Ever since the Bosnian war ended, I have only heard it described, in books and movies, in terms of the atrocities.
Even now, after more than two decades, I can’t read the books or watch the movies. The fearful child in me still finds them too upsetting, too negative and all too often shockingly one-sided.
The hurt, the fear and the losses are still too raw, even after all these years. This is true for many, like me, who lived through the war but in my case there is an added factor; my people, the Bosnian Serbs, are seen as the aggressors and there is no sympathy for those of us who were victims just like everyone else.
I remember one evening in 2003, when my husband and I were living in Cardiff. I was sitting on the floor, with paperwork scattered all around me. The TV was talking to itself in the background. Suddenly, a familiar language caught my attention. I looked up and I saw that a program about the Bosnian Civil War had started. My husband was working in his office upstairs.
I started watching it and COULD NOT believe my eyes. The subtitled translations of the native serbo-croat speakers bore little or no relation to what I could hear them actually saying. Worse, it wasn’t simply poorly edited; the subtitles often stated the exact opposite of what the speaker had said. It was utterly and completely manipulated.
I felt anger and shame and I got so upset, I burst into tears. Why were these media giants doing this?! What was their agenda? What was their gain, from all of this falsehood?
My husband heard me, and he rushed down the stairs. He very quickly realised what was going on and turned the TV off; he held me on the floor as I sobbed like a child in his arms. Once I calmed down, we talked into the night. He explained to me that the media, in any country, will always simplify the news, even so-called “factual” documentaries, to appease the viewers, the general public. He explained that there had to simply be a bad side and a good side; the nuances and complexities of the real world are filtered out long before they reach the tv screen or the newspaper print.
It felt 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. I was there; it’s not true! No war is ever as simple as that!” But I was powerless.
Of course, people who believed they shared my ethnic identity did dreadful things during that war, but they were a minority of idiots and psychopaths, just like you find in any population, who found themselves in a position to entertain their twisted desires. All the parties to that war, let’s be clear, did dreadful things: there is nothing intrinsically better or worse about one group of people than another – but the media cannot represent that complex picture to their viewers and their readers, so one group must become the ‘baddies’ and the rest, the valiant ‘goodies’.
A war is a very lucrative endeavour. I was too young to know and too young to understand these grand, political strategies and their 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 elsewhere in the world. The only thing I could do, from that moment of realisation onwards, was to stay truthful and say things the way I saw them with my own innocent, hopeful, childish eyes; show the world what we were really like as people.
I want to tell you about the good people in my life, from my country and from the world, because kindness is universal. I want to tell you about the kind, generous, perhaps a little naïve, good people of Bosnia , both Serbian like me and of other identities, that the media didn’t write or report about. Their kindness and bravery was heroic and selfless and blind to division and discrimination, even in terrifyingly difficult times. Their kindness at times was a lifeline to many.
Most people from this part of the world, who came into my life, were amazing. They were extraordinarily kind and brave. They overcame fear and obstacles 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 and indeed saved innocent lives; they wouldn’t have done it any other way.
Unfortunately, certain events, some painful events, have to be told in their true light, in order for me to paint the full picture.
In the late eighties or early nineties – I can’t remember exactly when but I was in my early teens – 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 going to war. Yugoslavia will no longer be; it would be split into many different countries. Bosnia as it once was would never be the same again.
At this, Dad suddenly got very serious. He stood up, towering over us, clenching his jaw and his fists. He was a physically and personally impressive man.
He didn’t sugar-coat it for us at all. He said that things would at times get nasty, dangerous and violent. He said that some people would become very deceitful & some of our friends will become our enemies. But both mum and dad promised us that they will prepare us for it all. They also promised that they would do their best for us to never go hungry or be without clothes and shoes; they promised they’d keep us warm (no mean feat, in a Bosnian winter).
Dad choked up and this alone scared us. For him to be so emotional, things must surely be bad. I started crying and tears were silently falling down our mother’s face. You see, she knew that Dad would have to go war too.
The atmosphere was sombre in the living room. At one point, after a lot of silence, my dad said some words that have stayed with me ever since.
“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 all, we must have a clear conscience. We must be able to look people in the eyes, without any guilt, without any fear, with confidence … knowing that we didn’t do anything to harm them, hurt them or take what’s theirs! 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 with patriotism and nationalism, 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.”
Then Dad 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, to have some head space. 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 it wasn’t until a lot later, when our childish, innocent eyes were exposed to the darkness of people’s souls, that we really understood what he had meant.
Over the next couple of years, the economy in the country rapidly slowed down. Dad could no longer keep his drivers, so sadly, one by one, he had to let them go. This was particularly hard for our Mum and Dad, as the drivers’ families depended on their income but sadly, there wasn’t anything we could do.
On January the 9th, 1992, the mostly Serbian part of Bosnia where we lived proclaimed itself as a separate entity from the rest of Bosnia; Republika Srpska was born. When it seemed like the whole world was against us, it meant so much to my people to have a republic to call their own; an identity and an entity which represented our history and our heritage. However, 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 goods, now stood bottles of oil and vinegar, boxes of salt and sugar and bags of rice and dry pasta. The shop floor was mostly lined with pallets of bags of flour. We no longer had access to spices, condiments, and the foods that younger generations were used to. Everyone had to be very resourceful. I remember thinking how lucky we were to still have our elders near us, to teach us how to be resourceful and creative, but then I realised that they were only resourceful because they had already survived the Second World War. I was too aware of their hardships; this really upset my sensitive mind but I loved their stories of bravery and love.
Of all the things once widely sold in the shops and in the supermarkets, I missed the basic hygiene products the most, the things that we used to take for granted. We could no longer buy toothpaste and sanitary products. Period poverty was a heart breaking, taboo issue. In June 1988, I had my first period; I was still only ten. Our lives then were still peaceful and the shops were full of everything we needed for our personal hygiene. But, when the war started, we had to resort to cotton wool or cut up bath towels, which were then washed, boiled and reused.
My Mother Nature-conscious mind now understands that this was a sustainable way of living and I am very proud to have experienced this life as a young girl and as a young woman, but nevertheless it was a really hard life for us. Those were some of the darkest times of my childhood, but we had no choice, we had to use what we had. Sadly, not many women would talk to me about this issue – and believe me I had many questions – out of period stigma and embarrassment. Culturally, it wasn’t something we openly talked about. I do apologise to my male and female readers if this part of my story makes you uncomfortable, however it is reality and we have a duty towards our daughters, sisters and partners to openly discuss this vital part of a woman’s life. Period poverty still exists in the world and is a huge problem; it affects too many women and girls. This saddens me deeply, because I remember so well how hard and undignifying my life was, without basic hygiene products.
The shops had long stopped selling safe toothpaste too, so we stuck to natural products; we used salt or bicarbonate soda to brush our teeth with. This used to leave a taste in my mouth, that I will not forget in a hurry!
It’s interesting: although, as I have said, this was a dark time, when I think of my childhood, my mind instantly takes me to positive places. I remember one particular, magical day when we were at school. Each child from my school received a Shoebox Parcel from Canada. Amongst other small items, in my box was a small Crest toothpaste. We were sitting in a freezing, dark classroom, on cold wooden benches, when these parcels were given to us. Our young faces lit up with such excitement and wonder, as joyful giggles could be heard echoing down the school’s long, concrete corridor. I looked after my precious little tube of toothpaste so well, as though it was made of gold. My family and I shared it between us for months. I only allowed others to barely touch it with their toothbrushes. Once it was all gone, we were back to salt.
People’s resourcefulness was amazing. We couldn’t buy coffee; people used to dark-roast wheat, grind it and prepare this as though it was coffee. Smokers used to dry fruit tree leaves, roll them up and smoke them. Sadly, they’d also pick up old cigarette butts off the ground and reuse them.
Mum and I, together with our ‘Baba’ (my grandmother), continued growing our own fruit and vegetables. Planting and growing vegetables was a particularly joyous activity: such simple labour took our minds off what was happening, at least for a while. There was always someone in the village who was known for having good quality vegetable seeds. My mum used to send me to them and we would exchange the seeds for food or for wool. I absolutely loved planting these seeds with my mum. There was such excitement within me knowing that very soon, new seedlings would be appearing from the ground, which meant food for our family and for 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, rose hip and herbs were stored in our attic, spread out on the floor, where they were kept dry and mould free, and our garlic, onions and corn on the cob was hung up on the beams, beautifully plaited together.
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.
Whenever Dad could, he 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.
After one of these 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 had been 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 tells me that such calls were a planned operation, to spread fear amongst people. We were all worried sick. After ten long days, our father came back. Physically, he appeared 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 and 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, 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. All this charity was shared among everyone in the village, regardless of their identity or their religion. Most were Serbs but there were Muslim and Croat neighbours too.
As well as our family’s shop, there was also another small shop, run by our neighbours. They too, together with my parents, used to help the elderly and single mothers and children. My Mum and Dad used to give out free shoes too. Whatever we could, we gave away to those who needed it, no matter what their religion or their family name. They would have done the same for us.
The sense of community was always so strong around us. There was an economy of favours. There was a lady in our village who owned a sewing machine; she used to fix and patch up our clothes in exchange for a few eggs or for 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’ (the locally distilled plum schnapps). We also shared tools and small machinery to get by. If someone’s roof needed fixing, men would chip in. We pitched in with weeding the crops, sorting and storing them for winter etc.
When you are going through unthinkable times, your community is your lifeline. Your community is your loving, protecting, nurturing family. Without being part of an organic community, we would not have survived.
Despite this strong community, the situation outside and around our little valley 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 stolen cars, holding up nationalist flags through their car windows. Quite often they used to shoot into the air too, which was very frightening.
We didn’t know these people. They were not from our area; 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 our parents how scared we were though. We wanted them to be proud of us.
But then, amongst all of this crazy, the most amazing thing happened.
My parents discovered that they were expecting. A baby that I could love, kiss, carry and look after. We were all so happy! My parents were happy too but I do remember my mum crying a lot one evening. She said that she was so worried whether this baby would 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 it so much. I promised her that we would do whatever we could to make things easier for her.
So, one bitterly cold November, our sister was born. Both our mother and our sister were perfectly healthy. Everything went according to plan. By then, 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 a beautiful, perfect baby. She brought so much happiness into our home. Our home was no longer this quiet and sombre place it had become since the start of hostilities; instead, it was filled with cooing noises and baby smells 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 towelling, handed down from other families or simply fashioned from bathroom towels. This would have been absolutely fine during any other season, but this was a typically harsh, Bosnian winter in wartime. 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; winter in our part of the world can regularly see twenty degrees below zero, for days on end.
For the next few months, we had many kind visitors. I think the presence of a baby must have been a blessed distraction for many. My mother and our sister were given so many lovely presents. They were all homemade and handmade presents brought to her from so many different people: Serb, Croat, Muslim. They made blankets and knitted clothes and woolly accessories for my sister. They kept bringing my mum cooked meals, so that she could rest as much as possible. My mum was breastfeeding my sister and these kind people wanted to make sure that both she and 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, even at the best of times, let alone during a war, but they shared with us what they could, and this despite the differences the politicians wanted us to feel between us.
A continuous celebration of new life in our home was such an uplifting experience to observe. Our sister made us all so happy. She was so quiet and slept so well.
One night particularly sticks in my mind. We had no power; all we had was a small white candle for the whole house. We were 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, to avoid detection. If the fighters, whoever they were, knew there were people in the house then … I dread to think what might have happened. I might not be writing this now.
We rushed – quietly – 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. As though she knew that she had to be, to protect all of us.
Soon enough, it was Spring again. Out of all seasons, I found Spring the most uplifting. 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 wildflowers.
Our orchards would blossom and produce new fruits; 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 garden.
This new life, in everything around me, indeed gave me hope and reassurance that nothing lasts forever. This era of fear and war will, indeed, one day end. Just like our long winters do too.