Edin Trklja had everything going for him when the Bosnian War broke out and shattered his dreams. He was critically wounded and gasped for life - many years later, he found the opportunity to confront his attacker. Here is his story.
He sits on the couch looking out while his mind races back through the past. His eyes well up with tears as he remembers. It was a sunny day in 1992, the year the Bosnian war broke out, which redesigned the map of Europe forever. Edin Trklja was 31 years old, standing along the outskirts of Dobrinja with his friends, the three of them guarding the town in their capacity as civilians. He had a wife and a five-year-old daughter to protect after all, and the need to preserve their future together.
Often, during wartime, numbers become mere statistics. But for Edin, the number of days, hours, minutes, family, friends, lost time and lost limbs suddenly became significant figures seared across his memory.
It was five minutes, he remembers, that saved and lost lives all in one moment.
Given that it had been a pleasant day, and the constant shelling had seen a respite for a few hours, children from the neighbourhood had come out to embrace some semblance of childhood. Edin stood watch with Beha and Mustafa, his friends, colleagues, and neighbours all in one. Dobrinja is a neighbourhood of the Bosnian capital Sarajevo and lies at the edge of the city, next to the airport.
It was the last point of access to the city from which the Tunnel of Hope, that was constructed the following year below the airport runway, allowed goods to flow in and people to escape out of besieged Sarajevo. From Dobrinja, the 800-metre-long tunnel resurfaced in the free Bosnian territory of Butmir.
Edin’s home was closest to the airport, meaning most of the women and children of the surrounding buildings moved together into the centre of town, while the men stood guard on the outskirts.
Serb tanks dotted the hills in the near distance, and would launch shells into the city. The three men stood at the border between Sarajevo and the Serb troops, between safety and danger, between life and death.
After the children had been playing for a while, Beha finally asked them to go home. “We are working,” he told them. He had instinctively felt that something bad was about to happen. And within five minutes, as the children left the area, Beha left the world.
A tank shell – the kind that can break through walls – struck a nearby gasoline canister, causing a massive explosion. Coupled with shrapnel, the impact killed Beha instantly, leaving Edin and Mustafa critically wounded.
Mustafa was flown out of the country, having sustained severe injuries to his back, while Edin was taken to Sarajevo’s Kosevo Hospital, where only serious injuries would be treated.
As he lay there on the table in the hospital, a curtain veiled the doctors from sight, but their voices still floated across the room.
“If he survives until the morning, we’ll conduct an operation. If not, what can we do?” The doctors had to wait and see if his organs were stable enough to sustain an operation.
That was Edin’s cue to muster the strength and will to survive. He spent the entire night staying strong, fighting for his life, and counting each hour until fate’s verdict would reach him in the morning.
His uncertainty and anguish were also felt outside the hospital by his young wife. She was in an apartment with a few other families, including Beha’s wife, when members of the hospital staff had come to inform them of the news.
“I didn’t know what had happened, how it happened, they just told me that he was heavily wounded and was fighting for his life,” explains Jasminka Trklja.
The phone lines were down, blocking communication. But, eventually, she was taken to an apartment with a working phone, and after a long wait, could speak to a doctor.
The operation the next morning proved successful, but soon after, shells started falling on the hospital itself. Edin and the other patients had to be moved down to the mortuary for safety, where they were forced to remain for 24 days.
Edin survived the attack but lost three fingers – two on his right hand, plus his ring finger on the left – his small toe on his right foot, and sustained severe damage to his right leg. It was a lot to come to terms with. And it took a toll on Jasminka, as well.
“It was hard for me,” she says. “I felt hopeless, and I also had a small child.”
She had to make her way to the hospital every two to three days crossing from one end of a city under siege to the other, while shells, grenades and sniper bullets flew through the streets. At least 10,000 people died in this way during the three-and-a-half-year siege of Sarajevo. Jasminka would all the while visit him regularly to dress his wounds, help him use the lavatory and change his clothes.
Not long after Edin’s injury, Bosniak soldiers stationed a brigade in Dobrinja, where the civilians had been guarding. This brigade helped transfer Jasminka and her daughter closer to the hospital to where Edin’s aunt lived.
Edin spent a total of 248 days recovering at the hospital.
During his time there, their daughter Edisa was just beginning to learn how to write and draw, and though she couldn’t visit her father, she would spend her time making cards and pictures for him.
“The children were forced to grow up very fast,” says Edin. “Even though she was five years old, every day somebody around her would die, somebody would be wounded. So she, even at the age of five knew what was happening around her, and she was just happy that her father had survived.”
Not only was Edin fortunate to be alive, he had a very skilled doctor who helped him regain functionality in both his hands. He saved his leg, grafting skin from the back of his thigh to dress the wounds in the front. He wore a fixator to stabilise his muscles for another year and a half during his long-term recovery. But his wounds took time to heal because of the shortage of food and water, and the reliance on humanitarian aid for nourishment.
In the midst of all the chaos and destruction, new life and new hope emerged a couple of years later when their second child, a baby boy, was born.
Confronting his attacker
Before the war, Edin had studied tourism in what was then the former communist state of Yugoslavia. He worked his way up to the head of receptionists of a chain that covered seven locations of Spa Hotel Terme, in an area known for its thermal springs.
It wasn’t even a month into his new promotion to the role of director when war broke out, dividing people along ethnic and religious lines. It polarised them into one of three main camps – Catholic Croats, Muslim Bosniaks and Orthodox Christian Serbs.
This was unfortunate for Edin because his family had become a mix of all three. His parents were both Bosnian, but after they divorced before the war, his father got remarried to a Croat woman and continued living in Croatia. And his mother got remarried to a Serb and lived in the Serbian town of Indjija, only moving back to Sarajevo after he passed away.
After the war, however, Edin was able to pick up the pieces of his shattered life, and resumed his role as director. One day, while he was at a restaurant with some of his friends in Republika Srpska, the Serbian part of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the bartender told him that he knew the man in the tank who fired the shots that had injured him.
“He was the brother of one of the receptionists that worked at your hotel,” the man told Edin. The man was a comrade in the army of the bartender, who then brought him in front of Edin. This was a man whose brother Edin had hired, and for whom he had signed a letter in his capacity as director that allowed him to leave Sarajevo just before the war to receive medical treatment in Belgrade.
Edin told the bartender, “let him order a drink and come sit with us.”
Upon seeing Edin, the man’s face had turned pale, not knowing what Edin would do to him. At the table was another Serb, likely a gangster, who suggested to Edin, “Give me 5,000 Deutsche Marks (a now-obsolete currency that is equivalent to approximately 3,000 USD) and I will kill him.”
His response was just to smile at his attacker.
This face-to-face encounter led the other man to eventually become an alcoholic, presumably consumed by guilt. Years later, he died in a drunk driving accident.
When asked why he didn’t take the opportunity to avenge his attacker even after being able to identify him, Edin responds with, “It was enough, at that moment, to look him in the eyes and to see his fear. To see his realisation that he had wounded another human being, a working colleague of his brother, someone he formerly knew, and someone who had even helped him before the war. In that way, I showed him that I was a better person than he was.”
Though his eyes are brimming with tears, his face brightens with a smile. He laughs as he talks to his wife and son. Their daughter is married and has a little girl of her own, around four years old, the same age as her mother during the war. Coming from a diverse family himself, Edin teaches his children not to hate anyone.
He says he doesn’t wish war on anyone because it only brings sadness to good people. His comments come as the world remembers the 25th anniversary of the Srebrenica genocide in the east of the country, in which Serb forces killed 8,372 Bosniak Muslim men and boys in a span of two weeks in what the United Nations has called the worst genocide of Europe since World War II.
His remarks also come a week before what Edin has dubbed his second birthday – July 28, 1992 – because it wasn’t just the day he was injured, it was the day he survived.