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1. Wild child.

Around thirty years ago, one cosy autumnal evening, my brother and I were sitting on the wooden floor, with photo albums scattered around us. We were reminiscing about the good times that passed, whilst mum and dad chatted away, snuggled up on the sofa.
We hadn’t long lived in our new home; perhaps less than a year. Everything was still shiny, new and huge compared to our modest old cottage that we had happily lived in. I remember, I kept yearning for my favourite and my most comforting smells and sounds. My ten year old heart was aching. I wanted to be where we once lived; where I was the happiest.
I came across this particular page full of my parents’ wedding photos. I looked at these beautiful pictures for a while, caressing them with my little fingers. I admired the way my parents looked; they both looked so young and stunning. My dad was standing tall, beaming with happiness and pride in these black and white photos; my mum looked shy and so beautiful.
I looked at the dates written under the photos and I got intrigued. My parents got married in January and I was born in August, almost exactly eight months later.
I piped up: “Ah, you never told me that I was a premature baby!”
My mum went bright red in her face, she mumbled something and left the living room very quickly; she apparently suddenly had something to do. Dad found this whole situation very amusing. He chuckled and chuckled. He eventually said: “There was nothing premature about your birth. Everything was done and happened on time, and at the right time.” He winked & carried on giggling. Mum was nowhere to be seen.
My mum was only eighteen when she had me, and dad was only twenty-one. Two years later they had my brother.
When they met, they were these two beautiful young souls, who couldn’t have been any more different to each other; they still are.

He is the fire, she is the earth.

Mum was this gentle, beautiful, slender young woman who came from a very quiet, hardworking farming family, whose parents absolutely adored each other and their three children. She was their only daughter. She was adored, protected and doted on. Mum was quite quiet and shy; she still is, but now she is very funny. Her favourite source of entertainment is her hilarious, perfectly timed self-deprecating humour. She is the kindest soul you will ever meet. “There is a good side to everyone.”, she’d often say to us. She cares and worries about everyone. But she is strong and persistent; the binding force of our family. Unfortunately, because of her quiet nature, our mum’s knowledge and strength is often underestimated and undervalued. This has had a profound effect on my outspoken nature, strength and confidence as a woman.
My father…my father was this very handsome, fit, strong-willed, fiery, hardworking, untamed, stubborn force of nature. He came from a blended family, full of very loving, caring but strong characters.
My father is one of seven, he has two sisters, one brother, one half-brother and two half-sisters. His childhood was filled with love, bravery, incredibly hard work and mischief. He is built of the toughest matter; his life would have crumbled a weaker man. None of us would be here now if it wasn’t for him and his physical, but more importantly his quick thinking and his mental strength.
At the beginning of my parents’ marriage, many people doubted whether my parents would stay together; they appeared to be too different to one another. But underneath it all they had this undying love for each other that would ultimately pull them through some unthinkable times. They had the same moral values and they both had hearts of gold.
Last year they celebrated their fortieth wedding anniversary. Their love for one another has proved everyone wrong and overpowered everything that came their way.
Out of this young, passionate love, their first child was born; on time, I’d like to add. Me. Their wild child.
I, apparently, was nightmare baby who hardly ever slept, I was incredibly needy, and I cried a lot. As soon as I could move, I was off, I never sat still. I started walking at nine months. I was an early talker too, I talked to anyone and I had an opinion about anything and an answer for everything. I didn’t walk like other girls did, I skipped, kicked stones along the road or I danced. I loved dancing! Oh, I never stopped climbing trees either.
I quite like the idea of me like this, but I can see now that I have a wild child of my own, how challenging this must have been for my poor mum.
One of my aunties tells me this story every now and again of how when I was a toddler I had lots of curly hair, which was getting very badly knotted because of my wild ways. It desperately needed cutting.
However, the only way she could get me to keep still while she cut my hair, was to pin me down and keep my head in between her legs. So, she did. You get the picture! I must have been a nightmare child.
But I am told that I was very loving, lovable, bouncy and jolly. A happy child, with abundance of empathy, who always deeply felt people’s sadness. I hugged everyone a lot. I still do. My husband calls me his “hugtopus”.
For the first ten years of my life, my family lived on the family farm which was situated high up in the hills, on the edge of a small hamlet. Our farm was an organic dairy farm; hilly, vibrant and full of life. My family kept sheep, goats, cows, shire horses, pigs and poultry. We were completely self-sufficient, nothing was ever thrown away. We used, reused, wore, altered, fixed and recycled.
There were two cottages on the farm, right next to each other. In one, lived my grandmother and my youngest aunt, my dad’s sister. My parents and my brother and I lived in the second cottage. Ours was the prettiest out of the two. The cottages were very traditional, hand made out of wood. Their roofs were covered with traditional Mediterranean red roof tiles. The two houses truly stood out in the village, with their grand style and design.

They were hand built in 1930s by my great-grandfather Stevan, my paternal grandmother’s father. Stevan was a forward thinking, strong character. He was a local councillor in the early 1900s. A trailblazer. His daughters’ education mattered hugely to him. My grandmother was one of the very few women in the region with secondary and higher school education.
The two cottages were shaded by these huge, ancient linden trees. They were magical to me; we used to spend absolutely hours playing underneath them, making house shapes on the dry ground, out of twigs, sticks and stones. The linden flowers smelled so beautifully. It’s such a sweet, summery smell that I will never forget. Our granny used to make us this very aromatic and deliciously tasting tea out of them.
From our farm we could see our beautiful mountainous valley enveloping us. The valley had been carved by a crystal-clear mountain river, which gently flows through our village. The river is called Pliva, and our village is called Pljeva. Both are equally famous for their organic, unspoiled beauty.
The view from the farm is always majestic; It never disappoints. It is always there as a reminder of natural calm and continuity, but forever changing and breath-taking. During the spring and summer months, the rolling hills are deep green, with the shades of blue; full of life! In the autumn, the brightest and the deepest shades of fire caress the whole valley. And in winter…in winter the hills and the mountains are covered in this shimmery, unspoiled white snow which looks magical, inviting you to play in the winter’s sun. And, yet, the hills and the cliffs of the valley would intimidate you under the moonlight. At times, we’d hear wolves’ howls echoing throughout the valley; this used to scare the bejesus out of me! I miss those hills so much. I dream of them very often. They always make me feel safe and content in their arms.
When I think of the farm, this strong feeling of belonging floods my body. The farm and its habitat truly gave me my roots and my wings. My family; thanks to my loyal, loud, generous, loving, loud, forever giving family, where ever I am in the world, I know I belong.
My parents tell me that we were adored by our grandparents.
Unfortunately, I was very little when my paternal grandfather passed away. He was only fifty-five. I wish I remember him more clearly. I wish I was much older when he died.
He was our brave, strong-willed, WW2 warrior, called Stanko. A noble, generous and a strong man, who had overcome many personal tragedies and losses.
Grandad Stanko worked incredibly hard. He was a mayor after the WW2, a farmer and a land owner. He adored his children and grandchildren. I was his first grandchild who had lived on the farm. Even though men in those days didn’t traditionally help with looking after children, if I needed changing or bathing, he did it all for me. He took me for walks with him and he used to tell me stories.
I vaguely remember the day of his funeral. Grandad was lying in his coffin, in their bedroom. I remember the bedroom door so well. I kept standing by the door and trying to push it open. I knew he was in there. I wanted to tell him that I had an orange in my hand. He used to love oranges. All I wanted to do, was to share my orange with my grandad. I couldn’t understand why he wasn’t answering me. One of my aunties eventually took me in and lifted me up; I left the orange in the coffin, next to him. She told me that he’d have it later; he was sleeping. After he was buried, apparently I didn’t want to go home, I wanted to stay with him, and sit by his grave.
I dream of him quite often. I dream of him sitting on the bench he made. We are under my favourite linden tree. I’m little, sitting on his lap. He’s gently rocking me and telling me something. I can never hear his voice. It’s always the same dream. Every time I wake up, I am left with this yearning for his protection, wisdom and knowledge.
Grandad Stanko left seven children behind, and his second wife, my Baba. My dad still has the bench his father made.
After grandad’s very premature death, as dad was the only son to have lived at home, he helped Baba look after the farm. The rest of his siblings were either married and lived away, studying or already working away in towns and cities. Dad was only in his early twenties.
This must have been a lot to take on for a young family. Those were very challenging times for my parents.
But soon, a little blessing arrived. In the middle of a long, harsh winter, my brother was born. This was the first winter without grandad. This bundle of joy, was the peace and the calm my parents needed in their lives. He was a perfect baby who slept peacefully for hours on end and fed beautifully.
He slept so much, my mum had to gently pinch him to wake him up. My brother grew into a robust, but a very quiet little boy. He behaved really well, and he was always very calm and kind. He always did as he was told. Unlike his sister.
There was this beautiful, handmade wooden veranda attached to the front of our cottage. Occasionally, if our granny or our mum had chores to do, they’d leave my brother and I in the veranda to play, with the stable-style doors firmly locked. My brother would happily play on the veranda’s floor for ages, but I would always try to escape. I climbed over the side of it so many times, that I eventually broke my nose by falling onto the ground. I was incredibly mischievous.
During one of these times when we were left on our own, I went back into the cottage. I LOVED going through my mum’s make up bag. I remember this one day so clearly. I found my mum’s toothpaste and for some reason, only known to the mind of a young child, I decided to spread the toothpaste all over our handmade posh vitrine; my mum’s pride and joy. Oh, my goodness, I got into so much trouble! Then one day, after watching my aunt cut my uncle’s hair, I cut my eyebrows off with a pair of scissors; as you do! After realising what I had done, I hid under our rug, to hide my work of art. I was under the rug for so long, I eventually fell asleep. My mum found me and…let’s say that the scissors remained on the very top of our vitrine for a long time.
My brother never did anything silly like that. He’s always been quite measured and sensible.
When we were little, we absolutely adored each other. We spent most of our time playing together, but as we got older, we started to fight a lot.
By fighting, I mean proper physical fighting. This used to worry our poor mum sick. She was convinced that it was only her children that fought in the whole world. This “loving”, sibling rivalry carried on into our teens, until my brother got taller and stronger than me.
Jesus Christ, I was feisty; he knew perfectly how to push my buttons to get the desired reaction. And he did; every time! Even then, when he was already much taller than me, I would try and launch myself at him, but he would just calmly put his hand on my head firmly and keep me at arm’s length. Even then, I’d still try to reach him with my hand, fist, foot, from underneath, but I no longer succeeded.
It was time to let go. It infuriated me that he was stronger than me. I know, I was a girl, he was a boy, boys eventually grow up and get stronger, but none the less, it was a hard pill to swallow. I wanted us to be equal to him, even in strength.
My brother has grown into a wonderful, quiet, human. He is a great father and a husband. His quiet demeaner, however, should not be underestimated. My brother has many hidden depths and strengths. We named our first son after my brother; Dragan.

~Adventures on the farm~

As well as running the farm, our mum worked as a touch typist in town; our dad was very busy and away a lot. Mum’s working hours were from 7am to 3pm. Once she was home, mum would put away her glamorous clothes & start working on the farm.
Our granny looked after us when our parents worked. She looked after us with such love and dedication, but she let us roam freely too. My brother and I spent all our time playing and exploring.
Near our cottage, we had this outbuilding which was narrow and long, with vertical wooden slats for walls & a red-tiled roof on top. This is where we used to keep our corn, or firewood. This type of building is called a košana (koshanha).
During the summer our košana was empty. This was amazing to me; it was a blank canvas and the ultimate den! Our granny used to let me take her net curtains down and she used to give me her rugs and cushions too.
I would sweep the košana first, wipe the floors clean with an old towel and then I’d lay the rugs down, use cushions as our seats, and the net curtains to separate the košana into three different rooms. It was amazing! We spent so much time here, playing for hours. Baba used to make us some “white coffee”, which was made out of warm milk and half a teaspoon of freshly ground coffee in each cup; we used to drink our coffee in our makeshift house. Baba used to come in and sit with us on the floor too, sipping our coffee away.
Right opposite of our cottages lived this elderly couple. They lived on their own.
Most of their children lived nearby with their families, but one of their sons and his family lived in France. My parents were very close with the French family. They were so nice to all of us and always very kind and generous. However, the old lady and our Baba didn’t speak to each other. Apparently, they were sworn enemies. I never quite knew why they fell out in the first place. But even during this wordless world of theirs, Baba used to look out for them. My granny used to make the most amazing food, and she used to make enough of it to feed the whole hamlet. “You never know, someone might stop by for lunch. You must always be prepared for unexpected guests.”, she used to say. She was a tough, outspoken woman, but she cared deeply for everyone. Every now and again, she would ask my auntie to take some food across the road, to our neighbours. She would never admit it, but she felt a duty of care towards our elderly neighbours. She was stronger and fitter than them, she cared for them, therefore she felt that it was her duty to look after them. This sense of community is still a huge part of me. Your neighbours could truly be your lifeline.

I can’t tell you how much fun living on the farm was. There was an endless supply of food, drinks and mischief.
We grew all of our organic vegetables and we had a massive orchard very close to our cottages. The orchard was planted by our great-grandfather Stevan. We had many apple trees, pear trees, plum trees, cherry trees, mulberry trees and walnut trees. It was amazing! We climbed so many of them and fell off them so many times. I still don’t know how we never broke a single bone! Especially during the cherry season. Well! We used to dare each other to see who would climb to the highest branches and get the juiciest, the most sun kissed cherries down from the top. I am yet to find cherries as sweet as the ones from my farm. Oh, and, I was the village cherry thief!
I would say that we were true free-range children. We could go anywhere, and we absolutely went everywhere. Those times were wild, organic, muddy & pure.
As we got older, we were joined by a group of boys from the neighbouring farms. I was the only girl amongst them. There was only one other girl who also lived in our hamlet, but she was not wild like me. She was pretty much attached to her mother’s skirt.
To me, she was no fun. I’m sure she was lovely though, but I needed a brave, wild companion to plan battles against the boys with, and she needed a well-behaved girlie girl; therefore, we never became close friends. Also, her mother didn’t approve of my wild ways.
I was one of the boys. I could do anything that they could, and I made anything that they made. We were equal, in my eyes. We would make guns out of planks of wood, a couple of nails and a strip of rubber, cut out of my father’s truck’s inner tube, that I would steal from the garage. I know; I was very naughty. But these were blissful times. We would walk for hours, climb trees to look for birds’ nests and observe them and we would sometimes take some crumbs and leave them in the nests. We would sometimes look for the fox burrows too. We used to find quite a few burrows, but I am not quite sure which group of animals they belonged too. We had fun none the less.
Autumn on the farm was so beautiful. This was a busy time for our family. The fruits had to be stored safely away in our cellars and the evenings were spent standing by the cookers making jams & cordials. The fruit and nut trees had to be prepared for the winter and its harsh elements. The barns had to be prepared for the winter too; full of hay to the brim and very well insulated to keep all of our animals nice and warm.
The grownups used to collect all the leaves in the orchard into these huge piles and they used to let us run really fast and then jump into them. I still remember the feeling of falling into these massive, soft beds of leaves. I remember the smell so well too.
This was all usually done before the first frost. But the first frost, oh my goodness, it was magical. My brother and I used to imagine that the ground was covered with real silver and tiny diamonds. It shimmered beautifully in the morning sunshine.

Winters on the farm were so much fun. If we weren’t out skiing or tobogganing, we were inside sitting near our granny’s wood burner either listening to her stories or to her radio. Baba told the most magnificent stories, she used to get us to close our eyes and just listen to her magic.
She used to say to us: “Just close your eyes and imagine, see with your eyes shut.” This memory fills me with such content and warmth.
The quiet snowy days were my dressing up days. As well as for my košana, granny would get her net curtains down for my dressing up winter days. I would tip my head forward, wrap one curtain around my head, twist it and make a vale. I would then wrap another curtain around me and make a wedding dress. This was such fun for me!
I would often wait for my granny to fall asleep on her traditional, three-legged wooden chair, next to the fire and then I would sneak into my aunt’s bedroom. I would take my makeshift wedding dress off & I’d try on lots of her clothes. I would twist her dresses at the back, to make them tight and fitted around my small body, and I would also put her shoes or boots on and strut my stuff around the bedroom.
On one of my dressing up days, I got a bit carried away; I got into so much trouble.
Baba was asleep as usual, so I snuck into the bedroom & I quickly opened my aunt’s wardrobe, only to find the most amazing pair boots in it! They were brand new, Italian, brown suede, over the knee boots. High heels and all! I could not resist them!
I don’t know what possessed me, but I quickly put them on and I quietly tiptoed outside, into the snow in them! I walked in them to the barn to check on some newly born piglets. Well, needless to say, the boots were ruined.
To me, I was only taking a walk in London. Whenever I imagined my life somewhere else, it always had to be London. So, everything was perfect; I went back in & I just put the boots back into my aunt’s wardrobe, as though nothing had happened. Granny woke up and I just carried on playing.
Well, everything was fine until my aunt got back from work and saw them in the “shabby chic” state that they were in. She absolutely screamed murder and started chasing me around the cottage! My poor granny tried so hard to protect me and she absolutely insisted that she wore them to the barn herself! Looking back, this was all absolutely comical. I got a real big rollocking for my little outing.
Winters were also spent in our barns, helping out with the animals. This was so nice, and this was also one of the most calming places that I have ever been to. The barns were wooden, and everything was always so quiet. I loved it! We also used to go into the hay barn. My brother and I used to swing from a beam to a beam, from one end to the other, and then fall into the hay. This was endless fun!
I remember I always loved trees. One of my granny’s late friends used to love telling me this story of how one freezing winter’s day, when she came for a visit, she found me sitting on a branch of one of the apple trees near our cottages, decorating it with Christmas tinsel, wearing just my pyjamas, a woolly hat and a pair of wellies.
As we got older, our springs and summers were spent exploring further away from the farm. When the weather was warm, we’d play in mud a lot.
We’d play near our local streams and get absolutely covered in mud and before we had to go home, we’d walk into the stream and wash ourselves fully, wellies and all. I still remember the noise of the water squelching around in my wellies, all the way home.
Also, during the summer holidays was when almost all of our three million cousins would come to stay with us. This was AMAZING! It was an absolute chaos and I am sure this was a nightmare time for my parents and our granny, but we, the children, LOVED IT! Our days were spent exploring our beloved Pljeva. We felt stronger and braver together. Naughtier.
We loved swimming in our local streams. We would find a shade free, sunny patch of a nearby stream and we would use rocks and sticks to make a dam. Once the dam was full enough, we would then swim in it. This was our only swimming pool. In these streams or the small rivers near us, I used to catch lots of crayfish. I used to take them home in an old plastic bucket, for our granny to cook them for us in this beautiful sauce of garlic, parsley and cream. I also used to scare some of the school children by holding the crayfish up in my hands. I sometimes chased them too, whilst laughing so hard. I’m sure some psychologists would have had a field day exploring me as a child!

Actually, we were all a bit crazy and wild in our own little ways. I remember this one particularly warm summer afternoon. My brother, our hamlet friends and I were playing underneath our linden tree when we heard a car arrive. As we ran towards it, we squealed with joy! The French had arrived for their summer break. Their ever so beautiful daughter, who was just a bit older than me, very kindly brought us all a block of chocolate each. We excitedly sat down around their garden table to eat our chocolate. We all, but one, tried so hard to at least appear polite and eat our chocolate slowly.
But one of the boys just got too excited and too greedy; he put the whole block of chocolate in his mouth almost at once. As he tried to chew it, his teeth got stuck in this delicious French chocolate mass; his jaw locked! He started to cry. As mean as this sounds, this was one of the funniest moments of my childhood. We all laughed so hard, I fell down to the ground and carried on laughing. Oh, I wish this was caught on camera.
Eventually my mum ran to his rescue and I was swiftly sent home. My cackle, at the expense of this boy’s distress, got me into trouble yet again. It was so funny.

At night, we used chase fireflies, lie down in the grass near the cottages and watch the Milky Way, or if the weather was bad, we’d sit in the veranda and listen to the roars of thunder and watch the lightening light up everything around us.

At times, things were tough too. It wasn’t all fun and games. My parents had to work incredibly hard, and we had to work hard too. As we lived on the edge of a forest, there were times when the sheep were attacked and killed by bear. This was a bit scary to our young minds, but our family never sugar-coated nature to us. They did, however, try their best to protect us from the bad news, or from “bad”, negative people as much as they could.

This truly allowed me to wear my heart on my sleeve, be free spirited and wild.

I was strong. Most of the time I looked like a boy, fought like a boy and I climbed like a boy. I used to crawl through the grass, pretending that I was a soldier. I loved showing off my strength amongst the boys.
But more than anything, I loved spending time with our horses, cows and sheep. I also loved our woodland. It was enchanting, full of wild life & full of birds’ song. We spent hours on end exploring its natural dungeons and dens, occasionally smoking its vine. Sorry mum!
The most beautiful part of my early childhood was the fact that my parents let me be me; wild and free. They told me that I could do anything, be anything or anyone I wanted to be. They knew that one day I would grow out of my crazy, wild phase and morph into a different kind of creature.
I am in my forties now; my heart still aches for this carefree life. I loved every second of it. I sadly never fully appreciated the beauty of it all, until I became a parent myself.
Oh, how I would love my children to be wild and free of social constraints and experience this organic, muddy, free range life.
I still miss the most delicious smells of my grandmother’s cooking and I miss the smell of our beautifully handmade cottages; my most comforting touch-base.

2. Excuse me, comrade teacher!

In September 1984, I learnt that the wild ones were few and far between.

“A woman’s education is her power, her security and her voice. Education will be the making of you. Education will open many doors for you and it will give you financial independence. Your power will come from your knowledge. But your education will not be a given, you will have to work very hard for it. It is not the intelligent and the very clever ones who achieve great things in life, it is those who work very hard for it.”

My father’s words.

Our two cottages had these traditional Serbian, locally hand made wooden “vitrines” (similar to a Welsh Dresser) each, which proudly showed off the works of Ivo Andrić, Sigmund Freud, Tolstoy, Pushkin & Dostoevsky. One of my chores was to polish the books once a week. I’d dress up, put my mum’s high heels on and I’d polish away. I used to love opening the books; I’d imagine the world within them. I’d inhale their scent of mystique and I’d look at all the pictures for ages. I’d pretend that I could read, making up words and saying them out loud as I turned the silky pages.

Education was a topic discussed very often by my family. We were always told that it was one of the most important things in our lives. With good education, our opportunities were endless. My grandmother was the most intelligent woman I knew, my youngest uncle was a doctor and a few of my father’s other siblings were highly educated.

But my father and my mother weren’t; they had sacrificed their further education to protect the farm and support others around them. They had worked incredibly hard to support my father’s siblings, who were already at university by the time my grandfather died. My parents are a true example of successful people whose education came from their hard work, travel and clever networking. I firmly believe that one doesn’t have to have a degree to call oneself educated. “Always surround yourself with people smarter than you.”, they’d say to me.

I was the first one of the grandchildren to go to school. I felt this huge pressure; a lot was expected of me. Perhaps I felt intimidated, or perhaps I feared whether I would be able to fill the boots of these high achievers; I definitely feared.

I remember telling my mum that I wanted to stay on the farm forever. I was so worried about her being lonely. My childish mind misunderstood a mother’s strength. “I have seen how much Baba misses her children. I don’t want you to miss me too. I don’t want to leave you.” But she calmly reassured me that our bond would never break & that she would always be with me. As much as everyone loved our farm and our wonderful wild, organic life we were living, farming is an exceptionally physically hard life, therefore our parents wanted a better life for us, a physically easier life than them. They wanted us to travel and see the world too.

For the first time, I felt this unsettling feeling deep inside my tummy; I felt what I now know was childhood anxiety. I didn’t want to leave the safety net of my family. I also feared that I wouldn’t belong. I wanted to stay wild and free forever, but I had to venture into the world of “comrades” instead.

Whether I liked it or not, It was time for me to fight and withstand the wrath of communism and the cast iron rules of my school.

My new school rucksack was ready and heavy; it was full of beautifully smelling new books wrapped in crisp brown paper, new notepads and a massive pencil case packed with all the pencils that I might need in my first year. Mum was always so thoughtful and generous.

I was fully armed with my carbon weapons of mass distraction.

I started school when I was seven years old. This was the standard school starting age. Our classes would start at 0730 and finish at 1200.

My school was about two kilometres away, (around 1.2 miles), down the hill from our farm, nestled in the middle of our village, surrounded by soft sloping hills on one side and a birch park on the other. The western edge of our birch park was softly caressed by our stunningly clear Pliva river.
We also had a small shop & a post office next to our school, which had the only working phone line in our village. This is where we used to go to phone family members who lived further away. The postman knew all the gossip!
I remember my first day of school so well; I was very nervous and excited to meet new friends, at the same time. It was a bright, but misty September’s morning. I was dressed in my best outfit; a beautiful dress that I received from our neighbours’ French granddaughter. I had shiny new red shoes on and my jet black curly hair in pigtails, tied with red ribbons. I was ready. But my heart was breaking; I had to leave my brother behind on the farm. I was so worried that he’d be lonely as he was the youngest in our wild gang, and the only one who hadn’t started school yet. Baba promised me that she’d look after him very well and that she’d make sure that he had plenty of fun. He was so kind, loving and helpful. He had a very strong sense of honesty and fairness. But I worried that he was too kind for his own good.

My mum only took me in for the first morning and after that I had to walk by myself for a little while and then I would join my friends who lived downhill from our farm. My friends were all boys.

I also had this one faithful companion who followed me every morning to school and who waited for me every afternoon by the school door. This was my best friend, Johnny. Johnny was our German Shepherd. He was amazing and so gentle with my brother and I; he followed us almost everywhere. Life on the farm was quite tough at times and theft of sheep was quite common, so we had a few working dogs around the farm. Johnny was not one of these guard dogs, however; he was our pet. He was a quiet and playful dog. A true gentle giant.

As much as I dreaded stepping into the cool & dark corridor of our school every day, I felt so happy that I was finally able to venture into our beautiful village on my own, more often. I loved our farm, but the village had a shop & the shop sold sweets. Up until then, I had only ever had home made sweets, cakes and halva; these new sweets were such a novelty to me. They were delicious! I was only ever allowed to buy just one a day. I still remember my brother and I going to the shop for the first time. Before we entered the shop, my brother took his shoes off. He was incredibly sweet, he worried that his muddy farm shoes would make their pristine floor dirty. As I write this, I am overwhelmed with such warmth, just thinking back of this cute black haired boy, who had the kindest dark brown eyes.

Mum said that I was very bright, but that I still had to study really hard if I wanted to achieve good grades. She also told me that despite the strict communist regime in our country, our curriculum was very good, respected and varied; it would take me far.

I really wanted to make my mum and dad proud, but from the very beginning, I really struggled. My wild spirit was repeatedly being hushed and squashed. I struggled with communism, most of all.

After living this carefree life for seven years, suddenly there were so many restrictions, too many rules which were not allowed to be bent; there was very little allowance for any kind of error. We had to be very careful about what we said. We were only allowed to express pure, blind & unquestionable loyalty to Tito and to communism. It saddened me deeply that we were not allowed to just be children, we had to conform to these brainwashing rules.
It would be unfair of me to say that this was all our teachers’ doing; they simply had to obey these rules, otherwise they would have lost their jobs.
I think only people who lived in a communist country would truly understand what this was like for a child, or for our parents. You live in fear of being reprimanded, all the time. We had to be very careful about what we said, and who our friends were. Communism creates this very formulaic, socially expected and socially accepted mould of how children should behave, actually they present a mould of how a “comrade” should behave. I struggled with this as much as my father did. Unfortunately, actually. looking back, I would say fortunately we did not fit this iron mould.

I felt fearful and anxious most of the time, but my playfulness would crop up every now and again and get me into trouble; there was absolutely nothing I or anyone could do about that.
I also struggled with some of the girls in my class; some of them seemed to be so sensitive about anything and everything. They didn’t once want to jump over the school fences or make marble holes in the ground, with the heels of their shoes; they wanted to look presentable and pristine. However, much to my mother’s disappointment, I couldn’t care less how I looked. I just wanted to have fun, show off my strength and my skill of climbing trees, and of course, I’d arm wrestle the boys. Actually, I pretty much thought of myself as a boy, a tomboy, therefore the girls annoyed me. I found them rather inefficient. It wasn’t their fault, I liked boys better; a lot actually. This love of boys, and later men, follows me to this day. Ahem!

Our country, then, was called Yugoslavia. Yugoslavia was a communist country which consisted of six republics: Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Slovenia, Serbia, Montenegro and Macedonia. My father, however, refused to be a member of any communist party. He had inherited and owned a lot of land, of which he felt very protective about. He also did not wish to be constrained by anyone or any country. When it comes to my parents, proud and stubborn comes to my mind. And, by my parents, I mostly mean my father. Please don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that my father was right and everyone else around us was wrong. There were thousands of people who were very happy with being communists and they took pride in being one. But that was not my family, not my dad. Mum became a member of a communist party, in order to get a state job. If one didn’t have this little red membership booklet, which meant that one “belonged”, then one was unemployable.

Our father refused to belong. He founded his own private transport company, as well as having the farm. The transport company started off as just one truck and a driver.
Dad was the only driver to begin with, mum did all the admin. He travelled the length and breadth of Yugoslavia and further, to establish his business network. This was wonderful for his business, which grew at a rapid rate. Both mum and dad worked terribly hard.
I remember we missed our dad a lot when he used to go on his long business trips. On the day that dad would be due back, our mum used to wait for him, late into the night, leaning over their bedroom window, looking out for his truck lights or listening out for the very familiar sound of the truck’s engine. I remember lying in their bed, snuggled up, watching my mum’s silhouette waiting for our dad at the window, with the hills in the background. She would wait up late until his arrival; mum absolutely adored him. Whenever our dad came back from his trips, he always used to bring us presents. One present I will never forget was this black and white puppy that daddy brought to our room in his coat pocket. It was the tiniest and the cutest little dog we had ever seen. We named him Bobby. I am not sure what breed he was, but he remained very small. He was a feisty little bugger.
I would say that Bosnia was the most ethnically diverse of all the Yugoslavian republics. It was made up of three regions; Bosnian Serb region, Bosnian Croat region and Bosnian Muslims region. I come from a Serbian family. However, my village was very diverse, which made my upbringing very exciting.
My grandmother was, and my parents are very open-minded people. We had regular visits in our home from all three ethnic groups and both my mum and dad had Serbian, Muslim and Croatian friends, especially my father. His friends came from all over Yugoslavia. These connections opened up so many opportunities for my family and for our village. But we had to keep many secrets. Too many times, uniformed men would turn up at our door, wanting to know what our dad was up to, or where he was. My parents gave me strict instructions that I was not allowed to mention where he was. Because dad didn’t belong, he was seen as a threat to the brainwashed system.

We had always been Serbian Orthodox Christians, therefore we still joyfully celebrated Christmas, Easter and our family’s saint day, traditionally called slava. Our family’s saint day was St Nicholas. However, because of mum’s belonging, we had to hide that we celebrated any religious occasions, which of we were very fond and proud of. This was particularly hard, because all of these beautiful celebrations were part of our heritage, and those were traditions which had been passed on from one generation to another. We had to put thick blankets up on the windows, so nobody could possibly see what we were up to. We were not allowed to mention this to our friends, or to anyone at school.

It took me a long time to get used to the school rules. We had to address our teachers by calling them “comrade teacher”. They were very strict, and they didn’t like it if the children asked too many questions. Sadly, for me, I had lots of questions, too many for their liking. I was always encouraged by my family to speak my mind and to ask for an explanation if I didn’t understand what I was being taught.
At the beginning, I indeed asked lots of questions, but I got punished so many times, that in the end I just stopped asking, I listened like everyone else. However, it did take me a few years to learn my lessons and to conform.
The way the teachers punished us was to stand and face the corner of the classroom, in front of everyone else! I can’t tell you how many times I faced the bloody corner; they might as well have named it Vesna’s corner.
Mum says that she never got punished, but apparently dad did get punished a lot. His teacher used to make him roll his trousers up and make him kneel down in the corner, facing the wall, on the floor that was covered by rough sand or corn. And if dad was particularly “vocal” about this treatment, his teacher used to hit his fingertips with a cane. Dad said that he was able to take it all, he was strong and healthy, but he always felt sorry for the smaller and slightly weaker children who were punished in the same way.
One of the times that I stood in the corner, longer than ever before, sticks in my mind more than any other.
I think I was about nine years old. We were all sitting in our classroom, waiting for our teacher to come in, he was late. He eventually came in and said that he had an announcement to make. He stood in front of all of us and said that the village is finally going to have new phone lines put in and that every household will have a phone.
This was such great news! We were all so excited!
Our teacher quietened us all down and carried on: “However, we have decided that you will all help with this project. You will all help with the digging and with the laying the new cables down.”
Absolute silence in the classroom. Nobody spoke.
Nobody, that is, apart from one child.

 

Vesna stands up and says:
“Excuse me, comrade teacher! I think what you are doing is criminal! You will practically use US, children, as free, child labour! This is shocking. You cannot exploit us! We are not strong enough to carry this out. I refuse to do this.”
Our teacher just covered his face with his hands, sighed, and then he said:
“Is that so, Vesna?”
I loudly and proudly said: “Yes!”
Silence.
Not a single beep from the rest of the children. They were all staring at the blackboard and I swear they weren’t even blinking. I was hoping that at least one child would support me in this, but the silence continued.
The teacher walked out. We could hear him talking quietly to someone outside in the corridor. He came back in, followed by – MY DAD! I could see that my dad was very angry; he didn’t look at me. His face was bright red, with anger, he was clenching his jaw, but his poker face stayed firmly on. The two adults stood in front of all of us. The teacher said:
“Children, Vesna’s father will dig first, with his tractor; all you have to do is dig a bit more where necessary, help with laying the new cable down and then cover it all back up with soil. Understood?!”
The whole class: “Understood, comrade teacher!”
At this point, Vesna is still standing.
My father just walks out, still not looking at me.
Our teacher says: “Vesna, I think you’ve said enough. Go to the corner!”
Oh my goodness, I knew I was in so much trouble! I couldn’t wait to go home to apologise to my father. I felt so bad. The wait for the end of our lessons was agonising. Also, I wasn’t allowed to lean onto the wall, my back and neck were bloody killing me!
After the final bell rang that day, I remember I practically raced up the hill to our farm, ahead of my friends and my brother. When I got home, my dad was sitting at our old, large wooden kitchen table, telling my grandmother what had happened. She didn’t say anything, she could see that he was angry, but she stood up and she just about managed to walk out of the house when she started laughing, out loud. She just managed to say, through her laughter: “She is YOUR daughter.”
My dad was furious, with her and with me. I sheepishly went forward. I stood there waiting for him to speak, whilst he looked at me with an unbroken stare.
He finally spoke:
“You! You! My own child … You! … I have worked so hard to make this happen! I have travelled so far so that every house can have its own phone, I have put so much effort into this. But … my own child … My own child objected! How can I now expect anyone else to help?!”

My bottom lip wobbled.
He paused, trying to suppress a smile.
“Go…Make yourself useful! Go, and… feed the chickens!”
And that was that. Once dad had calmed down, we all had a laugh about it later when mum got home. He knew that he would contradict himself if he told me off more. All I did was speak my mind. After all, that was the way they were bringing me up; to speak up.
Certainly, my little outburst gave some people something to talk about.
This hurt me, because some of the children would tell me what their parents thought of me. “I didn’t behave appropriately, for a girl.” They blamed my parents too.
It also hurt that I was being punished at school, continuously. It was such a struggle to strike a balance between our open-minded home life and this restrictive communist school life. I don’t think that I ever truly understood it. I never really got used to it, I just learnt to keep quiet eventually.
I count myself lucky to have been brought up with my eyes wide open, by my strong family. However, it was like a double-edged sword at times; being different in a small community was hard.
The funny thing was, most of the other children were very happy to do what they were told. They didn’t question it. Perhaps that’s because their parents were strict communists, or perhaps they were just wiser than me. I, as ever, wore my heart on my sleeve and had no filter. Got into trouble for it so many times.
Looking back, I don’t regret this for one second. Now that I am in my forties, I only regret getting upset about people’s reactions to me or about what they said or thought about me. I was a child, I was growing up, I was inquisitive and free.
Every child should be free to speak their mind, whilst being respectful and kind.
But I will not lie and say that I never wished that I was like everyone else. I did. There were many times when all I desperately wanted was to fit in. This was confusing at times, because we can try to be something or someone else, but at certain trigger points, out true nature pipes up.
I truly recognise these innocent qualities in our younger son. He has no filter either and he too wears his heart on his sleeve. He is terribly outspoken.
I can now see, that it was absolutely wonderful to have gone through this first myself. I can now teach my son from my mistakes. It is absolutely OK to be the way he is, as long as his behaviour doesn’t hurt anyone or anyone’s feelings.
He will learn to channel his energy, his mouth and his strength as he gets older. We will guide him, all the way.
Children’s enthusiasm, their energy or their thirst for learning and exploring, must never be squashed, we can only channel it or direct it. We can only guide them and help them along.
I feel so lucky that our children are growing up in such safe and free environment. And I feel incredibly lucky to have the freedom, and to feel confident enough to support our children to be who they are.
They are unique. Every child is a unique child.

 

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3. End Of An Era.

Every morning, I would playfully skip down the hill to school, knocking on a few doors; eventually a little crowd of school children would form; we were a bouncy and a very loud bunch. We’d chat away, hop over puddles, kick some stones along the road, skip and quite often try and outrun each other. I was still the only girl amongst them.

Mum continued dressing me in pretty dresses. She insisted on buying me these pretty white crochet socks, but by the time I would get to school, my tights would have a few twigs stuck to them, or one or two thistle balls too. My mum would also, every morning, put my curly locks into pretty little pigtails, tied up with red ribbons. These always came off by the time I got to school, or one would be at the top of my head and the other would be at the bottom; a nightmare little wild child. Mum eventually gave up when I was about ten; from then on, I was mostly dressed in boyish bermuda shorts and polo shirts.

I loved my walks to school and back, in all seasons. But, to me, our winter walks were the most magical ones.

The snow would usually start falling in November, sometimes earlier, and it would snow for days on end. The magic of the first snow is still so special to me. I remember those mornings so well. My brother and I used to excitedly rush outside into the garden and raise our arms up to the sky and squeal with childish happiness; we would open our mouths and we’d catch snowflakes on our tongues. On the way to school, we’d share our excitement with our friends. After the heavy snowfall, the temperatures would drop even further, freezing the snow over & turning our hills into this magical land of crisp, white paths of fun. The Sun would finally show its face through the grey marshmallow canvas & blend with the endless depths of blue.

The snow would beautifully shimmer underneath the Sun’s uplifting rays. I loved the feeling of the cold air on my face, and I loved hearing the crunching sound of the crisp snow underneath my feet, unless I fell on it; then I swore at it. Once we were at school, it was cold. The school’s windowpanes were thin and patched up in places. We sat on these cold wooden benches, with our wet feet firmly placed on the cold floor. We didn’t have central heating at our school; we had these wood burning stoves, which had been made out of industrial cut up pipes. The stoves had many little cracks in them, with slivers of smoke escaping out of them like naughty little wild children, stinging our little eyes and throats. It wasn’t easy, but we didn’t know any different. We still worked hard; we had no other choice.

After school, my brother and I would come home, have lunch, do our homework and then we would grab our sanke, our wooden toboggan, and we would spend most of our afternoons sledging down the steep hills near our house, only coming back into the house when it was getting too dark to keep going, or when our fingers and toes became numb. Once we were inside Baba’s cottage, she would quickly take our wet snowsuits off, put warm woolly socks on us, wrap us in blankets and she’d sit us next to her wood burning range to warm up. She used to very kindly rub our little freezing hands and feet with her woolly gloves, to get our “circulation going”.  Once we were warmed up, she’d make us some aromatic herbal tea, sweetened with honey. We loved our magical winters, but at times, when the weather was really bad, our school commutes were quite tough. The snow would fall so heavily, it would cover all the tracks over night. In the mornings, Dad always used to walk out of our cottage first, to make a path for us to follow to our school; the snow was quite often up to his hips. I have never known our school to close, even in some of the worst winters; no matter how deep the snow was, our school was always open.

Watching us slip and slide on the snow and ice, and sometimes cry in pain after spending hours at school wet and cold, prompted our parents to leave the majestic hills and move into the valley. They had bought a house five minutes’ walk from our school. When mum and dad got married, they had agreed that whenever they got paid for anything, they would put half of their earnings into a savings account. My parents bought their house in cash, at the age of 28 and 30. They took pride in knowing that their hard work had paid off; our lives would be easier from then on.
At first, we were all so excited and happy. We moved into this brand-new home which seemed like a palace to us, compared to our cosy wooden cottage that we had lived in. Our walk to school and back was a doddle. Our new house was in this “posh” part of the valley, in the “suburbia” of our mountain village. Logistically and physically our lives were indeed easier, but the nostalgia soon kicked in; it was gut-wrenching. We missed our granny and the farm. Our lovely Baba took our move very badly. She had looked after us with such care and dedication from the day we were born, yet suddenly she could no longer care for us, feed us and tuck us in when we had our naps after hours of hard play; we were no longer living right next to her, under her wing. She was sadly, but understandably, quite upset when we moved. We missed our animals so much too. We no longer had this vast space around us, we had no trees in our garden to climb on, or lambs to chase. When we came home from school, our home was empty and cold; mum and dad were always at work. Luckily Baba had taught me how to light a fire and cook for us; I’d quite often have our dinner ready, by the time mum came home around 1600.

Not only was our Baba and her care sorely missed and needed; my brother and I worried about her so much. To our young, immature minds, she seemed too frail and too old to be living on her own, but we truly underestimated her physical and mental strength. She was one powerhouse of a woman. However, because of her age and our departure, most of our animals eventually got sold off; there were only a handful left for our granny to look after. She simply had to keep some animals or she would have felt completely lost without her beloved livestock. She liked being busy.

For the first few months of our new life, our loyal companion Johnny came to live with us, but he didn’t like it. He became so sad and homesick. This was so upsetting for my brother and I; we loved him so much, but we knew that we had to take him back. One day after school, we both walked him back up the hills and the closer we got to our farm, the bouncier he became and the faster his tail was wagging. Once he was back with Baba, he was so much happier. He was our wonderful, loyal old friend. As sad as we were to leave him there, we knew we did the right thing. It was hard going back to our new home. I missed my “wild friends” & my wild ways. My brother and I were both … mournful … Our best memories came from that farm. Life as we knew it had moved on; a new era had begun.

Soon enough, our parents ventured into many different businesses. They invested almost everything they had into wood processing machinery and building materials.
Within a few years, our one house turned into three terraced houses, with the original one in the middle. Each one had three levels, with solid concrete floors and breeze block walls; a home to withstand anything that came its way. My parents’ very kindly built the additional houses, just in case things didn’t work out for us in life: “You would always have a home of your own to come to.” Knowing this, all throughout my life, has given me such unbreakable confidence and a very strong sense of belonging; my roots.
My parents’ hard work was incredibly fruitful. My father’s transport company grew to a sizeable fleet of lorries. Dad was a fearless, forward thinking, entrepreneur. The success was great, however, at times it was bittersweet; we got to spend a lot less time together as a family; we had fewer meals together. My parents opened a mini supermarket on the ground floor of our house. My uncle opened a café and a billiard club in our house too. Dad’s sawmill gradually grew into a small factory. They employed many people from our village; Serbs and Muslims. We all had to work really hard; even my brother and I had our delegated jobs, every day. Those were incredibly busy times.

The more my parents’ businesses grew, the more pressure they were under. Sometimes, unfortunately, I resented my parents, my dad especially, for working so hard and for making us work hard too. From our early teens, my brother and I started actively working for mum and dad. When all of my new friends were going swimming, I had to work in our shop, or clean and grease the lorries before their departures, or drive a tractor. As empowering as this was, because no other girl I knew did these jobs, I wanted to go swimming.

Before I was even allowed to start working in the shop, my dad put me through some rigorous training first. He taught me the importance of housekeeping and presentation: “A clean and a tidy shop, is what a customer wants to see.” He made me weigh all different types of foods and goods, different sizes and textures, in various sizes of paper bags, until I got it right. He made me wrap small goods, of all shapes, over and over again until they were wrapped to perfection. I swear my teenage rebellious mind hated him sometimes. “The customer is always right! Even if your worst enemy walks into this shop, they are your customer first of all. It is in your interest to greet them with your brightest smile. The more genuine smiles and warmth, the more business.” These words will forever stay with me.

I can’t say that I enjoyed these times. We had to grow up very quickly.
But make no mistake, I was always immensely proud of my parents. They worked incredibly hard. They did it all on their own, from scratch. They did it for us, so that one day we could have comfortable lives. However, they never allowed us to be lavish or to show off. We never had expensive clothes and we never went on expensive holidays. Our parents wanted us to learn what hard work was truly like. They would say to us:
“This is for your own good; if we dropped dead now, you’d be capable of looking after yourselves. You could work anywhere in the world and you wouldn’t starve.”
These seemingly harsh words would dig deep into us; we couldn’t protest or argue against this. I don’t think we understood fully what this meant, until we got older and until we learnt how important good & honest working ethics are. “Nothing is for free.” Now that I am a parent myself, I feel incredibly guilty for not understanding my parents better, for not supporting them more, and for sometimes giving them a hard time. They came across so much jealousy and opposition from their competitors;on top of all of their problems, they had this fiery daughter to deal with too. Hindsight truly is a beautiful thing, one we should be very grateful for.

One luxury we did have, however, was our annual holiday to Croatia. We would always stay with a local family, which always felt so homely and right for us. Mum, my brother and I would usually go on our own first, and dad would stay behind to work, but he would sometimes stop by and spend a couple of days with us. We loved getting up early and going to the beach before everyone else. My brother and I used to play on the beach for hours on end, collecting shells and smooth pebbles, frequently getting lost. We loved the Dalmatian freshly caught fish and their locally grown food, especially fresh figs. When ever dad was with us, he used to take us on a fig hunt. This was such fun! He would usually do a recce the night before, around the area where we were staying, to find out who had the best figs in their gardens and then he’d take us there the next morning, at the crack of dawn, to steal the figs! Most of our fig hunting trips were deliciously successful, but on one of these adventures we got caught. We stealthily walked to this house and dad carefully picked my brother and I up and lowered us over the fence ever so quietly. We quickly climbed onto the nearest fig tree, we turned our tee-shirts up and started picking the figs and putting them into our tee-shirts. When suddenly we heard this almighty bang and a dog’s roar. This old lady came running out of her house, shouting at us in a typical Dalmatian accent. She was petite and dressed in black, seemingly harmless, but she had a big boxer-type dog on a chain, right next to her, whose barking was getting louder and louder. My brother and I froze! Our dad quickly jumped over the fence, grabbed both of us, practically threw us over the fence, and jumped back over it himself. The figs that we had picked, fell to the floor and they were everywhere! We ran away, in fits of giggles!
I know it’s naughty, but we loved it! My Croatia memories are some of my favourite ones.

The longer we lived in our new home, the quicker we had to grow up. Very quickly we got to see who our real friends were, as my parents’ success wasn’t always met with support by everyone around us. This was so painful. I genuinely believed that everyone was good and that they meant what they said to me, as I was always naively honest with everyone. I believed that everyone was my friend. I got hurt so many times, without seemingly ever learning my lessons. My mum could see what was going on, but even then she would be fair; she’d say to me: “Do you think that there might be something that you could change, in your behaviour? That you could be doing or saying wrong? They simply can’t all be wrong and only you right. Be careful, be cautious, but be open to compromise and acceptance.”

My brother and I didn’t have any concept of “socially acceptable” friendships, when it came to race, different religions, background or wealth. Our friends were children from our village with whom we simply had many things in common; we loved playing and exploring together. And that was that. We didn’t care who they were, whether they were Muslim children, Serbian children, Croat children, Muslim-Croat children or Serbian-Croat children. We used to eat at their homes, they used to eat at ours, everything was shared. We would spend time together at school, come home, have lunch, do our homework and then we would stay out all day, until it was too dark to safely play outside.
After the fall of the communism, we used to celebrate all our religious festivals together. Easter festivities were particularly fun. The celebrations would last for three days and I remember our Easters always being very joyful and colourful. Traditionally, we, the Serbs, would cook, colour and decorate hundreds of eggs in various colours. This was understandably only a Christian tradition, but our lovely Muslim neighbours would cook and colour some eggs for their children too; they didn’t want their children to miss out on all the fun that we were having.
We, too, used to sometimes go to their homes for the evening feasts after their fasts during Ramadan. We all absolutely loved it. It was such a special occasion for us. We had these opportunities because ours and their parents let us, they encouraged us to learn and explore different cultures and customs. Mum and dad always used to tell us to be respectful of other cultures and customs.

During the summer holidays, I would, yet again, “borrow” a truck inner tube from my dad’s garage, blow it up with a foot pump and then race down to the river with the inner tube held high above my head! My friends and I would all use it between us to float down the river on it. This was endless fun, unless we fell through the middle into the freezing water and scraped our backs on the valve. We used to stay in the river until our lips were blue and our teeth were chattering uncontrollably. We climbed the ancient land dividing stone walls, which would sometimes crumble under our feet, crawling with adders and lizards. My friends and I would say to our parents that we’d be playing just outside, but really we’d go into the forest, climb our majestic mountain of a hill, & cross the old train tracks, then explore the caves, with our arms linked together. Sometimes we’d light a fire and pretend that we were sending smoke signals to our friends in the neighbouring villages. We’d walk through the village, hungry, and we’d ask our elderly neighbours for a slice of bread. The bread was always given to us with love and generosity, handed over into our little hands by these rough, hardened, hard working hands. The same hands that built their homes, grew their food, bred their livestock…yet they would handle and caress their grandchildren with such care and gentleness, as though they were made of the most precious silk.

In the late summer, we would gather together and light a big roaring fire. We’d go into our neighbours’ corn fields in the evenings and steal loads of corn, then we’d roast them in the embers of our fire. The corn cooked this way is the sweetest, they say. If it was a clear night, one of our friends would bring binoculars out and we would watch the Moon through them. Because we had virtually no light pollution, the clarity of the Moon was amazing! We could see the craters on it so clearly. Sitting by the fire used to bring out these yet to be discovered rock stars in us; we used to sing songs in English, pretending that we knew all the words, late into the evening. It was hilarious! Those truly were the times. After the corn harvests, we would play in the corn sheaves for hours on end. We would make tipis out of them & play cowboys and Indians, or we would pretend that we owned a whole Western-type town, with all of us having different roles to fulfil.
During the winter we would mostly be sledging or building “igloos”. When the weather was bad, we would stay indoors and play card games, dominoes or Ludo type games. We were never bored.
When we were growing up, my parents generally separated people into these groups:
Dobri ljudi – Good people, kindhearted people. Pošteni ljudi – Honest people. Skromni ljudi – Modest People. Dobri radnici – Hardworking people. “Lopovi” – Deceitful people.
Neradnici – People who didn’t like to work, lazy people, profiteers. My parents never trusted the lazy ones. Mum and dad said that these types of people would cheat, do anything, to gain assets dishonestly without much effort. “Nothing is for free.”

You see, our parents never said to us: “You shouldn’t be friends with them because they are Muslim.”, or anything like that. They didn’t teach us to hate one another.

This is how we lived. This is what my parents still live by. This is how I try to live, even now when I am thousands of miles away.

When the general world talks about how the conflict in Bosnia started, they would say that the people of Bosnia hated each other all the time and that’s why they went to war.

This simply wasn’t true, as I hope you can see from my stories from this time. There was so much more to it. The trauma trail is very long. There was the centuries long influence of the Ottoman Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the WW1, the WW2 & the breakup of the communism. The traumas that came with these wars were immeasurable. The whole history of the Balkans is so intricate and complex. It simply cannot be simplified into a worldwide acceptable short explanation, or a media simplification to appease the general public. The six countries should never have been put together to form Yugoslavia in the first place. There was too much oppression, suppression of people’s customs, religions, freedom and choices. Things would have exploded eventually anyway. We were six different “tribes” who were made to live together and who were made to accept and to conform to the same rules and customs. It was never going to work in the long term. If everyone was allowed to practice what they believed in, in freedom, then perhaps yes. But oppression always creates explosions.
Humans are roaming, adapting, expressive, migrating, questioning species. Realistically, we can’t be constrained to conform to extreme unrealistic rules that do not move with the times or match our aspirations & moral values. There will always be leaders and there will always be followers; and we need them both. People need to be able to be free to be who they want to be, without having to fit a general mould.

 

4. “…this will one day end.”

Over the years, ever since the war had finished, I have only heard of books and movies describing the atrocities of the Bosnian war.

Even after more than two decades, I still can’t read these books or watch the movies. I find them all too upsetting, too negative and sometimes frankly very one-sided.

The hurt, the fear and the losses are still too raw, even after all these years.

I remember this one evening in 2003, my husband and I were living in Cardiff. I was sitting on the floor sorting out our filing whilst the TV was on. As I wasn’t really paying much attention to what was on, suddenly a familiar language caught my attention. I looked up and I saw that a program about the Bosnian Civil War had started, most of it was subtitled. My husband was working in his office upstairs.

I started watching it and COULD NOT believe my eyes. The translation of the program was completely manipulated to in-a-sense simplify the conflict, the war. What people were actually saying was translated to mean something completely different. It was utterly and completely manipulated. It was completely wrongly translated. Not just grammatically, but the complete opposite to what the interviewees were saying.
I was so angry. I got so upset. I started crying. Why were these media giants doing this?! What was their agenda? What was their gain, from all of this propaganda?
My husband heard me, and he rushed down the stairs. He very quickly realised what was going on and turned the TV off; he held me on the floor as I sobbed like a child in his arms. Once I calmed down, we talked for a long time, into the night. He explained to me that the media will always simplify the news, the “factual” documentaries would too, to appease the viewers, to appease the general public. He explained that there had to simply be a bad side & a good side.

It felt so unfair. So unfair! I wanted to scream from the top of my lungs: “It’s not true! It’s not true! What they were saying is not true. I was there; it’s not true! No war is ever as simple as that!” But I was powerless.

A war is a very lucrative and exceptionally profitable business. I was too young to know and too young to understand these world, grand, political strategies and their manipulative media games.

It was such a hard pill to swallow, to accept that there was nothing I could do to change the way it was all reported in the UK, or worldwide. The only thing I could do is stay truthful and say things the way I saw them with my own eyes, show the world what we were really like as people.

From then on, I decided to tell mostly positive stories about my people. Unfortunately, certain events, some painful events, have to be told in their true light, in order for me to paint the full picture.

I want to tell you about the good people in my life, from my country. The kind, generous, in a way naïve, good people of Republika Srpska and Bosnia.

Most people from this part of the world, who came into my life, were amazing. They were extraordinarily kind and brave.

I desperately want the world to hear about them; about the obstacles they overcame to help others, sometimes help others from the opposite side, the “enemy” side, and by doing so, they put their lives at risk.

But they helped and indeed saved innocent lives; they wouldn’t have done it any other way.
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In the late eighties, early nineties, sadly I can’t remember exactly when, our mum and dad sat my brother and I down to talk to us about the political state of our country. They said that our country was going to war. Yugoslavia will no longer be; it will be split into many different countries. Bosnia as it once was would never be the same again.

Our dad suddenly got very serious. He stood up, towering over us, clenching his jaw and his fists.

He didn’t sugar-coat it for us at all. He said that things will at times get nasty, dangerous and violent. He said that some people will become very deceitful & some of our friends will become our enemies. But both mum and dad promised us that they will prepare us for it all. They also promised that they will do their best for us to never go hungry or be without clothes, shoes, or warmth.

Dad choked up. We got so scared. I started crying, we were only young. Tears were silently falling down our mother’s face. She knew that when it came to it, our dad would have to go war too.

The atmosphere was incredibly sombre in our living room.

At one point, after a lot of silence, my dad said:
“Whatever happens…what EVER happens, remember that this will one day end. One day this war will finish. And… if we are still here at the end of it all, we must have a clear conscience. We must be able to look at people in the eyes, without any guilt! Do you understand me?! You must always be kind. Always! We will do our best to protect you, but you have to do your part and be sensible…Be careful. Don’t trust anyone, apart from us. Don’t get carried away with patriotism and nationalism, don’t allow anyone influence your views and opinions. Many will try, believe me. Talk to us, ask us questions, we will explain everything you need to know. ”

Dad lifted his arms up and said: “All of this…all of this that we own, that we’ve ever worked for, might go. But, if we at the end of it all have each other, we can build it all up again. Don’t ever forget that. Understood?!”

My dad then walked out. He didn’t come back home for two days. He used to do this every now and again. Whenever something troubled him, he would retreat to the forest for a little while, to have some head space. But once he was back, he’d be back to his normal cheeky, workaholic self.
My brother and I didn’t understand the enormity of our father’s words. We thought we understood him, but not until a lot later, until things started personally happening to us.
Over the next couple of years, the economy in the country rapidly slowed down. Our dad could no longer keep his drivers, so he had to let them go. This was particularly hard for our mum and dad, as the drivers’ families depended on their income, but sadly, there wasn’t anything anyone can do.

On January the 9th, 1992, our part, the Serbian part of Bosnia was proclaimed as a separate entity; Republika Srpska was born. When it seemed like the whole world was against us, it meant so much to my people to have a republic to call their own; an identity and an entity which represented our history and our heritage. However, the tension in the country was unbearable for my young, sensitive mind. Things were changing rapidly.

My father’s fleet of vehicles was mobilised by the army. He was left with just one lorry, a tractor and our family car.

On the shelves of our shop, where once stood luxury ingredients and goods, now stood bottles of oil and vinegar, salt, sugar and bags of rice. The shop floor was mostly lined with pallets of bags of flour. Whenever he could, dad would drive away to different parts of the country, where he could get the most food for his money. He said that he was stocking up on supplies that had a very long shelf life. These were things like flour, dry pulses, pasta, rice, oil etc.

Out of all the things once widely sold in the shops and in the supermarkets, I missed the sanitary products and toothpaste the most. I wasn’t quite eleven when I had my first period, in 1988; our lives then were still peaceful and the shops were full of everything we needed for our personal hygiene. But, when the war started, we had to resort to cotton wool or cut up bath towels, which were then washed, boiled and reused. I now understand that this was an incredibly sustainable way of living and I am very proud of all of my viragoes, but it was really hard life for us. Those were some of the darkest times of my childhood, but we had no choice, we had to use what we had. Sadly, not many women would talk about this issue, out of period stigma and embarrassment, and I do apologise to my male readers if this part of my story offends you, but we have a duty towards our daughters, sisters and partners; it is incredibly important that we do discuss this vital part of a woman’s life, because period poverty still exists in the world and is a huge problem; it affects too many women and girls. This saddens me deeply, because I remember so well how hard and undignifying my life was, without basic hygiene products.

The shops had long stopped selling safe toothpaste, so we stuck to natural products; we used salt or bicarbonate soda to brush our teeth with. This used to leave a taste in my mouth, that I will not forget in a hurry!

It’s interesting, when I think of my childhood, my mind instantly takes me to positive places in my memory. I am absolutely fascinated by this. I remember this one particular day when we were at school; this one is a magical memory. Each child from my school received a Shoebox Parcel from Canada. Amongst other small items, in my box was a small Crest toothpaste. I will never forget this day. We were sitting in a freezing classroom when these parcels were given to us. I looked after my precious little tube of toothpaste so well, like it was made out of gold. My family and I shared it between us for months. I only allowed everyone to just barely touch it with their toothbrushes. Once it was all gone, we were back to salt. People’s resourcefulness was amazing.

We couldn’t buy coffee; people used to dark roast wheat, grind it and drink this instead of coffee. Smokers used to dry fruit tree leaves, roll them up and smoke them. Sadly, they’d also pick up old cigarette butts off the ground and reuse them.

Mum and I, together with our Baba, continued growing our own fruit and vegetables. Planting and growing vegetables was particularly a very joyous occasion. There was always someone in the village who was known for having good quality and plenty of vegetable seeds. My mum used to send me to them and we would exchange the seeds for food or for wool. I absolutely loved planting these seeds with my mum. There was such excitement within me knowing that very soon, new seedlings would be appearing from the ground, which meant food for our family and our animals. We would use some of the salad vegetables during the summer, but most of them were pickled, dried and carefully stored for winter. Soft fruits were used for jams and cordials. Walnuts, rose hip and herbs were stored in our attic, spread out on the floor, where they were kept dry, and our garlic, onions and corn on the cob was hung on the beams, beautifully platted together.

In the autumn, we used to store all of our apples in wooden crates, in our old farmhouse cellar. The root vegetables were kept in the ground, in the “root cellar”; they would pretty much last us for the duration of winter. We still continued keeping pigs, chickens and a few sheep on the farm; this kept us fed and well nourished. Having these animals on the farm was a wonderful excuse for my brother and I to go and spend more of our time with our granny. We absolutely loved helping her out. After our chores, Baba always used to reward us with warm bread and her delicious pekmez, a damson jam. When it was time for us to leave, to go home, she always used to get sad. She’d fill our backpacks with eggs, cheese and apples. I often have dreams of her standing at the top of the hill, waving at us and waiting for us to arrive.

As the supplies in our shop were sparse, our dad had to go away very often. After one of these long trips, he didn’t come home on the date he said he would. This was such a worrying time for us. We had no means of getting in touch with him at all. We didn’t know where he was. The rumours started circulating amongst our neighbours that he was arrested on the border with Serbia. Some of our “friends” started telling this to our faces. Some unknown people started phoning us. Mum told us not to answer. They left many threatening messages on our answering machine. They said that they had our dad and that they were going to kill him. We were so scared; I can’t even imagine how my mum felt. I still don’t know who these people were, and I still don’t understand why anyone would do such a thing. My husband tells me that such calls were a planned operation, to spread fear amongst people. We were all worried sick. After ten long days, our father came back. He appeared physically absolutely fine to us, perhaps a little thinner, but I could see that he was in distress.
He told us that something happened after he crossed the Serbian-Bosnian border. There was an incident where someone tried to forcefully take his lorry off him. My father knew how valuable a lorry full of flour was to our village. He knew that he only had one lorry left and that he probably will never get the rest of them back. He said that he never stopped negotiating and fighting for it, until they let him go. That’s all he said, that’s all we ever knew. He never mentioned it again. We never asked again. He said that we were very lucky and that we will not go hungry. As soon as dad was rested, he loaded his tractor trailer up and distributed the flour to the families that needed it the most. By this point, the Croatian supermarket chain with whom my parents had a franchise with, was no more. After dad’s return, he instructed us to give away the rest of the food supplies that we had left over in our warehouse, to the people in need, in our village. This was distributed to our Serbian and to our Muslim neighbours too.
As well as our shop, there was also a one-stop type shop in our village. They too, together with my parents, used to help the elderly and single mothers and their children. My mum and dad used to give out free shoes too. Whatever we could, we gave away.
The sense of community was always so strong around us. We always helped each other by returning favours to one another. There was a lady in our village who owned a sewing machine; she used to fix and patch up our clothes for a few eggs or some apples. Or there was a man in our village who was a good locksmith and he would fix things for people for a bottle of rakija. We also shared tools and small machinery to get by. If someone’s roof needed fixing, men would chip in. We also helped each other with weeding the crops, sorting and storing them for winter etc.
When you are going through unthinkable times, your community is your lifeline. Your community is your loving, protecting, nurturing family.
The situation around us was getting more and more unstable and changing very rapidly.
more and more illegal paramilitary groups were forming on all sides. These men used to drive through our village really fast, in their stolen cars, holding up nationalist flags through their car windows. Quite often they used to shoot into the air too, which was very frightening.
We didn’t know these people. They were not from our area; their presence was unsettling. They were spreading fear and uncertainty amongst us all.
My parents warned us about them. They told us that they were war profiteers. They told us not to speak to them, but if they ever asked us anything, we were to always pretend and say that we didn’t know much about anything, in-a-sense, to act stupid and uneducated.
Mum and dad told us to always greet them cheerfully, never to antagonise them. We listened to our parents very carefully. I don’t think that my brother and I ever told our parents how scared we were though. We wanted them to be proud of us.
Amongst all of this crazy, the most amazing thing happened.
My parents discovered that they were expecting. A baby that I could love, kiss, carry and look after. We were all so happy! My parents were so happy; but I do remember my mum crying a lot one evening. She said that she was so worried whether this baby will be delivered safely. She was so worried about the world that she was bringing this new life into. In that moment, when our beautiful mum was consumed by fear, she said that she wished she wasn’t pregnant. I cried with her too, but I kept saying to her that we will help her with the baby and that we will love the baby so much. I promised her that we will do whatever we can to make things easier for her.
In November 1991, our sister was born. Both our mother and our sister were perfectly healthy. Everything went perfectly and according to plan.
I was fourteen years old and my brother was almost twelve. Our sister was the best thing to ever happen to us, in the most uncertain of times. She was this beautiful, perfect baby. She brought so much happiness into our home. Our home was no longer this quiet and sombre home that it became; our home was filled with cooing noises and love for this new life.
We had no access to disposable nappies; the only nappies that we could find for her were muslin or terry nappies, handed down or made out of towels too. Cleaning them was an absolute nightmare! This would have been absolutely fine during any other season, apart from this very cold winter that she was born into. We had to rinse them, boil them, rinse them again and then hang them outside. I swear my fingers got stuck to the washing line a few times; it was freezing!
For the next few months, we had many kind visitors. My mother and our sister were given so many lovely presents. They were all homemade presents brought to her from so many different people, from our multicultural neighbours, despite the imminent war that was already geographically dividing us.
They made blankets, knitted clothes and woolly accessories for my sister. They kept bringing my mum cooked meals, so that she can rest as much as possible. My mum was breastfeeding my sister, these kind people wanted to make sure that both my mum & her baby were well nourished. This was such a humbling experience for us. So much kindness and effort went into helping us. These lovely people didn’t have much, but they shared with us what they could.
A continuous celebration of new life in our home was such an uplifting experience to observe. Our sister made us all so happy. Her birth was this amazing break that we all desperately needed. So much good came out of her birth. So much kindness. She was one guaranteed happiness in our lives. She was so quiet and slept so well.
One night particularly sticks to my mind. We had no power; all we had was a small white candle for the whole house. We got woken up by the sound of gunshots coming from the hills nearby. At one point it sounded like a hand grenade had gone off too. We all knew that we had to stay quiet. We rushed to check on our baby sister, and as we got close to her cot, with the help of a faint candlelight, we saw her smiling at us. But she remained perfectly quiet. It was incredible. As though she knew that she had to be.
Soon enough, it was spring again. Out of all seasons, I found our springs the most uplifting. Year in year out, no matter what was going on around us, new life would begin and flourish all around us. Over, and over again our fields and meadows would flower and produce the most beautiful, vibrant wild flowers.
Our orchards would blossom and produce new fruit; seeing new blossom meant food and nourishment was coming. We would get new lambs and new piglets that we would chase around the farm. The streams and our rivers would yet again teem with new fish and tadpoles. We’d have lots of little golden chicks pecking with their mother hen around our house.
This new life, in everything around me, indeed gave me hope and reassurance that nothing lasts forever. This era of fear and war will, indeed, one day end. Just like our long winters do too.

5. The Power Of Nobodies.

Early Nineties were the toughest years; the most numbing years which would leave long lasting effects on all of us.
To my young impressionable mind, what was happening during these years was too much to understand, too much to take in. Too much to fear.
By this point many of our Muslim neighbours had moved away from our village. Some of them simply moved abroad in search of a better life, or some had moved away to different parts of Bosnia, to live with their relatives where they were a majority. There were some rumours that some of the young men who had left, had joined a paramilitary group. I am afraid, I do not know any facts about this, so therefore I don’t feel comfortable writing about it.
In the early nineties, in July 1992 was when we, as a family, lost someone very dear to us for the first time; we lost him to war.
My father’s oldest best friend, his childhood best friend, was killed in…in the most horrific way. I can’t bring myself to tell you how he was killed.
Traditionally, Serbian funerals are quite big. If you go to someone’s funeral, you go to pay your respects to the deceased, to their family and to their ancestors. In rural areas, a Serbian priest would lead the procession from the deceased’s home to the family’s graveyard usually in a horse-drawn hearse. After the funeral, friends and family would come back home to a wake, where traditional meals are served.
I remember S. M.’s funeral like it was yesterday. It was a beautiful, sunny day. There wasn’t a single white cloud in the sky.
We set off early, so that mum and dad could help out. Dad had already spent an entire day with S’s family, the day before, helping with setting everything up.
S’s family home was at the top of the hills, in a stunning location. From there you could see the whole valley in its full glory, with the river peacefully flowing away. I remember we walked up there and at one point we paused to take the view in. Our dad put my brother on his shoulders so that he could have a better view of our beautiful village. None of us said a word. We carried on walking in silence.
S’s mother was an old lady, dressed in black from head to toe. I remember her so well; she looked so stoic and gaunt.
She was being held by her close relatives, but she stood tall by her door, greeting everyone. She was so visibly broken by her immeasurable loss, yet she held herself with such pride. I will never forget her, she truly left a lasting impression on me. She was a true example of a strong, proud woman. She showed me that even in the most unimaginable grief, we can still appear to be strong and show strength in front of others; even if inside, we are dying.
S’s mother seemed to have been comforting everyone else around her. It was such an overwhelming occasion, filled with unspoken prayers and unspoken words. Filled with love and pride and regret of the loved ones; everyone who had loved S, had wished they had told him how much they loved him or how proud they were of him more often. Men and women were telling his mother what a wonderful man he was. This brought tears to her eyes, but she still stood tall. Without a doubt this beautiful old woman, who would forever stay dressed in black, would have dealt with her grief in silence, once she was on her own or in the presence of her closest confidante; for the rest of her life.
When we got back home, we were all so happy to see our baby sister. It was so nice to have cuddles with her after such a hard, emotional day. She was this beautiful, new life and positivity that we all needed, in the days of death and grief. Our lovely neighbour looked after her while we were at the funeral. Our father sat silently next to our mum whilst she breastfed the baby. When our sister fell asleep, our father kissed her head, he stood up and he silently walked out. He went away for a few days, to grieve.
I don’t think he’s ever been the same since. I noticed that he clenched his jaw a lot more from then on. He also used to have terrible nightmares. He still does; he never talks about it, we never ask.
Mum said that dad continued looking after S’s mother whenever he could.
Unfortunately, S was not to be the only friend or relative that my parents lost in this horrid war. You never get used to it, you somehow get accustomed to it; you become numb.
Eventually, our father announced that he too will soon have to go to war. To this day, thinking about this still fills me with dread and it gives me shivers down my spine. We knew this was inevitable. He had to prepare us for the worst.
He said, to begin with, he would predominantly be deployed as a lorry driver, to deliver supplies. He knew all the main and the back routes as the back of his hand. He promised us that he would come to see us as often as he could and that he would try to help people whenever he could. He also decided to volunteer for the Red Cross, as a driver, when ever he could.
In preparation for his departure, my father had to introduce us to weapons. At first, there was this nervous excitement in us. We, like most children, thought that weapons were cool.
We too fell for the Hollywood’s trick of glamorising weapons and war. But very quickly our father told us that there was nothing cool about weapons. He was dead serious.
Our mother was absolutely terrified. She was worried sick about what would happen to our father. She knew she had to protect us, but she feared that she wouldn’t be able to handle any kind of weapons. She got terribly upset and told our father that she would never be able to use them. Dad got very cross about this, he just wanted us to be safe, but he also deep down understood and knew how sensitive and fearful of weapons our mother was.
As I was the eldest of the three, my father taught me how to handle and use the weapons. He taught me how to dismantle, clean & put back together a pistol and a rifle, in the light and in the dark. He took me to our forest for target practice. He told us that the weapons were only ever to be used if our family was attacked.
I absolutely hated it. I hated the fact that we had to have weapons in our home. We also had a handful of hand grenades and a few mortar bombs which were kept under my bed. Every time I went to sleep, I was very much aware of their presence. I used to wrap the hand grenades in muslin squares very carefully and separate them with cotton wool, fearing if I hadn’t that they might get tangled up.
The weapons brought so much fear in me and were a huge sense of responsibility. They brought this fear in me that I might one day have to use them. After all, I was only a teenage girl. Luckily, I never had to. I was, however, immensely proud of our father for thinking ahead and for training us to be self-sufficient even in war.
But I have to tell you that my brother and I did do something very naughty. Well, by my brother and I, I mean me.
Sometimes at night, I used to take a pair of pliers and a handful of bullets. My brother and I would then go out onto our balcony. I would carefully separate the bullets from their cases and empty all the gunpowder on to the balcony floor, creating intricate shapes on the balcony tiles. Then boom! I would light the gunpowder at one end of the balcony and then shriek with excitement, watching it burn bright red in the most wonderful shapes across the balcony. This was SO naughty and dangerous, but we had so much fun! Childish fun. It terrifies me now, thinking about a brother and a sister, in this crazy world of ours, full of wars, who do the same; play with bullets because there is nothing else to play with.
The presence of bullets becomes your daily reality.
Unfortunately, we quickly all saw what weapons could do, what damage they could do. I mean all sides, all nationalities, in all parts of Bosnia.

The nobodies, the non-achievers, the village idiots that they once were, suddenly got hold of weapons and they did stupid things, they terrified women and children. They had never achieved anything in their lives before, but suddenly they had power; they had weapons.
The nobodies were the people who were not fit to go to war, they however somehow managed to get hold of weapons illegally. They spread fear amongst us. They used to set things alight at night and they started shooting at people’s houses at night too. They would fuel their little night-time adventures with alcohol consumption. This didn’t just happen in our village; each village had their nobodies.
You see, weapons desensitise people. Weapons are never necessary amongst civilians. Having lived through this, having seen what they do, I just cannot understand how and why anyone would buy a weapon unregulated, illegally, anywhere. It saddens me so much and it terrifies me.
My parents got increasingly concerned about our neighbours’ children. One night an explosive device was thrown at one of the houses. At the time of the attack, this family had three young children in their house.
When mum and dad built our houses, they built them to sustain any form weather or attack. Perhaps my dad always suspected that this war would happen.
Our house was deemed the safest structurally, and because some of the nobodies feared my dad, we knew that we were as safe as we could be.
However, my father did something very risky indeed, to protect others.
For a while, he went out at night and brought some of our neighbours’ children to our house, to keep them safe. He would pick them up at night and drop them back off before dawn. My brother and I loved this! We had regular sleepovers with our friends; we did not for once think that our father was putting himself in danger by doing this. We were too young, we didn’t understand the enormity of it all.
I was, and still am, immensely proud of our parents. They wouldn’t have done it any other way. In their mind, there was no question about it. They had to protect these innocent children. If something had happened to these children, to our friends, my parents would never have forgiven themselves.
It must have taken so much bravery and strength to carry this out. Even after my father lost his dear friends, they were killed by the same nationalities that our neighbours were, he still had enough love left in his heart for these children. Imagine Northern Ireland at its worst, then imagine a Protestant man rescuing Catholic children in secret, to protect them, or a Catholic man rescuing Protestant children in secret, to protect them. That’s what our father did. He knew that it wasn’t the children’s fault. They were just innocent human beings. This was for the greater good, our parents said. “Always think bigger picture. This will one day end.”
My parents showed me many times what this meant; think bigger picture.
My mum’s best friend E. was a Muslim lady. She too became pregnant during the war. By the time she was due to have her baby, the countries’ hospitals were already divided into Serbian, Muslim and Croat hospitals, where their own national soldiers were treated too, as well as the civilians. To work as doctors and nurses during any war, must be the most harrowing and the most heartbreaking experience ever. As you can understand, as the three sides of Bosnia were fighting, each nationality went to their own hospitals. But my mum’s friend was still living in the Serbian part of Bosnia. When she went into labour, the only person she could turn to for help was my mum. My mum didn’t think twice. She took E. into our nearest Serbian hospital. She risked a lot, possibly her own life, but this lady was one of her best friend, she could never abandon her in the toughest of times. Luckily everything went smoothly; a little boy was born; another war child. Another source of joy and happiness when it was most needed.
My parents kept on giving and loving, when many people around them were hating and killing; from all sides.
Soon, it was time for our father to go away. He got up early one morning; he did his usual morning fitness routine and spent some time in the bathroom making himself look handsome. He put his best smart-casuals on, plenty of aftershave on, combed his hair and kissed and hugged us goodbye. He told us to be brave.
He didn’t say much else, but we could see that he wiped his tears away as he climbed into his lorry. His lorry was white with a bright yellow tarpaulin on the trailer. I remember wishing that his lorry was a lot less visible.
We didn’t see him for five weeks. These were very, very long weeks.
Mum ran a very tight ship at home, I think this was her way of coping. Most of the time we didn’t have any electricity. It was so funny, we never knew when the power would come back on, but when it did, all we could hear in the neighbourhood was the sound of the vacuum cleaners!
When my brother and I weren’t at school, we had to help with the animals at the farm and at home, the house upkeep and with our sister. She was so much fun! A bundle of cuteness with lots & lots of curly hair. She was our happiness and our endless source of entertainment. We were usually in charge of her afternoon naps.
She was such a deep sleeper! Every now & then, once she was asleep, my brother and I would sneak into her room and we would prop her up into a seating position while she was still asleep, and then watch her all jelly-like flop backwards onto her bed. I know, this was very naughty, but this made us laugh so much; unless we got caught, then we were in a lot of trouble.
Around this time was when our Serbian relatives started arriving from Sarajevo, Breza and Travnik, as refugees. These were my eldest uncle and his family, and my two aunts and their families. They were no longer safe where they lived, so they moved back into our village. At first, our relatives stayed with us, in our house, until they found an alternative accommodation.
This was a complete chaos! My mum suddenly had seven more mouths to feed as well as run everything else. I remember this once when she was very stressed. We now laugh about this one glitch of hers, it was so funny!
After some extensive intervening, after a bit too much of crazy & bickering amongst all the children in our house, she suddenly turned around to me and asked me this:
“Vesna, can you go and put all of our chickens on a lead and then give some corn to Rex.” Rex was our dog. She was dead serious!
I was absolutely bent over with laughter! Mum just looked at me blankly, picked one of our young chicks up and walked into the house. Very quickly she came back out, put the chick back down onto the ground and walked back in again. This was so funny. Poor little chick looked just as confused as my mum.
But thinking seriously about this period, my mum had so much going on. I sometimes struggle now as a mother of two, living in the UK, with a very supportive husband who is always home. I simply cannot imagine what it was like for parents living in any war, not knowing from day to day whether their children will be safe, fed or watered.
But we all carried on. We had to, we had no other choice. We were lucky, we had a roof over our heads, we were safe. Our mum made sure that we were always grateful for what we had.
Soon enough, our relatives got allocated their temporary homes. We were very happy for them and we missed them when they moved out, but it was really nice to be just the four of us again. It was easier for my mum.
We just couldn’t stop thinking about dad. We missed him terribly.

6. Milky Way

My Milky Way
Imagine it’s dark outside and your home is completely shrouded in silence. You are warm and cosy, sitting by the window in your living room, on a really comfy sofa, covered by a soft, warm woolly blanket. Everyone else is asleep and all you can hear is a fire roaring in the wood burning stove near you.
The kitchen and the living room are open plan, there is no electricity, no lights on. The only faint light that there is, is coming from the fire.
Trust me, it was magical. I spent most of my winter evenings like this and my summer evenings on our balcony, mapping the sky.
I think I was always a dreamer. I absolutely loved my surroundings and my people, but I wanted bigger things. I wanted out, I have always wanted to travel.
By this time, we could not travel anywhere abroad. We couldn’t get visas to go anywhere. Even if we wanted to travel just across the border to Serbia, we had to get special permits. Many times, like many people around me, I felt trapped. I so desperately wanted to see this wonderful world ours. When you are stuck in a country torn up by war, it is so difficult to imagine that there are some countries whose people live in peace and feel free. But one place where I could escape every evening and dare think about this free world, was on my two-seater sofa by the window.
On a clear winter’s night, you could see perfectly outside. You could see the white ground, covered by the snow. You could see the blackness of the river & the shadows of the trees. Sometimes, under the moonlight, the snow would shimmer.
There was no light pollution. There wasn’t a single light on, for miles and miles, which made the night sky even more majestic.
Imagine mountains covered by snow. Imagine all the shapes and shades on them, without any artificial light disturbing the beauty of it all. Then imagine the sky.

The sky was endless with endless opportunities. The Milky Way was so, so stunning and so crystal clear. It always looked so close to me; at times I felt I could reach up and touch it. I wish you could see it. I wish you could experience this liberating feeling.
This is where and when I used to travel. Far, far away.
I travelled to countries where there was no war. I travelled to countries where women were not oppressed or judged.
At times when I thought I would genuinely go crazy, imagination was vital to my sanity; I simply couldn’t wait for my evenings by the window.
Our Milky Way was just stunning.
It allowed me to dream and see past our impenetrable borders. In the midst of war, during these quiet moments, I used to close my eyes and imagine looking at our planet from our universe. I saw it borderless. I saw it exactly for what it really is; one and only home for our human kind, our one unique species. We shared our home with the most amazing animal kingdom. Our planet is so beautiful and unique. It is the source of all life. My troubled young mind just couldn’t understand what and why we were doing to it.
Our Milky Way allowed me to dream the impossible. Also, it gave me a sense of certainty and security. What ever happened, I knew that it was there, even on a cloudy night, I knew that MY Milky Way was there. Universe around us was the only thing that was certain.
Because of our Milky Way, winters in Bosnia, in my little village, are my favourite winters. I wish you could see what snowy winter looks like without ANY light pollution on a moonlit night.
It gives you endless opportunities. It gave me endless dreams.
I was also always fascinated by space science and I often imagined astronauts floating freely in space. Unbeknown to me, there was a boy living in the UK, who had the same fascination with my Milky Way, listening to David Bowie and dreaming of space too. It made him want to become an astronaut or an astrophysicist; listening to David Bowie’s music made him believe that he was one.
“Ground Control to Major Tom”

To him, this was never going to be possible because of his intricate & unfortunate family situation, but he was a dreamer too, nevertheless. He never stopped dreaming. He was from a different world to me, but he has always been part of my Milky Way. Twenty-something years later, he recently became an astrophysicist and is now studying for his masters degree in Space Science & Technology.
Dream. Eyes wide open dreams are the magic makeup of our being. They are our hopes and visions.
My Milky Way and my dreams eventually brought me to a free country where there is no war or suppression. Well, we could talk about some glass ceilings some other time!
But nevertheless, this is where I have always wanted to be. Free and comfortable to speak without any fear of repercussions.
Find your escape. Dream big. Escape. Health permitting, your opportunities are endless.

7. Broken People Heal.

I was fifteen years old, full of hope and naivety.
My wild spirit was slowly morphing into a quiet, worrying, overthinking, too sensitive kind of a creature. I craved silence and nature.
Whenever I could, I would find a few moments on my own, to distance myself from the frequent war talk and constant listening of the bad news. I used to withdraw, without saying a word to anyone. I had to have my escape whether this was at home on my trusted sofa by the window at night, inside of my mum’s wardrobe with the doors firmly shut, or in my natural habitat, the wilderness.
I have always been a hopeless romantic too. Like any healthy teenage girl, I started thinking about what it would be like to have a boyfriend. I often dreamed of having my own big family one day, at least four children and a loving, open minded, hardworking husband. I know, this all sounds silly and cliché, but when you are growing up in the middle of crazy and where nothing is cliché, you crave it. You dream of safety, nine to five life, love and comfort. This was nothing but a too far fetched dream.
Whenever I ventured out into my wilderness, I knew my safe, physical, boundaries very well. As the time went by, and as the war got a lot more dangerous, I had to restrict my walks to just the edges of our forest. Even this was risky. I missed my long thinking walks and the very familiar wild environment. I missed the smell & the shades of the deep forest and the soft, silky feel of the moss on the rocks that I used sit on. I missed the heights of my hills.

I felt that, even in the middle of this raging war, we were lucky. We were so lucky to have lived in such a beautiful country, surrounded by this majestic, healing nature all around us. Our nature was one beautiful, positive thing guaranteed to always be there when we wake up. Every morning, after our dreams full of fears and anxieties, we’d wake up to our green shields of hills and mountains.

Our parents, our mum, would speak to us very often and explain where strategically we were positioned and what the risks of us being attacked were. And if we got attacked, our parents had a plan. They always had a plan for everything and they would make it clear to us, what ever happened, they had a solution; we, the children, would be ok. I naively believed that we’d always be safe, but of course, our war had other things on its mind.

Indeed, every now and again, our valley was shelled. During these attacks, because of our safe three level, three concrete floors house, our neighbours would come to us as soon as they would hear the explosions and we would all run and hide in our cellar.
At first, as soon as we were in the cellar, a sense of fear and adrenaline rushing through our bodies would overcome us, followed by deathly silence. We used to all sit on the floor and wait. Nobody ever spoke during these long attacks, as if we were afraid that they would hear us, they would know where we were hiding. Even the young ones, our babies and toddlers, kept quiet.

It was such an unnatural environment; the cellar atmosphere was very somber. Our minds played dangerous tricks on us. It almost seemed that there was something almost majestic about the sound of the shells falling in the distance.
You go into some part of your subconsciousness that tricks you into thinking that this was not real. You start thinking: “This is not happening to us. This isn’t our reality.”
The sound of the shells falling and exploding, almost sounded like we were extras in a WW2 movie. But we weren’t, this was happening. To us. It was very real.
I still find it fascinating that even in those moments we, the children, felt safe. We were lucky to have been too young to understand the risks and the consequences of the attacks. But perhaps most of all, our mothers made us feel safe & protected. We were all in it together. Their strength and bravery must have been tested to their limits, every single day. Our humble war mothers, were built of the strongest matter.

Our dad, like so many fathers then, wasn’t with us. Our homes were mostly occupied by women, children and the elderly. Dad had been doing his war equipment & aid transport job for quite a while. This broke my mum, she missed him terribly. She is one very loving and funny lady, she absolutely loves to have a good laugh, especially at her own expense, but during those times she went very quiet. Her safe place was by the burning fire of our range cooker, she spent many evenings sitting on her favourite handmade wooden stool, whilst watching the flames flicker. She had to remain strong, she had three children to look after.
By this point there were many evening curfews in place, but we were still able to go out for a limited amount of time. This felt like being released from prison.
Every now and again, my mum would let me go out into town with my friends. Our little town was a about seven kilometres away. It just had a handful of cafes, which in the evenings turned into clubs.
My friends and I used to get so excited about these little outings! Like all teenage girls, we used to spend hours getting ready. Our resources were very limited; we’d share our makeup and clothes between us, so we didn’t wear the same clothes every time we went out. This was all terribly exciting. We’d leave our village in the late afternoon, and we’d come back in the evening. We used to giggle all the way into town. We’d walk there and back. Thinking about it now, this was insane. We could have been ambushed at any one time, especially on the way back when it was already dark.
During one of these evenings was the first time I truly fell in love. I remember the moment I saw him, so well. He was tall, sporty looking, with short brown hair; he had bright blue eyes. Gorgeous smile!
We were introduced by a mutual friend. I was the only one out of my friends who didn’t smoke at this time; this caught his attention. He said that he was a non-smoker too and that he was really impressed that I didn’t smoke. He said: “Did you know that Vesna was a Slavic goddess of spring?”. This made me so happy, not many people knew this about my name.
He joined us at the table and pulled up a chair to sit next to me. My teenage heart was racing like crazy! I was trying so hard not to show my almost physical reaction to him. I was so nervous. But I truly shouldn’t have been, he was so nice and so friendly.
The very little time we had, before the curfew kicked in, we spent chatting, completely oblivious to everyone around us. We chatted about anything and everything; we got on so well, we laughed so much. He too had this desire to one day, when this war was over, travel and explore the world. We joked and agreed that one day we’d visit New Zealand together.
At this time of my life, talking to boys was not one of my best skills. I absolutely hated that awkward stage where you just don’t know what to say to one another and you end up sounding like a complete plonker! But talking to him was so easy. He was an intelligent, open minded soul. I think, from that moment on, I dreamed of marrying him, every single day.
When we parted that wonderful evening, I gave him our home phone number. He said that he’d call me the next day and he did. His phone calls were magical. I used to get butterflies in my tummy every time I knew he’d be calling me.
To keep our relationship a secret, if my mum answered the phone, he’d say that he was my school friend. At this particular time of my life, my mum didn’t want me to date anyone. These were dangerous times; my mum was always worried that I’d meet someone dishonest. She had enough worry as it was. But I knew I was safe. He was lovely. But I also knew that she knew.
I remember telling my best friends about him: how different he was from all the other boys I knew, how kind he was, how insightful and forward thinking he was. He was absolutely stunning too. I was so excited; I was utterly in love!
After many happy & meaningful phone calls, we eventually started dating. It was amazing, and I was constantly on cloud nine. He came from a different town, so unfortunately, we didn’t get to see each other very often because petrol was very sparse then. But the very little time that we spent together was magical to me. We would talk for hours and we both loved walking too. We both loved our stunning natural surroundings. We hiked through the safe parts of my forest a lot. We used to sit high up on this rock that overlooked my beautiful river. We would close our eyes and imagine a world outside of our country’s borders.
We dated for a year in secret. My mum was still too shy to talk to me about him. I desperately wanted to tell her how nice he was and how kind he was to me, but I just couldn’t tell her.

He was two years older than me. When his eighteenth birthday came, this was such a bittersweet occasion on so many levels. I couldn’t go to his family birthday party, it was too far away for me to go there and come back in time before the curfew. I remember I was so angry at the whole situation that we were in. I was so upset & scared. I was scared because I knew what was coming. He had to go to war too.

I became fearful even more.
I always worried about our dad but worrying about my love was different. My teenage, irrational heart and body loved him deeply. I was going to have my four babies with him one day after all; after we’d traveled the world, that is.

I got to see him a few days after his birthday. He came to say goodbye. He reassured me that everything would be ok and that we had our lives ahead of us, together. I held him so tightly when we said our goodbye. I pressed my face against his neck and inhaled his scent so deeply, like my life depended on it. I wanted to remember the smell of his skin and the colour of his eyes, how bright they were. We made our undying promises. He left.
That day I skipped school. I went for a long walk, I sat on our rock above the river, making sure I made plenty of room for him on it. I closed my eyes, I listened to the river & imagined him sitting next to me, holding my hand. I cried so much. The uncertainty of not knowing when I’d see him again was killing me. To this day, I don’t and can’t handle uncertainty very well. It unsettles me deeply.

16th of February 1994. It was a beautiful, eerily quiet evening. I remember my mum saying that it was -23C outside. The snow was dry and crunchy underneath our feet.
It was my good friend’s sixteenth birthday party.

I remember it so well.

We had no electricity. Our village was lit up by the brightest moonlight. Our friend lived across the bridge, so a few of us huddled together and made our way to her house. We couldn’t see any lights in people’s homes, just an occasional faint candlelight or a flickering, dancing light coming from an oil lamp.
It was very rare that we had any power at this point; our evenings were spent indoors in candlelit rooms, listening to the radio powered by wires connected to a car battery. My friends and I would go to each other’s homes and we’d play drinking games and we’d sing and dance a lot, like there was no tomorrow. Sometimes we’d play the Ouija board game. This was hilarious because we had a thief amongst us. We all knew this person’s “secret” habits, and whenever we said that we’d play this game, this person would always start fidgeting and say that they suddenly had to go home, and they’d absolutely leg it across the bridge, back to their house. Crossing the bridge at night was extremely dangerous, but I suppose “a ghost telling all of us” about this person’s stealing habits was more lethal, than a mortar attack. Ahem!
I find it fascinating how war desensitised even us, children. We knew that crossing this bridge was risky, but to our brazen teenage brains, a Birthday party was way more important than our safety. And there was nothing our mothers could do to keep us home that night.

Our friend’s party was amazing. One candle, home brewed rakija, and some music on the radio. We sang and danced, celebrating life. We were so happy!
Suddenly someone knocked on my friend’s front door. I quickly whipped the wires out of the radio & we froze, standing there silently like the one candle we had. We listened very carefully, when the person behind the door spoke. To our delight, it was my friend’s brother who had somehow managed to come home from war to surprise his sister on her birthday.
We were all absolutely hysterical with happiness. He was home, and he was alive and well. He hadn’t been home for three months. It was amazing. We all hugged him a lot.
Once things calmed down a bit, he said that he wanted to speak to me in private.
We sat down on the floor in the hallway, it was pretty dark and the concrete floor was cold. I was a little drunk I think. I kept giggling and saying: “What? What? What is it? Tell me!”
He lifted his head up and said:
“Aleksandar was shot by a sniper. He died two days ago. They tried everything, but they couldn’t save him. I am so sorry. His funeral was yesterday.”
My Aleksandar. Dead. He was already buried. My Aleksandar.
The whole room started spinning around me. I felt faint. The tears were absolutely streaming down my face, silently. I instantly sobered up. It was my friend’s birthday. It was her night and her brother had just come home. I didn’t want to spoil it for her or him.
I just took my coat, put my boots on and very quietly left. It was bitterly cold outside, the moonlight was so bright, the snow around me was shimmering. I wished for thick black clouds & darkness, pitch black darkness, not beauty. But the winter’s night had other plans. I could see the steam coming off the river. It looked breathtaking & magical.
I stopped by the river and I wept silently. Losing him hurt so much. My pain was physical, I was shaking whilst I cried many silent tears. I wanted to scream and I wanted the whole valley to hear the echo of my pain. He was my dream, my dream man. We were going to be a family. I wanted to hug him so desperately. I wanted him to hold me tightly how he used to. I wanted to see his face and kiss it. I wanted to inhale the smell of his skin whilst he is holding me, hugging me. I wanted to talk to him. More than anything, I wanted to talk to him. I was in shock; my absolute darkest & worst fears became my reality.
I stayed by the river until my toes and fingertips were so cold, they became numb. I ran home, occasionally slipping along the way and scraping my fingertips on ice and the hardened snow. When I got home, before I went into the house, I quickly wiped my tears with my sleves, took some deep breaths and I walked in. Mum was sitting by the fire, no candlelight; she wanted to preserve the candle for the next night, she said. My brother and sister were already asleep. “Now that you are back, I will go to sleep too, I’m tired. Keep the fire going.”
This was my saviour. I sat in our living room, on my favourite sofa and wept, in the dark. That night, I was so grateful that we didn’t have any electricity. I yearned for my deep, deep Milky Way, but the moonlight was too bright. I kept seeing images in my head of him hurt. He must have been so cold when fell into the snow. I felt his pain deep inside. I knew he was gone, that his spirit had left his body, but I kept thinking how cold he must be lying in the freezing ground. My irrational mind was playing tricks on me. I desperately wanted to find him and keep him warm. It hurt, it hurt deep inside me…I felt sick. I felt so angry and desperate to see him. Knowing that I will never see him again was killing me. Unbelievable. I cried so much that night. I cried for his parents and his sister too. I desperately wanted to visit them, to tell them that I loved him too & how sorry I was, but I had no means of getting to them. There was still no transport. All I could do was pray for them and for my Aleksandar. By the morning, my tears had dried out. My wild spirit…disappeared with the Morning Star.
——————————————————For a long while, this was my life. My evenings were spent like this, crying on my own in the dark, going through my stages of grief. I tried so hard to accept that a young life was lost,
that my love was lost. I couldn’t help but feel this tremendous anger! Why him?! Why take him?! He was too young. We had a loving future ahead of us. Why me?!
To me, to this sixteen-year-old suffering soul, at that time, his death was the end of my world. I know, I was very young. But I was in my adult formative, most vulnerable years. My whole life was ahead of me. I didn’t want my life to be ahead of me, without him. I married silence instead.
But please, don’t feel sorry for ME; my situation was not unique. There were many, many people in my country who had lost their loved ones. I felt that I had no right to grieve openly; wives had lost their husbands, mothers had lost their sons and children had lost their daddies.
This knowledge, however, didn’t extinguish my pain. To my young mind, he was my forever.
What I didn’t understand was what a lasting effect his death would leave on me. Losing him, and friends after him, affects me to this day. It affects me as a wife and as a mother. I have to fight my fears of losing my precious, loved ones.
I couldn’t share my grief with my mum. I never spoke to her about Aleksandar’s death. However, she knew; my friends’ mums told her.
My beautiful mama was already broken. Her husband, her younger brother, her husband’s two brothers and many, many of my parents’ friends were at war. She didn’t know where they were, there were no phone calls or emails to their frontlines then. She had three children to look after and somehow feed us and keep us safe. She had so much on her shoulders.
I didn’t want to break her even more by telling her how hurt I was; that I was grieving. I grieved on my own. But in her own way, she helped me. She made sure that I had plenty of time on my own in the darkness of our evenings.
Death was something that we, teenagers, didn’t talk about. It was too hurtful to talk about it. There was too much of it around us; we never talked about it, as though we worried that we’d bring it home.
I wrote him letters. So many. Writing those letters gave me peace and solace. I stored them in my room, tucked away in my bed. For nobody to ever see them or read them; they were just for him.
I never got to see his grave. But after more than two decades, he is still a massive part of me. He strengthened my belief in bigger and better world that was out there. Not just Bosnia and our horrid civil war.
He reinforced my desire to travel and he reinforced my thirst for learning. He helped me broaden my understanding of the world. With him, I was whole. Without him, I was broken for a long time.
I think I was broken until I met my husband. It took my husband a long time to build me back up. His love, determination and patience has helped me mend my broken, fragile being. But I feared, I feared, and I fear. I feared that whomever I loved, that they would die too.
Even after twenty-four years, writing about Aleksandar was still so hard and raw.
But I can tell you that I am filled with love and nothing else.
The only way we can heal is by fully embracing the pain and the love that we felt for this person. Fully and truly and thoroughly. We have to let it hurt, we have to cry it out, write it out, run it out, walk it out…whatever works. We have to let it all out & we have to let go.
And only then we can celebrate this wonderful person we loved so deeply, and only then we can move on, but never forget.