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Interview: The Amazing Sisters

It was a pleasure to sit down with two of our closest friends, sisters Hana Schofield and Atka Reid, to chat through their experiences in overcoming adversity and truly surviving against the odds. If you aren’t familiar with their story, it is at the same time harrowing and inspirational. Their book, “Goodbye Sarajevo” has found its way into the hands of many young New Zealanders, detailing their plight through the Bosnian war before arriving in New Zealand. As we face our own challenges in the here and now, I thought it would be interesting to ask Atka and Hana about their experiences, and what wisdom we might be able to glean from their story.

Well, this is a bit different isn’t it! Thank you for taking time to answer a few questions. Let’s start with an intro… Tell us a little about yourselves, how did you arrive in New Zealand and when?

Atka Reid (AR): I am Atka Reid, originally from Sarajevo, Bosnia. During the war in Bosnia in the early ‘90’s I met a NZ photojournalist, Andrew Reid, who was covering the siege of Sarajevo. We fell in love and the two of us managed to come to NZ in 1993. Initially, we were here just to visit and meet Andrew’s family, but due to a change of circumstances we decided to stay in NZ. A year later, Andrew’s parents sponsored my entire family to come and live in NZ.

Hana Schofield (HS): I’m Hana Schofield, arrived in NZ in 1994 during the war in Bosnia. 

What is your most poignant memory of your home in Sarajevo?

AR: A year before the war started we had a big party with all the extended family, our friends, and neighbours. Our brother, Mesha, 3 years my junior, was going to serve his 12 month military service, which was compulsory in Yugoslavia back then. That was his farewell party. There was lots of singing and dancing, everyone was in great spirits. That was the last time our extended family was all together and I still think of that night with much nostalgia and sadness.

HS: There are a couple.  The first one is the day I left Sarajevo, at 13.5 years of age. We were put on a UN bus which was evacuating women and children from the city. It was a chaotic and terribly sad time. We were embarking onto the bus in a rush, not knowing where we were going, for how long, or when we’d next see our loved ones. We had only a small back pack of clothes with us. The fear, misery and devastation of the mothers and children leaving the city, as well as those staying behind was absolutely heartbreaking. Being torn apart from the people you love is a terrifying feeling. 

I spent a year living in Croatia as a refugee, while my family was in Sarajevo. This was at a time when we didn’t have mobile phones, or internet, and the communications with my family were very limited. Often it would take weeks to receive a letter from them, delivered by the Red Cross or a foreign journalist. So, my second memory were the many images on the evening news of Sarajevo being under fire, civilians being shot while running to get water or cross the streets. Sometimes the shelling was of our neighbourhood or nearby, we’d see those images on the news then live in fear for days of not knowing whether anyone we knew had been injured, and if everyone in our family was ok. 

Hana, while living as a refugee in Croatia, how did you sustain your spirit to keep moving forward?

HS: Fortunately, I was young at the time, 13 and a half, and was able to go to school. Education gave me a real sense of purpose. Although I wasn’t religious, I also made a ‘pact’ with God that if I worked hard every day and did my best, my family would be looked after. I know this doesn’t necessarily make sense, however it gave me a sense of hope that I would see my family again and allowed me to control a tiny aspect of my life during that devastating and testing time. Ultimately, it was the love for my family and the belief that I would see them again that kept me going. 

Atka, you stayed in Bosnia to look after your siblings, what were some of the biggest challenges you faced in taking care of the little ones in a siege? What are some things you learnt about communicating with children during a crisis, to protect them and also not scare them?

AR: Simple logistics like getting enough water, food or firewood were very time consuming and dangerous under constant shell, mortar and machine-gun fire. My younger siblings were wonderful – well behaved and sweet. Children are incredibly resilient – all they need is love and care. I told them stories every day, they entertained themselves and us adults with songs and simple games. Children are curious and they also have wonderful imagination so keeping them busy learning is really important.  Looking back, I realised that as much as I looked after them during the siege they actually looked after me too. We are all great friends now.

You’ve been through a lot, and lived a number of “different lives”. What is the piece of wisdom that has shone through all these experiences, the dark and the light?

AR: Things haven’t been easy but at the same time we know that they could’ve been much worse. So, it’s important to keep one’s perspective in the good times and particularly in the bad times. It is in those toughest times that we learn a great deal about life, ourselves and the people around us.

HS: That’s an interesting question. Personally, I believe that it’s important to try to detach from an experience, especially when it’s a challenging one and try to transcend to some ‘higher’ form of existence and find sense in it. During the war, there was so much destruction, evil and sadness, however it was also a time when the importance of my own family and their love became crystal clear. Our mutual love for each other and the belief that we could endure the difficult times in order to see each other was the ‘why’ that kept me going. So, finding a meaning, no matter how big or small, in a difficult situation, I think can propel us to keep going. It’s the hope that something better will come.

Secondly, I think when events happen that turn our lives upside down, as Coronavirus has, the best is to focus on the things that we can control in our lives until life gets better again. Worrying about things outside of our control is very human, however it can also be terribly destructive and paralysing. 

What does the world need more of right now?

AR: I think self reliance is going to be a big lesson for all of us. We also need to be kind, understanding and compassionate as so many people will be in very difficult positions. 

HS: I don’t think that there’s one straightforward answer to that. It depends on so many things, the country and the circumstances into which you are born.

From my personal perspective, I would say the following: We’ve been very fortunate that the world as a whole has been at peace for 85 years now. This has allowed human advances in many important fields, including education, technology and medicine. Our quality of life has improved significantly which is fantastic. However, I think our brains haven’t necessarily adapted entirely to the fast past lives we live nowadays. We fill our time with a lot of tasks and social events, as being ‘busy’ is deemed to equate to being successful. I think, sadly, through the corona virus lockdown we have been reminded of the importance of slowing down and focusing on the essentials – good health, family and love – and of course our jobs. I think we need more time to think in order to make quality decisions for ourselves, our families and communities, rather than being in a perpetual rush that doesn’t necessarily teach us or our children any life long skills. 

Thank you so much!

AR and HS: Thank you!