It took me more than twenty years to sit down with my father to talk about the Great Rescue. For a long time, he kept saying, either that he couldn’t remember, or that he didn’t want to talk about it. But a few weeks ago, we finally sat down and slowly recounted the events that made some of the biggest impact on him and our family.
The journey to freedom was a long and slow one. Everyone was trying to escape. Dad told me that there was an eight-year-old boy who drove a tractor with a trailer, full of people, rescuing his family. He said that there were small cars on the road with eight or nine people crammed into them; these too were mostly driven by young boys or women. There was only one way out. Everyone was heading in the same direction, a massive convoy was formed by the rivers of people, like tributaries joining the main stem; the road to Jajce. There are approximately twenty-eight kilometres between Pljeva and Jajce, but it took my family ten hours to cover this short distance. All along, all they could hear were distant shots being fired and explosions getting louder and louder, as the shells were falling closer and closer. There truly was no time to lose.
My father was very conscious of the fact that he had his hungry, tiny daughter in the cabin, his wife and his son cramped at the back of the lorry, a cracked windscreen and artillery shrapnel imbedded in the lorry and the tires; he was worried whether the tires would carry him for long enough to get them to safety. He had no time to stop and check it all. He had to keep going. His mother was always on his mind. He could not stop thinking about her; whether she was still alive or not.
Somewhere along the way, they came across a family in distress on the side of the road; their car had broken down. They were a husband and wife and two young children. My father had to stop, he had to help them out. He, as quickly as he could, got the winch out and attached their car to the lorry; they then very swiftly moved on. They had to, however, stop and start so many times. The road to Jajce was quite windy and narrow at times; to their right was a large, deep lake, so they didn’t have much space for error. Dad was under enormous pressure to keep all these people alive. Adding this new family, he was now taking one hundred and seventy-eight people to safety. He said he had to act, react and think very fast.
Finally, after hours of moving very slowly, he came across a clearing on the road, so as soon as he could, he accelerated as fast as he safely could. He was desperate to get further away from the artillery shells falling. As he sped away and as he came around a bend, in his rear-view mirror he saw the car that was attached to his lorry swing around his lorry. He says he felt sick with guilt and worry. In the moments of fear and crazy, when he sped away, he completely forgot that they were attached to him; he completely forgot that they were there! Luckily, they were all in one piece and safe. Albeit, a little shaken.
As dad was telling me this, he got a bit choked up. “It was tough…it was tough seeing that. The image of the car swinging behind me…still haunts me.”
My sister was just waking up from her nap when they finally arrived in Jajce. Dad put the music back on for her and told her that they were all going for a mini holiday. She believed him and squealed with excitement; she loved the family times together, especially if dad was with them too.
Once dad knew they were safe to stop, he jumped out of his cabin and made sure that everyone was well first. He reunited my sister with our mum and our brother first, before he would then go off to find out where they would all be staying. I was told that our sister clung onto our mum like for dear life!
They all waited anxiously for our dad to come back.
When dad came back, he informed them all that they will all be staying in an emergency accommodation for the night. The word going around was that they would be safe there for the time being. Mum now says that they were all still full of hope that they’d be able to go back to their homes very soon. That this was all just temporary.
My heart breaks for my brother. He was always our home boy. He never liked going away from our beautiful village, his friends and family. Also, out of all of us, he was the most attached to our grandmother. He could not bear the thought of anything bad happening to her. Mum says that he felt very anxious and worried about his friends who were at the back of the lorry with him, so he decided to go outside to see if he could find them, to make sure they were ok. The area of Jajce, where they were all staying was quite hilly. As he walked around, an artillery shell fell near him, slightly higher up from where he was standing and threw him down on the ground, covering him with gravel and earth, but thank God he was not hurt. He was only fifteen at the time. My mum and dad were worried sick, but he quickly managed to get up and go back to where they were. He hugged our sister tightly and sat down in silence. He’s always been incredibly tough, even as a little boy. Quiet, but tough.
That evening, they all slept on some sponge mats, nestled next to each other like sardines. Once everyone was taken care of and safely tucked away, my dad had some time to reflect on everything. He was so glad that he risked everything to go back to our village. It wasn’t worth thinking about what if he hadn’t. But, will they ever go back? Will they still have a home, even if they go back? Will his mother live? She had suffered from heart disease all her life; will she have enough medication and food? After a lot of thinking, he knew that there was only one thing that he had to do; he had to go back to get his mother. But how? He decided to allow himself some time to rest and sleep first. He will come up with a solution in the morning.
The next morning, when they woke up, everything was so quiet. The explosions had stopped, and the shells had stopped falling. There was confusion amongst our people. Is it safe to go back? Should they go back?
After some careful negotiating, dad managed to borrow a car from our aunt; I remember this car so well. It was a brown metallic Opel Ascona. Dad had a plan.
Through his wheeling and dealing, he managed to get a camouflage jacket that belonged to the Forces, he put it on and set off for Pljeva.
During his solo journey, he had to go through various checkpoints, but luckily for him, he was a well-known figure; once he explained to them why he had to go back, they let him through every time. The soldiers and the police at these checkpoints did however warn him that it wasn’t safe to go back, but there was no telling him; once he decided something, there WAS no going back.
All this time though, he was torn, because he left his family behind to get his mother back to safety. One thing that gave him hope for the safety of his family, still with fear mind, was that my brother could drive the lorry. Dad had taught him to drive a while back, as if he knew that my brother might have to one day.
Before my father carried on telling me what happened next, he had to stop. He had to compose himself. He said that he just didn’t know what was waiting for him in our village. Will he find his mother alive? Will he go back alive? So much was at risk, it was incredible.
As he was driving along the road, awaiting an ambush at every corner or a bush, he couldn’t help but notice how quiet it was. There was no gun fire, there were no explosions to be heard, there was no smoke to be seen. This gave my father a false sense of security. He was very confused. Does this mean that they could all go back home?
Luckily for him, he came across a very welcome distraction. On the windy road to Pljeva, he came across a lone pedestrian. One of his old friends was coming back from the war, hoping to find his family alive. Luckily our dad was able to tell him that his family is safe and alive; this man’s teenage son managed to take his family to safety in their tractor.
They decided to carry on anyway. Dad was worried about all the livestock that was left in the stables and barns. All the cows and horses would have been in their pens without food and water. Dad and his friend stopped when ever they could to release the animals. Once the animals were free, they could then freely graze and drink water from the streams and the river. But once they did what they could, dad had to make his was to baba Ljuba’s house, his mother’s house. He and his friend parted ways. His friend went off to his little hamlet to try and help the animals there too.
Once dad was on his own, he put his foot down. As he drove very fast through the village, at one junction he nearly crashed into the Force’s car! There were four soldiers inside it. He said that his heart was absolutely pounding, and he swears he held his breath until they drove off in the opposite direction. He casually greeted them by raising his hand up and carried on driving as though nothing out of the ordinary had happened! He says that the fact he was wearing the Forces jacket, with their distinct camouflage pattern on, saved him. He was counting on the fact that they couldn’t possibly have known every single one of their soldiers. It worked! This time.
He finally arrived at baba Ljuba’s house! He ran towards her front door and quietly and cautiously called her name. She answered; she was in. She was alive!
He embraced her and held her gently with such a relief that she was well and alive. She was a frail, petite woman. He told her that the rest of the family was safe and that he came to rescue her, to take her to safety too. But to his horror, she straight away refused to leave, she still insisted that she wanted to stay where she was. She kept saying to him that he must go and be with his family and that she was safe where she was, she didn’t want to leave. But, she too was confused by the silence in the village and the surrounding area. Because of her heart disease, all her life she avoided any unnecessary travelling, she found any form of transport rather distressing and always felt ill after it. So, you can imagine, she was adamant that she was staying put unless she absolutely had to leave. She asked my father to call the RS military headquarters to find out exactly what was happening and if it was safe for her to stay, therefore safe for all of them to come back to our village. Dad told her that he just saw the Forces’ soldiers drive through the village, telling her that she would not be safe to stay in her home on her own, but she still insisted on him phoning to find out first, before they made any further decisions.
After “exchanging words” with his ever so strong-willed mother, trust me, she was the strongest woman I have ever known and the most stubborn too, he agreed to phone them and find out whether she could stay, even though he knew that there was NO way he would leave her behind again!
As my grandmother went to pass the phone to him, she tripped and ripped the phone wire out of the socket! Her phone was this old fashioned, beige, rotary dial phone.
Dad could not believe it. He just could not believe it!
He had to think fast. After some expletive words, he begged his mother to come into the car with him so that they could go to our house and phone the headquarters from there. To his horror and dismay, she still refused. She asked him to go and speak to the headquarters and come back for her, she would in the mean time get a few of her belongings together and wait for him. He begged her again and pleaded, but sadly she refused to get into the car. Dad had no other option than to leave. His time was running out too. By this point, he should have been on his way back to Jajce already. He quickly got into the car and drove back down the village, to our house.
As he parked outside of our house, he quickly popped into our cellar; he grabbed a hessian bag and opened our big chest freezer, he put as much frozen meat as he possibly could into the bag, thinking of all the hungry mouths waiting for him in Jajce. Once he finished, he gently put the bag of meat in the car, conscious of the fact that he must not make much noise. He then cautiously made his way up the steps. As he reached the top of the stairs, he took a good look of the beautiful hills in the background. Only the day before they were all running for their lives, and there he was back there again, hoping to hear the best news from the headquarters. In front of him was a wide field, full of autumnal corn, ready to be harvested.
Just as he was making his way into our house, he heard a commotion behind him and the next thing he knew, he was being shot at. As my father feared, he was finally being ambushed. He was so angry, the Forces camouflage jacket didn’t work after all. Someone was hiding in the cornfield and started rapidly shooting at him. As he tried to lay down, he could see the commotion getting closer to our house. He quickly got in, ran through the house and then he too had to jump off the balcony. That was his only way out. He was frightened and distraught. He could not go back to get his mother. As he was getting into the car, the shots were being directly fired at him. He started the engine and very quickly drove off feeling completely overwhelmed by emotions of rage, sadness, failure and loss. He was completely bereft.
He drove so fast back to Jajce, he says that he doesn’t remember much of the journey at all. All he could think about was his mother.
Unfortunately, on the way back, at one of the checkpoints, there was a changeover of the soldiers, they did not know him. As they searched him and his car, they discovered that he had a bag of meat in the car. As they thought that he had been looting, they took it off him.
He carried on his journey, not only without his mother, but now without the food for his family too.
As a parent myself, I cannot imagine not being able to feed my children. It is one of my biggest fears that my children will be malnourished as a result of a poor diet, but he had no choice. He no longer had anything to offer them.
Also, the pressure on him was immense! Out of all of his siblings, at that point, he was the only one who could have brought their mother to safety, yet for the second time he couldn’t. How he must have felt, I can’t even imagine.