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Lost and found

Jasmina Rose / smsApril 17, 2013

During the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Deutsche Welle set up a service to look for refugees and reconnect them with their families. Editor Jasmina Rose looks back at what it achieved.

Jasmina Rose Photo: DW/Per Henriksen
Image: DW/P. Henriksen

"Daughter-in-law and two grandchildren..." The flood of such messages of people looking for others was huge when Deutsche Welle established a special program for refugees from Bosnia-Herzegovina.

A bloody war had already ravaged the land for a year and it had a huge effect on many civilians. Half of the population was fleeing from the war and the displaced people wanted to know where to find their family and friends. Many of them simply wanted to answer one question: Are my loved ones still alive?

Survivors search for relatives

Starting at 9 a.m., every day, we began broadcasting the letters and telephone calls received from Bosnian refugees on our shortwave frequency. Each report we broadcast had a story of its own. Often they were horrific, such as the ones from survivors of the Srebrenica massacre. Telephone calls came in mainly from the former Yugoslavia while most of the letters arrived from Germany. There was a simple reason for it: Germany had taken the most refugees from Bosnia-Herzegovina, some 300,000 people. The rest were spread out across Europe and North America. We even got a letter from the Fiji Islands. We sent recordings of our broadcasts via satellite to Bosnia where they were played on Radio Sarajevo.

Bosnian refugees in Germany in 1992 Photo: Waltraud Grubitzsch picture alliance/dpa
Many refugees ended up starting lives in GermanyImage: picture alliance/dpa

Deutsche Welle took on a role similar to that of the International Red Cross. "I would like to thank you because it was only with your help that I was able to find my family," one Bosnian in Stuttgart wrote at the time. Another wrote, "Your broadcast is crucial to us! Our thanks go out to DW and we hope you are able to continue uniting families that have been torn apart."

In the following years, we also reported on support programs and convoys of humanitarian aid sent from Germany to Bosnia-Herzegovina as well as about German politicians' work to broker peace in the region.

"Only window to the world"

The Deutsche Welle was one of the few independent sources of information for people who were largely cut off from the rest of the world. There is a letter from the UN Srebrenica Safe Haven that I will never forget. We received it a year before the genocide and it said, "You are our only window to the world. We do not have electricity, but our engineers made a hydro-electric plant on a river so we could hear DW."

Ajsa Hukic shows photos of her sons Copyright: DW/Mirsad Camdzic
Many survivors of Srebrenica never found their sons and husbandsImage: DW

Such support for people in war and in conflict zones is closely tied to Deutsche Welle's founding idea. It's no coincidence that DW's station jingle is based on Beethoven's freedom opera "Fidelio," and the phrase "Es sucht der Bruder seine Brüder" or "The brother seeks his brethren." In the opera, the brother searches for his brothers and when he can help, he does it happily. And DW helped.

I did not realize just how deep this thankfulness went until a few years later. I was with a German politician in the Bosnian capital, Sarajevo, and I wanted to show him an old, traditional coffee house. I knocked and after some time an older woman came to the door and grumbled, "We're closed!" Then she looked at the man next to me and asked where he was from. When I said he was from Germany she opened the door and said, "Germany? Then he's a good person. Come in and the coffee is on the house."