Refugee Stories, Young Peace Journalists

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).

__________________________________________________

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.

___________________________________________________

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.

Refugee Stories, Young Peace Journalists

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

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).

__________________________________________________

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 part of the story can be found here.

___________________________________________________

Second Chapter:

Summer Storm

“I have to say that, after all, I have no hate in my heart.

I have learned not to hate anyone.” – Branka Kemera

“About 150-200 000 Krajina Serbs retreated into Bosnia […]

The 450-year-old Serbian community in Croatia

had effectively ceased to exist.”

 – Nigel Thomas and Krunoslav Mikulan

In this chapter, we catch up with Branka after four years of intense conflict in Glina, part of the back then Republic of Serbian Krajina, a rebel republic situated within the territory of Croatia.

Branka was no longer a student, she had gotten married in 1992 and become a mother in 1994. One year later, the war would come to an end, after four long years. Was Branka still an idealist? It is hard to tell. What changes when you witness war on a daily basis? When you give birth in the middle of such a conflict? What do you feel? How do you keep yourself going? For some people, life is not meant to be easy. But to Branka, these trials and tribulations were never a sign to stop.

On the contrary, the only way it made sense for her was to press forward and try harder, even in the unfairness of war. She created a business with her friend Radojka, sewing and selling clothes, because “people have to wear the clothes, even in the war”. To find food for the family, now larger with baby Nina, Branka’s father-in-law was a hunter, providing some nourishment by this means. Branka also tried to carry on with her studies of Literature in a branch of the University of Belgrade, which had opened near Glina. Unfortunately, due to the lack of resources and disorganization of that branch, she was unable to continue.

In 1995, however, the Republic of Serbian Krajina was not only a problem for the people living in it, but for politicians in all sides of the conflict. Franko Tuđman, Croatian President, was, as John Ashbrook and Spencer Bakich state “faced with a quandary: how to reestablish Croatian authority in the Krajina and rid himself of the Serbian minority in the area without alienating the international community”.

According to the same authors, by then, Slobodan Milošević started sensing that the “international community would no longer entertain the idea of a Greater Serbia, so he temporarily washed his hands of Republika Srpska [Serb-dominated Republic in Bosnia] and permanently of the Krajina”. In that summer, the Krajina experiment would come to a tragic end. Civilians, as so many times during the wars in Yugoslavia, would again be part of the battle chessboard.

Following the success of operation Flash, the Croatian Army was convinced that it was possible to recover the control of all of Krajina. This military operation, launched at the beginning of May 1995, inflicted a major blow into the army of the Krajina Republic, showing “the reticence of Belgrade to support the Serbs against Croatian action”, as John Ashbrook and Spencer Bakich suggest. A position seconded by Branka’s husband, Nino, to whom “the Krajina army was ordered from Belgrade to pull back with all military equipment. And if the army is to pull back, all civilians should leave their places, as well. If the Serbian army had stayed in Croatia, there would have been an even more violent war”.

For the Croat officials, it showed that it was also possible to “reimpose Croatian sovereignty over all the regions in revolt and, simultaneously, to rid these areas of their Serbian populations”, Ashbrook and Bakich write. As a result, the western part of Slavonia [around the city of Okučani] was now controlled by the Croatian Government, while according to the authors of Yugoslav Wars, Nigel Thomas and Krunoslav Mikulan, “almost all 15000 Serb population fled across the Sava River into Bosnia-Herzegovina.”

It was nothing more than a prelude to what was coming. Four months later, in the first days of August, the army of Croatia launched Operation Storm, which shifted the military power of the war, and played an essential role in facilitating the peace agreements that would end the war, while also creating a humanitarian disaster for the Serbs living in the region. Those who could escape, did so, in fear of retaliation. Among them, Branka and her family: husband, her one year-old daughter Nina, mother and brother, plus both Nina’s grandfathers.

We traveled from Croatia to Serbia, 12 days, without water, without food. Terrible. It was August, in a high temperature and Nina was so nervous, she cried every time, so scared.

When we tried to escape there was a column and one Croatian plane bombed us. There was a terrible noise, because the aircraft fled so low until us. After that Nina has a terrible fear of airplanes.

Every day, you were scared for people who are close to you, for your family. If they are going to be alive or dead. That is the biggest scare.

A family of eight on the run, escaping in any possible way:

We were surrounded by the Croatian army and our life was in danger all the time, Nina and I almost did not escape. Without the help of a Serbian soldier, we would not survive.

We had car, tractor, bus. But no fuel. Also people got stuck, because they had no way to go. I had to beg some old woman to give me 20 liters of fuel to put it in the car. Because of that, she traveled with us.”

At the same time, one local radio, Branka recalls, was telling people that it would not be a problem to stay and that for the Serbs in the region, everything was under control. Others did not want to leave their homes and their place, after living their whole life in Krajina. Sadly, not everyone who wanted to, could escape. Among those who stayed was Branka’s grandmother, who after surviving WWII and losing everyone dear to her, was again witnessing war at home.

We could not put our grandma in the car and she had to go with another family. They got stuck and the Croatian army arrested them. She was shot.

When we came to Serbia, we tried to find her. We asked the Red Cross, UN, when we passed to Serbia, we asked also people: ‘Where is she, where is she?’ And we thought, after a couple of months, that she was killed.

After half a year, we got a letter from Croatia saying that our grandmother was alive. She was shot, she had two bullets in the chest that crossed all the way to the back. She was thrown in a hole with other dead people, but someone noticed that she was breathing and got her out of there.

She stayed alive and we cried when we got that letter. Red Cross transported her from Croatia to our house. She was living with us until 2005, when she passed away the day before Orthodox Christmas.

We tried to accuse Croatia Army of that crime, but we didn’t succeed. No one helped us, and no one was interested in the situation. Our grandma was about 75 years old.”

Fearing for the life of their grandmother and confronted by the harsh conditions of the exodus, they had to keep on. Their first stop was Banja Luka, capital of the Serb controlled part of Bosnia, Srpska Republic:

In Bosnia, we stopped in Banja Luka, because we had and still have some relatives over there. This was the meeting point for the whole family, just to see if everybody is alive and that everybody was there.”

Everyone was safe, but they were still “on the road. Without money, shoes, food, without anything.” No more words are needed for now.

To be continued…

Find this article and others by Alexandre Fonseca on BalkanSteps.

Refugee Stories, Young Peace Journalists

Refugee Stories: LJUBAV I ŽIVOT: Stories Of War, Kafana Love and Remembrance

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).

__________________________________________________

Summary:

Nina is a student of journalism, a 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’ Centre 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, her story become the story of the family and the story of a house, of Glina, of Yugoslavia and war. Nina suggested us to visit her in her home and talk to her mom, who lived through the journey and those years of ethnic conflict 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.

___________________________________________________

First Chapter:

How war does not stop life (or love)

In this chapter, we visit a student dealing with increasing discrimination and tension before the explosion of conflict in the ex-Yugoslavia, faced with the need to go back home because of her nationality.

branka-bwBranka was a young and idealist student of Law and Literature in Zagreb, capital of Croatia, still part of Yugoslavia, a country that is no more. A country where people “were living together, very peacefully. We walked together, we would go out together, we got married between the two nationalities.” Her dream, which the war would break, was to become a lawyer to protect woman in trouble, something she knew she wanted to do since she was 19.

She was, back then, the youngest student in the faculty, a student with an open mind and an open heart, everything the growing nationalistic wave in the republics of Yugoslavia loathed. Despite being considered a good friend and witty, one word on her index (document of identification of students) was now a problem: Nationality – Serb. But at that moment, the choice to hide and write Yugoslav, as others Serbs did, was not an option, unwilling to lie about her origins:

“When I was student, in the index, on the subject ’nationality’ I put ’Serb’. That’s what I am. And I got problems. Lots of Serbs lied, and put Yugoslav. But they knew, if you wrote ‘nationality Yugoslav’, Yugoslav is not nationality, it is citizenship. I did not hide that.

In this case, I am from Glina and they asked ’Are you Serb?’, I said ‘Yes, I am’, when people asked where I came from. They openly ask where I am from, even if I did not do anything wrong.”

She had indeed done something “wrong”. She was Serb on a country that had, through the centuries, shared a history of rivalry and conflict with Serbia, quieted down by the cry of the old Marshal Tito: “brotherhood and unity”. A decade after his death, conflict exploded in 1991, as the dream country of before was shattered with brutality. Her national identity, as for many other citizens from all the republics of Yugoslavia, was now a problem, where before it did not matter.

“There were a lot of soldiers in Zagreb and I felt very unsafe there. I would hear: ‘Last night someone was killed’. And in that period, lots of families escaped from Zagreb to Serbia, Krajina or Bosnia.” She had no option, but to go back to Glina, her hometown, where a majority of Croatian Serbs lived. Law, Zagreb and a future as a Women’s Rights lawyer were no longer on the table. Survival was in order.

Branka was now living on the newly formed Republic of Serbian Krajina, an entity that pursued autonomy from the government of Croatia, which in its turn, was seeking independency from Yugoslavia. She was now citizen of a Republic which was not internationally recognized, stuck in an enclave surrounded by the opposing armies of Croats and Muslims, with documents from a country that had ceased to exist:

“We did not have valid documents, because the Republic of Serbia Krajina wasn’t accepted internationally. We were in a trap, surrounded by two sides, one side was Croatian, the other were the Muslim army.

And when a man from Krajina came to Belgrade, the police would arrest them and put them in the worst areas of war of Bosnia or Krajina. Women were allowed to go, but they took all the risks of travelling through Bosnia, where there was an ethnic war going on too.”

A united land was now divided by the lines of ethnic conflict. “One day, we were drinking together and partying and the other day, the war started”, as in the famous scene of “Pretty Village, Pretty Flame”. This status quo would last four years. It was war and you could die every day. But life (and love) go on.

“Four years is a long period, in that period you have to eat, like, love, lots of things. You cannot stop for four years and feel nothing and do nothing.”

On one night, after a car accident, Branka came to her dad’s kafana for a drink where she was to meet her husband to be Nino, an emergency car driver who witnessed “a lot of terrible things” during the war. Love happens amidst tragedy, as in joy. In two days they chose the names of their children. In three months, they would get married. A marriage celebrated cooking “without electricity and with the ingredients we had”. Food was scarce, it was war and you could die every day. How do you plan a future with the person you love?

How do you decide to have children? How do you “live”?

“It’s not easy to explain, because you love someone a lot and you are so conscious that you can lose him. I don’t know, that’s life. Ljubav i Život. Love and life.”

To be continued…

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.