My Life as a War Child
Vesna Gudgin shares her experience of a childhood in the former Yugoslavia as it slipped in to war
I was born in a country called Yugoslavia. It doesn’t exist anymore. It was a breath-taking country, full of natural beauty: mountains caressed by ancient forests, stunning valleys, crystal clear rivers and lakes, and all tumbling in to the Adriatic Sea.
Yugoslavia was a communist country. It consisted of six republics: Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro, Slovenia, Croatia and Macedonia. A country full of life, enriched by a diverse yet suppressed culture.
My family comes from Bosnia. Out of all Yugoslavian republics, Bosnia was the most ethnically diverse. It was made up of three regions; Bosnian Serb, Bosnian Croat and Bosnian Muslim. I come from the Serbian part; it is now called Republika Srpska, within Bosnia Herzegovina.
When most western people think of Bosnia, they think of the Bosnian Civil War. When I think of Bosnia, I think of my home. My whole being floods with calm, confidence and belonging. I think of my loyal, passionately kind, loud family, who will support and love you no matter what. I think of Bosnia’s breath-taking nature, of its beautiful, kind people: the unsung heroes who often risked their lives to help others.
I think of childhood and of our family farm, nestled high up in the hills, where I was the happiest. I often close my eyes and imagine this majestic view stretching out in front of me. I see and feel our beautiful mountainous valley enveloping me, holding me tightly in its arms, making me feel protected and content. The view is always there as a reminder of natural calm and continuity, through peace or war.
My early childhood was wild, happy and free. I was brought up in a non-communist, open-minded family. I was loved, nurtured, empowered and educated by the strong-willed women and men in my family. I spent my days either dressed as a boy, climbing trees and playing soldiers. Once a week, I would polish the family’s books – the works of Ivo Andric, Sigmund Freud and Tolstoy – wearing mother’s finest dresses and her very high heels.
I started school when I was seven and quickly learnt that the wild ones were few and far between. I had to withstand the wrath of communism and the cast-iron rules of my school. However, I was fully armed with my carbon weapons of mass distraction. My voice was loud and my will unbroken. At the age of nine, I accused our school of using us, children, as free child labour, in the name of communism. My school punished me by caning my fingertips and by making me stand in the corner of our classroom, facing the wall, in front of the whole class. I stood in that bloody corner so many times the kids named it Vesna’s corner!
My life from then on changed forever. Soon, nationalistic graffiti started appearing on buildings: flags and slogans. Overnight, the nobodies became dangerously patriotic.
They were the non-achievers, the village idiots. They had never achieved anything in their lives before, but suddenly they had power: they had illegal weapons.
They used to set things alight at night and they started shooting at people’s houses at night too. They would fuel their little adventures with alcohol.
Each village had their own nobodies: in Croatian parts of Bosnia, in Muslim parts of Bosnia and in Serbian parts.
One night, an explosive device was thrown at our neighbour’s house. This family had three young children.
When mum and dad built our houses, they built them to sustain any form of weather or attack. Perhaps my dad always suspected that this war would happen. Our house was deemed the safest structurally, and because some of the nobodies feared my dad, we knew that we were as safe as we could be. However, our father knew that there were Muslim members of our community whose lives were at risk.
For a while, he went out at night and brought some of our neighbours’ children to our house, to keep them safe. He would pick them up at night and drop them back off before dawn. My brother and I loved this. We had regular sleepovers with our friends: we did not for once think that our father was putting himself in danger. We were too young, we didn’t understand the enormity of it all.
I was, and still am, immensely proud of our parents. In their mind, there was no question about it. They had to protect these innocent children. Even after my father lost his dear friends, who were killed by the same nationalities that our neighbours were, he still had enough love left in his heart for these children. He protected them from the nobodies.
But as our parents watched the news more often, their serious faces scared me. In April 1992, Yugoslavia fell apart. The war was born out of ideological suppression. A war is a complex, lucrative endeavour, a grand affair, full of political strategies, egomaniacs and their manipulative games. A profiteer’s playground.
I was in a permanent state of fear. I feared the silent but beautiful shapes the tracer bullets made at night as they bounced off our roofs, followed by explosions and gunfire. I feared for my loving dad who had to leave us all, to defend us.
Once wealthy, we were now poor, yet incredibly resourceful. We made our own soap and instead of toothpaste, we used salt to brush our teeth.
Those were very dark times. But kindness always overpowered darkness.
One day, we were at school, sitting in a freezing classroom without any heating or power. Our teacher had a special announcement: each child had received a small charity box from Canada, a perfectly wrapped shoebox. Our little faces lit up with anticipation. We kept looking at each other with silent smiles on our faces and with sparkles in our eyes. Our little fingers were numb, from our hands being firmly tucked in underneath our legs on our benches: we were so cold.
We cautiously opened our shoeboxes and squealed with joy. I loved it all, but one small, precious object I will never forget, was a small tube of toothpaste. I still remember the smell of it. I looked after this little tube so well, like it was made of gold. My family and I shared it between us for months. We barely touched it with our toothbrushes.
Once it was all gone, we were back to salt.
Pass the Mic is an occasional series where we hand the Mother Pukka platform over to other voices to share their perspective. Each piece is edited as lightly as possible and contributors are paid.
To read more from Vesna, head over to her blog.