8. The first exodus.

Promises in hope.

In February 1993 was when some of my true, forever friends had to leave. In February 1993 was when we had to make our promises, in hope that we will be able to keep them, that we will find each other again. In peace.

It’s funny, I have a very clear picture of our last evening and of our last morning together, but I don’t have a clear picture of the build up to it, at all. Perhaps this is truly what they call a subconscious selective memory. I suppose our bodies go into emergency mode and along the way we find the best coping mechanism. Mine was to block things out.

Our beautiful village was no longer safe for anyone.

Our dad came home one late afternoon, we were so happy to see him! He explained to us that he came back to say goodbye to our neighbours. He had been away for a few weeks then, how he found out about this I didn’t know at the time, but I now know that our neighbours told him of the exodus date a while back. He asked me not to help mum that evening and asked me not to go to school tomorrow. He just said: “You go, spend this evening together, make sure they all have a lovely time. Be nice.”
I walked up the hill, to our friends’ house where a group of us met. We had no power that evening, candles were lit, and the radio was blasting some good old Yugo-rock.

By the time I got there, they had made loads of food and drinks, probably using up their last supplies in this home. They were always so generous. Our friends’ father was Muslim and their mother Croat; they decided to make their way across Bosnia to Croatia where they had relatives. The rest of the village Muslims were leaving in the morning too. The ones who didn’t have anywhere to go, decided to stay in their homes, whatever happens. There weren’t many of them.

Eventually the rest of our friends arrived, and we sang and danced late into the evening. We reminisced over the good old times and how much fun we all had growing up together. I remember I cried a lot, they teased me that I was always the sensitive one. It was a beautiful moonlit night. Eventually we had to leave and go home. Our friends walked us all back down. We decided to visit our favourite spot by the river one last time. We hugged, laughed and rolled around in the snow. In all this sadness and fear of the inevitable, we somehow became almost euphoric, until we had to say goodbye that evening. Our last evening together, ever. We hugged each other tightly and we said our goodbyes.

I went home to my family, hugged my mum and cried. She said that they were heartbroken, these were their friends too. Dad wasn’t at home, I think he went to say goodbye to his friends too. They were born in this village, they went to school together, they grew up together, yet then, our nations were fighting each other, separating us all geographically.
I was so angry at the whole country, at this horrid mess that we were all in. I wanted it to stop and I wanted out!

The morning of February the 27th came. I woke up really early, my face was still swollen from crying. We all woke up really early. When I walked into our kitchen, I found my mum making some fresh food to give to our friends, for the journey to the land of the unknown.

Eventually we all made our way to the bridge; there were two large parking spaces on either side of it. There were two busses there already and a handful of small trucks. The morning was a cold misty one.
I remember I stood there in disbelief; I was in denial, “This can’t be happening!”.
But it was. These people were leaving everything and everyone they knew, their homes and livestock, their history.
This, unfortunately, was not unique just to our village. This kind of exodus was happening all over the previous Yugoslavia. My uncles and aunts had to leave their homes when they lived in the Muslim and Croat parts of Bosnia. They too had to leave their friends to move back to our village, where they were deemed safe. They didn’t know what happened to their homes after they left. They assumed it was all lost or destroyed. Their journeys to safety were filled with some horrific events.

The same was going through our friends’ minds; will their homes still be there when and if they come back? Will they get to their destination safely?

It was time.

This was the first time I saw my father cry, apart from seeing him cry at various funerals. He cried when he saw me, and my brother say goodbye to our friends, we were all still just children. My mum was holding my sister who was crying because she was too cold. Mum carried her home, sobbing, herself.

We made our promises that we will always be friends and that geographical borders will not break our friendships. We made our promises in hope that we will always be friends.

The bus door closed, and they were gone. Forever. I stood there for ages, waving.
Little did we know that we would follow them soon, in our plight to safety too.
We, and a few other Serbian families, kept some of our neighbours’ most valuable material possessions in our attics, we kept these things for them in hope that they’ll one day come back. Mum and dad carefully stored them and kept them locked at all times.

The colour spectrum
When I think of this time, different shades keep flooding in. These are the shades of our stunning nature around me. Many things were changing, rapidly, I had no power over them, but one thing that was constant, was this breath-taking beauty around me. Our stunning nature was my coping mechanism.

If only you could see my valley. As I mentioned, I was a dreamer. There was this rock far up our hill, at the back of our house, that I used to sit on and fantasise about bigger things, about a different life. I never told my mother that I used to go to this rock because it was an extremely unsafe thing to do, but I had to. As well as my Milky Way, this rock gave me my day time escapism. I wish you could see the view from this rock.

To my right, our valley folds away into a near far corner, enveloped by pastures and a mixture of deciduous and evergreen trees. From this corner is where our river slowly flows from. Our river Pliva has three sources that all meet together to form this stunning mountain river. It is truly a magical sight.

Right in front one me was our village Pljeva. A stunning, green, quiet village, with some beautiful souls in it. There are many small hamlets scattered around, filled with white houses covered with red-tiled roofs, you can see smoke coming out of the chimneys. There is a bridge right in the middle of Pljeva. This is the bridge that we used to hang around on and watch the fish in the river or the world go by. Mum doesn’t know this, but I used to climb down to the base of the bridge, with a stick, to see how deep the river was. The view from the bridge is breath-taking.

At the top of the hills, in the direction in front of me, stood our Serbian Orthodox church. After the fall of communism, my brother and I were christened in this church. In order for us to be christened, our parents had to have been christened too. Our mother was, she had proof, but our father wasn’t, and he had no proof. But, you see, he wasn’t bothered whether he was christened or not, he didn’t have time for this, so he argued with the priest, in the church, that he was in fact christened in the wooden church that once stood on the grounds of the new one and that all records of it were burnt when the old church burned down. Nobody knows the truth. I remember this occasion so well, it was comical.

To the right of the bridge, you can see my old school, with a football pitch at the back of it and a big birch tree picnic area by the river. During our long summer holidays, the football pitch was where we used to gather to play sports, or light a bonfire and sing whilst one of our friends played his guitar. We didn’t do this anymore, it wasn’t safe.

To my left, you can see the sloping hills, with higher mountains in the background. All of this was mostly caressed by this beautiful, deep blue sky. Most of our days were sunny, but when it rained it was very dramatic, with the most spectacular thunderstorms. I miss these thunderstorms so much.

From this rock I could see our old farm, where my grandmother still lived. I could just about see our barn and the orchard; the two cottages were hidden away by the ancient linden trees surrounding them. I was so free and wild when we lived there. I would close my eyes under the warmth of the sun and imagine that I was still living there, running around and climbing trees, thinking that I was invisible to my granny’s watchful eye.

Our village was beautifully green during the spring and the summer. But the autumn was something else! From my rock, I could see all shades of fire all around me. The colours spectrum was just spectacular. All around me.

I never used to go to my rock in winter, as it was almost in the forest, I was scared that I might see a bear or a wolf, especially when the winters were very cold and long. Sometimes you could hear wolves howling. This didn’t stop us going to school on foot though.

I was in secondary school now, which was in our nearest town, called Sipovo. Sipovo is seven kilometres away from Pljeva. We had no public transport anymore, there was no petrol for it, so we walked every day. Seven kilometres there and back, in the daylight and in the dark. I loved the walks, but I didn’t love the school. I went to a grammar school to study languages, but we didn’t have foreign language teachers very often, they were deployed too, so to me this was all a waste of time. Of course, it wasn’t a waste of time, this was a good school. The teachers that they had left, did a magnificent job, but the classes were very few and far between.

As many teenage girls, when I hit my teens, I withdrew massively too. I went from being this bubbly, crazy, happy wild child to a quiet, strange teenage girl who didn’t understand this new social structure. I was a bit like Don Quixote, I didn’t quite get it at all.

I was so worried about our dad. Our grammar school was at the top of this hill in town and from my classroom window you could see the main road going through Sipovo. I remember constantly looking to see if I would spot our dad’s lorry driving through, with its very distinct yellow tarpaulin. This happened only once; I will forever remember how happy I was. I just could not wait for my school to finish so that I could start walking home to my dad. I will never forget this feeling of running up our steps to hug him.

When I was at school, I used to worry about my mum a lot too. She was at home with our baby sister, she had so much on her plate and I no longer could help her all the time. I felt dreadful leaving her every morning.

I spent three years in this grammar school. I didn’t have a good time here, I didn’t make many new friends, but I did make two friends who are still my best friends from Bosnia. They are Maja and Marina. No matter where we are in the world, when we meet up, we always carry on from where we left off. Marina’s parents and our parents had been friends for a long time. They lived in town, not far from our school. Sometimes when the winter nights were so cold, and the snow was too deep, Marina’s mum and dad used ask me to stay with them and sleep over, so I didn’t have to walk home alone in the dark. I used to love these times. Marina was one of four children, she had three younger brothers. Their home was always so calm, harmonious and warm. Marina and her family were always so kind and generous to me. I still remember these nights so well. Eventually both Marina and Maja left too. Their families sent them to Serbia, to Novi Sad, to school. They wanted them to have regular classes, therefore a better education.

I carried on walking to school and back. It’s funny, I never got scared of the possibility of coming across wild animals, I just enjoyed my walks. The river would follow me all the way into town and back, I would listen to its sounds and I’d be away with the fairies. It was so beautiful, so peaceful. There were no cars, no traffic, just nature and me.

After Aleksandar’s death, whenever I was on my own, or not, I used to imagine that he was still alive. I used to imagine that we were walking along the river together, holding hands, talking and laughing. I used to daydream about him a lot, for a long time. I so desperately wanted to be with him, to see him again. I knew I couldn’t, I had to suck it up and move on.

I didn’t do very well at school, I went from being a straight A student in primary school, to barely scraping through in the secondary school. I know my parents wished I did better. I now know that I was grieving, I was depressed. I don’t blame my parents for not knowing this, perhaps they did. But their lives were so extreme too, they had three children to think about, not just me. But at times, I was angry, I wanted to shout: “CAN’T YOU SEE THAT I AM HURTING?!”. I never did.
They did what they could and when they could. They provided a safe haven for us, in the middle of what seemed like a ring of fire.

August 1995; It was my eighteenth birthday. I was putting some washing out onto a washing line on our balcony. An unknown, small group of soldiers walked up to our house. They said: “We are looking for Vesna Đukić, do you know where she lives?” I said: “I am Vesna Đukić.” I got a bit scared, why would they want to see me.
Then they said: “Ah, Happy Birthday Vesna! Your father sent us; he knew we were passing through your town and he asked us to stop by, to wish you a happy birthday.” I cried tears of happiness. My dad apparently, somehow through his wheeling and dealing, also managed to get a crate of beer for his friends in this trench, where he was at this point, in honour of my birthday. We didn’t even know that he was in a trench. We thought that he was still doing his driving. I asked them if they would like to stop by for some food or drinks, they said that they had to go. And just like that, they turned around and left.

The magnitude of love; We, my brother, sister and I, owe so much to our parents. We, my generation, owe everything to our ‘50s babies. We are here because they kept us safe.

1. Wild child.

Around thirty years ago, one cosy autumnal evening, my brother and I were sitting on the floor, with photo albums spread around us, reminiscing about the good times that passed, whilst mum and dad chatted away, snuggled up on the sofa.
We hadn’t long lived in our new home. Everything was still shiny and new. My heart was aching. I wanted to be where we once lived, where we were the happiest.
I came across this particular page full of my parents’ wedding photos. I looked at these beautiful pictures for a while, caressing them with my little fingers. I admired the way my parents looked; they both looked so young and stunning. I looked at the dates written under the photos and I got intrigued. My parents got married in January and I was born in August.
I piped up: “Ah, you never told me that I was a premature baby!”
My mum went bright red in her face, she mumbled something and left the living room very quickly; she apparently suddenly had something to do. Dad found this whole situation very amusing. He laughed and laughed. He eventually said: “There was nothing premature about your birth. Everything was done and happened on time, and at the right time.” He winked & carried on giggling. Mum was nowhere to be seen ;-).
My mum was only eighteen when she had me, and dad was only twenty one. Two years later they had my brother.
When they met, they were very different to each other, and they are still so different.
He is the fire, she is the earth.
Mum was this gentle, beautiful, slender young woman who came from a very quiet farming family, whose parents absolutely adored each other and their three children.
She was their only daughter. She was adored and protected. Mum was quite shy and still is, but now she is very funny.
My father…my father was this very handsome, strong-willed, fiery, hard working, untamed, stubborn force of nature. He came from a blended family, full of very strong characters.
My father is one of seven, he has two sisters, one brother, one half brother and two half sisters. They all shared the same father. To begin with, they all lived on the family farm which was situated high up in the the hills, on the edge of a small hamlet. From our farm we could see our beautiful valley enveloping us, steep hills in the distance and a mountain river slowly flowing through our village called Pljeva.
When my mother was pregnant with my brother, my paternal grandfather passed away. Dad was only in his early twenties, he was then appointed to run the farm and look after everyone else. This was a lot to take on for a young family. Those were very challenging times.
To everyone around them, my parents appeared to be too different to stay together, but underneath it all they had this undying love for one another that would ultimately pull them through some unthinkable times. They had the same moral values and they both had massive hearts.
This year they celebrated their fortieth wedding anniversary. I am pretty sure that there were many people who doubted that their marriage would last this long. But It has. Their love for each other has proved everyone wrong and overpowered everything that came their way.
Out of this young love, their first child was born, on time; Me. Their wild child.
I apparently hardly ever slept as a baby. Once I could, I never sat still, I started walking at nine months and I never stopped talking. Oh, I never stopped climbing trees or dancing either. Apparently, I didn’t walk like other girls did, I skipped, kicked stones along the road or I danced. I quite like the idea of me like this, but I can see now that I have a wild child of my own how “refreshing” this must have been at times.
One of my aunties tells me this story every now and again of how when I was a toddler I had tones of curly hair, and at one point it desperately needed cutting; she was and still is a great hairdresser. However, the only way she could get me to keep still while she cut my hair, was to pin me down and keep my head in between her legs. So she did. You get the picture!
Luckily for my parents, when my brother was born, he was this perfect child who slept really well, behaved really well and he was always very calm. He is still the same, but now he is 6’4” tall, a true gentle giant.
When we were little, we absolutely adored each other, but as we got older, we started to fight a lot. By fighting, I mean proper physical fighting. This used to worry our mum sick. When we were in our early teens we fought so much, until my brother got taller than me. Even then, I would try and launch myself at him, but he would calmly put his hand on my head firmly and keep me at arm’s length. I still tried to reach him with my hand, fist, from underneath, but I no longer succeeded. It was time to let go. It infuriated me that he was stronger than me. I know, I was a girl, he was a boy, boys eventually grow up and get stronger, but none the less, it was a hard pill to swallow. I wanted us to be equal, even in strength.
My brother has grown into a wonderful human being and is a great father and husband. We named our first son after my brother; Dragan.
Until I was ten, we lived on this big, family dairy farm. There were two cottages on the farm, right next to each other. In one, lived my grandmother and my youngest aunt, my dad’s sister, and my parents and my brother and I lived in the second cottage. Our granny looked after us when mummy & daddy worked.
The two cottages were shaded by these huge, ancient linden trees. We used to spend absolutely hours playing underneath them making houses out of twigs, sticks and stones. We also had this outbuilding which was narrow and long, with vertical slats for walls & a red-tiled roof on top. This is where we used to keep our corn and firewood. This type of building is called a košana (koshanha). During the summer our košana was empty and I used to make it into our house, for my brother and I. Our granny used to let me take her net curtains down and she used to give me her rugs and cushions too. I used to sweep the košana first, mop it and then lay the rugs down, use cushions as our seats and I used the net curtains to separate the košana into three different rooms. It was amazing! We spent so much time here, playing for hours. Baba, our granny, used to make us some “coffee”, which was made out of milk and cacao, and we used to drink this in our house. She used to come in and sit with us on the floor too, sipping our coffee away.
Right opposite of our cottages lived this elderly couple; they were called Dusan and Jela. They and our granny didn’t speak to each other; apparently, they were sworn enemies. Nobody remembers why they fell out in the first place, but, they were always lovely to us and always so kind and generous.
They used to like their long walks; depending on the season, every time one of them ventured out, they would bring me and my brother either some wild strawberries, some cobnuts, some wild mushrooms or some wild berries. After their walks, they used to come close to our picket fence and call us to come out. They never came back empty handed. I always thought that it was so lovely that even though they didn’t speak to our granny, they were always very kind & generous to us, and to our parents. I will never forget their kindness.
I can’t tell you how much fun living on the farm was. There was an endless supply of food, drinks and stories. My grandmother told us some wonderful stories.
Our farm was an organic farm. We grew all of our organic vegetables and we had a massive orchard very close to our cottages. We had apple trees, pear trees, plum trees, cherry trees, mulberry trees and walnut trees. It was amazing! We climbed so many of them and fell off them so many times. I still don’t know how we never broke a single bone! Especially during the cherry season. Well! We used to dare each other to see who would climb to the highest branches and get the juiciest, the most sun kissed cherries down from the top. I am yet to find cherries as sweet as the ones from my farm.
Mum and dad were always so busy. We were mostly left with our grandmother. I would say that we were true free-range children. We could go anywhere, and we absolutely went everywhere. Those times were wild, organic, muddy & pure.
I spent most of my time with my brother, but as we got older, we were joined by a group of boys from the neighbouring farms. I was the only girl amongst them. There was only one other girl who also lived in our hamlet, but she was not wild like me.
She was pretty much attached to her mother’s skirt. To me, she was no fun. I’m sure she was lovely though, but I needed a brave, wild companion and she needed a well behaved girlie girl, therefore we never became friends.
I was one of the boys. I could do anything that they could, and I made anything that they made. We were equal, in my eyes. We would make guns out of planks of wood, a couple of nails and a rubber strip, cut out of my father’s truck’s inner tube, that I would steal from the garage. I know; I was naughty. But these were blissful times. We would walk for hours, climb trees to look for birds’ nests and observe them and we would sometimes take some crumbs and leave them in the nests. We would sometimes look for the fox burrows too. We used to find quite a few burrows, but I am not quite sure which group of animals they belonged too. We had fun none the less.
Autumn on the farm was so beautiful. This was a busy time for our family. The fruits had to be stored safely away in our cellars and the fruit and nut trees had to be prepared for the winter. The barns had to be prepared for the winter too; full of hay to the brim and very well insulated to keep all of our animals nice and warm.
The grownups used to collect all the leaves into these huge piles and they used to let us run really fast and then jump into them. I still remember the feeling of falling into these massive, soft beds of leaves.
This was all usually done before the first frost. But the first frost, oh my goodness, it was magical. My brother and I used to imagine that it was made out of real silver and diamonds. It shimmered beautifully in the morning sunshine.
Winters on the farm were so much fun. If we weren’t out skiing or tobogganing, we were inside sitting near our granny’s wood burner either listening to her stories or to her radio. Baba told the most magnificent stories, she used to get us to close our eyes and just listen to her magic.
She used to say to us: “Just close your eyes and imagine, see with your eyes shut.” This memory fills me with such content and warmth.
The quiet snowy days, were my dressing up days. As well as for my košana, granny would get her net curtains down for my dressing up days too. I would tip my head forward, wrap one curtain around my head, twist it and make a vale. I would then wrap another curtain around me and make a wedding dress. This was such fun for me! Also, I would often wait for my granny to fall asleep next to the fire and then I would sneak into my aunt’s bedroom and I would try on lots of her clothes. I would twist her dresses at the back, to make them tight and fitted around my small body, and I would also put her shoes or boots on and strut my stuff around the bedroom. On one of my dressing up days, I got into so much trouble! Baba was asleep as usual, so I snuck into the bedroom & I quickly opened my aunt’s wardrobe, only to find the most amazing pair of high heel boots in it! They were brand new, Italian brown suede boots. I could not resist them! I quickly put them on and I quietly tiptoed outside, into the snow in them! Ha! I walked in them to the barn to check on some newly born piglets. Well, needless to say, the boots were ruined. To me, in my head, I was only taking a walk in London. Whenever I imagined my life somewhere else, it always had to be London. So, everything was perfect; I went back in & I just put them back into my aunt’s wardrobe. Granny woke up and I just carried on playing.
Well, everything was fine until my aunt got back from work and saw them. She absolutely screamed murder! But my poor granny tried so hard to protect me and she absolutely insisted that she wore them herself to the barn! Looking back, this was all absolutely comical.
Winters were also spent in our barns, helping out with the animals. This was so nice, and this was also one of the most calming places that I have ever been to. The barns were wooden, and everything was always so quiet. I loved it! We also used to go into the hay barn, which was full almost to the beams. My brother and I used to swing from a beam to a beam, from one end to the other, and then fall into the hay. This was endless fun!
I remember I always loved climbing trees. One of my granny’s late friends used to love telling me this story of how one winter’s day, when she came for a visit, she found me sitting on a branch of one of the apple trees near our cottages, decorating it with Christmas tinsel, wearing just my pyjamas, a woolly hat and a pair of wellies.
As we got older, our springs and summers were spent exploring. When the weather was warm, we’d play in mud a lot. We’d play near our local streams and get absolutely covered in mud and before we had to go home, we’d walk into the stream and wash ourselves fully, wellies and all. I still remember the noise of the water squelching around in my wellies, all the way home.
Also, during the summer holidays was when almost all of our three million cousins would come to stay with us. This was AMAZING! It was an absolute chaos and I am sure this was a nightmare time for my parents and our granny, but we, the children, LOVED IT! We explored the local woodlands; fields and we would explore this marshland that we were told not to go anywhere near it! We would find a shade free, sunny patch of a nearby stream and we would use rocks and sticks to make a dam. Once the dam was full enough, we would then swim in it. In these streams or the small rivers near us, we used to catch lots and lots of crayfish. We used take them home in our plastic buckets, for our granny to cook them for us in this beautiful sauce of garlic, parsley and cream. I also used to scare some the school children by holding the crayfish up in my hands and I sometimes chased them too, whilst laughing so much. I’m sure some psychologists would have had a field day exploring me as a child 🙂
At times, things were tough. My parents had to work really hard and we had to work hard too, but they protected us from the bad news, or from “bad”, negative people as much as they could.
This truly allowed me to wear my heart on my sleeve. They also allowed me to be free spirited and wild.
I was strong, most of the time I looked like a boy, fought like a boy and I climbed like a boy. I loved spending time with our horses, cows and sheep. I loved our woodland. It was enchanting, full of wild life & full of birds’ song. We spent hours on end exploring.
The most beautiful part of my early childhood was the fact that my parents let me be me. They let me be wild and free. They told me that I could do anything, be anything or anyone I wanted to be. They knew that one day I would grow out of my crazy, wild phase and morph into a different kind of creature. They just let me be.
I am forty now; my heart still aches for this carefree life. I loved every second of it, but I didn’t fully appreciate it until I became a parent myself. Oh, how I would love my children to be wild and free of social constraints and experience this organic, muddy, free range life.