Nina is a student of journalism, a active citizen and was a participant in the Youth Exchange “Get up – crossing borders” in Klösterbuch devoted to the current refugee situation in Europe, financed by OFAJ and organized by the Volunteers’ Centre of Vojvodina, Treibhaus and Le Petit Graine. Nina was always willing to contribute, share her opinion and also her story of being a baby refugee from Krajina (part of Croatia) in a very emotional Living Library related to the topic.
We met afterwards for coffee and čvarci in a hostel in the downtown of Novi Sad to catch up and hear more about her story. After an hour or so, her story become the story of the family and the story of a house, of Glina, of Yugoslavia and war. Nina suggested us to visit her in her home and talk to her mom, who lived through the journey and those years of ethnic conflict with full conscience. We shared a lovely Sunday afternoon in Bukovac, suburb of Novi Sad, under the first snows of January, sheltered by the warmth of the fireplace, cheese pita and the words of the matriarch of the family, Branka. We remembered the Youth Exchange, talked about the future, presented each other cultures and culinary, but most of all remembered and reminisced.
How war does not stop life (or love)
In this chapter, we visit a student dealing with increasing discrimination and tension before the explosion of conflict in the ex-Yugoslavia, faced with the need to go back home because of her nationality.
Branka was a young and idealist student of Law and Literature in Zagreb, capital of Croatia, still part of Yugoslavia, a country that is no more. A country where people “were living together, very peacefully. We walked together, we would go out together, we got married between the two nationalities.” Her dream, which the war would break, was to become a lawyer to protect woman in trouble, something she knew she wanted to do since she was 19.
She was, back then, the youngest student in the faculty, a student with an open mind and an open heart, everything the growing nationalistic wave in the republics of Yugoslavia loathed. Despite being considered a good friend and witty, one word on her index (document of identification of students) was now a problem: Nationality – Serb. But at that moment, the choice to hide and write Yugoslav, as others Serbs did, was not an option, unwilling to lie about her origins:
“When I was student, in the index, on the subject ’nationality’ I put ’Serb’. That’s what I am. And I got problems. Lots of Serbs lied, and put Yugoslav. But they knew, if you wrote ‘nationality Yugoslav’, Yugoslav is not nationality, it is citizenship. I did not hide that.
In this case, I am from Glina and they asked ’Are you Serb?’, I said ‘Yes, I am’, when people asked where I came from. They openly ask where I am from, even if I did not do anything wrong.”
She had indeed done something “wrong”. She was Serb on a country that had, through the centuries, shared a history of rivalry and conflict with Serbia, quieted down by the cry of the old Marshal Tito: “brotherhood and unity”. A decade after his death, conflict exploded in 1991, as the dream country of before was shattered with brutality. Her national identity, as for many other citizens from all the republics of Yugoslavia, was now a problem, where before it did not matter.
“There were a lot of soldiers in Zagreb and I felt very unsafe there. I would hear: ‘Last night someone was killed’. And in that period, lots of families escaped from Zagreb to Serbia, Krajina or Bosnia.” She had no option, but to go back to Glina, her hometown, where a majority of Croatian Serbs lived. Law, Zagreb and a future as a Women’s Rights lawyer were no longer on the table. Survival was in order.
Branka was now living on the newly formed Republic of Serbian Krajina, an entity that pursued autonomy from the government of Croatia, which in its turn, was seeking independency from Yugoslavia. She was now citizen of a Republic which was not internationally recognized, stuck in an enclave surrounded by the opposing armies of Croats and Muslims, with documents from a country that had ceased to exist:
“We did not have valid documents, because the Republic of Serbia Krajina wasn’t accepted internationally. We were in a trap, surrounded by two sides, one side was Croatian, the other were the Muslim army.
And when a man from Krajina came to Belgrade, the police would arrest them and put them in the worst areas of war of Bosnia or Krajina. Women were allowed to go, but they took all the risks of travelling through Bosnia, where there was an ethnic war going on too.”
A united land was now divided by the lines of ethnic conflict. “One day, we were drinking together and partying and the other day, the war started”, as in the famous scene of “Pretty Village, Pretty Flame”. This status quo would last four years. It was war and you could die every day. But life (and love) go on.
“Four years is a long period, in that period you have to eat, like, love, lots of things. You cannot stop for four years and feel nothing and do nothing.”
On one night, after a car accident, Branka came to her dad’s kafana for a drink where she was to meet her husband to be Nino, an emergency car driver who witnessed “a lot of terrible things” during the war. Love happens amidst tragedy, as in joy. In two days they chose the names of their children. In three months, they would get married. A marriage celebrated cooking “without electricity and with the ingredients we had”. Food was scarce, it was war and you could die every day.
How do you plan a future with the person you love? How do you decide to have children? How do you “live”?
“It’s not easy to explain, because you love someone a lot and you are so conscious that you can lose him. I don’t know, that’s life. Ljubav i Život. Love and life.”
To be continued…
Disclaimer: This text does not attempt to take any sides in a war that involved brothers and sisters, people united under one flag, and although retelling the story of this civil war trough the perspective of Serbian refugees, it is not meant to isolate them from the wider victims of this conflict who are, in the words of Branka, “the people that were unprepared”.
Story: Alexandre Fonseca, EVS Volunteer at Volunteers’ Centre of Vojvodina with the project “People BeyONd Borders” (Erasmus + Program).