Zrinka Bralo: tough spirit

Estimated reading time:8 minutes, 35 seconds

Everyone on Islington Faces Blog has a story. Zrinka Bralo was born in Sarajevo. She studied Politics & Sociology, then went into radio journalism. Covering the Bosnian War led to her working 12-15 hour days during the siege of Sarajevo (which began in 1992). Every day Zrinka helped  foreign film crews find out how many shells had hit the city and how many casualties had happened. It meant filming a massacre, or a morgue or people running… And then she went home to more shelling. At the end of 1993 she left permanently. Zrinka is no longer a journalist. She lives in London, not far from Finsbury Park and is the Executive Director of the Migrant & Refugee Community Forum which welcomes migrants to London. Interview by Nicola Bairdzrinka_bralo1

“I came to London in November 1993 – it’s coming up to 20 years. I didn’t have a plan when I left, I just wanted to leave Sarajevo…” says Zrinka in her sitting room. It’s immaculately tidy even with her high heels stored on the  stairs, and a home gym opposite the sofa. Sun is drifting through blinds (which are kept down). There’ a scented candle burning and two laptops.

It’s the room of a successful 21st century working woman – as ideal for downtime as for catching up with office tasks.

So what does Zrinka, now 45, remember from the trauma of living and working in a siege town?

“I was 25 when the war started. War is a frightening experience – your immediate existence is under some threat, and then it just becomes humiliating. You are reduced to searching for food and water. There’s a huge daily effort required for any kind of meaningful life. The war in Sarajevo was between people who knew each other. You discover your friend from primary school, the one you did your homework with, is in the mountains shooting at you. Where’s the sense in that?”

“Every day you hear someone has been wounded or killed. But life is also about logistics – how to wash your hair with one bottle of water. Where to find soap. Suddenly you have frizzy hair, no deodorant and no tampons. It’s a daily humiliation… and then you don’t care. In the summer of 1993 there were a few days of ceasefire and suddenly we had running water for a couple of days. I was working with a French TV crew and they saw these crazy Bosnian women out soaping their kilims (rugs),” remembers Zrinka with some humour – but she has to explain it too…”You see we all were burning little stoves in our houses and everything smelt of smoke. Washing carpets was an attempt to regain pride.”

Snipers kept us indoors
“As a teenager my working mother insisted we moved to a new block of flats. It was perceived as a step-up because it was brand new – and had central heating. That’s important because Sarajevo is very cold. My mother was fed up with the old neighbourhood. But living on the second floor in that 12-storey block became safe. For a couple of weeks we couldn’t leave because of snipers. We spent time in the corridors and we felt safer because it was a vertical street. People were sharing food, and concrete is a good material to be surrounded with during shelling.”

It’s clear that Zrinka’s experience has left her with an extremely practical bent.

When she came to London she remembers that loud noises didn’t scare her, instead “the hardest thing was to suspend my panic buttons. For a long time I’d just see disaster scenarios everywhere. In the case of Channel 4 I’d see the building and think, ‘ if there was shelling this building wouldn’t survive, I hope they have a studio in an underground cellar’… I wonder how crazy that must have seemed to my friends?


Zrinka in the wreck of Sarajevo Library. She could only get there when the snipers had gone.

“I know I don’t have time for whingers and spoilt people. I sometimes have to imagine how it is to be a normal person, brought up in normal circumstances. I think I’m harsher when it comes to judging people. I find in London that I have a sense of kinship with older people who were alive during World War Two. They still have a spirit of toughness and they don’t waste things. We throw away a lot and don’t recycle enough…”

House sitting
“I moved into Finsbury Park – which is a very nice neighbourhood, with a nice park – in 2005. I was house-sitting for my friends but I have stayed for years. They went on a round the world trip and ended up staying in the Philippines.” Her friends’ pictures are still on the wall – a blue seaside scene which shows a storm coming and a photo-montage of one, Tanya, walking in a Spanish street.

Zrinka’s photos are up too – a black and white shot of the young Zrinka in the ruins of Sarajevo Library taken by a camera crew she led there once the snipers had left. “It smelt of old books. I used to study at university here. It was such an act of barbarism to burn down the library in August 1992,” says Zrinka still affronted.

Sometimes she walks into the library at the British Museum to catch that same special scent of old books…

Learning to live in peace times
“The first couple of years in the UK is a blur: things were just happening to me. I’d survived. I had some kind of responsibility to myself and my mum – I had to get a job and better myself. There was no time to think. I started working for the Refugee Council as an interpreter for Bosnians who’d been evacuated. They’d been severely tortured at Prijedor. I was almost a social worker for them. I’d go round to doctors’ appointments, try to find places for them to live, find out about welfare benefits and where the kids could go to school when their families joined them. It was very difficult for them.”

Was it hard for her? Zrinka pauses then says:  “I consider work to be therapy. It’s really important to get some sense of self-worth from doing things. So then I went to Amnesty International and learnt more about asylum seekers and refugees. And I finished a Masters degree at LSE in Media & Communications. That’s when I realised that I didn’t want to be a journalist any more. My work now – at the Migrant & Refugee Community Forum – is interesting and inspiring. There are no ordinary stories. I meet people from Syria, Rwanda and Zimbabwe… It makes me think all the stuff that happened to me was not that bad. I wasn’t raped or wounded. Though maybe it isn’t good for me to diminish my experience?”

Enjoying Islington

I’m on the border of Islington. I like the shops in Upper Street and the nice bakery, Euphorium too. I like have meetings their – I like those shared office spaces! And I love the cinema at Screen on the Green now they’ve done all the work inside. There are a few nice pubs and gastro pubs too – the Vineyard, 179 Upper street  and the Bar with No Name,  at 69 Colebrooke Row is good for cocktails.  Upper Street is missing a bookshop though – I’m trying not to spend money on Amazon. I tend to go to Crouch End to do my shopping – it’s lost Prospero Books but it has a Watirose and a health food shop – and it’s easy to reach on the bus.

Thinking about home
Twenty  years on Zrinka is able to talk about her experience of war, and feel safe enough to support continued efforts in Bosnia to help with reconciliation in Prijedor – a 4 km square area which at one point had three concentration camps. With friends – and in her spare time – she runs the Bridge of Peace charity helping to link 8-14 year olds who have grown up in a deeply divided community.

“We work with four schools, – with Roma (still treated badly in Bosnia), Bosnian, Croat and Serbian children,” she says. “Last year we sent 100 young international volunteers to do music and drama with the students for a week. This year we’ve adapted Midsummer Night’s Dream and the students will perform that together.”

For someone who has a staggeringly busy life – helping settle migrants as her day job – it would be easy to have drawn a line at this extra task. But Zrinka felt: “For the past four or five years I have a sense of being a little more in control. I’m making the choices and not forced to do things – that’s the sense of being settled. I needed to feel safe and settled in order to go back and do this. It shows time helps.”

Zrinka is an inspiration, but don’t go telling her that. As she put it: “Being in London it is easy to be invisible and to fit in. There are so many people with so many stories – it means you don’t have to stand out with your experience of trauma. I’m no longer the one with the weird name who gets asked where I’m from which starts an ‘Oh-My-God’ conversation…”

Migrant & Refugee Community Forum – Go to the website to see how you can help introduce someone to life in the UK. Or if you need a meeting room in Paddington, London consider hiring their office space.

Bridge of Peace, annual review 2011-12, here.

Over to you

What made you move to Islington or get involved in Islington life – do you find it a way to feel safe, make friends or something to be proud about?  By the way, if you’d like to feature on this blog, or make a suggestion about anyone who grew up, lives or works in Islington please let me know, via nicolabaird.green@gmail.com. Thank you.

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This blog is inspired by Spitalfields Life written by the Gentle Author.