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1. 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; perhaps 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 ten year old 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 standing tall, beaming with happiness and pride 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, almost exactly eight months later.
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 outspoken nature, 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; his 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 who hardly ever slept, I was incredibly needy, and I cried 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, which was getting very badly knotted because of my wild ways. It desperately needed cutting.
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, with abundance of empathy, 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, goats, cows, shire horses, pigs and poultry. We were completely self-sufficient, nothing was ever thrown away. We used, reused, wore, altered, fixed 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 1930s 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 house shapes on the dry ground, out of twigs, sticks and stones. The linden flowers smelled so beautifully. It’s such a sweet, summery smell that I will never forget. 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; full of life! In the autumn, the brightest and the deepest shades of fire caress the whole valley. And in winter…in winter the hills and the mountains are covered in this shimmery, unspoiled white snow which looks magical, inviting you to play in the winter’s sun. And, yet, the hills and the cliffs of the valley would intimidate you under the moonlight. At times, we’d hear wolves’ howls echoing throughout the valley; this used to scare the bejesus out of me! 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, 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 personal tragedies and losses.
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. He used to love oranges. 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. After he was buried, apparently I didn’t want to go home, I wanted to stay with him, and sit by his grave.
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. This was the first winter without grandad. This bundle of joy, 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 for some reason, only known to the mind of a young child, I decided to spread the toothpaste 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; as you do! 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 very 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, when he was already much taller than me, I would try and launch myself at him, but he would just calmly put his hand on my head firmly and keep me at arm’s length. Even then, I’d still try 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. 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.

~Adventures on the farm~

As well as running the farm, 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 put away her glamorous clothes & start working on the farm.
Our granny looked after us when our parents worked. She looked after us 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, or 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, wipe the floors clean with an old towel and then I’d 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 with 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 the whole hamlet. “You never know, someone might stop by for lunch. You must always be prepared for unexpected guests.”, she used to say. She was a tough, outspoken woman, but she cared deeply for everyone. Every now and again, she would ask my auntie to take some food across the road, to our neighbours. She would never admit it, but she felt a duty of care towards our elderly neighbours. She was stronger and fitter than them, she cared for them, therefore she felt that it was her duty to look after 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 mischief.
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 many apple 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 to plan battles against the boys with, and she needed a well-behaved girlie girl; therefore, we never became close friends. Also, her mother didn’t approve of my wild ways.
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 strip of rubber, cut out of my father’s truck’s inner tube, that I would steal from the garage. I know; I was very 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 evenings were spent standing by the cookers making jams & cordials. 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 winter days. 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 take my makeshift wedding dress off & I’d 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 a bit carried away; 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 boots in it! They were brand new, Italian, brown suede, over the knee 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! 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 in the “shabby chic” state that they were in. She absolutely screamed murder and started chasing me around the cottage! My poor granny tried so hard to protect me and she absolutely insisted that she wore them to the barn herself! 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 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. 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 it. 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; his jaw locked! 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 in 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 and killed by bear. 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 sadly never fully appreciated the beauty of it all, 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.

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2. Excuse me, comrade teacher!

In September 1984, I learnt that the wild ones were few and far between.

“A woman’s education is her power, her security and her voice. Education will be the making of you. Education will open many doors for you and it will give you financial independence. Your power will come from your knowledge. But your education will not be a given, you will have to work very hard for it. It is not the intelligent and the very clever ones who achieve great things in life, it is those who work very hard for it.”

My father’s words.

Our two cottages had these traditional Serbian, locally hand made wooden “vitrines” (similar to a Welsh Dresser) each, which proudly showed off the works of Ivo Andrić, Sigmund Freud, Tolstoy, Pushkin & Dostoevsky. One of my chores was to polish the books once a week. I’d dress up, put my mum’s high heels on and I’d polish away. I used to love opening the books; I’d imagine the world within them. I’d inhale their scent of mystique and I’d look at all the pictures for ages. I’d pretend that I could read, making up words and saying them out loud as I turned the silky pages.

Education was a topic discussed very often by my family. We were always told that it was one of the most important things in our lives. With good education, our opportunities were endless. My grandmother was the most intelligent woman I knew, my youngest uncle was a doctor and a few of my father’s other siblings were highly educated.

But my father and my mother weren’t; they had sacrificed their further education to protect the farm and support others around them. They had worked incredibly hard to support my father’s siblings, who were already at university by the time my grandfather died. My parents are a true example of successful people whose education came from their hard work, travel and clever networking. I firmly believe that one doesn’t have to have a degree to call oneself educated. “Always surround yourself with people smarter than you.”, they’d say to me.

I was the first one of the grandchildren to go to school. I felt this huge pressure; a lot was expected of me. Perhaps I felt intimidated, or perhaps I feared whether I would be able to fill the boots of these high achievers; I definitely feared.

I remember telling my mum that I wanted to stay on the farm forever. I was so worried about her being lonely. My childish mind misunderstood a mother’s strength. “I have seen how much Baba misses her children. I don’t want you to miss me too. I don’t want to leave you.” But she calmly reassured me that our bond would never break & that she would always be with me. As much as everyone loved our farm and our wonderful wild, organic life we were living, farming is an exceptionally physically hard life, therefore our parents wanted a better life for us, a physically easier life than them. They wanted us to travel and see the world too.

For the first time, I felt this unsettling feeling deep inside my tummy; I felt what I now know was childhood anxiety. I didn’t want to leave the safety net of my family. I also feared that I wouldn’t belong. I wanted to stay wild and free forever, but I had to venture into the world of “comrades” instead.

Whether I liked it or not, It was time for me to fight and withstand the wrath of communism and the cast iron rules of my school.

My new school rucksack was ready and heavy; it was full of beautifully smelling new books wrapped in crisp brown paper, new notepads and a massive pencil case packed with all the pencils that I might need in my first year. Mum was always so thoughtful and generous.

I was fully armed with my carbon weapons of mass distraction.

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 small shop & a post office next to our school, which had the only working phone line in our village. This is where we used to go to phone family members who lived further away. The postman knew all the gossip!
I remember my first day of school so well; I was very nervous and excited to meet new friends, at the same time. 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’ French granddaughter. I had shiny new red shoes on and my jet black curly hair in pigtails, tied with red ribbons. I was ready. But my heart was breaking; I had to leave my brother behind on the farm. I was so worried that he’d be lonely as he was the youngest in our wild gang, 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. He was so kind, loving and helpful. He had a very strong sense of honesty and fairness. But I worried that he was too kind for his own good.

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. Johnny was our German Shepherd. He was amazing and so gentle with my brother and I; 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.

As much as I dreaded stepping into the cool & dark corridor of our school every day, I felt so happy that I was finally able to venture into our beautiful village on my own, more often. I loved our farm, but the village had a shop & the shop sold sweets. Up until then, I had only ever had home made sweets, cakes and halva; these new sweets were such a novelty to me. They were delicious! I was only ever allowed to buy just one a day. I still remember my brother and I going to the shop for the first time. Before we entered the shop, my brother took his shoes off. He was incredibly sweet, he worried that his muddy farm shoes would make their pristine floor dirty. As I write this, I am overwhelmed with such warmth, just thinking back of this cute black haired boy, who had the kindest dark brown eyes.

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 curriculum was very good, respected and varied; it would take me far.

I really wanted to make my mum and dad proud, but from the very beginning, I really struggled. My wild spirit was repeatedly being hushed and squashed. I struggled with communism, most 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. We had to be very careful about what we said. We were only allowed to express pure, blind & unquestionable loyalty to Tito and to communism. It saddened me deeply that we were not allowed to just be children, we had to conform to these brainwashing rules.
It would be unfair of me to say that this was all our teachers’ doing; 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. We had to be very careful about what we said, and who our friends were. 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. looking back, I would say fortunately we did not fit this iron mould.

I felt fearful and anxious 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 could do about that.
I also struggled with some of the girls in my class; some of them seemed to be so sensitive about anything and everything. They didn’t once want to jump over the school fences or make marble holes in the ground, with the heels of their shoes; they wanted to look presentable and pristine. However, much to my mother’s disappointment, I couldn’t care less how I looked. I just wanted to have fun, show off my strength and my skill of climbing trees, and of course, I’d arm wrestle the boys. Actually, I pretty much thought of myself as a boy, a tomboy, therefore the girls annoyed me. I found them rather inefficient. It wasn’t their fault, I liked boys better; a lot actually. This love of 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 father, however, refused to be a member of any communist party. He had inherited and owned a lot of land, of which he felt very protective about. He also did not wish to be constrained by anyone or any country. When it comes to my parents, 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 father was 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, not my dad. Mum became a member of a communist party, in order to get a state job. If one didn’t have this little red membership booklet, which meant that one “belonged”, then one was unemployable.

Our father refused to belong. He founded his own private transport company, as well as having the farm. The 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 and further, 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 very familiar sound of the truck’s engine. I remember lying in their bed, snuggled up, watching my mum’s silhouette waiting for our dad at the window, with the hills in the background. She would wait up late 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. It 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 very small. He was a feisty little bugger.
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. However, 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. But we had to keep many secrets. Too many times, uniformed men would turn up at our door, wanting to know what our dad was up to, or where he was. My parents gave me strict instructions that I was not allowed to mention where he was. Because dad didn’t belong, he was seen as a threat to the brainwashed system.

We had always been Serbian Orthodox Christians, therefore we still joyfully celebrated Christmas, Easter and our family’s saint day, traditionally called slava. Our family’s saint day was St Nicholas. However, because of mum’s belonging, we had to hide that we celebrated any religious occasions, which of we were very fond and proud of. This was particularly hard, because all of these beautiful celebrations were part of our heritage, and those were traditions which had been passed on from one generation to another. We had to put thick blankets up on the windows, so nobody could possibly see what we were up to. We were not allowed to mention this to our friends, or to anyone at school.

It took me a long time to get used to the school rules. 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, too many for their liking. 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! I think what you are doing is criminal! You will practically use US, children, as free, child labour! This is shocking. You cannot exploit us! We are not strong enough to carry this out. I refuse to do this.”
Our teacher just covered his face with his hands, 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. I was hoping that at least one child would support me in this, but the silence continued.
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, he was clenching his jaw, but his poker face stayed firmly on. 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 dig a bit more where necessary, 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!”
Oh my goodness, 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 bloody killing me!
After the final bell rang that day, 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 our 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 objected! How can I now expect anyone else to help?!”

My bottom lip wobbled.
He paused, trying to suppress a smile.
“Go…Make yourself useful! Go, and… feed the chickens!”
And that was that. Once dad had 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 in my forties, 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.

 

3. End Of An Era.

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.

 

8. The first exodus.

Promises in hope.

In February 1993 was when some of my childhood friends had to leave; 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. Every dark corner & every shadow were scary.

Our dad came home one late afternoon, we were so happy to see him! 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, he just said: “You go, say your goodbyes, make sure they all have a lovely time. Make memories.”

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; their eldest sister is married to a Serb. 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.

By this point, the “fighters” had all left long time ago. Everyone knew who they were and their families had left too. The people left behind were mere civilians, mostly elderly, women and children.

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. I was, I knew that our lives were never going to be the same again.

It was a beautiful moonlit, crisp winter’s 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, the way we were. We hugged each other tightly and we said our goodbyes.

I went home to my family, hugged my mum and cried. We both felt fear. Will we be next?

Dad wasn’t at home, he and a few neighbours went to say goodbye to their friends too. They were all 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 still only a child, and 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. 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. Mum & dad also gave away some shoes & boots they had leftover in their shop.

Eventually we all made our way to the bridge; there were two large parking spaces on either side of it, where two coaches and a handful of small trucks stood. The morning was a freezing, misty one.

I remember I stood there in disbelief. I looked at our beautiful hills covered in snow, our river steaming away; I was in denial. It all looked so serene. “This can’t be happening!” But it was. Our valley stood still as the cries and sobs echoed through it. 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 Serbian 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 homes, their friends and everything and everyone their children had ever known, to move back to our village, where they were deemed safe. They were scared and scarred, for life. 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. My once full of fun & joy, uncles and aunts, were these somber people who continuously reminisced over their lost homes & over their lives they were never going live again. This kind of trauma alters you for the rest of your life.

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.

My mum was holding my sister who was crying because she was too cold. Mum carried her home, with tears in her eyes too.

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 coach doors closed, and they were gone. Forever. I stood there for ages, waving. The silence fell upon us.

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; 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. 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 roaring corner, enveloped by pastures and a mixture of deciduous and evergreen trees. From this corner, our river ferociously starts its journey. Our river Pliva has three sources; they all meet together to form this stunning mountain river. It is truly a magical sight. On a quiet night, you can easily hear its roar.

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 flowing 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 & then I’d scare my friends from underneath it; devil child!

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, our father was too, but he had no proof. But, you see, he didn’t have time for this bureaucracy, 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. The priest couldn’t argue with that, so we just carried on with the ceremony. I remember this occasion so well, it was comical.

To the right of the bridge, you can see my old school, with a small football pitch at the back of it. 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 the 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 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 colour 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 Šipovo. Šipovo 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. 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. They lived in town, not far from our school. 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 refused to accept his death, for a long time.

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 very 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.” My bottom lip wobbled, I cried tears of happiness. My dad apparently, somehow through his wheeling and dealing, 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.