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 Power Of Nobodies. 5#

Early Nineties. The toughest years. The numbing years.

To my young impressionable mind, what was happening during these years was too much to understand, too much to take in. Too much to fear.

By this point many of our neighbours had moved away from our village. Some of them simply moved abroad in search of a better life, or some had moved away to different parts of Bosnia, to live with their relatives where they were a majority. There were some rumours that some of the young men who had left, had joined a paramilitary group. I am afraid, I do not know any facts about this, so therefore I don’t feel comfortable writing about it.

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

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

I remember Stevan’s funeral like it was yesterday. It was a beautiful, sunny day.
We set off early, so that mum and dad could help out. Dad had already spent an entire day, the day before, helping with setting everything up.

There wasn’t a single white cloud in the sky.
Stevan’s family home was at the top of the hills, in a stunning location. From there you could see the whole valley in its full glory, with the river peacefully flowing away. I remember we walked up there and at one point we paused to take the view in. Our dad put me, then my brother, on his shoulders so that we could have a better view of our beautiful village. None of us said a word. We carried on walking in silence.

Stevan’s mother was an old lady, dressed in black from head to toe. I remember her so well; she looked so stoic. 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, but yet she held herself with such pride. I will never forget her, she truly left a lasting impression on me.

She was a true example of a strong, proud woman. She showed me that even in the most unimaginable grief, we can still appear to be strong and show strength in front of others; even if inside, we are dying.
She seemed to have been comforting everyone else around her. Without a doubt, she would have dealt with her grief in silence, once she was on her own, or in the presence of her closest confidante, for the rest of her life.

When we got back home, we were all so happy to see our baby sister. It was so nice to have cuddles with her after such a hard, emotional day. 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, he kissed her, and he 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 talked about it, we never asked.

Mum said that dad continued looking after Stevan’s mother whenever he could.
Unfortunately, Stevan was not to be the only friend or relative that my parents lost in this horrid war.
You never get used to it, you somehow get accustomed to it. You become numb.

Eventually, our father announced that he too will soon have to go to war. To this day, thinking about this still fills me with dread and it gives me shivers down my spine. We knew this was inevitable. He had to prepare us for the worst.

He said, to begin with, he would predominantly be deployed as a lorry driver, to deliver supplies. He knew all the main routes 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.

As a result of this, my father had to introduce us to weapons. At first, there was this nervous excitement in us. My brother, like most boys, thought they were cool. But very quickly our father told us that there was nothing cool about weapons. He was dead serious.
Our mother was absolutely terrified. She was worried sick about what would happen to our father. She knew she had to protect us, but she feared that she wouldn’t be able to handle any kind of weapons. She got terribly upset and told our father that she would never be able to use them. Dad was 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, which were kept under my bed. Can you imagine this happening to a teenage girl in the UK, in this day and age?
The weapons, brought so much fear in me and a huge sense of responsibility. They brought this fear in me that I might one day have to use them. Luckily, I never had to.

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 bullets from their cases and empty all the gunpowder on to the balcony floor, creating intricate shapes on the floor. 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.

Very quickly we all saw what weapons could do, what damage they could do. By we, 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. They would fuel their little night-time adventures with alcohol consumption.

You see, weapons desensitise people. Weapons are never necessary amongst civilians. Having lived through this, I just cannot understand how and why anyone would buy a weapon unregulated, illegally, anywhere. It saddens me so much and it terrifies me.

My parents got increasingly concerned about our neighbours’ children. One night an explosive device was thrown at one of the houses. At the time of the attack, this family had three young children in their house.

When mum and dad built our houses, they built them to sustain any form weather or attack. Perhaps my dad always suspected that this war would happen.

Our house was deemed the safest structurally, and because some of the nobodies feared my dad, we knew that we were as safe as we could be.
However, my father did something very risky indeed, to protect others. For the greater good.

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 children.
This was for the greater good, our parents said. “Always think bigger picture. This will one day end.”

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 pretty. 😉<<<<<<<<<
est smart-casuals on, plenty of aftershave on, combed his hair and kissed and hugged us goodbye. He didn’t say much, but we could see that he wiped his tears away as he climbed into his lorry. His lorry was white with a bright yellow cover 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, the house upkeep and with our sister. She was so much fun! A bundle of cuteness with lots & lots of curly hair. She was our happiness and our endless source of entertainment. We were usually in charge of her afternoon naps. She was such a deep sleeper! Every now & then, once she was asleep, my brother and I would sneak into her room and we would prop her up into a seating position, while she was still asleep, and then watch her all jelly-like flop backwards onto her bed. I know, this was very naughty, but this made us laugh so much; unless we got caught, then we were in a lot of trouble.

Around this time was when our Serbian relatives started arriving from Sarajevo, Breza and Travnik. These were my eldest uncle and his family, and my two aunts and their families. They were no longer safe where they lived, so they moved back into our village. At first, our relatives stayed with us, in our house, until they found an alternative accommodation.

This was a complete madness! My mum suddenly had seven children to feed as well as run everything else. I remember this once she was very stressed. We now laugh about this one glitch of hers. It was so funny!<<<<<<<<<
vening after a bit too much of crazy & bickering amongst all the children in our house, she asked me this: “Vesna, can you go and put all of our chickens on a lead and then give some corn to our dog.” Dead serious!<<<<<<<<<
utely 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.<<<<<<<<<
, she had so much going on. I sometimes struggle now as a mother of two, living in the UK, with a very supportive husband, who is always home…ahem! 😉

I simply cannot imagine what it was like for parents living in any war, not knowing from day to day whether their children will be safe.

But we all carried on. We had to, we had no other choice. We were lucky, we had a roof over our heads. We were safe. Our mum made sure that we were always grateful for what we had.

We just couldn’t stop thinking about dad.

“…this will one day end.”4#

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

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

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

I started watching it and COULD NOT believe my eyes. The translation of the program was completely manipulated to in-a-sense simplify the conflict, the war. What people were actually saying was translated to mean something completely different. It was utterly and completely manipulated. It was completely wrongly translated. Not just grammatically, but the complete opposite to what the interviewees were saying.

I was so angry. I got so upset. I started crying. My husband heard me and he rushed down the stairs. He very quickly realised what was going on and turned the TV off. Once I calmed down, he explained to me that the media will always simplify the news, the “factual” programs would too, to appease the viewers, the general public. He explained that there had to simply be a bad side & a good side. It felt so unfair. So unfair! I wanted to scream from the top of my lungs: “It’s not true! It’s not true!” But I was powerless.
Very quickly I realised that there was nothing I could do to change the way it was all reported in the UK, or worldwide. The only thing I could do is stay truthful and say things the way I saw them with my own eyes, show the world what we were really like as people.
From then on, I decided to tell mostly positive stories, where possible. Unfortunately certain events have to be told, in order for me to paint the full picture.
I want to tell you about the good people in my life, from my country. The kind, generous, in a way naïve, good people of Republika Srpska and Bosnia. Most of people from this part of the world, who came into my life, were amazing. I desperately want the world to hear about them. About the obstacles they overcame to help others, sometimes help others from the opposite side, the “enemy” side, by doing so they were putting their lives at risk. But they helped.

In the late eighties, early nineties, sadly I can’t remember exactly when, our mum and dad sat us down to talk to us about what they thought was going to happen. They said that our country was probably going to war and that Yugoslavia will no longer be;  it will be split into many different countries. My dad suddenly got very serious. He didn’t sugar-coat it for us at all.  He said that things will at times get nasty, violent, but that they will prepare us for it all. He promised that he will do his best for us to never go hungry or be without clothes or shoes, or firewood.

He choked up.

My brother and I started crying, we were only young. My mum started crying too. She knew that dad would have to go war too.

The atmosphere was sombre in our living room. At one point, after a lot of silence, my dad stood up and said:

“What ever 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,  we have to have a clear conscience. We have to be able to look at people in the eyes, without any guilt! Do you understand me?! You have to 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, don’t allow anyone influence your views and opinions. Many will try, believe me. Talk to us, we will explain everything you need to know.”

He stood up, he 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. When ever something troubled him, he would retreat to the forest for a little while. But once he was back, he’d be back to his normal cheeky self.

My brother and I didn’t understand the enormity of our father’s words. We thought we understood him, but not until things started happening personally to us.

Over the next couple of years the economy in the country rapidly slowed down. Our dad had to go away a lot more often. He could no longer keep his drivers, so he drove his lorries everywhere himself. Eventually his fleet of vehicles was mobilised by the army. He was left with just one lorry, a tractor and our family car.

Where once, on the shelves in our shop, stood luxury ingredients and goods, now stood bottles of oil and vinegar. The shop floor was mostly lined with pallets of bags of flour.

When ever he could, dad would drive away to different parts of the country, where he could get the most food for his money. He said that he was stocking up on supplies that had a very long shelf life. These were things like flour, dry pulses, pasta, rice, oil etc.

We continued growing our own fruit and vegetables. Planting and growing vegetables was particularly a very joyous occasion. There was always someone in the village who was known for having good vegetable seeds. My mum would send me to them and we would exchange the seeds for food or wool. I absolutely loved planting these seeds with my mum. There was such an excitement in me knowing that very soon, new seedlings would be appearing from the ground, which meant food for our family and our animals. We would use some 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 were stored in our attic, where they were kept dry. In the autumn, we would store all of our apples in wooden crates, in our 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. This kept us fed and well nourished.

During one of our father’s long trips, he didn’t come home when 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 that he was arrested. 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 says that these such calls were a planned operation, to spread fear amongst people. We were all worried sick.

After ten long days, our father came back. He appeared physically absolutely fine to us, perhaps a little thinner, but I could see that he was in distress. He told us that something happened when he was crossing 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 apparently never stopped negotiating and fighting for it, until they let him go. That’s all he said, that’s all we ever knew. He never mentioned it again. We never asked again. He said that we were very lucky and that we will not go hungry. He told us to be grateful.

As well as our shop, there was also a one-stop type shop in our village. The people who owned the shop and my parents used to distribute basic supplies for free to old people and to single mothers and their children. They did this when ever they could, when ever it was safe to do so.

Things around us were getting more and more unstable and changing very rapidly.

More and more illegal paramilitary groups were forming on all sides. We didn’t know these people. They were not from our area, but their presence was unsettling. They were spreading fear and uncertainty amongst us all.

My parents warned us about these people. 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. They 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 my parents how scared we were though. We wanted them to be proud of us.

Amongst all of this crazy, the most amazing thing happened. My parents discovered that they were expecting a child. A baby! A baby that I could love and carry and look after.

We were all so happy! My parents were so happy; but I do remember my mum crying a lot one evening. She said that she was so worried whether this baby will be delivered safely. She was so worried about the world that she was bringing this new life into. She said that she wished she wasn’t pregnant. I cried with her too, but I kept saying to her that we will help her with the baby and that we will love the baby so much and that we will do what ever we can to make things easier for her.

On the 21st of November, 1991, our sister was born. Both our mother and our sister were perfectly healthy. Everything went perfectly and according to plan.

I was fourteen years old and my brother was almost twelve. Our sister was the best thing to ever happen to us, in the most uncertain of times. She was this perfect baby. She brought so much happiness into our home. Our home was no longer this quiet and sombre home that it became; our home was filled with cooing noises and love for this new life. We had no access to disposable nappies; the only nappies that we could find for her were muslin or terry nappies. This would have been absolutely fine during any other season, apart from winter! We had to rinse them, boil them, rinse them again and then hang them outside. I swear my fingers got stuck to the washing line a few times; it was freezing!
For the next few months, we had many, many visitors! My mother and our sister were given so many lovely presents. They were all homemade presents brought to her from so many different people, from our multicultural neighbours, despite the imminent war that would soon geographically divide us.

They made blankets, knitted clothes and woolly accessories for my sister. They kept bringing my mum cooked meals, so that she can rest as much as possible. My mum was breastfeeding my sister, these kind people wanted to make sure that both my mum & her baby were well nourished. This was such a humbling experience for us. So much kindness and effort went into helping us. These people didn’t have much, but they shared with us what they could.

A continuous celebration of new life in our home was such an uplifting experience to observe. She made us all so happy!

My sister’s birth was this amazing break that we all desperately needed. So much good came out of her birth. So much kindness. She was one guaranteed happiness in our lives. She was so quiet and slept so well. It was as though she knew that she shouldn’t cry at night. Especially during the nights when we had no power; when the only light we had was a single candle.

Soon enough, it was spring again.

Out of all seasons, I absolutely loved spring and summer, 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. This indeed gave me hope over and over again.

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.

Wild child. 1#

Around thirty years ago, one cosy autumnal evening, my brother and I were sitting on the floor, with photo albums spread around us, reminiscing about the good times that passed, whilst mum and dad chatted away.

We hadn’t long lived in our new home. Everything was still shiny and new. My heart was aching. I wanted to be where we once lived, where we were the happiest.

I came across this particular page full of my parents’ wedding photos. I looked at these beautiful pictures for a while, caressing them with my little fingers. I admired the way my parents looked; they both looked so young and stunning. I looked at the dates written under the photos and I got intrigued. My parents got married in January and I was born in August.

I piped up: “Ah, you never told me that I was a premature baby!”

My mum went bright red in her face, mumbled something and left the living room very quickly; she apparently suddenly had something to do. Dad found this whole situation very amusing. He laughed and laughed. He eventually said: “There was nothing premature about your birth. Everything was done and happened on time, and at the right time.” He winked & carried on giggling. Mum was nowhere to be seen ;-).

My mum was only eighteen when she had me, and dad was only twenty one. Two years later they had my brother.

When they met, they were very different to each other, and they are still so different.

He is the fire, she is the earth.

When they met, mum was this gentle, beautiful, slender young woman who came from a very quiet farming family, whose parents absolutely adored each other and their three children. She was their only daughter. She was adored and protected. She was quite shy.

My father…my father was this very handsome, strong-willed, fiery, hard working, untamed, stubborn force of nature. He came from a blended family, full of very strong characters.

My father is one of seven, he has two sisters, one brother, one half brother and two half sisters. They all shared the same father. To begin with, they ALL lived on the family farm.

When my mother was pregnant with my brother, my paternal grandfather passed away. Dad was only in his early twenties, he was then appointed to run the farm and look after everyone else. A lot to take on for a young family. Those were very challenging times.

To everyone around them, my parents appeared to be too different to stay together, but underneath it all they had this undying love for one another that would ultimately pull them through some unthinkable times. They had the same moral values and they both had massive hearts.

This year they celebrated forty years of marriage. I am pretty sure that there were many people who doubted that their marriage would last this long. But It has. Their love for each other has proved everyone wrong, overpowered everything.

Out of this young love, their first child was born, on time; Me. Their wild child.

I apparently hardly ever slept as a baby. I never sat still, I started walking at nine months and I never stopped talking. Oh, I never stopped climbing trees or dancing either. Apparently, I didn’t walk like other girls did, I skipped, kicked stones along the road or I danced. I quite like the idea of me like this, but I can see now that I have a wild child of my own how “refreshing” this must have been at times.

One of my aunties tells me this story of how when I was a toddler I had tones of curly hair, and at one point it desperately needed cutting. She was and still is a great hairdresser. However, the only way she could get me to keep still while she cut my hair, was to pin me down, in between her legs. So she did. You get the picture!

Luckily for my parents, when my brother was born, he was this perfect child who slept really well, behaved really well and he was always very calm. He is still the same, but now he is 6’4” tall, a true gentle giant.

When we were little, we absolutely adored each other, but as we got older, we started to fight a lot. By fighting, I mean proper physical fighting. This used to worry our mum sick. When we were in our early teens we fought so much, until my brother got taller than me. Even then, I would try and launch myself at him, but he would put his hand on my head firmly and very calmly keep me at arm’s length. I still tried to reach him with my hand, fist, from underneath, but I no longer succeeded. It was time to let go. It infuriated me that he was stronger than me. I know, I was a girl, he was a boy, boys eventually grow up and get stronger, but none the less, it was a hard pill to swallow. I wanted us to be equal, even in strength.

My brother is a wonderful human being and a great father. We named our first son after my brother; Dragan.

Until I was ten, we lived on this big, family dairy farm.

There were two cottages on the farm, right next to each other. In one, lived my grandmother and my youngest aunt, my dad’s sister, and my parents and my brother and I lived in the second cottage.

Our granny looked after us when mummy & daddy worked.

The two cottages were shaded by these huge, ancient linden trees. We used to spend absolutely hours playing underneath them making houses out of twigs, sticks and stones.

We also had this outbuilding which was narrow and long, with vertical slats for walls & a red-tiled roof on top. This is where we used to keep our corn and firewood. This type of building is called a košana (koshanna). During the summer our košana was empty and I used to make it into our house, for my brother and I. Our granny used to let me take her net curtains down and she used to give me her rugs and cushions too. I used to sweep the košana first, mop it and then lay the rugs down, use cushions as our seats and I used the curtains to separate the košana into three different rooms. It was amazing! We spent so much time here, playing for hours. Baba, our granny, used to make us some “coffee”, which was made out of milk and cacao, and we used to drink this in our house. She used to come in and sit with us on the floor too, sipping our coffee away.

Right opposite of our cottages lived this elderly couple, who didn’t speak to our granny, apparently they were sworn enemies. Nobody remembers why they fell out in the first place. But, depending on the season, every time one of them went out for one of their long walks, they would bring me and my brother either some wild strawberries, or some cobnuts, or some wild mushrooms, or some berries. After their walks, they used to come close to our picket fence and call us to come out. They never came back empty handed. Despite the fact that they didn’t speak to our granny, they were always very kind & generous to us. I will never forget their kindness.

I can’t tell you how much fun living on the farm was. There was an endless supply of food, drinks and stories. My grandmother told us some wonderful stories.

Our farm was an organic farm. We grew all of our organic vegetables and we had a massive orchard very close to our cottages. We had apple trees, pear trees, plum trees, cherry trees, mulberry trees and walnut trees. It was amazing! We climbed so many of them and fell off them so many times. I still don’t know how we never broke a single bone! Especially during cherry season. Well! We used to dare each other to see who would climb to the highest branches and get the juiciest, the most sun kissed cherries down from the top. I am yet to find cherries as sweet as the ones from my farm.

Mum and dad were always so busy. We were mostly left with our grandmother. I would say that we were true free range children. We could go anywhere and we absolutely went everywhere. Those times were wild, organic & pure.

I spent most of my time with my brother, but as we got older, we were joined by a group of boys from the neighbouring farms. I was the only girl amongst them. There was only one other girl who also lived in our hamlet, but she was not wild like me. She was pretty much attached to her mother’s skirt. So she was no fun, I’m sure she was lovely, but she wasn’t fun. To me, I was one of the boys. I could do anything that they could and I made anything that they made. We were equal, in my eyes. We would make guns out of planks of wood, a couple of nails and a rubber strip, cut out of my father’s truck’s inner tube, that I would steal from the garage. I know; I was naughty.

But these were blissful times. We would walk for hours, climb trees to look for birds’ nests and observe them and we would sometimes take some crumbs and leave them in the nests. We would sometimes look for the fox burrows. We used to find quite a few burrows, but I am not quite sure which group of animals they belonged too. We had fun none the less.

Autumn on the farm was so beautiful. This was a busy time for our family. The fruits had to be stored safely away in our cellars and the fruit and nut trees had to be prepared for the winter. The barns had to be prepared for the winter too.

The grownups used to collect all the leaves into these huge piles and they used to let us run really fast and then jump into them. I still remember the feeling of falling into these massive, soft beds of leaves.

This was all usually done before the first frost. But the first frost, oh my goodness, it was magical. My brother used to imagine that it was made out of real silver and diamonds. It shimmered beautifully in the morning sunshine.

Winters on the farm were so much fun. If we weren’t out skiing or tobogganing, we were inside sitting near our granny’s wood burner either listening to her stories or to her radio. She told the most magnificent stories, she used to get us to close our eyes and just listen to her magical stories. She used to say to us: “Just close your eyes and imagine, see with your eyes shut.” This memory fills me with such content and warmth.

The quiet days, snowy days, were my dressing up days. As J mentioned, granny would get her net curtains down for me and I would twist one up and make a vale and I would wrap another curtain around me and make a wedding dress. This was such fun for me!

I would often wait for my granny to fall asleep next to the fire and then I would sneak into my aunt’s bedroom and I would try on lots of her clothes. I would twist her dresses at the back, to make them tight and fitted and I would also put her shoes or boots on and I would go outside and walk in them around the farm. One of the times that I got into so much trouble was when I put my aunt’s brand new high heal suede boots on and I walked in them to the barn to check on some newly born piglets. Well, needless to say, the boots were ruined. To me, I was just taking a walk in London. It always had to be London. So everything was fine, I put them back into my aunt’s wardrobe and carried on playing. Well, everything was fine until my aunt got back from work and saw them. She absolutely screamed murder! But my poor granny tried to protect me and she insisted that she wore them, herself, to the barn! Looking back, this was all absolutely comical.

Winters were also spent in our barns, helping out with the animals. This was so nice and this was also one of the most calming places that I have ever been to. The barns were wooden and everything was always so quiet. I loved it! We also used to go into the hay barn, which was full almost to the beams. My brother and I used to swing from a beam to a beam and then fall into the hay. This was endless fun!

One of my granny’s late friends used to love telling me this story of how one winter when she came for a visit, she found me sitting on a branch of one of the apple trees, decorating it with Christmas tinsel, wearing just my pyjamas, a woolly hat and a pair of wellies.

I am forty now and I still long for those carefree, loving times.

As we got older, our springs and summers were spent exploring. We’d play in mud a lot. We’d play near our local streams and get absolutely covered in mud and before we had to go home, we’d walk into the stream and wash ourselves fully, wellies and all. I still remember the noise of the water squelching around in my wellies, all the way home.

Also, during the summer holidays was when almost all of my three million cousins would come to stay with us. This was AMAZING! It was an absolute chaos and I am sure this was a nightmare time for my parents and our granny, but we, the children, LOVED IT! We explored the local woodlands, fields and we would explore this marshland that we were told not to go anywhere near it! We would find a tree free sunny patch of a nearby stream and we would use rocks and sticks to make a dam. Once the dam was full enough, we would then swim in it. In these streams or the small rivers near us, we used to catch lots and lots of crayfish. We used take them home for our granny to cook them for us in this beautiful sauce of garlic, parsley and cream. I also used to scare some the school children by holding the crayfish up in my hands and I sometimes chased them too, whilst laughing so much. I’m sure some psychologists would have had a field day exploring me as a child 🙂

At times, things were tough. My parents had to work really hard and we had to work hard too, but they protected us from the bad news, or from “bad”, negative people as much as they could. This truly allowed me to wear my heart on my sleeve. They also allowed me to be free spirited and wild. I was strong, most of the time I looked like a boy, fought like a boy and I climbed like a boy. I loved spending time with our horses, cows and sheep. I loved our woodland. It was enchanting, full of wild life, full of birds’ song. We spent hours on end exploring.

The most beautiful part of my early childhood was the fact that my family let me be me. They let me be wild and free. They told me that I could be anything or anyone I wanted to be. They knew that one day I would grow out of crazy, wild phase and morph into a different kind of creature. They just let me be.

My heart still aches for this carefree life. I loved every second of it, but I didn’t fully appreciate it until I became a parent.