Not My Turn to Die: Memoirs of a Broken Childhood in Bosnia / Edition 1

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In 1992, Savo Heleta was a young Serbian boy enjoying an idyllic, peaceful childhood in Gorazde, a primarily Muslim city in Bosnia. At the age of just thirteen, Savo’s life was turned upside down as war broke out. When Bosnian Serbs attacked the city, Savo and his family became objects of suspicion overnight. Through the next two years, they endured treatment that no human being should ever be subjected to. Their lives were threatened, they were shot at, terrorized, put in a detention camp, starved, and eventually stripped of everything they owned. But after two long years, Savo and his family managed to escape. And then the real transformation took place.

From his childhood before the war to his internment and eventual freedom, we follow Savo’s emotional journey from a young teenager seeking retribution to a peace-seeking diplomat seeking healing and reconciliation. As the war unfolds, we meet the incredible people who helped shape Savo’s life, from his brave younger sister Sanja to Meho, the family friend who would become the family’s ultimate betrayer. Through it all, we begin to understand this young man’s arduous struggle to forgive the very people he could no longer trust. At once powerful and elegiac, Not My Turn to Die offers a unique look at a conflict that continues to fascinate and enlighten us.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“[T]his is a powerful book, which shows how difficult it is to make peace after such a conflict, not least peace among neighbours.” --Financial Times

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780814401651
  • Publisher: AMACOM Books
  • Publication date: 2/28/2008
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 240
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Savo Heleta (Port Elizabeth, South Africa) has trained groups from Bosnia to become leaders in their communities. He has traveled to the United States, Canada, and Spain to conduct education in youth camps, communication and leadership trainings, and strategic planning. He is currently studying conflict transformation and management in South Africa.

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Read an Excerpt


The Muslim drivers looked terrified, their hands on the steering wheels and their eyes riveted to the bumpers in front of them. They were driving through enemy territory after almost four blood-soaked years, and here they’d been stopped in the middle of nowhere due to some formalities.

It was a foggy, rainy day in the spring of 1996. The war had ended only months before, and this was one of the first convoys going to the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo to get food for Gorazˇde. No one would guarantee the safety of the Muslim drivers, so the NATO peacekeeping forces agreed to escort the convoy. If someone wanted to attack the drivers, a dozen NATO soldiers assigned to protect them wouldn’t be enough to save them, just as the UN had not been able to prevent and stop the war and the loss of one hundred thousand lives.

With nothing else to do, my friends and I had decided to walk the length of the convoy, looking for familiar faces.

“Wait a second. I recognize that man,” I said to my friends.

I pointed to a man in his forties who sat in the cab of a truck.

“He’s probably someone who lived in your neighborhood before the war,” one friend said. “Or maybe he’s the dad of some kid you knew.”

“No, this is different. I have a really bad feeling about this guy.” I stared at the truck. Unshaven and with hefty bags under his drawn and hazy eyes, the driver looked as if he hadn’t slept for days.

“Let’s keep going,” my other friend called over his shoulder as he walked on. “I want to see if we know anyone.”

As we walked from truck to truck, it came to me.

“I have to go back! I think he is the man who tried to kill my family!”

I ran back to the truck. Another close look at that face and my head and heart began throbbing. At first, I couldn’t believe he would have the guts to come here. Could it really be him?

I recognized that face. It was him!

My anger bubbled up from deep inside. This man, sitting safely inside his muddy truck, had brutally terrorized my family. We’d stayed in Gorazˇde when the war began. As Serbs in a

Muslim-controlled city under siege, we’d had reason to fear for our lives, both because of the relentless Serbian attacks on the city and because of our ethnic differences from the people in charge. The Muslim majority saw us as the enemy within their city walls, not victims of the same guns that were killing their families. I wanted to open the door, drag him to the ground, and strangle him. I tried to open the truck; the door was locked.

I wanted to open the door, drag him to the ground, and strangle him. I tried to open the truck; the door was locked.

“Get out!” I yelled in rage.

NATO soldiers, machine guns in their hands, nervously looked at me, but said nothing and did nothing. They stared, either out of ignorance or surprise at what I was doing. During the war, UN forces had strict orders from the UN Security Council not to interfere in the fighting on the ground, only to escort convoys with humanitarian aid, and to fire back only if someone fired at them. When the war ended and NATO took over to keep peace in Bosnia, it kept the policy of noninterference. I wasn’t yelling at them, so they perhaps assumed they didn’t have to interfere.

“I know you. Your name is Meho.” I spit his name at him. “You know the Heleta family. My uncle was one of your best friends before the war. Remember shooting at my home?”

The driver’s window was open slightly. I knew he could hear me.

“I know the Heletas,” he said, not looking at me, “but I didn’t shoot at anyone during the war.”

“You came to my home and took my grandfather to kill him on the bridge! Remember what you said? ‘After I kill your grandpa, I’ll come back for the rest of you!’ After what you did to us, you think you can drive through here without getting a bullet in your head?!”

He tried to say something, but I yelled over his voice.

“I can get over starving, freezing, bleeding, losing my home and everything my family ever owned, but I can’t get over what you did to us.”

He finally looked at me. I saw fear in his eyes.

“The scars you made are too deep to heal.”

His jaw started shaking. He placed a hand over half of his face to hide the tremors. Suddenly, he started crying. He did this before, on the day he came to murder my family.

“You cried when my grandma reminded you of how much help you received from my family. Still, that didn’t stop you from terrorizing us. I want you to be as frightened as I was when you came to my home. I want you to feel the fear I felt for so long. Your days of kicking people around are over!”

“You have mistaken me for somebody else. I . . . I didn’t . . . I never did anything bad to anyone,” he mumbled through tears.

In any other circumstance, I would feel pity for a grown man crying in front of me and wiping his nose and eyes with his sleeve. But not now.

“Lie to somebody else who doesn’t have nightmares because of you. I’ll never forget your face. That look of joy when you told us you would exterminate all of us like bugs.”

Often this man had stormed into my dreams. Suddenly in a room where my family was sitting. Screaming at us. Shooting. Blood on the carpet, walls, my face, my parents, my sister.

I ran to my friends who were watching nearby.

“I need a gun right now!”

I was seventeen, no longer the little boy who had to be a victim. Now I could fight back. I didn’t care about consequences. My only thought was to kill the bastard.

My friends had heard before about my experiences during the war. They told me now that they would be with me whatever I decided to do.

“I know somebody who has guns. Let’s go! We’ll help you,” one of my friends said. He understood my rage and wanted revenge too. His father had been killed in Gorazde during the war.

“The convoy won’t be going anywhere for a while. They are negotiating a safe passage with the police,” another friend said.

“And Meho can’t run away,” I added. His truck was blocked in the middle of the convoy, stopped in hostile territory.

In no time, we sought out a friend of ours who lived about two hundred yards from the place where the convoy had stopped. His father was a member of a special forces unit and their house was packed with guns. Many times when his dad wasn’t around, we would go to the woods and practice shooting from handguns and machine guns. My friend’s dad wasn’t at home this time. Without even asking why we needed the weapons, my friend gave us a handgun and a grenade.

“I’ll stand next to you, Savo. I’ll protect you if the UN soldiers try to stop you,” one friend said.

“I have a grenade. I’ll watch your back,” another one said.

I wanted justice. I felt that if I didn’t take the law into my own hands, those who had tormented my family would never be punished for their crimes.

“I don’t care about other people in this convoy. I just want to kill this monster.”

I had the gun. I checked it. The bullet lay in the gun barrel, poised to kill. I covered the gun with the sleeve of my shirt and walked toward the truck. I wanted to have a clear shot.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 6, 2011

    Page turner

    An outstanding book by an extraordinary individual. This book gives a very personal side to the devastating history of a war torn country. Educational and captivating, Heleta demonstrates the cruelty of war through the eyes of an innocent child. Though heartbreaking, this book provides hope for all individuals trying to move on from conflict and on to forgiveness. Inspirational and motivating. I highly recommend this book.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted April 18, 2011

    Amazing...A must Read!!!

    I have to say that while the stories I read about the war horrified me, the book mainly inspired me. What Savo, his family, and friends went through was horrific, but through it all he survived and became a better person. While I was reading about the different problems he faced I felt like I was there watching it all happen. It takes a good author to be able to make his readers relate to his story but it takes an amazing author to make a reader feel like they are actually seeing what he saw. He are an amazing author and I am glad I read his book.

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  • Posted July 11, 2009

    Love Really Does Conquer All.

    Savo has a way of writing that fills the reader with his experiences. I felt like a fly on the wall in the rooms where his family lived, experiencing what they experienced as I traveled through the pages of this wonderful book. Not only was it an accurate picture of the cruelties of war, it was a testiment to how LOVE can work miracles. The love his family and friends shared for eachother, and for their fellow humans, is what truly saved them all in the end.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 26, 2008

    Long Island

    Heleta's story is a great book for anyone trying to understand the war in in Bosnia or anyone who would like to have a better understanding of human experience in times of war. I recommend this book to anyone! This young man is such an inspiration!

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