Dressed in skinny jeans and a blazer, she looks every inch the fashionable young Londoner. But Lejla Damon is no regular 19-year-old. “I was born on Christmas Day,” she says with a flick of her glossy brown hair, fixing me with her green-eyed stare. “It was in 1992, in the main hospital in Sarajevo,” she continues.
“My mum was a Bosnian Muslim; she’d been held for some time in a concentration camp where she had been raped repeatedly by a Serb soldier.” Nine months later, the woman gave birth to a girl. “She absolutely hated me. She thought I was evil . . . and that I would grow up to be like the men who abused her. She wanted absolutely nothing to do with me,” Lejla reveals.
It was an inauspicious start to her life, coinciding with the onset of the siege of the Bosnia and Herzegovina capital, Sarajevo, and descent into Europe’s deadliest conflict since the Second World War. When it was over almost four years later, the former Yugoslavia had disintegrated while almost 200,000 people were dead and 2.7 million forcibly displaced.
Even before the first shots were fired in Bosnia, BBC journalist Dan Damon was working in Slovenia covering the 10-day war of independence in June 1991 and its aftermath, together with his photographer wife Sian. The following year, the couple managed to steal their way into Sarajevo, where for seven days Dan was the only Western TV reporter in the city.
The couple were determined to remain in Sarajevo, even staying as guests of Bosnian Serb political leader Radovan Karadzic and in the rooms of UN military commander General Philippe Morillon, when he was absent from the city. Under constant artillery, rocket, mortar and sniper fire, the city’s 400,000 inhabitants struggled to find food, medicine and water, and thousands of civilians were killed and wounded.
Dan and Sian were reporting from a hospital when they met Lejla’s mother, who told them she did not want to keep her child. Aware that what they were doing was illegal, they took the decision – with her mother’s consent – to take the baby out of the country to safety. They called her Lejla, after a Bosnian diplomat who had helped them. “They saw that it was a horrible situation for the baby to be in and they didn’t want to just leave me there,” Lejla explains. “Obviously it wasn’t the most legitimate exit.”
The couple were no strangers to risk, but the effort to smuggle her out of the country in an armoured van, the falsified documents and the years locked in legal battle to adopt her were as tough as anything they had faced in their careers. Eventually they won custody and, at the age of three, their refugee daughter began her life in the United Kingdom.
Growing up in the UK, Lejla was aware of her origins and has twice visited the country of her birth. Last year she went to Sarajevo with her parents for a trip that included a meeting with President Bakir Izetbegović. Despite not speaking the language, she has a strong connection to the country: “I feel extremely relaxed in Sarajevo, but it is very strange because I saw the hospital where I was born and so many graves. You can see the progress, but it’s disappointing there is so much progress still to be made.”
She does not dwell on what might have happened if Dan and Sian had not found her in Sarajevo. “I’ve had a very nice life, I’ve had a good education, I’ve had fun and I’ve done all the things children are meant to do when they’re younger. I’ve been very grateful to my parents,” she confides.
But Lejla has clearly given much thought to tracing her birth mother. “I don’t know whether it would be for the best, especially for someone in her situation. I don’t want to bring up things that aren’t very pleasant at all. I was conceived through something that’s so horrible and a violation of humanity,” Lejla says. “If she said, ‘No, I don’t want to see her,’ I think it would knock me. And I don’t think I’m quite ready for that.”
Living with such a past has, at times, set her apart from her peers. “It’s really strange because people my age have no idea where Bosnia is, they don’t know much about the war because they may have just been born when it happened . . . I see the same attitude towards refugees and asylum-seekers. I think sometimes people are too narrow-minded,” she comments.
“You never get stories by refugees from their point of view and sometimes I feel they do get put down and criticized, which is not fair. Even people my age are very dismissive of refugees. I say, ‘so do you dismiss me?,’ and they say, ‘no, but you’re different.’ I find it worrying that people are so ignorant.”
Lejla says she is inspired by the work that UNHCR does. “I’ve always been aware of it – even in my parents’ photos from Bosnia, the UNHCR logo was in the background.” Between 1992 and 1996, UNHCR coordinated the longest-running humanitarian airlift in history. Some 160,000 tonnes of food, medicine and other goods were delivered to Sarajevo in more than 12,000 flights. The airlift also evacuated more than 1,100 civilians in need of urgent medical care.
The UN refugee agency is still helping tens of thousands of victims of the conflict. Meanwhile, an international conference in Sarajevo next week hopes to raise up to 500 million euros to fund housing solutions for many of the remaining refugees, internally displaced and returnees.
Now studying for a degree in advertising, Lejla is eloquent and passionate about politics and world affairs. She hopes one day to become a war photographer like her mother. Despite some years of teenage rebellion, Lejla obviously idolizes Dan and Sian.
The couple went on to adopt two more children and Dan still regularly reports from conflict zones, most recently covering attacks by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. “I want to see the world, and not just the nice bits, and I want to help. That’s definitely my parents’ influence.” Already planning her next visit to Bosnia, it is difficult to imagine a better outcome for this Christmas Day war baby.
By Laura Padoan in London, United Kingdom (unhcr)