After the conviction of Ratko Mladic I've decided to share an extraordinary story in my book, Journey Of Ten Thousand Smiles.
It’s a bitter December morning in 2007. The Bora, North Wind is blowing the litter on the streets of Mostar out of the city. A plastic bag gets caught in the wiper of my hired Volkswagen Golf. I get out of the car to release it, and I see Anjela coming towards me. It’s her day off work. Her long dark strands of voluminous hair are blowing in the wind. Her lean body pushes against the powerful wind. She pauses for breath before she grapples with the door. The wind forces the door shut and catches her full-length coat.
“It always snows in Bosnia,” she said the previous evening on the phone. “I’m preparing for every eventuality.” Gasping, she throws herself into the car seat. “Just give me a minute to get my breath back.”
I leant over and kissed her on both cheeks.
She recovers and says, “Dobro Uturo,” (Good Morning).
“Other than being blown away, how are you?”
“Did you sleep?”
“When I returned from work yesterday evening I had so much to prepare for Ivan that I fell into bed like a brick and slept heavily for the first four hours. Then I woke and dozed on and off for the next three.”
“Were you thinking about what lay ahead?”
“Yes, many memories are going through my head. I have allowed myself to think about memories that I refused to entertain for many years, that until now I’ve just blocked out.”
“Do you need anything from the shop before we set off? Have you any water with you? Would you like coffee?”
“I’m all right, thanks. The water is in my bag.”
“So are you ready for this, Anjela?”
“It’s not possible to ever be prepared for something like this. I’m going to give it a try and go as far as I possibly can. I don’t know how much I will be able to take, though.”
“Please, don’t worry about how much or how little you can cope with. It doesn’t matter at all. Let’s take it step by step, and you can call a halt anytime you like. Okay?”
I put the car in gear and pulled out onto the road, travelled a short distance to traffic lights turned red, then waited for green. It was almost 8 am, and the city was busy. It was the Feast Day of the Immaculate Conception and the early morning worshippers were rushing into Mass.
Once the light turned green, we proceeded on our way, and I turned to Anjela and said, “I think we should travel as far as Sarajevo. How about stopping for Mass and having our breakfast in the old Turkish part of Sarajevo. It will be a break from the road before we head east. What do you think about that?”
“I haven’t been to Sarajevo since I was a child. I remember the last time I was there was with my parents and my brother.”
“When was that?”
“Two years before the war started. It was during peace time, and the city was a very exciting and hospitable place to visit. There were visitors there from all around the world. My brother and I spent our time listening to foreign accents and my father devised a game of how many accents we could imitate, offering a prize of fancy ice cream for the winner. My mother also had to participate, but despite her having a musical ear, she was useless with accents.”
“My brother did. My father gave him an extra point for how well he was able to take off a Turkish accent.”
By now Anjela was laughing.
“What did he do to win the prize?”
“We were sitting in a Turkish restaurant, and my parents were drinking Turkish coffee. We were eating Turkish Delights, and my brother sat eating his way around the edge of his lokum, (Turkish Delight). His fingers were covered in cloud-like icing sugar. He sat back in his chair, brought the sweet up to eye level, looked at the teeth marked lokum and with the voice of an old Turkish man with half closed eyes and dropped lips said ‘lezzetli’' (delicious).”
“What ages were you back in 1990?”
“I was fourteen and Nik was twelve.”
“Sounds like you were a happy little bunch of people.”
“My parents were good folks. They put family first. They adored us. We were privileged children to have such loving and attentive parents. They were a happy couple and made all the family decisions together. Mama would say to Tata, ‘You know best’, and he would say back to her, ‘you know what’s best for the children.”
We were already an hour driving and getting close to the town of Konjic.
“Anjela,” I said, “I want to show you something. A dear old friend of mine in the Tasovcici refugee camp wants me to check her place and see if anyone has taken it over.”
“What?” she asked. “Do you do this often?”
“It’s a little agreement I have with her that every time I come north, I call in and check the place out.”
“Are you not afraid?”
“Everyone asks me that. I never travel alone.”
“Let’s do it then. Won’t she mind that I’m with you?’
“You have no idea how thrilled she will be for you to see her land. Mara is so proud of where she came from.”
I turned right off the road to climb a steep hill. “I’ll take the car up the laneway as far as possible and avoid walking in that freezing wind coming off those snow-capped mountains.”
Anjela disembarked the car first, and I parked it tightly against the bare thorny hedgerow. We wrapped our warm coats around us, put on our hats and climbed the remainder of the lane linking each other’s arms.
Anjela gasped when she saw the beauty of Mara Blazevic’s land. As her eyes filled with tears of joy, it wasn’t hard to see she was overwhelmed by the beauty of God’s creation in this forgotten corner of the world.
We were standing overlooking the placid lakes. The summer tourists had gone and returned to their winter homes in the cities. A few animals grazed what was left of the remaining grass.
“Isn’t it magnificent?” I asked.
“It’s not much different from where I once lived. The Drina River separated us from the rest of the municipality in Janja. The bustling town on one side and our peaceful residential life on the other. Our front garden ran down to the banks of the river. We lived in our townhouse during the winter months and moved to our summer house in the country as soon as the warmer weather came.”
“What a beautiful life you had! When I come here and visit, I’m reminded of the prosperous times people had. I know they weren’t financially wealthy, but they had everything that a person could want – peace, beauty, security, supportive community and their family all around them. Also, their land was productive enough for them to earn a living from it. Now their dead are buried in places where they never get to visit, because of long distances. As a result, they’re deprived of one of the most important things in their religious lives, visiting the graves of their loved ones, and it pains them much.”
I knew that Anjela came from a small town near the Serbian border called Janja. It comprised of a typical pre-war Bosniak town population mix of about 10,000 Muslims, 1000 Serbs and 300 Croat Catholics. Janja and their neighbouring town of Bijeljina were the first towns that the Serbian armed forces attacked in April 1992. Many of the non-Serb inhabitants barely resisted the take-over and willingly handed over the small supply of weapons they possessed in the hope that by co-operating they might be allowed to remain working and living there.
During the first days of the Serbian occupation, the Nationalist Serb Leader, Radovan Karadzic, declared that “loyal” Bosniaks would retain the same rights as Bosnian Serbs in the new Republic of Srpska. Anjela’s father Omir was rightly sceptical. He had every reason to be. Four months after the Serbian occupation began, two armed Serbian soldiers entered his pharmacy. Pulling official documents from their tattered pockets, they laid the papers on the counter, ordering him to immediately sign the transfer of his property to the Serbs and hand over the keys. Omir put up a logical argument, telling them in a gentle but firm voice, that the business had been in the family for generations and that they had no legal authority to claim his property. “We can do what we like,” said the taller, bulkier soldier, while at the same time taking out his AK47 and pointing it threateningly at Omir.
As all this was occurring, Omir couldn’t help thinking about the so-called “professional disappeared”, the term used for those people who over the previous few months had vanished from the locality, with no news or reports of their possible whereabouts. Many of the “disappeared” came from the business, professional, medical and legal worlds. Thinking along these lines, he instinctively knew that if Serb extremists could remove a doctor or lawyer, then there was no reason they wouldn’t do likewise to a humble pharmacist like himself.
In every decision he made in life, he put his family first, and this occasion wasn’t going to be an exception. Reluctantly he reached for his pen on the inside of his jacket. He slowly pulled the cover off it, leant over and scrawled his signature on a roughly drafted document containing many spelling errors. “The keys!” barked the scruffy looking soldier. By now he had thankfully repositioned his AK47 and was no longer pointing it directly at Omir’s abdomen, but instead at the ceiling with his finger firmly gripping the trigger.
Every morning, since he was a boy and went to the pharmacy with his father, his first job was to hang the keys in the same position on a hook underneath the counter. He reached for the keys. Pain gripped his body, his belly filled with fear and his heart began to race. His mind jarred with thoughts of how they were going to live. He opened the buttons on his sparkling and carefully ironed white coat, slowly took it off him, laid it on the counter and folded it. He turned, walked away to retrieve his jacket and briefcase, and then returned to the cash till to take the float with him. He put his hand into the till when the rifle appeared from over the counter again. He gently closed the till, lifted his white coat, put it under his arm and walked out the door. It was his last day to work in the age-old reputable family business which had been handed down for generations, from one father to his son, the next to his, and so on. It was the tragic end of an era.
As Omir walked away, he inwardly thought, “Man’s brutal and stupid inhumanity to man.” All due to fear and hate and men with guns. Someday they’ll have to account for their actions, someday. That was years before in 1992, as the story had been told to me. Now I was heading to the eastern Bosnian towns of Janja, Bijeljina and Tuzla with Anjela. It was 2007, and she was going back for a long overdue return visit. She wanted to visit her mother’s grave, a place she hadn’t been since her burial in Tuzla. Anjela was hoping she would have the strength to withstand the pain of visiting her hometown of Janja and walking the sinuous pathways of her childhood.
“We’ll be in Sarajevo in an hour,” I assured her. The roads were quiet, with few trucks travelling north and so we were making excellent time.
“How well do you know this part of the country?” Anjela enquired.
“Local people would say I know it very well. I have spent years researching the locations of prisoner of war camps, so-called “ethnic collection centres.”
“Do you know anything about the notorious Batkovi camp set up near Janja?”
I was reluctant to answer the question. I wanted to say no. It was the easier answer to give, but I also knew that it would end the conversation. I was assuming that having lived in the adjacent town of Janja, that surely some of her family must have served time there.
“Unfortunately I do, Anjela. What do you know about it?”
She turned her head and stared out the window for a short while.
“Much more now than I did back then. My father spent some time there.”
I remained silent. If Anjela wanted to share more of her story with me, it was going to be of her volition, especially such a sensitive story as this. I think the poet W. B. Yeats had the words to describe the phenomenon when he wrote something along the lines, “I have spread my dreams under your feet, tread softly for you tread on my dreams.” I wasn’t going to bombard her with endless questions, knowing what I did about the camp. I could ask was he beaten there, was he starved, was he sent out to the trenches to work, was he used as a human shield to protect the Serbs from attack by the Bosniak Muslims or were his skills used for the benefit of his fellow prisoners or solely for the Batkovi personnel? These were a taste of some of the troubling questions which arose in my mind. But for the moment, I risked asking just one.
“When was your father sent to Batkovi? Please, don’t feel you need to answer me.”
“The day my father lost his shop was my sixteenth birthday. Mama had made my favourite breakfast for me before I went to school. She promised she would have traditional Bosnian pies and cakes for dinner. My parents must have been scared of what was happening to other people, but they did their best to protect us from the terrible stories that were circulating. Friends and colleagues of my father were disappearing, but when I questioned them, they told me they had left the town. It was odd because their families remained and I could see how visibly upset their children were in school. When I returned from school, my father was sitting in the winter kitchen looking very pale. Mama told me not to disturb him since he’d had some bad news that day. I asked what it was, and she said that the authorities wanted his medicines to treat wounded soldiers and had left him with none. That wasn’t so bad I thought. Tata can order more stock.”
“What did he do?”
“He stayed home from work the next day claiming he wasn’t feeling well. Then he began getting up the same time as us and leaving the house. On my journey home from school, I called by the pharmacy and found it barricaded. That was when I knew that something terrible had happened. It was the moment when our safe, secure and happy world changed for me. I told Mama that I was now 16 years old, and I needed to know the truth. She told me what had happened and asked me not to tell my brother. My father must have had money saved or hidden away because he was able to buy food and we didn’t go hungry. We lived like this for another three or four months.”
“The timing now must be close to the end of 1992 or into early 1993,” I interjected.
“Yes, it was January 1993. My brother and I were at home from school because of heavy snowfall.”
“How long was it before things changed for you?”
“It changed when the displaced Serbian people from Tuzla moved into Janja and Bijeljina after their expulsion from their homes in and around Tuzla. Hundreds of the new homeless descended on Janja with nowhere to live. Janja now belonged to the Republic of Srpska, and our citizens were told what to do. There was a shortage of houses, and anyone with a big house was forced to take in Serbian people. My father decided to move to the country house because we might have a better chance of keeping that home for ourselves since it was in a secluded area. We vacated the townhouse and barricaded the windows and doors. It was the wrong choice to make because the next thing a Serbian family took it over.”
In my research, I had read witness statements from people who owned big homes and were forced to take in displaced people from the Serbian community. With knowledge of this information, I asked, “Were you able to live alone in your summer house?”
“We were until the summer of 1993. One night in June, I woke to the sound of loud banging on the front door. My parents were also in bed. My father answered the door. My mother didn’t want him to open it, but he said that if he didn’t, they would blow it open. There was a minivan parked in the yard with people in it, and two men from the Serbian authorities were standing at the front door. The officer told my father that under Article 3 of the Decree on the Accommodation of Refugees we had to take in people from the expelled Serbian population. “Why is that?” Tata enquired. ‘Because you have more than 15 square meters of space per member in this home and by law, you have to give the excess space to displaced people.’ My father objected, telling them in raised tones that there were displaced people already living in his townhouse, and why could he not be allowed to live in peace here. The officer waved a piece of paper in my father’s face and told him to move from the entrance.”
Within five minutes of their arrival, we had a family of five moving into our house with some belongings. My mother was courteous and showed them a bedroom, bathroom and summer kitchen that they could use. After four days the husband and wife complained and accused us of breaking the law because we were withholding space that they were entitled to have. They claimed they would report us to the Serbian Authorities if we didn’t give them the extra square footage. My father had heard of similar situations, and the people who owned the homes were evicted. Trying to maintain the fragile peace, he gave them the extra space.”
“What was it like having another family from another ethnicity, which to some extent was at war with your own, now living under your roof?”
“It was awful. My mother began suffering from severe stress. I had never seen her so stressed before. She normally had a very peaceful and happy disposition. My father tried to be tolerant, but I could see he got angry easily. My brother and I attempted to be friendly with the Serbian teenagers and chatted cordially about what music, comedies and movies we liked. Our parents remained polite to each other, but yet there was always a tense atmosphere.”
“Did your parents have to share their food supply with them?”
“We were compelled to share everything with them.”
“It’s not difficult to see how your mother got stressed out. Did she get depressed or was it general anxiety?”
“Her ability to cope lessened as the situation continued and weeks dragged into months. I could see that my parents were loosing their authority in their home. I could see that my father had to concede to more demands all the time. Tata treated mama with some anti-anxiety medication which was initially effective. Then he had to increase the dosage. She was getting mentally weaker as the months passed. We were all living in fear of what was going to happen next and even amongst us teenagers the atmosphere changed to one of hostility. The joy and happiness that we once knew were now a thing of the past.”
“I knew from another Muslim family from the area that they lost all their property, several shops and houses, in fact, a year before the war began. They told me about the intimidating silent war that happened when the non-Serb population was forced to sign over their property. This particular individual shared with me how on the day they left Bijeljina on a bus for Hungary everyone on that bus had the same experience to tell.”
“Everyone I know from my childhood lost all their property at that time.”
“May I ask you another question?”
By now we were entering the city of Sarajevo, and we needed to concentrate on finding our destination. Anjela wasn’t familiar with the layout of the city. I’d been to the city a few times in the past and had a rough idea where to find the Catholic Church and the old Turkish city.
“How is it that your father wasn’t forced into the army as most healthy men were?”
“Did he have a disability?” I enquired.“It’s the only reason that would have saved him from conscription.”
“He had a condition called Sarcoidosis. Do you know anything about it?”
“Yes, it’s an auto-immune disease of the lungs that can also affect the sight. Had the disease spread to his eyes?”
“That’s what saved him from conscription for two years.”
I knew there was more to this story, so I suggested that we leave it until we were back on the road again. At this stage, we needed a break from the journey. I parked the car and welcomed the next forty minutes of silence as we joined the faithful Sarajevian Catholics for Mass.
“It must be strange for you to go to Mass having being brought up in the Muslim faith,” I said as we climbed the steps to enter the Sacred Heart Church.”
Anjela blessed herself with holy water and replied, “I’m used to your ways by now.”
It was an important feast day in the liturgical calendar of the Catholic Church. The Church was celebrating the Immaculate Conception of the Mother of Jesus Christ. The faithful had turned out in enormous numbers for the celebration of Mass. The Sacred Heart Choir was already singing the entrance hymn as we genuflected and took our seats beside each other. I could see how reverent and attentive Anjela was towards the Mass and the Eucharist. Perhaps, there might be an opportunity to ask her on our way home what were the circumstances that led to her conversion to Catholicism.
After Mass, I asked Anjela would she like to eat in a typical Bosnian restaurant or one that served international cuisine.
“Bosnian of course. You can’t come to Sarajevo and not immerse yourself in the delights of Bosnian cuisine.”
“I agree. I know the ideal place, but we have to walk about ten minutes first.”
Anjela was a tour guide in Mostar and was well accustomed to walking around a city for hours.
We walked through the cobbled clad alleyways of the old town looking in shop windows and popping in and out of art, jewellery, silver and pottery shops.
“I know the cutest place of all for genuine Turkish Delights. Would you like to try some?”
“Maybe on the way back. At the moment I need food much more than Turkish Delights.”
“I know what I’m having here,” I said sitting down at the restaurant table.
“What do you recommend?”
“Their Bosnian mixed platter is excellent. They have a selection of various local dishes. Would you like to share one with me?”
“How do you know about this place? It’s a bit off the beaten track?”
“I’ve Bosnian friends in the city, and I’ve dined with them several times in different restaurants. This one is my favourite. They showed me how to order in this particular restaurant. It’s incredibly inexpensive. Can you imagine that people paid one pound per egg when the city was under siege?”
“Let us bless the food and eat,” suggested Anjela.
Afterwards, we stopped by the Turkish delight shop and bought gifts for her son and friends in Mostar. Neither one of us suggested looking for the restaurant her family had enjoyed refreshments in on their last trip to Sarajevo in the innocent pre-war years. We both knew that we had deeper emotional waters to tread over the next twenty-four hours, and it was perhaps wiser to preserve that valuable energy for these challenges.
There was a further three-hour drive to get to Bijeljina. We had not yet decided where we were going to spend the night. It very much depended on how Anjela was feeling. We may need to leave the area altogether and return to Sarajevo, depending on how difficult she was finding her first return journey to Janja. I felt apprehensive about the first few hours. I knew that her father had worked in a labour camp and that her mum eventually had a nervous breakdown. They weren’t in her life any longer, and I suspected that they were dead, even though I couldn’t be sure about that fact until Anjela told me more. I knew from my research that it wasn’t until 1994 that the Bosniaks were forced into labour on the front lines for Serb forces, and because of the heavy work carrying munitions, food and water to their trenches, alongside much starvation and beatings, few survived.
We were now well out of the city and heading for Janja.
“Where were we with our conversation before we stopped in Sarajevo?”
“I was telling you about my father getting Sarcoidosis.”
“Oh yes, between 1992 and 1993 he avoided conscription, and then he was forced to do hard labour for the Serbs.”
“How did that come about?”
“Before I answer that, I first have to ask how you know so much about the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina.”
“The reason is that I work with Croat Catholic, Orthodox Serb and Bosniak Muslims, who all suffered dreadfully at the hands of each other and I’ve years of research behind me. Their stories are heart-wrenching, every one of them. Many people, especially women, are unable to give voice to their harrowing experiences, and I find that by knowing as many details as I can obtain about their former lives and homes, they will share their story easier. Instead of asking many questions I can have a conversation, and it’s less invasive that way. Does that make sense?”
“You’re doing a good job. You surprise me with the depth of your knowledge.”
“Thank you. It’s taken many hours of research over many years, but I’m getting there. In the western Herzegovina area, there are displaced people from all over middle and northern Bosnia.”
“Your understanding of the situation is immense.”
“I understand a significant part of it, but there are aspects of the war, most notably the human response, that I will never get to grips with.”
“How a heart can be greatly hardened with hatred for their fellow neighbour, one could say, overnight.”
“I can’t answer that for you. All I can say is that if it weren’t for the loving home, my parents gave us, and the compassion my father showed for humankind, regardless of ethnicity, I might but for the grace of God have that same hatred in my heart. During the days when our home was occupied by the Serbian family, my parents never once showed how they felt about them. I knew my father was angry, but he never allowed them to see it. He remained polite all the time.”
Suddenly, Anjela became quiet. Her shoulders turned inwards, and her body moved towards the passenger window as if shielding itself from attack. Her changed body language immediately got me thinking, have I pushed it too far?”
“How are you feeling,” I asked her. Are you feeling unwell? Do I need to stop the car?”
“I’m all right, thank you.”
We drove for the next twenty minutes in silence. I reached for her hand a couple of times, and she clasped mine. Her hand was cold and clammy. I had touched on something raw. Her mood had darkened, and she was in deep thought. She had slipped into a place she probably didn’t want to go, and my conversation had triggered this response.
It was time for me to stop and stretch my back and legs. The roads were of poor quality and the driving was tedious.
“Anjela, I’m going to stop and take a ten-minute break. Would you like to brace the freezing wind or stay in the car?”
“I’ll walk with you.”
“You know something; you are a great girl. It takes buckets of courage to talk about what you have stored up inside of you. Have you spoken about your story to anyone before?”
“A Franciscan sister has been a huge help to me.”
“I’m pleased to hear that. I cannot stress enough how vital it is to talk. I have set up support groups for women to help each other. When they assemble, they engage in some activities. They bake, do each other’s hair and nails, crochet, knit and drink coffee together. I notice that when they are working on something it distracts them and helps them feel less uncomfortable when they’re not talking or don’t want to speak. It only takes one person to start talking, and the remainder will eventually share.”
“What is the most common issue that women speak about in the groups?”
“It depends on what stage the group is at. If they’re in a primary phase, then I get a woman from another group to come and share her experience of having to leave her home for the last time. Every woman has experienced that, and it’s a practical place to start, as weird as it sounds.”
“Do they engage with each other?”
“Oh, very much so. When these women get going, they could talk all day and night. For many present, it’s the first time they’ve spoken about their trauma.”
“What is the most difficult issue?”
“By far the worst one is rape. One day I was sitting with a group of women. One particular woman was explaining what her former home was like and the lifestyle she enjoyed with her husband and four children. She was sharing how every Sunday during the summer months she and her husband would barbeque and invite different people for lunch. It was simple but beautiful, and they loved their life. I asked her what the most difficult thing she had to deal with now. Keep in mind that she had lived in a shack, had no income, had a husband that was suffering from post-traumatic shock syndrome, and she was also taking care of their special needs teenage daughter and her ageing widowed father.”
“Do you know what her answer was?”
“She said something unusual. ‘It hurts me so much to look at young women with babies in prams.’”
“I thought about it for a minute. The other ladies in the group must have thought it was also a peculiar thing to say because they remained silent, which in itself wasn’t normal. In innocence, I said, Zlata, what is it about a young family with a baby in a pram that hurts you to look at? And then the penny dropped. I got up, went over and knelt in front of her. I then took one of her hands in mine and lifted her head up so that I could look directly into her eyes and apologise for my slowness.“You lost your baby,” I whispered to her.
She sighed deeply, paused for a moment and then gripped my fingers so tightly that my rings dug into them. I wanted to scream in pain, but I had to endure the suffering for her sake. ‘No, I didn’t lose it, I paid a doctor to get rid of it.’ Then I knew she had suffered rape and had aborted the baby.”
“What did you do then?”
“I retrieved my fingers from her firm grip first, and then I took her in my arms and held her while she cried and cried. I slowly got up, kissed Zlata on the top of her head and asked if anyone would like coffee. While I fumbled around the kitchen of her new home, she talked about the terrible remorse she had for aborting the baby. ‘I had no choice at the time,’ she said. ‘My husband was at war and how could I explain a child to him? He would have gone mad if he knew the circumstances of the birth and it would have ended our marriage.’ Everyone in the group of six women including myself was in tears. The other women got up one by one and embraced her, each one wiping her tears away.”
“What a sad story. She’s one of the thousands that made the same decision.”
“I know. Would you like to hear what I did after that?”
“The couple wanted to visit their former home, and I went back to Bosnia with them. We ended up in the place where the rape happened.”
“Are you serious?”
“I am. It wasn’t meant to be like that, but it turned out that way.”
“Was it a disaster?”
“No, it wasn’t. It was emotionally very tough for them.”
“We had to climb a summit in the heat of a summer’s evening. When we got to the location, she sat on the side of the mountain for what seemed like hours and shared every detail of the events preceding the rape and everything that followed afterwards. She cried endless tears for what she’d done and for the terrible trauma her husband went through when he found out about the rape and abortion fourteen years later.”
“How did he find out?”
“Zlata was suicidal, and after attempting to kill herself, her psychiatrist recommended that she share her terrible pain with her husband. While in the hospital, she found the courage to tell him.”
“How did he react?”
“She told me he reacted very badly. He was horrified to hear the brutalities of the story. Initially, he ran from the room and puked his guts up. After not eating for several days he became dehydrated and had to be hospitalised and then suffered a breakdown.”
“How is he now?”
“Just about all right, I would say.”
“Continue with your story of the return trip to their home place.”
“From the location of the rape, we went to visit their former hometown. They had a story to tell about every house, hotel and building in the area. ‘My aunt lived there, my cousin lived in that house and so on.’ We walked through a village that consisted of twenty-two ethnically cleansed houses, and they could name all of the former residents and what they did. When I asked where they were now, they didn’t know. They cried for every minute of that visit back home. On our return journey I couldn’t bear to hear another detail about the war, so we prayed, sung songs, hymns and told innocent and funny childhood stories from Ireland and Bosnia-Herzegovina. It took me days to recover from that trip.”
“Did the trip help her?”
“She was a different person after that. I asked her did she think the baby was a boy or a girl. She said, ‘I feel it was a boy.’ I asked her if she was to give the child a name what it would be. She surprised me with her answer, ‘I called him Mario.’ ‘What a beautiful name,’ I said. ‘That’s so lovely. You have a baby in heaven, and one day you will hold him in your arms, kiss his tender forehead and smile at him,’ I assured her.”
“Does she have peace in her heart now?”
“Yes, well let’s say a lot more than she used to have. She spoke to a priest friend of mine about it after that trip, and he gave her great comfort. He assured her that God, her Father in Heaven didn’t love her any less, that He is, after all, a Father full of compassion and mercy when we show a contrite heart. And she certainly had one.”
Anjela looked at me and said, “You do great work.”
“How are you feeling now?”
“I’m feeling a lot better, thanks. It always helps to know that there are others out there that suffered the same pain.”
I didn’t respond to that remark for a minute or two. I inwardly asked myself “Is it wise to take up on this comment?” I silently prayed, “Jesus help me, please.” Then the question left my mouth, “Did you just say the same pain?”
“Yes, the same pain, but I have my baby and thank God I have. He was my saving grace.”
It was me who was crying now.
“Your son Ivan was conceived that way.”
I didn’t know how else to phrase it. Peacefully and gracefully she replied, and said “Yes”.
“My Lord,” I said. “I don’t know what to say to you.”
“You don’t have to say anything, Patricija.”
“Your son is a beautiful boy, Anjela. You’ve done an incredible job bringing him up alone.”
“Thank you. That’s a great compliment.”
“It’s the truth. He’s stunning. Does he know the circumstances of his conception?”
“No and he never will.”
“So I get it now. You conceived a baby in wartime through rape. The father was of another ethnicity. You couldn’t stay in Bosnia as a single Muslim girl where everyone knew you, and you relocated. Is that close to being correct?”
“I don’t think I could trick you into believing anything else. You know too much about how it works here.”
“We need to return to the car. We have been walking half an hour. It will be dark in less than an hour. Anjela, this decision is entirely up to you. We can go to Janja now, but it will be dark when we get there. Or, we can go directly to Tuzla, stay overnight there and then visit Janja tomorrow on our way home. What do you think?”
“I don’t know.”
“I don’t believe that. You’re a confident person. You make all the decisions for yourself and Ivan. What is it that’s preventing you from deciding what to do?”
“Right now I want to go home.”
“That’s alright” I assured her. If you want to, we can turn back and stay in Sarajevo and go home tomorrow. I don’t mind. I’m happy to do what you want.”
We sat in the car, and I turned the engine on to heat us up.
“Will I toss a coin? Heads for home?”
I took out a fifty cent coin and tossed it. It landed heads up on the back of my hand.
“We are Sarajevo bound,” I said.
I had my friend make a provisional booking for a city centre hotel in Sarajevo, and I knew it would be available up to 8 pm. I also had another reservation made in Tuzla, and either one was easy to cancel with my local Bosnian phone in hand.
Anjela still hadn’t spoken, and I accepted that this could happen. We drove in silence. I prayed the Rosary to the Blessed Virgin Mary in the quiet of the evening’s drive, admiring the dramatic and swift sunset, and thanking the Lord for all that he’d allowed us to share throughout the day.
The hotel wasn’t busy, and the young receptionist upgraded our booking to superior suites. Our rooms were across the corridor from each other. I helped Anjela into her suite first. Her confused expression turned to one of happiness when she saw how beautiful and spacious her room was.
“I’ll leave you for the moment. Come and get me when you’re ready. I won’t be moving anywhere for a while.”
I was glad of the rest. I allowed my tired body sink into a luxuriously comfortable bed and then drifted off to sleep with the Sarajevan mountain air creeping through a slightly opened window.
The noise of the telephone woke me. It was Anjela.
“What time is it?” I asked.
“It’s 7 pm. Did I wake you?”
“I’ve slept for more than two hours. It’s time to get up. How are you feeling? Did you sleep?”
“I prayed, I cried and eventually, I relaxed.”
“How are you feeling now?”
“I’d say a little more together.”
“What do you feel like doing?”
“Hunger pains in my tummy cry out that it’s time to eat.”
“Me too. Give me half-an-hour, and I’ll be ready.”
I called my friends Shefik and Sunida to see if they would like to join us for dinner. I briefly told them the situation and asked them to avoid focusing on the war years. We met at a local Turkish restaurant close to their end of the city. I thought their company could offer an attractive distraction for the evening. During the occupation of Sarajevo, Shefik had remained in the city while his wife and daughter went to Australia. They were a delightful couple, who had many insights to share on many aspects of life other than the war. I was certain Anjela would enjoy their stories about Sarajevo before 1992 and their subsequent travels to many places around the world.
Shefik and Sunida suggested ordering combination platters of Bosnian food for the main course and dessert. Anjela delved into the delights of the authentic Bosnian flavours. “This is how my mother used to cook. It tastes just like what we ate for dinner. Thank you. It’s delightful,” she said smiling at Shefik.
Our conversations that night were light and full of laughter. Anjela had relaxed. I intended to keep it that way and hopefully by morning she would be feeling stronger and willing to go to Tuzla. I expected that if she didn’t make the journey this time, it would probably never happen.
Over breakfast the following morning, I broached the subject again. Anjela agreed that she might never have the strength to visit her mother’s grave and perhaps her only chance was now. I suggested we take one step at a time and only focus on getting to Tuzla. After lunch, we could assess how she was feeling and make a decision then.
“May I ask you one question, please?”
She nodded her head.
“Do you know where the graveyard is?”
“Do you remember the location of her grave?”
“I will know when I get there.”
“We’re off to a good start then. I don’t like arriving in cities and not knowing where I’m going. That’s a great help.”
When I got in the car, I inserted a compact disc, and we listened to light entertainment. Anjela was enquiring what music I liked and the type of music I grew up with back in the 70s in Ireland. She then took my phone and found my favourite songs on YouTube. I then had to share the memories associated with them, and many of the stories had her laughing most of the way to Tuzla. I was uncertain if I should ask her about her favourites and tactfully decided to forgo the question.
“Anjela, do you recognise where we are?”
We were approaching the city and I needed directions. The city had spread vastly over the years due to the massive influx of displaced persons.
“I don’t recognise anything.”
“Do you know the name of the graveyard?”
“It’s Gradina, (garden), something or other.”
“How do you feel about asking someone in the approaching petrol station where it is?”
She popped out of the car and returned with the direction five minutes later. We made our way through small city residential streets until we arrived at a graveyard at the end of the road.
“We’re here,” she said looking out the passenger window at the graveyard sloping down the hillside into a valley. The front of the 2ft high wooden grave markers was facing east towards a cloud enveloped mountain covered with some evergreen trees, while others were waiting for the return of spring to clad them in the eloquence they were accustomed to.
There were hundreds of graves in the cemetery. “How is she going to find her mother’s grave?” I inwardly thought. I wasn’t going to ask.
Anjela finally opened the door of the car and put her feet on the ground. She took a deep breath and stood up.
“It’s now or never,” she said, taking a step in the direction of the entrance.
I slipped my arm through hers, and we walked in unison.
“Which direction is east?”
“It has to be that way because Muslim graves always face eastwards.”
“Well, if that direction is east, this way has to be west.”
“Correct. We came from the southwesterly direction, and that is east behind those mountains,” I said pointing in the appropriate direction.
“We need to walk over to the westerly perimeter and count ten rows from where the sun goes down. When we get that done, we count twenty-six to the left with my back to the sun, and that should take us to mama’s grave.”
I was praying that this was going to work. All kinds of thoughts were going through my mind. Were we in the right graveyard? Would the grave marker be still intact and still there? Many of the wooden grave markers looked dilapidated, with the names on them faded. Would she recognise it at all?
Anjela took charge and led the way. I silently followed behind her. I didn’t want to count, fearing I would get it wrong. She stopped at the tenth row and touching each grave marker with her right hand continued counting until she reached the twenty-sixth. She moved around to the front of the wooden plaque and looked for the name. There was no name on the wooden structure. What happens now I thought? Then she got down on her knees and began pulling the earth away from around the bottom of the marker with a pen she had taken with her from the car. I didn’t offer to help. This digging was part of her return journey.
She tore at the firm soil for a few minutes. Then she released a loud wail as she pulled a Muslim prayer bead from the earth. She turned and looked at me and said, “This is Mama’s grave.”
“Thanks be to God,” I replied with relief in my heart.
Anjela sat on the cold earth holding the beads to her heart. Tears slowly slipped down her face. I handed her a tissue. I didn’t want to intrude. She needed these few minutes alone. I waited until she was ready to get up and offered her my hand. She was light, but today her body carried a heavy burden of grief.
“How would you like to go and get some flowers for your mama’s grave?”
“I would love to.”
Many of the nearby graves had winter flowering plants on them, and they looked lovely.
Anjela followed me to the car, and we headed back down the hill. When we got to the flower shop, I handed her fifty Marks and told her to buy whatever she wanted and not to spare the money. Anjela returned with six pots containing shrubs and plants. She then decorated her mother’s grave with them, telling her mama, all the time in murmured whispers, which I couldn’t help overhearing, that it was just as well she had taken the advice of the nurse in the hospital where she had died and buried something that would prove it was her grave.
I felt peace in my heart for her. It was a beautiful, bittersweet day, one imbued with happiness and grief in equal measure.
After Anjela had been satisfied that her mother’s grave looked like someone cared for it, she was prepared to leave.
“Anjela, where is your father buried?” I had asked before we left the graveyard.
“I don’t know. After Tata had taken our family from the summer house, he signed and paid 1,600 dollars for us to go to Hungary. A bus collected us from our home and brought us to a building with several other Muslim families. There the adults were forced at gunpoint to hand over all their money and jewellery. The Serbian soldiers shouted and roared, terrifying everyone. Men just reached for their cash and women took their rings off and put them in a bag. Then the men were separated from their families and taken away in another bus to work on the front line for the Serbian army. I know now Tata was detained in the Batkovi prisoner-of-war camp, and he died there. At the time, we didn’t have any idea where he was. I found out later that the prisoners were buried in communal graves. Many of those mass graves have been opened, and I’ve given a sample of my DNA. I pray that one day some organic material from his body will be found.”
“I’m certain it will. It may take a long time. Eventually, every piece of DNA will one day be matched up. May I ask you where did the women and children go?”
“The next morning the women and children were ordered onto another bus and taken to what was known as ‘no man’s land,’ an area between the ‘new’ Serbian and Bosnia border. We were told to walk in a straight line, as the earth on both sides of the track was covered with landmines. Mama’s leg was bleeding. She had jarred it against a piece of steel jutting from a step on the old bus. She tore a piece of fabric from her skirt and wrapped it around her leg to curtail the bleeding. We reached our Bosnia army on the other side of the minefield. Mama had some money hidden in her bra, and we used that to buy us food and shelter for the next couple of days. Within a few days, Mama began to complain of severe pain and throbbing in her left leg. I took the bandage off, and her leg smelled so badly. My brother and I got her to the hospital. We waited for hours for a doctor to see her. They had far worse injured people to assist than Mama. She had a soaring temperature, delirium set in and she developed rigours. Although the doctor put her on intravenous fluids and antibiotics, she deteriorated rapidly. Soon afterwards she lost consciousness and slowly slipped away from the world that had become so painful for her. She would never have survived without Tata.”
“At the grave, I couldn’t help overhearing you say something about a nurse telling you what to do?”
“A more senior nurse who always seemed to be on duty was very kind to us. She said, ‘When the orderlies come to remove your mother, follow them everywhere. Don’t let her out of your sight. Otherwise, you’ll never know what happened to her.’”
“At sixteen, you were now the head of the family. What a horrible position to find yourself in.”
“It was terrifying. My brother was frantic. He held my hand and never let it go for days. We took the nurse’s advice and stayed with Mama until they buried her the following morning. That was when I remembered how important it was that I had some way in the future to help locate her grave, and so my reason for burying the beads.”
“Where did you go from there?”
“We went back to our aunt’s house in Tuzla.”
“Were you pregnant then?”
“I was, but I didn’t know it until my aunt noticed I was developing a bump. She insisted that she take me to a doctor and, of course, he confirmed I was. He guessed I was about twenty weeks gone. My aunt insisted I have an abortion, but I knew I couldn’t do that. My parents had taught us that all life was a sacred thing and that it was wrong to kill.”
“Your aunt must have been furious with you for refusing.”
“She told me to leave. My brother was allowed to stay, but I had to go.”
“Where did you go?”
“I went to Zagreb on a bus. We had Croatian friends there who had moved from Janja. I had been to see my friend Ana twice, and I had her address in my mind.”
“Did you find them?”
Fearing the worst, I asked, “Were they kind to you?”
“Very kind. They were a very devout family, and my friend Ana had an aunt who was a Franciscan nun. She was dealing with many young girls in the same position as me.”
“Aborting your baby wasn’t an option. Was adoption one?”
“It was until I saw a room at the hospital filled with newborn babies wrapped tightly in white sheets all lined up in rows on gurneys.”
“Did that scene change your mind?”
“I always told Mama and Tata that I wanted to be a paediatrician. I loved children and wanted to work with them. When I saw those little innocent, vulnerable babies, I felt so sad for them. They were all conceived through rape and had been rejected by their mothers, and it was dreadfully sad.”
I decided to ask Anjela a question based on my gut instinct.
“Did you sneak in to visit them?”
“I didn’t sneak in, but a nurse in her forties saw me standing at the door several times. I was shocked to see so many babies. The nurse came to the door and asked when my baby was due. My waters had broken the previous day, and my friend’s mother had taken me to the hospital. I explained this to the nurse. I asked her how many babies she was looking after and what was going to happen to them. She told me they were up for adoption that twelve were going to America, two were going to Germany, and eight had to go to an orphanage. Would you like to see the babies?’ she asked.”
“How did you feel when you were invited to see the children?”
“I felt a mixture of emotions. I felt sad and afraid, and yet I wanted to touch them, hold them and kiss them.”
“Did you take up the invitation?”
“I did, feeling nervous at first. I cradled every baby in my arms and kissed them. I felt so sad for them. They were all perfectly formed and beautiful looking babies. I didn’t know which ones would be loved and which ones were facing a life without love in the orphanages. Pain tore at my heart. I went back to bed and cried and cried.”
“Was that a deciding moment for you?”
“I was only sixteen-years-old. How was I going to raise a baby conceived through rape on my own? My country was divided in three, and emotions ran extremely deep. People from all denominations hated and distrusted each other. I had an impossible task ahead of me.”
“How soon after visiting the baby unit did you give birth?”
“Three days later. It was a horrendously difficult birth. I had one of those things where they have to cut you down there. What’s it called in English?”
“Yes, that’s the word. I ended up with eighteen stitches. I could barely walk. Then I developed an infection where I had the stitches. I was very sick, and the doctors didn’t think I was going to pull through. The medical staff produced the adoption papers for me to sign, but I refused. The nurse who showed me the babies took care of Ivan for me and made sure he didn’t go anywhere. She kept telling the staff that I wanted to keep my baby. But they wouldn’t believe her because the other mothers were screaming to take those things away from them. She looked after the baby for a week, until I began to recover.”
“Did you take Ivan back to your friend’s house?”
“Yes, I did, but they couldn’t support us. They already had a massive financial burden, and they were unable to help any further.”
“What did you do then?”
“My friend’s aunt the nun suggested that until I was in a position to support the baby that I should put him in the orphanage and that she would make sure he was cared for properly.”
“Is that what you did?”
“I had no other choice. I had the option of going to visit him weekly, and that’s what I did for the next seven months.”
“What changed after seven months?”
“My brother went missing from Tuzla, and I went back there to look for him. He believed that I had gone to Hungary without him. He left my aunt’s house leaving a note to say he had gone to look for me.”
“We looked everywhere in Tuzla for him. We spent weeks walking the streets. We put up posters with his photograph on them asking for information about him. There were posters on every pole, shop window, wall and door all over Tuzla with missing persons on them. I don’t think people stopped to look at them any longer.”
“Did you find him?”
“No, we didn’t. We called the search off eight weeks later, and I returned to Zagreb.”
“You must have been utterly devastated. You had now lost your dad, mum and brother?”
“I can’t describe the pain I had inside of me sitting on that bus heading back to Zagreb. I didn’t know if my father was alive or dead at that time, or where my brother was. My life was in ruins, and my mind was in chaos. I couldn’t make sense of anything. In a few short months, my world had been ripped apart.”
“What happened when you got back to Zagreb? Surely there must have been someone to show mercy to you.”
“I went straight to the orphanage to see Ivan. During my time away he had developed eczema on his skin, and his little fingers were raw and had bled. I reached in and picked him up in my arms and kissed his tender head covered with cradle cap. I said to him you are the only thing I have left in this world. I held him close to my chest and my heart filled with such an incredible feeling of love for him. I felt my heart glowing as heat radiated from it. Tears of love and pity fell on the face of my baby. How am I going to bring you up, dearest baby I asked him? He snuggled into my breast, and that was the moment I fell in love with him. I sat gazing at the little-undernourished infant lying in my arms.”
“How did you feel at that point?”
“I was physically exhausted, emotionally wrecked, and yet I was miraculously in love with my baby boy.”
“Were you not going out of your mind with worry about your future, how to survive, how to explain a child being a single mum and where you were going to live? You could at this stage never go back to Bosnia?”
“Sister Mira, my friend’s aunt asked the sisters at her convent if they knew of anyone who needed someone to help them out in return for accommodation. A middle-aged Croatian couple whose two sons had died in the war offered me shelter. Sister Mira suggested that I tell them my husband died due to war injuries and that I was now a widow. It wasn’t done to trick them into having sympathy, but Sister Mira was doing some forward thinking for me. They were a prayerful couple who loved the Blessed Virgin Mary and attended daily mass. They kept asking when I was going to bring my baby to see them. He’s not well enough to leave the hospital yet, I would tell them.”
“Did you find a compromise and bring them to see him?”
“I didn’t want them to know that my baby was in an orphanage. That would lead to too many questions, and I didn’t wish to get into a cycle of lies. Sister Mira advised me to leave it for three months, allowing me time to establish a relationship with them. I began taking Ivan out to visit them twice a week. Their eyes lit up when they saw him. Vesna became Baba (grandmother), and Ivo became Djed (grandfather). It wasn’t long before they suggested taking Ivan home permanently. Baba called all her friends, and they rallied around and supplied many of the necessities which got me through for several months.”
“By this stage, Ivan is just a year old, and you are all caring for each other. Ivan is filling their broken hearts with joy and how is your heart nearly two years later?”
“Good question. I was lonelier than ever for my family. I imagined every day how it could be if my parents were here to see Ivan. On the other hand, I didn’t know how my mother would be with a grandson conceived through rape. At the time she died, she didn’t know about the abuse. I couldn’t tell her because she had become more mentally fragile as the war years elapsed. I’m glad she didn’t know considering her sudden demise.”
“You have an almost perfect peace about you, Anjela. When I met you first, I saw a girl who was tender and fragile, but yet had this peace and acceptance. How did that come about?”
“Don’t forget I was brought up in a devout Muslim home. My parents believed in God and accepted his will in their lives. Our home and our lives were peaceful. I wanted to emulate their example when I was growing up. During the time I lived with Vesna and Ivo, they prayed the Rosary to the Blessed Virgin Mary every evening. I was never asked to join them, but I was always there for the prayers. At the end of the Rosary, they would invoke Jesus’ blessing on Ivan and me. They would pray for their dead sons, my mother and “my husband”. They prayed for the safe return of my brother and my father. I saw how beautiful, open and generous their hearts were. They grieved deeply for their sons and yet prayed to God that he would give them acceptance of their situation. Their belief in God and their love of the Blessed Virgin Mary drew me to their faith. I began joining in the prayers, and by the third year I was saying my rosary.”
“Is that how your conversion to Catholicism came about?”
“The Croatian people are most unusual. They see a lot but say nothing at all. They are very cute that way. I think Vesna must have been telling Sister Mira about my progress and then one day she asked if I would like to take Roman Catholic instruction. I thought about it for a while, and I said yes. Everything good that had happened to me in the previous three years had been due to the kindness I experienced from people of their faith. I said yes, and six months later Ivan and I were baptised together. Vesna and Ivo became Ivan’s Kuma, (godparents).”
“I can only imagine how happy they were?”
“Jubilant is the word I would use to describe them the day of the baptism. Their lives had become once again meaningful.”
“When did you decide to leave and return to Mostar?”
“When Ivan was three-years-old Vesna encouraged me to start learning English. I began night classes as soon as the war was over and I progressed very quickly. I had to make a decision then about where I would settle with Ivan. I missed my home country, and I decided to give Mostar a try. Tourism is a big industry in Mostar, and I thought I would have the opportunity of getting lots of work there. Vesna and Ivo came to Mostar with us and helped me find a little flat and financially supported me while I got on my feet. Ivan began school, and I started to get work, and it has provided a good living.”
“Do you get to see Vensa and Ivo regularly?”
“We spend as much time with them as we can. They are older now and need us more than ever.”
“Do you ever see your aunt and cousins in Tuzla?”
“My aunt died, and my cousins are scattered all over the world. I have no family anywhere now in Bosnia-Herzegovina.”
We had eaten lunch, drank coffee and all the while Anjela talked continuously. Much of the time she was wiping tears away. Then she would think of her son and say, “How blessed I am to have him, Patricia. He’s been my saviour.”
“Have you ever envisaged what life would be like without him?”
“I have many times. I wouldn’t be alive if it weren’t for him. He’s my reason for living.”
“Patricija, can I ask you something?”
I nodded my head.
“Do you mind if I don’t go to Janja today?”
“To tell you the truth, I was rather hoping you didn’t want to go.”
“I would love to see Janja again, and maybe one day you will take Ivan and me there. I want to show him where I came from.”
“Anjela, who does Ivan think his father is. I’m sure he has asked?”
“I tell him about the boy from the summer house next door. I liked him very much. His name was Tarik, and he was such a handsome boy and lovely also. He and his sister were our best summer friends. If you could imagine the type of father you’d want for your child, well he’s the guy.”
“How old does he think you were when you gave birth?”
“I had to make myself two years older. I was a bit young at sixteen-years-old to be married and pregnant. I told Ivan I was eighteen when I got married and nineteen when he was born.”
“Of course, after the war, most people had to get new documents as everything had been destroyed or lost in the expulsions. It somehow made the transition easier, and with so many names that look like Croatian names, it was relatively easy to choose one that could have been your original name being a Muslim family.”
“That was the more natural part of the transition, and it worked out well.”
Our day in Tuzla was coming to an end, and we now had to face a long journey home. Anjela had accomplished something she thought was impossible.
“I feel a closeness to my mother today that I haven’t felt for many years. It’s good to have come to see her final resting place.”
“It’s good to have shared that journey with you. Let’s go home and have supper with your son. You are going to have a lot of questions to answer tonight. Do you think he will be excited in some way about your trip back home?”
“I’m going to be bombarded with questions, but it’s good, though. When can we come back?”
“How about the summertime?”
“Let’s do it only when you’re up to it.”
It was Christmas week 2007, only a little more than two weeks since our trip to Tuzla. By now I was once again back in Ireland, making truffles for a Christmas house party. My phone rang, and I noticed that it was a Herzegovina number. “Oh, I don’t need this,” I instantly thought, “not two days before Christmas. It can only be trouble.”
“Molim”, I answered.
“Patricija, its Anjela.”
Her voice was shaken, and she sounded troubled.
“Is everything all right Anjela?”
“I don’t know what to do.”
“Why, what’s happened?”
I was concerned for her. I had never heard her with a panicky tone before. I encouraged her to sit down, take a deep breath and that I would call her back. Minutes later I phoned her.
“Now tell me what has happened. Just remember Anjela there’s nothing that can’t be fixed.”
“Do you remember I told you some time back I registered my brother’s name on the Red Cross Missing Persons List?”
“Yes, I do.”
“Well, I got a call from Nik this morning.”
“You what?” I said with surprise in my voice.
Now I was shaking because I knew the quandary she found herself in.
“How do you feel about that?”
“I can’t rightly describe how I feel. I’m in shock. I didn’t believe it was him, to begin with, and I asked some questions that only he would know.”
“What’s his pet name for me was and what mine was for him.”
“Did he know?”
“He answered them immediately. He loved to watch Mohammed Ali boxing, and I called him Ali, and he called me Krystal, my favourite character in the American television series called Dynasty.”
“Have you arranged to meet?”
“I told him I wouldn’t be free until the first week in January. I can’t have him coming here with Christmas in two days time and Ivo and Vesna coming also. I put him off until the New Year.”
“Your thoughts are in turmoil I can tell.”
“How am I going to explain Ivan?”
“I don’t know Anjela. May I suggest something, please?”
“Is it reasonable to ask you to put it out of your head over the coming two weeks and then after your visitors are gone to speak to someone about it then. Please, don’t burden yourself with the how’s and why’s for now. Just enjoy the fact that your brother has gotten in contact with you again. That is simply a miracle in my book.”
“Where has Nik been in the meantime?”
“He ended up in Germany, but before getting there, he spent time in a refugee camp in Hungary after he left Tuzla to look for me. He told me he got on a bus that took him there and that he had a very long story to share.”
“Wow. You’re both going to be talking for a long time when you meet. I wish I were there now to help you.”
We talked for the next twenty minutes, and I came off the phone feeling that Anjela was calmer. I promised her that I would check in with her over the coming days and that everything would be alright. “Remember,” I said, “the worst that can happen is that he won’t want anything to do with you and you know you can live without him, but it won’t come to that. You don’t know what story he has either. Just put your trust in God, Anjela and let it evolve. It will be alright.”
Over the next two weeks, I phoned Anjela several times offering my support, encouragement and advice. Eventually, she agreed on a date to meet her brother. They had arranged to meet in Sarajevo on Thursday 17th January 2008 at noon by the water fountain in the main square Bascarsija. There was a promise that when you drank from the fountain in the square, you would return to drink from it again. On that day eighteen years ago when she visited Sarajevo on a day trip with her parents, they all drank from the fountain and Anjela splashed her brother Nik with water from the fountain.
I phoned Anjela early that morning before she left for Sarajevo by train.
“I will be praying for you,” I said. “Will you let me know how you get on,” I asked. “Just be sure to get his story first. That will be your marker as to how much you can tell him. You’re a good judge, and you will know what to do.”
“Just pray for me. I’ll call you as soon as I get a chance.”
I was feeling as nervous as Anjela.
Now it was 2008 and many years had slipped away since the day her aunt told her to leave her home because she was pregnant. Two very different people with two extraordinary stories were about to meet and spend the day together. He was as nervous as his sister as he stood at the water fountain looking from left to right. There were many avenues to enter the cobbled square from, and Nik had them all covered. She saw him first. Anjela recognised him as soon as she entered the square. She didn’t need a description of the brother she had been so close to growing up and loved so much. His image was imprinted in her mind, and the love she had for him had never faded. Anjela had just kept it under wraps, not wanting to feel the pain of his loss and love.
He turned and saw her, and they moved towards each other. Her heart burst open with love for him when she saw the sweet expression on his face. They didn’t speak one word. It was overwhelming for both of them. They walked into each other’s arms and remained there like lovers, who’d been separated for a long time. They stood apart at arm’s length, and Anjela said, “Let me see you, Ali.” The ice was broken and the scary moment over.
“Where would you like to go to?” Nik asked.
“Somewhere quiet,” Anjela replied. “There’s a nice comfortable hotel over by the river. I was there only a month ago.” Anjela took her brother’s arm and linked him out of the square. They were both beaming.
“How are you?” Anjela asked.
He told her that he was well and explained how excited he was about meeting her and hearing all her news from the past eighteen years.
“How did you get to Hungary? Who looked after you? There hasn’t been a day that I haven’t wondered where you were or what happened to you. I spent eight weeks in Tuzla looking everywhere for you. I realised that following an extensive search you couldn’t be in the city, but I never expected you to end up in Hungary.”
Nik wanted Anjela to tell him about the happenings in her life first. “Ladies first,” he said. “You’re still the perfect gentleman, just like papa. You look so like him also, but no, I insist you go first.”
“Where do I start?” he asked.
“Why did you go to Hungary to look for me?”
“I remember that Papa had bought the tickets for us to go and I was sure that’s where you’d gone to when you left our aunt’s house. You left without saying goodbye or telling me where you were going.”
“I didn’t leave. I was told to go.”
“I heard aunty telling you that if you didn’t do as she asked you, then you were no longer welcome to stay under her roof. What did you do to annoy aunty so much?”
“Nothing. Nothing at all.”
“Well, why was she so mad at you?”
“She wanted me to do something that was against our religion and beliefs.”
The conversation was coursing in a dangerous direction for Anjela, and she was beginning to panic. She had learned a few tricks over the years, and one was to divert the course of conversation. This time, she called the waiter to order some drinks.
Nik resumed the conversation again urging her to tell him more.
“No, I’ll tell you later. Please tell me what happened to you after I left.”
“There was terrible tension in the house. I kept asking where you were and after days of pestering my aunt, she said that she understood the family had plans to go to Hungary before Mama died and perhaps you had gone there. Late one night when everyone was asleep, I crept out of the house and walked to the city centre. I asked where the buses for Hungary left from. A woman with children pointed in the general direction, and when I got there, I joined a queue with a family, and then followed them onto the bus. The older woman sat on the outside, and I sat on the inside. The bus was jammed packed with people, and the aisles were also crowded, but because we were there so early, I got a seat. The woman was talking to the couple opposite me, and I realised that she was the grandma of the two little girls. After some conversation, she figured out that I was alone. I told her my parents were dead and I’d lost my sister, and now I was on my way to Hungary to find her.”
“Nik, how did you get there? Was it a long journey?”
“Remember I was only fourteen and I didn’t know where the hell I was. It was years later that I found out where we went and how we got there. First, we were shunted to the Serbian-Hungarian border where we were made to wait for three days for a new ‘Yugoslav’ passport’. I didn’t know what that meant. I thought because I didn’t have a passport that was the reason I was given one.”
“Did anyone else have passports? Some people did, but they were forced to hand them over. When they refused, they were beaten. By the third day, everyone was issued with these new passports, and the soldiers were celebrating all the new ‘Yugoslav people’. It was all weird and strange to me.”
“Were you starved?”
“Yes, we were two days without food. Then the Red Cross officials stepped in and gave us some food and water. It really was an awful time. The old people were frightened and got sick, and some died. When we were back on the bus, one woman went into labour. People were shouting to see if there was a doctor or nurse on board. She was screaming so loudly. The father of the two girls sitting opposite me had to climb across the passenger’s shoulders to get to her, as he was a doctor. The bus was emptied, and after five hours we were able to get on again after she gave birth to a son.”
“Did the new mother and baby continue on the journey?”
“Yes, they did. It was mad. No one knew what to do or where we were going, and there was awful confusion amongst the people. I heard the word refugee camp mentioned several times, and I thought that’s the place you’d gone to. We then arrived in a place with a funny name called Nagytad, which turned out to be Hungary’s biggest refugee camp. The old woman asked me to come with them and I did. Wherever they went for the next couple of days, I went also.”
“Nik, you must have been terrified out of your mind without us!”
“I was terrified just like everyone else. I heard the women and men say, ‘We are now refugees’, and that’s when I knew that I might never be found again.”
“Who were these people, and what did they do? They sound like nice folk.”
“They were Serbian. The man’s name was Alex, his wife was called Sofija, and the girls were called Sava and Slavica. His mother-in-law was named Rada. She died five years ago. Alex was a doctor. He couldn’t find work anymore in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and he didn’t want to work in Serbia, and there was no way he was going to war to kill innocent people. He had qualified to save lives not to end them. His wife Sofija used to be a journalist for a women’s magazine, and after the company had closed, the family decided to emigrate to Germany. The only way they could get there was to go by bus to Hungary first as refugees, and then try to get into Germany. They told me years later that they had to pretend to be Bosnian refugees from, and Bijeljina and they had given Bosnian names to the Serbian soldiers. Otherwise, they would have been killed.”
“What happened when you got to the refugee camp? Obviously, they didn’t abandon you.”
“No, they didn’t get a chance to. I followed them everywhere not that there was anywhere to go. A few days went by, and Alex came back from being away somewhere earlier that morning and said, ‘Get your things Nik you’re coming with us.’”
“So you went to Germany with them.”
Anjela was shocked.
“How long have you been in Germany?”
“A month from the time I left Tuzla.”
“Since you left Tuzla?”
“Did they adopt you?”
“No, they didn’t, but they looked after me very well.”
“So, in other words, they became your foster family.”
“If you want to say that, well yes, that’s what they were, well are.”
Anjela couldn’t believe what she was hearing. Just as a Catholic Croat family had taken her in and given her a home, a Serbian Orthodox family had done the same for her brother.
“Have you kept your Muslim faith?”
“I haven’t practised it in years. The family were Serbian, and I went along with their prayers. I don’t know what I am anymore. The truth is that my parents would be ashamed of me.”
Anjela wanted to blurt out that they would perhaps be ashamed of the two of them, but she bit her tongue. The fact was that when she thought about it some more, her parents would be exceptionally proud of them both. “Look what we’ve survived,” she thought.
“Did you go to university?”
“I didn’t want to. Alex and Sofija had done so much for me that I didn’t want to put them to the expense of putting me through university. I said that I’d earn some money first and then pay for myself.”
“And have you?”
“Yes, I started to study pharmacy four years ago in night school. I have a year left to complete, and then I’m qualified.”
Poor Anjela couldn’t contain the tears. He was following in his father’s footsteps.
“Papa would be so proud of you Nik.”
“On the subject of Papa, how is he?”
“Papa is dead, Nik. He died in the Batkovi concentration camp shortly after he was separated from us.”
It was hard for Nik to hear that his beloved Tata was dead also. Anjela could see him fighting hard to stem the dam-burst of tears welling up inside him.
“Is he buried with Mama?”
“Unfortunately not. His body has never been found. I gave DNA samples some time back. More and more Muslim graves are being opened, and I’m confident that one day we will find him. I can tell you, though, that last December I found Mama’s grave in Tuzla.”
“Would you like to visit it? I’m saving the money to put a new headstone on it, and I’m going to put Tata’s name on it also. I’m sure they’re together in Heaven.”
“That would be lovely. I will help you with the cost of the headstone.”
They talked for a few minutes about their deceased parents and shared loving memories of happier childhood times, but it was tremendously difficult for them to maintain the conversation because they kept breaking down in tears.
“Where do you live now?” Anjela enquired, changing the subject. Talking about her parents proved to be still exceptionally painful for her.
“I share a flat in Munich with two other Serbian guys.”
In German, she asked him if he spoke fluent German and Nik answered in English and laughed.
Nik was deeply impressed with his sister. She had learnt not only German but also English.
“Do you still see the family?”
“As much as I can. I make sure to see them at least once a month, and I’m always with them for the big religious feast days as they still practice their faith.”
Anjela was in awe of what her brother had achieved. She had imagined him turning up to meet her looking sad, unhappy and after having a terrible life.
“You look so good Nik.”
“You’re not looking so bad yourself Krystal.”
Anjela knew that after almost three hours of Nik talking that she couldn’t avoid his questions any longer.
“Now tell me about you. Where did you disappear to?”
Anjela reached for her handbag and took her purse out.
“I’ve got something to show you first,” she said, with a nervous strain to her voice.
Pulling a photograph from where she had loosely left it, in case she needed it in a hurry, she then handed it to her brother.
“Who’s this?” Nik asked looking at the picture.
“He’s called Ivan, and he’s your nephew.”
And there Anjela began sharing her story of the past years. Anjela talked and talked telling Nik everything, from the time she left Tuzla to the day she got the phone call from him, and how she dreaded the moment of having to reveal the real identity of Ivan’s father and how he came to be born.
Nik listened and never interrupted Anjela. The only question he asked was when he could meet his nephew. He never judged his sister. He had seen too much destruction come from judging people from other ethnicities. Serbian people with warm hearts and a sense of justice who refused to engage in war and kill for the sake of ridding the population of innocent Bosniak Muslims had rescued him from a possible life of hell. Alex and his wife had opted to leave their homeland rather than kill innocent people, and because of that decision, he’d been the beneficiary of their kindness. He was never going to divulge the circumstances of Ivan’s birth to anyone. He agreed to go along the lines of knowing the boy next door to the summer house, and he was the boy he played with all the long, hot summers of their youth in Janja.
“When will you come to Mostar? Ivan is so excited about meeting his uncle. He keeps telling everyone that he has an uncle.”
Nik travelled to Mostar two days later and met his nephew, Ivan. Ivan told him the story of his godparents who lived in Zagreb and how his mother came to be a Catholic. “You have to meet them,” Ivan gushed. “I would be honoured to meet them. Maybe during the summer holidays,” Nik answered.
In the summer of 2009, there were meetings and visits to Zagreb, Tuzla, Mostar and Medjugorje. I never did have to take Anjela and Ivan to visit her home place in Janja. She went with her brother and her son. “Maybe after this visit, he’ll stop asking me questions,” Anjela whispered to her brother, “now that he has a sense of who he is and where he’s from.”
“Isn’t it unimaginable that we don’t have one photo of his grandparents to show him?”
“What’s unimaginable is that we are alive to tell the tale and that you found me. I’m so happy,” Anjela said with a beaming smile on her face.
In 2010 Anjela and Ivan went to Munich, as special guests of Nik’s foster-Serbian family and enjoyed a week in their home.
Nik is now married, has two boys and lives in Munich working full time as a pharmacist.
At the date of completing this story in 2017, the remains of Omir have not yet been found, and they have never been able to recover the family property in Janja.
From Journey of Ten Thousand Smiles by Patricia Keane.