Preventing a Catastrophe- New Year’s Week

It’s almost a new year! As people make new year’s resolutions and reflect back on their year, I am reflecting back on my life and the things that I am grateful for. Including being alive and healthy as well as my family. This week’s story is about a too close call with death, and reflecting back on this year and my life I am forever grateful to God for saving us and keeping us healthy. You never know how precious and short life is until you are faced with death threats like this one in the story. I hope no one has to ever experience this.

Preventing a Catastrophe

During the war in Bosnia, every day had a new challenges. In front of the Merhamet office, the place where I volunteered, Mr. Bishcevic waited for me. He said, “You need to go to the Federal Building immediately. The minister of agriculture, Ranko Borkovic, asked for you twice already.” He paused. “It looks like something serious is going on.”

I headed towards the ministry office. My legs protesting the entire way, and I wondered, Why is Mr. Borkovich calling me? He is my former colleague from the high school. We teachers drank coffee, tea, or juice and spent our break time together. Mr. Borkovic used to share jokes in the teachers’ room but now the war was going on, and it is not time for jokes.

As I entered the office, the minister’s face looked like the sky before a terrible storm. He stood up whispering, “We have to prevent a catastrophe. Sit down, please.” He paused. “Listen to me carefully. Go to your attic, pack up half of your wheat in bags, and take them to the agriculture shop. Djoko is coming to pick up the wheat.”

I looked at him in silence regretting my coming. How could he tell me, after all my fights, to take my wheat from the attic to the agriculture shop? I was speechless until injustice touched my heart, and anger ruled my behavior. “The wheat is mine like these hands and these eyes. God knows that, and Djoko knows also. I planted it, took a good care of it, and harvested it on my land. I cannot give my wheat to him. Period. I cannot do it.” I paused for a few seconds. “I am tired of Djoko, of fearful sleepless nights, and of all of these pressures. He can kill me, but I cannot surrender half of my wheat crop to a threat.” My eyes were wet with tears of frustration, and I stood up.

“Wait, wait, you are acting like a hero. Do you know how many heroes are underground now, dead from fights like these?” he raised his voice.

“I am not a hero. I want to live a simple life and cultivate my grandfather’s land. Is that too much to ask?” He didn’t answer, but his facial expression showed that he was listening. “I spent last night in a cornfield. Why?” I almost cried.

“The stupid war is going on. Everything is crazy,” he said softly. “That is the reason I want to help you. Your life is more important than any wheat. If you need a bag of flour, I’ll give it to you.”

I sat again, covered my face with one hand, and wiped my tears with the other. I lost the battle. “It would take me days to transport several tons of the wheat to the agriculture shop in a wheelbarrow,” I said looking at the floor.

The minister made several calls. He put the receiver down and said softly, “Go straight home. The people are coming to help you take the wheat from the attic and transport it to the shop. It is important to finish it today.”  He stood up and opened the door for me.

I left the office, and as I stepped outside, my eyes searched for a quiet, peaceful place to take a short break. A breeze brought fresh air from the Sava River and I walked to the shore talking to myself.  “I could easily manage my reaction, but this field is far deeper than the reasons for my personal sadness.” I sat on a warm stone close to the water and looked at the shallow river waves, how they disappeared when they touched the bank. “Everything in this life is temporary, but awards for our deeds are forever. I lost my battle, and I am going to give half of my wheat to Djoko. I don’t want to do it, but I don’t have a choice,” I whispered, watching my tears drop and make circles on the muddy water. Small waves touched grovels, and I almost heard my mother’s words, “Patience, patience, and patience.”

I came home and started cooking when five civilian men came.  I recognized my fellow Muslims who refused to join the Serb army, who lost their jobs, and worked worse than slaves clearing the town of the destruction from explosions, as well as other needed tasks. Some of them also distributed food for Merhamet after work.

When I told them my story about my battle for the wheat, the tallest among them commented, “You did a good job so far to resist giving him your wheat. You did your part, and that is enough.”

“It isn’t time now to refuse a soldier’s orders. He could kill you or kill your son,” said one of them.

A truck came to our yard and its engine sounded in my head like a dentist’s drill. The men sweated under heavy bags, and by about noon my attic was half empty. I served lunch outside for the tired, hungry workers. Then the truck left our yard carrying half of my wheat along with some of the pressure I had been under.

Exhausted from the night in the cornfield and the morning’s unexpected activities, I couldn’t rest. I filled a bucket with water, watered the thirsty flowers, and cleaned the steps in front of the house. A car stopped, and the minister of agriculture got out. Now why has he shown up? I asking myself.  Does Djoko want more of my wheat? Maybe even my house?

“We prevented a catastrophe,” he interrupted my thoughts.  “Everything was ready, everything.”

My heart pumped hard, and for a moment I wasn’t sure what he was talking about.

“Go make me coffee.  I saved your life.” He opened and closed his fists several times and, snapped his fingers and said, “Like that. Just like that. Everything was ready to blow up your house.” He smiled. “You would simply have vanished. The explosives were ready.”

I thanked him for saving our lives, but my heart was still craving justice.

The Harvesting- Christmas Week

It’s Christmas week! Hope everyone has had a chance to complete their Christmas shopping! I wish you and your family a merry Christmas and that you get to spend it surrounded by the people you love! Cherish these moments and don’t take them for granted! This week’s story is a sort of continuation from the Wheat Field last week, so as always comments/likes/shares appreciated! Thank you and enjoy your holiday week! 🙂

The Harvesting

I scheduled the harvesting for July 3, eager to have all my wheat in our attic.   Of all the crops that God created, nothing in my opinion is better than wheat.  Wheat is more important than corn, or rice, and more useful than any vegetable or fruit.  If there is wheat, there will be bread. If there is bread, there will be no hunger.  In our cuisine bread is the foundation at each meal.

Early in the morning of the harvest, a young man knocked on our door.  He looked familiar, but I could not tell why.  He greeted me politely with a smile, revealing teeth white as pearls. “I know you from the school, Mrs. Softic. You greatly helped me a few years ago when I hit the gym teacher. Do you still remember the incident?”

Finally, I recognized the pleasant round face and brown eyes.  Curly dark hair that covered his forehead and ears and was almost touching his shoulders gave him a different look.  Memories of the conflict occupied my mind.   I was the school psychologist and I was asked to help with difficult students and behavior problems. I remembered the loud knocking on my office door.   “He hit me on purpose,” said the gym teacher.  “We have to kick him out of the school! How dare he treat me this way?”

The same day I met the student with sad-angry eyes. He told me, “He pushed me first. In response, I hit him. We both made mistakes.”

“Why did the gym teacher push you?” I asked softly.

“The teacher came into our classroom this morning, asking all students to go outside.  I did not feel good and wanted to stay in. He came up to me, grabbed my shirt, and pushed me. I lost control. I am sorry,” he explained, his eyes full of tears. “We have a big issue at home. My father found a young girlfriend and left my mother, my two sisters, and me. My mother does not have a job… My father is an idiot!” he cried.

I tried to comfort him.

“Please, don’t call my mother. She has enough to deal with. Call my father.” His voice was chock-full of sincerity and his eyes jam-packed with fear. He wanted to apologize to the gym teacher, but the teacher did not want to see him.

The gym teacher tried to get the student expelled from school and a teachers’ meeting was called.  My input was requested so I explained that both participants in the conflict made mistakes. I suggested that the student should be allowed to stay in the school, emphasizing his family situation. After a long discussion, many of the teachers agreed with my opinion and voted to give the student a chance to finish his high school education. I talked with that student every week about controlling his emotions, and he graduated from the high school. I believe that the gym teacher never forgave me.

“Tomorrow our new neighbor, Djoko, is going to harvest your wheat,” the young man broke our silence. “Djoko came from Croatia two years ago to join the Serb Army. He has a document stating that the wheat is his, but we all remember that you bought that field, and it is your land.” He moved his hair from his forehead. “I heard that you lost your job, and I want you to have your wheat to feed your family. But, don’t tell anybody about my visit today.”

I closed the door and leaned on the wall in fear and confusion. Recalling his words, I sensed trouble. My heart was thumping, my palms were sweaty, and I asked myself, “Should I harvest today? Djuradj could come to the field with weapons. It could be a bloody harvest. No, no, I don’t want any trouble. All the wheat and fields on the earth cannot compare to a human life. I am not going to harvest today as I planned. I have to stop all our plans.”

I called my cousin, my sister, and my brother, but nobody answered. Finally, I grabbed my bicycle, headed to the field, and prayed for swift and peaceful resolution.

As I approached the field, I met my brother on a tractor pulling a wagon loaded with dozens of huge bags full of wheat.

“I was expecting you all morning. We harvested almost two thirds of the field,” he tried to shout over the tractor’s engine, pairing his words with signs. His tractor moved slowly along the unpaved bumpy road. I ran to the field as fast as I could, leaning on the bicycle from time to time.

It was the middle of the morning and the hot sun’s rays danced in the field like a skilled musician’s fingers on a piano. The red combine roared in a corner and a huge portion of the field looked like a shaven head. A tractor was moving slowly and several men, working as hard as ants, carried the massive brown bags, heavier than their bodies. “Mashallah, it is a very good harvest. You will not go hungry,” said our neighbor, Djevad. His wet t-shirt was glued to his chest. He jumped on the wagon behind the tractor and lit a cigarette.

“Aisa prays and God blesses her with a good harvest,” said our friend Mirsad as whipped sweat from his suntanned brown face. I thanked him for helping me and offered several bags of the wheat for his family. “My family is far away, in Sweden,” Mirsad said, with sadness in his voice. “They are safe there, but not happy. Sweden is a gentle version of jail for them.  Everything they love is here. They miss home already, our people, our sun, and our fields. I miss them too. Every time I talk to my children, their voices fill my heart.” He paused. “I cannot stand it when my son cries, calling me to move to Sweden to be with them.”

“Are you going to join them?” I asked as I noticed tears filling his eyes.

“I cannot go to cold Sweden and leave this beauty, this paradise,” he said and the goodness that was within him radiated through a gentle smile. My heart agreed with him and I sighed gratefully.  I did not know this would be our last conversation.  I could not have known then that he would be in another world just a few hours later.  Tomorrow night he would be murdered in his own home, beaten to death.  I could not have known that those strong arms that were helping me would be broken into many pieces, as he was trying to protect himself.

As the tractor, pulling a wagon full of bags, moved from the field, I noticed a full grain bag on the other side along the border with the cornfield, and I quickly walked over to pick it up. Suddenly, a tall man appeared in front of me as swiftly as a ghost. He stunned me with his cold eyes. Fear filled my body, making me stiff, unable to move.  He must be Djoko. His whole body was still except the dancing fingers of the hand holding an ax.  What will he do with that ax? Is it too late to run? Is my life ending?

 For moment, he was silent too. My knees shook as I glanced at him. On top of his short straight brown hair were sunglasses. His wide wrinkled forehead was covered with drops of sweat and he wore a light blue T-shirt and brown shorts. As our eyes met, he opened his thin lips and white teeth appeared, “Are you Aisa Softic?”

I nodded.

“You must be crazy!  Why are you harvesting my wheat?” he asked loudly, anger blazing from his eyes like heat from the July sun.

I collected my strength and answered softly, “This is my wheat. I cultivated it on my land and I am harvesting it.”

“I fought for this land. I left Croatia to build the Serbian Republic, our land. The land is mine. What are my kids going to eat?” he asked me as though I was responsible for his kids.

“I’ll give you a few bags of wheat for your kids. I don’t want them to be hungry,” I said, controlling my shaky voice.

“I don’t want a few bags. I want it all,” he raised his voice.

“I lost my teaching job six months ago. I need this wheat to feed my family.”

“Where is your husband? Did he go to fight Serbs? Is he expecting that we’ll take care of his family?” He screamed squeezing the ax, and I could see his muscles tense.

I was not in the state of mind to even contemplate an answer.  I would not dare tell him that any human being with a spark of morality would not give him their field either. How could somebody be indifferent to genocide? I am to be removed, like dirt, making your new country ‘clean’, pure Serbian. Your own sense of power and your weapons provoked you.  You believed that it would be an easy task to eliminate unarmed and innocent civilian population, bur people stand up to injustice.

At this moment my fight adrenalin mechanism overruled my mind and body. I stepped a few steps back instinctively, searching for any place to ran, widened eyes glued on his ax, that sharp, cold tool. Bitterness filled my dry mouth and throat.  I saw him as a wolf and I was a sheep to be sacrificed. Fear paralyzed me and I could not speak.  My brain was blocked and I couldn’t even pray, couldn’t think about my children. The only thing I could focus on was the blood pounding in my ears. This was it. This was the end for me.

Suddenly, he moved a few steps back from me, the spasm in his muscles disappeared, and the wooden part of the ax touched the ground. His eyes blinked. “Our fight is not over. You will give me all the wheat. You may have it over my dead body. I am warning you! Stupid woman!” He walked through the field leaning on his ax and looking three-legged. He became smaller and smaller until he finally became a black dot bouncing across the field with the other heat spots.

Two tractors moved slowly through the unpaved side roads towards my home, pulling the wagons filled with wheat bags. I was on one of the wagons, surrounded by the bags and bouncing to their rhythm. When one bag bumped my head, all of Djoko’s words buzzed again in my ears and caused my frightened heart to skip a beat. I needed air and, collecting all my strength and pulled myself up to the top of the pile of wheat bags. Completely or partially destroyed houses along our way grabbed my attention, and I counted them one after another. Without windows or roofs they looked like ghost homes. Even dead, the houses reflected the different tastes and prosperity levels of the villagers. I knew their owners, remembered their family members, and their voices echoed in my memory. Once they had crossed the bridge spanning the Sava River, they became homeless refugees that traveled through the world crashed and empty, like abandoned houses they left behind I was stuck between two hard choices: to join a river of refugees, or stay and fight constantly for my rights, and for my live and lives of my family.

It was nearly sunset when we arrived home. My brother and his friends carried the heavy bags up the house steps into the attic. When the last bag was stored, I filled bowls with fresh cooked macaroni and cheese and gave it to them as supper for their trip home.

The wheat brought with it an unpleasantness, a fear, and a discomfort. I sensed trouble and I let Samir go with my brother.  I locked the doors and pulled the blinds down, but I couldn’t find peace. I was crushed by distress and fatigue and tears run down my face. I knew that only Gad understand my fear and lowliness, and I prayed, Dear God, please give me the wisdom to understand my role on earth.  Is my task to fight for my wheat? What should I do if Djoko comes tonight to bomb my house?  I am so frightened and powerless. I feel like one grain of wheat, unable to defend myself.  Please protect me and let peace rule in all the fields and homes. Thank you.  The prayer took some fear and stiffness away from me, but I couldn’t close my eyes.

The morning sun revealed the dust and small chaff dropped when the wheat was taken to the attic the previous day, so I started to clean. My dear neighbors, Seka and Muharema, helped me. In the late afternoon, as we were placing clean curtains on the windows, a knock on the door interrupted us.

I glanced through the curtain and noticed three unexpected visitors. When I recognized Djoko, my heart almost stopped.  He was in uniform and had a rifle slung from his shoulder. His face was dark red, sunglasses hid his eyes, and he was leaning against the house.

He was accompanied by an elderly man and a woman about my age. She held a purse in one hand and moved her straight black hair from her forehead with the other. Her eyes held anger and I had the impression that I had met her somewhere before.

As I opened the door, instead of greetings, the woman said, “We came here to talk about the wheat. You, Mrs. Softic, know very well what I am talking about.” She looked at me keenly. “I am suggesting that you willingly give the wheat to soldier Djoko.  He counts on the wheat to feed his family. We came to help you, Mrs. Softic, and help him. He has a document saying that the wheat is his.” Her dislike of me was obvious in the tone of voice.

“Mr. Djoko and I received another letter stating that the wheat is mine. I harvested it yesterday. The wheat is in my attic now. I told Mr. Djoko that he could have a few bags for his children.” I said, looking at their angry eyes.

“I have the letter from last fall and I haven’t received any document about the wheat this year,” said Djoko, “but I know who sent the letter to you. When I finish with you, he will see who is joking with a fighter for the Serbs. I will reward him.” His words were a bit slurred, and there was a strong smell of alcohol on his breath.

“You will regret your stubbornness,” the woman shouted. “I have proof that we warned you. If you want to stay alive, you’ll give the wheat to Djuradj.”

“Mrs. Softic, we know you as our good citizen,” the old man said, biting his lower lip. “That is the reason why we came to talk to you. We have other methods to take the wheat from your attic. It is in your interest to give the wheat to the soldier.”

“I am really sorry that we cannot understand each other, as if we speak different languages,” I said. “I have told you that the wheat is mine, and that is the end of it.”

“All right, we tried to solve the problem peacefully, but obviously it did not work.  If language doesn’t help, I know what will. It is your choice, foolish woman, not ours,” said Djoko as he moved away from the door.

“I thought you were intelligent, but you are stupid,” said the woman as she turned to leave. “Yes, you are stupid. We gave you a chance.  You made a bad choice, and now you will have to live with the consequences.” I couldn’t recognize their words any more as they walked down the street, growling like hungry brown bears. My skin chilled and I locked the door.

I sat in my room for a while, feeling like chains were tightening around my chest. I needed fresh air and went out onto the balcony that overlooked our garden. I leaned my tired body on the balcony’s still-warm railing. The evening was quiet and the sky clear. As the bright stars appeared and beamed peaceful light, I thought,  This war is transforming our homes into fortresses. How can I find a bridge out of the fortress? We could be all destroyed by hatred. I paused. Only faith and love can guide us toward a path of understanding. Dear God, guide me to choose a good path and overcome my own weakness. You are one for all of us.   

The Wheat Field

Happy Monday, everyone! Hope you have all had a great weekend! This weeks post reflects back to my roots growing up on a farm, and being attached and around nature most of my life. When that is the only life you’ve ever known, the farm, the fields, the animals all become part of you. So when the war started and the Serbs came in and confiscated most of the basic possessions that the Bosnian Muslims had including taking away my wheat field I felt devastated. I felt violated in the sense that this was legally my land, how dare they come up with a claim that it wasn’t mine? I am not sure if any of my readers experienced a sort of similar situation, but when you have something threaten to take away from you, you can do one of two things: accept it and live with it or have the courage to fight to have it back.

The Wheat Field

Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.

Winston Churchill

“Why didn’t you call us for help? You are not a tractor, silly,” my brother smiled. .

“I knew that a machine would do it faster and better, but how could I ask my cousins to help me with their tractors when it is difficult for Muslims to buy gasoline?  I am glad it is done now though,” I said looking into my cup of steaming tea.

“I planned to come to tell you some unpleasant news,” my brother said in a deep voice. The trace of a smile disappeared from his face, and his gaze was fixed. “Two days ago an armed Serb soldier came; he knew that you are my sister.  He showed me the paper that claims your wheat field is now his. He said all of the fields of Muslims who left the Serb Republic have been taken and given to the soldiers.”

“What are you talking about? How could my wheat field be his?” I bit my lower lip. “We bought it. It used to belong to our grandfather, and to our uncle. I returned the field to the family, and paid big money for it. It is ours,” I stood up and walked steadily across the room. “I was born in this place and grew up on these lands. I remember the days when horses plowed the field, and the smell of the fresh soil at plowing time is still in my heart. Every year the field looked like a beautiful rug. One year the soil was planted with corn, the next year with wheat, after that with oats and potatoes. The beauty of the field inspired in me a strength that will endure as long as I live.” The tears began to run down my cheeks. I wanted to go back to the field and scream so loudly that all my sprouting wheat could also feel the injustice.

“I know, but what can I do against an armed soldier?” said my brother as his eyes blinked

“Now is not the time for justice. Please, take your son and Nana and go to Austria to join Husein. Go from this hell,” he said with intensity that surprised me. “Only God knows what you mean to me, I want to see you safe.”

“This is my country and I belong here. I will go through all the difficulties that my people go through.  If nobody opposes injustice it would never be tamed,” I said and lowered my voice.  “I promise I’ll be careful, and I am always asking for God’s protection. Don’t worry.”

I left thinking: Did the soldier really have a legal document? Anyone who gave him the paper knows I am still here and have a job in Merhamet. Why didn’t they inform me? My name is not crossed off in the registered citizens’ book. Maybe the soldier saw the growing wheat and fabricated a document just so he could take the field. I’ll go tomorrow, inshallah, to find out.

The next morning I went to the Community Building and asked for the office that awards free land. “You are not from here. I can tell,” said a man in the hallway.  “It is not easy to find your way in a new place.  I am a new citizen here too, but I can help you.” He showed me where the office was.  “Good luck.”  I walked upstairs and smiled at the thought of being taken for a stranger in my own town.

As I opened the office door, I recognized my ex-colleague’s wife and told her about my problem. Instead of a welcoming smile, she frowned and looked at her pile of paper.  Finally she said, “I didn’t know that you were still here.”

Her greeting and unpleasant look surprised me, but I concentrated on my own problem, and looked at her calmly.

“I heard that my wheat field has been given to a soldier. Nobody informed me.  I came to correct the mistake.”

“Let me be clear. It isn’t a mistake.” She stood up, leaned toward me, and placed her hand on her hip. “Your husband, Mr. Husein Softic, left the Serbian Republic willingly. We made the decision that all abandoned property must be given to Serb soldiers, fighters for the Serbian Republic. They have done so much for their new country. They deserve it!” she said gratefully.

I did not challenge her patriotic feelings, but I wanted to highlight her mistake. “Can you give me a copy of the document, please?” I paused. “Husein’s property is not abandoned! The wheat is in our field. I applied chemicals on the plants yesterday. How can you say that the field is abandoned?”

“I’ll give you the document, but you cannot appeal it. Our decision based on the verified documents, and it is final,” she said, handing me the paper like snake biting with its venomous fangs. .

“There can only be one right decision. You have your reasons and I have mine. Do you know somebody, somewhere who can listen to both sides of our story?” I asked knowing from the bottom of my heart that truth was on my side.

She and her co-worker looked at each other and their lips formed into cynical smiles. The co-worker said, “Our Ministry of Agriculture is in Bjeljina. Ask them there.”  Her sarcastic words were empty, meaningless, like smoke from their cigarettes.

I mumbled to myself and stayed calm.  They did not seriously think that Aisa Softic, a Muslim, would take her complaint to the Serbian Ministry of Agriculture in Bjeljina, It would be the same as a Jew going to Gestapo Headquarters to complain about the mistreatment of Jews.

            I sighed, took the paper, and left the office. The entire world was upside down. I sat on a bench under a tree in front of the building and read: Soldier Djoko Curkovic has the right to take the abandoned field that belonged to Husein Softic.” I rolled my eyes and bit my lip.

            I have to do something. I cannot cross my hands and wait. I must search for justice for the generations who had the land before me and for the youth that are coming.  Could I win this?  Should I hire a lawyer to represent me in the non-military court?

Mr. Vojanovic welcomed me. He read my paper, raised his head, and said, “Nothing is wrong with the decision. It is not easy to build a new country. We have to reward the brave soldiers. Your husband chose to leave the Republic, didn’t he?”

He continued to talk, but I couldn’t listen to him any longer. He had said enough. I took the bogus document, left his office, and took refuge on the same bench outside the Community Building where I had set earlier that day. The lawyer’s words still echoed in my heart, and my mind responded. How can you grant your soldiers my property? Can’t you see what you and your soldiers are doing to me, my family, and my people? We need to reward the soldiers who built a country founded on blood, injustice, rape, and torture? Is that your justice? Dear God, You are just. Please strengthen my body and my mind and guide me to find justice.

Just then, I remembered that I knew Radovan Dushanovic, the lawyer who taught in our school when I was principal, and I decided to find him.

When I came to the Federal Building, the place where Mr. Dushanovic worked, I was exhausted. I gave him the paper and sat. As he read the document, his face began to redden and he shook his head. “I cannot believe my own eyes. This is ridiculous-Husein’s field isn’t abandoned!” He stood and walked through the office. “Mrs. Softc, I am ashamed of this letter and I’m going to fix this terrible mistake. You and Djoko will receive another letter. The field and the wheat belong to your family.”

Hope for justice gave me the strength to walk home. I thanked God and part of my burden was lifted.

After a few weeks a letter arrived stating that the field was being legally returned to me.  The joy of relief was therapeutic on my tense nerves.  I went straight to my wheat field and walked around, touching the green stalks, breathing the special smell of the young wheat, and enjoying the soft music of the plants dancing in wind. For a while I ignored all the war troubles and felt secure and peaceful. I pressed the soft grain and a white liquid rolled down through the knife shaped leaves. Nature fascinated me. The Master of the Universe created all of this.  We are able to eat bread and make delicious meals from the wheat that comes from the ground. The green fields of growing wheat are a life-giving gift from God. What a divine the mystery life is! How could some people be blind to this gift and purposely close their eyes and hearts?

The Last Teaching Day

Since we are getting close to winter break, I thought it would be appropriate to post my story about teaching the last few days before winter break in the Winter of 1992 in Bosnia. The war had already started and tension was escalating everywhere and was now reaching schools. Our school was mixed Bosnian-Muslims, Croatians, Serbs but now instead of working together as a school to unite our students in education, Bosnian-Muslim were being called out, and in my case fired. Teaching was my life. My everything. It was my passion since I was a little girl, and it was part of every fiber of my body. If I couldn’t teach, who was I and how would I survive?

Read on, and please let me know your thoughts/comments. Like and share! Thank you all!

The Last Teaching Day

It was December 1992, the last day before winter break. I entered the school where I had been a teacher and principal for 15 years with nothing on my mind but the day’s schedule, my students, and the lesson I would teach. Murisa, a custodian and my dear friend, changed my mood in an instant. Her look of worry and fear told me that today would be a very different day than I had anticipated. The next ten minutes told me that all my tomorrows would be different as well.

“Aisa, let’s go upstairs. I have important news for you,” Murisa whispered. I followed her as she walked quickly up the stairs to the second floor. “Today is the last day of work for you, Belkisa, Mirsada, Hikmeta, and me. This morning the principal, Branko Lazarevic wrote on the board in the teacher’s break room: ‘Anyone who does not have a husband, son, or brother in the Serbian army cannot keep their job at this school anymore,” she said, standing close to me and whispering. “But it is worse than that,” she stepped closer. “When I brought coffee to the teachers’ break room, I heard a group of teachers mentioning your name. I waited a little bit, pretending to clean a table, to see if I could figure out what was going on. Mr. Smolic asked why you were still teaching here. He said, if nobody kicked you out of the school, he would do it with his rifle. Yes, he said with his rifle. I heard it with my own ears.” Murisa held her cup between her nervous hands and drank a sip of tea, her eyes communicating the fear that had taken hold of her. She took a few more sips, looking and listening carefully to all the sounds around us and waited for me to respond.

I was speechless. Shocked.

“I’m scared for you,” Murisa continued. “I know that you live with your teenage son and old mother-in-law. You don’t have any protection, any source of strength to lean on.”

“Thank you, Murisa, but don’t worry about me. I’ll be fine.” My words mixed with the sounds of her steps as she walked down the hall. I couldn’t move. Silence accompanied me and I prayed, Dear God, I know that all our life is Your test. Please guide me to pass it and to earn Your satisfaction. I am struggling now in this world. What can I do without a job? How can my son, my mother-in-law, and I live without any money? Dear Lord, accept my prayers, help me find a good path, and help us survive. Amen.

I stood up and walked slowly toward the teachers’ break room. My hands were suddenly ice cold and I held my purse tightly to steady their shaking. I entered the room, greeted the people there, and took my regular place close to the door. The room was full and eerily silent. My colleagues were averting their eyes, unwilling to meet my gaze. Are they afraid of me or of their consciences? I asked myself. Why change now?  We had worked together for 15 years. Is it a sin to be a Muslim? Where are my friends? How could they justify their actions? Where is this going?

The bell broke the silence. The teachers walked out of the room. I raised my head in the empty room, grabbed my students’ grade book, and walked towards the board. Murisa’s information was right. The sentence was there. Even though I already knew every word, I read it again.

Looking at the words I felt the tension build in me. I sat down, trying to wish the sentence away as if it were a bad dream, but the words “cannot keep their job at this school anymore” were flashing in my mind. It is true, I thought. Today is my last day of work. What should I do? Should I go home right now? Should I go to the classroom and teach my students? Can I teach them today? Is my voice strong enough? Does my brain work? Should I find the principal and talk to him? Is there anybody who will help? Anybody?

I gathered my strength, stood up, get a breath, and headed to my classroom. I felt that my heart’s beating was loud enough to disturb the silence in the school. My students were unusually quiet when I entered my classroom, and with trembling hands, I wrote the topic on the board. I looked at the topic sentence I had written, but it blurred in my mind with that fateful sentence on the board in the teachers’ room. I looked at my students, hoping that their encouraging energy would inspire me and give me the strength to lead the class as I had for the entire twenty three years of my teaching career. For the first time, in that almost quarter of a century of teaching, I couldn’t speak. All twenty five pairs of eyes of my senior students looked at me, puzzled. I loved those eyes, but I couldn’t stand their confused gaze. I turned to the board to concentrate on the topic. My swollen eyes blinked several times. Tears were coming. Finally, I created a sentence in my mind and faced the students. Instead of words, a volcano of sadness erupted. I couldn’t stop the hot flow of tears. I covered my face with my hands, opened the classroom door, and fled into the hallway.

I sat on the bench under the students’ coats, supported my head with my hands, and sobbed uncontrollably. Two students came and sat down, one on each side of me. One of them said softly, “Mrs. Softic, what happened? How can we help?”

“Today is my last working day. I didn’t want to share it with you, but I couldn’t control myself. I am sorry. I will come to the class soon,” I said, willing my voice to be calm.

“We want to help. What can we do?” the other student asked.

“Your support and understanding is helping me enough,” I said, and looked at their sad eyes. I stood up, wiped my face, and walked to the class.

“I am sorry. I tried not to show my emotion, but it is very hard for me today. I love teaching, I love having you as students, and I love being in this school,” I said and my voice became shaky again. My eyes filled with tears. I waited for a minute and explained the sentence on the board in the teachers’ break room and its meaning for my life. The classroom became a huge beehive. Several students raised their hands.

“Mrs. Softic, we should go to the military building and protest there,” said Babic.

“We are going to protest in front of the school! We are not coming back to the school without you, Mrs. Softic” said Nikolic.

“Yes, yes,” the whole classroom echoed.

“Thank you, but I don’t want any protests. I want you to continue your education. Gathering useful knowledge is your imperative. Knowledge is wealth that nobody can take from you. You are seniors and the college entrance exam is ahead of you. I wish you success in your personal and professional lives,” I said from the bottom of my heart.

When the day’s classes were concluded, I closed my classroom door for the last time in Bosnia. Outside, a few yards from the school, thousands of Bosnian refugees were twisting along the “Brotherhood and Unity Bridge” connecting Bosnia and Croatia. At that moment the line looked to me like the huge and ugliest snake on Earth. Older people were standing on Bosnian shore of the river side waving with one sad hand and drying their tears with the other, calling out in shaking voices their grandchildren’s names,. “Hassan, Hussein, Fatima, Amra, Leila, Said, Yusuf, Ibrahim…..don’t forget Nana, don’t forget Grandpa and don’t forget Bosnia.” The wind had muffled grandparents’ words in silence and dropped them in the river’s waves.

Bonus Blog- My First New Shoes

As an addition to this week’s blog post, I thought I would brighten up your week a little bit with a much lighter story about receiving my first ever brand new shoes. Growing up in a poor family and losing my father meant that we barely had enough for life’s necessities, let along new clothes or shoes. So this was a special moment for me. I hope you find this memory heartwarming and a little bit funny, and can relate to how easy we can take things for granted. Enjoy!

The First Shoes

It was late in the fall of 1959 and the wind was whistling through the branches of the old oak tree in our yard when Uncle Nazif, my father’s brother, and his wife, Mina, came to visit. We all welcomed them, and when they had been made comfortable, my brother Munib asked me to read a story. I chose Cinderella, my favorite, because it took me away from reality into a much better world, with a triumph at the end. All our family, especially Munib, were happy.

“I will support you to finish all the schools in the world,” Munib proclaimed in a voice full of admiration.

I was perplexed.  Will I still be a student, even gray and old? How many years? Where all would I have to go?

Uncle Nazif looked at Munib and said, “It is time for you to find a girl to marry.” We became quiet for a moment. “Be careful. The chosen woman will not only be your wife, but also the mother of your children and member of our Cimirotic family.”

My brother looked at his uncle with teasing smile.  He had already felt in love with beautiful Fata Dindic, a neighborhood girl.

My mother, uncle and aunt went to talk to Fata’s family and arranged the wedding for Saturday, December 26.

For the wedding Mom bought me a new shoes, brown, shiny and my size. How exciting! I kept them under my pillow, taking them out only occasionally for a few minutes and enjoy my imaginary world. The day before the wedding, I could wait no longer and wore them to school, my eyes glittering with happiness. This was the first time I had a pair of hard shoes of my own, shoes that actually fit, and I was proud to show them off. When I came home, I washed the clay from my beautiful new shoes, and set them in the center of the oven, just like bread, and let them to dry.

After a few minutes the kitchen was full of smoke. When I opened the oven door, there were my beautiful shoes looking like hungry baby alligators with their mouths wide open.  I screamed, “My shoes. Help. Help! Is anybody here who can help me? Anybody?”

On the wedding day, nails from the shoes pricked my feet and made walking extremely painful.  I gritted my teeth and climbed into the carriage. Once I sat down I felt much better and covered my shoes with hay. When we arrived at Fata’s house, everyone left the carriage and went to eat, dance, and sing. The pain from the nails was unbearable and I remained sitting. A woman came three times to invite me in, tempting me with candy and good food. I lied that I was not hungry, and when she walked away I pulled more hay around me to stop shivering in the afternoon cold.

On the way to our home, we passed the cemetery where my father was buried, and my eyes filled with tears.  Dear Baba, it’s been four years since you left us. I am now tall and it would be hard for you to lift me. I am an excellent student in the third grade. I will go to school for only one more year, the same as Dervisha. Munib promised to support me in my schooling, but I am not sure that it will be possible. I am sorry that you are not with us today to celebrate Munib’s wedding. The bride is pretty. I paused and wiped my tears. I miss you! I lifted my cold hands, recited the first chapter from the Quran, and asked God to give my father a good place in heaven.

When we arrived home I didn’t waste any time putting the baby alligator shoes in the garbage and putting on my old rubber boots. Then I joined my family and enjoyed the festivities in comfort.

The Night in the Cornfield

Hope everyone had a great thanksgiving break! I know I’m anxious to get back into my blogging routine. This weeks post has been one of the most important for me to write, and am considering opening my memoir with this excerpt. The picture is the actual cornfield. What do you guys think? Leave your suggestions in the comments below! Thank you and have a great week!

The Night in the Cornfield

In the morning, news of Mirsad’s murder spread through the town like wild fire, consuming all joy of life with it, sucking oxygen and suffocating us in grief. The pain of this crime penetrated like stabbing agony. I wanted to scream and shout at the top of my voice, to shake and rattle this town bent on injustice. Man transgresses all limits when he feels that there is no one above him.

I went to the funeral.  Returning to my home was a welcome refuge.  I walked through the house and glanced out a window.  My neighbor Mina Kesic was motioning to me to come outside. “Today is our Judgment Day. The Serbs are going to kill all the Muslims in the entire neighborhood,” she whispered as I crouched beside her alongside her garden fence. She paused, wiped the sweat from her forehead, and looked around. “One of them has been wounded in a battle today and he is coming home. If he dies tonight, the Serbs are going to kill all of us.”

My heart skipped a beat and my lungs momentarily seized up in my chest as my mind replayed Mirsad’s funeral. After a few seconds of terror I was able to say, “What should we do?”

“Run to a cornfield,” she said. “Run! We cannot wait at home for our murderers to come. We have to protect our lives.”

At her words a chill gripped me. Samir, my fourteen-year-old son, had not yet returned from my sister’s home in the village of Dubrave, and my mother-in-law could not walk as far as the cornfield.

“Wait a minute!” I said. “Wait! I must see to my son and Nana.”

I ran to the garage, grabbed my bicycle (our car had been confiscated by the Serbs) and pedaled as fast as I could toward Dubrave.

Dear God, protect my son and guide him safely home, I prayed. Please protect him, protect him, protect him, I repeated with each push of the bicycle pedals.

I had ridden about a kilometer when I saw Samir. I felt a sudden sense of release as the invisible chains of fear for my son that had bound themselves so tightly around me fell away.

Samir saw me and saw the mix of fear and relief on my face.

“What happened, Mother?” he asked as he stared wide-eyed at me. “Where are you going?”

“I came to find you,” I said.

I took the heavy milk containers from his hands, placed them on my bicycle and quietly rode back home, silently thanking God that my son was safe and walking beside me. Once home, I shared the news with Samir as I poured the milk into our large ceramic pot. As I spoke I watched the muscles of Samir’s face stiffen and his youthful innocent eyes fill with fear. It could not be helped. War seen at close hand robs children of their sense of security even in their own homes. And now I had to find a way to take Nana with us.

After a few minutes Samir, as frightened as a rabbit, whispered, “Mother, hurry up. Hurry up. All our neighbors have left their houses already.”

“You must go with Mina and her family,” I said. “I’ll join you in a little bit.”

“Mother, you have to go with us. I know you worry about Nana, but we must leave her.” Samir moved his eyes back and forth between Nana and me.

“Let’s go. Come out with the child immediately!” I recognized the strong voice of old Mehmed, Mina’s father.

I signaled for Samir to go and I opened the window. “What can I do with Nana? She cannot go to the field. I must…”

“You must leave Nana,” said Mehmed. “Pray to God to protect her. You cannot sacrifice your life and the life of your child.”

I finished my evening prayer, lit a candle, locked the entrance door and went out onto the balcony facing the garden, pulling the door closed behind me. Dear God, I am powerless. I.

By now the coming night had begun to cloak our small world and our great fears.

“Hurry up!” came Mina’s strained whisper from where she stood by her garden gate. “We are in the field already. I came back to show you where we are. Samir is worried about you.”

“I will be here in my garden tonight,” I said, almost in tears. “I have to come back to check on Nana. I cannot just leave her alone in our house. I must take care of her. She is like a mother to me.”

“I am angry now,” Mina said as she moved closer to my house. “Look, she has seven children. Two of her sons have been abroad for years. Why didn’t they take their mother with them? It isn’t fair.”

By now I had descended from the balcony and was standing just outside the house.

“All our life is a test,” I replied. “Helping others brings blessings upon us. Nana has lived with us for twenty years. She helped me raise my children. She is an important part of my family and I must protect her.” But how? I was thinking as I spoke through my tears.

Mina grabbed my hand and pulled me. As we hurried through our gardens, the last of the evening’s golden light disappeared below the western horizon. The darkness and its twin companion insecurity, walked with us as we moved quietly toward the cornfield. A deep ditch bordered our neighborhood and the adjoining farmland. Before descending into the ditch and climbing up into the cornfield, I glanced back at the homes we had left, homes which, in the ambient gloom of the night, had a look of sadness about them, even of desolation. But in one of them there was a bright window of dancing light from the candle I had left behind. One small wavering light against the dark moved my heart. And Nana, elderly and infirm, was sitting alone.

“Oh, my dear Nana, forgive me tonight,” I apologized from the bottom of my heart. “I couldn’t take you with me, but my heart is aching at having to leave you. I couldn’t even tell you that I left. How are you going to spend the night alone? You were afraid to sleep by yourself in your own room. Tonight you are alone not only in your room, and in our house, but also in the entire neighborhood. I am not sure that we will see each other again, but, please, forgive me. O merciful God, protect Nana tonight.”

“Aisa, what are you doing? Hurry up, my family is waiting for us,” Mina whispered from the other side of the ditch.

I closed my fist, ran down, jumped over the narrow stream, grabbed some sturdy plants, and pulled myself up. Mina grabbed my hand and helped me to the top. In front of us was a field with dark green corn stalks. Moving gently like waves on the Adriatic Sea, the strong corn leaves brushed my hands and face. After a few minutes of walking, we found Mina’s family and Samir sitting on blankets close to each other. I squatted next to my son and brushed his curly hair with my fingers. Close to us was a covered basket, and I could smell the aroma of fresh baked bread.

“I’m sorry I didn’t bring any baskets of food. I am not going to stay here for long,” I said as I paced the basket in front of Mina’s children.

“Don’t worry, we will share what we have here,” said Mina. She gave me a piece of warm bread covered with sour cream. I held it for a while and then passed it to Samir.

“I hope we are safe here,” whispered Nijaz, Mina’s husband. “Our crazy neighbors cannot cross the ditch in their cars to find us.”

“This is ridiculous,” Mina raised her voice a little bit and turned toward her husband. “You can do what you want, but I am going to obtain documents and leave this hell with my children as soon as possible. I don’t feel safe in this cornfield. I want to be in a home or shelter far from bullets.”

Suddenly, a warm wind brought with it a burning smell. I jumped and saw a huge fire in the direction of our houses.

“Fire! My house is burning! Nana is there! Nana is burning!” I screamed and started running through the field.

“Calm down! That isn’t your house! The fire is coming from my barn! My poor cows!” said old Mehmed wringing his hands. I slowly returned to the group, and all of us stood looking toward the fire.

“What is wrong with the two of you? Mina said. “You are both crazy tonight. The fire is far from our homes, toward the Sava River. Our homes are here.” She stood with one hand on her hip and the other pointing in the direction of the fire. My eyes followed Mina’s hand. I sighed and sat down, relieved that Nana was far from the fire. A cold sweat covered me and I was shaking. I grabbed Mina’s cotton bed sheet and wrapped myself in it. Mehmed was whispering prayers.

A frightening deep darkness and moist chill spread through the field. Rifle fire in the distance reached my ears and the sound of the gunshots began to sound ever closer. Children’s cries echoed in the cornfield. I stood up and paced a few steps. All of sudden, we heard men’s voices nearby. I held my breath and stiffened my muscles. Instinctively, I cowered behind a corn row. Mehmed covered the white sheets with an empty basket and touched his finger to his lips for silence. We stayed still. Only our eyes moved, darting around in the darkness, seeking the position of our enemies. My mouth became drier than the dirt under my hot feet. I closed my burning eyes; frightened by what I would see when I opened them. Breathing through parted lips, I felt like a speck of dirt in this huge cornfield, unwilling to accept all of our tragedies, but too weak to take control of our destinies.

“Are they going to slaughter us?” I asked myself without moving my lips. “Oh, the children! Dear God, protect our children and protect all of us tonight. Make us invisible to our enemies.”

Then, as quickly as they had come, the voices and sounds vanished and I found I could breathe again. The children, exhausted from the tension, finally nodded off to sleep, and I began to perform my night prayer, to thank God and ask Him to shield us. During the prayer my heart softened. I moved my head to the right and then to the left and found a little bit of peace.

Roosters spread their songs through the entire field announcing the dawn and interrupting my thoughts. A calm dawn’s light appeared from darkness. Mina and I woke up the children and we all slowly walked home. I found nana sitting on her sofa and moving gently from side to side. Samir lay down close to her, curling his knees to his elbows.

“Oh, I had a terrible night,” said Nana still rocking. “The candle light vanished. I felt like I was by myself in the whole dark house. Why didn’t you answer my calls?”

“I couldn’t hear you,” I said and looked at Nana’s still fearful eyes and my tears showered my face. I cried not only for myself and my family, but I cried for all of those who loved our country of Bosnia more than their lives. I cried for millions of my Bosnians, who were spending fearful nights in fields. I cried for their burning and destroyed houses, for children who cried in shelters far from their motherland, for orphans without care. I cried for the death of mercy and compassion, consideration and love. In its place on the throne ruled hate and cruelty.