Over the years, ever since the war had finished, I have only heard of books and movies describing the atrocities of the Bosnian war.
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.
The hurt, the fear and the losses are still too raw, even after all these years.
I remember this one evening in 2003, my husband and I were living in Cardiff. I was sitting on the floor sorting out our filing whilst 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 the Bosnian Civil War 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 was their agenda? What was their gain, from all of 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; he held me on the floor as I sobbed like a child in his arms. 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, to appease 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. I was there; it’s 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 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 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 about my people. Unfortunately, certain events, some painful events, have to be told 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 and indeed saved innocent lives; 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 going to war. Yugoslavia 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 stood up, towering over us, clenching his jaw and his fists.
He didn’t sugar-coat it for us at all. He said that things will at times get nasty, dangerous and violent. He said that some people will 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 will do their best for us to never go hungry or be without clothes, shoes, or warmth.
Dad 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 incredibly sombre 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 all, 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 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. ”
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 not until a lot later, until things started personally happening to us.
Over the next couple of years, the economy in the country rapidly slowed down. Our dad could no longer keep his drivers, so 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 anyone can do.
On January the 9th, 1992, our part, the Serbian part of Bosnia was proclaimed as a separate entity; 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 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.
Out of all the things once widely sold in the shops and in the supermarkets, I missed the sanitary products and toothpaste the most. I wasn’t quite eleven when I had my first period, in 1988; 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. I now understand that this was an incredibly sustainable way of living and I am very proud of all of my viragoes, but it was 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 about this issue, out of period stigma and embarrassment, and I do apologise to my male readers if this part of my story offends you, but we have a duty towards our daughters, sisters and partners; it is incredibly important that we do discuss this vital part of a woman’s life, because 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, 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, when I think of my childhood, my mind instantly takes me to positive places in my memory. I am absolutely fascinated by this. I remember this one particular day when we were at school; this one is a magical memory. Each child from my school received a Shoebox Parcel from Canada. Amongst other small items, in my 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 my precious little tube of toothpaste so well, like it was made out of gold. My family and I shared it between us for months. I only allowed everyone to just 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 drink this instead of 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, 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 quality and plenty of 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 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 our garlic, onions and corn on the cob was hung on the beams, beautifully platted 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.
As the supplies in our shop were sparse, our dad had to go away very often. 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 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 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. 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 etc.
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 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.
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 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.
In 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 sombre 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, handed down or made out of towels too. 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 kind 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 found our springs 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 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 era of fear and war will, indeed, one day end. Just like our long winters do too.