“I have always believed that hope is that stubborn thing inside us that insists, despite all the evidence to the contrary, that something better awaits us so long as we have the courage to keep reaching, to keep working, to keep fighting.” B.O.
Stopanja, Serbia, September 1995.
The night I accidentally found out the fate of my family, I spent sleepless. My auntie Vera stayed with me most of the night. She comforted me and tried her best to help me see that what had happened so far was the best possible scenario, in a terrible nightmare.
“Don’t worry about your grandmother. She’s a strong, strong woman. She’s been through worse in the WW2. She will pull through this and one day you’ll tell her story.” As numb as I was, her words enveloped me and gave me a glimmer of hope.
I knew Baba was strong, resourceful and resilient, but I didn’t have the courage to think that I’d see her again. I was too afraid to trust that the Forces would keep her alive. But this wonderfully strong woman, my auntie Vera, stopped me in my tracks. Ever since I remember, she would always tell us off if she thought that we, the children, were unfair or unkind to one another, or if she thought that we were being too negative.
She told me to believe, fully believe, in good people of this world. I tried to believe, I really tried.
I cried that night a lot. I tried to be brave in front of my auntie, but once I was on my own, in my bedroom, I wept silently in the dark. I felt utterly powerless, there was nothing I could do to help anyone. I wished that I was with my family, I wished that I too shared their fears and their plight for safety as refugees. We were now ALL refugees and that realisation really upset me. I can’t tell you how guilty I felt; there was me in this new world of mine, peacefully sleeping, blissfully unaware of what was happening to my loved ones. I understand, I know; for my parents, I was one less child to worry about. But I just wished to be with them, throughout it all.
All I wanted was to be in one safe place with my whole family. And I prayed and begged the universe and all the powers of existence to keep my granny and my daddy safe.
I kept thinking about our home. Our home, our house that mum and dad worked so hard for. Our home truly was our castle, our fort; it kept us and our neighbours safe for so long. The realisation that we will never have our home again was crippling and it made me feel sick with fear.
I eventually fell asleep, exhausted.
But it’s strange, after the initial pain, fear & tears, I developed some kind of numbness to it all. As young as I was, I remember this feeling all too well.
I felt as though I was floating through this safe & normal life that I was suddenly living in. I had all I needed, in material sense. What ever my two cousins had, I had too; my uncle and aunt made sure that I always had everything that I could possibly need. I knew how lucky I was, but I couldn’t feel it. My young mind felt guilty for being taken care of.
For the next few days, when I was not at school, my uncle and aunt took me to see all the beautiful places in and near Kruševac, to help me take my mind off things. This part of Serbia is incredibly rich culturally & is a huge part of Serbian heritage. I was in awe of it all. One of my favourite films from my childhood is a film called Battle of Kosovo & the church from this movie was actually built in Kruševac between 1375-1378. The church is called Lazarica Church. When I found out what happened to my family, I asked my aunt to take me to this church.
During all of the crazy, when we lived in Bosnia after the fall of communism, going to my local church and being silent for a few hours whilst listening to our priest sing in the Old Church Slavic language, was my saviour in some of the toughest of times. Different people had different ways of coping, and this was mine. These few hours of, meditation I suppose, used to recharge my batteries and give me peace and solace. I wasn’t overly religious and I am still not, but I do like the idea of these places of worship where, the way I explain it to my sons, people go and think nice things about their loved ones and where people can hope freely. I cherish hope, deeply. It kept and keeps me going.
Walking into the Lazarica Church gave me my peace & more. I remember I walked in and I froze, I had goosebumps all over me. I felt that all my suppressed emotions came to surface, but without fear or tears. I felt content and I felt safe. There was something so majestic about being in this ancient church, surrounded by these centuries old icons and frescoes. They were beautiful and reassuring to my young mind, who just needed to see these wonderful pieces of art which have over the centuries seen weddings and funerals, countless blessings and prayers, but most of all, they told me that nothing lasts forever.
And that is when I made a decision to start believing that this horrid civil war would not last forever and that I would be with my family again very soon.
Statistically, I thought, not everyone is bad; I kept telling myself that there are more good people, in this world of ours, than bad. My old, naïve, almost childish sense of hope started appearing more & more again, which was so uplifting.
My days carried on as normal; my ever so selfless relatives, my new school friends & my teachers made sure that I was very well looked after and they kept me preoccupied with normal teenage activities and shenanigans. At that point, I was the only “fresh” refugee in my new school.
My faithful few new friends kept picking me up and taking me to meet our school friends and they regularly took me to the most popular student digs. This is when I started smoking. I had always been, very passionately, against smoking, but I suppose I so desperately wanted to fit in in my new environment. Smoking didn’t suit me, or I was so bad at it; I coughed quite a lot! My mum would later tell me that when I smoked, I looked like a “chicken with tits” (ha!), ie. I was always so fit & healthy, and the cigarettes did not suit me or my image at all!
One of my new friends was Zorica. She was a gentle soul who was so generous and kind to me. She truly took me under her wing. She made sure that I went to every party she went to and she introduced me to her family and friends too. I had such trust in her; we came from two different worlds, but we had very similar moral values and we were both incredibly close to our families. My uncle and aunt valued her sincerely. I will never forget her generosity and kindness.
In the late September 1995, I am not entirely sure which date unfortunately, after having a particularly fun day at school, I was on my way back home on the vibrant school bus. We used to have so much fun on this bus. My new friends found my Bosnian Serbian accent amusing and at times funny, so quite often they would tease me and teach me how to speak in the Southern Serbian accent, and I would teach them to speak in my native accent, which was hilarious when they did it. We laughed a lot that evening.
When I got off the bus, I felt happy and elated. I had had a very good day. But as I crossed the road, this curly headed little angel ran towards me! I felt this huge shiver go right through me; I was in such disbelief. It was my baby sister! It was my beautiful baby sister running towards me and shouting my name through happy tears on her face. I picked her up and swung her around me and then hugged her so tightly that she almost breathlessly said: “You are squashing meeeeee.”
I just couldn’t stop looking at her and checking to see, to convince myself that she was well and in one piece. She was happy and smiling at me through tears. She was almost four; so cute, with big, big black eyes!
I looked up and I saw my wonderful, brave mama and my brother, standing near by and quietly observing our sweet reunion. I ran towards them and hugged them so tightly too! They were here, with me. They were safe! They were alive and safe! But they were very quiet.
My uncle and aunt tearfully ushered us in, into the warmth of their restaurant, then upstairs into their home. We had so much to talk about. My mum, my beautiful mum, was right next to me. I still couldn’t believe it. She suddenly became very chatty; it was her way of coping with it all, to talk it through, to get it all off her scared heart. But my brother was so quiet; painfully quiet. He didn’t want to talk about their exodus as a final act, he’d quietly say that we’d go back very soon and that this was all temporary. He said that dad would come & take us home. His words were met with concerned silent smiles.
My mum, uncle Bogdan, aunt Vera and I stayed up most of the night. I sat on my mum’s lap for a while. I know, I was eighteen, this might seem strange to you, but I often used to sit on her lap and cuddle her. Even now, when I see her after a few months, I still sit on her lap. We now laugh how I no longer have a bony bum like I used to, instead, I have plenty of padding on my bottom. Cheeky mama!
My mum gives the best cuddles.
That evening I didn’t want to leave her side. Eventually, I snuggled up with my baby sister, right next to our mum. My sister fell asleep in my arms and stayed there. When I later lowered her down into her new bed, she instantly woke up and pulled me closer; she asked me to stay. I stayed with her until she was firmly asleep.
I remember holding her very tightly next to me and smelling her hair. Her hair smelt of Becutan, this baby shampoo that was widely available all over old Yugoslavia. It is such a distinct, beautiful smell; fresh and aromatic, I could smell it now. Once I was confident that she wouldn’t wake up, I slowly pulled my arms from underneath her. She slept so peacefully, without moving or making much noise. To this day, twenty four years later, she still sleeps so quietly.
Mum later told me that as soon as they arrived, auntie Vera prepared the bathrooms for them and gave them fresh clothes to wear. My family had been wearing the same clothes for days, they had nothing else left. This was such a hard pill to swallow.
As we were chatting away, my brother slowly withdrew as he just wanted to be on his own. He’s always been our strong one, our hard working, kind, stoic young man of the house, but this type of trauma is too much even for the strongest of us. Our little village, our home and his friends were everything to him. He very quickly fell asleep. He was exhausted.
I didn’t go to school the next day as I just wanted to hold them all, close to me. We went for walks and this is when mum told me more about their harrowing ordeal. She was worried about dad so much and we all hoped and prayed that he and Baba would be safe and alive.
What I found very strange and I remember feeling very guilty about this; I could no longer cry. I was worried that my family might think that I was cold or that I didn’t care, but I just simply could not bring it all up to surface any more. Again. There was too much there, for such a young mind. My brother didn’t cry either. He didn’t say much for the first few weeks. But I shouldn’t have been worried, our family didn’t judge us or question our lack of tears, they understood and they supported us. But I know our mum was worried, especially about him. We knew how important it was to talk trauma out. Loving, family talking therapy is so important and sometimes the saving grace. A loving family is a place of trust, help and unconditional love and support. A loving family gives you a wonderfully strong foundation in life and should be our first port of call, when we need solace and support the most. We really tried, but I suppose it was all a bit too painful for him. It was easier to keep it all inside, wrapped up and disguised.
As I am venturing into my fifth decade, knowing that I have my loving, crazy, loud family behind me, even though they are over a thousand miles away, gives me an enormous amount of strength and confidence. They gave me a base, a strong base, and wings.
I strongly believe that the reason we suffer from so many mental health illnesses nowadays is because we live such busy and insular lives and we simply don’t have this strong family or community support network that we used to have. Women in our village used to get together on Sundays to roast coffee, or make quilts every autumn, or they would help each other weed their crops; they used to spend time together and talk their worries away. Men used to go hunting together, farm together or they would help each other build their houses. They too would talk amongst themselves, with the help of a few beers. These were our regular counselling sessions.
A few weeks went by, and we organically just carried on. A few of our friends from our home village started contacting us, which was so lovely. Most of our old neighbours and friends had moved to Vojvodina, the northern part of Serbia. Where we were, there were no other recent refugees.
Hearing our friends was wonderful, but there was this one family, old neighbours of ours, that kept bloody phoning my mum; they thrived on bad news. They told us that there were rumours going around that some people had seen our dad; that he had gone grey and had lost a lot of weight. This was so hurtful. I couldn’t understand why they’d tell us this. Surely they knew that this would upset us. It pained us to think that he didn’t have enough food, that he might have been hungry, or depressed, or worse. But our mum and auntie Vera kept telling us to be strong and to believe that we’ll see him again soon.
By the time I had heard my father’s voice, two months had passed. Two whole months without speaking to him, without hearing his voice.
I worried so much, but I always felt such pride when I thought of him. He was our strong, flawed, cheeky super hero.
I remember coming back from the local park one sunny afternoon when I saw my mum waving at me frantically and telling me to hurry up and run across the road. She said that dad was on the phone. I absolutely raced up the steps, skipping many of them, just to get to the phone as quickly as I could, to hear my father’s voice. I was breathless. This was the first time that I had spoken to him, since I had left our village. When I picked up the phone, I broke down, I couldn’t speak. I wanted to ask him so many things, but I remember just managing to say that we missed him and that I was well. He promised me that he’d find a way of finding Baba. I told him that I loved him and then our sister took the phone from me because she wanted to tell him so many exciting things that she got up to. I wished I had told my dad so much more, but I choked up.
Apart from this phone call from our dad, there was one more call that I will never forget. It was completely unexpected. It came from Croatia. Our wonderful friends from Pljeva, who emigrated to Croatia during the first exodus, somehow found our number from our mutual friends who lived in Austria! Our childhood best friends phoned us one evening to see if were well and to offer us their help. They just wanted to let us know that they would do their absolute best to help us if we needed anything. This phone call left us all feeling so happy and content; our faith in good people was yet again reinforced. This was a true, pure proof of the fact that friendships & love do not recognise borders or wars. This was a wonderful example of how good people are good everywhere, in every country. This also reinforced my undying hope. In 1993, when they left their homes, we made our promises that we’d stay friends forever. We never broke our promises.
A couple of weeks after my loved ones arrived, the rest of my mother’s family joined us. Our maternal grandparents had to flee for safety in the end too, together with our uncle Stevo’s family; our aunt Nada and her three young children. I was so happy to see them, I had missed them all so much. But my very expressive excitement was ill timed. They didn’t want to be there, they wanted to be back in their homes. I can’t tell you how hard it was for us to accept that we might never go home again. My grandparents felt the brunt of this the most. My beautiful grandmother kept saying that she’d give anything for her and granddad to “stand on their own piece of Earth again”, to sleep in their own home again.
So there we were, fifteen of us living in one house, seven adults and eight children and our uncle Bogdan and auntie Vera fed us & clothed us all, on their own. They gave us everything they possibly could materially, but most of all they gave us comfort and safety. But this was one crazy, buzzing house!
We loved having our grandparents with us. They were loving and warm and funny, but I remember how hard they tried to hide from us how homesick they were and how worried they were about their son, uncle Stevo, who was still in the war. But children are these amazing little creatures. They created magic wherever they were. They felt safe and secure in their new home, so they made the most of it, therefore creating fun and mischief all around us. We celebrated our sister’s birthday party in our new home; auntie Vera made sure that she had presents to open and a big birthday cake with pink candles on it. Our sister turned four. Our granny knitted her two new cardigans and our granddad made her a little wooden stool of her own, they had nothing else to give, but they made sure they gifted her something. I loved them so much! They usually spent their days either helping out in the restaurant or playing with their grandchildren. But once the children were in bed, granny and granddad spent their every evening watching the news. As much as they loved spending their time with us, they just wanted to go home.
In the third week of November, 1995, dad phoned again. He phoned and his voice was emotional and breaking up. I remember I felt really scared, I was thinking the worst.
“I have found your Baba. She’s alive. She’s alive and well and still has a cow and a few chickens left. She has food! But…”, there was a lengthy pause, “…our home is gone.” Dad’s voice broke, he was trying so hard not to cry. “It’s been destroyed. We no longer have a home. But we are all alive and strong. We will work hard and build another one, don’t you worry!”
Dad explained that he had been trying to find ways of getting through to the “the other side” to find out what happened to Baba. His only hope was his best friend from the Croatian part of Bosnia, S. Dad had been looking for him for a couple of months and when he finally tracked him down, S. and his family were living in Germany. When dad phoned him, S. told our dad that he couldn’t go and look for Baba himself, as he no longer lived in Bosnia, but that he might know someone who could. A relative of his.
This wonderful person that S. got in touch with, risked his life and went to look for this old Serbian woman, who was essentially the enemy’s mother, just so that my family could have some closure. He didn’t know whether he’d find her alive or dead. I can’t emphasise enough how much risk this man put himself through, just to help us. When he found her, he didn’t speak to her, to protect himself, and to protect her, but he observed her from a distance. He had found out that there was one more lady who was found in the village, but sadly she was later found killed. But Baba was alive and she appeared well and working hard. He saw her gathering and carrying some firewood.
I am so sad that I will never be able to tell this man personally how much his effort and bravery meant to our family, to me.
Thanks to him, we found out that our wonder woman was alive and well.
Our Baba, who was seventy four at this point, was still alive!
What a woman. What a force.
Thank you so much for your time and for your support. Writing this has been an incredibly humbling & a very cathartic journey for me. Please know that this is just a draft. The rest has been written & safely stored elsewhere 😉