Few weeks ago an Irish man I meet lend me a book to read. It was book about the Balkans history and he wished to hear my opinion about it; Misha Glenny’s book ‘The Balkans, nationalism, war and the Great powers’.
I read it.
And all my memories about the Bosnian war came back.
You see, I was born and raised in second larges city in Bosnia, city called Banja Luka. And I was there when war broke out. I was there during the war, and some time after…
Glenny mentioned certain naiveté of the people before the war. They could not believe that war will start. And that was true. All of us, every ordinary average person did hoped that war will not start. Of course, now I know that hope was for vain. Moreover, the signals of war started to crop up years before.
I still remember fall 1989 when I came back to school after summer break. Last summer year was normal, as any other before, my class mates and me were concerned with grades, cute members of opposite sex and pop culture. Then summer break came and we all went to our families to spend summer. Mine summer was similar as the ones before. I was spending my time with my best friend, Indira, lost in typical girl-teenager activities. Also that summer my younger brother discovered Jackie Chan films so my rainy days were spent in front of VCR, trying to remember how to say 'thank you' in Chinese and learn how to eat with the chopstick.
Then school started. And suddenly there were strange comments from the boys. They started to divide themselves into ‘ours’ and ‘theirs’. First time nationality crept up into our class.
I considered those comments silly and did not divide between my female friends. And they all were different nationalities. My best friend, Indira was different nationality then me. But that was not so important. For two of us more important were two guys, Mirko and Edi.
My family was not nationalistic, no one cared about religion, and no one cared about nationalities. We lived in mixed neighbourhood. Croats, Muslims and Serbs lived together, in the same neighbourhood, visited each other, went to each others parties. Only thing my parents were careful about is to indicate which dishes of the served ones contained pork or alcohol if we had Muslims guests. The similar thing we did if we had Jews visiting, we did our best to prepare at least one kosher meal. Most of the families in neighbourhood did the same. It was a bit funny for me how neighbour Ibro (muslim) was happy to eat pork and drink alcohol when his wife was not with him. And we kids were always warned not to mention anything to aunt Zlata. Their oldest son, Edin, was at that time a cadet in the military school in Croatia. He is one year older than me; we grow up together, played together with all other kids in neighbourhood.
Another family from my old neighbourhood, Croats, were in the way very important to me. The wife Mira was for me example of the elegance and fashionable taste, while her husband, Nenad, was the person who supported my interest in science. My own father did not care, but uncle Nenad, well, he was showing me how to repair old radios, he was lending me bunch of the SF magazines ‘Sirius’ which fueled my imagination. And he was always lending me various books I needed for my school projects. He was from Dalmatia and several years before war started he decided to move back to Zadar. His wife did not follow him because of her mother bad health. I loved when aunt Mira asked me to baby-sit their only daughter, despite the fact that my own mother considered that nuisance. That last sumer, I watched together with Maria (their daughter) the cartoon 'Little Mermaid'.
In the end, the life was normal. The only thing that was worrying my parents and neighbours was economic situation and problems due severe corruption. As we kids grow up, parents started worrying about how to help us find a job. Unemployment in SFRJ was very high, and several years before war one can get job only trough strong connections or using bribe.
Around 1989 two major TV broadcasters in country started to fuel nationalism with the propaganda; one from Belgrade and one from Zagreb. I remember that my parents listen news from both station and somehow tried to get the true combining what they heard. The news from Sarajevo studio was largely ignored since that studio seemed to do similar thing as my parents.
As the school year slowly passed by, tensions started to appear. Slowly it started to matter which nationality we were. The process was slow, but tensions risen.
I got into fight with Indira. But not because of nationality, instead the cause was the boy, Mirko. Both of us liked him and foolishly I promised her that I would not make any move. I said foolishly because at the end Mirko preferred me, and that caused troubles between my best friend and me.
In the spring of 1990 I got funding for the astronomy summer school in Belgrade. I was delighted. But to get to Belgrade I had to travel trough the Croatia. At that time tensions were very high. All residents of old SFRJ were bombarded with nationalistic messages from those two major broadcasters, HTV and RTS. So hotheads started to act on what they heard, while ordinary people start to be afraid. So I travelled alone to Belgrade, by bus (the fastest way). The bus stopped in several cities in Croatia. I was scared, especially because few days before my trip there was news report about some nationalistic outbursts. Nothing happened. I had most wonderful time in Belgrade. Students who got the scholarship were from all parts of SFRJ, and I was not only one who was scared to travel. One Croat girl from Split took plane instead much cheaper train purely because of the fear. But we all get along well together. All of us.
At that time, prime minister Ante Markovic, was trying to patch country together visiting every major city in SFRJ and trying to conduct negotiations. Due to his lack of success, ordinary people called his team ‘travelling Circus’. At the end, that's what they were.
We were constantly bombarded by nationalistic messages. Slowly separation between groups in school grew. Boys were sometimes openly hostile to each other, and kept themselves separate. Girls started to behave awkward between themselves. I was sad to see how some of my friends show increasing lack of trust. And slowly we stopped to talk with each other. How we could talk about silly things when the stuff we heard in news was hanging above us all the time.
At that time I was strong pacifist, vegetarian and considered myself resident of the Earth. That year was for me personally significant. It was first time I ever get my hands on the book ‘Dune’ by F. Herbert. I loved it. I loved it so much that I started to write SF myself.
Also that summer 1990 I had last meeting with Edin, my neighbour son. He was at that time a military officer. Once he offered me ride in his new car and told a story I found then quite offensive. He talked about female friend of his, 25 years old. He bragged that he helped her to get married and claimed that if he did not do matchmaking she would not ever got married. I found that offensive. It seemed to me that he assumes that females have ‘best to’ date, as some product.
Then Slovenia separated. The fuss lasted less than one month and the later events transformed that into minor event. Ordinary people were relieved that war did not broke out. That year was my last year in high school. That year I meet one very cute Croat, Darko. He was interested in astrology, and since I was an amateur astronomer he used that to befriends me. I helped him to calculate planet positions, and he was trying to convince me that horoscopes were correct. I remember that he complained to me how his own language changed over few months. He was from the small Croatian town near Bosnia/Croatian border and he came in Banja Luka to study electronic engineering. He complained that during several months he spent at college language in Croatia changed so much that he had problems understanding it.
Now I believe he overreacted because HTV was receivable in Banjaluka and even today I had no problems to understand what they saying. But at that time people made jokes about ridiculous new words Croats invented to make their language really different.
And then war started. Croatia declared independence 1991 and Germany recognized it.
That combination transformed fear into panic. Nazi Germany was the one that helped few hundred extremists to take power in Croatia and start exterminate unwanted population. Years of previous propaganda already put fear into people.
I remember watching the HTV. They broadcasted the song called ‘Danke Deutschland’ (Thank you, Germany). Yeah, it was in German, with subtitles in Croatian. My family was silent. I could not stop thinking about the stories told by my grandparents. Parts of their families were killed in concentration camps during the Second World War. And on the TV we were seeing the symbols so similar to the one Nazi sympathizers used.
Bosnia at that time was part of SFRJ so army mobilised people in Bosnia to go and fight in Croatia. My brother was too young at that time, and my father was put in logistic because of decades old spine injury. I remember that we were very happy to hear that.
But boys who were my age were mobilized too. Some of them went to serve obligatory army time, just few months before Croatia declared independence. My cousin was one of them. I remember how my uncle, my father’s brother, used some connections to put him in military base in Zadar to serve that obligatory one-year of military service. Uncle was very proud when he succeeded. That was a jackpot. Easy one – year military service in lovely touristy costal town. It sounded as one-year holiday.
But after Croats thanked Germany, Croat hotheads attacked all military bases located in Croatia. Those bases had soldiers of mixed nationality. Communist ideology declared that ‘the people’ are the army. So every male had to do military service. And military usually put recruits far away from their families, scattered them all around the country. Kosovo was considered as the worst places for serving since at that time there were tensions there. Severe tensions. Unofficial stories about terrorism and sporadic troubles were circling in my surroundings. Members of all nationalities in Bosnia considered those stories true. They preferred their sons to be placed in more civilised places, as Croatia, Serbia, urban parts of Bosnia and Montenegro. And costal cities were jackpot. Only soldiers with strong connections or very lucky ones end up there. So my cousin considered himself to be extremely lucky. No one believed that Croatia will declare independence or that war will start.
So instead of having a holiday, my cousin ends up in the siege.
Another my uncle, another of my father’s brothers, was construction worker. Just before trouble in Croatia, his company got a contract to build a bridge in Croatia. He was over 50 years old at that time. And he did not believed in that propaganda he was hearing on the TV. He said that Croats are decent, civilized people and nothing bad can happened to him. So he went to Croatia to build the bridge. When war in Croatia started we lost all contact with him.