Exile stories XIV: “Just being with your people…”

Jelena, Serbia

The person Jelena interviewed is her brothers wife, Tanja. She is from Bosnia, but she lives in the USA. She talked to her about her life and she told her how, why and when she and her parents left Bosnia, and how they ended up in USA.

Tanja was born on 30th of September, 1981 in Zenica. She was the only child of her parents Milica and Marinko till 1991, when they had they second child Vladana. It took them ten years because they wanted to be more financially settled, as opposed when they had Tanja. When Vladana was born they had great jobs, built tree houses and were able to take vacations wherever they wanted because money wasn’t the problem anymore. It was March 25th 1992 when war started in Bosnia. The war was a result of breakup of the SFRY (Socialist Federalist Republic of Yugoslavia) and rise of nationalist and separatist ideologies. She was nine years old, and her sister had only eight months. At the beginnig people were under the impressione that it wasn’t really a war and that situation will calm down. Everybody was confused who were they really fighting, because they lived together (Muslims and Serbs), they were neighbors. When her mother decided to visit her brother in Serbia until the situation in Bosnia gets better, her father staid to gard their house and neighbors house (who was Muslim). Milica, Tanja and Vladana got on a bus in which only children and women were allowed to leave the country. But they had to pass the barricades first. There were tree, Croatian, Orthodox, and Muslim. They were able to pass only two, because at the Muslim barricade, the pass was refused saying : “If our women and children are staying they will as well”.

They got back to the bus station and stayed at her aunts and the next morning they tried again. For five days they tried to pass, but every day was the same story, until the Muslims let them go. When they finally got to her uncles house they were not the only ones..pretty soon the whole family was there except her father, basically twenty people in one house. After a month the situation in Bosnia wasn’t getting any better and they were very worried about her father. They received different information from people and weren’t able to contact him for tree months. Tanja prayed every night for her father to come to her. In the meantime her mother had to find a job as well as the others that were staying at the same house, had to provide the money for food to feed twenty people. Her job became her nightmare, tractor would come in the early morning and pick her up with the rest to go and dig the fields for a very low income and twelve hours a day for the most minimum wage possible, she remembers that her mother, for daily wage was only able to buy milk for her sister and one pack of cigarettes.

Three months passed when her father finally came, he used some of his connections with Croatians since he worked for them before the war and they really appreciated and loved him as an employee and friend. He came with group of people through forest hiding from different barricades not knowing whose barricades they are passing at what time. He left Bosnia because he didn’t see any sense in the war that was coming, he had to escape to avoid being hanged. Muslims were looking for him for days destroying there house in hope of finding him and hanging him to have one less Serb, and their  first neighbor Muslim who was sitting until that day with her father pretending to be his friends, pointed his finger to the army hoping that they would find him.

When Marinko came to Serbia he couldn’t really stay there because Serbian army was looking for everyone who is Orthodox and has escaped Bosnia, to take them back to war for extra help. In meantime her mom took her and her sister to a refugee center which was a hotel meant for refugees from Bosnia. The situation there was nearly as bad as at her uncle’s. People that worked in the restaurant would steal food and clothes that is meant for refugees, because they hated them, they called them different names to put them even more down as if they really weren’t in a bad situation. Tanja’s sister and she got really bad rashes on skin because of missing vitamins, they barely ate anything there, everything that they offered was watery, and the blankets they received were army blankets and couldn’t be more rough on the skin. They didn’t sleep on hotel beds, but on twin bed that was very uncomfortable. Her father somehow escaped from the town where her uncle was living to come to the city near them but couldn’t live with them. Found a job in a mine where he once almost died when a huge rock fell on his forehead, he still carries a scar. His monthly paycheck wasn’t much, he would buy jam and bread for his daughters and they  would be super happy. One day they had a visit from some cousin they barely even knew who gave them 10 dollars for which her  father is even today thankful and will be for the rest of his life. With his next paycheck and those 10 dollars he went to Bulgaria and brought little of everything soaps, cigarettes and similar staff which he took to market and started selling (buy it for less money and sell it for more). Her parents started going very often there because they were making money and next to that they sold all of their jewelry, gold and clothes that they brought from Bosnia to be able to buy tickets for Greece and leave Serbia.

After a while they went to Greece but on the way, by the train station in Bulgaria, while her father was exchanging money, most of the money was stolen out of his hands. He was devastated because he didn’t know what to do, to continue the trip, or go back. So they decided no matter what happens they are not going back. When they arrived  to Greece money ran out really quick and they ended up sleeping in the park.  They had no food, her little sister had no milk and how can you explain that to a two year old.

In the morning they  went in front of the Serbian embassy hoping that somebody would be able to help them in some way; but they didn’t want to talk to them. They stayed like that in front of the embassy for couple hours thinking of what to do next when a lady showed up in front of the gate of the embassy and asked with the soft voice: ”what happened? Can I help you in some way? Are you lost?” When her  parents heard our language they turned towards her unable to control themselves, started crying…telling their story and she believed them and started crying with them. She worked for the embassy as a secretary so she decided to help them because she felt sorry for the kids. She went instantly and bought them food, snacks, milk and gave them coins for them to be able to be in contact with her. In mean time she collected some money  in the embassy and after work putted them in a motel, while her husband and she were  bringing one mattress where she and her sister could sleep. She found her mother a job in a restaurant while her dad stayed with them in that motel. It was really hard for her mother not knowing the language to work in that restaurant and especially when she had to get to the motel she couldn’t communicate with the taxi driver. But she didn’t care, she wasn’t giving up for a second. Her job was to wash dishes and clean fish so when she was coming back to motel, her hands were bloody and the pain was excruciating.  After couple of paychecks they had to move from the motel because it wasn’t good for the for kids, so Marinko and Milica decided to rent apartment. They asked their new friend to borrow them some money, and with the money they saved it was enough  for apartment deposit. She gave them the money without asking any questions came to visit often and became very close friends with them.

Shortly after she found her father a job at the construction company. Tanja was forced to stay alone with her sister and take care of her…for three years.  She didn’t go to school, didn’t have any friends, because it was fight for survival. When the construction company finished their job her father started working with some Greeks and her mother and she went to Serbia for six months for her to take some classes and pass two years of school through some connection they had. After that was done they went back to Greece where father had some problems with his Greek boss he didn’t want to pay him his paycheck because he knew that Marinko was illegal so he abused the chance of not paying two months worth of salary and kicked him out without letting him take his personal stuff either. Soon after that both Milica and Marinko found other jobs. Marinko worked at the embassy as a driver and Milica cleaned apartments, they made enough money when they decided to leave Greece and come to America. They had very similar stories in America when it came to different jobs especially when working in the same environment with Muslims from Bosnia. For Example one Albanian guy put cigarette ashes in her mother’s coffee for days until she caught him and confronted him of course, but she got sick and quit. After many years of hard work Milica became really sick mentally, couple years back, but with the family support she got back on track even though there are always side effects.

They are all well now, living in USA. Tanja is married to my brother, and they have a beautiful two year old girl named Lana. Vladana is in collage. Milica and Marinko are thinking of coming back to live in Serbia, because in Bosnia they don’t think is safe to live. And when I asked Tanja what they miss the most, she told me:”atmosphere, food, songs, to hear everybody talking your language…just being with your people”. I also asked her if she would come back and she said that for now is better for her to stay in the USA, because of the better conditions of living. But in the future she is going to consider coming to live in Serbia. At the end of our conversation she told me that her parents are her heroes, she is thankful for them and quoted her father: ”It is very important to be strong in life and overcome everything that comes our way. Don’t sweat the small stuff, there is always bigger ones”

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