'I cannot accept seeing my children as refugees. I will again be with my people'

BOSNIA ELECTIONS: Emma Daly accompanies a family from London back to Travnik. This is her first report
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The Independent Online
Amir Selmun is excited, his large frame and boundless enthusiasm cramped in the small, comfortable flat he shares with his wife, parents and two children. "I started smoking again three months ago," he says apologetically. "I was just thinking about Bosnia - I was very nervous."

For Mr Selmun, fired by optimism and the memory of the way things were, is moving his family back home to Bosnia, four years after they were forced to flee the Serb- held city of Banja Luka.

He is to settle in the central Bosnian town of Travnik - "not far from Banja Luka, maybe 50 miles ... but it's another country" - and resume work as a dentist. He will be sorely needed, I say, remembering the blackened stumps and rotting mouths of too many in Bosnia. "Yes, four years is enough to destroy it; like towns, like teeth."

London has been good to the family, he says in the English he learnt by watching television, but "you don't have psychological peace [here]. You have resignation. You wonder what is happening in your country". And, he adds, "We are European people. I can't accept to see my children as refugees."

The Selmuns had it rela- tively easy compared with many Muslims living in the hate-filled badlands of northern Bosnia in 1992; they were not imprisoned, raped or tortured, but had to contend with frequent death threats. "We couldn't stay. Over the telephone every day someone would say: 'I will kill you. You have to go' ... "

In October 1992, six months into the war, the family packed up and left their house and Mr Selmun's dental practice, carrying only a few bags. "I saw how normal Serbs were transformed into Chetniks, crazy people, so what could I do? I wanted to live and I knew we couldn't stay in Banja Luka."

Mr Selmun's elderly parents, under the (ultimately mistaken) impression that they would be safe, stayed behind and rescued some of their relatives' possessions. After a few days in Hungary, Amir and Alma Selmun, with Mirna, who is now 11, and Damir, 6, flew to London. "The first impression was wonderful because we had escaped from the war," Mrs Selmun says wistfully, still speaking Serbo-Croat. "I couldn't believe that a place could have food and water and everything, that it was normal."

The family, who were granted exceptional leave to remain in Britain, rented a flat in west London, but it was repossessed after two years and they were forced to move in with some cousins. After eight months, the local council moved them to a bright new flat, its walls now filled with Bosnian paintings rescued from their Banja Luka home by Mr Selmun's parents, Mehmed and Nevzeta, who were forced to flee to safety last year, too.

Amir Selmun says that he had "psychological problems" when he arrived in Britain, but he and the children have adjusted pretty well to life here. Mirna, who enjoys her local school and has made many friends, has switched allegiance from Take That to the Backstreet Boys; Damir prefers Alan Shearer.

But Mrs Selmun has never settled - "She's very alone here," her husband says - and neither have the children's grandparents. Mehmed, a retired history teacher, sits quietly as we talk in English then jumps up to show us sketches of Bosnia and a Latin inscription. He starts to speak in rapid Serbo-Croat, his frustration obvious. "He is used to communication," his son explains. "Without language he is blind."

Amir himself is eager to talk of his hopes for the future. "All my hope rests on Bosnia, on Travnik, I will again be happy, I will again have my job, I will again be with my people." He has spoken by telephone to friends who stayed in Bosnia.

"They are brave, very brave. They tell me you can see in the air that it should be better," he says. On the other hand, he adds, "I have Serb friends here and when I tell them I am going back to Bosnia, they say, 'No. Really? You are crazy'."

Damir is excited about the return, but Mirna is not. "I'm scared, probably because when we go in the bus the Serbs are allowed to throw stones so they might throw stones and hurt someone."

I point out that Nato troops will escort their bus convoy, organised by Edinburgh Direct Aid, through Serb territory - although that has not stopped mobs from attacking Muslims in the past.

Mirna, who was an excellent skier in Bosnia, will not miss the weather, which she says is the worst thing about living in London. "Like you can't go out because it's raining ... "

For her father, the best thing is "that everyone who came here could live a normal life. You have in London maybe 200 nationalities and everyone lives together." He hopes such a life will be recreated in Bosnia; the peace plan allows refugees to cross the ethnic line and requires multi-ethnic elections next Saturday, but the nationalist leaderships - especially the Serbs - continue to block all efforts at integration.

"I think in Travnik I will work like before and live like before but I would like to go back to Banja Luka. Maybe it will be possible. Who knows?"