Operation Storm; The great rescue. 9#

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.

Serbia. Becoming a refugee. 8#

Not long after my eighteenth birthday, my father came home for a little R&R. Oh my goodness, we were so happy; 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.

The first exodus. 7#

Promises in hope.

In February 1993 was when some of my true, forever friends had to leave. In February 1993 was when 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.

Our dad came home one late afternoon, we were so happy to see him! He explained to us that he came back to say goodbye to our neighbours. 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 and asked me not to go to school tomorrow. He just said: “You go, spend this evening together, make sure they all have a lovely time. Be nice.”
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; 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.

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. It was a beautiful moonlit 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. We hugged each other tightly and we said our goodbyes.

I went home to my family, hugged my mum and cried. She said that they were heartbroken, these were their friends too. Dad wasn’t at home, I think he went to say goodbye to his friends too. They were 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 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. I woke up really early, my face was still swollen from crying. 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.

Eventually we all made our way to the bridge; there were two large parking spaces on either side of it. There were two busses there already and a handful of small trucks. The morning was a cold misty one.
I remember I stood there in disbelief; I was in denial, “This can’t be happening!”.
But it was. 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 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 friends to move back to our village, where they were deemed safe. 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.

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.

This was the first time I saw my father cry, apart from seeing him cry at various funerals. He cried when he saw me, and my brother say goodbye to our friends, we were all still just children. My mum was holding my sister who was crying because she was too cold. Mum carried her home, sobbing, herself.

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 door closed, and they were gone. Forever. I stood there for ages, waving.
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. These are 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. As I mentioned, I was a dreamer. 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 near far corner, enveloped by pastures and a mixture of deciduous and evergreen trees. From this corner is where our river slowly flows from. Our river Pliva has three sources that all meet together to form this stunning mountain river. It is truly a magical sight.

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 coming 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. 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, but our father wasn’t, and he had no proof. But, you see, he wasn’t bothered whether he was christened or not, he didn’t have time for this, 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. Nobody knows the truth. I remember this occasion so well, it was comical.

To the right of the bridge, you can see my old school, with a football pitch at the back of it and a big birch tree picnic area by the river. 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 these 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 ancient 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 colours 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 Sipovo. Sipovo 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 too. 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. Marina’s parents and our parents had been friends for a long time. They lived in town, not far from our school. Sometimes when the winter nights were so cold, and the snow was too deep, Marina’s mum and dad used ask me to stay with them and sleep over, so I didn’t have to walk home alone in the dark. I used to love these times. Marina was one of four children, she had three younger brothers. Their home was always so calm, harmonious and warm. Marina and her family were always so kind and generous to me. I still remember these nights so well. 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 knew I couldn’t, I had to suck it up and move on.

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 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.” I cried tears of happiness. My dad apparently, somehow through his wheeling and dealing, also 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.

The big move. 3#

Our school commutes were always so much fun. I lived at the top of the hill and as I made my way down to school every morning, I would knock on a few doors and eventually a little crowd of school children would be formed.

We would chat on the way and share the bread that we had been given for our mid morning snack. We would hop and 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 leggings, but by the time I would get to school, my leggings would have a few twigs attached to them or some thistle balls. 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. I was a nightmare! She eventually gave up when I was about ten.

This was all wonderful, unless we had to walk to school and back in winter. To me, our winters were magical. The snow would usually start falling in November, sometimes earlier, and it would snow for days on end! Then it would freeze over and the sun would show its face through the clouds. It would be sunny for days, but cold enough for the snow to stay intact. We would come home, have lunch, do our homework and then we would grab our sanke, our sled, and we would only come back into the house when it was too dark to keep going or when our fingers and toes became numb.

But when the weather was bad, that’s when our school commutes were really tough. By the time we would come back home from school, we would be absolutely soaked through by the snow and we would feel terribly frozen. We had no choice but walk up the hill, to go home from school. Sometimes our feet and hands would get so cold that we would cry. This was so painful. This was especially tough for us once my brother started school. He was the kindest and the most gentle child, ever. I used to get so upset if he was hurt, or when he was cold.

Sometimes our winters would last until early March.

I think this, seeing how hard it was for us to go to school in winter, more than anything else, prompted my mum and dad to move.

They decided to buy a house five minutes walk from our school. Apparently they had agreed years before they bought the house that when ever they got paid for anything, they would put half of the earnings into a savings account. They bought their house in cash, at the age of 28 and 30. How times have changed!

This home was their first home that belonged just to them. It didn’t belong to the rest of my father’s family; it was just theirs.

At first, we were all so excited. Our life seemed so much easier. Our walk to school and back was a doddle! But then we started missing our granny and the farm. We were no longer surrounded by animals. We no longer had so much space around us. I suppose, it was as though we had moved to the suburbia of our village.

Eventually, most of our animals from the farm, the sheep, the cows and most of our horses, were sold off and there were only a handful of animals left for our granny to look after. She simply had to keep some or she would have felt completely lost without them.

I remember, my brother and I were so upset, our best memories came from that farm, but there was nothing we could do. Johnny had to stay behind too. He didn’t like being in our new surroundings, he didn’t like being on a lead. This was heartbreaking.

We missed our old friends. I missed my “wild friends” & my wild ways.

Our parents gradually ventured into all sorts of businesses. They invested almost everything they had into machinery and building materials.

Within a few years, our one house turned into three terassed houses, with the original one in the middle. Each one had three levels, with solid concrete floors. My parents’ view was that one house was for me, one for my brother and one for them. Just in case things didn’t work out for us in life, we would always have a home of our own.

They opened a mini supermarket and a pool club on the ground floor. My uncle opened a cafe in our house too.  Dad also had a sawmill, which gradually grew into a small factory. They employed a lot of people from the village, all nationalities. We all had to work. Even my brother and I had our delegated jobs. These were very busy times!

Sometimes, unfortunately, because they became so busy, I resented my parents, my dad, so much. From our early teens, my brother and I started working too. When all of my new friends were going swimming in the river, I had to work in our shop, or clean the lorries etc. When I worked in the shop, my dad used to make me weigh all different types of foods, different sizes and textures, in various sizes of paper bags, until I got it right. He used to make me wrap things over and over again until they were wrapped to perfection. I swear I hated him sometimes. “Customer is always right! Even if your worse enemy walks into this shop, they are your customer first of all. Always greet them with a smile.” These words will forever stay with me.

They became very successful and my father’s transport company grew to a sizeable fleet of lorries. The success was great, but however, we got to spend less time together, we had fewer meals together.

I can’t say that I enjoyed these times. We had to grow up quite quickly.

But make no mistake, I was always, 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. Don’t be fooled, however; as I mentioned, we had to work bloody hard for it all. They never allowed us to be lavish or to show off. We never had expensive clothes, we never went on expensive holidays. We would go Croatia once a year. Which was amazing!

They didn’t want us to stand out visually from other children around us. They wanted us to learn what hard work was 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. You wouldn’t starve.”

These seemingly harsh words would dig deep into us; we couldn’t protest or argue against these. I don’t think we understood fully what this meant, until we got older and until we learnt how important good, honest working ethic is.

Unfortunately , 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 painful. I genuinely believed that everyone was good and that they meant what they said to me, so I was always honest with everyone. I got hurt so many times, without seemingly ever learning my lessons. I trusted everyone. You see, this is where my undying hopeaholism comes from. But our parents kept saying to me to be kind and that my time will come. I kept waiting for my time to come and I often had these imaginary arguments and come-backs in my head, but never really had the courage to say them.

I was no longer surrounded by just boys; I found myself to be part of a group of six girls, who lived in our emediate neighbourhood, in the “suburbia”. I had no idea what to do with some of them! I was so ill equipped. They played games that I wasn’t familiar with, that I didn’t understand. Those were real and mind games. I eventually learnt all the real, popular games that girls played, but I don’t think that I will ever understand some girls’ or some women’s mind games they play with one another. What’s the point. Say it, express yourself & move on!

My brother and I didn’t have any concept of “socially acceptable” friendships, when it came to race or different religions, background or wealth. We became very good friends with some children who lived a little further away from our house. We simply had many things in common with them. We loved playing and exploring together. And that was that. We didn’t care who they were. 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 dinner time.

When we, the Serbs, celebrated Easter, our Muslim neighbours would cook and colour some eggs for their children too. My friends’ parents didn’t want their children to miss out on all the fun that we were having by colouring and decorating the eggs.

We, too, used to sometimes go to their houses for the evening feasts after their fasts during Ramadan. We all absolutely loved it. It was such a special occasion for us. We loved “practicing” these new traditions; they were a wonderful novelty for us. We had these opportunities because our and their parents let us.

During the summer, I would, yet again, “borrow” a truck inner tube from my dad’s garage, blow it up and we would use it to float down the river on it. This was sooooo much fun! Unless we fell through the middle and scraped our backs on the valve. Ouch!

We used to walk for hours on end too, venturing into our local forest, sometimes even into our hidden away local cave system. Our parents never knew about this! Thinking about it now, this was crazy, because there were poisonous snakes everywhere, but we didn’t care. We had fun!

In the late summer, we would go into corn fields in the evenings, steal loads of corn, and then BBQ it on a fire, in the middle of a field. If it was a clear night, one of our friends would bring binoculars out and we would watch the moon through them. We would also sing rock songs in English, pretending that we knew all the words, all evening. It was hilarious! Those truly were the times. Oh, we used to also make cigarettes out of cut up grape vine and smoke them. Ha!

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 fulfill. I frequently “worked” in a Can Can bar; naughty minx!

During the winter we would mostly be sledding or building “igloos”. When the weather was bad, we would stay indoors and play card games, dominos or Ludo type games. We were never bored.

Our parents generally separated people into these groups:

Dobri ljudi – Good people, good hearted 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. My parents didn’t trust them. They said that some of them would cheat, do anything, to gain assets dishonestly without much effort. “Nothing is for free.”

This is how we lived. This is what they still live by. This is how I try to live, even now when I am thousands of miles away, my husband and I teach our sons the same ethics and values.

You see, when the general world talks about how the conflict in Bosnia started, they would generally say that the people of Bosnia hated each other all the time and that’s why they went to war. That’s absolute bollocks! We didn’t hate our friends, our neighbours. Yes, there were bad eggs here and there, but generally good people stayed clear of them, and that was that.

There was so much more to it. The trauma trail was too long. There was the centuries long influence of the Ottoman Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the WW1, the WW2; The traumas that came with these were immeasurable. The whole history of the Balkans is so intricate and complex. It simply cannot be simplified into a worldwide acceptable short explanation; simplification.

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. 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 or moral values. There will be leaders and there will be followers, but people need to be able to be these, who they want to be, without having to fit a general mould. General moulds always burst.

The big move was when I started growing up too; when I learnt about the meaning of the word cautious.

The big move was when I started being bullied, but even then my mum would 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 the one, you, right! Be careful, be cautious, but be open to compromise and acceptance.” Even when people hurt me, she would try to be fair, to everyone.

She is still the same. I love her so much.

“Live and let live. Love and let love.”

This is the view from my parents’ “new” home.

Out of the mouths of babes. 🙈

Jovan is our second son. He is four years old.

He is the seventh Jovan in our family. 🙂

Genetics is absolutely amazing and fascinating.

Jovan got his name after his grandfather, my dad, who is an unstoppable force, VERY spirited, funny, loving, generous and VERY stubborn. Some say that I am very much like my father. My husband would say, definitely! 😉

Jovan is truly my child. Not Rhys’s. Rhys was a good boy. He was a nice, well behaved child. I, however, was a wild child.

I don’t drive, you see, so I walk almost everywhere and I use buses a lot.

We were on the bus just the other day and a lovely family with a baby, joined us on the bus.
The lady wore a niqab. She had the most beautiful eyes. Jovan got intrigued. He lent forward and asked the lady:

“Excuse me. Are you a ninja?”

🙈🙈🙈🙈🙈🙈🙈🙈🙈🙈🙈🙈🙈😆

I wanted to die of embarrassment!!!

Luckily the lady had a great sense of humour. She said:

“I am actually. I’m a secret ninja. But you must not tell anyone.”

She was so, so lovely. And gorgeous. We all had such a laugh.

Jovan’s face was a picture! A tiny silent  “wow” left his mouth. His eyes didn’t leave her until she got off the bus.