13. I cherish hope, deeply.

“I have always believed that hope is that stubborn thing inside us that insists, despite all the evidence to the contrary, that something better awaits us so long as we have the courage to keep reaching, to keep working, to keep fighting.” B.O.

Stopanja, Serbia, September 1995.

The night I accidentally found out the fate of my family, I spent sleepless. My auntie Vera stayed with me most of the night. She comforted me and tried her best to help me see that what had happened so far was the best possible scenario, in a terrible nightmare.

“Don’t worry about your grandmother. She’s a strong, strong woman. She’s been through worse in the WW2. She will pull through this and one day you’ll tell her story.” I will never forget her words. Never.

I knew that Baba was strong, resourceful and resilient, but I didn’t have the courage to think that I’d see her again. I was too afraid to trust that the Forces would keep her alive. But this wonderfully strong woman, my auntie Vera, stopped me in my tracks. Ever since I remember, she would always tell us off if she thought that we, the children, were unfair or unkind to one another, or if she thought that we were being too negative.

She told me to believe, fully believe, in good people of this world. I tried to believe, I really tried.

I cried that night a lot. I tried to be brave in front of my auntie, but once I was on my own, in my bedroom, I wept silently in the dark. I felt utterly powerless, there was nothing I could do to help anyone. I wished that I was with my family, I wished that I too shared their fears and their plight for safety as refugees. We were now ALL refugees and that realisation really upset me. I can’t tell you how guilty I felt; there was me in this new world of mine, peacefully sleeping, blissfully unaware of what was happening to my loved ones. I understand, I know; for my parents, I was one less child to worry about. But I just wished to be with them, throughout it all.

All I wanted was to be in one safe place with my whole family. And I prayed and prayed to God asking him to keep my granny and my daddy safe. I also missed my home; our house that mum and dad worked so hard for. Our home truly was our castle, our fort; it kept us and our neighbours safe for so long.

I eventually fell asleep, exhausted.

But it’s strange, after the initial pain, fear & tears, I developed some kind of numbness to it all. As young as I was, I remember this feeling all too well.

I felt as though I was floating through this safe & normal life that I was suddenly living in. I had all I needed, in material sense. What ever my two cousins had, I had too; my uncle and aunt made sure that I always had everything that I could possibly need.

For the next few days, when I was not at school, my uncle and aunt took me to see all the beautiful places in and near Kruševac, to help me take my mind off things. This part of Serbia is incredibly rich culturally & is a huge part of Serbian heritage. I was in awe of it all. One of my favourite films from my childhood is a film called Battle of Kosovo & the church from this movie was actually built in Kruševac between 1375-1378. The church is called Lazarica Church. When I found out what happened to my family, I asked my aunt to take me to this church.

During all of the crazy, when we lived in Bosnia after the fall of communism, going to my local church and being silent for a few hours whilst listening to our priest sing in the Old Church Slavic language, was my saviour in some of the toughest of times. Different people had different ways of coping, and this was mine. These few hours of, meditation I suppose, used to recharge my batteries and give me peace and solace. I wasn’t overly religious and I am still not, but I do like the idea of these places of worship where, the way I explain it to my sons, people go and think nice things about their loved ones and where people can hope freely. I cherish hope, deeply.

Walking into the Lazarica Church gave me my peace & more. I remember I walked in and I froze. I felt that all my suppressed emotions came to surface, but without fear or tears. I felt content and I felt safe. There was something so majestic about being in this ancient church, surrounded by these centuries old icons and frescoes. They were beautiful and reassuring to my young mind, who just needed to see these wonderful pieces of art which have over the centuries seen weddings and funerals, countless blessings and prayers, but most of all they told me that nothing lasts forever.

And that is when I made a decision to start believing that this horrid civil war would not last forever and that I would be with my family again very soon.

Statistically, I thought, not everyone is bad; I kept telling myself that there are more good people, in this world of ours, than bad. My old, naïve, almost childish sense of hope started appearing again, which was so uplifting.

My days carried on as normal; my ever so selfless relatives, my new school friends & my teachers made sure that I was very well looked after and they kept me preoccupied with normal teenage activities and shenanigans. At that point, I was the only “fresh” refugee in my new school.

My faithful friend Zorica kept picking me up in her car and taking me to meet our school friends and she regularly took me to the most popular student digs. This is when I started smoking. I had always been, very passionately, against smoking, but I suppose I so desperately wanted to fit in in my new environment. Smoking didn’t suit me, or I was so bad at it; I coughed quite a lot! My mum would later tell me that when I smoked, I looked like a “chicken with tits” (ha!), ie. I was always so fit & healthy, and the cigarettes did not suit me or my image at all!

Zorica was a gentle soul who was so generous and kind to me. She truly took me under her wing. She made sure that I went to every party she went to and she introduced me to her family and friends too. I had such trust in her; we came from two different worlds, but we had very similar moral values and we were both incredibly close to our families. My uncle and aunt valued her sincerely. I will never forget her generosity and kindness.

On the 16th or the 17th September 1995, I am not entirely sure which date unfortunately, after having a particularly fun day at school, I was on my way back home on the vibrant school bus. We used to have so much fun on this bus. My new friends found my Bosnian Serbian accent amusing and at times funny, so quite often they would tease me and teach me how to speak in the Southern Serbian accent and I would teach them to speak in my native accent, which was hilarious when they did it. We laughed a lot that evening.

When I got off the bus, I felt happy and elated. I had had a very good day. But as I crossed the road, this curly headed little angel ran towards me! I remember, I was in such disbelief. It was my baby sister! It was my beautiful baby sister running towards me and shouting my name through happy tears on her face. I picked her up and swung her around me and then hugged her so tightly that she almost breathlessly said: “You are squashing meeeeee.”

I just couldn’t stop looking at her and checking to see, to convince myself that she was well and in one piece. She was happy and smiling at me through tears. She was almost four; so cute, with big, big black eyes!

I looked up and I saw my wonderful, brave mama and my brother, standing near by and quietly observing our sweet reunion. I ran towards them and hugged them so tightly too! They were here, with me. They were safe! They were alive and safe!

My uncle and aunt tearfully ushered us in, into the warmth of their restaurant, then upstairs into their home. We had so much to talk about. My mum was very chatty, it was her way of coping with it all, to talk it through, to get it all off her scared heart. But my brother was so quiet; painfully quiet. He didn’t want to talk about their exodus as a final act, he’d quietly say that we’d go back very soon and that this was all temporary. He said that dad would come & take us home. His words were met with concerned silent smiles.

My mum, uncle Bogdan, aunt Vera and I stayed up most of the night. I sat on my mum’s lap for a while. I know, I was eighteen, this might seem strange to you, but I often used to sit on her lap and cuddle her. Even now, when I see her after a few months, I still sit on her lap and we laugh how I no longer have a bony bum like I used to, instead, I now have plenty of padding! My mum gives the best cuddles.

That evening I didn’t want to leave her side. Eventually, I snuggled up with my baby sister, right next to our mum. My sister fell asleep in my arms and stayed there. When I later lowered her down into her new bed, she instantly woke up and pulled me closer; she asked me to stay. I stayed with her until she was firmly asleep.

I remember holding her very tightly next to me and smelling her hair. Her hair smelt of Becutan, this baby shampoo that was widely available all over old Yugoslavia. It is such a distinct, beautiful smell; fresh and aromatic, I could smell it now. Once I was confident that she wouldn’t wake up, I slowly pulled my arms from underneath her. She slept so peacefully, without moving or making much noise. To this day, twenty four years later, she still sleeps so quietly.

Mum later told me that as soon as they arrived, auntie Vera prepared the bathrooms for them and gave them fresh clothes to wear. My family had been wearing the same clothes for days, they had nothing else left.

As we were chatting away, my brother slowly withdrew as he just wanted to be on his own. He’s always been our strong one, our hard working, kind stoic young man of the house, but this type of trauma is too much even for the strongest of us. Our little village, our home and his friends were everything to him. He very quickly retreated and fell asleep. He was exhausted.

I didn’t go to school the next day as I just wanted to hold them all, close to me. We went for walks and this is when mum told me more about their harrowing ordeal. She was worried about dad so much and we all hoped and prayed that he and Baba would be safe and alive.

What I found very strange and I remember feeling very guilty about this; I could no longer cry. I was worried that my family might think that I was cold or that I didn’t care, but I just simply could not bring it all up to surface any more. There was too much there, for such a young mind. My brother didn’t cry either. He didn’t say much for the first few weeks. But I shouldn’t have been worried, our family didn’t judge us or question our lack of tears, they understood and they supported us. But I know our mum was worried, especially about him. It is incredibly important to talk trauma out; loving, family talking therapy is so important. A loving family is a place of trust, help and unconditional love and support. A loving family gives you a wonderfully strong foundation in life and should be our first port of call, when we need solace and support the most.

As I am venturing into my fifth decade, knowing that I have my loving, crazy, loud family behind me, even though they are over a thousand miles away, gives me an enormous amount of strength and confidence. They gave me a base, a strong base, and wings.

I strongly believe that the reason we suffer from so many mental health illnesses nowadays is because we live such busy and insular lives and we simply don’t have this strong family or community support network that we used to have. Women in our village used to get together once a week to roast coffee, or make quilts every autumn, or they would help each other weed their crops; they used to spend time together and talk their worries away. Men used to go hunting together, farm together or they would help each other build their houses. They too would talk amongst themselves, with the help of a few beers. These were our regular counselling sessions.

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A few weeks went by, and we organically just carried on. A few of our friends from our home village started contacting us, which was so lovely. Most of our old neighbours and friends had moved to Vojvodina, the northern part of Serbia. Where we were, there were no other recent refugees.

Hearing our friends was wonderful, but there was this one family, old neighbours of ours, that kept bloody phoning my mum; they thrived on bad news. They told us that there were rumours going around that some people had seen our dad; that he had gone grey and had lost a lot of weight. This was so hurtful. I couldn’t understand why they’d tell us this. Surely they knew that this would upset us. Argh! This used to make me so cross!

By the time I had heard my father’s voice, two months had passed. Two whole months without speaking to him and without seeing him. I worried so much, but I always felt such pride when I thought of him. He was our strong, flawed, cheeky super hero.

I remember coming back from the local park one sunny afternoon when I saw my mum waving at me frantically and telling me to hurry up and run across the road. She said that dad was on the phone. I absolutely raced up the steps to speak to him, I was breathless. This was the first time that I had spoken to him, since I had left our village. I broke down, I couldn’t speak. I wanted to ask him so many things, but I remember just managing to say that we missed him and that I was well. He promised me that he’d find a way of finding Baba. I told him that I loved him and then our sister took the phone from me because she wanted to tell him so many exciting things that she got up to. I wished I had told my dad so much more, but I choked up.

Apart from this phone call from our dad, there was one more call we received, which was completely unexpected and one of the most memorable ones! It came from Croatia. Our wonderful friends from Pljeva, who emigrated to Croatia during the first exodus, somehow found our number in Serbia, from our mutual friends who lived in Austria! They phoned us one evening to see if were well and to offer us their help. They just wanted to let us know that they would do their absolute best to help us if we needed any help. This phone call left us all feeling so happy and content; our faith in good people was yet again reinforced. This was a true, pure proof of the fact that friendships & love do not recognise borders or wars. This was a wonderful example of how good people are good everywhere, in every country. This also reinforced my undying hope. In 1993, when they left their homes, we made our promises that we’d stay friends forever. We never broke our promises.

A couple of weeks after my loved ones arrived, the rest of my mother’s family joined us. Our maternal grandparents had to flee for safety in the end too, together with our uncle Stevo’s family; our aunt Nada and her three young children. I was so happy to see them, I had missed them all so much. But my very expressive excitement was ill timed. They didn’t want to be there, they wanted to be back in their homes. I can’t tell you how hard it was for us to accept that might never go home again. My grandparents felt the brunt of this the most. My beautiful grandmother kept saying that she’d give anything for her and granddad to “stand on their own piece of Earth again”, to sleep in their own home again.

So there we were, fifteen of us living in one house, seven adults and eight children and our uncle Bogdan and auntie Vera fed us & clothed us all, on their own. They gave us everything they possibly could materially, but most of all they gave us comfort and safety. But this was one crazy, buzzing house!

We loved having our grandparents with us. They were loving and warm and funny, but I remember how hard they tried to hide from us how homesick they were and how worried they were about their son, uncle Stevo, who was still in the war. But children are these amazing little creatures. They created magic wherever they were. They felt safe and secure in their new home, so they made the most of it, therefore creating fun and mischief around us. We celebrated our sister’s birthday party in our new home; auntie Vera made sure that she had presents to open and a big birthday cake with pink candles on it. Our sister turned four. Our granny knitted her two new cardigans and our granddad made her a little wooden stool of her own, they had nothing else to give, but they made sure they gifted her something. I loved them so much! They usually spent their days either helping out in the restaurant or playing with their grandchildren. But once the children were in bed, granny and granddad spent their every evening watching the news. As much as they loved spending their time with us, they just wanted to go home.

In the third week of November, 1995, dad phoned again. He phoned and his voice was emotional and breaking up.

“I have found your Baba. She’s alive. She’s alive and well and still has a cow and a few chickens left. She has food! But…”, there was a lengthy pause, “…our home is gone. It’s been destroyed. We no longer have a home.”

Dad explained that he had been trying to find ways of getting through to the “the other side” to find out what happened to Baba. His only hope was his best friend from Croatia, S. Dad had been looking for him for a couple of months and when he finally tracked him down, S. and his family were living in Germany. When dad phoned him, S. told our dad that he couldn’t go and look for Baba himself, as he no longer lived in Bosnia, but that he might know someone who could. A relative of his.

This wonderful person that S. got in touch with, risked his life and went to look for this old Serbian woman, who was essentially the enemy’s mother, just so that my family could have some closure. He didn’t know whether he’d find her alive or dead. I can’t emphasise enough how much risk this man put himself through, just to help us. When he found her, he didn’t speak to her, to protect himself, but he observed her from a distance. He had found out that there was one more lady who was found in the village, but sadly she was later found killed. But Baba was alive and she appeared well and working hard. He saw her gathering and carrying some firewood.

I am so sad that I will never be able to tell this man personally how much his effort and bravery meant to our family, to me.

Thanks to him, we found out that our wonder woman was alive and well.

Our Baba, who was seventy four at this point, was still alive!

What a force!

11. Broken line.

It took me more than twenty years to sit down with my father to talk about the Great Rescue. For a long time, he kept saying, either that he couldn’t remember, or that he didn’t want to talk about it. But a few weeks ago, we finally sat down and slowly recounted the events that made some of the biggest impact on him and our family.

The journey to freedom was a long and slow one. Everyone was trying to escape. Dad told me that there was an eight-year-old boy who drove a tractor with a trailer, full of people, rescuing his family. He said that there were small cars on the road with eight or nine people crammed into them; these too were mostly driven by young boys or women. There was only one way out. Everyone was heading in the same direction, a massive convoy was formed by the rivers of people, like tributaries joining the main stem; the road to Jajce. There are approximately twenty-eight kilometres between Pljeva and Jajce, but it took my family ten hours to cover this short distance. All along, all they could hear were distant shots being fired and explosions getting louder and louder, as the shells were falling closer and closer. There truly was no time to lose.

My father was very conscious of the fact that he had his hungry, tiny daughter in the cabin, his wife and his son cramped at the back of the lorry, a cracked windscreen and artillery shrapnel imbedded in the lorry and the tires; he was worried whether the tires would carry him for long enough to get them to safety. He had no time to stop and check it all. He had to keep going. His mother was always on his mind. He could not stop thinking about her; whether she was still alive or not.

Somewhere along the way, they came across a family in distress on the side of the road; their car had broken down. They were a husband and wife and two young children. My father had to stop, he had to help them out. He, as quickly as he could, got the winch out and attached their car to the lorry; they then very swiftly moved on. They had to, however, stop and start so many times. The road to Jajce was quite windy and narrow at times; to their right was a large, deep lake, so they didn’t have much space for error. Dad was under enormous pressure to keep all these people alive. Adding this new family, he was now taking one hundred and seventy-eight people to safety. He said he had to act, react and think very fast.

Finally, after hours of moving very slowly, he came across a clearing on the road, so as soon as he could, he accelerated as fast as he safely could. He was desperate to get further away from the artillery shells falling. As he sped away and as he came around a bend, in his rear-view mirror he saw the car that was attached to his lorry swing around his lorry. He says he felt sick with guilt and worry. In the moments of fear and crazy, when he sped away, he completely forgot that they were attached to him; he completely forgot that they were there! Luckily, they were all in one piece and safe. Albeit, a little shaken.

As dad was telling me this, he got a bit choked up. “It was tough…it was tough seeing that. The image of the car swinging behind me…still haunts me.”

My sister was just waking up from her nap when they finally arrived in Jajce. Dad put the music back on for her and told her that they were all going for a mini holiday. She believed him and squealed with excitement; she loved the family times together, especially if dad was with them too.

Once dad knew they were safe to stop, he jumped out of his cabin and made sure that everyone was well first. He reunited my sister with our mum and our brother first, before he would then go off to find out where they would all be staying. I was told that our sister clung onto our mum like for dear life!

They all waited anxiously for our dad to come back.

When dad came back, he informed them all that they will all be staying in an emergency accommodation for the night. The word going around was that they would be safe there for the time being. Mum now says that they were all still full of hope that they’d be able to go back to their homes very soon. That this was all just temporary.

My heart breaks for my brother. He was always our home boy. He never liked going away from our beautiful village, his friends and family. Also, out of all of us, he was the most attached to our grandmother. He could not bear the thought of anything bad happening to her. Mum says that he felt very anxious and worried about his friends who were at the back of the lorry with him, so he decided to go outside to see if he could find them, to make sure they were ok. The area of Jajce, where they were all staying was quite hilly. As he walked around, an artillery shell fell near him, slightly higher up from where he was standing and threw him down on the ground, covering him with gravel and earth, but thank God he was not hurt. He was only fifteen at the time. My mum and dad were worried sick, but he quickly managed to get up and go back to where they were. He hugged our sister tightly and sat down in silence. He’s always been incredibly tough, even as a little boy. Quiet, but tough.

That evening, they all slept on some sponge mats, nestled next to each other like sardines. Once everyone was taken care of and safely tucked away, my dad had some time to reflect on everything. He was so glad that he risked everything to go back to our village. It wasn’t worth thinking about what if he hadn’t. But, will they ever go back? Will they still have a home, even if they go back? Will his mother live? She had suffered from heart disease all her life; will she have enough medication and food? After a lot of thinking, he knew that there was only one thing that he had to do; he had to go back to get his mother. But how? He decided to allow himself some time to rest and sleep first. He will come up with a solution in the morning.

The next morning, when they woke up, everything was so quiet. The explosions had stopped, and the shells had stopped falling. There was confusion amongst our people. Is it safe to go back? Should they go back?

After some careful negotiating, dad managed to borrow a car from our aunt; I remember this car so well. It was a brown metallic Opel Ascona. Dad had a plan.

Through his wheeling and dealing, he managed to get a camouflage jacket that belonged to the Forces, he put it on and set off for Pljeva.

During his solo journey, he had to go through various checkpoints, but luckily for him, he was a well-known figure; once he explained to them why he had to go back, they let him through every time. The soldiers and the police at these checkpoints did however warn him that it wasn’t safe to go back, but there was no telling him; once he decided something, there WAS no going back.

All this time though, he was torn, because he left his family behind to get his mother back to safety. One thing that gave him hope for the safety of his family, still with fear mind, was that my brother could drive the lorry. Dad had taught him to drive a while back, as if he knew that my brother might have to one day.

Before my father carried on telling me what happened next, he had to stop. He had to compose himself. He said that he just didn’t know what was waiting for him in our village. Will he find his mother alive? Will he go back alive? So much was at risk, it was incredible.

As he was driving along the road, awaiting an ambush at every corner or a bush, he couldn’t help but notice how quiet it was. There was no gun fire, there were no explosions to be heard, there was no smoke to be seen. This gave my father a false sense of security. He was very confused. Does this mean that they could all go back home?

Luckily for him, he came across a very welcome distraction. On the windy road to Pljeva, he came across a lone pedestrian. One of his old friends was coming back from the war, hoping to find his family alive. Luckily our dad was able to tell him that his family is safe and alive; this man’s teenage son managed to take his family to safety in their tractor.

They decided to carry on anyway. Dad was worried about all the livestock that was left in the stables and barns. All the cows and horses would have been in their pens without food and water. Dad and his friend stopped when ever they could to release the animals. Once the animals were free, they could then freely graze and drink water from the streams and the river. But once they did what they could, dad had to make his was to baba Ljuba’s house, his mother’s house. He and his friend parted ways. His friend went off to his little hamlet to try and help the animals there too.

Once dad was on his own, he put his foot down. As he drove very fast through the village, at one junction he nearly crashed into the Force’s car! There were four soldiers inside it. He said that his heart was absolutely pounding, and he swears he held his breath until they drove off in the opposite direction. He casually greeted them by raising his hand up and carried on driving as though nothing out of the ordinary had happened! He says that the fact he was wearing the Forces jacket, with their distinct camouflage pattern on, saved him. He was counting on the fact that they couldn’t possibly have known every single one of their soldiers. It worked! This time.

He finally arrived at baba Ljuba’s house! He ran towards her front door and quietly and cautiously called her name. She answered; she was in. She was alive!

He embraced her and held her gently with such a relief that she was well and alive. She was a frail, petite woman. He told her that the rest of the family was safe and that he came to rescue her, to take her to safety too. But to his horror, she straight away refused to leave, she still insisted that she wanted to stay where she was. She kept saying to him that he must go and be with his family and that she was safe where she was, she didn’t want to leave. But, she too was confused by the silence in the village and the surrounding area. Because of her heart disease, all her life she avoided any unnecessary travelling, she found any form of transport rather distressing and always felt ill after it. So, you can imagine, she was adamant that she was staying put unless she absolutely had to leave. She asked my father to call the RS military headquarters to find out exactly what was happening and if it was safe for her to stay, therefore safe for all of them to come back to our village. Dad told her that he just saw the Forces’ soldiers drive through the village, telling her that she would not be safe to stay in her home on her own, but she still insisted on him phoning to find out first, before they made any further decisions.

After “exchanging words” with his ever so strong-willed mother, trust me, she was the strongest woman I have ever known and the most stubborn too, he agreed to phone them and find out whether she could stay, even though he knew that there was NO way he would leave her behind again!

As my grandmother went to pass the phone to him, she tripped and ripped the phone wire out of the socket! Her phone was this old fashioned, beige, rotary dial phone.
Dad could not believe it. He just could not believe it!

He had to think fast. After some expletive words, he begged his mother to come into the car with him so that they could go to our house and phone the headquarters from there. To his horror and dismay, she still refused. She asked him to go and speak to the headquarters and come back for her, she would in the mean time get a few of her belongings together and wait for him. He begged her again and pleaded, but sadly she refused to get into the car. Dad had no other option than to leave. His time was running out too. By this point, he should have been on his way back to Jajce already. He quickly got into the car and drove back down the village, to our house.

As he parked outside of our house, he quickly popped into our cellar; he grabbed a hessian bag and opened our big chest freezer, he put as much frozen meat as he possibly could into the bag, thinking of all the hungry mouths waiting for him in Jajce. Once he finished, he gently put the bag of meat in the car, conscious of the fact that he must not make much noise. He then cautiously made his way up the steps. As he reached the top of the stairs, he took a good look of the beautiful hills in the background. Only the day before they were all running for their lives, and there he was back there again, hoping to hear the best news from the headquarters. In front of him was a wide field, full of autumnal corn, ready to be harvested.

Just as he was making his way into our house, he heard a commotion behind him and the next thing he knew, he was being shot at. As my father feared, he was finally being ambushed. He was so angry, the Forces camouflage jacket didn’t work after all. Someone was hiding in the cornfield and started rapidly shooting at him. As he tried to lay down, he could see the commotion getting closer to our house. He quickly got in, ran through the house and then he too had to jump off the balcony. That was his only way out. He was frightened and distraught. He could not go back to get his mother. As he was getting into the car, the shots were being directly fired at him. He started the engine and very quickly drove off feeling completely overwhelmed by emotions of rage, sadness, failure and loss. He was completely bereft.

He drove so fast back to Jajce, he says that he doesn’t remember much of the journey at all. All he could think about was his mother.

Unfortunately, on the way back, at one of the checkpoints, there was a changeover of the soldiers, they did not know him. As they searched him and his car, they discovered that he had a bag of meat in the car. As they thought that he had been looting, they took it off him.

He carried on his journey, not only without his mother, but now without the food for his family too.

As a parent myself, I cannot imagine not being able to feed my children. It is one of my biggest fears that my children will be malnourished as a result of a poor diet, but he had no choice. He no longer had anything to offer them.

Also, the pressure on him was immense! Out of all of his siblings, at that point, he was the only one who could have brought their mother to safety, yet for the second time he couldn’t. How he must have felt, I can’t even imagine.

Cathartic. Consequences of war & trauma.

Writing about Aleksandar’s death was very cathartic.

Twenty-four years have passed; discovering that it was all still so raw, was such a powerful and a sobering feeling. I felt very strongly that he was still very much part of me.

But I had to write about him. I had to finally tell my story. I had to tell the story of this beautiful human who was taken from us too soon, too young. I had to tell the story of hundreds of thousands of people from my home country, who have been through similar, and worse, far worse, and yet nobody hears about them.

It hurts me so much that nobody hears their voices. I have always wanted to write about my people, but I never had the courage to start. By my people, I mean the good, honest country people, not the country’s leaders or politicians.

My “awakening” came when I started studying to become a childminder in the UK. I had to study so much about trauma and how much childhood trauma affects our adult lives and how much infant and childhood trauma affects our brains. More often than not, trauma or abuse goes unreported.

I read so much about how much help there is available for our children in the UK and which agencies to contact if we suspect that a child is being abused or experiencing trauma. There are SO many amazing agencies in the UK, which is just wonderful, but there are hardly any in Bosnia.

My final push in my writing direction, came in September 2017; I received a call from my sister who was so distressed, she could barely speak. She is twenty five years old; she lives in Bosnia. She was our war baby. As a result of the times that she was born in, she too experienced a lot of trauma. After years of struggling, she had finally summoned the courage to seek counselling. She went to see a private counsellor and explained why she was there. This…man, then proceeded to ask her if she was a virgin. She was shocked and became very upset. He then lectured her on his religious basis; she ran out, crying.

I was furious and so upset for her. I felt so guilty that I didn’t have any means of helping her. I was angry.

I would love to set up a trust fund which would enable me to set up a counselling program for our veterans in Bosnia, their families and especially their children. I would be the happiest person alive if I succeeded in this.

I feel so strongly about counselling. Counselling has helped me immensely; I can’t advocate it enough. Trauma and bereavement counselling has been one of the hardest things I have ever had to do, and one of the best things in my life at the same time. My counselling has changed my life forever. It allowed me to heal, to properly say goodbye to my long lost loved ones, it allowed me to move on and have a proper closure. I am much nicer person now, thanks to my counselling.

If untreated, trauma leaves lifelong effects on a person and their loved ones around them.

Trauma ruined my paternal grandfather’s life, therefore subsequently affecting my father’s life, then mine.

My grandfather Stanko succumbed to his broken heart, years after he lost his first wife and a daughter during the WW2, and years after living through his war traumas. He never recovered. My father still doesn’t know what his father went through. I still don’t know what my father went through.
My grandfather died when he was only fifty-five, leaving seven children and a wife behind, my grandmother.

He was once a force to be reckoned with. He was a mayor, a politician, a land owner, a successful farmer…the list is big. He died just before my second birthday. Everyone tells me that he loved me so much and that he took me with him everywhere. I dream of him quite often. I dream of him sitting under our huge linden tree, on this bench that he made, I’m sitting on his lap. I dream that he’s telling me stories, but I never hear his voice. My father still has this bench. I sometimes dream of him calling my name from the top of this hill where our farm once was. I wish someone wrote his stories down.

This is my grandfather Stanko, in the middle.

In the absence of therapy or counselling, some men and women have resorted to alcohol. This is so common all over the world. Alcohol intoxication numbs their pain and the suffering temporarily. This eventually becomes an addiction. This absolutely breaks my heart.

These were once strong men and women. They had achieved so much. They managed to keep my parents’ generation fed and safe, as much as they could and whenever they could. They fought in WW2, they fought in the last civil war too. Yet, they are judged and ridiculed because they drink. They were seen as fools and ill-disciplined. They were seen as weak.

I worry that my father drinks too much too. I worry that he too will have a heart attack like his father did. My father was once a fit, strong man, who set up his own company against all the odds, he travelled the world. He was a game changer, ahead of his time. He was a successful businessman, a workaholic, a generous heart who employed people of all nationalities and backgrounds. He employed the misfits, the “fallen off the wagon” ones, he took a risk just give them a second chance. He let homeless young people sleep in our house or in his trucks. Don’t worry, he wasn’t stupid, he was very strict, they were all too scared of him to do anything stupid. He was the centre of my world.

He doesn’t travel any more. He retired early and handed everything over to my brother. He now breeds organic pigs, sheep and goats, on a much smaller scale than before. He helps my mum run their B&B and a small restaurant. He keeps himself busy, he’s always building something, extending buildings and outbuildings or making something out of wood. But he has regular nightmares and night sweats, he sometimes shakes violently in his sleep. He regularly shouts in his sleep too.

Our father has carried his traumas since he was a young boy; they just multiplied in the ‘90s.

When we were younger, I judged my father’s occasional angry outbursts. I judged him and at times I didn’t like him for this. I didn’t know.

Now that I am older, now that I have been through my own series of unfortunate events, I understand him so much more. He carried so much on his shoulders.

He is still this kindhearted, intelligent, full of knowledge and wisdom, selfless, charismatic, cheeky legend of a man, but I can tell you that he is a shadow of his formal self.

Because of the traumas that our grandparents experienced during the WW2, we have to understand that our parents could not have had balanced childhoods at all, which subsequently affected them as adults. Most likely they were frequently exposed to domestic violence as a result of this. Their parents were still suffering and in a sense, still broken. The two generations didn’t have time to heal; they first had to deal with the aftermath of the WW2 as well as having young families, and then boom! Another war happens.

A war doesn’t stop once the bullets stop falling. The war aftermath carries on for at least two generations. It destroys the economics and the infrastructure, which directly affects families, especially in the cities.

I remember, people went hungry, they took on any jobs, people got exploited, women got exploited, children got exploited. They lost their pride and their integrity just so that they could feed their families. They begged and pleaded.

These “exploiters” were the people that our father warned us about at the beginning of the war, they were the war profiteers. He made sure that we never had to go through this ourselves.

On top of all of this terrible hardship, there was this ever-present mental health stigma. If you sought medical help, you were seen as weak or crazy. When it comes to mental health, it was not and still is not acceptable to seek medical help, but it is acceptable however to suffer and make others around you suffer.

The other thing that seems to be socially acceptable in the Balkans, generally, is going to see a Serbian Orthodox priest, a Catholic priest or a Muslim imam for a confession. This confession is seen as a form of counselling. I understand this, this is how it’s always been done, this is what majority of people are comfortable with. I passionately support “It’s good to talk” campaigns, but these wonderful people also need expert help, they need medical help.

I am religious, but I see this as my personal choice and the way I view religion has nothing to do with anyone else. I personally believe that we are all equal and no priest or imam is a higher human being than us.

I do however believe that doctors, psychologists, psychiatrists have a lot more knowledge about mental health than we do. Who are we to question their many years of hard work, studying and dedication? Who are we, the ones who did not study human anatomy and human mind, to question their vast knowledge and expertise. I LOVE my country, but stigma has no place amongst modern humans.

I saw so much of this in Bosnia. I want to change it. I know, I understand the enormity of my dream, but I can start small. I can first start in my home town, and then expand my counselling mission further. I am terribly stubborn, and I can be pretty persuasive. I can do this!

It breaks my heart that our grandparents never healed. Our parents haven’t mentally healed either. Just as our parents were in their prime, on their way to recovery, this civil war happened. Another war in the Balkans. Again.

They didn’t stand a chance.

Yet, we judge them. We must not judge how they deal with their pain. It is their way of coping. If we can just get people to talk, to a mental health professional, I know this would help them move on and have closure.

They could then live much healthier lives. They would then have much more mental strength and resources to deal with their addictions. I want to help provide this support to my people.

I would do absolutely anything and I would speak to absolutely anyone, if this meant that we would be able to provide trauma, grief, bereavement & PTSD counselling.

These wonderful people have suffered too much for too long, they have carried this burden for too long. I would love to somehow help them release their lead balloons, help them have closure, help them put it all to rest and move on. They deserve a f***ing break!

There are many symptoms and effects of PTSD, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Please red these carefully:

“Symptoms of PTSD:

Persistent, Invasive, or Intrusive Symptoms – symptoms are connected to the precipitating trauma and begin after the event:
Intrusive, invasive, involuntary distressing memories of the events
Nightmares
Dissociative episodes (flashbacks) during which the individual feels they are re-experiencing the event
Prolonged emotional distress when faced with triggers of the trauma
Physiological reactions to triggers of the event
Avoidance Symptoms – these behaviours attempt to reduce the level of suffering of a person by avoiding triggers and memories of the event.
Avoidance (or attempts to avoid) people, places, activities, conversations, objections, and situations that may lead to disconcerting thoughts, feelings, or memories of the trauma
Efforts made to avoid anything that triggers distressing memories, feelings, or thoughts of the event
Negative Mood Symptoms – these symptoms begin with the event and worsen over time
Inability to remember parts of the traumatic event
Negative beliefs about oneself, others, or the world
Distorted thoughts about the trauma that lead to assigning blame for the event to themselves or another person
Constant negative mood state
Inability to feel pleasure
Feeling disconnected from others
Inability to feel positive emotions
Alterations in Arousal Symptoms:
Irritability
Angry outbursts without provocation
Recklessness
Self-destructive behaviour
Self-harm
Difficulty concentrating
Hyper-vigilance
Exaggerated startle response
Sleep problems
Other symptoms of PTSD may include:
Depersonalization: Feeling detached from your body, as though you’re looking down from above
De-realization: Feeling as if you’re walking on water, in a dream or alternate reality
Effects of PTSD
The effects of PTSD touch every area of an individual’s life leaving virtually nothing unscathed. The longer that PTSD exists without treatment, the greater the effects of PTSD on a person’s life. The most common effects of post-traumatic stress disorder may include:
Pseudo-hallucinations
Eating disorders
Paranoia
Difficulty regulating emotions
Inability to maintain stable relationships
Dissociative symptoms
Depression
Anger
Nightmares
Difficulty feeling emotions
Guilt
Sleep problems
Substance abuse
Social phobia
Difficulty maintaining job
Agoraphobia
Self-harm; self-mutilation
Suicidal thoughts, attempts or completed suicide.”

If you recognise some of these symptoms in yourself, or in someone you know, please seek medical advice. PTSD is fully treatable.