.It was January and winter had taken hold, but people did not discuss the weather at all. The war in Croatia
washad been raging on for months - a bloody, meaningless war. After Croatia had become independent, the Serbs in the part of Croatia called Kraina, rebelled, and with the help of volunteers from Bosnia and Serbia, fought the Croatian army. Hundreds of Serbs from my hometown went to Croatia to participate in the war, whose goal was nebulous and unrealistic. I saw the soldiers returning from the front line, and I wished I could talk to them, and persuade them to stay home instead of sacrificing their lives for thea lost cause. But they would certainly never have listened to me. They followed their nationalist leaders and intellectuals who promised them the Greatesta Greater Serbia. At the beginning, their departures to Croatia were greeted with cheers, but when the first coffins returned from the front line, and the death notices covered walls and light poles, the mood turned sombre. You could see the black-dressed Serbian women walking the streets with their heads bowed down, and not looking at passersby, as if they were in another world. You did not need to ask them what had happened to their husbands, sons and brothers.
When Bosnia and Herzegovina had become independent, the situation in the country worsened. The Bosniaks and Croats voted for
theindependence onin the referendum, but the Serbs, on theorders from their leaders, stayed away from the ballot boxes. Soon, they proclaimed their own republic and called it Republika Srpska. In my town, where the three nations had lived in harmony for decades, the local government started immediately to dismiss all non-Serbs from jobs. I saw my neighbours coming home with a piece of paper, showing themit in disbelief to others. After twenty, thirty or more years, they had been thrown out of their factories, companies, offices and schools like a bag of rubbish. Their Serb colleagues did nothing to protect them, nor did they protest. Their leader, Dr Karadzic, a psychiatrist and a poet, had declared many times that coexistence with the Bosniaks would be impossible if theBosnia became an independent state. The Serbs who did not agree with him were either in the minority or afraid to speak against him. They could not have been blamed for their acquiescence. For who would have dared oppose the great leader with his luxuriant hair, who had come from nowhere like a messiah to lead his people to a finalthe ultimate victory?
Whenever I went to town, I felt tension in the air. A few weeks before, you could hear people laughing, shouting, and joking in the streets, cafes and pubs, but now everyone was engrossed in
histheir own thoughts, avoiding eye contact with passersby. People did not trust each other anymore; long friendships broke up, acquaintances did not greet each other anymore, and even some mixed marriages fell apart because spouses quarreled continuously about politics and could not agree whose leader was right. Sensing it was only a matter of time before the killing started, some families packed their belongings, taking with them clothes, valuables and photo albums and ran away, abandoning everything.
I would return home hoping to hear better news, but my father, who constantly listened to the radio, would look up at me with his tired eyes and shake his head. Since my childhood, he had related to me his horrific experiences from the Second World War, from which I had learnt how cruel people could be to each other. But despite his painful memories, he used to tell me never to
make the differencedifferentiate between people with regard tobased on their religion, origins or wealth. My father’s best friend was a Serb, called Ranko. They had been working together for more than 30 years in a construction ngcompany until my father wasretired because of his bad heart. They were inseparable, and nothing could harm their friendship, neither nationalistic leaders nor the threat of war. They would take their long stroll together every day, and then they would drink coffee in a local cafe, where they had been regulars. On one occasion, Ranko came to our home, and sipping his coffee, told us that he had confidential information that the Serbian Democratic Party, which had control over our town, had decided that only 10-12% of Bosniaks and Croats who were loyal to Repulika Srpska were going to remain in the municipality. He told us that news quite calmly, with ease,as if it was ordinary gossip, but his words made me shiver.
“What are they going to do with the rest of the Bosniaks and the Croats?” I asked.
“They will be expelled to the territory controlled by the Bosnian government, or abroad,” he answered in a matter-of-fact manner, as if talking about shipping goods, not expelling people.
Father and I looked at each other in incredulity. The idea of forcing dozens of thousands of peaceful citizens to leave their homes seemed ghastly and mad, but we had no reason to distrust Ranko, who was always honest and frank. I had read much about the Second World War and the Holocaust, but I could never have imagined that in 1992, someone would be hatching up plans to get rid of thousands of people in such a cruel way. I imagined Father and myself shoving our clothes into a few bags and running hastily away leaving our house and all our things behind. I would abandon my storybooks, which I had collected since I was a child, and I would abandon my schoolbooks and exercise books, which I had carefully kept in our attic. I would never see my home again, and I would spend the rest of my life in a foreign country where I would be dying of nostalgia and sorrow. I thought it would be better to be killed in my own home than pining away abroad.
TO BE CONTINUED
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