3. End Of An Era.

Every morning, I would playfully skip down the hill to school, 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. Dad was a fearless, forward thinking, entrepreneur. The success was great, however, at times 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 very 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.” Now that I am a parent myself, I feel incredibly guilty for not understanding my parents better, for not supporting them more, and for sometimes giving them a hard time. They came across so much jealousy and opposition from their competitors;on top of all of their problems, they had this fiery daughter to deal with too. Hindsight truly is a beautiful thing, one we should be very grateful for.

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.

 

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5. The Power Of Nobodies.

Early Nineties were the toughest years; the most numbing years which would leave long lasting effects on all of us.
To my young impressionable mind, what was happening during these years was too much to understand, too much to take in. Too much to fear.

In July 1992 was when we, as a family, lost someone very dear to us for the first time; we lost him to war. My father’s oldest best friend, his childhood best friend, was killed in…in the most horrific way. His death was a slow, torturous death. I can’t bring myself to tell you how he died.

Traditionally, Serbian funerals are quite big. If you go to someone’s funeral, you go to pay your respects to the deceased, to their family and to their ancestors. In rural areas, a Serbian priest would lead the procession from the deceased’s home to the family’s graveyard, usually in a horse-drawn hearse. After the funeral, friends and family would come back to the deceased’s home to a wake, where traditional meals are served to the mourners, in a very quiet manner.

I remember S. M.’s funeral like it was yesterday. It was a beautiful, sunny day. There wasn’t a single white cloud in the sky.

S’s family home was at the top of the hills, in a stunning location. From there you could see the whole valley in its full glory, with the river peacefully flowing away. I remember we walked up the hills in silence, pausing briefly every now and again to catch a breath or two and to take the stunning views in. The closer we got to the top of the hills, the more emotional I got. We could hear women crying; mourning.
S’s mother was an old lady, dressed in black from head to toe, with white hair, perfectly tucked away underneath her black headscarf. I remember her so well; she looked so stoic and proud, yet incredibly gaunt. Like a ghost of a woman she once was.

She was being held by her close relatives, but she stood tall by her door, greeting everyone. She was so visibly broken by her immeasurable loss, yet she held herself with such pride. I will never forget her, she truly left a lasting impression on me. She was a true example of a strong, proud woman. She showed me that even in the most unimaginable grief & pain, we can still appear to be strong and show strength in front of others; even if inside, we are dying.
S’s mother seemed to have been comforting everyone else around her. It was such an overwhelming occasion, filled with unspoken prayers and unspoken words. Filled with love and pride and regret of the loved ones; everyone who had loved S, had wished they had told him how much they loved him or how proud they were of him more often. Men and women were telling his mother what a wonderful man he was. This brought tears to her eyes, but she still stood tall.

Without a doubt this beautiful old woman, who would forever stay dressed in black, would have dealt with her grief in silence, once she was on her own or in the presence of her closest confidante; for the rest of her life.

When we got back home, we were all so happy to see our baby sister. It was so nice to have cuddles with her after such a hard, devastating day. She was this beautiful, new life and positivity that we all needed, in the days of death and grief. Our lovely neighbour looked after her while we were at the funeral. Our father sat silently next to our mum whilst she breastfed the baby. When our sister fell asleep, our father kissed her head, he stood up and he silently walked out. He went away for a few days, to grieve.
I don’t think he’s ever been the same since. I noticed that he clenched his jaw a lot more from then on. He also used to have terrible nightmares. He still does; he never talks about it, we never ask. Mum said that dad continued looking after S’s mother whenever he could.
Unfortunately, S was not to be the only friend or relative that my parents lost in this horrid war. The pain is indescribable and one never truly moves on from personal loss, from death; one simply learns to live a different life. We learn that love, kindness, forgiveness and giving are the only healthy way forward. Hatred, judgment and revenge only ever set us back, only ever create negativity and ultimately in the times we were living in, more loss of life.

As young as I was, as young as my brother was, we learned very quickly the value of life, all around us. To a healthy human, life is the only existence that truly matters. Everything else is replaceable.

Eventually, our father announced that he too will soon have to go to war. To this day, thinking about this still fills me with dread and it gives me shivers down my spine. We knew this was inevitable. He had to prepare us for the worst.
He said, to begin with, he would predominantly be deployed as a lorry driver, to deliver supplies. He knew all the main and the back routes as the back of his hand. He promised us that he would come to see us as often as he could and that he would try to help people whenever he could. He also decided to volunteer for the Red Cross, as a driver, when ever he had any spare time.
In preparation for his departure, my father had to introduce us to weapons.

At first, there was this nervous excitement in us. We, like most children, thought that weapons were cool. We too fell for the Hollywood’s trick of glamorising weapons and war. But very quickly our father told us that there was nothing, absolutely nothing, cool about weapons. He was dead serious.
Our mother was absolutely terrified. She was worried sick about what would happen to our father. She knew she had to protect us, but she feared that she wouldn’t be able to handle any kind of weapons. She got terribly upset and told our father that she would never be able to use them. Dad got very cross about this, he just wanted us to be safe, but he also deep down understood and knew how sensitive and fearful of weapons our mother was.
As I was the eldest of the three, my father taught me how to handle and use the weapons. He taught me how to dismantle, clean & put back together a pistol and a rifle, in the light and in the dark. He took me to our forest for target practice. He told us that the weapons were only ever to be used if our family was attacked.
I absolutely hated it. I hated the fact that we had to have weapons in our home. We also had a handful of hand grenades and a few mortar bombs which were kept underneath my bed. Every time I went to sleep, I was very much aware of their presence. I used to wrap the hand grenades in muslin squares very carefully and separate them with cotton wool, fearing if I didn’t take these precautionary measures, that they would get tangled up.
The weapons brought so much fear in me and were a huge sense of responsibility. They brought this fear in me that I might one day have to use them. After all, I was only a teenage girl. I can never imagine my sons sleeping on top of grenades, just thinking about this fills me with dreadful fear, but one day, they will learn that this was part of their mother’s childhood reality.

Luckily, I never had to use any weapons to defend our family. I was, however, immensely proud of our father for thinking ahead and for training us to be self-sufficient even in war.

But I have to tell you that my brother and I did do something very naughty. Well, by my brother and I, I mean me.

Sometimes at night, I used to take a pair of pliers and a handful of bullets. My brother and I would then go out onto our balcony. I would carefully separate the bullets from their cases and empty all the gunpowder on to the balcony floor, creating intricate shapes on the balcony tiles. Then boom! I would light the gunpowder at one end of the balcony and then shriek with excitement, watching it burn bright red in the most wonderful shapes across the balcony. This was SO naughty and dangerous, but we had so much fun! Childish fun. It terrifies me now, thinking about a brother and a sister, in this crazy world of ours, full of wars, who do the same; play with bullets because there is nothing else to play with.
The presence of bullets becomes your daily reality.
Unfortunately, we quickly all saw what weapons could do, what damage they could do. I mean all sides, all nationalities, in all parts of Bosnia.

The nobodies, the non-achievers, the village idiots that they once were, suddenly got hold of weapons and they did stupid things, they terrified women and children. They had never achieved anything in their lives before, but suddenly they had power; they had weapons.
The nobodies were the people who were not fit to go to war, they however somehow managed to get hold of weapons illegally. They spread fear amongst us. They used to set things alight at night and they started shooting at people’s houses at night too. They would fuel their little night-time adventures with alcohol consumption. This didn’t just happen in our village. Each village had their nobodies; in Croatian sides of Bosnia, In Muslim sides of Bosnia and in Serbian parts of Bosnia.
You see, weapons desensitise people. Weapons are never necessary amongst civilians. Having lived through this, having seen what they do, I just cannot understand how and why anyone would buy a weapon unregulated, illegally, anywhere. It saddens me so much and it terrifies me.
My parents got increasingly concerned about our neighbours’ children. One night an explosive device was thrown at one of the houses. At the time of the attack, this family had three young children in their house.
When mum and dad built our houses, they built them to sustain any form weather or attack. Perhaps my dad always suspected that this war would happen.
Our house was deemed the safest structurally, and because some of the nobodies feared my dad, we knew that we were as safe as we could be.
However, our father knew that there were members of our community whose lives were at risk. Our father risked his life to protect those innocent lives.
For a while, he went out at night and brought some of our neighbours’ children to our house, to keep them safe. He would pick them up at night and drop them back off before dawn. My brother and I loved this! We had regular sleepovers with our friends; we did not for once think that our father was putting himself in danger by doing this. We were too young, we didn’t understand the enormity of it all.
I was, and still am, immensely proud of our parents. They wouldn’t have done it any other way. In their mind, there was no question about it. They had to protect these innocent children. If something had happened to these children, to our friends, my parents would never have forgiven themselves.
It must have taken so much bravery and strength to carry this out. Even after my father lost his dear friends, they were killed by the same nationalities that our neighbours were, he still had enough love left in his heart for these children. Imagine Northern Ireland at its worst, then imagine a Protestant man rescuing Catholic children in secret, to protect them, or a Catholic man rescuing Protestant children in secret, to protect them. That’s what our father did. He knew that it wasn’t the children’s fault. They were just innocent human beings. This was for the greater good, our parents said. “Always think bigger picture. This will one day end.”
My parents showed me many times what this meant; think bigger picture.
My mum’s best friend E. was a Muslim lady. She too became pregnant during the war. By the time she was due to have her baby, the countries’ hospitals were already divided into Serbian, Muslim and Croat hospitals, where their own national soldiers were treated too, as well as the civilians. To work as doctors and nurses during any war, must be the most harrowing and the most heart-breaking experience ever. As you can understand, as the three sides of Bosnia were fighting, each nationality went to their own hospitals. But my mum’s friend was still living in the Serbian part of Bosnia. When she went into labour, the only person she could turn to for help was my mum. My mum didn’t think twice. She took E. into our nearest Serbian hospital. She risked a lot, possibly her own life, but this lady was one of her best friends, she could never abandon her, even in the toughest of times. Luckily everything went smoothly, a little boy was born; another war child. Another source of joy and happiness when it was most needed.
My parents kept on giving and loving, when many people around them were hating and killing; from all sides.
Soon, it was time for our father to go away. He got up early one morning; he did his usual morning fitness routine and spent some time in the bathroom making himself look handsome. He put his best smart-casuals on, plenty of aftershave on, combed his hair and kissed and hugged us goodbye. He told us to be brave.
He didn’t say much else, but we could see that he wiped his tears away as he climbed into his lorry. His lorry was white with a bright yellow tarpaulin on the trailer. I remember wishing that his lorry was a lot less visible. We didn’t see him for five weeks. These were very, very long weeks.
Mum ran a very tight ship at home, I think this was her way of coping. Most of the time we didn’t have any electricity. It was so funny, we never knew when the power would come back on, but when it did, all we could hear in the neighbourhood was the sound of the vacuum cleaners!
When my brother and I weren’t at school, we had to help with the animals at the farm and at home, the house upkeep and with our sister. She was so much fun! The whole village adored her. A bundle of cuteness with lots & lots of curly hair; she was our happiness and our endless source of entertainment.

We were usually in charge of her afternoon naps. She was such a deep sleeper! Every now & then, once she was asleep, my brother and I would sneak into her room and we would prop her up into a seating position while she was still asleep, and then watch her all jelly-like flop backwards onto her bed. I know, this was very naughty, but this made us laugh so much; unless we got caught, then we were in a lot of trouble.
Around this time was when our Serbian relatives started arriving from Sarajevo, Breza and Travnik, as refugees. These were my eldest uncle and his family, and my two aunts and their families. They were no longer safe where they lived, so they moved back into our village. My uncle and aunts were devastated; they had lost everything they owned and their journeys to safety were harrowing, never to be forgotten.

At first, our cousins stayed with us, in our house, until they found an alternative accommodation. This was a complete chaos! My mum suddenly had seven more mouths to feed as well as run everything else. I remember this once when she was very stressed. We now laugh about this one glitch of hers, it was so funny!
After some extensive intervening, after a bit too much of crazy & bickering amongst all the children in our house, she suddenly turned around to me and asked me this:
“Vesna, can you go and put all of our chickens on a lead and then give some corn to Rex.” Rex was our dog. She was dead serious!
I was absolutely bent over with laughter! Mum just looked at me blankly, picked one of our young chicks up and walked into the house. Very quickly she came back out, put the chick back down onto the ground and walked back in again. This was so funny. Poor little chick looked just as confused as my mum was. We all laughed so much at my poor mum.
Thinking seriously about this period now, as a mother myself, I sincerely don’t know how my dear mum stayed sane. I sometimes struggle now as a mother of two, living in the UK, with a very supportive husband who is always home. I moan how hard it is to live here on our own, working full time and bringing our sons up without any help from the grandparents; my family still lives in Bosnia, and my husband’s British family is broken. We get so tired, we get so stressed and overwhelmed sometimes; parenting is the most beautiful experience we ever go through, but it is also the hardest one we go through too. You might think that I am being unreasonable and spoiled, but I am so used to having my family and such a tightknit community around me, where everyone helps with childcare, where you drink coffees with your neighbours together daily and you talk your sorrows away. You laugh and cry together. I miss them, that is all.

However, I simply cannot imagine what it was like, is like, for parents living in any war, not knowing from day to day whether their children will be safe, fed or watered, or alive.
Our mum stoically carried on, we all carried on. We had to, we had no other choice. We were lucky, we had a roof over our heads, we were safe. Our mum made sure that we were always grateful for what we had.
Soon enough, our relatives got allocated their temporary homes. We were very happy for them and we missed them when they moved out, but it was really nice to be just the four of us again. It was easier for my mum.
We just couldn’t stop thinking about dad. We missed him terribly.

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.

9. Serbia. Becoming a refugee.

Not long after my eighteenth birthday, my father came home for a little R&R. We were so happy to see him; he was finally home and he was safe.

Dad hadn’t been home for two and a half months. We didn’t know where he was. All we knew was that he was somewhere in a trench. This was a very worrying time for all of us. Especially for my mum.

The day he came back, we all rushed down the steps to greet him, I carried our sister who was only three at the time. We couldn’t wait to see him, to hug him.

When we saw dad, he was standing at the bottom of the stairs; he looked tired. He had lost some weight, his hair was longer & unkempt. He had grown a beard.

Our sister clung on to me, like for dear life. She didn’t recognise him, she was scared. I think out all of us, dad was looking forward to seeing her the most. He was visibly upset that she didn’t recognise him. All he wanted was to pick her up and give her a hug.

We all welled up, we felt so sad for him.

He stood back and wiped his tears, he didn’t want to scare her any further. Dad asked me to take her back into our home. It was only after dad had a bath and after he shaved that she recognised him. She ran to him with her arms up and hugged him for ages. She didn’t leave his side for quite a while.

Unbeknown to me, my happiness was to be very short-lived.

The very next day, my parents sat me down to tell me that they had decided that I should move to Serbia, for the last year of my grammar school, so that I could, at least for one year, have regular classes and regular English lessons. My parents decided that my mum would accompany me to Serbia.

I didn’t understand the seriousness of their decision at the time. Years later, they told me that they were terribly worried about my safety. They both strongly believed that I was no longer safe at home. They wanted their teenage daughter away from this madness, from danger. Mum became tearful when she told me that their main worry was revenge rape.

Mum & dad wanted me to be somewhere where they knew that I’d be looked after very well and where I’d be safe. They were sending me to live with my mum’s brother and his family in Serbia, in Stopanja, near Kruševac.

I was so upset, I didn’t want to leave my family behind. I kept thinking that if I stayed, if anything bad happened, at least we would all be together. We’d help each other, we’d support each other.

But, no. Once my parents decided something, there was no going back.

We had to get a special permit to travel. Mum sorted this out.

My departure happened too quickly. I had to pack and leave within two days. It was agreed that as soon mum came back from taking me to Serbia, that my father would have to go back to war. Saying goodbye to him was one of the hardest things I have ever had to do. I didn’t know when I’d see him again. I didn’t know if I’d be able to come back any time soon once I crossed the border. I felt like a traitor; I was leaving them all behind to, in a sense, to live in luxury.

The night before my trip was very stormy. I didn’t sleep much at all, but I do remember having this dream where I and my whole family stood in this field, when suddenly this crack appeared in the ground, separating me from everyone else. However much I tried, I couldn’t cross it, I couldn’t reach them. I was devastated. When I woke up, I got worried that my dream was going to be a bad omen.

The next morning, early morning, on the 4th of September 1995, my mum and I set off, leaving my father, brother and sister behind. My grandmother came down from her farm to say goodbye too. They all stood on our balcony, waving at us. I could see my grandmother wiping her eyes with her traditional Serbian headscarf. My brother and sister kept calling my name until I could no longer see them or hear them. I cried so much. I kept saying that I didn’t want to go. Mum kept saying that it was for the best.

I hardly got to say goodbye to anyone else.

We slowly made our way to Serbia. We first took a coach to Belgrade, then took another one from Belgrade to Kruševac. Our journey was seventeen hours long.

When I arrived, my uncle and aunt and my cousins greeted us with such warmth, they were just so loving. We relaxed for a little bit, talked late into the night; I never left my mum’s side. She had to go back the very next day. Dad had to go back to war.

So many things were going through my head. What if my father and my siblings got attacked? What if the border officers didn’t let my mum cross back into Republika Srpska, Bosnia? What would dad do then? So much was at risk. If anything happened to my mum, I would have felt responsible for the rest of my life.

I will never forget the moment she left, I held her for a long time, we both cried. She kept promising me that she’d keep everyone safe. She climbed onto the coach and left. I too, like my brother and sister did, stood there waving at the bus until I could no longer see it. I had this horrible, horrible fear in my stomach that I will never see my family again. I couldn’t even phone them any more; the phone lines with Bosnia were disconnected by this point.

The next few weeks were very busy for me. I had to get used to living in a new country, I started my new school. I tried so hard to concentrate, to learn, but all I could think about was my family. I missed them so much, it hurt.

My uncle and aunt lived in this big house, with a very popular restaurant on the ground floor. They owned it all and the two of them, together with my aunt’s mother, ran it all too. They were incredibly busy. They still live in this house and they still have their restaurant; it’s called Beograd (Belgrade). Sadly my aunt’s mother is no longer with them.

Prior to my arrival, my aunt had arranged for me to start my new grammar school. By the time I got there, everything I needed was waiting for me, it was all ready. My uncle and aunt did it all.

Despite being incredibly busy, my auntie Vera always made time for me and took me absolutely everywhere with her. She took me shopping; she bought me some new clothes, some new shoes and a fancy new school rucksack. She took me to a fancy salon to have a fancy haircut too. She wanted me to fit in and not stand out too much. I was so happy and grateful she did this, I didn’t have any trendy clothes then. When I lived at home, we recycled our clothes as long as we could. It was so nice to finally wear something that actually fitted me.

She also educated me. She was very aware that I came from a small village and that I had never really been exposed to what goes on in bigger cities. Drugs, especially drugs. My new school was a well known grammar school, but the town that my school was in was infamous for drug abuse.

I remember this so well. The day before I started my new school, my auntie spoke to me about the dangers of recreational drugs and what kind of effects they have on our bodies. I had never taken any drugs and I had no intention to, but she wanted to educate me, just in case someone disguised them in my drinks or food. She did all the research. She stood in front of me and demonstrated how different drugs affect us and how we would physically react to them. This was hilarious! She acted out every scenario, every situation, position and every convulsion. I found this really funny, but she was dead serious. She wanted me to know everything. She also told me never to accept a drink in a glass, always in an unopened bottle. She told me to always ask waiters and waitresses to open my drink in front of me. This was such an eye opener.

On my first day of school, I was filled with nervousness and excitement at the same time. Because I didn’t do very well in my previous school, I just wasn’t sure if I’d be able to match my family’s expectations in this new school, in this new environment. If I am honest, I was scared.

I shouldn’t have been. My new school was just wonderful! The teachers were friendly and welcoming. My new school friends were so warm and welcoming too.

The school was warm too. This was such a novelty for me, we hardly ever had any heating on in my old school; it was all so lovely. Eventually I was on a bit of a high. I wanted to learn, I wanted to do well, to make my mum and dad proud.

Soon enough, I had a lovely group of friends who truly looked after me. Especially this wonderful young lady called Zorica. She used to pick me up in her car and take me out to her favourite cafe; thanks to her I felt like I had always been there. She introduced me to so many new young people of our age, she truly took me under her wing.

When I was at my new home, with my wonderfully kind hosts, they made sure that I had absolutely everything that I needed. They treated me like their third child. My cousins were incredibly kind and generous. My cousin Marija (Maria) was closer to my age; she introduced me to all of her friends, we spent a lot of time together.

The only thing I found strange was that they hardly ever had their TVs on. Or it seemed that way; when ever I walked in they would turn them off. Also, when ever I walked into the restaurant, my uncle and aunt kept folding their newspapers away. I found this a bit strange. But I never asked, I wanted to show that I was grateful and I didn’t want to be rude.

I used to take this bus to get to school and back, this was always quite a lively journey as the bus was usually full of school children.

One evening when I was coming back from school, this lady was sitting in front of me, facing me. She looked very similar to my auntie Rada, she had the same big blue, often sad, eyes. Auntie Rada was a refugee in our village. She often sat by the window, looking away, as though she was always waiting for someone to arrive. This lady reminded me so much of her. I felt so nostalgic and homesick.

When I got back, I first went to the restaurant to greet everyone and have my dinner. As I walked in, my uncle Bogdan quickly folded the newspapers away and he turned the TV off. We chatted for a little while and I then went upstairs to do my homework.

As I was doing my homework, the phone rang. I picked up the phone and to my surprise, it was my friend Marina; I was ecstatic! I was so happy to hear her voice. We chatted for a while about school and how nice it was to live in Serbia. We mentioned how now we had basic things widely available and very easily accessible. Things like toothpaste; we couldn’t buy toothpaste in Bosnia anywhere, for quite a while then. We used salt or soda bicarbonate to brush our teeth with. We laughed about our people’s resourcefulness for a bit. It was so nice to hear from her.

Marina then asked me:

“How are your mum and dad, and your brother and sister? Where are they now? Are they with you? From what I hear, a lot of people from Šipovo have settled in Vojvodina.”

I was a bit confused by her question, I said:

“Erm, I think they are all ok. They are all back in Šipovo, but I’m not sure where dad is.”

Marina paused and then said:

“They are still in Šipovo? Oh no, they never left?!”

I started panicking:

“What do you mean they never left? Why would they leave? I don’t understand.”

Marina said:

“Don’t you know what happened? Šipovo was attacked and evacuated on the 9th of September. Everyone left, all the villages were evacuated too. Pljeva was one of the first villages to go.”

I remember this moment so well. My heart was racing, I felt dizzy. Marina carried on talking, but I couldn’t hear…

My Pljeva…my village. My family! My baby sister! My home!

On the 9th?! Five days after I left!

I fell down to the floor, still clutching the phone. My auntie Vera suddenly rushed through the front door, she had heard me talking to someone on the phone. She was worried. She could see that I was upset, she very quickly realised what must have happened. She became tearful too. She grabbed the phone off me and started telling Marina off, telling her that she shouldn’t have told me.

Auntie Vera very quickly put the phone down and sat with me on the floor. She held me as I sobbed.

I felt so bad, it wasn’t Marina’s fault. She didn’t know that I didn’t know what had happened.

The same evening, my auntie and I phoned Marina back. My auntie apologised and explained everything to Marina. My beautiful friend understood it all, she was fine.

I finally understood why everyone kept turning their TVs off, why they always folded all the newspapers away. They didn’t want me to see the news. They didn’t want to worry me. I was in a new environment, in a new school, in a new country. They wanted me to settle in well first, before they told me what had happened. They were protecting me.

I felt terribly sad for my uncle and aunt. My family was their family too. They must have been worried sick about everyone, yet they put a very brave front on for me.

To this day, I don’t know how they managed to pull it all off for so long, together with their children. My uncle Bogdan, my auntie Vera, their children Marija & Marko, are some of the kindest, the most loving & the most generous people I know. They showed me how even in some of the toughest times we can still be selfless, kind, loving & giving.

10. Operation Storm; The great rescue.

Operation Storm; The great rescue.

Please forgive me if this chapter doesn’t come across as clear or as emotionally expressive. I wasn’t there; I wasn’t with my family during the final exodus, during the toughest times of their lives.
The daughter in me, and the sister in me wishes that I was with my loved ones on this day of fears, cries & screams. But the mother in me understands why it was so invaluable for my parents to know that on the toughest day of their lives, at least one of their children was safe and away from the missiles, hand-grenades & gunfire.
————————————————————————————————————————————–

My mum’s journey back to Bosnia went as smoothly as it could have; it was a huge relief for my father when she arrived home safely. She was happy. They both felt a huge sense of accomplishment knowing that their teenage daughter was safe and well and away from danger.
Mum found our home warm and children as happy as they could have been. Dad had looked after them very well, but sadly he couldn’t stay, he quickly had to go. My mum waived him off and wearily carried on with her autumnal jobs and harvests.
When dad left Pljeva, he was very swiftly deployed to move the military equipment from the Petrovac frontline, as this area had fallen into the Forces’ arms. He drove as much kit as he could fit on his lorry from Petrovac to Jajce.
On the 8th of September 1995, four days after I left, my father had finished his driving task for the time being and he was already back on the frontline near Jajce.
On this fateful day, he and his fellow soldiers were informed that the operation Storm had intensified and that the Forces were nearing Sipovo.
He instantly knew what this meant; he knew that he had to go home as soon as possible. In our instance, the closest Forces frontline was near Glamoc.

Dad knew very well that to reach Sipovo on foot, the Forces would have to go through our village first. Our family was defenceless; he knew that there were many, many women, children and elderly people in our village who wouldn’t be able to escape or defend themselves.
Dad had this priceless tool that could help many, many people; his lorry.
His only option was to drive his lorry back to our village as soon as possible, knowing all the time that this was extremely dangerous. Nobody knew how quickly the Forces would reach our village. They could have been there already. But you see, as well as this terrible fear for their lives, there was always this hope amongst our people that this offensive would not reach us, that the Operation Storm would be stopped by NATO before it got too dangerous. Unfortunately, this wasn’t to happen.
You have to understand what a difficult journey this was. To get to our village, you have to follow a very bendy road for about seven kilometres. This road closely follows our beautiful river upstream. On one side of the road, you have the river followed by the soft rolling hills, on the other side of the road you have the steep cliffs, the steep hills and the forests all the way into our village.
My father’s main concern on the way to our village was the fact that his lorry had a white cabin and a bright yellow tarpaulin.
He could have been ambushed at any point and he would have been a very easy, very visible target for the Forces. This was a nerve wracking, terrifying journey. Luckily, he managed to drive safely back to our village, but he was very fearful and anticipated an ambush after every corner.
He says that deep down he knew that the end was imminent. As well as driving very cautiously, he also purposefully drove very slowly so that he could, for one last time, take in all the beautiful sights and views of our stunning countryside.
In the past, our village was always protected from the missiles by our high steep hills, but when dad arrived, the missiles had already started falling directly into some of the neighbouring villages near our Pljeva. This meant that the Forces were at the top of the hills, they were very close.
Dad found our family at home. Mum told him that they and many of our neighbours had already been hiding in our cellar. These were our Serbian and Muslim neighbours. Mum tells me that they were all very relieved to see our dad and once they found out that he had managed to bring his lorry safely home too, this gave them an enormous amount of hope. To make himself visible to the rest of the village on the east side, dad decided to park his lorry across the bridge, tucked away behind this old building. This was the only place in the village where dad could hide the lorry from the western side of our village, where the forces were firing from. It was a huge risk to drive across the bridge, but this was the best place for it.
As the evening drew closer, the shelling eased off a little bit. My family decided to spend the night in our house instead of in the cellar. They say that at this point they were still hoping that this offensive would end very soon. Perhaps they had hoped that the Forces were shelling our village just to frighten them, as part of their fearmongering tactics.
Hope, in the toughest times, is a very dangerous thing, it can make one become very complacent.
Never the less, my father asked my mum to phone everyone in the village to let them know that dad had brought his lorry in, just in case.

A little while back, our little sister was given her first, hand-me-down, bike. This was her “favourite green bike EVER!”. I remember this one day when she was riding her bike in our garden, when we all suddenly heard this blood curdling scream. We all rushed outside to find that there were these three young cockerels attacking our baby sister! Our brother rushed to her rescue; he picked her up in his arms and ran with her into our home. Once she had calmed down, he went back out. He was so frightened for her and angry at the cockerels! Needless to say, we all had a lovely, unusually, for the war, lavish feast that day! It always amazes me how we, humans, can make the best out of a bad situation. That day we celebrated that our sister was rescued from this vicious attack on time and only escaped with a couple of scratches.
On the day of our father’s arrival, my mum and dad agreed that they should all make these last few days at home as fun as possible for our sister. She and many other little children had been traumatised enough already.
My parents wanted to allow our sister to still be a three-year-old little girl.
On the evening of the 8th of September, not realising that this was their last evening at home, they brought her precious little green bike inside, so that she could ride it around the house to have a little fun, as it was not safe to do so outside anymore. My parents and my brother did their best to entertain her and they kept asking her to sing and dance for them that night, just so that they could distract her from the noise of the occasional gunfire. During the gunfire or during the sound of explosions, she used to just go quiet, she never cried. She used to love singing and dancing for us! She was our baby, she was our happiness, she was everyone’s entertainment. Our sister always genuinely made everyone feel happier, content and better.
Once everyone had fallen asleep, dad stayed up all night patrolling around the village and checking up on his lorry. He says that he had just a couple of power naps by our front door.
He still hoped that the Op Storm would be intercepted by NATO or stopped; he hoped that they would all be able to stay in our beautiful village.

On the 9th of September, at the first light of dawn, the shelling intensified. This is when everyone knew that they had to flee. They had to run to save their loves. The shells were no longer falling into the neighbouring villages; they were now falling directly into our village.
My parents, and all of the people there, found themselves in an unimaginable pain and disbelief. They had to save their children. They had to leave everything behind, everything that they had worked for, everything that they, themselves, had built from scratch. They had to leave their haven. There was no time to waste.
My father asked my mum to try and pack as much of food as she could, whilst he went to get our granny. He told her that he would be back very soon and that he will bring his truck back. He also asked my mum to spread the word to say that whoever didn’t have any transport that they should come to our house immediately so that they could get into our lorry trailer.
Meanwhile, the shelling was getting stronger and stronger.
Very quickly, our cellar filled up to the brim; full of women, the elderly, young children and babies.
My baby sister, who is now almost twenty-six years old, remembers my mum screaming and crying hysterically because she was so worried that our father would get killed crossing the bridge. She knew that the bridge would have been the Forces’ artillery’s prime target, she knew how dangerous this was.
After a little while, a big crowd started gathering outside of our house and miraculously our father managed to drive the lorry across the bridge safely and park it very closely to our house, so that the forces don’t see it. But mum noticed that he was visibly upset; he was crying and angry at the same time.
Our father went to get our granny and she refused to come with him. She told him that he must go and save his family and the rest of the village. She told him that the younger people and younger families should have the priority on his lorry, she would only slow him down. No matter how much our father pleaded, begged or argued with her, she refused to leave her home. She finally agreed that she will make her way down with the rest of the people coming down from the hills.
By the time our father arrived in front of our house, a crowd of one hundred and seventy terrified humans had already, desperately, been waiting for him. They all started frantically climbing into the lorry, carrying their most precious material positions and their most precious memories. The lorry was filled with cries and desperate screams.
By this point, the gun fire was getting closer and closer. The bullets started embedding themselves into the walls of our homes. Mortar shells were being directed at the houses, into the roofs. My father, who was at the bottom of our balcony shouted for my mother to come down from the house immediately! My brother picked my sister up and went to escape through the front door. My mum threw the bags of food off the balcony, into my father’s hands. As she ran through the house, she managed to grab this extremely expensive cutlery set that she had bought for me, this was to be my wedding gift one day. She also grabbed a couple of photo albums. These photos were our history, our ancestry and our heritage.
As my mum, my brother and our sister in his arms, went to escape through the front door, the shots were fired at them; they could see the forces running towards them across this small field at the back of our house. My mum just managed to grab my brother and pull him back. The only way back into the “safety” was to run back through the house and jump off the balcony.
Mum screamed for dad; he turned around to see her desperate face full of horror. She screamed: “Jovan, take our children! Take them!”.
Mum lowered our sister first, our father managed to catch her safely. Mum then helped my brother jump off the balcony, into my father’s arms. Our auntie Rada took hold of our sister, and took her into the lorry’s cabin. This breaks my heart, apparently our sister screamed:” Save my bike, save my green bike! Who is going to ride it now?!”
This was my auntie Rada’s second plight for safety. She had already escaped from Travnik once before. She was just so grateful that she was still alive.
Once my brother and sister were safely off the balcony, my mum threw the photo albums down onto the ground, and whilst holding the cutlery very tightly, she jumped off the balcony herself. My father helped her.
As soon as she was safely on the ground, mum grabbed the albums and climbed into the lorry’s trailer to try and help with calming the young children down. My brother was in charge of closing the trailer’s back door and of making sure that the tarpaulin was tightened to the maximum. When mum finally looked down her body, she noticed that her skirt was ripped, and her thighs were heavily bruised, from climbing down the balcony. Mum was shaking heavily; my brother was crying.
Dad says, just as he pulled away from our house, he saw this woman running towards the lorry, weighed down by the bags of her belongings that she had been carrying. Dad shouted for her to hurry up as he couldn’t afford to wait. Sadly, she had to throw her bags onto the ground in order to run faster. She very quickly caught up with them and ran into the cabin.
By this point, altogether, there were one hundred and sixty one person in the trailer of the lorry and thirteen people in the cabin; one hundred and seventy four human lives at stake.
As soon as the cabin door was shut for the final time, our father set off. He didn’t know if they would make it out alive. He didn’t know if the lorry would be shot at.
And sure enough, about a kilometre from our house, a missile fell right in front of the lorry! As dad slammed the brakes, everyone in the lorry went flying forward. Our little sister hit her head on the windscreen and cracked the windscreen!
From that moment on, dad hit the accelerator and asked auntie Rada to put some music on, to the maximum volume.
He wanted to do what he could to protect our sister from hearing all the whaling coming from the back of our lorry. Also, he wanted to protect her from hearing all the gunfire and explosions.
Apparently, being the happy little girl that she was, even in the scariest of circumstances, she started singing and wiggling her bum in the little space that she had. His plan had worked.
Dad started singing himself, whilst tears were running down his face, occasionally wiping his face on the sleeves of his shirt, with his hands firmly on the wheel. He couldn’t stop thinking of his mother. He couldn’t stop thinking of the most horrific things that could happen to her.
He couldn’t help but believe that he would be responsible for her death. He would carry this guilt for the rest of his life.
He blamed himself.
Even though he, potentially, saved one hundred and seventy four lives, he felt the full brunt of his guilt for a very long time.

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.

12. Vrbas Canyon.

The Pliva Lakes glistened to my father’s right, surrounded by forests and fields full of autumnal flowers. As my father was approaching Jajce, driving as fast as he safely could, the noise of the artillery firing was getting louder and louder. His aching heart knew that this meant that the reason Šipovo & Pljeva were so quiet, was because the Forces took over the area, established a guard system and then moved on East, to conquer Jajce. Dad knew that they had very little time to move.

By the time he got back to our family, everyone was already waiting for him by the lorry. These were crying children & frightened women, including his own family. They could all see that he was on his own, but nobody asked any questions.

He knew that he had to explain to my mum what happened and the reasons why Baba wasn’t with him, but he first had to get everybody safely onto the lorry and get going.

His biggest concern was the fact that they had to cross many bridges, before they got to safety. He still had his bright yellow tarpaulin on the lorry. During any offensive, bridges are always one of the first things to go.

This time he kept his dearest close to him; my mum, my brother and my sister were in the cabin with him, as well as some other people. The only way out was North, to Banja Luka, along this dangerous road which followed the river Vrbas very closely.

The immediate exit out of Jajce had already seen a lot of action and shelling, so much that some parts of the main road had already started crumbling away towards the river. The risks were huge. Also, by this point, dad was getting very tired.

They had to pass through the Vrbas Canyon.

I remember this road very well. It’s so beautiful and scary at the same time. High, dramatic limestone cliffs, cut deep down by the water of the mighty Vrbas, which is fast flowing, deep and dangerous. But stunning, absolutely stunning!

But the road itself is not stunning. In some places, the road is quite close to the river, but in others the road is very high up, winding around the high cliffs with the river far below it, looking dark and ominous. This road was not built for young boy drivers, to take their families to safety.

This journey was to be their longest and most dangerous.

They just never knew what was coming next and if they would even be safe in Banja Luka once they got there.

Dad knew that in that case, he would have to send his family further away from Bosnia, to Serbia, to the safest place at that point. But he also knew that he wouldn’t be able to go with them. He had to return back to his unit.

All along this journey, they made sure that they talked to my brother a lot and reassure him, that he and they will be ok. They also kept playing the music for my sister, hoping that she would sing and dance for them. They really tried, but she was getting quieter and quieter as the time went on; she probably knew that they were no longer going on a holiday. There were too many people crying around them and people don’t cry when they are exited and happy about going on their holiday. She might have only been three years old, but she knew.

She is twenty seven now. She says that she remembers the final exodus very well, especially the latter part, but she doesn’t remember much before arriving to Jajce. Perhaps those fearful events were just too much for a young child’s mind; she successfully blocked them out of her memory.

But mum & dad say, amongst the crazy, amongst the fear, amongst the terrifying unknown, they sat there in the lorry, in this huge convoy of vehicles all-sorts, they say that they still managed to see the beauty of our country around them. The centuries old cliffs and the majestic Vrbas river to their right; they felt a strange sense of content. At least for a while, as they edged further away from Jajce, in this very slow moving convoy, they felt safe. If was as though the nature was protecting them and shielding them from the Forces’ artillery.

My parents say that there were two women on their minds, all the time. The two women filled them with completely different emotions. One was our granny; they felt despair, grief & worry. The other one was me; they felt a sense of relief that they did the right thing by sending me to Serbia on time.

Dad…he couldn’t talk about Baba. He had to tell our family exactly what had happened, but he couldn’t. It was only afterwards that he told them the full story.

The further they traveled, the more withdrawn my brother became. He’s told me many times that he was so desperate to go back home, so much that he was prepared to start walking back all by himself. He wanted to go back and look for Baba. He wanted to be with her and keep her safe, if she was still alive.

Luckily he never did anything like that. My family stayed together, at least until they got to safety, to Banja Luka.

It took them almost a whole day to get to Banja Luka, a whole day to cover around seventy kilometres! But they did, they arrived safely, albeit emotionally and physically exhausted and hungry. They were all very hungry.

Dad drove his lorry to a central location, close to the centre of the city, where everyone managed to get off safely and join their relatives & friends in Banja Luka, or go to a designated refugee help centre.

My family was very lucky. My mum’s younger brother & his family lived on the outskirts of the city. Once everyone was taken care of, my father drove my immediate family to our uncle’s house.

When they safely arrived, my mum was overjoyed to see two friendly faces smiling at her lovingly; her parents. They had been brought to safety too. They had lived in a remote mountainous village, but luckily my uncle went to get them just in time, before the offensive went through their village too. It’s not worth thinking what if he hadn’t, but sometimes you can’t but think that. But they were alive, well and incredibly lucky. Mum was so happy to see them!

Her parents were always the most loving towards us, including my dad. They were kind and incredibly generous. They owned a lot of land, but they always presented themselves as humble farmers who lived in this idyllic mountain village called Medna, surrounded by pastures and forests. Apart from electricity, they were completely self-sufficient. They grew all of their organic food and they owned horses, cows, sheep, goats, pigs and chickens. My maternal grandparents were called Dragan and Rajna (Rainha), but everyone called my grandmother Raja (Rhaia). They lived in this traditional cottage, entirely constructed by this local stone, with light blue windows and doors, and lime-washed indoor walls.

The cottage had three levels. They had a cellar where they kept all of their carefully organically preserved food and drinks. They, too, made their own Rakija, they kept their copper still in the cellar, alongside two massive barrels for the plums. I have very fond memories of the plum collecting seasons. We used to help pick the plums off the ground and separate them either for Rakija or for jam. Once the plums were in the barrels, we, the children, used to climb up a ladder and get into the barrels and press the plums with our bare feet. This was amazing and so much fun!

The ground floor was where they lived. In front of the house was a veranda with benches & a table, and an old wood burning cooker, to cook on during the hot summer days.

The top floor was just an attic floor, with three extra beds & baba Raja kept her wool up there & her homemade soaps. I used to love spending my time up in the attic, lying on one of beds and reading my books.

Their house was always absolutely immaculate! Considering that they were hard working farmers, my grandmother kept their cottage incredibly clean. Every time we visited, I used to LOVE looking through all of their cupboards & wardrobes, and my granny just let me. I think I was in awe of her and her tidy house. Our home was always so busy and chaotic, theirs was always so peaceful and serene. My brother and I don’t have a single bad memory of our grandparents’ farm. They were incredibly loving. We used to spend a couple of weeks with them every school holiday. Thinking about it fills me with warmth and such incredible longing for them, for their hugs and stories. I miss them terribly.

But back to Banja Luka for now.

Once my mum got off the lorry, she ran towards her parents and hugged them tightly for a while. It was only once she was together with the rest of her family that she managed to let go of this crippling fear that she was holding inside her and cry.

She cried because she had to jump off the balcony to the safety, with her most precious ones; with her children.

She cried with relief that the ricocheting bullets didn’t connect with their soft bodies. She could not help but get scared over again by just thinking about it.

She cried because for those very long few hours, she didn’t know if she’d ever see her husband again, when he went on his own to try and rescue his mother; he crossed the enemy line to try one last time.

She cried because of his broken heart, she felt his pain fully.

She cried because they left everything they owned, apart from a handful of things she managed to carry out. She and dad worked incredibly hard to build their little empire, all by themselves. She cried because now, it was all for nothing. All their effort, sweat, blood and tears was for nothing.

She cried with relief because they were all alive. They were all in one piece. But it was not over, she had to keep going.

Mum says that once everyone was bathed and fed, dad announced that he had to go. He had to go back to his unit and carry on, without them.

As they were all chatting quietly, the distant noise of the Forces’ artillery reminded them that they were not even safe in Banja Luka. That day, the decision was made that the elderly, the women and the children would travel further, to join me in Serbia, but mum, my brother and our sister would leave first.

Once the decision was made, my father stood up and stoically said his goodbyes. When it came to goodbyes, this was his way.

The rest of my immediate and extended family stood outside of my uncle’s house and watched my dad climb nimbly into the lorry cabin. They quietly waved him off.

Two days later, everyone from immediate family, apart from dad, set off for Serbia. This was an almost twenty four hour journey, in a cramped coach, full of women, elderly people and children. Mum says that at one of the check points, the police nearly took my brother off the coach, as he was quite tall for his age, they didn’t believe my mum that he was still only fifteen. As far as the police were concerned, he was a fit young male who could have been very useful in the war. Now, you have to understand, my mother is a very easy going, agreeable and gentle woman, but when the police tried to take my brother off the coach, she stood taller and picked up one of the policemen by his clothes and pinned him against the coach door and reminded him very firmly what they had all been through and what they had escaped, and if he thought that she’d let him take her fifteen year old son off the coach and send him to war, he’s got to deal with her first and the last thing she said to him was: “Over my dead body!”

Once she let go of him, she was shaking. This policeman apparently just straightened his clothes and signalled the coach driver to carry on. Mum says that it was only after they got going again that she broke down. She would never have forgiven herself if anything had happened to my brother.

On this long journey, they had very little food on them, but they made it last for a long time. They all shared the food amongst them and nobody mentioned, even once, that they were hungry, not even my sister. I still feel guilty that I didn’t share this journey with them. It’s a strange feeling; there I was, living in luxury compared to them, eating restaurant food every day, and my family was hungry. It’s a horrible feeling.

The road to Serbia was bumpy and scary. This was not the usual road to Serbia, this was a road that took them the long way around, through the slightly safer zones. It took them through burned down villages, but also through some most stunning places. Mum says that if the babies didn’t cry occasionally, the coach would have been completely silent. Everyone was lost in their own thoughts, thinking of their homes & loved ones. Like she was too.

She couldn’t stop thinking about dad. She had absolutely no idea where he was.

Little did she know!

 

When I sat down with him, a few weeks back, when it got to this part of the story, he choked up, looked away, paused & asked me not to ask him any more questions for a while. Very quickly he got up and got busy.

I choked up too, but with pride. Immense pride.