As we lived at the top of the hill, I would playfully skip down the hill to school every morning, knocking on a few doors. Eventually a little crowd of school children would form; we were a bouncy and a very loud bunch.
We’d chat away, hop over puddles, kick some stones along the road, 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 socks, but by the time I would get to school, my tights would have a few twigs stuck to them, or one or two 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, or one would be at the top of my head and the other would be at the bottom; a nightmare little wild child. Mum eventually gave up when I was about ten; from then on, I was mostly dressed in boyish bermuda shorts and polo shirts.
I loved my walks to school and back, in all seasons. But, to me, our winter walks were the most magical ones.
The snow would usually start falling in November, sometimes earlier, and it would snow for days on end. The magic of the first snow is still so special to me. I remember those mornings so well. My brother and I used to excitedly rush outside into the garden and raise our arms up to the sky and squeal with childish happiness; we would open our mouths and we’d catch snowflakes on our tongues. On the way to school, we’d share our excitement with our friends. After the heavy snowfall, the temperatures would drop even further, freezing the snow over & turning our hills into this magical land of crisp, white paths of fun. The Sun would finally show its face through the grey marshmallow canvas & blend with the endless depths of blue.
The snow would beautifully shimmer underneath the Sun’s uplifting rays. I loved the feeling of the cold air on my face, and I loved hearing the crunching sound of the crisp snow underneath my feet, unless I fell on it; then I swore at it. Once we were at school, it was cold. The school’s windowpanes were thin and patched up in places. We sat on these cold wooden benches, with our wet feet firmly placed on the cold floor. We didn’t have central heating at our school; we had these wood burning stoves, which had been made out of industrial cut up pipes. The stoves had many little cracks in them, with slivers of smoke escaping out of them like naughty little wild children, stinging our little eyes and throats. It wasn’t easy, but we didn’t know any different. We still worked hard; we had no other choice.
After school, my brother and I would come home, have lunch, do our homework and then we would grab our sanke, our wooden toboggan, and we would spend most of our afternoons sledging down the steep hills 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 Baba’s cottage, she would quickly take our wet snowsuits off, put warm woolly socks on us, wrap us in blankets and she’d sit us next to her wood burning range to warm up. She used to very kindly rub our little freezing hands and feet with her woolly gloves, to get our “circulation going”. Once we were warmed up, she’d make us some aromatic herbal tea, sweetened with honey. We loved our magical winters, but at times, when the weather was really bad, our school commutes were quite tough. The snow would fall so heavily, it would cover all the tracks over night. In the mornings, Dad always used to walk out of our cottage first, to make a path for us to follow to our school; the snow was quite often up to his hips. 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 always open.
Watching us slip and slide on the snow and ice, and sometimes cry in pain after spending hours at school wet and cold, prompted our parents to leave the majestic hills and move into the valley. They had bought a house five minutes’ walk from our school. When mum and dad got married, they had agreed that whenever they got paid for anything, they would put half of their earnings into a savings account. My parents bought their house in cash, at the age of 28 and 30. They took pride in knowing that their hard work had paid off; our lives would be easier from then on.
At first, we were all so excited and happy. We moved into this brand-new home which seemed like a palace to us, compared to our cosy wooden cottage that we had lived in. Our walk to school and back was a doddle. Our new house was in this “posh” part of the valley, in the “suburbia” of our mountain village. Logistically and physically our lives were indeed easier, but the nostalgia soon kicked in; it was gut-wrenching. We missed our granny and the farm. Our lovely Baba took our move very badly. She had looked after us with such care and dedication from the day we were born, yet suddenly she could no longer care for us, feed us and tuck us in when we had our naps after hours of hard play; we were no longer living right next to her, under her wing. She was sadly, but understandably, quite upset when we moved. We missed our animals so much too. We no longer had this vast space around us, we had no trees in our garden to climb on, or lambs to chase. When we came home from school, our home was empty and cold; mum and dad were always at work. Luckily Baba had taught me how to light a fire and cook for us; I’d quite often have our dinner ready, by the time mum came home around 1600.
Not only was our Baba and her care sorely missed and needed; my brother and I worried about her so much. To our young, immature minds, she seemed too frail and too old to be living on her own, but we truly underestimated her physical and mental strength. She was one powerhouse of a woman. However, because of her age and our departure, most of our animals eventually got sold off; there were only a handful left for our granny to look after. She simply had to keep some animals or she would have felt completely lost without her beloved livestock. She liked being busy.
For the first few months of our new life, our loyal companion Johnny came to live with us, but he didn’t like it. He became so sad and homesick. This was so upsetting for my brother and I; we loved him so much, but we knew that we had to take him back. One day after school, we both walked him back up the hills and the closer we got to our farm, the bouncier he became and the faster his tail was wagging. Once he was back with Baba, he was so much happier. He was our wonderful, loyal old friend. As sad as we were to leave him there, we knew we did the right thing. It was hard going back to our new home. I missed my “wild friends” & my wild ways. My brother and I were both … mournful … Our best memories came from that farm. Life as we knew it had moved on; a new era had begun.
Soon enough, our parents ventured into many different 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; a home to withstand anything that came its way. My parents’ very kindly built the additional houses, just in case things didn’t work out for us in life: “You would always have a home of your own to come to.” Knowing this, all throughout my life, has given me such unbreakable confidence and a very strong sense of belonging; my roots.
My parents’ hard work was incredibly fruitful. My father’s transport company grew to a sizeable fleet of lorries. The success was great, however, it was bittersweet; we got to spend a lot less time together as a family; we had fewer meals together. My parents opened a mini supermarket on the ground floor of our house. My uncle opened a café and a billiard club in our house too. Dad’s sawmill gradually grew into a small factory. They employed many people from our village; Serbs and Muslims. We all had to work really hard; even my brother and I had our delegated jobs, every day. Those were incredibly busy times.
The more my parents’ businesses grew, the more pressure they were under. Sometimes, unfortunately, I resented my parents, my dad especially, for working so hard and for making us work hard too. From our early teens, my brother and I started actively working for mum and dad. When all of my new friends were going swimming, I had to work in our shop, or clean and grease the lorries before their departures, or drive a tractor. As empowering as this was, because no other girl I knew did these jobs, I wanted to go swimming.
Before I was even allowed to start working in the shop, my dad put me through some rigorous training first. He taught me the importance of housekeeping and presentation: “A clean and a tidy shop, is what a customer wants to see.” He made 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 made me wrap small goods, of all shapes, over and over again until they were wrapped to perfection. I swear my teenage rebellious mind hated him sometimes. “The customer is always right! Even if your worst enemy walks into this shop, they are your customer first of all. It is in your interest to greet them with your brightest smile. The more genuine smiles and warmth, the more business.” These words will forever stay with me.
I can’t say that I enjoyed these times. We had to grow up quite quickly.
But make no mistake, I was 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. However, they never allowed us to be lavish or to show off. We never had expensive clothes and we never went on expensive holidays. 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. “Nothing is for free.”
One luxury we did have, however, was our annual holiday to Croatia. 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. My brother and I used to play on the beach for hours on end, collecting shells and smooth pebbles, frequently getting lost. We loved the Dalmatian freshly caught fish and their locally grown food, especially fresh figs. When ever 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 figs in their gardens and then he’d take us there the next morning, at the crack of dawn, to steal the figs! Most of our fig hunting trips were deliciously successful, but on one of these adventures we got caught. We stealthily walked to this house and dad carefully picked my brother and I up and lowered us over the fence ever so quietly. 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’s roar. This old lady came running out of her house, shouting at us in a typical Dalmatian accent. She was petite and dressed in black, seemingly harmless, but she had a big boxer-type dog on a chain, right next to her, whose barking was getting 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, fell to the floor and they were everywhere! We ran away, in fits of giggles!
I know it’s naughty, but we loved it! My Croatia memories are some of my favourite ones.
The longer we lived in our new home, the quicker we had to grow up. 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 so 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. My mum could see what was going on, but even then she would be fair; she’d 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.”
My brother and I didn’t have any concept of “socially acceptable” friendships, when it came to race, different religions, background or wealth. Our friends were children from our village with whom we simply had many things in common; we loved playing and exploring together. And that was that. We didn’t care who they were, whether 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 it was too dark to safely play outside.
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, colour and decorate hundreds of eggs in various colours. This was understandably only a Christian tradition, but our lovely Muslim neighbours would cook and colour some eggs for their children too; they didn’t want their children to miss out on all the fun that we were having.
We, too, used to sometimes go to their homes for the evening feasts after their fasts during Ramadan. We all absolutely loved it. It was such a special occasion 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 high 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. We used to stay in the river until our lips were blue and our teeth were chattering uncontrollably. We climbed the ancient land dividing stone walls, which would sometimes crumble under our feet, crawling with adders and lizards. My friends and I would say to our parents that we’d be playing just outside, but really we’d go into the forest, climb our majestic mountain of a hill, & cross the old train tracks, then explore the caves, with our arms linked together. Sometimes we’d light a fire and pretend that we were sending smoke signals to our friends in the neighbouring villages. We’d walk through the village, hungry, and we’d ask our elderly neighbours for a slice of bread. The bread was always given to us with love and generosity, handed over into our little hands by these rough, hardened, hard working hands. The same hands that built their homes, grew their food, bred their livestock…yet they would handle and caress their grandchildren with such care and gentleness, as though they were made of the most precious silk.
In the late summer, we would gather together and light a big roaring fire. We’d go into our neighbours’ corn fields in the evenings and steal loads of corn, then we’d roast them in the embers of our fire. The corn cooked this way is the sweetest, they say. If it was a clear night, one of our friends would bring binoculars out and we would watch the Moon through them. Because we had virtually no light pollution, the clarity of the Moon was amazing! We could see the craters on it so clearly. Sitting by the fire used to bring out these yet to be discovered rock stars in us; we used to sing songs in English, pretending that we knew all the words, late into the evening. It was hilarious! Those truly were the times. 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.
During the winter we would mostly be sledging or building “igloos”. When the weather was bad, we would stay indoors and play card games, dominoes or Ludo type games. We were never bored.
When we were growing up, my parents generally separated people into these groups:
Dobri ljudi – Good people, kindhearted 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 never trusted the lazy ones. 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.
When the general world talks about how the conflict in Bosnia started, they would say that the people of Bosnia hated each other all the time and that’s why they went to war.
This simply wasn’t true, as I hope you can see from my stories from this time. 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 wars 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 & moral values. There will always be leaders and there will always be followers; and we need them both. People need to be able to be free to be who they want to be, without having to fit a general mould.