Nina is a student of journalism, an 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’ Center 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, Nina suggested us to visit her in her home and talk to her mom, who lived through the journey 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. The first part of the story can be found here.
“I have to say that, after all, I have no hate in my heart.
I have learned not to hate anyone.” – Branka Kemera
“About 150-200 000 Krajina Serbs retreated into Bosnia […]
The 450-year-old Serbian community in Croatia
had effectively ceased to exist.”
– Nigel Thomas and Krunoslav Mikulan
In this chapter, we catch up with Branka after four years of intense conflict in Glina, part of the back then Republic of Serbian Krajina, a rebel republic situated within the territory of Croatia.
Branka was no longer a student, she had gotten married in 1992 and become a mother in 1994. One year later, the war would come to an end, after four long years. Was Branka still an idealist? It is hard to tell. What changes when you witness war on a daily basis? When you give birth in the middle of such a conflict? What do you feel? How do you keep yourself going? For some people, life is not meant to be easy. But to Branka, these trials and tribulations were never a sign to stop.
On the contrary, the only way it made sense for her was to press forward and try harder, even in the unfairness of war. She created a business with her friend Radojka, sewing and selling clothes, because “people have to wear the clothes, even in the war”. To find food for the family, now larger with baby Nina, Branka’s father-in-law was a hunter, providing some nourishment by this means. Branka also tried to carry on with her studies of Literature in a branch of the University of Belgrade, which had opened near Glina. Unfortunately, due to the lack of resources and disorganization of that branch, she was unable to continue.
In 1995, however, the Republic of Serbian Krajina was not only a problem for the people living in it, but for politicians in all sides of the conflict. Franko Tuđman, Croatian President, was, as John Ashbrook and Spencer Bakich state “faced with a quandary: how to reestablish Croatian authority in the Krajina and rid himself of the Serbian minority in the area without alienating the international community”.
According to the same authors, by then, Slobodan Milošević started sensing that the “international community would no longer entertain the idea of a Greater Serbia, so he temporarily washed his hands of Republika Srpska [Serb-dominated Republic in Bosnia] and permanently of the Krajina”. In that summer, the Krajina experiment would come to a tragic end. Civilians, as so many times during the wars in Yugoslavia, would again be part of the battle chessboard.
Following the success of operation Flash, the Croatian Army was convinced that it was possible to recover the control of all of Krajina. This military operation, launched at the beginning of May 1995, inflicted a major blow into the army of the Krajina Republic, showing “the reticence of Belgrade to support the Serbs against Croatian action”, as John Ashbrook and Spencer Bakich suggest. A position seconded by Branka’s husband, Nino, to whom “the Krajina army was ordered from Belgrade to pull back with all military equipment. And if the army is to pull back, all civilians should leave their places, as well. If the Serbian army had stayed in Croatia, there would have been an even more violent war”.
For the Croat officials, it showed that it was also possible to “reimpose Croatian sovereignty over all the regions in revolt and, simultaneously, to rid these areas of their Serbian populations”, Ashbrook and Bakich write. As a result, the western part of Slavonia [around the city of Okučani] was now controlled by the Croatian Government, while according to the authors of Yugoslav Wars, Nigel Thomas and Krunoslav Mikulan, “almost all 15000 Serb population fled across the Sava River into Bosnia-Herzegovina.”
It was nothing more than a prelude to what was coming. Four months later, in the first days of August, the army of Croatia launched Operation Storm, which shifted the military power of the war, and played an essential role in facilitating the peace agreements that would end the war, while also creating a humanitarian disaster for the Serbs living in the region. Those who could escape, did so, in fear of retaliation. Among them, Branka and her family: husband, her one year-old daughter Nina, mother and brother, plus both Nina’s grandfathers.
“We traveled from Croatia to Serbia, 12 days, without water, without food. Terrible. It was August, in a high temperature and Nina was so nervous, she cried every time, so scared.
When we tried to escape there was a column and one Croatian plane bombed us. There was a terrible noise, because the aircraft fled so low until us. After that Nina has a terrible fear of airplanes.
Every day, you were scared for people who are close to you, for your family. If they are going to be alive or dead. That is the biggest scare.”
A family of eight on the run, escaping in any possible way:
“We were surrounded by the Croatian army and our life was in danger all the time, Nina and I almost did not escape. Without the help of a Serbian soldier, we would not survive.
We had car, tractor, bus. But no fuel. Also people got stuck, because they had no way to go. I had to beg some old woman to give me 20 liters of fuel to put it in the car. Because of that, she traveled with us.”
At the same time, one local radio, Branka recalls, was telling people that it would not be a problem to stay and that for the Serbs in the region, everything was under control. Others did not want to leave their homes and their place, after living their whole life in Krajina. Sadly, not everyone who wanted to, could escape. Among those who stayed was Branka’s grandmother, who after surviving WWII and losing everyone dear to her, was again witnessing war at home.
“We could not put our grandma in the car and she had to go with another family. They got stuck and the Croatian army arrested them. She was shot.
When we came to Serbia, we tried to find her. We asked the Red Cross, UN, when we passed to Serbia, we asked also people: ‘Where is she, where is she?’ And we thought, after a couple of months, that she was killed.
After half a year, we got a letter from Croatia saying that our grandmother was alive. She was shot, she had two bullets in the chest that crossed all the way to the back. She was thrown in a hole with other dead people, but someone noticed that she was breathing and got her out of there.
She stayed alive and we cried when we got that letter. Red Cross transported her from Croatia to our house. She was living with us until 2005, when she passed away the day before Orthodox Christmas.
We tried to accuse Croatia Army of that crime, but we didn’t succeed. No one helped us, and no one was interested in the situation. Our grandma was about 75 years old.”
Fearing for the life of their grandmother and confronted by the harsh conditions of the exodus, they had to keep on. Their first stop was Banja Luka, capital of the Serb controlled part of Bosnia, Srpska Republic:
“In Bosnia, we stopped in Banja Luka, because we had and still have some relatives over there. This was the meeting point for the whole family, just to see if everybody is alive and that everybody was there.”
Everyone was safe, but they were still “on the road. Without money, shoes, food, without anything.” No more words are needed for now.
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.”