(Trnopolje concentration camp inmates during the war)
1) Do you remember where were you when you realized the war was imminent?
I never did. I was only 12 yrs old at the time, war was something that happened only in movies and even that was acting only for my mind so I never even had a chance to process the meaning of war.
2) Do you remember where were you when the war broke out?
I come from a small village near Kozarac, a small town located in northwest Bosnia and Hercegovina, in Prijedor Municipality, between city of Prijedor and Banja Luka. I don’t think I knew what was going on at other places or parts of the Bosnia, however I recall the day when I heard the first shots and screams, the day when I had to leave my home, my innocence, my childhood, May 24th, 1992.
3) Where were you when the war came to your town?
My father was working oversees, he actually worked oversees most of my life, and would come home every few months, he was working hard, trying to earn more money to give us a better life… bigger house, fancier toys, etc., all the things that really didn’t’ matter, we just didn’t know at the time. I also have two younger siblings. Few days before war broke out, my mom being by herself, three small children and scared, she packed couple of bags with our personal belongings, and we went to visit out cousins house because she thought we would be safer, since there’s a male in the house. She told me we were “visiting” but I think deep down inside she knew we weren’t coming back. As we were being driven away from our house my mother was looking back as if it was her last look at our home, the house all three of us were born in, the house she built with my father, brick by brick. She was not saying anything nor making any sounds, she was just drowning in tears that were falling down her face and soaking the scarf she was holding. I remember thinking that I’ve never seen her cry so much and wondered for the first time, where do tears come from. Few years before that my father got me a little puppy, he actually brought him home in a shoebox. He bought me shoes and found a puppy, so he took the shoes out, made air holes on the shoebox and carrier the puppy home. We named him Medo. He was the most precious gift I received. Before we left the house my mom left a lot of food for Medo, she told us we were leaving him forever, he was just staying behind so he could protect the house… and I believed it, even though Medo was a small dog, he was not a protector he was our pet. I think my mom left him so we had a reason to go back, so it didn’t look as if we were leaving forever. Medo wanted to come with us, he ran after the car we were in for quite a distance and then he disappeared. At my cousins house I’ve seen a lot of worried adults, but us, kids, we were carrying on as if we were on vacation… until we heard screams and shots. It all happened so fast and it’s a blurry memory in my head, but that was the moment when my life has changed forever. Once my mom grabbed my hand and told me “Bijeli Orlovi” (Serbian paramilitary unit) arrived and are killing people, the journey of survival started.
4) The most memorable event of the war for you was?
There are many memorable events, each one of them with a special meaning and a heartache. I don’t exactly recall how much time after the war broke out we ended up in a village called Sivci, close to concentration camp Trnopolje where latter I ended up myself. By that time running away, hiding, stepping over dead bodies, seeing Serbian solders was not so scary anymore, we got used to it, it was part of every day routine. One day a Serbian solder entered the house we were hiding in and pointed a finger at me, saying he would come and get me the next day so I can go do some work for them… I knew what it meant, I knew what they did to other girls…so I decided I would hang myself. I shared that with my mom, she was crying out loud and holding me so hard and so close to her chest that I thought my bones would break. She was telling me not to be scared and to go with them if they come and get me, if I refuse they’d kill me on the spot, but if I go… there’s a chance I might come back alive. But I had already decided I wouldn’t go, I just kept repeating that I wanted to die and kept begging her to hang me, to suffocate me while I’m sleeping before the night ends. I wasn’t thinking nor asking my mom to hold me back, to protect me… that was just impossible, at that point I understood we were helpless. I don’t know how we got through the night, I don’t know if I slept at all, the dawn came and my mom was still holding me along with my brother and sister. We all slept in her lap, she was our pillow and our blanket as we were sleeping in an animal barn. That morning my mom told me she wouldn’t give me to Serbian solders, she told me to kick and scream if they come, to fight and resist so they shoot and not take me alive, she said she would do the same. I don’t now what she told my brother (5) and my sister (8), but they were crying and nodding as she was talking. Latter that day my mom packed us up, told our family we were going to Trnopolje concentration camp to turn ourselves in, she just wanted to leave before the same solders came back… even if it meant we would get killed on our way to Trnopolje, or there… I think that was part of her plan, I really don’t know if she had any hopes of survival at that point. My mother, my hero.
4) What made you hopeless during the war?
I don’t think I was ever hopeless, there were days or moments where I thought that they were the last ones, but as soon as they would pass…life would go on. I was still a kid that wanted to play and even though we had no games, or toys, we would still find something to play with. I recall playing with small tree branches, leaves, grass, clay… we pretended we were cooks and were cooking food we haven’t seen in weeks, while our stomachs were making loud sounds. When Serbian solders could not carry our and steal all the food they find, they would poor gasoline on the flour, we still made bread and ate it. So I recall this moment at the place we were in, there was about 150 of us in that house, some in the house, some in the barn, some outside… but there was a lot of kids. So one day we were handed a piece of bread, little piece for each one of us and as you swallow it you could feel, smell and taste gas… it would burn your throat and one of the kids cracked a joke that the bread was made with special “Chinese” spice, I don’t know why it was so funny but we all cracked up, started laughing… I was laughing so hard that tears were coming down my face. I will never forget that moment, the moment where I was just a kid.
6) What gave you hope during the war?
Night, night was my savior. When I closed my eyes all troubles would disappear. I was a happy 12 year old again, in our home, in my room… sharing joy and happiness with my family and friends. Dreaming is probably what kept me sane, it was like recharging my batteries so I could get through another day of someone else’s life that was living through a war.
7) Did you lose anyone close to you during the war?
I did not lose any close blood related relatives, however I lost some cousins, friends, neighbors. Even though they are not related to me, my heart aches when I think about them. Even though I don’t know how it feels to loose a loved one, my heart aches for the ones that do know that feeling.
8) Were you wounded during the war? Where were you wounded?
No, I wasn’t physically wounded. My wounds are engraved deep in my heart and my memory.
9) Your biggest loss during the war was?
I really want to say that my childhood and my innocence were the biggest loss during the war but it made me the person I am today, a very strong person that appreciates and respects her roots. But I think it’s family, after the war I immigrated to USA along with my mother and siblings, my father joined us latter but all my relatives live all over the world. Both my parents have 8/9 siblings and neither one of them lives in the same country, and some have not seen each other for 20 years, some have passed away during that time. I’m lucky and blessed enough to have my brother and sister here and can only imagine how it feels to be separated from your siblings for so long.
10) What was the hardest part about the war?
Hardest part of the war was actually realizing that it’s real and happening to you. Not being able to understand how or why wasn’t easy either. Having your neighbor, a friend of many years that you shared your home with, wanting to kill you is not easy to understand and accept, not even today.
11) Did you leave the country during the war?
Yes, after some time in concentration camp in Kozarac, long journey through Bosnia to get to Croatia, we immigrated to USA in ’95 and finally reunited with my father in ’96.
12) 20 years later, what do you think of what happened?
Even though I lived through a war it’s still hard to believe and accept that it’s real, that it happened in Bosnia and is happening in other countries right now. I meet a lot of people and they say that they saw “something” on TV at that time but could not believe it was real, they probably say the same thing when they see reports of war in other countries today, but not me. When I see it, I connect with those people, I know it’s real, I know how it feels to be hungry, I know the feeling of helplessness, how it is to want to get through an hour, not even a day… We are all precious human beings and so dear to each other, why do we have to treat each other as if we were different?
13) Are things better or worse than what you expected 20 years later?
I have had no expectations, maybe in another lifetime… I’m still living this one. First time when I went back to Bosnia, 10 years after the war, after being labeled as a refugee and an immigrant for a long time I was finally going home. While landing down in Sarajevo, I saw green mountains, I finally belonged somewhere… I would finally be able to touch Bosnian soil again. I couldn’t stop crying, I felt like there was a rock in my throat and my chest was about to explode, I was worried I would faint or die before we touch down… and then reality kicked in again while going through customs lines. One line for Bosnian citizens, and the other one for “all others”… since I lived in States for a while, I accepted the citizenship, got the US passport… with a heavy heart I had to stand in a non Bosnian citizen line… once again, my heart broke… years of longing and dreaming shattered in a second. Do I really belong anywhere?
14) Do you think war will return to BiH?
I hope it never does but I think it will. Some people feel very comfortable living there, and some don’t. I personally don’t because my town is still in Republika Srpska and for as long as it is, I wont go back and live there. People went on living but the hate is building up, the tension is in the air.
15) What do you think the future of BiH will be?
I really have no idea, cannot even guess or speculate. If I was able to understand what’s actually going on right now, I would be in much better position to answer this question… but who can really tell or understand the situation in Bosnia right now?