Summer of War Journal – Through the eyes of a teenager

Having barely escaped war in my homeland, by 1993 I was living back in Toronto, Canada. As an independent study project for my creative writing class I wrote a one month journal describing my summer vacation of 1992. I received a mark of 100% with this note:

“Your journal is outstanding.  Excellent… a valuable document. Keep it for reading to your children after the madness has died down.”

1993 Independent Study Project
by Melissa Rebronja

August 10, 1992
Here I am, two weeks in Yugoslavia or should I say Serbia, since the new Yugoslavia hasn’t been recognized yet. The new Yugoslavia consists of Serbia and Montenegro only. All the other former republics are either at war or separated.

Slovenia is totally separated and we have no ties with them anymore. Macedonia also separated, but is not yet recognized by anyone because the Greeks are protesting that Macedonia is a Greek name. Croatia separated but there is fighting in the Eastern and Southwestern part, where the Serbian population lives. They seized almost one third of Croatia.

Bosnia is in the worst position. The Bosnian Croats and Muslims are fighting against the Bosnian Serbs. People are getting killed because they are of the wrong nationality in the wrong place at the wrong time. Who would ever think that this would happen?

I remember when the hatred first started a few years ago. I was living here at the time, attending grade nine. I honestly didn’t know what my nationality was until that year. I always thought of myself as being Yugoslavian. So did my family.  Students in my class were wondering about the nationality of all the students. They approached me and said that my last name sounded suspicious. I said that I was Yugoslavian. They told me that I couldn’t be Yugoslavian. So they asked about my parents; their names and where they were born. I found out that I was half Muslim and half Serbian. They said that it was OK, as long as I wasn’t Croatian. The Muslims, they said are mostly of Serbian background. Sometimes they made fun of me. They called me Turkish. Then they’d say: “We’re only joking, you’re only 5% Muslim. Your last name is Serbian. It’s only that one of your ancestors was a traitor and took the Islamic religion.” I got used to the talking and it all became a big joke.

We had Croatian, Slovenian and Albanian people in our class also. It was all normal. People would never say anything to them, but they would talk behind their backs. People weren’t necessarily saying bad things, but they wanted to know everyone’s nationality.

The hatred was also developing at soccer games. When the Croatian teams played Serbian teams there would be a lot of fighting between the fans. All kinds of rude nationalistic comments would be yelled out to the players by the opposite team’s fans. Nobody ever took this seriously. Who would think that this hatred would bring the whole country to war? Unbelievable!

I think that the economic situation has a lot to do with the war. The republics started to blame each other for economic problems. They tried to come up with a solution. They allowed every republic to have their own political party. But that didn’t help. It only made things worse. The political party in Croatia started to change the whole system. They changed all the street names because they only wanted Croatian names. They even used names of Croatian fascists during the Second World War. They started using the old Croatian flag. A flag under which thousand and thousands of Serbs were killed during WW2 including both my great grandparents on my Mother’s side. This was all very upsetting to the other republics, especially Serbia and the Serbs living in Croatia.

Croatia and Slovenia started talking about separation. A lot of Croatian and Slovenian soldiers deserted the Yugoslav National Army (JNA), and joined their own army. The Serbs in Croatia naturally got scared and started arming their own little army. By this point there were a few incidents of slaughtering Serbian civilians. Then Croatia and Slovenia declared their independence. The fighting started between JNA and the new Croatian and Slovenian armies. Since that time, the fighting spread to Bosnia too. Now the Bosnian Serbs with the help of the JNA are seizing land in Croatia and Bosnia.

August 15, 1992
Today I was talking to Dejan and Danijel, two very close friends of mine. They were worried that they might get conscripted to go to war, because they had already served the army. They said that if they do, they will probably try and get out of the country. They don’t want to fight. It’s a dumb war. I feel sorry for them. A lot of innocent young men are forced to fight and they are not really trained. Every night on the news they read out the names of soldiers that have been killed. Mostly ages 21, 20, 19. It’s pretty sad. They lost their young lives for stupidity. Sometimes I can’t watch the news. I start crying and I feel dumb, so I leave the room and force myself to stop. You just can’t help it, when you see the parents of these young men crying. It’s horrible. This whole thing is horrible.

I visited a cemetery a few days ago. A friend of mine that just came back from war asked me to accompany him. He was visiting the grave of an 18 year old friend that was killed by the Croats at the beginning of the war. It was a touching sight; my friend kissing the wooden cross with his friend’s name on it and the years 1972-1991 engraved in white. After he kissed the cross he cursed the Ustashi Croat that killed his friend. I was trying to calm him down, saying that there is probably some Croatian soldier, the same age that was killed by the Serbs. The sad thing about it was that he was in the army for only three months, before he was killed. He wasn’t trained enough. Military service is mandatory, so he had no choice. I just don’t understand why they’d send such young people to war.

The soldiers that come back from the war are not the same people anymore. I have a couple of friends that I saw after they came back. They all changed. They hardly joke and laugh like they use to. They talk about their experiences in war and how traumatic it was. They say that in war, you only care about yourself. The silence kills you, because you don’t know if anyone is there. When you hear guns you’re happy, because at least you know where the enemy is. They also said it doesn’t matter on which side you are, it’s all the same.  I asked all of them if they killed a person, and they all said the same thing: “I don’t know, and if I did I don’t what to know.” I guess it’s hard for them to admit that they killed someone. A lot of them are stressed out and have mental problems. They take some kind of pills to calm themselves down.

August 17, 1992
Today I visited my grandparents; the Serbian side. I feel very bad that they lived to see another war. All my grandfather does is sit in front of the TV and watch the news all day. My grandmother watches too, but she leaves the room when they show slaughtered people. She can’t watch that because it reminds her of WW2 when her parents were slaughtered by Croatian fascist army (Ustashi).  She can’t believe that all of that is going on again! She keeps saying how she is not prejudice and she doesn’t hate anyone; she talks of how all her children married different nationalities.

My grandfather’s parents were also slaughtered by the Ustashi. His only twin brother got killed, fighting for the Partisans. My grandfather was a Partisan himself.  He is a communist. He doesn’t believe in democracy at all. He keeps saying: “Look what democracy brought to us! Under communism we all lived peacefully together for fifty years, and there was no hatred.” He’s right, but we had different kinds of problems then. But I’m sure that everyone would trade the problems today with the problems under communism.

August 20, 1992
Why is the whole world blaming only one side? It’s not fair to impose sanctions only against Serbia and Montenegro. They wanted Serbia to take out the JNA out of Bosnia. So they did. The sanctions haven’t ended. Now they say, it won’t end until the war ends. I can’t believe that. What about Croatia? They’re seizing land in Bosnia too. The reason I’m mad is because the sanctions affect me too. The planes don’t run anymore and now I’m forced to buy a new plane ticket in order to get back to Canada. I tried getting my money back but they said I have to do it where I bought the ticket, which is in Canada. I bought a new ticket. I’m taking a train to Bulgaria and then a plane from there. This is unbelievable.

I feel sorry for the people living here. At least I have somewhere else to go. These sanctions are killing the economy. There are shortages in gas. People wait hours and hours in lines for gas. And when they finally get to it, they are only allowed to get twenty liters for one whole month. But even that is not enough.

The prices in the stores are increasing daily. People get up in the morning just to get the old prices, before they change them. It’s sad but true. This is when I start appreciating living in Canada. But I love being here. I grew up here. I can’t believe that this is all happening. Who knows if I’ll come next summer. The situation is really bad and they might close the boarder.  I didn’t even go to the sea this year. I always use to go. I could have, but since the Montenegro sea is close to Croatia, there is some fighting going on. I don’t want to risk anything.

The hardest thing for people living here, in Serbia, is that they are desperately trying to lead normal lives, but it is just impossible, for the war is everywhere; on the news, on the radio, in all the street conversations. Nearly everyone knows someone who is fighting or has been killed in the war. Anywhere you go, you are forced to talk or hear about it. It is killing the people emotionally. It’s simply impossible to ignore the war and lead normal lives.

August 22, 1992
I  can’t believe what happened today! Some stupid refugees threatened Dejan over the phone. I can’t believe that kind of stuff is actually going on. I heard about it, but to have it actually happen to someone you now is a different story. Dejan is half Serbian and half Croatian. He has a Croatian last name, so I guess the Serbian refugee from Croatia look up all the Croatian last names in the phone book, call them up and threaten them. The person that called Dejan said that he wanted him to move out and if he didn’t he’d throw a grenade at his house. Dejan said: “If you’re so cool, why don’t you come and tell me this in person?” The person hung up.  Dejan was really upset about it. I know exactly how he feels. He’s caught in the middle of all of this. He doesn’t know where he belongs. He wants to be on the Serbian side, but then sometimes the Serbs wont accept him ’cause he’s half Croatian. If he moves to Croatia, they won’t accept him there ’cause he’s half Serbian. At one point I heard him say:” I served the Yugoslav National Army and that is the army I am going to fight for!” I also heard his sister say: ” I was born in Serbia, therefore I am Serbian. I have nothing to do with Croatia.”

Zdenko, another Croatian friend I have, is already planning to move away. He’s all Croatian, so he feels that he’s in a worse position than Dejan. I guess he’s right. He says that he gets threatening phonecalls on a daily basis. He decided to move to Germany, where he has a grandmother. His parents and sister are moving to Croatia. They don’t want to go to Germany.

Some people believe that the Serbian refugees have the right to threaten Croats because the same thing happened to them in Croatia. Even worse things, like slaughtering Serbian civilians. They were forced to leave their homes and now they want revenge. Some people leave willingly. They trade their houses here for another one in Croatia. A lot of Croats moved already. There are just some left;  those that are mixed and those that feel they don’t belong in Croatia.

August 24, 1992
If it weren’t for this war I’d be at the sea now. I love the sea. All of the Adriatic sea; the Croatian and Montenegrin part. I remember two years ago, the summer of ’90 when most people here refused to go to the Croatian part. I purposely decided to go to the Croatian sea. Since none of my friends would go I decided to go with my Muslim cousins from Novi Pazar, a small Muslim town in the south of Serbia.  We went to Makarska, which is a beautiful port city in the middle of the Croatian coast. I was surprised to see a lot of cars from Belgrade. I guess I wasn’t the only one.  I didn’t feel any tension between the people. But then again there was no war then.

I met a Serbian guy from Osijek, which is in Croatia. We spent a lot of time together. He was telling me about the situation in Croatia; how Croats are starting to hate Serbs and how he didn’t’ know that he was Serbian until High-school. Just like me. He told me about the school fights between Serbs and Croats. He said that a lot of people were getting laid off from work just because they were Serbs. His mother was one of them. He also told me that he had problems in Makarska, the seaside town we were both vacationing in. He went to a club and a girl was interested in him. They started talking and when she heard his name she went to her friends and told them that she thinks he may be Serbian. A bunch of guys came up to him and asked for his I.D. He refused and there was a huge fight going on between those guys and his friends. I couldn’t believe  hearing this.

At one point we were talking and he decided to have a cigarette. He needed a light, so he went to ask a group of people that were standing near us. He went up to them, asked for a light and they said in English: “Sorry, we don’t understand.” When he came back he was mad. I offered to go back over as I spoke English, he told me not to bother. I was wondering what he was so upset about. Then he told me that those people heard me talk with a Belgrade Serbian accent and that is why they refused him. Cause he was with me, although his accent is Croatian and they wouldn’t be able to tell if he’s Serbian. “They’re Croatian, I heard them talking. These kinds of people make me sick!” he said. I then realized how naive I really was, because I would never think to doubt them. I really thought maybe they were just tourists.  After the sea we stayed in touch.

Last summer I saw him again. This time it was in Belgrade. He was really stressed out. That was right before Croatia declared it’s independence. He told me then that it was really bad  in Croatia. He said the Croatian army asked him to join, and so did the Serbian army in Croatia. He refused both. He decided to move to Belgrade but as soon as he arrived at the train station in Belgrade the Yugoslav National army told him he must join. He was very angry, so he bought a train ticket to Germany and that is where he is now.  He said that he will never come back to Yugoslavia again. His mother and sister moved to Austria but his father stayed in Osijek. Two months later Osijek was constantly bombed. There was fighting between Croats and JNA. Many innocent civilians were killed.

August 26, 1992
For the weekend I’m visiting Novi Pazar. A Muslim town in the middle of Serbia, where my father was born. I’ve been here a few times before. I have a lot of cousins here and the first thing I noticed is that now even they were prejudice against the Serbs.

There is a Serb minority in this city and they all use to live together, but now they’re starting to separate from each other.  At night, the Muslim people go to Muslim clubs, and Serbian people go to Serbian clubs. It’s not that you’re not allowed to go to a Muslim club if you’re Serbian. It’s just the way they do it now. They stick to their own. I find myself to an advantage being half Serbian and half Muslim ’cause then I can get along with both sides and I do.

A lot of Muslims here moved away because they fear the war. They think that the same thing that’s going on in Bosnia will happen here. I understand that, for anything is possible in this country. A lot of people say that the Serbs won’t allow the war to spread to Serbia even though there is a Muslim population living here. Who knows?  Hopefully it won’t.  People do fear it though. You can tell by the way they talk. Some Muslim people told me that they were preparing for the war. When I asked them how, they took me to their cars, opened their trunks and I couldn’t believe my eyes; there must have been hundreds of machine guns in there. I told them, they were crazy. Now I understand why the police stops almost every single car for a search.

When I told my Muslim cousins that a lot of of  my Croatian friends are moving away from Serbia, they responded with: “You see, and how come your aunt in Croatia isn’t moving away?” They were referring to my Serbian aunt who married a Croatian and is living in Croatia. I said: “She did!” My Croatian uncle, her husband goes to all kinds of town meetings and realized that it may be getting dangerous for her. He suggested she leave for a while. She moved to Switzerland where she used to live with her family. This time she was alone. Got her old job back as a nurse. She works for 2 weeks then goes back to Croatia to be with her family for a week.

It is so horrible what is going on, in all parts of former Yugoslavia. People are acting as if your nationality is the most important thing. That is so dumb. I am really glad that soon I am going back to Canada and won’t have to witness any of this anymore.

I wrote this piece over 20 years ago.  I am sad that it only became worse after that. Yugoslavia no longer exists as a county. My last two visits there were in 1995 and then 2003. I haven’t been back in over a decade now.  I don’t really know what it’s like now. I would like to go back and see.

I love and forgive all nations of former Yugoslavia. I am grateful I got to experience living in unity and peace there as a child. Yugoslavia (Jugoslavija) will always be in my heart. It’s the name of the country I was born in and the name of the Hotel (Hotel Jugoslavija) my parents met in.

“Open up your heart and let the love pour in. All of us are ONE, and we know that now”  EMAR

Melissa Rebronja EMAR
EMAR Music
August 3, 2014
Los Angeles, CA

Listen to EMAR’s “Come on (Hajde)”

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