13. I cherish hope, deeply.

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

Stopanja, Serbia, September 1995.

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

“Don’t worry about your grandmother. She’s a strong, strong woman. She’s been through worse in the WW2. She will pull through this and one day you’ll tell her story.” I will never forget her words. Never.

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

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

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

All I wanted was to be in one safe place with my whole family. And I prayed and prayed to God asking him to keep my granny and my daddy safe. I also missed my home; our house that mum and dad worked so hard for. Our home truly was our castle, our fort; it kept us and our neighbours safe for so long.

I eventually fell asleep, exhausted.

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

I felt as though I was floating through this safe & normal life that I was suddenly living in. I had all I needed, in material sense. What ever my two cousins had, I had too; my uncle and aunt made sure that I always had everything that I could possibly need.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On the 16th or the 17th September 1995, I am not entirely sure which date unfortunately, after having a particularly fun day at school, I was on my way back home on the vibrant school bus. We used to have so much fun on this bus. My new friends found my Bosnian Serbian accent amusing and at times funny, so quite often they would tease me and teach me how to speak in the Southern Serbian accent and I would teach them to speak in my native accent, which was hilarious when they did it. We laughed a lot that evening.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Hearing our friends was wonderful, but there was this one family, old neighbours of ours, that kept bloody phoning my mum; they thrived on bad news. They told us that there were rumours going around that some people had seen our dad; that he had gone grey and had lost a lot of weight. This was so hurtful. I couldn’t understand why they’d tell us this. Surely they knew that this would upset us. Argh! This used to make me so cross!

By the time I had heard my father’s voice, two months had passed. Two whole months without speaking to him and without seeing him. I worried so much, but I always felt such pride when I thought of him. He was our strong, flawed, cheeky super hero.

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

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

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

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

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

In the third week of November, 1995, dad phoned again. He phoned and his voice was emotional and breaking up.

“I have found your Baba. She’s alive. She’s alive and well and still has a cow and a few chickens left. She has food! But…”, there was a lengthy pause, “…our home is gone. It’s been destroyed. We no longer have a home.”

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

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

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

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

Our Baba, who was seventy four at this point, was still alive!

What a force!

12. Vrbas Canyon.

The Pliva Lakes glistened to my father’s right, surrounded by forests and fields full of autumnal flowers. As my father was approaching Jajce, driving as fast as he safely could, the noise of the artillery firing was getting louder and louder. His aching heart knew that this meant that the reason Šipovo & Pljeva were so quiet, was because the Forces took over the area, established a guard system and then moved on East, to conquer Jajce. Dad knew that they had very little time to move.

By the time he got back to our family, everyone was already waiting for him by the lorry. These were crying children & frightened women, including his own family. They could all see that he was on his own, but nobody asked any questions.

He knew that he had to explain to my mum what happened and the reasons why Baba wasn’t with him, but he first had to get everybody safely onto the lorry and get going.

His biggest concern was the fact that they had to cross many bridges, before they got to safety. He still had his bright yellow tarpaulin on the lorry. During any offensive, bridges are always one of the first things to go.

This time he kept his dearest close to him; my mum, my brother and my sister were in the cabin with him, as well as some other people. The only way out was North, to Banja Luka, along this dangerous road which followed the river Vrbas very closely.

The immediate exit out of Jajce had already seen a lot of action and shelling, so much that some parts of the main road had already started crumbling away towards the river. The risks were huge. Also, by this point, dad was getting very tired.

They had to pass through the Vrbas Canyon.

I remember this road very well. It’s so beautiful and scary at the same time. High, dramatic limestone cliffs, cut deep down by the water of the mighty Vrbas, which is fast flowing, deep and dangerous. But stunning, absolutely stunning!

But the road itself is not stunning. In some places, the road is quite close to the river, but in others the road is very high up, winding around the high cliffs with the river far below it, looking dark and ominous. This road was not built for young boy drivers, to take their families to safety.

This journey was to be their longest and most dangerous.

They just never knew what was coming next and if they would even be safe in Banja Luka once they got there.

Dad knew that in that case, he would have to send his family further away from Bosnia, to Serbia, to the safest place at that point. But he also knew that he wouldn’t be able to go with them. He had to return back to his unit.

All along this journey, they made sure that they talked to my brother a lot and reassure him, that he and they will be ok. They also kept playing the music for my sister, hoping that she would sing and dance for them. They really tried, but she was getting quieter and quieter as the time went on; she probably knew that they were no longer going on a holiday. There were too many people crying around them and people don’t cry when they are exited and happy about going on their holiday. She might have only been three years old, but she knew.

She is twenty seven now. She says that she remembers the final exodus very well, especially the latter part, but she doesn’t remember much before arriving to Jajce. Perhaps those fearful events were just too much for a young child’s mind; she successfully blocked them out of her memory.

But mum & dad say, amongst the crazy, amongst the fear, amongst the terrifying unknown, they sat there in the lorry, in this huge convoy of vehicles all-sorts, they say that they still managed to see the beauty of our country around them. The centuries old cliffs and the majestic Vrbas river to their right; they felt a strange sense of content. At least for a while, as they edged further away from Jajce, in this very slow moving convoy, they felt safe. If was as though the nature was protecting them and shielding them from the Forces’ artillery.

My parents say that there were two women on their minds, all the time. The two women filled them with completely different emotions. One was our granny; they felt despair, grief & worry. The other one was me; they felt a sense of relief that they did the right thing by sending me to Serbia on time.

Dad…he couldn’t talk about Baba. He had to tell our family exactly what had happened, but he couldn’t. He would clench his jaw, look away and say that he didn’t find her. It was only afterwards that he told them the full story.

The further they traveled, the more withdrawn my brother became. He’s told me many times that he was so desperate to go back home, so much that he was prepared to start walking back all by himself. He wanted to go back and look for Baba. He wanted to be with her and keep her safe, if she was still alive.

Luckily he never did anything silly like that. My family stayed together, at least until they got to safety, to Banja Luka.

It took them almost a whole day to get to Banja Luka, a whole day to cover around seventy kilometres! But they did, they arrived safely, albeit emotionally and physically exhausted and hungry. They were all very hungry.

Dad drove his lorry to a central location, close to the centre of the city, where everyone managed to get off safely and join their relatives & friends in Banja Luka, or go to a designated refugee help centre.

My family was very lucky. My mum’s younger brother & his family lived on the outskirts of the city. Once everyone was taken care of, my father drove my immediate family to our uncle’s house.

When they safely arrived, my mum was overjoyed to see two friendly faces smiling at her lovingly; her parents. They had been brought to safety too. They had lived in a remote mountainous village, but luckily my uncle went to get them just in time, before the offensive went through their village too. It’s not worth thinking what if he hadn’t, but sometimes you can’t but think that. But they were alive, well and incredibly lucky. Mum was so happy to see them!

Her parents were always the most loving towards us, including my dad. They were kind and incredibly generous. They owned a lot of land, but they always presented themselves as humble farmers who lived in this idyllic mountain village called Medna, surrounded by pastures and forests. Apart from electricity, they were completely self-sufficient. They grew all of their organic food and they owned horses, cows, sheep, goats, pigs and chickens. My maternal grandparents were called Dragan and Rajna (Rainha), but everyone called my grandmother Raja (Rhaia). They lived in this traditional cottage, entirely constructed by this local stone, with light blue windows and doors, and lime-washed indoor walls.

The cottage had three levels. They had a cellar where they kept all of their carefully organically preserved food and drinks. They, too, made their own Rakija, they kept their copper still in the cellar, alongside two massive barrels for the plums. I have very fond memories of the plum collecting seasons. We used to help pick the plums off the ground and separate them either for Rakija or for jam. Once the plums were in the barrels, we, the children, used to climb up a ladder and get into the barrels and press the plums with our bare feet. This was amazing and so much fun!

The ground floor was where they lived. In front of the house was a veranda with benches & a table, and an old wood burning cooker, to cook on during the hot summer days.

The top floor was just an attic floor, with three extra beds & baba Raja kept her wool up there & her homemade soaps. I used to love spending my time up in the attic, lying on one of beds and reading my books.

Their house was always absolutely immaculate! Considering that they were hard working farmers, my grandmother kept their cottage incredibly clean. Every time we visited, I used to LOVE looking through all of their cupboards & wardrobes, and my granny just let me. I think I was in awe of her and her tidy house. Our home was always so busy and chaotic, theirs was always so peaceful and serene. My brother and I don’t have a single bad memory of our grandparents’ farm. They were incredibly loving. We used to spend a couple of weeks with them every school holiday. Thinking about it fills me with warmth and such incredible longing for them, for their hugs and stories. I miss them terribly.

But back to Banja Luka for now.

Once my mum got off the lorry, she ran towards her parents and hugged them tightly for a while. It was only once she was together with the rest of her family that she managed to let go of this crippling fear that she was holding inside her and cry.

She cried because she had to jump off the balcony to the safety, with her most precious ones; with her children.

She cried with relief that the ricocheting bullets didn’t connect with their soft bodies. She could not help but get scared over again by just thinking about it.

She cried because for those very long few hours, she didn’t know if she’d ever see her husband again, when he went on his own to try and rescue his mother; he crossed the enemy line to try one last time.

She cried because of his broken heart, she felt his pain fully.

She cried because they left everything they owned, apart from a handful of things she managed to carry out. She and dad worked incredibly hard to build their little empire, all by themselves. She cried because now, it was all for nothing. All their effort, sweat, blood and tears was for nothing.

She cried with relief because they were all alive. They were all in one piece. But it was not over, she had to keep going.

Mum says that once everyone was bathed and fed, dad announced that he had to go. He had to go back to his unit and carry on, without them.

As they were all chatting quietly, the distant noise of the Forces’ artillery reminded them that they were not even safe in Banja Luka. That day, the decision was made that the elderly, the women and the children would travel further, to join me in Serbia, but mum, my brother and our sister would leave first.

Once the decision was made, my father stood up and stoically said his goodbyes. When it came to goodbyes, this was his way.

The rest of my immediate and extended family stood outside of my uncle’s house and watched my dad climb nimbly into the lorry cabin. They quietly waved him off.

Two days later, everyone from immediate family, apart from dad, set off for Serbia. This was an almost twenty four hour journey, in a cramped coach, full of women, elderly people and children. Mum says that at one of the check points, the police nearly took my brother off the coach, as he was quite tall for his age, they didn’t believe my mum that he was still only fifteen. As far as the police were concerned, he was a fit young male who could have been very useful in the war. Now, you have to understand, my mother is a very easy going, agreeable and gentle woman, but when the police tried to take my brother off the coach, she stood taller and picked up one of the policemen by his clothes and pinned him against the coach door and reminded him very firmly what they had all been through and what they had escaped, and if he thought that she’d let him take her fifteen year old son off the coach and send him to war, he’s got to deal with her first and the last thing she said to him was: “Over my dead body!”

Once she let go of him, she was shaking. This policeman apparently just straightened his clothes and signalled the coach driver to carry on. Mum says that it was only after they got going again that she broke down. She would never have forgiven herself if anything had happened to my brother.

On this long journey, they had very little food on them, but they made it last for a long time. They all shared the food amongst them and nobody mentioned, even once, that they were hungry, not even my sister. I still feel guilty that I didn’t share this journey with them. It’s a strange feeling; there I was, living in luxury compared to them, eating restaurant food every day, and my family was hungry. It’s a horrible feeling.

The road to Serbia was bumpy and scary. This was not the usual road to Serbia, this was a road that took them the long way around, through the slightly safer zones. It took them through burned down villages, but also through some most stunning places. Mum says that if the babies didn’t cry occasionally, the coach would have been completely silent. Everyone was lost in their own thoughts, thinking of their homes & loved ones. Like she was too.

She couldn’t stop thinking about dad. She had absolutely no idea where he was.

Little did she know!

On his way back to his unit, dad got arrested. Yes, he got arrested. He was arrested at one of the checkpoints. He was arrested because he “abandoned” his unit that fateful day when he drove to Pljeva, after hearing that the Op Storm was nearing Šipovo, to rescue his family and most of the village.

Our dad tried to explain to the police why he left his post, but they simply wouldn’t listen to his reasons, because he didn’t have a permit to travel on that day. When he realised what was coming, he told them that they can lock him up for as long as they want because he’d do it all over again if he had to.

Dad doesn’t talk about his prisoner of war times. Ever. We don’t even know how long he was in for or what happened while he was in.

When I sat down with him, a few weeks back, when it got to this part of the story, he choked up, looked away, paused & asked me not to ask him any more questions for a while. Very quickly he got up and got busy.

I choked up too, but with pride. Immense pride.

9. Serbia. Becoming a refugee.

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.