In 1994, war was raging in southeastern Europe. Yet as the Serbian and Croatian occupation of Bosnia and Herzegovina entered its second year, the stories of genocide, ethnic cleansing and horrific concentration camps faded from mainstream western European media. Public attention waned and financial aid began to dry up. However, on this day 25 years ago, a group of students in Amsterdam initiated a solidarity movement with the victims of the Bosnian war.
As a result of the conflict, many Bosnian refugees were settling in the Netherlands and other countries across Europe. Yannick du Pont, now Founder of SPARK, was still an 18-year-old student when he and some university friends arranged a screening of “A Sarajevo Diary” – a harrowing tale of atrocities committed in the besieged city of Sarajevo – at the University of Amsterdam. The group invited Bosnian refugees to engage in a public discussion with the viewers afterwards.
The students were not expecting a huge turnout: “10 to 15 people we thought,” said Yannick. To their astonishment, over 250 teachers, students, and interested members of the public showed up to learn more. Satko Mujagic was one of the Bosnian refugees that had agreed to take part in the event. At just 21 years old, he had been freed from the Omarska and Manjaca concentration camps just months before and was slowly rebuilding his life in the Netherlands.
“I was happy and glad that this was happening. Bosnia was under the occupation of Serbia, and war crimes were being committed. I was happy someone took the initiative to talk about what was going on and I was glad to be part of [it],” said Satko.
Cutting through the tense silence in the packed audience, Satko described the atrocities he’d witnessed in the concentration camp. “People, civilians, men, women and children were packed in the rooms without beds, with very poor conditions, one meal per day and on top of it, many are tortured and beaten to death,” – shared Satko. “The Omarska camp was the most notorious in the Bosnian war and a direct reason for the UN to establish the International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia in The Hague”.
Looking back on his participation 25 years ago, Satko says it was an intense evening. “It was the first time I talked about my experience in a new country, in English, in public”. He remembers looking back at so many faces, which made him nervous.
Laurens Groenewegen, one of the student organisers, remembers: “His speech was rather unconventional: it was not an emotional plea for help; it was so powerful that it made the Dutch students ask themselves: can we simply just go home now?”
Deeply moved by Satko’s story, the group of students began organising. Around 30 of the attendees of the screening subsequently signed up to create an official group to support their peers abroad. Michel Richter, now co-Founder of SPARK, remembers asking himself: “Less than two thousand kilometers away there is a war. What can we do to help?”
On 7th February 1994, 25 years ago today, Youth Solidarity for former Yugoslavia (YSY) was born. This was the first incarnation of what SPARK has become today. The founding members, including Yannick and Michel, began attending protests in Amsterdam, connected to marches all over Europe. Later they traveled to Bosnia to provide material aid.
Satko Mujagic rebuilt his life in the Netherlands and later went on to work at the European Commission in Brussels, Belgium. He recently gave a TEDx Talk in Bratislava entitled: Recognition is a path to reconciliation, which revealed how he’s dedicated his life to commemorating the past and the atrocities of the war. In a way, thanks to his powerful speech, Yannick and Michel began their mission to stand in solidarity with and support fragile and post-conflict societies.
Note: Thank you to everyone who has reached out and responded to our inquiries. Interviews have been edited for clarity.