”We can’t hear the voices of Syrian children, so listen to the story of a child of Sarajevo” written by Mic Wright from The Telegraph is amongst many other stories published by media across Europe and Great Britain on Finding Family, a feature length documentary which also premiered at 19th Sarajevo Film Festival (SFF) on 18th August 2013.
From inside and outside Syria, the voices we hear are the voices of the adults. They are the voices of the politicians and the fighters, the diplomats and the despot, the NGOs and the putative peacekeepers. When we hear the perennial cry that we must “think of the children” and watch the brutality meted out to them, the destruction of schools, the murder of innocents with gas, bombs and bullets, we never hear their voices. In any conflict, the most silenced, the truly voiceless are the children.
21 years ago, war in Yugoslavia was the crisis that held international attention. It was where the UK, the US and our European allies could have intervened, debated about intervening and ultimately left it too late to do so. There was genocide in Europe – the kind of genocide that we said could never happen again after the Holocaust. But tyrants toss international law aside when the time comes to kill those who stand in their way, when blood feuds and ancient grudges go from a spark to a raging fire.
The Bosnian War was a distant collage of sound and fury to me, glimpsed in frightening news reports that I only partially understood. I was eight years old and protected from the true horror of the world. My friend Oggi Tomic didn’t have that kind of luck. He was a seven when the war broke out, living in one of many orphanages that he had been shunted through since his mother gave him up as a newborn. His great misfortune was to be in an institution in Sarajevo, a city besieged by the brutal Serbian army.
I met Oggi when I was 21 and he was 20. We were both working at a language camp for international students. I was fresh out of Cambridge and there to organise activities for the kids when they weren’t in classes. Oggi was the all-purpose court jester and unofficial king of Cambridge Language & Activity Courses (CLAC). Anne George, the incredible woman who runs CLAC, was one of the people who helped Oggi forge a life beyond Sarajevo and the aftermath of the war.
Another was Chris Leslie, a Glaswegian photographer and documentary maker who had met the young Oggi in Sarajevo, connected to him by their shared passion for cameras. Now, 27 years on from Oggi’s time in the orphanages and scavenging for food during the siege of Sarajevo, the pair have collaborated on a film about Oggi’s search for his family and the truth about why his mother left him. That documentary, Finding Family, has just premiered at the Sarajevo Film Festival.
Even if I had not met and become friends with Oggi, I would be convinced of the importance of Finding Family. The children of Syria cannot tell us their stories now as war rages around them but they are experiencing the kind of suffering and horror that Oggi witnessed firsthand. In the film, he says with typical bluntness: “Every day was about survival and staying alive … it was hard but I would say, it helped me to get where I am today. I learned to look after myself and not to rely on my family.”
The film includes harrowing moments beyond the intense emotion of finally meeting his Serbian family and the mother who had to let him go. Visiting the orphanage at Zenica, he was denied the right to film, denied access to his records and told by the director of the institution that he should get over his experiences there. In Zenica, Oggi was beaten, bullied and abused on a daily basis.
Finding Family contains universal truths about the particular horror that war inflicts on children. It also demonstrates the incredible resilience of the human spirit, of our capacity for great dignity and forgiveness. After meeting his mother, Oggi says simply: “She’s not a bad person and I know she’s been through a lot in her life and made a few mistakes. I don’t blame her but I don’t forgive her either.” As we continue to thrash out the arguments on what can be done to help the people of Syria, I wish Finding Family could be shown to every MP, every commentator, every online bloviator with an opinion rattled off as if by rote.