9. Serbia. Becoming a refugee.

Not long after my eighteenth birthday, my father came home for a little R&R. Oh my goodness, we were so happy; he was finally home and he was safe.

Dad hadn’t been home for two and a half months. We didn’t know where he was. All we knew was that he was somewhere in a trench. This was a very worrying time for all of us. Especially for my mum.

The day he came back, we all rushed down the steps to greet him, I carried our sister who was only three at the time. We couldn’t wait to see him, to hug him.

When we saw dad, he was standing at the bottom of the stairs; he looked tired. He had lost some weight, his hair was longer & unkempt. He had grown a beard.

Our sister clung on to me, like for dear life. She didn’t recognise him, she was scared. I think out all of us, dad was looking forward to seeing her the most. He was visibly upset that she didn’t recognise him. All he wanted was to pick her up and give her a hug.

We all welled up, we felt so sad for him.

He stood back and wiped his tears, he didn’t want to scare her any further. Dad asked me to take her back into our home. It was only after dad had a bath and after he shaved that she recognised him. She ran to him with her arms up and hugged him for ages. She didn’t leave his side for quite a while.

Unbeknown to me, my happiness was to be very short-lived.

The very next day, my parents sat me down to tell me that they had decided that I should move to Serbia, for the last year of my grammar school, so that I could, at least for one year, have regular classes and regular English lessons. My parents decided that my mum would accompany me to Serbia.

I didn’t understand the seriousness of their decision at the time. Years later, they told me that they were terribly worried about my safety. They both strongly believed that I was no longer safe at home. They wanted their teenage daughter away from this madness, from danger. Mum became tearful when she told me that their main worry was revenge rape.

Mum & dad wanted me to be somewhere where they knew that I’d be looked after very well and where I’d be safe. They were sending me to live with my mum’s brother and his family in Serbia, in Stopanja, near Kruševac.

I was so upset, I didn’t want to leave my family behind. I kept thinking that if I stayed, if anything bad happened, at least we would all be together. We’d help each other, we’d support each other.

But, no. Once my parents decided something, there was no going back.

We had to get a special permit to travel. Mum sorted this out.

My departure happened too quickly. I had to pack and leave within two days. It was agreed that as soon mum came back from taking me to Serbia, that my father would have to go back to war. Saying goodbye to him was one of the hardest things I have ever had to do. I didn’t know when I’d see him again. I didn’t know if I’d be able to come back any time soon once I crossed the border. I felt like a traitor; I was leaving them all behind to, in a sense, to live in luxury.

The night before my trip was very stormy. I didn’t sleep much at all, but I do remember having this dream where I and my whole family stood in this field, when suddenly this crack appeared in the ground, separating me from everyone else. However much I tried, I couldn’t cross it, I couldn’t reach them. I was devastated. When I woke up, I got worried that my dream was going to be a bad omen.

The next morning, early morning, on the 4th of September 1995, my mum and I set off, leaving my father, brother and sister behind. My grandmother came down from her farm to say goodbye too. They all stood on our balcony, waving at us. I could see my grandmother wiping her eyes with her traditional Serbian headscarf. My brother and sister kept calling my name until I could no longer see them or hear them. I cried so much. I kept saying that I didn’t want to go. Mum kept saying that it was for the best.

I hardly got to say goodbye to anyone else.

We slowly made our way to Serbia. We first took a coach to Belgrade, then took another one from Belgrade to Kruševac. Our journey was seventeen hours long.

When I arrived, my uncle and aunt and my cousins greeted us with such warmth, they were just so loving. We relaxed for a little bit, talked late into the night; I never left my mum’s side. She had to go back the very next day. Dad had to go back to war.

So many things were going through my head. What if my father and my siblings got attacked? What if the border officers didn’t let my mum cross back into Republika Srpska, Bosnia? What would dad do then? So much was at risk. If anything happened to my mum, I would have felt responsible for the rest of my life.

I will never forget the moment she left, I held her for a long time, we both cried. She kept promising me that she’d keep everyone safe. She climbed onto the coach and left. I too, like my brother and sister did, stood there waving at the bus until I could no longer see it. I had this horrible, horrible fear in my stomach that I will never see my family again. I couldn’t even phone them any more; the phone lines with Bosnia were disconnected by this point.

The next few weeks were very busy for me. I had to get used to living in a new country, I started my new school. I tried so hard to concentrate, to learn, but all I could think about was my family. I missed them so much, it hurt.

My uncle and aunt lived in this big house, with a very popular restaurant on the ground floor. They owned it all and the two of them, together with my aunt’s mother, ran it all too. They were incredibly busy. They still live in this house and they still have their restaurant; it’s called Beograd (Belgrade). Sadly my aunt’s mother is no longer with them.

Prior to my arrival, my aunt had arranged for me to start my new grammar school. By the time I got there, everything I needed was waiting for me, it was all ready. My uncle and aunt did it all.

Despite being incredibly busy, my auntie Vera always made time for me and took me absolutely everywhere with her. She took me shopping; she bought me some new clothes, some new shoes and a fancy new school rucksack. She took me to a fancy salon to have a fancy haircut too. She wanted me to fit in and not stand out too much. I was so happy and grateful she did this, I didn’t have any trendy clothes then. When I lived at home, we recycled our clothes as long as we could. It was so nice to finally wear something that actually fitted me.

She also educated me. She was very aware that I came from a small village and that I had never really been exposed to what goes on in bigger cities. Drugs, especially drugs. My new school was a well known grammar school, but the town that my school was in was infamous for drug abuse.

I remember this so well. The day before I started my new school, my auntie spoke to me about the dangers of recreational drugs and what kind of effects they have on our bodies. I had never taken any drugs and I had no intention to, but she wanted to educate me, just in case someone disguised them in my drinks or food. She did all the research. She stood in front of me and demonstrated how different drugs affect us and how we would physically react to them. This was hilarious! She acted out every scenario, every situation, position and every convulsion. I found this really funny, but she was dead serious. She wanted me to know everything. She also told me never to accept a drink in a glass, always in an unopened bottle. She told me to always ask waiters and waitresses to open my drink in front of me. This was such an eye opener.

On my first day of school, I was filled with nervousness and excitement at the same time. Because I didn’t do very well in my previous school, I just wasn’t sure if I’d be able to match my family’s expectations in this new school, in this new environment. If I am honest, I was scared.

I shouldn’t have been. My new school was just wonderful! The teachers were friendly and welcoming. My new school friends were so warm and welcoming too.

The school was warm too. This was such a novelty for me, we hardly ever had any heating on in my old school; it was all so lovely. Eventually I was on a bit of a high. I wanted to learn, I wanted to do well, to make my mum and dad proud.

Soon enough, I had a lovely group of friends who truly looked after me. Especially this wonderful young lady called Zorica. She used to pick me up in her car and take me out to her favourite cafe; thanks to her I felt like I had always been there. She introduced me to so many new young people of our age, she truly took me under her wing.

When I was at my new home, with my wonderfully kind hosts, they made sure that I had absolutely everything that I needed. They treated me like their third child. My cousins were incredibly kind and generous. My cousin Marija (Maria) was closer to my age; she introduced me to all of her friends, we spent a lot of time together.

The only thing I found strange was that they hardly ever had their TVs on. Or it seemed that way; when ever I walked in they would turn them off. Also, when ever I walked into the restaurant, my uncle and aunt kept folding their newspapers away. I found this a bit strange. But I never asked, I wanted to show that I was grateful and I didn’t want to be rude.

I used to take this bus to get to school and back, this was always quite a lively journey as the bus was usually full of school children.

One evening when I was coming back from school, this lady was sitting in front of me, facing me. She looked very similar to my auntie Rada, she had the same big blue, often sad, eyes. Auntie Rada was a refugee in our village. She often sat by the window, looking away, as though she was always waiting for someone to arrive. This lady reminded me so much of her. I felt so nostalgic and homesick.

When I got back, I first went to the restaurant to greet everyone and have my dinner. As I walked in, my uncle Bogdan quickly folded the newspapers away and he turned the TV off. We chatted for a little while and I then went upstairs to do my homework.

As I was doing my homework, the phone rang. I picked up the phone and to my surprise, it was my friend Marina; I was ecstatic! I was so happy to hear her voice. We chatted for a while about school and how nice it was to live in Serbia. We mentioned how now we had basic things widely available and very easily accessible. Things like toothpaste; we couldn’t buy toothpaste in Bosnia anywhere, for quite a while then. We used salt or soda bicarbonate to brush our teeth with. We laughed about our people’s resourcefulness for a bit. It was so nice to hear from her.

Marina then asked me:

“How are your mum and dad, and your brother and sister? Where are they now? Are they with you? From what I hear, a lot of people from Šipovo have settled in Vojvodina.”

I was a bit confused by her question, I said:

“Erm, I think they are all ok. They are all back in Šipovo, but I’m not sure where dad is.”

Marina paused and then said:

“They are still in Šipovo? Oh no, they never left?!”

I started panicking:

“What do you mean they never left? Why would they leave? I don’t understand.”

Marina said:

“Don’t you know what happened? Šipovo was attacked and evacuated on the 9th of September. Everyone left, all the villages were evacuated too. Pljeva was one of the first villages to go.”

I remember this moment so well. My heart was racing, I felt dizzy. Marina carried on talking, but I couldn’t hear…

My Pljeva…my village. My family! My baby sister! My home!

On the 9th?! Five days after I left!

I fell down to the floor, still clutching the phone. My auntie Vera suddenly rushed through the front door, she had heard me talking to someone on the phone. She was worried. She could see that I was upset, she very quickly realised what must have happened. She became tearful too. She grabbed the phone off me and started telling Marina off, telling her that she shouldn’t have told me.

Auntie Vera very quickly put the phone down and sat with me on the floor. She held me as I sobbed.

I felt so bad, it wasn’t Marina’s fault. She didn’t know that I didn’t know what had happened.

The same evening, my auntie and I phoned Marina back. My auntie apologised and explained everything to Marina. My beautiful friend understood it all, she was fine.

I finally understood why everyone kept turning their TVs off, why they always folded all the newspapers away. They didn’t want me to see the news. They didn’t want to worry me. I was in a new environment, in a new school, in a new country. They wanted me to settle in well first, before they told me what had happened. They were protecting me.

I felt terribly sad for my uncle and aunt. My family was their family too. They must have been worried sick about everyone, yet they put a very brave front on for me.

To this day, I don’t know how they managed to pull it all off for so long, together with their children. My uncle Bogdan, my auntie Vera, their children Marija & Marko, are some of the kindest, the most loving & the most generous people I know. They showed me how even in some of the toughest times we can still be selfless, kind, loving & giving.

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