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1. Wild child.

Around thirty years ago, one cosy autumnal evening, my brother and I were sitting on the wooden floor, with photo albums scattered around us. We were reminiscing about the good times that passed, whilst mum and dad chatted away, snuggled up on the sofa.
We hadn’t long lived in our new home; perhaps less than a year. Everything was still shiny, new and huge compared to our modest old cottage that we had happily lived in. I remember, I kept yearning for my favourite and my most comforting smells and sounds. My ten year old heart was aching. I wanted to be where we once lived; where I was the happiest.
I came across this particular page full of my parents’ wedding photos. I looked at these beautiful pictures for a while, caressing them with my little fingers. I admired the way my parents looked; they both looked so young and stunning. My dad was standing tall, beaming with happiness and pride in these black and white photos; my mum looked shy and so beautiful.
I looked at the dates written under the photos and I got intrigued. My parents got married in January and I was born in August, almost exactly eight months later.
I piped up: “Ah, you never told me that I was a premature baby!”
My mum went bright red in her face, she mumbled something and left the living room very quickly; she apparently suddenly had something to do. Dad found this whole situation very amusing. He chuckled and chuckled. He eventually said: “There was nothing premature about your birth. Everything was done and happened on time, and at the right time.” He winked & carried on giggling. Mum was nowhere to be seen.
My mum was only eighteen when she had me, and dad was only twenty-one. Two years later they had my brother.
When they met, they were these two beautiful young souls, who couldn’t have been any more different to each other; they still are.

He is the fire, she is the earth.

Mum was this gentle, beautiful, slender young woman who came from a very quiet, hardworking farming family, whose parents absolutely adored each other and their three children. She was their only daughter. She was adored, protected and doted on. Mum was quite quiet and shy; she still is, but now she is very funny. Her favourite source of entertainment is her hilarious, perfectly timed self-deprecating humour. She is the kindest soul you will ever meet. “There is a good side to everyone.”, she’d often say to us. She cares and worries about everyone. But she is strong and persistent; the binding force of our family. Unfortunately, because of her quiet nature, our mum’s knowledge and strength is often underestimated and undervalued. This has had a profound effect on my outspoken nature, strength and confidence as a woman.
My father…my father was this very handsome, fit, strong-willed, fiery, hardworking, untamed, stubborn force of nature. He came from a blended family, full of very loving, caring but strong characters.
My father is one of seven, he has two sisters, one brother, one half-brother and two half-sisters. His childhood was filled with love, bravery, incredibly hard work and mischief. He is built of the toughest matter; his life would have crumbled a weaker man. None of us would be here now if it wasn’t for him and his physical, but more importantly his quick thinking and his mental strength.
At the beginning of my parents’ marriage, many people doubted whether my parents would stay together; they appeared to be too different to one another. But underneath it all they had this undying love for each other that would ultimately pull them through some unthinkable times. They had the same moral values and they both had hearts of gold.
Last year they celebrated their fortieth wedding anniversary. Their love for one another has proved everyone wrong and overpowered everything that came their way.
Out of this young, passionate love, their first child was born; on time, I’d like to add. Me. Their wild child.
I, apparently, was nightmare baby who hardly ever slept, I was incredibly needy, and I cried a lot. As soon as I could move, I was off, I never sat still. I started walking at nine months. I was an early talker too, I talked to anyone and I had an opinion about anything and an answer for everything. I didn’t walk like other girls did, I skipped, kicked stones along the road or I danced. I loved dancing! Oh, I never stopped climbing trees either.
I quite like the idea of me like this, but I can see now that I have a wild child of my own, how challenging this must have been for my poor mum.
One of my aunties tells me this story every now and again of how when I was a toddler I had lots of curly hair, which was getting very badly knotted because of my wild ways. It desperately needed cutting.
However, the only way she could get me to keep still while she cut my hair, was to pin me down and keep my head in between her legs. So, she did. You get the picture! I must have been a nightmare child.
But I am told that I was very loving, lovable, bouncy and jolly. A happy child, with abundance of empathy, who always deeply felt people’s sadness. I hugged everyone a lot. I still do. My husband calls me his “hugtopus”.
For the first ten years of my life, my family lived on the family farm which was situated high up in the hills, on the edge of a small hamlet. Our farm was an organic dairy farm; hilly, vibrant and full of life. My family kept sheep, goats, cows, shire horses, pigs and poultry. We were completely self-sufficient, nothing was ever thrown away. We used, reused, wore, altered, fixed and recycled.
There were two cottages on the farm, right next to each other. In one, lived my grandmother and my youngest aunt, my dad’s sister. My parents and my brother and I lived in the second cottage. Ours was the prettiest out of the two. The cottages were very traditional, hand made out of wood. Their roofs were covered with traditional Mediterranean red roof tiles. The two houses truly stood out in the village, with their grand style and design.

They were hand built in 1930s by my great-grandfather Stevan, my paternal grandmother’s father. Stevan was a forward thinking, strong character. He was a local councillor in the early 1900s. A trailblazer. His daughters’ education mattered hugely to him. My grandmother was one of the very few women in the region with secondary and higher school education.
The two cottages were shaded by these huge, ancient linden trees. They were magical to me; we used to spend absolutely hours playing underneath them, making house shapes on the dry ground, out of twigs, sticks and stones. The linden flowers smelled so beautifully. It’s such a sweet, summery smell that I will never forget. Our granny used to make us this very aromatic and deliciously tasting tea out of them.
From our farm we could see our beautiful mountainous valley enveloping us. The valley had been carved by a crystal-clear mountain river, which gently flows through our village. The river is called Pliva, and our village is called Pljeva. Both are equally famous for their organic, unspoiled beauty.
The view from the farm is always majestic; It never disappoints. It is always there as a reminder of natural calm and continuity, but forever changing and breath-taking. During the spring and summer months, the rolling hills are deep green, with the shades of blue; full of life! In the autumn, the brightest and the deepest shades of fire caress the whole valley. And in winter…in winter the hills and the mountains are covered in this shimmery, unspoiled white snow which looks magical, inviting you to play in the winter’s sun. And, yet, the hills and the cliffs of the valley would intimidate you under the moonlight. At times, we’d hear wolves’ howls echoing throughout the valley; this used to scare the bejesus out of me! I miss those hills so much. I dream of them very often. They always make me feel safe and content in their arms.
When I think of the farm, this strong feeling of belonging floods my body. The farm and its habitat truly gave me my roots and my wings. My family; thanks to my loyal, loud, generous, loving, loud, forever giving family, where ever I am in the world, I know I belong.
My parents tell me that we were adored by our grandparents.
Unfortunately, I was very little when my paternal grandfather passed away. He was only fifty-five. I wish I remember him more clearly. I wish I was much older when he died.
He was our brave, strong-willed, WW2 warrior, called Stanko. A noble, generous and a strong man, who had overcome many personal tragedies and losses.
Grandad Stanko worked incredibly hard. He was a mayor after the WW2, a farmer and a land owner. He adored his children and grandchildren. I was his first grandchild who had lived on the farm. Even though men in those days didn’t traditionally help with looking after children, if I needed changing or bathing, he did it all for me. He took me for walks with him and he used to tell me stories.
I vaguely remember the day of his funeral. Grandad was lying in his coffin, in their bedroom. I remember the bedroom door so well. I kept standing by the door and trying to push it open. I knew he was in there. I wanted to tell him that I had an orange in my hand. He used to love oranges. All I wanted to do, was to share my orange with my grandad. I couldn’t understand why he wasn’t answering me. One of my aunties eventually took me in and lifted me up; I left the orange in the coffin, next to him. She told me that he’d have it later; he was sleeping. After he was buried, apparently I didn’t want to go home, I wanted to stay with him, and sit by his grave.
I dream of him quite often. I dream of him sitting on the bench he made. We are under my favourite linden tree. I’m little, sitting on his lap. He’s gently rocking me and telling me something. I can never hear his voice. It’s always the same dream. Every time I wake up, I am left with this yearning for his protection, wisdom and knowledge.
Grandad Stanko left seven children behind, and his second wife, my Baba. My dad still has the bench his father made.
After grandad’s very premature death, as dad was the only son to have lived at home, he helped Baba look after the farm. The rest of his siblings were either married and lived away, studying or already working away in towns and cities. Dad was only in his early twenties.
This must have been a lot to take on for a young family. Those were very challenging times for my parents.
But soon, a little blessing arrived. In the middle of a long, harsh winter, my brother was born. This was the first winter without grandad. This bundle of joy, was the peace and the calm my parents needed in their lives. He was a perfect baby who slept peacefully for hours on end and fed beautifully.
He slept so much, my mum had to gently pinch him to wake him up. My brother grew into a robust, but a very quiet little boy. He behaved really well, and he was always very calm and kind. He always did as he was told. Unlike his sister.
There was this beautiful, handmade wooden veranda attached to the front of our cottage. Occasionally, if our granny or our mum had chores to do, they’d leave my brother and I in the veranda to play, with the stable-style doors firmly locked. My brother would happily play on the veranda’s floor for ages, but I would always try to escape. I climbed over the side of it so many times, that I eventually broke my nose by falling onto the ground. I was incredibly mischievous.
During one of these times when we were left on our own, I went back into the cottage. I LOVED going through my mum’s make up bag. I remember this one day so clearly. I found my mum’s toothpaste and for some reason, only known to the mind of a young child, I decided to spread the toothpaste all over our handmade posh vitrine; my mum’s pride and joy. Oh, my goodness, I got into so much trouble! Then one day, after watching my aunt cut my uncle’s hair, I cut my eyebrows off with a pair of scissors; as you do! After realising what I had done, I hid under our rug, to hide my work of art. I was under the rug for so long, I eventually fell asleep. My mum found me and…let’s say that the scissors remained on the very top of our vitrine for a long time.
My brother never did anything silly like that. He’s always been quite measured and sensible.
When we were little, we absolutely adored each other. We spent most of our time playing together, but as we got older, we started to fight a lot.
By fighting, I mean proper physical fighting. This used to worry our poor mum sick. She was convinced that it was only her children that fought in the whole world. This “loving”, sibling rivalry carried on into our teens, until my brother got taller and stronger than me.
Jesus Christ, I was feisty; he knew perfectly how to push my buttons to get the desired reaction. And he did; every time! Even then, when he was already much taller than me, I would try and launch myself at him, but he would just calmly put his hand on my head firmly and keep me at arm’s length. Even then, I’d still try to reach him with my hand, fist, foot, from underneath, but I no longer succeeded.
It was time to let go. It infuriated me that he was stronger than me. I know, I was a girl, he was a boy, boys eventually grow up and get stronger, but none the less, it was a hard pill to swallow. I wanted us to be equal to him, even in strength.
My brother has grown into a wonderful, quiet, human. He is a great father and a husband. His quiet demeaner, however, should not be underestimated. My brother has many hidden depths and strengths. We named our first son after my brother; Dragan.

~Adventures on the farm~

As well as running the farm, our mum worked as a touch typist in town; our dad was very busy and away a lot. Mum’s working hours were from 7am to 3pm. Once she was home, mum would put away her glamorous clothes & start working on the farm.
Our granny looked after us when our parents worked. She looked after us with such love and dedication, but she let us roam freely too. My brother and I spent all our time playing and exploring.
Near our cottage, we had this outbuilding which was narrow and long, with vertical wooden slats for walls & a red-tiled roof on top. This is where we used to keep our corn, or firewood. This type of building is called a košana (koshanha).
During the summer our košana was empty. This was amazing to me; it was a blank canvas and the ultimate den! Our granny used to let me take her net curtains down and she used to give me her rugs and cushions too.
I would sweep the košana first, wipe the floors clean with an old towel and then I’d lay the rugs down, use cushions as our seats, and the net curtains to separate the košana into three different rooms. It was amazing! We spent so much time here, playing for hours. Baba used to make us some “white coffee”, which was made out of warm milk and half a teaspoon of freshly ground coffee in each cup; we used to drink our coffee in our makeshift house. Baba used to come in and sit with us on the floor too, sipping our coffee away.
Right opposite of our cottages lived this elderly couple. They lived on their own.
Most of their children lived nearby with their families, but one of their sons and his family lived in France. My parents were very close with the French family. They were so nice to all of us and always very kind and generous. However, the old lady and our Baba didn’t speak to each other. Apparently, they were sworn enemies. I never quite knew why they fell out in the first place. But even during this wordless world of theirs, Baba used to look out for them. My granny used to make the most amazing food, and she used to make enough of it to feed the whole hamlet. “You never know, someone might stop by for lunch. You must always be prepared for unexpected guests.”, she used to say. She was a tough, outspoken woman, but she cared deeply for everyone. Every now and again, she would ask my auntie to take some food across the road, to our neighbours. She would never admit it, but she felt a duty of care towards our elderly neighbours. She was stronger and fitter than them, she cared for them, therefore she felt that it was her duty to look after them. This sense of community is still a huge part of me. Your neighbours could truly be your lifeline.

I can’t tell you how much fun living on the farm was. There was an endless supply of food, drinks and mischief.
We grew all of our organic vegetables and we had a massive orchard very close to our cottages. The orchard was planted by our great-grandfather Stevan. We had many apple trees, pear trees, plum trees, cherry trees, mulberry trees and walnut trees. It was amazing! We climbed so many of them and fell off them so many times. I still don’t know how we never broke a single bone! Especially during the cherry season. Well! We used to dare each other to see who would climb to the highest branches and get the juiciest, the most sun kissed cherries down from the top. I am yet to find cherries as sweet as the ones from my farm. Oh, and, I was the village cherry thief!
I would say that we were true free-range children. We could go anywhere, and we absolutely went everywhere. Those times were wild, organic, muddy & pure.
As we got older, we were joined by a group of boys from the neighbouring farms. I was the only girl amongst them. There was only one other girl who also lived in our hamlet, but she was not wild like me. She was pretty much attached to her mother’s skirt.
To me, she was no fun. I’m sure she was lovely though, but I needed a brave, wild companion to plan battles against the boys with, and she needed a well-behaved girlie girl; therefore, we never became close friends. Also, her mother didn’t approve of my wild ways.
I was one of the boys. I could do anything that they could, and I made anything that they made. We were equal, in my eyes. We would make guns out of planks of wood, a couple of nails and a strip of rubber, cut out of my father’s truck’s inner tube, that I would steal from the garage. I know; I was very naughty. But these were blissful times. We would walk for hours, climb trees to look for birds’ nests and observe them and we would sometimes take some crumbs and leave them in the nests. We would sometimes look for the fox burrows too. We used to find quite a few burrows, but I am not quite sure which group of animals they belonged too. We had fun none the less.
Autumn on the farm was so beautiful. This was a busy time for our family. The fruits had to be stored safely away in our cellars and the evenings were spent standing by the cookers making jams & cordials. The fruit and nut trees had to be prepared for the winter and its harsh elements. The barns had to be prepared for the winter too; full of hay to the brim and very well insulated to keep all of our animals nice and warm.
The grownups used to collect all the leaves in the orchard into these huge piles and they used to let us run really fast and then jump into them. I still remember the feeling of falling into these massive, soft beds of leaves. I remember the smell so well too.
This was all usually done before the first frost. But the first frost, oh my goodness, it was magical. My brother and I used to imagine that the ground was covered with real silver and tiny diamonds. It shimmered beautifully in the morning sunshine.

Winters on the farm were so much fun. If we weren’t out skiing or tobogganing, we were inside sitting near our granny’s wood burner either listening to her stories or to her radio. Baba told the most magnificent stories, she used to get us to close our eyes and just listen to her magic.
She used to say to us: “Just close your eyes and imagine, see with your eyes shut.” This memory fills me with such content and warmth.
The quiet snowy days were my dressing up days. As well as for my košana, granny would get her net curtains down for my dressing up winter days. I would tip my head forward, wrap one curtain around my head, twist it and make a vale. I would then wrap another curtain around me and make a wedding dress. This was such fun for me!
I would often wait for my granny to fall asleep on her traditional, three-legged wooden chair, next to the fire and then I would sneak into my aunt’s bedroom. I would take my makeshift wedding dress off & I’d try on lots of her clothes. I would twist her dresses at the back, to make them tight and fitted around my small body, and I would also put her shoes or boots on and strut my stuff around the bedroom.
On one of my dressing up days, I got a bit carried away; I got into so much trouble.
Baba was asleep as usual, so I snuck into the bedroom & I quickly opened my aunt’s wardrobe, only to find the most amazing pair boots in it! They were brand new, Italian, brown suede, over the knee boots. High heels and all! I could not resist them!
I don’t know what possessed me, but I quickly put them on and I quietly tiptoed outside, into the snow in them! I walked in them to the barn to check on some newly born piglets. Well, needless to say, the boots were ruined.
To me, I was only taking a walk in London. Whenever I imagined my life somewhere else, it always had to be London. So, everything was perfect; I went back in & I just put the boots back into my aunt’s wardrobe, as though nothing had happened. Granny woke up and I just carried on playing.
Well, everything was fine until my aunt got back from work and saw them in the “shabby chic” state that they were in. She absolutely screamed murder and started chasing me around the cottage! My poor granny tried so hard to protect me and she absolutely insisted that she wore them to the barn herself! Looking back, this was all absolutely comical. I got a real big rollocking for my little outing.
Winters were also spent in our barns, helping out with the animals. This was so nice, and this was also one of the most calming places that I have ever been to. The barns were wooden, and everything was always so quiet. I loved it! We also used to go into the hay barn. My brother and I used to swing from a beam to a beam, from one end to the other, and then fall into the hay. This was endless fun!
I remember I always loved trees. One of my granny’s late friends used to love telling me this story of how one freezing winter’s day, when she came for a visit, she found me sitting on a branch of one of the apple trees near our cottages, decorating it with Christmas tinsel, wearing just my pyjamas, a woolly hat and a pair of wellies.
As we got older, our springs and summers were spent exploring further away from the farm. When the weather was warm, we’d play in mud a lot.
We’d play near our local streams and get absolutely covered in mud and before we had to go home, we’d walk into the stream and wash ourselves fully, wellies and all. I still remember the noise of the water squelching around in my wellies, all the way home.
Also, during the summer holidays was when almost all of our three million cousins would come to stay with us. This was AMAZING! It was an absolute chaos and I am sure this was a nightmare time for my parents and our granny, but we, the children, LOVED IT! Our days were spent exploring our beloved Pljeva. We felt stronger and braver together. Naughtier.
We loved swimming in our local streams. We would find a shade free, sunny patch of a nearby stream and we would use rocks and sticks to make a dam. Once the dam was full enough, we would then swim in it. This was our only swimming pool. In these streams or the small rivers near us, I used to catch lots of crayfish. I used to take them home in an old plastic bucket, for our granny to cook them for us in this beautiful sauce of garlic, parsley and cream. I also used to scare some of the school children by holding the crayfish up in my hands. I sometimes chased them too, whilst laughing so hard. I’m sure some psychologists would have had a field day exploring me as a child!

Actually, we were all a bit crazy and wild in our own little ways. I remember this one particularly warm summer afternoon. My brother, our hamlet friends and I were playing underneath our linden tree when we heard a car arrive. As we ran towards it, we squealed with joy! The French had arrived for their summer break. Their ever so beautiful daughter, who was just a bit older than me, very kindly brought us all a block of chocolate each. We excitedly sat down around their garden table to eat our chocolate. We all, but one, tried so hard to at least appear polite and eat our chocolate slowly.
But one of the boys just got too excited and too greedy; he put the whole block of chocolate in his mouth almost at once. As he tried to chew it, his teeth got stuck in this delicious French chocolate mass; his jaw locked! He started to cry. As mean as this sounds, this was one of the funniest moments of my childhood. We all laughed so hard, I fell down to the ground and carried on laughing. Oh, I wish this was caught on camera.
Eventually my mum ran to his rescue and I was swiftly sent home. My cackle, at the expense of this boy’s distress, got me into trouble yet again. It was so funny.

At night, we used chase fireflies, lie down in the grass near the cottages and watch the Milky Way, or if the weather was bad, we’d sit in the veranda and listen to the roars of thunder and watch the lightening light up everything around us.

At times, things were tough too. It wasn’t all fun and games. My parents had to work incredibly hard, and we had to work hard too. As we lived on the edge of a forest, there were times when the sheep were attacked and killed by bear. This was a bit scary to our young minds, but our family never sugar-coated nature to us. They did, however, try their best to protect us from the bad news, or from “bad”, negative people as much as they could.

This truly allowed me to wear my heart on my sleeve, be free spirited and wild.

I was strong. Most of the time I looked like a boy, fought like a boy and I climbed like a boy. I used to crawl through the grass, pretending that I was a soldier. I loved showing off my strength amongst the boys.
But more than anything, I loved spending time with our horses, cows and sheep. I also loved our woodland. It was enchanting, full of wild life & full of birds’ song. We spent hours on end exploring its natural dungeons and dens, occasionally smoking its vine. Sorry mum!
The most beautiful part of my early childhood was the fact that my parents let me be me; wild and free. They told me that I could do anything, be anything or anyone I wanted to be. They knew that one day I would grow out of my crazy, wild phase and morph into a different kind of creature.
I am in my forties now; my heart still aches for this carefree life. I loved every second of it. I sadly never fully appreciated the beauty of it all, until I became a parent myself.
Oh, how I would love my children to be wild and free of social constraints and experience this organic, muddy, free range life.
I still miss the most delicious smells of my grandmother’s cooking and I miss the smell of our beautifully handmade cottages; my most comforting touch-base.

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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.

 

4. “…this will one day end.”

Over the years, ever since the war had finished, I have only heard of books and movies describing the atrocities of the Bosnian war.

Even after more than two decades, I still can’t read these books or watch the movies. I find them all too upsetting, too negative and sometimes frankly very one-sided.

The hurt, the fear and the losses are still too raw, even after all these years.

I remember this one evening in 2003, my husband and I were living in Cardiff. I was sitting on the floor sorting out our filing whilst the TV was on. As I wasn’t really paying much attention to what was on, suddenly a familiar language caught my attention. I looked up and I saw that a program about the Bosnian Civil War had started, most of it was subtitled. My husband was working in his office upstairs.

I started watching it and COULD NOT believe my eyes. The translation of the program was completely manipulated to in-a-sense simplify the conflict, the war. What people were actually saying was translated to mean something completely different. It was utterly and completely manipulated. It was completely wrongly translated. Not just grammatically, but the complete opposite to what the interviewees were saying.
I was so angry. I got so upset. I started crying. Why were these media giants doing this?! What was their agenda? What was their gain, from all of this propaganda?
My husband heard me, and he rushed down the stairs. He very quickly realised what was going on and turned the TV off; he held me on the floor as I sobbed like a child in his arms. Once I calmed down, we talked for a long time, into the night. He explained to me that the media will always simplify the news, the “factual” documentaries would too, to appease the viewers, to appease the general public. He explained that there had to simply be a bad side & a good side.

It felt so unfair. So unfair! I wanted to scream from the top of my lungs: “It’s not true! It’s not true! What they were saying is not true. I was there; it’s not true! No war is ever as simple as that!” But I was powerless.

A war is a very lucrative and exceptionally profitable business. I was too young to know and too young to understand these world, grand, political strategies and their manipulative media games.

It was such a hard pill to swallow, to accept that there was nothing I could do to change the way it was all reported in the UK, or worldwide. The only thing I could do is stay truthful and say things the way I saw them with my own eyes, show the world what we were really like as people.

From then on, I decided to tell mostly positive stories about my people. Unfortunately, certain events, some painful events, have to be told in their true light, in order for me to paint the full picture.

I want to tell you about the good people in my life, from my country. The kind, generous, in a way naïve, good people of Republika Srpska and Bosnia.

Most people from this part of the world, who came into my life, were amazing. They were extraordinarily kind and brave.

I desperately want the world to hear about them; about the obstacles they overcame to help others, sometimes help others from the opposite side, the “enemy” side, and by doing so, they put their lives at risk.

But they helped and indeed saved innocent lives; they wouldn’t have done it any other way.
————————————————————————————————————————–
In the late eighties, early nineties, sadly I can’t remember exactly when, our mum and dad sat my brother and I down to talk to us about the political state of our country. They said that our country was going to war. Yugoslavia will no longer be; it will be split into many different countries. Bosnia as it once was would never be the same again.

Our dad suddenly got very serious. He stood up, towering over us, clenching his jaw and his fists.

He didn’t sugar-coat it for us at all. He said that things will at times get nasty, dangerous and violent. He said that some people will become very deceitful & some of our friends will become our enemies. But both mum and dad promised us that they will prepare us for it all. They also promised that they will do their best for us to never go hungry or be without clothes, shoes, or warmth.

Dad choked up. We got so scared. I started crying, we were only young. Tears were silently falling down our mother’s face. She knew that when it came to it, our dad would have to go war too.

The atmosphere was incredibly sombre in our living room.

At one point, after a lot of silence, my dad said:
“Whatever happens…what EVER happens, remember that this will one day end. One day this war will finish. And… if we are still here at the end of it all, we must have a clear conscience. We must be able to look at people in the eyes, without any guilt! Do you understand me?! You must always be kind. Always! We will do our best to protect you, but you have to do your part and be sensible…Be careful. Don’t trust anyone, apart from us. Don’t get carried away with patriotism and nationalism, don’t allow anyone influence your views and opinions. Many will try, believe me. Talk to us, ask us questions, we will explain everything you need to know. ”

Dad lifted his arms up and said: “All of this…all of this that we own, that we’ve ever worked for, might go. But, if we at the end of it all have each other, we can build it all up again. Don’t ever forget that. Understood?!”

My dad then walked out. He didn’t come back home for two days. He used to do this every now and again. Whenever something troubled him, he would retreat to the forest for a little while, to have some head space. But once he was back, he’d be back to his normal cheeky, workaholic self.
My brother and I didn’t understand the enormity of our father’s words. We thought we understood him, but not until a lot later, until things started personally happening to us.
Over the next couple of years, the economy in the country rapidly slowed down. Our dad could no longer keep his drivers, so he had to let them go. This was particularly hard for our mum and dad, as the drivers’ families depended on their income, but sadly, there wasn’t anything anyone can do.

On January the 9th, 1992, our part, the Serbian part of Bosnia was proclaimed as a separate entity; Republika Srpska was born. When it seemed like the whole world was against us, it meant so much to my people to have a republic to call their own; an identity and an entity which represented our history and our heritage. However, the tension in the country was unbearable for my young, sensitive mind. Things were changing rapidly.

My father’s fleet of vehicles was mobilised by the army. He was left with just one lorry, a tractor and our family car.

On the shelves of our shop, where once stood luxury ingredients and goods, now stood bottles of oil and vinegar, salt, sugar and bags of rice. The shop floor was mostly lined with pallets of bags of flour. Whenever he could, dad would drive away to different parts of the country, where he could get the most food for his money. He said that he was stocking up on supplies that had a very long shelf life. These were things like flour, dry pulses, pasta, rice, oil etc.

Out of all the things once widely sold in the shops and in the supermarkets, I missed the sanitary products and toothpaste the most. I wasn’t quite eleven when I had my first period, in 1988; our lives then were still peaceful and the shops were full of everything we needed for our personal hygiene. But, when the war started, we had to resort to cotton wool or cut up bath towels, which were then washed, boiled and reused. I now understand that this was an incredibly sustainable way of living and I am very proud of all of my viragoes, but it was really hard life for us. Those were some of the darkest times of my childhood, but we had no choice, we had to use what we had. Sadly, not many women would talk about this issue, out of period stigma and embarrassment, and I do apologise to my male readers if this part of my story offends you, but we have a duty towards our daughters, sisters and partners; it is incredibly important that we do discuss this vital part of a woman’s life, because period poverty still exists in the world and is a huge problem; it affects too many women and girls. This saddens me deeply, because I remember so well how hard and undignifying my life was, without basic hygiene products.

The shops had long stopped selling safe toothpaste, so we stuck to natural products; we used salt or bicarbonate soda to brush our teeth with. This used to leave a taste in my mouth, that I will not forget in a hurry!

It’s interesting, when I think of my childhood, my mind instantly takes me to positive places in my memory. I am absolutely fascinated by this. I remember this one particular day when we were at school; this one is a magical memory. Each child from my school received a Shoebox Parcel from Canada. Amongst other small items, in my box was a small Crest toothpaste. I will never forget this day. We were sitting in a freezing classroom when these parcels were given to us. I looked after my precious little tube of toothpaste so well, like it was made out of gold. My family and I shared it between us for months. I only allowed everyone to just barely touch it with their toothbrushes. Once it was all gone, we were back to salt. People’s resourcefulness was amazing.

We couldn’t buy coffee; people used to dark roast wheat, grind it and drink this instead of coffee. Smokers used to dry fruit tree leaves, roll them up and smoke them. Sadly, they’d also pick up old cigarette butts off the ground and reuse them.

Mum and I, together with our Baba, continued growing our own fruit and vegetables. Planting and growing vegetables was particularly a very joyous occasion. There was always someone in the village who was known for having good quality and plenty of vegetable seeds. My mum used to send me to them and we would exchange the seeds for food or for wool. I absolutely loved planting these seeds with my mum. There was such excitement within me knowing that very soon, new seedlings would be appearing from the ground, which meant food for our family and our animals. We would use some of the salad vegetables during the summer, but most of them were pickled, dried and carefully stored for winter. Soft fruits were used for jams and cordials. Walnuts, rose hip and herbs were stored in our attic, spread out on the floor, where they were kept dry, and our garlic, onions and corn on the cob was hung on the beams, beautifully platted together.

In the autumn, we used to store all of our apples in wooden crates, in our old farmhouse cellar. The root vegetables were kept in the ground, in the “root cellar”; they would pretty much last us for the duration of winter. We still continued keeping pigs, chickens and a few sheep on the farm; this kept us fed and well nourished. Having these animals on the farm was a wonderful excuse for my brother and I to go and spend more of our time with our granny. We absolutely loved helping her out. After our chores, Baba always used to reward us with warm bread and her delicious pekmez, a damson jam. When it was time for us to leave, to go home, she always used to get sad. She’d fill our backpacks with eggs, cheese and apples. I often have dreams of her standing at the top of the hill, waving at us and waiting for us to arrive.

As the supplies in our shop were sparse, our dad had to go away very often. After one of these long trips, he didn’t come home on the date he said he would. This was such a worrying time for us. We had no means of getting in touch with him at all. We didn’t know where he was. The rumours started circulating amongst our neighbours that he was arrested on the border with Serbia. Some of our “friends” started telling this to our faces. Some unknown people started phoning us. Mum told us not to answer. They left many threatening messages on our answering machine. They said that they had our dad and that they were going to kill him. We were so scared; I can’t even imagine how my mum felt. I still don’t know who these people were, and I still don’t understand why anyone would do such a thing. My husband tells me that such calls were a planned operation, to spread fear amongst people. We were all worried sick. After ten long days, our father came back. He appeared physically absolutely fine to us, perhaps a little thinner, but I could see that he was in distress.
He told us that something happened after he crossed the Serbian-Bosnian border. There was an incident where someone tried to forcefully take his lorry off him. My father knew how valuable a lorry full of flour was to our village. He knew that he only had one lorry left and that he probably will never get the rest of them back. He said that he never stopped negotiating and fighting for it, until they let him go. That’s all he said, that’s all we ever knew. He never mentioned it again. We never asked again. He said that we were very lucky and that we will not go hungry. As soon as dad was rested, he loaded his tractor trailer up and distributed the flour to the families that needed it the most. By this point, the Croatian supermarket chain with whom my parents had a franchise with, was no more. After dad’s return, he instructed us to give away the rest of the food supplies that we had left over in our warehouse, to the people in need, in our village. This was distributed to our Serbian and to our Muslim neighbours too.
As well as our shop, there was also a one-stop type shop in our village. They too, together with my parents, used to help the elderly and single mothers and their children. My mum and dad used to give out free shoes too. Whatever we could, we gave away.
The sense of community was always so strong around us. We always helped each other by returning favours to one another. There was a lady in our village who owned a sewing machine; she used to fix and patch up our clothes for a few eggs or some apples. Or there was a man in our village who was a good locksmith and he would fix things for people for a bottle of rakija. We also shared tools and small machinery to get by. If someone’s roof needed fixing, men would chip in. We also helped each other with weeding the crops, sorting and storing them for winter etc.
When you are going through unthinkable times, your community is your lifeline. Your community is your loving, protecting, nurturing family.
The situation around us was getting more and more unstable and changing very rapidly.
more and more illegal paramilitary groups were forming on all sides. These men used to drive through our village really fast, in their stolen cars, holding up nationalist flags through their car windows. Quite often they used to shoot into the air too, which was very frightening.
We didn’t know these people. They were not from our area; their presence was unsettling. They were spreading fear and uncertainty amongst us all.
My parents warned us about them. They told us that they were war profiteers. They told us not to speak to them, but if they ever asked us anything, we were to always pretend and say that we didn’t know much about anything, in-a-sense, to act stupid and uneducated.
Mum and dad told us to always greet them cheerfully, never to antagonise them. We listened to our parents very carefully. I don’t think that my brother and I ever told our parents how scared we were though. We wanted them to be proud of us.
Amongst all of this crazy, the most amazing thing happened.
My parents discovered that they were expecting. A baby that I could love, kiss, carry and look after. We were all so happy! My parents were so happy; but I do remember my mum crying a lot one evening. She said that she was so worried whether this baby will be delivered safely. She was so worried about the world that she was bringing this new life into. In that moment, when our beautiful mum was consumed by fear, she said that she wished she wasn’t pregnant. I cried with her too, but I kept saying to her that we will help her with the baby and that we will love the baby so much. I promised her that we will do whatever we can to make things easier for her.
In November 1991, our sister was born. Both our mother and our sister were perfectly healthy. Everything went perfectly and according to plan.
I was fourteen years old and my brother was almost twelve. Our sister was the best thing to ever happen to us, in the most uncertain of times. She was this beautiful, perfect baby. She brought so much happiness into our home. Our home was no longer this quiet and sombre home that it became; our home was filled with cooing noises and love for this new life.
We had no access to disposable nappies; the only nappies that we could find for her were muslin or terry nappies, handed down or made out of towels too. Cleaning them was an absolute nightmare! This would have been absolutely fine during any other season, apart from this very cold winter that she was born into. We had to rinse them, boil them, rinse them again and then hang them outside. I swear my fingers got stuck to the washing line a few times; it was freezing!
For the next few months, we had many kind visitors. My mother and our sister were given so many lovely presents. They were all homemade presents brought to her from so many different people, from our multicultural neighbours, despite the imminent war that was already geographically dividing us.
They made blankets, knitted clothes and woolly accessories for my sister. They kept bringing my mum cooked meals, so that she can rest as much as possible. My mum was breastfeeding my sister, these kind people wanted to make sure that both my mum & her baby were well nourished. This was such a humbling experience for us. So much kindness and effort went into helping us. These lovely people didn’t have much, but they shared with us what they could.
A continuous celebration of new life in our home was such an uplifting experience to observe. Our sister made us all so happy. Her birth was this amazing break that we all desperately needed. So much good came out of her birth. So much kindness. She was one guaranteed happiness in our lives. She was so quiet and slept so well.
One night particularly sticks to my mind. We had no power; all we had was a small white candle for the whole house. We got woken up by the sound of gunshots coming from the hills nearby. At one point it sounded like a hand grenade had gone off too. We all knew that we had to stay quiet. We rushed to check on our baby sister, and as we got close to her cot, with the help of a faint candlelight, we saw her smiling at us. But she remained perfectly quiet. It was incredible. As though she knew that she had to be.
Soon enough, it was spring again. Out of all seasons, I found our springs the most uplifting. Year in year out, no matter what was going on around us, new life would begin and flourish all around us. Over, and over again our fields and meadows would flower and produce the most beautiful, vibrant wild flowers.
Our orchards would blossom and produce new fruit; seeing new blossom meant food and nourishment was coming. We would get new lambs and new piglets that we would chase around the farm. The streams and our rivers would yet again teem with new fish and tadpoles. We’d have lots of little golden chicks pecking with their mother hen around our house.
This new life, in everything around me, indeed gave me hope and reassurance that nothing lasts forever. This era of fear and war will, indeed, one day end. Just like our long winters do too.

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.
By this point many of our Muslim neighbours had moved away from our village. Some of them simply moved abroad in search of a better life, or some had moved away to different parts of Bosnia, to live with their relatives where they were a majority. There were some rumours that some of the young men who had left, had joined a paramilitary group. I am afraid, I do not know any facts about this, so therefore I don’t feel comfortable writing about it.
In the early nineties, 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. I can’t bring myself to tell you how he was killed.
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 home to a wake, where traditional meals are served.
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.
We set off early, so that mum and dad could help out. Dad had already spent an entire day with S’s family, the day before, helping with setting everything up.
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 there and at one point we paused to take the view in. Our dad put my brother on his shoulders so that he could have a better view of our beautiful village. None of us said a word. We carried on walking in silence.
S’s mother was an old lady, dressed in black from head to toe. I remember her so well; she looked so stoic and gaunt.
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, 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, emotional 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. You never get used to it, you somehow get accustomed to it; you become numb.
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 could.
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 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 under 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 hadn’t that they might 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. Luckily, I never had to. 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.
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, my father did something very risky indeed, to protect others.
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 heartbreaking 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 friend, she could never abandon her 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! 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. At first, our relatives 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.
But thinking seriously about this period, my mum had so much going on. I sometimes struggle now as a mother of two, living in the UK, with a very supportive husband who is always home. I simply cannot imagine what it was like for parents living in any war, not knowing from day to day whether their children will be safe, fed or watered.
But 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.
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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.