Early Nineties. The toughest years. The numbing years.
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 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 best friend Stevan, his oldest best friend, his best friend from childhood, 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 Stevan’s funeral like it was yesterday. It was a beautiful, sunny day.
We set off early, so that mum and dad could help out. Dad had already spent an entire day, the day before, helping with setting everything up.
There wasn’t a single white cloud in the sky.
Stevan’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 me, then my brother, on his shoulders so that we could have a better view of our beautiful village. None of us said a word. We carried on walking in silence.
Stevan’s mother was an old lady, dressed in black from head to toe. I remember her so well; she looked so stoic. 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, but 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.
She seemed to have been comforting everyone else around her. Without a doubt, she 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. 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, he kissed her, and he 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 talked about it, we never asked.
Mum said that dad continued looking after Stevan’s mother whenever he could.
Unfortunately, Stevan 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 routes 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.
As a result of this, my father had to introduce us to weapons. At first, there was this nervous excitement in us. My brother, like most boys, thought they were cool. 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 was 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, which were kept under my bed. Can you imagine this happening to a teenage girl in the UK, in this day and age?
The weapons, brought so much fear in me and a huge sense of responsibility. They brought this fear in me that I might one day have to use them. Luckily, I never had to.
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 bullets from their cases and empty all the gunpowder on to the balcony floor, creating intricate shapes on the floor. 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.
Very quickly we all saw what weapons could do, what damage they could do. By we, 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.
You see, weapons desensitise people. Weapons are never necessary amongst civilians. Having lived through this, 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 the greater good.
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.”
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 on his best smart-casuals on, plenty of aftershave on, combed his hair and kissed and hugged us goodbye. He didn’t say much, 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, 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. 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 children to feed as well as run everything else. I remember this once 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 asked me this:
“Vesna, can you go and put all of our chickens on a lead and then give some corn to our dog.” 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.
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.
We just couldn’t stop thinking about dad.