4. “…this will one day end.”

Ever since the Bosnian war ended, I have only heard it described, in books and movies, in terms of the atrocities.
Even now, after more than two decades, I can’t read the books or watch the movies. The fearful child in me still finds them too upsetting, too negative and all too often shockingly one-sided.
The hurt, the fear and the losses are still too raw, even after all these years. This is true for many, like me, who lived through the war but in my case there is an added factor; my people, the Bosnian Serbs, are seen as the aggressors and there is no sympathy for those of us who were victims just like everyone else.
I remember one evening in 2003, when my husband and I were living in Cardiff. I was sitting on the floor, with paperwork scattered all around me. The TV was talking to itself in the background. Suddenly, a familiar language caught my attention. I looked up and I saw that a program about the Bosnian Civil War had started. My husband was working in his office upstairs.
I started watching it and COULD NOT believe my eyes. The subtitled translations of the native serbo-croat speakers bore little or no relation to what I could hear them actually saying. Worse, it wasn’t simply poorly edited; the subtitles often stated the exact opposite of what the speaker had said. It was utterly and completely manipulated.
I felt anger and shame and I got so upset, I burst into tears. Why were these media giants doing this?! What was their agenda? What was their gain, from all of this falsehood?
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 into the night. He explained to me that the media, in any country, will always simplify the news, even so-called “factual” documentaries, to appease the viewers, the general public. He explained that there had to simply be a bad side and a good side; the nuances and complexities of the real world are filtered out long before they reach the tv screen or the newspaper print.
It felt 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.
Of course, people who believed they shared my ethnic identity did dreadful things during that war, but they were a minority of idiots and psychopaths, just like you find in any population, who found themselves in a position to entertain their twisted desires. All the parties to that war, let’s be clear, did dreadful things: there is nothing intrinsically better or worse about one group of people than another – but the media cannot represent that complex picture to their viewers and their readers, so one group must become the ‘baddies’ and the rest, the valiant ‘goodies’.
A war is a very lucrative endeavour. I was too young to know and too young to understand these 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 elsewhere in the world. The only thing I could do, from that moment of realisation onwards, was to stay truthful and say things the way I saw them with my own innocent, hopeful, childish eyes; show the world what we were really like as people.
I want to tell you about the good people in my life, from my country and from the world, because kindness is universal. I want to tell you about the kind, generous, perhaps a little naïve, good people of Bosnia , both Serbian like me and of other identities, that the media didn’t write or report about. Their kindness and bravery was heroic and selfless and blind to division and discrimination, even in terrifyingly difficult times. Their kindness at times was a lifeline to many.
Most people from this part of the world, who came into my life, were amazing. They were extraordinarily kind and brave. They overcame fear and obstacles 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.
Unfortunately, certain events, some painful events, have to be told in their true light, in order for me to paint the full picture.

In the late eighties or early nineties – I can’t remember exactly when but I was in my early teens – 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 would be split into many different countries. Bosnia as it once was would never be the same again.
At this, Dad suddenly got very serious. He stood up, towering over us, clenching his jaw and his fists. He was a physically and personally impressive man.
He didn’t sugar-coat it for us at all. He said that things would at times get nasty, dangerous and violent. He said that some people would 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 would do their best for us to never go hungry or be without clothes and shoes; they promised they’d keep us warm (no mean feat, in a Bosnian winter).
Dad choked up and this alone scared us. For him to be so emotional, things must surely be bad. I started crying and tears were silently falling down our mother’s face. You see, she knew that Dad would have to go war too.
The atmosphere was sombre in the living room. At one point, after a lot of silence, my dad said some words that have stayed with me ever since.
“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 people in the eyes, without any guilt, without any fear, with confidence … knowing that we didn’t do anything to harm them, hurt them or take what’s theirs! 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.”
Then 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 it wasn’t until a lot later, when our childish, innocent eyes were exposed to the darkness of people’s souls, that we really understood what he had meant.

Over the next couple of years, the economy in the country rapidly slowed down. Dad could no longer keep his drivers, so sadly, one by one, 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 we could do.
On January the 9th, 1992, the mostly Serbian part of Bosnia where we lived proclaimed itself as a separate entity from the rest of Bosnia; 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 goods, now stood bottles of oil and vinegar, boxes of salt and sugar and bags of rice and dry pasta. The shop floor was mostly lined with pallets of bags of flour. We no longer had access to spices, condiments, and the foods that younger generations were used to. Everyone had to be very resourceful. I remember thinking how lucky we were to still have our elders near us, to teach us how to be resourceful and creative, but then I realised that they were only resourceful because they had already survived the Second World War. I was too aware of their hardships; this really upset my sensitive mind but I loved their stories of bravery and love.
Of all the things once widely sold in the shops and in the supermarkets, I missed the basic hygiene products the most, the things that we used to take for granted. We could no longer buy toothpaste and sanitary products. Period poverty was a heart breaking, taboo issue. In June 1988, I had my first period; I was still only ten. 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.
My Mother Nature-conscious mind now understands that this was a sustainable way of living and I am very proud to have experienced this life as a young girl and as a young woman, but nevertheless it was a 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 to me about this issue – and believe me I had many questions – out of period stigma and embarrassment. Culturally, it wasn’t something we openly talked about. I do apologise to my male and female readers if this part of my story makes you uncomfortable, however it is reality and we have a duty towards our daughters, sisters and partners to openly discuss this vital part of a woman’s life. 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 too, 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: although, as I have said, this was a dark time, when I think of my childhood, my mind instantly takes me to positive places. I remember one particular, magical day when we were at school. Each child from my school received a Shoebox Parcel from Canada. Amongst other small items, in my box was a small Crest toothpaste. We were sitting in a freezing, dark classroom, on cold wooden benches, when these parcels were given to us. Our young faces lit up with such excitement and wonder, as joyful giggles could be heard echoing down the school’s long, concrete corridor. I looked after my precious little tube of toothpaste so well, as though it was made of gold. My family and I shared it between us for months. I only allowed others to 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 prepare this as though it was 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’ (my grandmother), continued growing our own fruit and vegetables. Planting and growing vegetables was a particularly joyous activity: such simple labour took our minds off what was happening, at least for a while. There was always someone in the village who was known for having good quality 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 for 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 mould free, and our garlic, onions and corn on the cob was hung up on the beams, beautifully plaited 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.
Whenever Dad could, he 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.
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 had been 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. Physically, he appeared 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 and 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, 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. All this charity was shared among everyone in the village, regardless of their identity or their religion. Most were Serbs but there were Muslim and Croat neighbours too.

As well as our family’s shop, there was also another small shop, run by our neighbours. They too, together with my parents, used to help the elderly and single mothers and children. My Mum and Dad used to give out free shoes too. Whatever we could, we gave away to those who needed it, no matter what their religion or their family name. They would have done the same for us.

The sense of community was always so strong around us. There was an economy of favours. There was a lady in our village who owned a sewing machine; she used to fix and patch up our clothes in exchange for a few eggs or for 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’ (the locally distilled plum schnapps). We also shared tools and small machinery to get by. If someone’s roof needed fixing, men would chip in. We pitched in 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. Without being part of an organic community, we would not have survived.

Despite this strong community, the situation outside and around our little valley 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.

But then, 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 happy too but I do remember my mum crying a lot one evening. She said that she was so worried whether this baby would 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 it so much. I promised her that we would do whatever we could to make things easier for her.

So, one bitterly cold November, our sister was born. Both our mother and our sister were perfectly healthy. Everything went according to plan. By then, 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 a beautiful, perfect baby. She brought so much happiness into our home. Our home was no longer this quiet and sombre place it had become since the start of hostilities; instead, it was filled with cooing noises and baby smells 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 towelling, handed down from other families or simply fashioned from bathroom towels. This would have been absolutely fine during any other season, but this was a typically harsh, Bosnian winter in wartime. 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; winter in our part of the world can regularly see twenty degrees below zero, for days on end.

For the next few months, we had many kind visitors. I think the presence of a baby must have been a blessed distraction for many. My mother and our sister were given so many lovely presents. They were all homemade and handmade presents brought to her from so many different people: Serb, Croat, Muslim. They made blankets and knitted clothes and woolly accessories for my sister. They kept bringing my mum cooked meals, so that she could rest as much as possible. My mum was breastfeeding my sister and these kind people wanted to make sure that both she and 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, even at the best of times, let alone during a war, but they shared with us what they could, and this despite the differences the politicians wanted us to feel between us.

A continuous celebration of new life in our home was such an uplifting experience to observe. Our sister made us all so happy. She was so quiet and slept so well.
One night particularly sticks in my mind. We had no power; all we had was a small white candle for the whole house. We were 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, to avoid detection. If the fighters, whoever they were, knew there were people in the house then … I dread to think what might have happened. I might not be writing this now.

We rushed – quietly – 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. As though she knew that she had to be, to protect all of us.

Soon enough, it was Spring again. Out of all seasons, I found Spring 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 wildflowers.

Our orchards would blossom and produce new fruits; 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 garden.

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.

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5. The Power Of Nobodies.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

13. I cherish hope, deeply.

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

Stopanja, Serbia, September 1995.

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

“Don’t worry about your grandmother. She’s a strong, strong woman. She’s been through worse in the WW2. She will pull through this and one day you’ll tell her story.” As numb as I was, her words enveloped me and gave me a glimmer of hope.

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

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

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

All I wanted was to be in one safe place with my whole family. And I prayed and begged the universe and all the powers of existence to keep my granny and my daddy safe.

I kept thinking about our home. Our home, our house that mum and dad worked so hard for. Our home truly was our castle, our fort; it kept us and our neighbours safe for so long. The realisation that we will never have our home again was crippling and it made me feel sick with fear.

Where now?

I eventually fell asleep, exhausted.

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

I felt as though I was floating through this safe & normal life that I was suddenly living in. I had all I needed, in material sense. What ever my two cousins had, I had too; my uncle and aunt made sure that I always had everything that I could possibly need. I knew how lucky I was, but I couldn’t feel it. My young mind felt guilty for being taken care of.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My mum gives the best cuddles.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hearing our friends was wonderful, but there was this one family, old neighbours of ours, that kept bloody phoning my mum; they thrived on bad news. They told us that there were rumours going around that some people had seen our dad; that he had gone grey and had lost a lot of weight. This was so hurtful. I couldn’t understand why they’d tell us this. Surely they knew that this would upset us. It pained us to think that he didn’t have enough food, that he might have been hungry, or depressed, or worse. But our mum and auntie Vera kept telling us to be strong and to believe that we’ll see him again soon.

By the time I had heard my father’s voice, two months had passed. Two whole months without speaking to him, without hearing his voice.

I worried so much, but I always felt such pride when I thought of him. He was our strong, flawed, cheeky super hero.

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

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

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

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

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

In the third week of November, 1995, dad phoned again. He phoned and his voice was emotional and breaking up. I remember I felt really scared, I was thinking the worst.

“I have found your Baba. She’s alive. She’s alive and well and still has a cow and a few chickens left. She has food! But…”, there was a lengthy pause, “…our home is gone.” Dad’s voice broke, he was trying so hard not to cry. “It’s been destroyed. We no longer have a home. But we are all alive and strong. We will work hard and build another one, don’t you worry!”

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

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

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

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

Our Baba, who was seventy four at this point, was still alive. But she wasn’t safe. She was still living in her home, but now, behind enemy lines. Find out that she was alive, gave us hope, but a fearful one. Even if, one day, we were able to come home and look for her, will she still be there. Will the Forces kill her on their withdrawal? Will we see her again, was a question we asked ourselves every day. Especially my dad.

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Thank you so much for your time and for your support. Writing this has been an incredibly humbling & a very cathartic journey for me. Please know that this is just a draft. The rest has been written & safely stored elsewhere 😉