I was fifteen years old and full of life, hope, naivety.
My wild spirit, however, was slowly morphing into a quiet, worrying, overthinking, too sensitive kind of a creature. I craved silence and nature.
Whenever I could, I would find a few moments on my own, to distance myself from the frequent war talk and constant listening of the news, coming from a radio which was powered by a car battery. I would withdraw, without saying anything to anyone. I had to have my escape whether this was at home on my trusted sofa by the window at night, or in my natural habitat, the wilderness.
I have always been a hopeless romantic too. Like any healthy teenage girl, I started thinking about what it would be like to have a boyfriend. I often dreamed of having my own big family one day, at least four children and a sporty, hardworking husband. I know, this all sounds silly and cliché, but when you are growing up in the middle of crazy and where nothing is cliché, you crave it. You dream of safety, nine to five life, love and comfort. This was nothing but a dream.
Whenever I ventured out into my wilderness, I knew my safe, physical, boundaries very well. As the time went by, and as the war got a lot more dangerous, I had to restrict my walks to just the edges of our forest. I missed my long thinking walks and the very familiar wild environment. I missed the smell & the shades of the deep forest and the soft, silky feel of the moss on the rocks that I used sit on. I missed the heights of “my” hills.
Our parents, mum, would speak to us very often and explain where strategically we were positioned and what the risks of us being attacked were. And if we got attacked, our parents had a plan. They always had a plan for everything and they would make it clear to us, what ever happened, they had a solution; we, the children, would be ok.
Indeed, every now and again, our valley was shelled. During these attacks, because of our safe three level, three concrete floors house, our neighbours would come to us as soon as they would hear the explosions and we would all run and hide in our cellar.
At first, as soon as we were in the cellar, a sense of fear and adrenaline rushing through our bodies would overcome us, followed by deathly silence. We used to all sit on the floor and wait. Nobody ever spoke during these long attacks, as if we were afraid that they would hear us, they would know where we were hiding. Even the young ones, our babies and toddlers, kept quiet. There is something almost majestic about the sound of the shells falling in the distance.
You go into some part of your subconsciousness that tricks you into thinking that this was not real. You start thinking: “This is not happening to us. This isn’t our reality.”
The sound of the shells falling and exploding, almost sounded like we were extras in a WW2 movie. But we weren’t, this was happening. To us. It was very real.
I still find it fascinating that even in those moments we, the children, felt safe. Or we were just too young to understand the risks and the consequences of the attacks. But perhaps most of all, our parents made us feel safe & reassured. We were all in it together.
Our dad, like so many fathers then, wasn’t with us. Our homes were mostly occupied by women and children. Dad had been doing his war equipment & aid transport job for quite a while. This broke my mum, she missed him terribly. She is one very loving and funny lady, she absolutely loves to have a good laugh, especially at her own expense, but during those times she went very quiet. Her safe place was by the burning fire of our range; she spent many evenings sitting on her favourite handmade wooden stool, whilst watching the fire. She & the war mothers had to remain strong, she had three children to look after.
By this point there were many evening curfews in place, but we were still able to go out for a limited amount of time. This felt like being released from prison.
Every now and again, my mum would let me go out with my friends in the evening for a little while, into our tiny town that had just a handful of cafes which in the evenings turned into nightclubs. Our town is approximately seven kilometers away from our village.
My friends and I used to get so excited about these little outings! Like all teenage girls, we used to spend hours getting ready. Our resources were very limited; we’d share our makeup and clothes between us, so we didn’t wear the same clothes every time we went out. This was all terribly exciting. We used to giggle all the way into town. We’d walk there and back. Thinking about it now, this was insane. We could have been intercepted at any one time, especially on the way back when it was already dark.
During one of these nights was the first time I truly fell in love. I remember the moment I saw him, so well. He was tall, sporty looking, with short brown hair; he had bright blue eyes. Gorgeous smile!
We were introduced by a mutual friend. I was the only one out of my friends who didn’t smoke at this time; this caught his attention. He said that he was a non-smoker too and that he was really impressed that I didn’t smoke. He said: “Did you know that Vesna was a goddess of spring?”. This made me so happy, not many people knew this about my name.
He joined us at the table and pulled a chair to sit next to me. My teenage heart was racing like crazy! I was trying so hard not to show my almost physical reaction to him. I was so nervous. But I truly shouldn’t have been, he was so nice and so friendly.
That night we chatted about anything and everything; we got on so well, we laughed so much. He too had this desire to one day, when this war was over, travel and explore the world. We joked and agreed that one day we’d visit New Zealand together.
At this time of my life, talking to boys was not my best skill. I absolutely hated that awkward stage where you just don’t know what to say and you end up sounding like a complete plonker! But talking to him was so easy. He was an intelligent, open minded soul. I think, from that moment on, I dreamed of marrying him every single day.
When we parted that wonderful evening, I gave him our home phone number. He said that he’d call me the next day and he did. His phone calls were magical. I used to get butterflies in my tummy every time I knew he’d be calling me.
To keep our relationship a secret, if my mum answered the phone, he’d say that he was my school friend. At this particular time of my life, my mum didn’t want me to date anyone. These were dangerous times; my mum was always worried that I’d meet someone dishonest. She had enough worry as it was. But I knew I was safe. He was lovely.
I remember telling my best friends about him: how different he was from all the other boys I knew, how kind he was, how insightful and forward thinking he was. He was absolutely stunning too. I was so excited; I was utterly in love!
After many happy & meaningful phone calls, we eventually started dating. It was amazing, and I was constantly on cloud nine. He came from a different town, so unfortunately, we didn’t get to see each other very often because petrol was very sparse then. But the very little time that we spent together was magical to me. We would talk for hours and we both loved walking too. We both loved our stunning natural surroundings. We hiked through the forests a lot; we used to sit high up on this rock that overlooked my beautiful river. We would close our eyes and imagine a world outside of our country’s borders.
We dated for a year in secret. My mum was still too shy to talk to me about boys. I desperately wanted to tell her how nice he was and how kind he was to me.
He was two years older than me. When his eighteenth birthday came, this was such a bittersweet occasion on so many levels. I couldn’t go to his family birthday party, it was too far away for me to go there and come back in time before the curfew. I remember I was so angry at the whole situation that we were in. I was so upset.
I was also absolutely terrified; I knew what was coming. He had to go to war too. I became fearful even more.
I always worried about our dad but worrying about my love was different. I loved him deeply. I was going to have my four babies with him one day, after we’d traveled the world.
I got to see him a few days after his birthday. He came to say goodbye. He reassured me that everything would be ok and that we had our lives ahead of us, together. I held him so tightly when we said our goodbye. I wanted to remember the smell of his skin and the colour of his eyes. Bright blue. We made our undying promises. He left.
That day I skipped school. I went for a long walk, I sat on our rock above the river, making sure I made plenty of room for him. I closed my eyes, listened to the river & imagined him sitting next to me, holding my hand.
16th of February 1994.
It was my good friend’s sixteenth birthday party. I remember it so well, we had no electricity.
It was very rare that we had any electricity at this point, our evenings were spent indoors in candlelit rooms, listening to the radio powered by wires connected to a car battery. My friends and I would go to each other’s homes and we’d play drinking games and we sometimes played the Ouija type board game. This was hilarious because we had a thief amongst us, we all knew this person’s “secret” habits, and whenever we played this game, this person would always say that they suddenly had to go home, and they’d absolutely leg it across the bridge. Crossing the bridge at night was extremely dangerous, but I suppose “a ghost telling all of us” about this person’s stealing habits was lethal! Ha!
This party was the same. One candle, homebrewed alcohol and some music on the radio. We sang and danced, like only teenagers can, completely oblivious to the outside world. We were so happy!
Suddenly someone knocked on my friend’s front door and to our delight, it was my friend’s brother who had somehow managed to come home from war to surprise his sister on her birthday.
We were all absolutely hysterical with happiness. He was home, and he was alive and well. He hadn’t been home for three months. It was amazing. We all hugged him a lot.
Once things calmed down a bit, he said that he wanted to speak to me in private.
We sat down on the floor in the hallway. I was a little drunk I think. I kept giggling and saying: “What? What? What is it? Tell me!”
He lifted his head up and said:
“Aleksandar was shot by a sniper. He died two days ago. They tried everything, but they couldn’t save him. I am so sorry. His funeral was yesterday.”
My Aleksandar. Dead. He was already buried. My Aleksandar.
The whole room started spinning around me. I felt faint. The tears were absolutely streaming down my face, silently. It was my friend’s birthday. It was her night and her brother had just come home. I didn’t want to spoil it for her.
I just took my coat, put my boots on and very quietly left. It was bitterly cold outside, the moonlight was so bright, I could see the steam coming off the river. It looked breathtaking.
I stopped by the river and I wept. Losing him hurt so much. My pain was almost physical, I was shaking whilst I cried silent tears. He was my dream, my dream man. I was going to have my four babies with him. I wanted to hug him so desperately. I wanted him to hold me tightly how he used to. I wanted to see his face and kiss it. I wanted to inhale the smell of his skin whilst he is holding me, hugging me. I wanted to talk to him. More than anything, I wanted to talk to him. I was in shock; my absolute darkest & worst fears became my reality.
I stayed by the river until my feet and fingertips were so cold, they became numb. I ran home, slipping along the way and scraping my fingertips on ice and the hardened snow. When I got home, before I went into the house, I quickly wiped my tears with my sleves, took some deep breaths and I walked in. Mum was sitting by the fire, no candlelight; she wanted to save the candle for the next night, she said. My brother and sister were already asleep. “Now that you are back, I will go to sleep too, I’m tired. Keep the fire going.”
This was my saviour. I sat in our living room, on my favourite sofa and wept, silently in the dark. I kept seeing images in my head of him hurt. He must have been so cold when fell into the snow. I felt his pain deep inside. I knew he was gone, that his spirit had left his body, but I kept thinking how cold he must be lying in the freezing ground. It hurt, it hurt deep inside me…I felt sick. I felt so angry and desperate to see him. Knowing that I will never see him again was killing me. I cried so much that night. I cried for his parents and his sister too. I desperately wanted to visit them, to tell them that I loved him so much too & how sorry I was, but I had no means of getting to them. There was no transport. All I could do was pray for them and for my Aleksandar.
For a long while, this was my life. My evenings were spent like this, crying on my own in the dark, going through my stages of grief. I tried so hard to accept that a young life was lost,
that my love was lost. I couldn’t help but feel this tremendous anger! Why him?! Why take him?! He was too young. We had a loving future ahead of us. Why me?!
To me, to this sixteen-year-old suffering soul, at that time, his death was the end of my world. I know, I was very young. I was in my formative, most vulnerable years. My whole life was ahead of me.
Unfortunately, as you can imagine, my situation was not unique. There were many, many people in my country who had lost their loved ones. I felt that I had no right to grieve openly; wives had lost their husbands, mothers had lost their sons and children had lost their daddies.
This knowledge, however, didn’t extinguish my pain. To my young mind, he was my forever.
What I didn’t understand was what a lasting effect his death would leave on me. Losing him, and friends after him, affects me to this day. It affects me as a wife and as a mother. I have to fight my fears of losing my precious, loved ones, daily.
I never spoke to my mum about Aleksandar’s death. She knew, my friends’ parents told her.
My mum was already broken. Her husband, her younger brother, her husband’s two brothers and many, many of my parents’ friends were at war. She didn’t know where they were, there were no phone calls or emails to their frontlines then. She had three children to look after and somehow feed us and keep us safe. She had so much on her shoulders.
I didn’t want to break her even more by telling her how hurt I was; that I was grieving. I grieved on my own. But in her own way, she helped me. She made sure that I had plenty of time on my own in the darkness of our evenings.
Death was something that we, teenagers, didn’t talk about. It was too hurtful to talk about it. There was too much of it around us. My friends knew what had happened, but we never spoke about him.
I wrote him letters. So many. Writing these letters gave me peace and solace. I stored them in my room, tucked away in my bed. For nobody to ever see them or read them. They were just for him.
I never got to see his grave. But after more than two decades, he is still a massive part of me. He strengthened my belief in bigger and better world that was out there. Not just Bosnia and our horrid civil war.
He reinforced my desire to travel and he reinforced my thirst for learning. He helped me broaden my understanding of the world. With him, I was whole. Without him, I was broken for a long time.
I think I was broken until I met my husband. It took my husband a long time to build me back up. His love, determination and patience has helped me mend my broken, fragile being. But I feared, I feared, and I fear. I feared that whomever I loved, that they would die too.
Even after twenty-four years, writing about Aleksandar was still so hard and raw.
But I can tell you that I am filled with love and nothing else.
The only way we can heal is by fully embracing the pain and the love that we felt for this person. Fully and truly and thoroughly. We have to let it hurt, we have to cry it out, write it out, run it out, walk it out…whatever works. Please, if you are grieving, just let it all out, do whatever works for you.
And only then we can celebrate this wonderful person we loved so deeply, and only then we can move on, but never forget.
I was fifteen years old and full of life, hope, naivety.