Picture sister cities, divided geographically by a river and ethnically between Serbs, Croats and Muslims, coexistent and thriving off one another for decades as part of Yugoslavia, ultimately estranged by war. After the fall of Yugoslavia, many in Bosnia-Herzegovina voted for independence in 1992, the Serb population adamantly opposed breaking off from the country and Then They Started Shooting.
In the wake of the Bosnian wars, which ended in 1995 with a NATO bombing and the Dayton Agreement, an American-negotiated peace treaty, English psychiatrist Lynne Jones traveled down the Drina Valley to offer mental health services to the children of the Gorazde and later to research the lives of children in Gorazde and Foca.
Intense, passionate and disarmingly charming, Jones met and chronicled the lives and emotional states of 40 children whose adolescences were dominated by war, ethnic cleansing, death, sectarian hatred and overwhelming tragedy.
“The children come from opposite sides of the conflict,” she says. “You have this extreme situation of these two towns that were neighbors and closely connected and driven apart by war. It caught my heart and my imagination.”
She arrived in the Drina valley in 1996, after the war ended, but the lingering bad sentiment of wartime ethnic discrimination left the region pigeonholed in a system of wary segregation. When she was stopped at the security checkpoints three times a day, her car—driven from the U.K. and likely the lone right-side-drive vehicle on the road—became a joke between her and the police.
“It was still a very, very divided country. An inter-entity boundary line was like crossing a political frontier,” she says. “The police would stop you on every occasion. And there would always be a joke like, ‘Oh, where’s the driver? Ha ha ha.’ Walk around to the other corner of the car. ‘Oh, here you are.’ After you had had that little laugh, it was really nice and they got to know me and my English car.”
Jones began serving the area as an aid worker in Gorazde and after spending time with the war’s affected children, she came to the conclusion that psychiatry’s beloved trauma model—every person, especially children, experienced in the perils and loss of war and tragedy will have lasting psychological issues—is wrong. After her aid work finished, a grant gave her the freedom to stay and research her hypothesis. That research manifested itself in Jones’ first book on the subject: Then They Started Shooting: Growing Up In Wartime Bosnia.
“Sure, children were extremely upset, disturbed, distressed, morally discomforted, angry, injured, killed, but to say that everyone was traumatized (by which that was a shorthand for saying everyone would be mentally disturbed for life) was not true,” Jones says. “And I wanted to explore that.”
As it turns out, children—and more basically, humans—are resilient creatures. These young lives, encumbered with the most horrifying facets of existence, were thrust into early-adulthood. As they grew up, they were fearless.
“Abuse does not only lead to further devastation. It can lead to a strengthening. As a working psychiatrist, you meet the people from the negative trajectory. So it was great to get research money to track down children who had been unwell or who just had an accumulation of terrible experiences and see what happened. I found that they defied some of the literature that says even if they are well now, they may be unwell later,” Jones says.
In 2013, Jones returned to the region to follow up her original sample of children, now well into the throes of adulthood. The two towns were now interacting much more, and Gorazde was thriving economically. The 14 adults she found of her original 40 were happy, healthy, employed; when tough challenges arose, they handled them with resilience.
Overall, her findings were clear: Life trumps war.
“Once people start to meet each other and know one another, the whole lived reality becomes different. Each side recognizes that ‘these people are not terrible people. We can live together.’ That’s the reality,” Jones says.
What lesson, if any, should be taken from this brutal war and applied to the Syrian civil war that continues to destabilize the Middle East, has killed more than 100,000 people and displaced millions more?
“I say it in the last line of my introduction: Interventions that are not thought-out and half-heartedly applied are a very bad idea,” Jones says.
The Dayton Agreement ended the war, but also segregated the region and left it in political turmoil with more politicians per head than any other country in the world.
“The only intervention that I can think of is long-term, well-thought-out and is followed up by massive nation-building efforts. These are the things that I have learned from Bosnia. We partitioned the country and didn’t stay and seriously build a nation. The same happened in Afghanistan. It is not a military decision that matters in these countries, it is what you do in the aftermath or before. It is not about strikes; it is not about violent interventions,” Jones says.