Twenty years ago life as I knew it changed forever. Following short conflicts in Slovenia and Croatia, the Bosnian civil war was the most brutal chapter in the breakup of Yugoslavia. It was inconceivable to us that the multi-ethnic republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina, where Catholic Croats, Orthodox Serbs, Muslim Slavs and many others lived side by side and intermarried, would fight against each other.
Although my experience is not as tragic as many can claim, it was traumatic enough. It changed and shaped my identity in the aftermath so much that at times it feels like thunder and lightning, emotional garbage, embarrassed ego, mental torture, and tears. And at other times it feels like pride, defiance, stubbornness, and unearthly strength. Twenty years later I am ready to share why.
This is Why
Rows of old wooden benches and tables dominate the scene. There is something cold about the way they are placed on the lawn. I can’t see beyond them. There is a void in the landscape and I feel fear. I’m choosing the table in the middle row. It’s sticking out as if it doesn’t fit in and it wants to part away from the group. I sit down slowly and look at the clear, blue sky.
I’m alone and I feel fear. I know my destiny. I sense its approach. My heart is pounding as I hear the steps. It is here, it will not bypass me. The feel of cold metal pressed against my neck, below my left ear, sends shivers down my spine. I know it is over and I’m anticipating my end. I feel fear.
The form behind me is silent; though I want to scream I don’t dare to. No one would hear me and it would not matter. I long to hold my daughter one last time; I have so many things I want to say to her before my time is up. The longing is so strong, it pains me. The bullet is entering my head in a slow-motion and the feeling terrorizes me. Astonishingly, it does not hurt but I’m in agony. The agony of a mother filled with so much love for her child realizing she will never be able to give it.
I want to have one more chance to make up for her stolen childhood; I want to ask for forgiveness for I wasn’t always the understanding mom she expected me to be. My heart is breaking apart as my mind is soundlessly shouting how proud I am of her, how much I love her and that she will be alright, pleading that she can somehow hear it. The scene before me disappears. Darkness envelops me…
I’m sobbing profusely; my body is trembling and my heart is still aching. Slowly, my eyes begin to recognize the outlines of my dimmed bedroom.
A dream! It was just another dream. They disturbed my nights regularly since I fled my war struck country. But this dream was so forceful it scarred my conscious mind.
That day I was in an absent state of mind and emotional. My awkward attempts to get to the bottom of life’s most puzzling questions came short of the glory. I can’t interpret dreams, but I know this was a reminder that life can come and go like a feather in the wind. I connected with my own mortality once again just like I did on the day we were called into the police station a few months after the civil war started.
The court order stated that my dad was illegally armed. The report came from our neighbors, the people who watched me grow up, whom we shared our street and our lives with for the past twenty-some years. Those neighbors who knew my dad wasn't capable of killing a fly. The same neighbors who knew my now-pushing-sixty dad before he lost fingers from his left hand in a work-related accident. My dad armed? Really? Haughtiness playing pranks. Nevertheless, dad and I appeared in court at 7 am sharp. Rules are rules, even if they are rules of invaders.
The cold hallway was filled with militia and the echoing sound of their heavy footsteps was intimidating. For the first time, I saw fear in my dad’s eyes and my world crushed seeing him so fragile. We didn't talk. If we did, we both thought to ourselves, we might be charged with something worse. Minutes passed, then hours while we silently watched the soldiers parading their rifles and wondered if someone was going to call our names.
Their three hour game of breaking our spirits before the interrogation didn’t work. Instead, it loaded me with adrenaline and I was ready to defend us. My game of being overly confident could have backfired, but it didn’t. They let us go. On the way home I realized how horribly wrong this could have gone and I felt weak. I felt fear.
This war wasn’t over yet.
“Mom, I know that wasn't the thunder” were the words of my six-year-old after we safely arrived back home from our first attempt to exit the country. How else was I supposed to explain to her the bombing noise coming from the nearby front? The bus line that carried us towards Serbia was packed. We sat in the back, my daughter on my lap.
It was a hot August morning. The passengers were loud and obnoxious, mostly farmers and a few soldiers. Andrea followed my instructions to keep quiet as we didn't want any attention drawn to us on this daring voyage.
Sensing the danger, she never even asked for a sip of water from a small bottle I carried, our only supply of this gold-valued liquid in deficit. By the evening, we reached the Serbian border. They checked our papers and laughed at us. You want to go where? Who do you think you are? You are lucky we are sending you back where you came from. We were puzzled but found out later that non-Serbian citizens who tried to enter were sent to concentration camps, men and women separated. Yes, we were very lucky to be sent back home.
As there was a curfew in order, we had to spend the night there before catching a return bus. We found refuge in the hotel nearby, or what was left of it. The ruins, lit by candles, looked ghastly. We checked in providing only my mom’s ID, a safe choice given that one can easily guess your nationality by your name. Hers is not a straightforward exposé. Advised by the hotel’s only receptionist, we took the stairs to the third floor.
We might have been the only guests, but the third floor was the safest. If the building gets hit by a grenade (which was obvious this had already happened) there are two more floors above this one thus protecting us, and if there were stray bullets, we would be too high and out of reach. Comforting to know!
We cramped into one small room with four beds. And it had running water!
I emptied the bottle of now old, warm water and decided to fill it up in the morning. The fresher the better. We laid silently in the darkness, each terrified and keeping our thoughts to ourselves. It was impossible to sleep, why with the “thunder”, the slipped freedom and the unknown future. We already gave away our house by letting a young Serbian couple, refugees from Croatia, move in.
But that wasn't all...
Sometime in the middle of the night, our thoughts were interrupted by a loud knock on the door.
“This is the hotel director, open up!” With hearts in our throats, we opened the door to a tall man in a Serbian military uniform and a flashlight. Horror!
“Sorry,” he said, “our receptionist didn't follow the rules and we need to see each guest’s ID.” More horror!
My Muslim dad and my Catholic mom were both unwelcome here. He left with our ID’s and we awaited our fate. Shortly after, another knock on the door and the hotel director entered our room. He handed us our ID’s and then proceeded to share the story of his sister, Serbian Orthodox, married to a Muslim who is now in hiding and to whom the hotel director brings food covertly.
“Who are we to deny love?” he said lighting a half cigarette he pulled from his pocket and sharing it with my chain-smoking mom. What a grand gesture! There are still kind people left in this godforsaken country.
In the morning the water was shut off and I literally cried over the spilled droplets from the night before.
Waiting for the bus, my poor little girl was quizzed by another soldier. He named his son after their fearless leader and wanted to know if she liked the name. I stopped breathing. With a child’s innocence, she told the truth: she didn't like that name much, but luckily the names she did like were also Serbian and so I could breathe again.
Once home, the nice Serbian couple gave us our house back (despite the contrary recommendation of our old neighbors) and moved back into their one-bedroom rental. We kept a low profile; days spent organizing another escape and nights on the floor dodging random bullets. Fear. Electricity and warm water were a rarity. Our meals consisted of meatless bean soups and bread baked in the fireplace.
I will never forget the day Andrea told me how she would like to collect all the change from our wallets and buy a salad to go with the soup. Of course, salad is on every child’s wish list! To keep us entertained in the evenings, Andrea and I played board games and cards in the dim light of homemade oil lamps. Who would have ever known that those will be her fondest childhood memories? It breaks my heart.
We're back home, but now what?
In the following months, we succeeded in getting onto Caritas waiting list, a humanitarian convoy helping emigrants crossing safely to Croatia. But we didn't get there easily. For one to be able to leave the country, one needed all kinds of documents including the permission to leave. In order to obtain the permission slip, you had to provide proof that you don't owe money to the government.
A certificate had to be obtained for each bill (utility, electric, phone, etc.), and for each household member. For a household of four, four certificates were needed for each bill. Every certificate is received in exchange for a high set fee. When these documents are gathered you then have to unregister your residence.
Only then can you obtain permission to leave, however, the permission slip is only valid for one month and if you didn't leave the country within the allotted time, you had to do it all over again. There were hundreds of people trying to get this valuable document and the lines were formed in the early mornings in front of different buildings for different certificates. Bureaucracy!
I spent many days in those lines never making it into the building because I was maybe a number 80 and they only serviced about 50 a day. I was getting up earlier every day and each time I walked three miles to and from the downtown. If water was unavailable why makes you think we had gasoline?
It took us three months to finally be on the list for the next convoy leaving. (I think my mom pulled some strings by going to the bishop and dropping names. Her great uncle was the head of a Franciscan monastery and her aunt the Reverend Mother in Australia). Three times I went through the nonsense of getting these documents.
My whole purpose during those three long months was to stand in line. Yet, if it wasn't for another nice Serbian this could’ve been stretched much longer. He worked at the police station where we had to unregister and then re-register our residence. Our ID booklets were running out of room for another stamp. That means we would have to get new ID issued (!). He was an old acquaintance and he used his VIP status to let me in before it was my turn or before they'd close for the day. I am forever thankful.
To add some excitement to our months of fear and hope to escape we started receiving anonymous phone calls (when we had electricity, that is). The individual wanted to know where my brother was and stated that he, my brother, owes him money (ten thousand, to be exact). My brother, involuntary pulled into the Serbian military, managed to escape out of the truck one night and made it safely to Croatia. Being born there, he was granted residency.
I wasn’t going to tell him that, of course.
This guy became more and more aggressive and threatening. He harassed my brother’s in-laws, as well. He demanded my brother’s household items in lieu of money. The calls became unbearable, especially after he asked if I’m afraid of sleeping at night. He would be capable of anything.
He ignored me when I asked him to show me proof that he lent the money to my brother. I knew it was a scam, but he wasn't backing off. He was the majority, he was in their military and he was armed. I decided to put an end to our misery and gave him some electronics and appliances.
We had peace for two weeks...and then he started calling again. Apparently, the items didn’t sell as he hoped and he wanted the difference in cash. The nightmare continued. We were at our wits' end.
My last resort was to contact my brother’s old friend, also Serbian by nationality, who was an MP Officer. I prayed that he didn't have a change of heart like our neighbors. He embraced me like there was no war and I learned that our situation was not isolated. The jail was full of people like this guy. When they learn that someone had left the country, they target their family. He will be arrested. Yes! But to arrest him, I need to agree to give him money and set a date, time and place for the transition.
I arrived at the set destination in a trance-like state. Fear made my heart pound loudly and that was the only sound I was conscious of. I took a look at the tables around the restaurant and since I didn’t see him, I picked a table in the corner. I sat with my back to the wall in order to have an unobstructed view. Note to self: when in a dangerous situation, always be ready to flee. A wall behind your back may not work in your favor.
He sat down in front of me propping his army rifle against the table.
“Where is my money?” he asked arrogantly.
My mind was racing to find an answer while my eyes were looking out for the MP Officers who were supposed to be here by now and arrest him. Where are they? Am I being set up? What now? I started making small talk to gain time, but he wasn’t interested.
“Can we please see your ID?” – said one of the two officers who magically appeared at the scene. Getting carded these days was like saying hello. My table pal, however, wasn't in the mood to obey and in a split second, he was reaching for his rifle. The MP Officers, half his size when put together, were quick to respond, but he fought back.
At one horrific point, his gun pointed at my face while I stood frozen, pinned to the darn wall, unable to escape. I connected to my own mortality. The next thing I remember I was in a different area of the restaurant, held by waiters and being given some water. He was gone.
I don't recall how I made it home.
With him gone, days were more manageable, and after about three weeks I dared to take Andrea downtown for a late autumn stroll. We had lunch and window-shopped in the small outlet known as Trade Center. We were careless and enjoyed the cool air. Turning around the corner we almost bumped into the group of five and with one glance I saw HIM! Our nightmare!
If looks could kill I would be dead now. We abruptly left the area and I called my brother’s MP friend.
“I just saw him, why isn't he in jail?”
“I told you the jail is full. I mean it. We have no room, but don’t worry he knows that if something happens to you we'll come for him.”
“If something happens to me, it’s too late!”
Few more tormented weeks passed before we found ourselves on that convoy bus. We left the fear, the bullets, the cruel neighbors, the roars of peekaboo MiG jet fighters, the hate, our house, our belongings and our past behind.
All we needed was hope, and hope we had.
And a visa, we needed a visa to leave Croatia since their welcome extended to only one month. My aunt from Germany sent us a visa that we could pick up at the embassy. We stayed with my brother and his family for a little over a month (Croatian regulations never found out). His wife and I planned to get to the embassy as early as possible, probably around 7 am, calculating that they most likely open at 8 am. We wanted to be the first in line.
At 7 am there were hundreds of people already in line. We felt defeated. We were told that to be this close to the front door you have to come a day ahead and stand in line. Alright, I can do that, I’m used to standing in lines. I am not used to those lines being in bitter December weather, all day and all night, but I can do it.
I HAVE to do it.
I returned in the early afternoon, bundled up and ready to go…well, ready to stand. It wasn't as hard as I had anticipated. I had nice people to talk to and I had hope. The day turned into a snow-covered night. I lost feeling in my fingers and toes, and my bladder wanted to explode. Though the people were nice, they weren't nice enough to hold your place in line if you left.
Twilight hues proclaimed a new day. Happy birthday to me! This was by far the “coolest” birthday I've ever had, ha! By 11 a.m. I was numb but made it into the building. The crowd was unmanaged and it took another couple of hours to reach the service window. I made it!
“We need copies of your passports,” said an unfriendly voice. OK, where can I make copies?
“At the library, two blocks down,” said the voice pointing in the direction, without looking up. Bureaucracy knows no borders.
With my copies in hand, I climbed the stairs back to the main entrance and was stopped by the guard.
“Where are you going?”
“Uhm, to get my visa. I just needed to make some copies.”
“You need to stand in the line like everyone else, young lady!” said the guard puffing up his chest, like I was going to fight him.
“But, but, I was already inside and didn’t know I needed copies. I can’t be spending another night outside. And it’s my birthday!”
From the bottom of the stairs, another guard shouted: “I recall seeing her when she left, she’s not lying, let her in.”
Thank you, the nice guard, at the bottom of the stairs from the bottom of my heart!
Freedom at last, and with it the prospect for a decent life. A new culture, a new language, and a new adventure...
I try not to bind my sorrows to my heart. Sometimes I can’t escape the internal struggles with myself. Sometimes they shatter the glass wall that keeps them inside, creep out and haunt me.
Humbled to have been interviewed by our local TV station #wndu on the subject.
Very honored to receive a beautiful tribute to this post on Ann's awesome blog Grubbs n Critters.