Operation Storm; The great rescue. 9#

Operation Storm; The great rescue.

Please forgive me if this chapter doesn’t come across as clear or as emotionally expressive. I wasn’t there; I wasn’t with my family during the final exodus, during the toughest times of their lives.
The daughter in me, and the sister in me wishes that I was with my loved ones on this day of fears, cries & screams. But the mother in me understands why it was so invaluable for my parents to know that on the toughest day of their lives, at least one of their children was safe and away from the missiles, hand-grenades & gunfire.
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My mum’s journey back to Bosnia went as smoothly as it could have; it was a huge relief for my father when she arrived home safely. She was happy. They both felt a huge sense of accomplishment knowing that their teenage daughter was safe and well and away from danger.
Mum found our home warm and children as happy as they could have been. Dad had looked after them very well, but sadly he couldn’t stay, he quickly had to go. My mum waived him off and wearily carried on with her autumnal jobs and harvests.
When dad left Pljeva, he was very swiftly deployed to move the military equipment from the Petrovac frontline, as this area had fallen into the Forces’ arms. He drove as much kit as he could fit on his lorry from Petrovac to Jajce.
On the 8th of September 1995, four days after I left, my father had finished his driving task for the time being and he was already back on the frontline near Jajce.
On this fateful day, he and his fellow soldiers were informed that the operation Storm had intensified and that the Forces were nearing Sipovo.
He instantly knew what this meant; he knew that he had to go home as soon as possible. In our instance, the closest Forces frontline was near Glamoc.

Dad knew very well that to reach Sipovo on foot, the Forces would have to go through our village first. Our family was defenceless; he knew that there were many, many women, children and elderly people in our village who wouldn’t be able to escape or defend themselves.
Dad had this priceless tool that could help many, many people; his lorry.
His only option was to drive his lorry back to our village as soon as possible, knowing all the time that this was extremely dangerous. Nobody knew how quickly the Forces would reach our village. They could have been there already. But you see, as well as this terrible fear for their lives, there was always this hope amongst our people that this offensive would not reach us, that the Operation Storm would be stopped by NATO before it got too dangerous. Unfortunately, this wasn’t to happen.
You have to understand what a difficult journey this was. To get to our village, you have to follow a very bendy road for about seven kilometres. This road closely follows our beautiful river upstream. On one side of the road, you have the river followed by the soft rolling hills, on the other side of the road you have the steep cliffs, the steep hills and the forests all the way into our village.
My father’s main concern on the way to our village was the fact that his lorry had a white cabin and a bright yellow tarpaulin.
He could have been ambushed at any point and he would have been a very easy, very visible target for the Forces. This was a nerve wracking, terrifying journey. Luckily, he managed to drive safely back to our village, but he was very fearful and anticipated an ambush after every corner.
He says that deep down he knew that the end was imminent. As well as driving very cautiously, he also purposefully drove very slowly so that he could, for one last time, take in all the beautiful sights and views of our stunning countryside.
In the past, our village was always protected from the missiles by our high steep hills, but when dad arrived, the missiles had already started falling directly into some of the neighbouring villages near our Pljeva. This meant that the Forces were at the top of the hills, they were very close.
Dad found our family at home. Mum told him that they and many of our neighbours had already been hiding in our cellar. These were our Serbian and Muslim neighbours. Mum tells me that they were all very relieved to see our dad and once they found out that he had managed to bring his lorry safely home too, this gave them an enormous amount of hope. To make himself visible to the rest of the village on the east side, dad decided to park his lorry across the bridge, tucked away behind this old building. This was the only place in the village where dad could hide the lorry from the western side of our village, where the forces were firing from. It was a huge risk to drive across the bridge, but this was the best place for it.
As the evening drew closer, the shelling eased off a little bit. My family decided to spend the night in our house instead of in the cellar. They say that at this point they were still hoping that this offensive would end very soon. Perhaps they had hoped that the Forces were shelling our village just to frighten them, as part of their fearmongering tactics.
Hope, in the toughest times, is a very dangerous thing, it can make one become very complacent.
Never the less, my father asked my mum to phone everyone in the village to let them know that dad had brought his lorry in, just in case.

A little while back, our little sister was given her first, hand-me-down, bike. This was her “favourite green bike EVER!”. I remember this one day when she was riding her bike in our garden, when we all suddenly heard this blood curdling scream. We all rushed outside to find that there were these three young cockerels attacking our baby sister! Our brother rushed to her rescue; he picked her up in his arms and ran with her into our home. Once she had calmed down, he went back out. He was so frightened for her and angry at the cockerels! Needless to say, we all had a lovely, unusually, for the war, lavish feast that day! It always amazes me how we, humans, can make the best out of a bad situation. That day we celebrated that our sister was rescued from this vicious attack on time and only escaped with a couple of scratches.
On the day of our father’s arrival, my mum and dad agreed that they should all make these last few days at home as fun as possible for our sister. She and many other little children had been traumatised enough already.
My parents wanted to allow our sister to still be a three-year-old little girl.
On the evening of the 8th of September, not realising that this was their last evening at home, they brought her precious little green bike inside, so that she could ride it around the house to have a little fun, as it was not safe to do so outside anymore. My parents and my brother did their best to entertain her and they kept asking her to sing and dance for them that night, just so that they could distract her from the noise of the occasional gunfire. During the gunfire or during the sound of explosions, she used to just go quiet, she never cried. She used to love singing and dancing for us! She was our baby, she was our happiness, she was everyone’s entertainment. Our sister always genuinely made everyone feel happier, content and better.
Once everyone had fallen asleep, dad stayed up all night patrolling around the village and checking up on his lorry. He says that he had just a couple of power naps by our front door.
He still hoped that the Op Storm would be intercepted by NATO or stopped; he hoped that they would all be able to stay in our beautiful village.

On the 9th of September, at the first light of dawn, the shelling intensified. This is when everyone knew that they had to flee. They had to run to save their loves. The shells were no longer falling into the neighbouring villages; they were now falling directly into our village.
My parents, and all of the people there, found themselves in an unimaginable pain and disbelief. They had to save their children. They had to leave everything behind, everything that they had worked for, everything that they, themselves, had built from scratch. They had to leave their haven. There was no time to waste.
My father asked my mum to try and pack as much of food as she could, whilst he went to get our granny. He told her that he would be back very soon and that he will bring his truck back. He also asked my mum to spread the word to say that whoever didn’t have any transport that they should come to our house immediately so that they could get into our lorry trailer.
Meanwhile, the shelling was getting stronger and stronger.
Very quickly, our cellar filled up to the brim; full of women, the elderly, young children and babies.
My baby sister, who is now almost twenty-six years old, remembers my mum screaming and crying hysterically because she was so worried that our father would get killed crossing the bridge. She knew that the bridge would have been the Forces’ artillery’s prime target, she knew how dangerous this was.
After a little while, a big crowd started gathering outside of our house and miraculously our father managed to drive the lorry across the bridge safely and park it very closely to our house, so that the forces don’t see it. But mum noticed that he was visibly upset; he was crying and angry at the same time.
Our father went to get our granny and she refused to come with him. She told him that he must go and save his family and the rest of the village. She told him that the younger people and younger families should have the priority on his lorry, she would only slow him down. No matter how much our father pleaded, begged or argued with her, she refused to leave her home. She finally agreed that she will make her way down with the rest of the people coming down from the hills.
By the time our father arrived in front of our house, a crowd of one hundred and seventy terrified humans had already, desperately, been waiting for him. They all started frantically climbing into the lorry, carrying their most precious material positions and their most precious memories. The lorry was filled with cries and desperate screams.
By this point, the gun fire was getting closer and closer. The bullets started embedding themselves into the walls of our homes. Mortar shells were being directed at the houses, into the roofs. My father, who was at the bottom of our balcony shouted for my mother to come down from the house immediately! My brother picked my sister up and went to escape through the front door. My mum threw the bags of food off the balcony, into my father’s hands. As she ran through the house, she managed to grab this extremely expensive cutlery set that she had bought for me, this was to be my wedding gift one day. She also grabbed a couple of photo albums. These photos were our history, our ancestry and our heritage.
As my mum, my brother and our sister in his arms, went to escape through the front door, the shots were fired at them; they could see the forces running towards them across this small field at the back of our house. My mum just managed to grab my brother and pull him back. The only way back into the “safety” was to run back through the house and jump off the balcony.
Mum screamed for dad; he turned around to see her desperate face full of horror. She screamed: “Jovan, take our children! Take them!”.
Mum lowered our sister first, our father managed to catch her safely. Mum then helped my brother jump off the balcony, into my father’s arms. Our auntie Rada took hold of our sister, and took her into the lorry’s cabin. This breaks my heart, apparently our sister screamed:” Save my bike, save my green bike! Who is going to ride it now?!”
This was my auntie Rada’s second plight for safety. She had already escaped from Travnik once before. She was just so grateful that she was still alive.
Once my brother and sister were safely off the balcony, my mum threw the photo albums down onto the ground, and whilst holding the cutlery very tightly, she jumped off the balcony herself. My father helped her.
As soon as she was safely on the ground, mum grabbed the albums and climbed into the lorry’s trailer to try and help with calming the young children down. My brother was in charge of closing the trailer’s back door and of making sure that the tarpaulin was tightened to the maximum. When mum finally looked down her body, she noticed that her skirt was ripped, and her thighs were heavily bruised, from climbing down the balcony. Mum was shaking heavily; my brother was crying.
Dad says, just as he pulled away from our house, he saw this woman running towards the lorry, weighed down by the bags of her belongings that she had been carrying. Dad shouted for her to hurry up as he couldn’t afford to wait. Sadly, she had to throw her bags onto the ground in order to run faster. She very quickly caught up with them and ran into the cabin.
By this point, altogether, there were one hundred and sixty one person in the trailer of the lorry and thirteen people in the cabin; one hundred and seventy four human lives at stake.
As soon as the cabin door was shut for the final time, our father set off. He didn’t know if they would make it out alive. He didn’t know if the lorry would be shot at.
And sure enough, about a kilometre from our house, a missile fell right in front of the lorry! As dad slammed the brakes, everyone in the lorry went flying forward. Our little sister hit her head on the windscreen and cracked the windscreen!
From that moment on, dad hit the accelerator and asked auntie Rada to put some music on, to the maximum volume.
He wanted to do what he could to protect our sister from hearing all the whaling coming from the back of our lorry. Also, he wanted to protect her from hearing all the gunfire and explosions.
Apparently, being the happy little girl that she was, even in the scariest of circumstances, she started singing and wiggling her bum in the little space that she had. His plan had worked.
Dad started singing himself, whilst tears were running down his face, occasionally wiping his face on the sleeves of his shirt, with his hands firmly on the wheel. He couldn’t stop thinking of his mother. He couldn’t stop thinking of the most horrific things that could happen to her.
He couldn’t help but believe that he would be responsible for her death. He would carry this guilt for the rest of his life.
He blamed himself.
Even though he, potentially, saved one hundred and seventy four lives, he felt the full brunt of his guilt for a very long time.

Serbia. Becoming a refugee. 8#

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.