The Pliva Lakes glistened to my father’s right, surrounded by forests and fields full of autumnal flowers. As my father was approaching Jajce, driving as fast as he safely could, the noise of the artillery firing was getting louder and louder. His broken heart knew that this meant that the reason Šipovo & Pljeva were so quiet, was because the Forces took over the area, established a guard system and then moved on East, to conquer Jajce. Dad knew that they had very little time to move.
By the time he got back to our family, everyone was already waiting for him by the lorry. These were crying children & frightened women, including his own family. They could all see that he was on his own, but nobody asked any questions.
He knew that he had to explain to my mum what happened and the reasons why Baba wasn’t with him, but he first had to get everybody safely onto the lorry and get going.
His biggest concern was the fact that they had to cross many bridges, before they got to safety. He still had his bright yellow tarpaulin on the lorry.
This time he kept his dearest close to him; my mum, my brother and my sister were in the cabin with him, plus some more people. The only way out was North, to Banja Luka, was along this dangerous road which followed the river Vrbas very closely.
The immediate exit out of Jajce had already seen a lot of action and shelling, so much that some parts of the main road had already started crumbling away towards the river. The risks were huge. Also, by this point, dad was getting very tired.
They had to pass through the Vrbas Canyon.
I remember this road very well. It’s so beautiful and scary at the same time. High, dramatic limestone cliffs, cut deep down by the water of the mighty Vrbas, which is fast flowing, deep and dangerous. But stunning, absolutely stunning!
But the road itself is not stunning. In some places, the road is quite close to the river, but in others the road is very high up, winding around the high cliffs with the river far below it, looking dark and ominous. This road was not built for young boy drivers, to take their families to safety on.
This journey was to be their longest and most dangerous.
They just never knew what was coming next and if they would even be safe in Banja Luka once they got there.
Dad knew that in that case, he would have to send his family further away from Bosnia, to Serbia, to the safest place at that point. But he also knew that he wouldn’t be able to go with them. He had to return back to his unit.
All along this journey, they made sure that they talked to my brother a lot and reassure him, that he and they will be ok. They also kept playing the music for my sister, hoping that she would sing and dance for them. They really tried, but she was getting quieter and quieter as the time went on; she probably knew that they were no longer going on a holiday. There were too many people crying around them and people don’t cry when they are exited about going on their holiday. She might have only been almost four, but she knew.
She is twenty seven now. She says that she remembers the final exodus very well, especially the latter part, but she doesn’t remember much before arriving to Jajce. Perhaps those fearful events were just too much for a young child’s mind; she successfully blocked them out of her memory.
But mum & dad say, amongst the crazy, amongst the fear, amongst the terrifying unknown, they sat there in the lorry, in this huge convoy of vehicles all-sorts, they say that they still managed to see the beauty of our country around them. The centuries old cliffs and the majestic Vrbas river to their right; they felt a strange sense of content. At least for a while, as they edged further away from Jajce, in this very slow moving convoy, they felt safe. If was as though the nature was protecting them and shielding them from the Forces’ artillery.
My parents say that there were two women on their minds, all the time. The two women filled them with completely different emotions. One was our granny; they felt despair, grief & worry. The other one was me; they felt a sense of relief that they did the right thing by sending me to Serbia on time.
Dad…he couldn’t talk about Baba. He had to tell our family exactly what had happened, but he couldn’t. He would clench his jaw, look away and say that he didn’t find her. It was only afterwards that he told them the full story.
The further they traveled, the more withdrawn my brother became. He’s told me many times that he was so desperate to go back home, so much that he was prepared to start walking back all by himself. He wanted to go back and look for Baba. He wanted to be with her and keep her safe, if she was still alive.
Luckily he never did anything silly like that. My family stayed together, at least until they got to safety, to Banja Luka.
It took them almost a whole day to get to Banja Luka, a whole day to cover around seventy kilometres! But they did, they arrived safely, albeit emotionally and physically exhausted and hungry. They were all very hungry.
Dad drove his lorry to a central location, close to the centre of the city, where everyone managed to get off safely and join their relatives & friends in Banja Luka, or go to a designated refugee help centre.
My family was very lucky. My mum’s younger brother & his family lived on the outskirts of the city. Once everyone was taken care of, my father drove my immediate family to our uncle’s house.
When they safely arrived, my mum was overjoyed to see two friendly faces smiling at her lovingly; her parents. They had been brought to safety too. They had lived in a remote mountainous village, but luckily my uncle went to get them just in time, before the offensive went through their village too. It’s not worth thinking what if he hadn’t, but sometimes you can’t but think that. But they were alive, well and incredibly lucky. Mum was so happy to see them!
Her parents were always the most loving towards us, including my dad. They were kind and incredibly generous. They owned a lot of land, but they were humble farmers who lived in this idyllic mountain village called Medna, surrounded by pastures and forests. Apart from electricity, they were completely self-sufficient. They grew all of their organic food and they owned horses, cows, sheep, goats, pigs and chickens. My maternal grandparents were called Dragan and Rajna (Rainha), but everyone called my grandmother Raja (Rhaia). They lived in this traditional cottage, entirely constructed by this local stone, with light blue windows and doors, and lime-washed indoor walls.
The cottage had three levels. They had a cellar where they kept all of their carefully organically preserved food and drinks. They, too, made their own Rakija, they kept their copper still in the cellar, alongside two massive barrels for the plums. I have very fond memories of the plum collecting seasons. We used to help pick the plums off the ground and separate them either for Rakija or for jam. Once the plums were in the barrels, we, the children, used to climb up a ladder and get into the barrels and press the plums with our bare feet. This was amazing and so much fun!
The ground floor was where they lived. In front of the house was a veranda with benches & a table, and an old wood burning cooker, to cook on during the hot summer days.
The top floor was just an attic floor, with three extra beds & baba Raja kept her wool up there & her homemade soaps. I used to love spending my time up in the attic, lying on one of beds and reading my books.
Their house was always absolutely immaculate! Considering that they were hard working farmers, my grandmother kept their cottage incredibly clean. Every time we visited, I used to LOVE looking through all of their cupboards & wardrobes, and my granny let me. I think I was in awe of her and her tidy house. Our home was always so busy and chaotic, theirs was always so peaceful and serene. My brother and I don’t have a single bad memory of our grandparents’ farm. They were incredibly loving. We used to spend a couple of weeks with them every school holiday. Thinking about it fills me with warmth and such incredible longing for them, for their hugs and stories. I miss them terribly.
But back to Banja Luka for now.
Once my mum got off the lorry, she ran towards her parents and hugged them tightly for a while. It was only once she was together with the rest of her family that she managed to let go of this crippling fear that she was holding inside and cry.
She cried because she had to jump off the balcony to the safety, with her most precious ones; with her children.
She cried with relief that the ricocheting bullets ricocheted away. She could not help but get scared over again about what if they didn’t.
She cried because for those very long few hours, she didn’t know if she’d ever see her husband again, when he went on his own to try and rescue his mother; he crossed the enemy line to try one last time.
She cried because of his broken heart, she felt his pain fully.
She cried because they left everything they owned, apart from a handful of things she managed to carry out. She and dad worked incredibly hard to build their little empire, all by themselves. She cried because now, it was all for nothing. All their effort, sweat, blood and tears was for nothing.
She cried with relief because they were all alive. They were all in one piece. But it was not over, she had to keep going.
Mum says that once everyone was bathed and fed, dad announced that he had to go. He had to go back to his unit and carry on, without them.
As they were all chatting quietly, the distant noise of the Forces’ artillery reminded them that they were not even safe in Banja Luka. That day, the decision was made that the elderly, the women and the children would travel further, to join me in Serbia.
Once the decision was made, my father stood up and stoically said his goodbyes. When it came to goodbyes, this was his way.
The rest of my immediate and extended family stood outside of my uncle’s house and watched my dad climb nimbly into the lorry cabin. They quietly waved him off.
Two days later, everyone apart from dad, set off for Serbia. This was an almost twenty four hour journey, in a cramped coach, full of women and children. Mum says that at one of the check points, the police nearly took my brother off the coach, as he was quite tall for his age, they didn’t believe my mum that he was still only fifteen. As far as the police were concerned, he was a fit young male who could have been very useful in the war. Now, you have to understand, my mother is a very easy going, agreeable and gentle woman, but when the police tried to take my brother off the coach, she stood taller and picked up one of the policeman by his clothes and pinned him against the coach door and told him very firmly what they had all been through and what they had escaped, and if he thought that she’d let him take her fifteen year old son off the coach and send him to war, he’s got to deal with her first and the last thing she said to him was: “Over my dead body!”
Once she let go of him, this policeman apparently just straightened his clothes and signalled the coach driver to carry on. Mum says that it was only after they got going again that she broke down. She would never have forgiven herself if anything had happened to my brother.
On this long journey, they had very little food on them, but they made it last for a long time. They all shared the food amongst them and nobody mentioned, even once, that they were hungry, not even my sister. I still feel so bad that I didn’t share this journey with them. It’s a strange feeling; there I was, living in luxury compared to them, eating restaurant food, and my family was hungry. It’s a horrible feeling.
The road was bumpy and scary. This was not the usual road to Serbia, this was a road that took them the long way around, through the slightly safer zones. It took them through burned down villages, but also through some most stunning places. Mum says that if the babies didn’t cry occasionally, the coach would have been completely silent. Everyone was lost in their own thoughts. Like she was too.
She couldn’t stop thinking about dad.
She had absolutely no idea where he was. She was just sure of one thing and that was that he was back with his unit by now.
Luckily, what my mum didn’t know, was that on his way back to his unit, dad got arrested. He was arrested at a checkpoint. He was arrested because he “abandoned” his unit that fateful day when he drove to Pljeva, after hearing that the Op Storm was nearing Šipovo, to rescue his family and most of the village.
After the police wouldn’t listen to his reasons, he told them that they can lock him up for as long as they want because he’d do it all over again if he had to.
Dad doesn’t talk about his prisoner of war times. Ever. We don’t even know how long he was in for or what happened while he was in.
When I sat down with him, a few weeks back, when it got to this part of the story, he choked up, looked away, paused & asked me not to ask him any more questions for a while. Very quickly he got up and got busy.
I choked up too, but with pride. Immense pride.