finally, in 2001, Alma returned to her home country – and her best friend.

‘I was so excited to see her,’ says Alma. ‘It was so emotional when I finally saw her, after almost 10 years – she looked exactly the same!

‘We both just cried, and we spent the time I was there just talking to each other and catching up.’

Since then, the women have remained close friends. Both are now mothers – Alma lives with her partner, who is Italian, and they have twin daughters, while Nudzejma is married with a 14 year old.

‘Nudzejma is happy in Bosnia, and I’m settled in Birmingham,’ explains Alma. ‘I try to visit her as often as I can and we’re planning a holiday together in Italy with both of our families.’

Alma describes her best friend as ‘the kindest person [she’s] ever met’.

‘She is just lovely,’ Alma puts it simply. ‘We have so much history, she was there for me during the darkest time of my life.’

One day, the women hope to turn their letters into a book. Alma says: ‘I think our story, is one of hope. You can still find friendship, even in the darkest of times.’

Alma is working with IMIX, who a team of communication experts who want to change the conversation about migration and refugees to create a more welcoming society. For more information, visit their website.

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