12. Vrbas Canyon.

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 aching 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. During any offensive, bridges are always one of the first things to go.

This time he kept his dearest close to him; my mum, my brother and my sister were in the cabin with him, as well as some other people. The only way out was North, to Banja Luka, 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.

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 and happy about going on their holiday. She might have only been three years old, 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. 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 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 always presented themselves as 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 just 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 her 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 didn’t connect with their soft bodies. She could not help but get scared over again by just thinking about it.

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, but mum, my brother and our sister would leave first.

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 from immediate family, apart from dad, set off for Serbia. This was an almost twenty four hour journey, in a cramped coach, full of women, elderly people 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 policemen by his clothes and pinned him against the coach door and reminded 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, she was shaking. 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 guilty 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 every day, and my family was hungry. It’s a horrible feeling.

The road to Serbia 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, thinking of their homes & loved ones. Like she was too.

She couldn’t stop thinking about dad. She had absolutely no idea where he was.

Little did she know!

 

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.

10. Operation Storm; The great rescue.

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.

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.

4. “…this will one day end.”

Over the years, ever since the war had finished, I have only heard of books and movies describing the atrocities of the Bosnian war.
I have to say, even after more than two decades, I still can’t read these books or watch the movies. I find them all too upsetting, too negative and sometimes frankly very one-sided.

Surprisingly, I still find them all too raw.

I remember this one evening, when my husband and I were living in Cardiff, I was sitting on the floor sorting out our filing while the TV was on. As I wasn’t really paying much attention to what was on, suddenly a familiar language caught my attention. I looked up and I saw that a program about Bosnia had started, most of it was subtitled. My husband was working in his office upstairs.
I started watching it and COULD NOT believe my eyes. The translation of the program was completely manipulated to in-a-sense simplify the conflict, the war. What people were actually saying was translated to mean something completely different. It was utterly and completely manipulated. It was completely wrongly translated. Not just grammatically, but the complete opposite to what the interviewees were saying.
I was so angry. I got so upset. I started crying. Why were these media giants doing this?! What’s their plan? What will they gain from this propaganda?
My husband heard me, and he rushed down the stairs. He very quickly realised what was going on and turned the TV off. Once I calmed down, we talked for a long time, into the night. He explained to me that the media will always simplify the news, the “factual” documentaries would too, to appease the viewers, the general public. He explained that there had to simply be a bad side & a good side.

It felt so unfair. So unfair! I wanted to scream from the top of my lungs: “It’s not true! It’s not true! What they were saying is not true. No war is ever as simple as that!” But I was powerless.

A war is a very lucrative and exceptionally profitable business. I was too young to know and too young to understand these world, grand, political strategic, manipulative media games.

It was such a hard pill to swallow, to accept that there was nothing I could do to change the way it was all reported in the UK, or worldwide.

The only thing I could do is stay truthful and say things the way I saw them with my own eyes, show the world what we were really like as people.

From then on, I decided to tell mostly positive stories, where possible.

Unfortunately, certain events have to be told in in their true light, in order for me to paint the full picture.

I want to tell you about the good people in my life, from my country. The kind, generous, in a way naïve, good people of Republika Srpska and Bosnia.

Most people from this part of the world, who came into my life, were amazing. They were extraordinarily kind and brave. I desperately want the world to hear about them. About the obstacles they overcame to help others, sometimes help others from the opposite side, the “enemy” side, and by doing so they put their lives at risk.

But they helped; they wouldn’t have done it any other way.
——————————————————————————————————————————-
In the late eighties, early nineties, sadly I can’t remember exactly when, our mum and dad sat my brother and I down to talk to us about the political state of our country.

They said that our country was probably going to war. Yugoslavia as it was, will no longer be; it will be split into many different countries. Bosnia as it once was would never be the same again.

Our dad suddenly got very serious.

He didn’t sugar-coat it for us at all. He said that things will at times get nasty, violent, but that they will prepare us for it all. He promised that he will do his best for us to never go hungry or be without clothes, shoes, or firewood.

He choked up. We got so scared. I started crying, we were only young. Tears were silently falling down our mother’s face. She knew that when it came to it, our dad would have to go war too.

The atmosphere was somber in our living room.

At one point, after a lot of silence, my dad said:
“Whatever happens…what EVER happens, remember that this will one day end. One day this war will finish. And… if we are still here at the end of it, we must have a clear conscience. We must be able to look at people in the eyes, without any guilt! Do you understand me?! You must always be kind. Always! We will do our best to protect you, but you have to do your part and be sensible…Be careful. Don’t trust anyone, apart from us. Don’t get carried away, don’t allow anyone influence your views and opinions. Many will try, believe me. Talk to us, ask us questions, we will explain everything you need to know.”

Dad stood up, he lifted his arms up and said: “All of this…all of this that we own, that we’ve ever worked for, might go. But if we at the end of it all have each other, we can build it all up again. Don’t ever forget that. Understood?!”

My dad then walked out. He didn’t come back home for two days. He used to do this every now and again. Whenever something troubled him, he would retreat to the forest for a little while. But once he was back, he’d be back to his normal cheeky, workaholic self.
My brother and I didn’t understand the enormity of our father’s words. We thought we understood him, but not until things started personally happening to us.
Over the next couple of years, the economy in the country rapidly slowed down. Our dad had to go away a lot more often. He could no longer keep his drivers, so he had to let them go; he drove his lorries himself.

On the January the 9th, 1992, our part, the Serbian part of Bosnia was proclaimed as a separate entity; Republika Srpska was born.

The tension in the country was unbearable for my young, sensitive mind.

Things were changing rapidly.

My father’s fleet of vehicles was mobilised by the army. He was left with just one lorry, a tractor and our family car.
On the shelves of our shop, where once stood luxury ingredients and goods, now stood bottles of oil and vinegar, salt, sugar and bags of rice.

The shop floor was mostly lined with pallets of bags of flour.
Whenever he could, dad would drive away to different parts of the country, where he could get the most food for his money. He said that he was stocking up on supplies that had a very long shelf life. These were things like flour, dry pulses, pasta, rice, oil etc.

It’s funny, out of all things we, young girls and women, used to sell in the shop, we missed the sanitary products and toothpaste the most.

I wasn’t quite ten when I had my first period; when the war started, we, women had to resort to cotton wool or cut up bath towels, which were then washed, boiled and reused. Those were dark times!

We used salt to brush our teeth with. But there was once when we were at school, we received a shoebox parcel from Canada. In this box was a small Crest toothpaste. I will never forget this day. We were sitting in a freezing classroom when these parcels were given to us. I looked after this precious little tube so well, like it was made out of gold. My family and I shared it between us for months. I only allowed everyone to barely touch it with their toothbrushes. Once it was all gone, we were back to salt. We couldn’t buy coffee; people used to dark roast wheat, grind it and drink this instead of coffee. Smokers used to dry fruit tree leaves, roll them and smoke them. People’s resourcefulness was amazing.

Mum and I, together with our Baba, continued growing our own fruit and vegetables. Planting and growing vegetables was particularly a very joyous occasion. There was always someone in the village who was known for having good vegetable seeds. My mum used to send me to them and we would exchange the seeds for food or wool.
I absolutely loved planting these seeds with my mum. There was such excitement in me knowing that very soon, new seedlings would be appearing from the ground, which meant food for our family and our animals. We would use some of the salad vegetables during the summer, but most of them were pickled, dried and carefully stored for winter. Soft fruits were used for jams and cordials. Walnuts were stored in our attic, spread out on the floor, where they were kept dry.
In the autumn, we used to store all of our apples in wooden crates, in our old farmhouse cellar. The root vegetables were kept in the ground, in the “root cellar”; they would pretty much last us for the duration of winter. We still continued keeping pigs, chickens and a few sheep on the farm; This kept us fed and well nourished. Having these animals on the farm was a wonderful excuse for my brother and I to go and spend more of our time with our granny. We absolutely loved helping her out. After our chores, Baba always used to reward us with warm bread and her delicious pekmez, a damson jam. When it was time for us to leave, to go home, she always used to get sad. She’d fill our backpacks with eggs, cheese and apples. I often have dreams of her standing at the top of the hill, waving at us and waiting for us to arrive.
During one of our father’s long trips, he didn’t come home on the date he said he would. This was such a worrying time for us. We had no means of getting in touch with him at all. We didn’t know where he was. The rumours started circulating amongst our neighbours that he was arrested on the border with Serbia. Some of our “friends” started telling this to our faces. Some unknown people started phoning us. Mum told us not to answer. They left many threatening messages on our answering machine. They said that they had our dad and that they were going to kill him. We were so scared. I can’t even imagine how my mum felt. I still don’t know who these people were, and I still don’t understand why anyone would do such a thing. My husband says that these such calls were a planned operation, to spread fear amongst people. We were all worried sick.
After ten long days, our father came back. He appeared physically absolutely fine to us, perhaps a little thinner, but I could see that he was in distress.
He told us that something happened after he crossed the Serbian-Bosnian border. There was an incident where someone tried to forcefully take his lorry off him. My father knew how valuable a lorry full of flour was to our village. He knew that he only had one lorry left and that he probably will never get the rest of them back. He said that he never stopped negotiating and fighting for it, until they let him go. That’s all he said, that’s all we ever knew. He never mentioned it again. We never asked again. He said that we were very lucky and that we will not go hungry. As soon as dad was rested, he loaded his tractor trailer up and distributed the flour to the families that needed it the most. By this point, the Croatian supermarket chain with whom my parents had a franchise with, was no more. After dad’s return, he instructed us to give away the rest of the food supplies that we had left over in our warehouse, to the people in need, in our village. This was distributed to our Serbian and to our Muslim neighbours too.
As well as our shop, there was also a one-stop type shop in our village. They too, together with my parents, used to help the elderly and single mothers and their children. My mum and dad used to give out free shoes too. Whatever we could, we gave away.
The sense of community was always so strong around us. We always helped each other by returning favours to one another. There was a lady in our village who owned a sewing machine; she used to fix and patch up our clothes for a few eggs or some apples. Or there was a man in our village who was a good locksmith and he would fix things for people for a bottle of rakija. We also shared tools and small machinery to get by. If someone’s roof needed fixing, men would chip in. We also helped each other with weeding the crops, sorting and storing them for winter.
When you are going through unthinkable times, your community is your lifeline. Your community is your loving, protecting, nurturing family.
The situation around us was getting more and more unstable and changing very rapidly.
More and more illegal paramilitary groups were forming on all sides. These men used to drive through our village really fast, in their illegal cars, holding up nationalist flags through their car windows. Quite often they used to shoot into the air too, which was frightening.
We didn’t know these people. They were not from our area, but their presence was unsettling. They were spreading fear and uncertainty amongst us all.
My parents warned us about them. They told us that they were war profiteers. They told us not to speak to them, but if they ever asked us anything, we were to always pretend and say that we didn’t know much about anything, in-a-sense, to act stupid and uneducated.
Mum and dad told us to always greet them cheerfully, never to antagonise them. We listened to our parents very carefully. I don’t think that my brother and I ever told my parents how scared we were though. We wanted them to be proud of us.
Amongst all of this crazy, the most amazing thing happened.
My parents discovered that they were expecting a child. A baby! A baby that I could love and carry and look after.
We were all so happy! My parents were so happy; but I do remember my mum crying a lot one evening. She said that she was so worried whether this baby will be delivered safely. She was so worried about the world that she was bringing this new life into. In that moment, when our beautiful mum was consumed by fear, she said that she wished she wasn’t pregnant. I cried with her too, but I kept saying to her that we will help her with the baby and that we will love the baby so much. I promised her that we will do whatever we can to make things easier for her.
On the 21st of November 1991, our sister was born. Both our mother and our sister were perfectly healthy. Everything went perfectly and according to plan.
I was fourteen years old and my brother was almost twelve. Our sister was the best thing to ever happen to us, in the most uncertain of times. She was this beautiful, perfect baby. She brought so much happiness into our home. Our home was no longer this quiet and somber home that it became; our home was filled with cooing noises and love for this new life.
We had no access to disposable nappies; the only nappies that we could find for her were muslin or terry nappies. Cleaning them was an absolute nightmare! This would have been absolutely fine during any other season, apart from this very cold winter that she was born into. We had to rinse them, boil them, rinse them again and then hang them outside. I swear my fingers got stuck to the washing line a few times; it was freezing!
For the next few months, we had many, many visitors! My mother and our sister were given so many lovely presents. They were all homemade presents brought to her from so many different people, from our multicultural neighbours, despite the imminent war that was already geographically dividing us.
They made blankets, knitted clothes and woolly accessories for my sister. They kept bringing my mum cooked meals, so that she can rest as much as possible. My mum was breastfeeding my sister, these kind people wanted to make sure that both my mum & her baby were well nourished. This was such a humbling experience for us. So much kindness and effort went into helping us. These lovely people didn’t have much, but they shared with us what they could.
A continuous celebration of new life in our home was such an uplifting experience to observe. Our sister made us all so happy. Her birth was this amazing break that we all desperately needed. So much good came out of her birth. So much kindness. She was one guaranteed happiness in our lives. She was so quiet and slept so well.
One night particularly sticks to my mind. We had no power; all we had was a small white candle for the whole house. We got woken up by the sound of gunshots coming from the hills nearby. At one point it sounded like a hand grenade had gone off too. We all knew that we had to stay quiet. We rushed to check on our baby sister, and as we got close to her cot, with the help of a faint candlelight, we saw her smiling at us. But she remained perfectly quiet. It was incredible. As though she knew that she had to be.
Soon enough, it was spring again. Out of all seasons, I absolutely loved spring and summer. Year in year out, no matter what was going on around us, new life would begin and flourish all around us. Over, and over again our fields and meadows would flower and produce the most beautiful, vibrant wild flowers.
Our orchards would blossom and produce new fruit; seeing new blossom meant food and nourishment was coming. We would get new lambs and new piglets that we would chase around the farm. The streams and our rivers would yet again teem with new fish and tadpoles. We’d have lots of little golden chicks pecking with their mother hen around our house.
This new life, in everything around me, indeed gave me hope and reassurance that nothing lasts forever. This will, indeed, one day end. Just like our seasons do too.

3. The big move. 

Our school commutes were always so much fun. As I lived at the top of the hill, I would make my way down to school every morning, knocking on a few doors and eventually a little crowd of school children would form.
We would chat on the way and share the bread that our grandmothers made for us to have for our mid-morning snack. We would hop and skip and quite often try and outrun each other. I was still the only girl amongst them.
Mum continued dressing me in pretty dresses. She insisted on buying me these pretty white crochet leggings, but by the time I would get to school, my leggings would have a few twigs stuck to them or some thistle balls too. My mum would also, every morning, put my curly locks into pretty little pigtails, tied up with red ribbons. These always came off by the time I got to school. I was a nightmare! She eventually gave up when I was about ten; from then on, I was mostly dressed in boyish shorts and polo shirts.
Our school commutes were such fun and wonderful, unless we had to walk to school and back in winter.
To me, our winters were magical. The snow would usually start falling in November, sometimes earlier, and it would snow for days on end! Then it would freeze over and the sun would show its face through the clouds. It would be sunny for days, but cold enough for the snow to stay intact and shimmery. We would come home, have lunch, do our homework and then we would grab our sanke, our wooden sledge, and we would spend most of our afternoons sledging down this steep hill near our house, only coming back into the house when it was getting too dark to keep going or when our fingers and toes became numb. Once we were inside, we used to sit next to our wood burning range and our granny would rub our little freezing hands and feet with her woolly gloves, to get our “circulation going”, she would say. She always used to make us some aromatic herbals tea too. Baba used to pick her own herbs for tea, on the hills nearby.
But when the weather was really bad, that’s when our school commutes were quite tough. Dad always used to go out first, on foot, to make a path for us to follow to the main road; only then we were allowed to go to school. I have never known our school to close, even in some of the worst winters. No matter how deep the snow was, our school was open.
By the time we would come back home from school, we would be absolutely soaked through by the snow and we would feel terribly frozen. We had no choice but to walk up the hill, to go home from school. Sometimes our feet and hands would get so cold that we would cry.
This was especially tough for our family once my brother started school. He was the kindest and the gentlest child, ever. But he was very physically tough, he never moaned. I used to get so upset if he was hurt, or when he was cold. We were very protective of one another.
Sometimes our winters would last until early March.
I think this, seeing how hard it was for us to go to school in winter, more than anything else, prompted my mum and dad to move.
They decided to buy a house five minutes’ walk from our school. When my parents got married, they had agreed that whenever they got paid for anything, they would put half of their earnings into a savings account. They bought their house in cash, at the age of 28 and 30. How times have changed!
This home was their first home that belonged just to them. It didn’t belong to the rest of my father’s family; it was just theirs.
At first, we were all so excited. We moved into this brand-new home which seemed luxury to us, compared to our cosy wooden cottage that we had lived in. But our lovely Baba took our move quite badly. She had looked after us from the day we were born, and suddenly she could no longer care for us, feed us and tuck us in when we had our naps; we were no longer living right next to her. She was sadly, but understandably, quite upset when we moved. I think she was actually quite angry with my mum and dad.
Once we were in our new home, at first, our life seemed so much easier. Our walk to school and back was a doddle! But then we started missing our granny and the farm. We missed our animals so much. We no longer had this vast space around us. I suppose, it was as though we had moved to the suburbia of our village.
Eventually, most of our animals from the farm, the sheep, the cows and most of our horses, were sold off and there were only a handful of animals left for our granny to look after. She simply had to keep some or she would have felt completely lost without her beloved livestock.
I remember, my brother and I were so upset, our best memories came from that farm, but there was nothing we could do to stop it.

At first, we brought our loyal German Sheppard Johnny with us, but he got so sad that he refused to eat. He didn’t like being in our new surroundings, he didn’t like being on a lead. This was heartbreaking for my brother and I, but we knew that we had to take him back. We both walked him back up the hills and the closer we got to our farm, the bouncier he became. Once he was back with Baba, he was so much happier, and he started to eat well again. He was our wonderful, loyal old friend.
We missed our old friends too. I missed my “wild friends” & my wild ways.
Soon enough, our parents ventured into all sorts of businesses. They invested almost everything they had into wood processing machinery and building materials.
Within a few years, our one house turned into three terraced houses, with the original one in the middle. Each one had three levels, with solid concrete floors and breeze block walls. My parents’ view was that one house was for me, one for my brother and one for them. Just in case things didn’t work out for us in life, we would always have a home of our own.
They opened a mini supermarket and a pool club on the ground floor. My uncle opened a café in our house too. Dad also had a sawmill, which gradually grew into a small factory. They employed a lot of people from the village; their workers were all nationalities. We all had to work; even my brother and I had our delegated jobs, every day. These were very busy times!
Sometimes, unfortunately, I resented my parents, my dad especially. From our early teens, my brother and I started actively working for mum and dad. When all of my new friends were going swimming in the river, I had to work in our shop, or clean the lorries etc. When I worked in the shop, my dad used to make me weigh all different types of foods and goods, different sizes and textures, in various sizes of paper bags, until I got it right. He used to make me wrap things over and over again until they were wrapped to perfection. I swear I hated him sometimes. “Customer is always right! Even if your worse enemy walks into this shop, they are your customer first of all. Always greet them with your brightest smile.” These words will forever stay with me.
They became very successful and my father’s transport company grew to a sizeable fleet of lorries. The success was great, but however, we got to spend less time together as a family, we had fewer meals together.
I can’t say that I enjoyed these times. We had to grow up quite quickly.
But make no mistake, I was always, always immensely proud of my parents. They worked incredibly hard. They did it all on their own, from scratch. They did it for us, so that one day we could have comfortable lives. Don’t be fooled, however; as I mentioned, we had to work bloody hard for it all.

They never allowed us to be lavish or to show off. We never had expensive clothes and we never went on expensive holidays. They didn’t want us to stand out visually from other children around us, but we always had good quality shoes and good protective, practical clothing, to protect us from the sometimes very harsh elements. Also, we always had good, healthy organic food. My mum’s cooking was delicious!
Our parents wanted us to learn what hard work was truly like. They would say to us:
“This is for your own good; if we dropped dead now, you’d be capable of looking after yourselves. You could work anywhere in the world and you wouldn’t starve.”
These seemingly harsh words would dig deep into us; we couldn’t protest or argue against this. I don’t think we understood fully what this meant, until we got older and until we learnt how important good & honest working ethics are.
One luxury we did have however, was our annual holiday to Croatia. Which was amazing! We would always stay with a local family, which always felt so homely and right for us. Mum, my brother and I would usually go on our own first and dad would stay behind to work, but he would sometimes stop by and spend a couple of days with us. We loved getting up early and going to the beach before everyone else. We also loved fresh figs. When dad was with us, he used to take us on a fig hunt. This was such fun! He would usually do a recce the night before, around the area where we were staying, to find out who had the best fig trees in their gardens and then he’d take us there the next morning to steal the figs! On one of these adventures we got caught. We walked to this house and dad picked my brother and I and lowered us over the fence. We quickly climbed onto the nearest fig tree, we turned our tee-shirts up and started picking the figs and putting them into our tee-shirts. When suddenly we heard this almighty bang and a dog barking. This old lady came running out of her house, shouting at us in a typical Dalmatian accent. She was little and dressed in black, but she had a big boxer-type dog on a chain, right next to her which was barking louder and louder. My brother and I froze! Our dad quickly jumped over the fence, grabbed both of us, practically threw us over the fence, and jumped back over it himself.
The figs that we had picked, were everywhere! We quickly ran away, laughing hysterically. I know it’s naughty, but we loved it! My Croatia memories are some of my favourite.

Unfortunately, when we moved to our new home, very quickly we got to see who our real friends were, as my parents’ success wasn’t always met with support by everyone around us.
This was painful. I genuinely believed that everyone was good and that they meant what they said to me, as I was always naively honest with everyone. I believed that everyone was my friend. I got hurt so many times, without seemingly ever learning my lessons. I trusted everyone. You see, this is where my undying hopeaholism comes from. But our parents kept saying to me to be kind back and that my time will come. I kept waiting for my time to come and I often had these imaginary arguments and come-backs in my head, but never really had the courage to say them.
I was no longer surrounded by just boys; I found myself to be part of a group of six girls, who lived in our immediate neighbourhood, in the “suburbia” of our village. I had no idea what to do with them! I was so ill equipped. They played games that I wasn’t familiar with, that I didn’t understand. Those were real and mind games. I eventually learnt all the real, popular games that girls played, but I don’t think that I will ever understand some girls’ or some women’s mind games they play with one another. I still don’t see the point of them, and frankly, I see them as waste of time. Why be ingenuine and have ingenuine friendships? I just simply cannot stand the meaningless statements like: “Oh, darling, it’s been ages! We must do lunch!”, and then never actually get together to have this lunch! You get the picture.

My brother and I didn’t have any concept of “socially acceptable” friendships, when it came to race or different religions, background or wealth. We became very good friends with some children from our village who lived a little further away from our house. We simply had many things in common with them; we loved playing and exploring together. And that was that. We didn’t care who they were. They were Muslim children, Serbian children, Croat children, Muslim-Croat children or Serbian-Croat children. We used to eat at their homes, they used to eat at ours, everything was shared. We would spend time together at school, come home, have lunch, do our homework and then we would stay out all day, until dinner time.
After the fall of the communism, we used to celebrate all our religious festivals together. Easter festivities were particularly fun. The celebrations would last for three days and I remember our Easters always being very joyful and colourful. Traditionally, we, the Serbs, would cook and colour and decorate hundreds of eggs in various colours, but predominately in red. On the first day of Easter, our mum would give us ten eggs at a time to go out and crack them with our friends. The tradition is that you hold and egg upright and then a friend of yours cracks it from the top with their egg. Whose ever egg remains intact, they then win the other person’s eggs. This was tremendous fun! This was understandably only a Christian tradition. But our lovely Muslim neighbours would cook and colour some eggs for their children too. My friends’ caring parents didn’t want their children to miss out on all the fun that we were having by colouring and decorating the eggs.
We, too, used to sometimes go to their houses for the evening feasts after their fasts during Ramadan. We all absolutely loved it. It was such a special occasion for us. We loved “practicing” these new traditions; they were a wonderful novelty for us. We had these opportunities because ours and their parents let us, they encouraged us to learn and explore different cultures and customs. Mum and dad always used to tell us to be respectful of other cultures and customs.
During the summer holidays, I would, yet again, “borrow” a truck inner tube from my dad’s garage, blow it up with a foot pump and then race down to the river with the inner tube held above my head! My friends and I would all use it between us to float down the river on it. This was endless fun, unless we fell through the middle into the freezing water and scraped our backs on the valve. Ouch! We used to stay in the river until our lips were blue and our teeth chattering.
We used to walk for hours on end too, venturing into our local forest, sometimes even into our hidden away local cave system. We used to link our arms together and lower ourselves into one of the caves. I get scared just thinking about it now. Our parents never knew about this! Thinking about it now, this was crazy! Also, there were poisonous snakes everywhere, but we didn’t care. We had fun!
In the late summer, we would go into our neighbours’ corn fields in the evenings, steal loads of corn, and then BBQ it on a fire, in the middle of a field. If it was a clear night, one of our friends would bring binoculars out and we would watch the moon through them. We would also sing rock songs in English, pretending that we knew all the words, late into the evening. It was hilarious! Those truly were the times. Oh, we used to also make cigarettes out of cut up grape vine and smoke them. Ha!
After the corn harvests, we would play in the corn sheaves for hours on end. We would make tipis out of them & play cowboys and Indians or we would pretend that we owned a whole Western-type town, with all of us having different roles to fulfil. I frequently “worked” in a Can-Can bar; naughty minx!
During the winter we would mostly be sledging or building “igloos”. When the weather was bad, we would stay indoors and play card games, dominos or Ludo type games. We were never bored.
When we were growing up, our parents generally separated people into these groups:
Dobri ljudi – Good people, good hearted people.
Pošteni ljudi – Honest people.
Skromni ljudi – Modest People.
Dobri radnici – Hardworking people.
“Lopovi” – Deceitful people.
Neradnici – People who didn’t like to work, lazy people, profiteers. My parents didn’t trust them. Mum and dad said that these types of people would cheat, do anything, to gain assets dishonestly without much effort. “Nothing is for free.”
You see, our parents never said to us: “You shouldn’t be friends with them because they are Muslim.”, or anything like that. They didn’t teach us to hate one another. This is how we lived. This is what my parents still live by. This is how I try to live, even now when I am thousands of miles away. My husband and I teach our sons the same ethics and values.
When the general world talks about how the conflict in Bosnia started, they would generally say that the people of Bosnia hated each other all the time and that’s why they went to war. That’s absolute bollocks! We didn’t hate our friends or our neighbours. Yes, there were bad eggs here and there, but generally good people stayed clear of them, and that was that.
There was so much more to it. The trauma trail is very long. There was the centuries long influence of the Ottoman Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the WW1, the WW2 & the breakup of the communism; The traumas that came with these were immeasurable. The whole history of the Balkans is so intricate and complex. It simply cannot be simplified into a worldwide acceptable short explanation or a media simplification to appease the general public.
The six countries should never have been put together to form Yugoslavia in the first place. There was too much oppression, suppression of people’s customs, religions, freedom and choices. Things would have exploded eventually anyway. We were six different “tribes” who were made to live together and who were made to accept and to conform to the same rules and customs. It was never going to work in the long term. If everyone was allowed to practice what they believed in, in freedom, then perhaps yes. But oppression always creates explosions.
Humans are roaming, adapting, expressive, migrating, questioning species. Realistically, we can’t be constrained to conform to extreme unrealistic rules that do not move with the times or match our aspirations or moral values. There will be leaders and there will be followers, but people need to be able to be free to be who they want to be, without having to fit a general mould.
The big move was when I started growing up too; when I learnt about the meaning of the word cautious.
The big move was when I started being bullied because of my family’s wealth, but even then, my mum would say to me: “Do you think that there might be something that you could change, in your behaviour? That you could be doing or saying wrong? They simply can’t all be wrong and only you right! Be careful, be cautious, but be open to compromise and acceptance.”

Even when people hurt me, she would try to be fair, to everyone.
She is still the same. She still tries to be fair to everyone. I love her so much.
“Live and let live. Love and let love.”

2. “Excuse me, comrade teacher!”

Excuse me, comrade teacher!

It was time. It was finally time for me to start my new adventure; it was time for me to start school. My new school rucksack had been packed for a while; it was full of beautifully smelling new books, new notepads and a massive pencil case packed with all the pens and erasers that I might need in my first year. Perhaps mum got a bit carried away. Our lovely mum was always so thoughtful and generous. My books were all nicely wrapped too; I was ready!
I started school when I was seven years old. This was the standard school starting age. Our classes would start at 0730 and finish at 1200.
My school was about two kilometres away, (around 1.2 miles), down the hill from our farm, nestled in the middle of our village, surrounded by soft sloping hills on one side and a birch park on the other. The western edge of our birch park was softly caressed by our stunningly clear Pliva river.
We also had a post office next to our school, which had the only usable phone line in our village. This is where we used to go to phone family members who lived further away.
I remember my first day of school so well. It was a bright, but misty September’s morning. I was dressed in my best outfit; a beautiful dress that I received from our neighbours’ daughter who lived in France. I had shiny new red shoes on and my jet black curly hair in pigtails, tied with red ribbons. I was so excited! The only thing that I was sad about was that I had to leave my brother behind on the farm; I was so worried that he’d be lonely as he was the youngest amongst us and the only one who hadn’t started school yet. Baba promised me that she’d look after him very well and that she’d make sure that he had plenty of fun.
My mum only took me in for the first morning and after that I had to walk by myself for a little while and then I would join my friends who lived downhill from our farm. My friends were all boys.
I also had this one faithful companion who followed me every morning to school and who waited for me every afternoon by the school door. This was my best friend, Johnny, our German Shepherd. Johnny was amazing. He was so gentle with my brother and I and he followed us almost everywhere. Life on the farm was quite tough at times and theft of sheep was quite common, so we had a few working dogs around the farm. Johnny was not one of these guard dogs, however; he was our pet. He was a quiet and playful dog. A true gentle giant.
I felt so happy that I was finally going to school.
Mum said that I was very bright, but that I still had to study really hard if I wanted to achieve good grades. She also told me that despite the strict communist regime in our country, our education was very good and varied and that it will take me far. We were always told that education was one of the most important things in our lives. With good education, our opportunities were endless.
But oh, my goodness, I struggled! I struggled with communism, first of all. After living this carefree life for seven years, suddenly there were so many restrictions, too many rules which were not allowed to be bent; there was very little allowance for any kind of error. I always felt that we were not allowed to just be children, we had to conform to these “brainwashing” rules. We had to be very careful about what we said. Always.
It would be unfair of me to say that this was all our teachers’ fault; they simply had to obey these rules, otherwise they would have lost their jobs.
I think only people who lived in a communist country would truly understand what this was like for a child or for our parents. You live in fear of being reprimanded, all the time.
Communism creates this very formulaic, socially expected and socially accepted mould of how children should behave, actually they present a mould of how a “comrade” should behave. I struggled with this as much as my father did. Unfortunately, actually I would say fortunately, we did not fit this mould.
I felt fearful and nervous most of the time, but my playfulness would crop up every now and again and get me into trouble; there was absolutely nothing I or anyone can do about that!
I also struggled with some of the girls in my class; some of them seemed to be so sensitive about everything and I pretty much thought of myself as a boy, a tomboy. It wasn’t their fault, I liked boys better; a lot actually. This love for boys, and later men, follows me to this day. Ahem!
Our country, then, was called Yugoslavia. Yugoslavia was a communist country which consisted of six republics: Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Slovenia, Serbia, Montenegro and Macedonia. My parents, however, refused to be members of any communist party. They owned a lot of land and they did not wish to be constrained by anyone or any country. Proud and stubborn comes to my mind. And, by my parents, I mostly mean my father.
Please don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that my parents were right and everyone else around us was wrong. There were thousands of people who were very happy with being communists and they took pride in being one. But that was not my family.
Because they were not members of a communist party, my mum and dad could not get any state jobs. They had founded their own private transport company as well as having the farm. Their transport company started off as just one truck and a driver.
Dad was the only driver to begin with, mum did all the admin. He travelled the length and breadth of Yugoslavia to establish his business network. This was wonderful for his business, which grew at a rapid rate. Both mum and dad worked terribly hard.
I remember we missed our dad a lot when he used to go on his long business trips. On the day that dad would be due back, our mum used to wait for him, late into the night, leaning over their bedroom window, looking out for his truck lights or listening out for the familiar sound of the truck’s engine. I remember lying in their bed, snuggled up, watching my mum waiting for our dad at the window, with the hills in the background. She would wait up until his arrival; mum absolutely adored him. Whenever our dad came back from his trips, he always used to bring us presents. One present I will never forget was this black and white puppy that daddy brought to our room in his coat pocket. He was the tiniest and the cutest little dog we had ever seen. We named him Bobby. I am not sure what breed he was, but he remained small. He was a feisty little thing.
I would say that Bosnia was the most ethnically diverse of all the Yugoslavian republics. It was made up of three regions; Bosnian Serb region, Bosnian Croat region and Bosnian Muslims region. I come from a Serbian family and my village was very diverse, which made my upbringing very exciting.
My grandmother was, and my parents are very open-minded people. We had regular visits in our home from all three ethnic groups and both my mum and dad had Serbian, Muslim and Croatian friends, especially my father. His friends came from all over Yugoslavia. These connections opened up so many opportunities for my family and for our village.
Being at school took some getting used to. My parents gave me strict instructions that I was not allowed to mention that we still celebrated Christmas, or any religious occasion; this was our family secret. We had to address our teachers by calling them “comrade teacher”. They were very strict, and they didn’t like it if the children asked too many questions. Sadly, for me, I had lots of questions. I was always encouraged by my family to speak my mind and to ask for an explanation if I didn’t understand what I was being taught.
At the beginning, I indeed asked lots of questions, but I got punished so many times, that in the end I just stopped asking, I listened like everyone else. However, it did take me a few years to learn my lessons and to conform.
The way the teachers punished us was to stand and face the corner of the classroom, in front of everyone else! I can’t tell you how many times I faced the bloody corner; they might as well have named it Vesna’s corner.
Mum says that she never got punished, but apparently dad did get punished a lot. His teacher used to make him roll his trousers up and make him kneel down in the corner, facing the wall, on the floor that was covered by rough sand or corn. And if dad was particularly “vocal” about this treatment, his teacher used to hit his fingertips with a cane. Dad said that he was able to take it all, he was strong and healthy, but he always felt sorry for the smaller and slightly weaker children who were punished in the same way.
One of the times that I stood in the corner, longer than ever before, sticks in my mind more than any other.
I think I was about nine years old. We were all sitting in our classroom, waiting for our teacher to come in, he was late. He eventually came in and said that he had an announcement to make. He stood in front of all of us and said that the village is finally going to have new phone lines put in and that every household will have a phone.
This was such great news! We were all so excited!
Our teacher quietened us all down and carried on: “However, we have decided that you will all help with this project. You will all help with the digging and with the laying the new cables down.”
Absolute silence in the classroom. Nobody spoke.
Nobody, that is, apart from one child. Vesna stands up and says:
“Excuse me, comrade teacher! You cannot exploit us! I think what you are doing is criminal! You will practically use US, children, as child labour! This is shocking. We are not strong enough to carry this out. I refuse to do this.”
Our teacher just covered his face, sighed, and then he said:
“Is that so, Vesna?”
I loudly and proudly said: “Yes!”
Silence.
Not a single beep from the rest of the children. They were all staring at the blackboard and I swear they weren’t even blinking!
The teacher walked out. We could hear him talking quietly to someone outside in the corridor. He came back in, followed by – MY DAD! I could see that my dad was very angry; he didn’t look at me. His face was bright red, with anger. The two adults stood in front of all of us. The teacher said:
“Children, Vesna’s father will dig first, with his tractor; all you have to do is help with laying the new cable down and then cover it all back up with soil. Understood?!”
The whole class: “Understood, comrade teacher!”
At this point, Vesna is still standing.
My father just walks out, still not looking at me.
Our teacher says: “Vesna, I think you’ve said enough. Go to the corner!”
I knew I was in so much trouble! I couldn’t wait to go home to apologise to my father. I felt so bad. The wait for the end of our lessons was agonising. Also, I wasn’t allowed to lean onto the wall, my back and neck were killing me!
I remember I practically raced up the hill to our farm, ahead of my friends and my brother. When I got home, my dad was sitting at the old, large wooden kitchen table, telling my grandmother what had happened. She didn’t say anything, she could see that he was angry, but she stood up and she just about managed to walk out of the house when she started laughing, out loud! She just managed to say, through her laughter: “She is YOUR daughter.”
My dad was furious, with her and with me. I sheepishly went forward. I stood there waiting for him to speak, whilst he looked at me with an unbroken stare.
He finally spoke:
“You! You! My own child…You! …I have worked so hard to make this happen! I have travelled so far so that every house can have its own phone, I have put so much effort into this. But…my own child…My own child! How can I now expect anyone else to help?!”
He paused, trying to suppress a smile.
“Go…Make yourself useful! Go, and… feed the chickens!”
And that was that. Once dad calmed down, we all had a laugh about it later when mum got home. He knew that he would contradict himself if he told me off more. All I did was speak my mind. After all, that was the way they were bringing me up; to speak up.
Certainly, my little outburst gave some people something to talk about.
This hurt me, because some of the children would tell me what their parents thought of me. “I didn’t behave appropriately, for a girl.” They blamed my parents too.
It also hurt that I was being punished at school, continuously. It was such a struggle to strike a balance between our open-minded home life and this restrictive communist school life. I don’t think that I ever truly understood it. I never really got used to it, I just learnt to keep quiet eventually.
I count myself lucky to have been brought up with my eyes wide open, by my strong family. However, it was like a double-edged sword at times, being different in a small community was hard.
The funny thing was, most of the other children were very happy to do what they were told. They didn’t question it. Perhaps that’s because their parents were strict communists, or perhaps they were just wiser than me.
I, as ever, wore my heart on my sleeve and had no filter. Got into trouble for it so many times.
Looking back, I don’t regret this for one second. Now that I am forty, I only regret getting upset about people’s reactions to me or about what they said or thought about me. I was a child, I was growing up, I was inquisitive and free.
Every child should be free to speak their mind, whilst being respectful and kind.
But I will not lie and say that I never wished that I was like everyone else. I did. There were many times when all I desperately wanted was to fit in. This was confusing at times, because we can try to be something or someone else, but at certain trigger points, out true nature pipes up.
I truly recognise these innocent qualities in our younger son. He has no filter either and he too wears his heart on his sleeve. He is terribly outspoken.
I can now see, that it was absolutely wonderful to have gone through this first myself. I can now teach my son from my mistakes. It is absolutely OK to be the way he is, as long as his behaviour doesn’t hurt anyone or anyone’s feelings.
He will learn to channel his energy, his mouth and his strength as he gets older. We will guide him, all the way.
Children’s enthusiasm, their energy or their thirst for learning and exploring, must never be squashed, we can only channel it or direct it. We can only guide them and help them along.
I feel so lucky that our children are growing up in such safe and free environment. And I feel incredibly lucky to have the freedom, and to feel confident enough to support our children to be who they are.
They are unique. Every child is a unique child.

 

1. Wild child.

Wild Child.

Around thirty years ago, one cosy autumnal evening, my brother and I were sitting on the wooden floor, with photo albums scattered around us. We were 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; less than a year. Everything was still shiny, new and huge compared to our modest old cottage that we had happily lived in. I remember, I kept yearning for my favourite and my most comforting smells and sounds. My heart was aching. I wanted to be where we once lived; where I was 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. My dad was beaming with happiness in these black and white photos; my mum looked shy and so beautiful.
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 chuckled and chuckled. 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 these two beautiful young souls, who couldn’t have been any
more different to each other; they still are.

He is the fire, she is the earth.

Mum was this gentle, beautiful, slender young woman who came from a very quiet, hardworking farming family, whose parents absolutely adored each other and their three children. She was their only daughter. She was adored, protected and doted on. Mum was quite quiet and shy; she still is, but now she is very funny. Her favourite source of entertainment is her hilarious, perfectly timed self-deprecating humour. She is the kindest soul you will ever meet. “There is a good side to everyone.”, she’d often say to us. She cares and worries about everyone. But she is strong and persistent; the binding force of our family. Unfortunately, because of her quiet nature, our mum’s knowledge and strength is often underestimated and undervalued. This has had a profound effect on my strength and confidence as a woman.
My father…my father was this very handsome, fit, strong-willed, fiery, hardworking, untamed, stubborn force of nature. He came from a blended family, full of very loving, caring but strong characters.
My father is one of seven, he has two sisters, one brother, one half-brother and two half-sisters. His childhood was filled with love, bravery, incredibly hard work and mischief. He is built of the toughest matter; life would have crumbled a weaker man. None of us would be here now if it wasn’t for him and his physical, but more importantly his quick thinking and his mental strength.
At the beginning of my parents’ marriage, many people doubted whether my parents would stay together; they appeared to be too different to one another. But underneath it all they had this undying love for each other that would ultimately pull them through some unthinkable times. They had the same moral values and they both had hearts of gold.
Last year they celebrated their fortieth wedding anniversary. Their love for one another has proved everyone wrong and overpowered everything that came their way.
Out of this young, passionate love, their first child was born; on time, I’d like to add.
Me. Their wild child.
I, apparently, was nightmare baby which hardly ever slept, and I screamed a lot. As soon as I could move, I was off, I never sat still. I started walking at nine months. I was an early talker too, I talked to anyone and I had an opinion about anything and an answer for everything. I didn’t walk like other girls did, I skipped, kicked stones along the road or I danced. I loved dancing! Oh, I never stopped climbing trees either.
I quite like the idea of me like this, but I can see now that I have a wild child of my own, how challenging this must have been for my poor mum.
One of my aunties tells me this story every now and again of how when I was a toddler I had lots of curly hair, and at one point it desperately needed cutting as it was getting quite knotted.
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! I must have been a nightmare child.
But I am told that I was very loving, lovable, bouncy and jolly. A happy child who always deeply felt people’s sadness. I hugged everyone a lot. I still do. My husband calls me his “hugtopus”.
For the first ten years of my life, my family lived on the family farm which was situated high up in the hills, on the edge of a small hamlet. Our farm was an organic dairy farm; hilly, vibrant and full of life. My family kept sheep, cows, horses, pigs and poultry. We were completely self-sufficient, nothing was ever thrown away. We used, reused, wore, altered and recycled.
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. My parents and my brother and I lived in the second cottage. Ours was the prettiest out of the two. The cottages were very traditional, hand made out of wood. Their roofs were covered with traditional Mediterranean red roof tiles. The two houses truly stood out in the village, with their grand style and design.

They were hand built in 1930 by my great-grandfather Stevan, my paternal grandmother’s father. Stevan was a forward thinking, strong character. He was a local councillor in the early 1900s. A trailblazer. His daughters’ education mattered hugely to him. My grandmother was one of the very few women in the region with secondary and higher school education.
The two cottages were shaded by these huge, ancient linden trees. They were magical to me; we used to spend absolutely hours playing underneath them, making houses out of twigs, sticks and stones. The linden flowers smelled so beautifully. Our granny used to make us this very aromatic and deliciously tasting tea out of them.
From our farm we could see our beautiful mountainous valley enveloping us. The valley had been carved by a crystal-clear mountain river, which gently flows through our village. The river is called Pliva, and our village is called Pljeva. Both are equally famous for their organic, unspoiled beauty.
The view from the farm is always majestic; It never disappoints. It is always there as a reminder of natural calm and continuity, but forever changing and breath-taking. During the spring and summer months, the rolling hills are deep green, with the shades of blue. In the autumn, the brightest and the deepest shades of fire caress the whole valley. And in winter…they shimmer and invite you to play in the winter’s sun, and they intimidate you under the moonlight. I miss those hills so much. I dream of them very often. They always make me feel safe and content in their arms.
When I think of the farm, this strong feeling of belonging floods my body. The farm and its habitat truly gave me my roots and my wings. My family.
Thanks to my loyal, loud, generous, loud, loving, loud, forever giving family, where ever I am in the world, I know I belong.
My parents tell me that we were adored by our grandparents.
Unfortunately, I was very little when my paternal grandfather passed away. He was only fifty-five. I wish I remember him more clearly. I wish I was much older when he died.
He was our brave, strong-willed, WW2 warrior, called Stanko. A noble, generous and a strong man, who had overcome many losses. He lost his first wife and their two young daughters to TB. Unfortunately, he and my grandmother, his second wife, also lost another little girl to TB; she was only two years old. He never fully recovered after her death. I simply cannot even imagine his pain.
Grandad Stanko worked incredibly hard. He was a mayor after the WW2, a farmer and a land owner. He adored his children and grandchildren. I was his first grandchild who had lived on the farm. Even though men in those days didn’t traditionally help with looking after children, if I needed changing or bathing, he did it all for me. He took me for walks with him and he used to tell me stories.
I vaguely remember the day of his funeral. Grandad was lying in his coffin, in their bedroom. I remember the bedroom door so well. I kept standing by the door and trying to push it open. I knew he was in there. I wanted to tell him that I had an orange in my hand. All I wanted to do, was to share my orange with my grandad. I couldn’t understand why he wasn’t answering me. One of my aunties eventually took me in and lifted me up; I left the orange in the coffin, next to him. She told me that he’d have it later; he was sleeping.
I dream of him quite often. I dream of him sitting on the bench he made. We are under my favourite linden tree. I’m little, sitting on his lap. He’s gently rocking me and telling me something. I can never hear his voice. It’s always the same dream. Every time I wake up, I am left with this yearning for his protection, wisdom and knowledge.
Grandad Stanko left seven children behind, and his second wife, my Baba. My dad still has the bench his father made.
After grandad’s very premature death, as dad was the only son to have lived at home, he helped Baba look after the farm. The rest of his siblings were either married and lived away, studying or already working away in towns and cities. Dad was only in his early twenties.
This must have been a lot to take on for a young family. Those were very challenging times for my parents.
But soon, a little blessing arrived. In the middle of a long, harsh winter, my brother was born. He was the peace and the calm my parents needed in their lives. He was a perfect baby who slept peacefully for hours on end and fed beautifully.
He slept so much, my mum had to gently pinch him to wake him up. My brother grew into a robust, but a very quiet little boy. He behaved really well, and he was always very calm and kind. He always did as he was told. Unlike his sister.
There was this beautiful, handmade wooden veranda attached to the front of our cottage. Occasionally, if our granny or our mum had chores to do, they’d leave my brother and I in the veranda to play, with the stable-style doors firmly locked. My brother would happily play on the veranda’s floor for ages, but I would always try to escape. I climbed over the side of it so many times, that I eventually broke my nose by falling onto the ground. I was incredibly mischievous.
During one of these times when we were left on our own, I went back into the cottage. I LOVED going through my mum’s make up bag. I remember this one day so clearly. I found my mum’s toothpaste and decided to spread it all over our handmade posh vitrine; my mum’s pride and joy. Oh, my goodness, I got into so much trouble! Then one day, after watching my aunt cut my uncle’s hair, I cut my eyebrows off with a pair of scissors. What?! Why would anyone do that?! After realising what I had done, I hid under our rug, to hide my work of art. I was under the rug for so long, I eventually fell asleep. My mum found me and…let’s say that the scissors remained on the top of our vitrine for a long time.
My brother never did anything silly like that. He’s always been quite measured and sensible.
When we were little, we absolutely adored each other. We spent most of our time playing together, but as we got older, we started to fight a lot.
By fighting, I mean proper physical fighting. This used to worry our poor mum sick. She was convinced that it was only her children that fought in the whole world! This “loving”, sibling rivalry carried on into our teens, until my brother got taller and stronger than me.
Jesus Christ, I was feisty; he knew perfectly how to push my buttons to get the desired reaction. And he did; every time! 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, foot, 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 to him, even in strength.
My brother has grown into a wonderful, quiet, human being. He is a great father and a husband. His quiet demeaner, however, should not be underestimated. My brother has many hidden depths and strengths. We named our first son after my brother; Dragan.
Our mum worked as a touch typist in town; our dad was very busy and away a lot. Mum’s working hours were from 7am to 3pm. Once she was home, mum would help on the farm.
Our granny looked after us when our parents worked. She looked after with such love and dedication, but she let us roam freely too. My brother and I spent all our time playing and exploring.
Near our cottage, we had this outbuilding which was narrow and long, with vertical wooden 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. This was amazing to me; it was a blank canvas and the ultimate den! Our granny used to let me take her net curtains down and she used to give me her rugs and cushions too.
I would sweep the košana first, mop it and then lay the rugs down, use cushions as our seats, and the net curtains to separate the košana into three different rooms. It was amazing! We spent so much time here, playing for hours. Baba used to make us some “white coffee”, which was made out of warm milk and half a teaspoon of freshly ground coffee in each cup; we used to drink our coffee in our makeshift house. Baba 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 lived on their own.
Most of their children lived nearby with their families, but one of their sons and his family lived in France. My parents were very close to the French family. They were so nice to all of us and always very kind and generous. However, the old lady and our Baba didn’t speak to each other. Apparently, they were sworn enemies. I never quite knew why they fell out in the first place. But even during this wordless world of theirs, Baba used to look out for them. My granny used to make the most amazing food, and she used to make enough of it to feed a whole village. “You never know, someone might stop by for lunch. You must always be prepared for unexpected guests.” And she really did feed the village. Every now and again, she would ask my auntie to take some food over the road, to our neighbours. She would never admit it, but she genuinely cared for them. This sense of community is still a huge part of me. Your neighbours could truly be your lifeline.

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.
We grew all of our organic vegetables and we had a massive orchard very close to our cottages. The orchard was planted by our great-grandfather Stevan. We had apple many 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. Oh, and, I was the village cherry thief!
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.
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 close 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 and its harsh elements. 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 in the orchard 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. I remember the smell so well too.
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 the ground was covered with real silver and tiny 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!
I would often wait for my granny to fall asleep on her traditional, three-legged wooden chair, next to the fire and then I would sneak into my aunt’s bedroom. 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. High heels and all! I could not resist them!
I don’t know what possessed me, but 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, 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 the boots back into my aunt’s wardrobe, as though nothing had happened. 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. I got a real big rollocking for my little outing.
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. 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 freezing 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 further away from the farm. 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! Our days were spent exploring our beloved Pljeva, even further. We felt stronger and braver together. Naughtier.
We loved swimming in our local streams. 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. This was our only swimming pool. In these streams or the small rivers near us, I used to catch lots of crayfish. I used to take them home in an old plastic bucket, for our granny to cook them for us in this beautiful sauce of garlic, parsley and cream. I also used to scare some of the school children by holding the crayfish up in my hands. I sometimes chased them too, whilst laughing so hard. I’m sure some psychologists would have had a field day exploring me as a child 🙂

Actually, we were all a bit crazy and wild in our own little ways. I remember this one particularly warm summer afternoon. My brother, our hamlet friends and I were playing underneath our linden tree when we heard a car arrive. As we ran towards it, we squealed with joy! The French had arrived for their summer break. Their ever so beautiful daughter, who was just a bit older than me, very kindly brought us all a block of chocolate each. We excitedly sat down around their garden table to eat our chocolate. We all, but one, tried so hard to at least appear polite and eat our chocolate slowly.
But one of the boys just got too excited and too greedy; he put the whole block of chocolate in his mouth almost at once. As he tried to chew it, his teeth got stuck in this delicious French chocolate mass; he couldn’t move his jaw. He started to cry. As mean as this sounds, this was one of the funniest moments of my childhood. We all laughed so hard, I fell down to the ground and carried on laughing. Oh, I wish this was caught on camera.
Eventually my mum ran to his rescue and I was swiftly sent home. My cackle, at the expense of this boy’s distress, got me into trouble yet again. It was so funny.

At night, we used chase fireflies, lie down in the grass near the cottages and watch the Milky Way, or if the weather was bad, we’d sit on the veranda and listen to the roars of thunder and watch the lightening light up everything around us.

At times, things were tough too. It wasn’t all fun and games. My parents had to work incredibly hard, and we had to work hard too. As we lived on the edge of a forest, there were times when the sheep were attacked by a bear and the wolves were heard quite often too. This was a bit scary to our young minds, but our family never sugar-coated nature to us. They did, however, try their best to protect 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, 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 used to crawl through the grass, pretending that I was a soldier. I loved showing off my strength amongst the boys.
But more than anything, I loved spending time with our horses, cows and sheep. I also loved our woodland. It was enchanting, full of wild life & full of birds’ song. We spent hours on end exploring its natural dungeons and dens, occasionally smoking its vine. Sorry mum!
The most beautiful part of my early childhood was the fact that my parents let me be me; 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.
I am in my forties now; my heart still aches for this carefree life. I loved every second of it. I am sadly never fully appreciated 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.
I still miss the most delicious smells of my grandmother’s cooking and I miss the smell of our beautifully handmade cottages; my most comforting touch-base.