The soft green hills and valleys of central Bosnia are scarred with the ruins of villages razed to the ground, with the silhouettes of chimneys standing where there are no roofs. And the old mosaic of peoples wedged in together has dissolved, the country re-made in pools of ethnic purity.
It is hard work, preparing for the trip, packing everything in the west London flat - everything: clothes, books, pictures, beds, sofas, washing machine - that will travel in a removal van to the Selmuns' new home in the old city of Travnik.
But to the routine stress of moving house is added the emotional strain of preparing the children for a very different life. For the past two or three months, Amir Selmun and his wife, Alma, have tried to temper the shock that Mirna, 11, and Damir, 6, will feel when they return to the country they have all but forgotten. "We told them, 'You must be ready to see destroyed buildings, but every month, every year, it will get better'," says Amir.
Now, on a dark and drizzly September morning, dawn still some way off, the family gathers in a hospital car park to meet the coach that will take them home. The scene is horrifyingly familiar to anyone who has been through the Bosnian war: mattresses lying on the wooden gym floor, old women in head-scarves gazing through the coach window, men, women and children laden with baggage.
There, it was the prelude to exile, often at the point of a gun. Here, in Woolwich, south London, it is a moment of hope, which is why the tears come from those left behind and why the travellers on the coach are excited and expectant.
The coach, hired from Good News Travels, has been organised by the charity Edinburgh Direct Aid, which is paying some pounds 7,000 to take 66 Bosnian citizens and their furniture home. In the gym, Liz McLaughlin, one of the organisers, and Mirsad, a Bosnian worker, plough through the inevitable Balkan paper-work. Some families have smart new blue Bosnian passports stamped in gold with a lily, the national symbol. Others, like the Selmuns, are using a temporary travel document, a piece of stiff white paper bearing four, five, six, passport photos. Each family hands over pounds 45 to pay for the document that authorises the import of furniture and other goods.
"I did not sleep at all, I stayed awake all night," says Amir when we meet at 4.30am for the drive to Woolwich. "It's all lovely, I am so happy, but we are all very tired."
We drive past Hyde Park, over the river, through London. Mirna will miss it the most. She is still scared of the Serbs in Bosnia, but confesses: "I'm starting to feel a bit excited." She hopes to come back some time.
Her mother, a charming and beautiful woman who understands English but speaks none, has no regrets. "I'm happy, I'm so glad we have the chance to go back," she says as Mirna translates. "I will miss my [Bosnian] friends, the ones who aren't going back, like my sister, but that's it." She has no worries about returning. "I think it will be for the best - I know what the situation is. My husband's friend in Travnik has telephoned us and we know that Travnik has not been shelled or destroyed."
That is mostly true, but the town that was once the seat of the Turkish viziers is pretty ragged now, filled with refugees from the countryside and no longer, after a vicious war, very welcoming to the Croats and Serbs who used to live with their Muslim neighbours.
Still, it has not yet reached the depths of hatred prevailing in Banja Luka, the Serb-held city in the north that was home, until October 1992, to the Selmuns. "I wish we could go back to Banja Luka but I don't think there is any chance of that right now," says Alma, huddled against the chill morning. "Perhaps in a few years' time..." One can only hope that her desire to lead a normal life, regardless of nationality, will not be crushed in the uneasy post-war ethnic rivalry of modern Bosnia.
The families climb aboard the double-decker coach, complete with lavatories, coffee machines and video screens, for the two-day journey home that includes one night at a ski lodge in Chamonix and one at a civic building in Milan.
Alma is unconcerned about the tedium of the trip. "I have not been able to travel for four years so I'm actually looking forward to it," she says with a smile. Ms McLaughlin gathers up the last scrap of paper-work for this, the third convoy home that Edinburgh Direct Aid has organised, and climbs aboard. At 6.20am, the coach pulls out, heading for Dover, the ferry and home.Reuse content