Refugee Stories: “LJUBAV I ŽIVOT”: Stories Of War, Kafana Love and Remembrance [Part III]

The following interview was done by Alexandre Fonseca, a member of the Young Peace Journalists and an EVS Volunteer at Volunteers’ Centre of Vojvodina with the project “People BeyONd Borders” (Erasmus + Program).

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Summary:

Nina is a student of journalism, an active citizen and was a participant in the Youth Exchange “Get up – crossing borders” in Klösterbuch devoted to the current refugee situation in Europe, financed by OFAJ and organized by the Volunteers’ Center of Vojvodina, Treibhaus and Le Petit Graine. Nina was always willing to contribute, share her opinion and also her story of being a baby refugee from Krajina (part of Croatia) in a very emotional Living Library related to the topic.

We met afterwards for coffee and čvarci in a hostel in the downtown of Novi Sad to catch up and hear more about her story. After an hour or so, Nina suggested us to visit her in her home and talk to her mom, who lived through the journey with full conscience. We shared a lovely Sunday afternoon in Bukovac, suburb of Novi Sad, under the first snows of January, sheltered by the warmth of the fireplace, cheese pita and the words of the matriarch of the family, Branka. We remembered the Youth Exchange, talked about the future, presented each other cultures and culinary, but most of all remembered and reminisced. The first and second part of the story can be found here and here.

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Third Chapter:

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me

 “As if it wasn’t enough of war.”

In this chapter, like many times, things get better. We recover Branka’s family in Serbia, trying to pick up their lives in their new/old country, not before going through more trials and tribulations.

[Novi Sad, 5th of August 2018. The main square, right in front of the Cathedral, one of the trademarks of the city, is filled with gloomy posters of a dark time in the history of both Serbia and Croatia: Oluja / Operation Storm. The air is torrid, people stroll by lightly, in stark contrast with the mood in the square, set by the expressions on the pictures, captured 23 years ago.

It’s hard to tell if the tourists who pass casually by know or want to know about Oluja. In contrast, you can easily see the ones who are aware of it, those who have lived it or heard about it closely; those to whom these images cause their own private storm. For them, it’s still a living, breathing history.]

Open a newspaper, flick through the TV or go online. You have seen the masses of people forced to take shelter in schools, gyms or any other large public building. For all the times you have seen it (and you have seen it a million times), it is never less unfortunate. Particularly when the causes are human-made.

After having been persecuted by an army, facing the heat of August and the strain of many days on the road without anything, Branka and her family are trying to accommodate themselves in a gym of a high school in Ruma, near the border between Croatia and Serbia. Four years of conflict, three days of persecution and finally safety, a safety mired by its own precariousness. The place was offering just the bare minimum so they could rest, sleep and eat. As Branka says “it was nothing more than just a building full of other refugees, like us”. The conditions were not enough, so the family had to move on, in hope of a better place:

When we came to Belgrade, the city was closed for the refugees, because we were the last wave of refugees. There had been refugees from Bosnia and Croatia earlier and when we came Belgrade was ‘closed’. They were sending people to Kosovo. My husband parents’ went to Kosovo and they saw that the war might be starting over there too, so they came back a couple of months later. We survived lots of things and after all that, you still have to lose your men to go to Kosovo. As if it wasn’t enough of war.

The family found a shelter in Karavukovo, “a really small village” in the province of Vojvodina. Nina’s grandmother had a brother from Germany and his friend heard about their situation. Branka remembers they told them: “We have an empty house over there, so you can come in and stay until you know what are you going to do’”. It was a house, a shelter, a refuge and peace, but once again, not without hardships, as Branka recalls:

We stayed for over a year at the place of an old German couple, who kept the house after WWII and lend it to us without any fee. It was hard, because we almost did not have electricity, I was washing clothes outside when it was -10º. Then Nino and me started to work making bags for potatoes. It was a really hard job, because we were doing it with our bare hands, which would often be bloody.

However it may be, for Branka and her family, help came. “Some really good people, our neighbors, told us: ‘we have our garden and everything we have in there, we will share with you’. And that was the first friendship we made.”

Sadly, once again, Nino was still a refugee, now not escaping his homeland, but running away from the paramilitary services who were forcibly recruiting men, as he tried to escape the fate of so many that were deployed to fight a foregone war in Bosnia.

“My husband, after that, escaped to Belgrade and hid with his cousins. A while after we got to Karavukovo, there was a fire in the kitchen. He ran to put it off and burned his hands and head and almost died. He moved to Belgrade, but he didn’t…he couldn’t see the doctor, because they would put him in Bosnia again. He spent three months in Belgrade at his cousins’ house as a refugee. A refugee in refuge.”

What is it about hardship, about the most catastrophic of scenarios that brings out the best out of people? Is humanity doomed to meet its worst faith, before human kindness swallows our shallowness and egotism? Or is this belief that the best of people will come out from their darkest moments just a perception, a mere theater of shadows? Isn’t it true that people will also profit in and from tragedy? After all the tempests, the thunders, the menace, how much do you have or can go through for the happiest day of your life to be the one you finally get to settle?

One year later, we got a small house in a village named Srpski Miletić. It is a settlement for refugees, made by the Norway government. And we got it and it was the happiest day of my life. A small house, 39m2, but it was our house. I remember the day when we were going to get the key of the house.

As Branka explains:

For us, it was a huge thing. We had two rooms, living room, bathroom and kitchen. It was first 4 of us (my husband, my son and daughter and me) and then my grandmother come to our house too, because she was old and needed care.

Branka recalls little Nina’s mischief on the day her family got the key to the house:

“She was a kid, and she was playing outside. She fell down and her knees were bloody. I wanted her to be nicely dressed, but she just wanted to celebrate that moment of joy, on her own way – playing outside. It was a really beautiful moment.”

After all the tempests, the thunders, the menace, did things get better? This is a strong family, that’s all I know.

Disclaimer: This text does not attempt to take any sides in a war that involved brothers and sisters, people united under one flag, and although retelling the story of this civil war trough the perspective of Serbian refugees, it is not meant to isolate them from the wider victims of this conflict who are, in the words of Branka, “the people that were unprepared”.

Find this article and others by Alexandre Fonseca on BalkanSteps.

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