Visiting My Grandmother's Roots in Bosnia
Saturday, November 7, 2015
When we first crossed over the border from Croatia, the land seemed to look the same, with even more natural beauty to it, but buildings had lost charm. There was no more Hapsburg or Venetian influence here. The infrastructure gave away that this was once a place ruled by communists, but that was immediately forgotten in the warmth of every Bosnian we interacted with.
After we arrived at Mika's (my Grandma) nephew's house, my Mom stayed with me out front while we waited for the kids to wake up from their naps in the car. This man came up behind us and starting chatting in broken English like he knew my Mom, even knew her name and made fun of me for wearing my Hunter rainboots when it was not raining in the slightest. He kept saying there's no more floods here! and laughing outloud. I was thinking... haha, who is this guy?? Maybe neighbors are just really, really friendly here. He told us he lived next door and grew up there, and I joked that maybe we were family. Turns out he's one of my Mom's cousins who she hadn't seen since she was six! Everyone that came over that day were all relatives, and most of us were meeting for the first time, with Cam, Mika and my Mom translating. They were all warm and hospitable, lovely people. They had coffee, three different kinds of cakes and homemade baklava for us.
We had hoped to go to the village Mika grew up in just a few minutes from where we were, but you can't access it anymore by car because of all the remaining land mines. There was heavy fighting there during the 90's Yugoslavia War and her village is literally no more.
In the 1950's, my Grandfather (Mika's husband) was in the Yugoslavian Army and was forced to join the communist party or be put in jail and/or killed. He despised communism and so, escaped. He made his way by foot (!) all the way from Bosnia to Austria, and then traveled on to Canada and later America. Mika and my Uncle stayed behind until he could make enough money to get them there. He was only in his early twenties, didn't speak any English and didn't have a trade. He began as a busboy, slept on park benches and worked his way up. He didn't ask for any government handouts, only the freedom to work hard to make a new life for himself and his family. Eventually Mika and my Grandpa opened their own restaurant and later, a small hotel. They were the embodiment of the American dream in those days! Seeing where they came from in Bosnia and what their life may have been had they stayed, to the life they built together in the States has made me so incredibly thankful and proud of my brave Grandfather. Also, some of us wouldn't be here today if he hadn't made that courageous journey.
The number of Bosnians massacred in the Srebrenica Genocide in 1995. The line above it says, never forget never excuse it.
What a day that was. When we had set out early in the morning, just before we got to the border crossing in southern Croatia, we passed an enormous field. There was a huge stone monument in the center of it, seeming to rise up from the low fog that clung just above the ground. It was an overcast morning with little visibility. I had my Mom, Alina and the kids in the car with me, Cam and Mika were in the car following. All of us girls felt the eeriness of the place, not knowing what it was, and thinking maybe it was simply because of the dark weather and looming fog weaving in and out of the strange grassy mounds in the vast field and the forlorn monument standing alone in the middle of it. When we drove back that night, again, it was covered in fog and in the headlights of our car held the same eery feeling. I was relieved after we had passed it and got back onto the main highway. Cam later told us what it was. It was the site of the Jasenovac concentration camp, where the Croatian fascist party, called "Ustaše," massacred an estimated 80,000 to 300,000 (maybe more) Serbians, as well as anti-fascist Croatians and Bosnians during World War II. It was one of the largest concentration camps in Europe, and even more brutal than those in nazi Germany. Here, people weren't put in gas chambers or the like, they were butchered by hand. The grassy mounds we saw were mass graves...
It's really hard to sum up our time in Bosnia in a blog post. I'm so thankful we got to go with Mika! And that it has caused us to think deeply about a lot of things.