The Journey Never Ends, part I

I was a refugee once. From today’s perspective, as the father of two daughters, I am grateful that I was only a seventeen-year-old boy in that time of turmoil, uncertainty and doubts. What I learned back then was that nobody understands a refugee and his situation unless they, too, are one. You can have a deep sympathy and compassion for a person who had to leave his country, but if you have not experienced what it is like to leave your home, your family and dear friends, you can never truly understand what it means to be a refugee, homeless in a foreign land, completely cut off from the rest of the society, at least in those first months of living in exile. And if that person also has children and a wife by their side, you can only imagine but never completely understand what is going on in that person’s mind, what fears for his children’s future a parent is carrying.

When I was asked to write this column and tell my refugee story I was filled with mixed emotions. On the one hand, I was mildly reluctant to the idea of writing about my past experience because I knew I had to dig deep into my memory and consciousness. I believe that is a normal human reaction – usually we tend to ignore and avoid remembering unpleasant events from the past. On the other hand, I wanted to give my refugee story as a tonic to all current refugees who might find in it a crumb of peace of mind, or even be inspired to look more positively upon their situation.

So let us start from the beginning.

I was born into a turbulent world, politically destructive between East and West, the sympathetic freedom-loving psychedelia was on its last legs. The Vietnam War had just entered the dark annals of the twentieth century, American spacecraft Viking 1 landed on Mars, and Czechoslovakia won 5-3 against West Germany in the finals of EURO ‘76. I was born in the small town of Bosanski Šamac in northern Bosnia, which was then part of Yugoslavia. I had a happy childhood, went to kindergarten and primary school, and I had a lot of friends I played with around the apartment complex. The town lies at the point where two great rivers, the Sava and the Bosna (which gave the country its name) meet. In the summer I used to spend a lot of time there with my family and friends. Once a year my parents would take my brother and I to the Adriatic Sea, and we would stay in some of the picturesque small towns of the Makarska Riviera. Yes, life was beautiful.

I almost finished first year of high school when the war scene moved from Croatia and entered my country and hometown in April 1992. One night Serbian forces swiftly occupied Bosanski Šamac and soon I had to flee the town with my parents and brother because the new authorities began imprisoning and mistreating the town’s Croats and Muslims (Bosniaks). Non-Serbs became second class citizens, many of whom were either sent to a nearby labor camp in Zasavica or sent to dig trenches. The only thing missing was a yellow band around their arms; just like the one Jews had to wear in Nazi Germany. And so we fled to the neighboring free town of Gradačac, where we had some relatives who gave us shelter.

Although my hometown was occupied by Serbian forces it was possible to enter and leave the town for a few days at the beginning of the occupation. Since my mother was a store manager she believed naively that she should hand over the keys of the store. The same day that she went to our hometown the new authorities closed down all the roads to and from the town. Therefore my mother could not get out and return to us: her husband and two children – and we were not going to see her or know anything about her situation for the next 7 months.

A few weeks later, Serbian forces began attacking and shelling Gradačac. Those days were probably some of the worst of my life. The small town was bombed to pieces from all possible directions, from earth and air. It was the middle of September when my father was fed up worrying about the lack of security for his boys, that he decided we should try to leave Bosnia. We had to travel south down the entire Bosnia-Herzegovina on an improvised route to Dalmatia and then to Zagreb, Croatia’s capital, where my father’s aunt lived. We traveled through war-torn cities and towns, through forests and mountains and improvised roads and even places where it seemed the war had taken place just minutes ago. I remember at one point driving through a small town where there were many houses on fire, a few crying people in the streets. It felt as if there had been a fight only a few hours before we arrived. We traveled some 1,400 km through the whole country of Bosnia and a large part of Croatia. To illustrate how difficult and dangerous the trip was it usually takes only 230 kilometers to go from Bosanski Šamac to Zagreb!

In December 1992 my father, brother and I were finally reunited with my mother – at the Prague train station. Her journey from our war-stricken hometown to Serbia and on to the Czech Republic deserves a book of its own. A friendly Serb working at the hospital engineered her exit. She had to pretend to be a Serb nurse in her passage from Bosnia and, as she waited for clearance to cross the Drina river, she was given board for a couple of days at the house of an elderly nationalist Serbian woman who was led to believe my mother was a Serb. I can only imagine how it was for my mom to be there during those days listening to hateful speeches from her host, unconscious of the real identity of her guest.

We left the Czech Republic and arrived in Denmark in late April 1993. The first three days we were stationed in the Gentofte asylum center. We then spent one month on the southern island of Langeland. Our language quickly gained a new word, “muving” (eng. moving). People were constantly being relocated to other centers. Where the Danish Red Cross would send you was a big deal. In late May my family got a “muving” to Hagebro in the middle of the Jutland peninsula. It was a former hotel and its long, yellow-brick structure now accommodated around 110 Bosnian refugees. We called our new home Opticon, after the former hotel’s name. The little Bosnian colony had good times together and with the Danish staff from the Red Cross. There were a number of activities for children and adolescents, perhaps to keep our minds from wandering home. I know that many fellow refugee residents look back at those days with a certain nostalgia, because, despite living in small rooms and the adults being tormented of their war-torn home country, there were good things to look back on; people were kind to each other and children played together. One recalls a sense of solidarity: we were all in the same boat. I cannot forget the tremendous efforts of the staff to offer us various activities, taking us on all sorts of trips. I know now that all they wanted was to give us a little break from worrying about families and friends who still were in Bosnia.

The UNHCR has published this column “The Journey Never Ends, part 1″”. The link is here. You can read the second part here.