Over the years, ever since the war had finished, I have only heard of books and movies describing the atrocities of the Bosnian war.
I have to say, even after more than two decades, I still can’t read the books or watch the movies, I find them all too upsetting, too negative, sometimes frankly very one-sided.
I remember this one evening, when my husband and I were living in Cardiff, I was sitting on the floor sorting out our filing while 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 Bosnia 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. My husband heard me and he rushed down the stairs. He very quickly realised what was going on and turned the TV off. Once I calmed down, he explained to me that the media will always simplify the news, the “factual” programs would too, to appease the viewers, 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!” But I was powerless.
Very quickly I realised 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, where possible. Unfortunately certain events have to be told, 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 of people from this part of the world, who came into my life, were amazing. 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, by doing so they were putting their lives at risk. But they helped.
In the late eighties, early nineties, sadly I can’t remember exactly when, our mum and dad sat us down to talk to us about what they thought was going to happen. They said that our country was probably going to war and that Yugoslavia will no longer be; it will be split into many different countries. My dad suddenly got very serious. He didn’t sugar-coat it for us at all. He said that things will at times get nasty, violent, but that they will prepare us for it all. He promised that he will do his best for us to never go hungry or be without clothes or shoes, or firewood.
He choked up.
My brother and I started crying, we were only young. My mum started crying too. She knew that dad would have to go war too.
The atmosphere was sombre in our living room. At one point, after a lot of silence, my dad stood up and said:
“What ever 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, we have to have a clear conscience. We have to be able to look at people in the eyes, without any guilt! Do you understand me?! You have to 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, don’t allow anyone influence your views and opinions. Many will try, believe me. Talk to us, we will explain everything you need to know.”
He stood up, he 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. When ever something troubled him, he would retreat to the forest for a little while. But once he was back, he’d be back to his normal cheeky self.
My brother and I didn’t understand the enormity of our father’s words. We thought we understood him, but not until things started happening personally to us.
Over the next couple of years the economy in the country rapidly slowed down. Our dad had to go away a lot more often. He could no longer keep his drivers, so he drove his lorries everywhere himself. Eventually his fleet of vehicles was mobilised by the army. He was left with just one lorry, a tractor and our family car.
Where once, on the shelves in our shop, stood luxury ingredients and goods, now stood bottles of oil and vinegar. The shop floor was mostly lined with pallets of bags of flour.
When ever 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.
We 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 vegetable seeds. My mum would send me to them and we would exchange the seeds for food or wool. I absolutely loved planting these seeds with my mum. There was such an excitement in 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 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 were stored in our attic, where they were kept dry. In the autumn, we would store all of our apples in wooden crates, in our 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. This kept us fed and well nourished.
During one of our father’s long trips, he didn’t come home when 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 that he was arrested. 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 says that these 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 when he was crossing 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 apparently 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. He told us to be grateful.
As well as our shop, there was also a one-stop type shop in our village. The people who owned the shop and my parents used to distribute basic supplies for free to old people and to single mothers and their children. They did this when ever they could, when ever it was safe to do so.
Things around us were getting more and more unstable and changing very rapidly.
More and more illegal paramilitary groups were forming on all sides. We didn’t know these people. They were not from our area, but their presence was unsettling. They were spreading fear and uncertainty amongst us all.
My parents warned us about these people. 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. They 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 my 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 child. A baby! A baby that I could love and 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. 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 and that we will do what ever we can to make things easier for her.
On the 21st of 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 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. This would have been absolutely fine during any other season, apart from winter! 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, many 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 would soon geographically divide 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 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. She made us all so happy!
My sister’s 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. It was as though she knew that she shouldn’t cry at night. Especially during the nights when we had no power; when the only light we had was a single candle.
Soon enough, it was spring again.
Out of all seasons, I absolutely loved spring and summer, 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. This indeed gave me hope over and over again.