Courage and housing Refugees

It’s Monday! This week’s post is about helping other refugees. Sometimes when you are stuck in this terrible world of destruction and calamities all you can think about is your immediate family. Their safety, well-being, where we will get the next food, and shelter..let alone other families who might be going through the exact same fears and emotions. This post humbled me because I happened to take in five families that were going through just that.

“I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.”   Nelson Mandela


Refugees Occupied My House

Travel was impossible during Nana’s illness, but now my resilience to fight for our home and justice were waning, and submission had taken over. The walls became quiet, and instead of echoing Nana’s prayers they began to straightjacket my soul. Even a light touch of wind on a window or door made me jump in anticipation of who was on the other side. I ran through the calendar and counted the days remaining in Samir’s school year.

I sensed that May 1 would be my last Labor Day at home, and I made fresh bread dough.  As I washed my hands, an ear-piercing explosion knocked me away from the sink. The sound of grenades explosions shook the house over and over again.

Breathing heavily, I ran upstairs and called, “Habiba, Habiba!  Grenades are exploding!”

“I don’t know what is going on!” she whisped. She covered her face with her hands. “Karadzic said he is dragging Bosnia into hell and the Muslim nation into annihilation. It looks like he is achieving his goals.”

At eight o’clock on the TV the Zagreb channel featured the headline, “CROAT ARMY ATTEMPTING TO FREE SLAVONIA AND RE-OPEN THE HIGHWAY.”

We looked at each other and Habiba said, “I am going home to pack our suitcases.”  She shook her head. “Please send my children home.”

I decided to wash clothes to try to lower my anxiety. As I spread the washed clothes on a rope, our neighbor Cvijeta signaling me to come closer.

“I came here to catch my breath. I couldn’t believe what is going on.”  She sighed. “The Croatian army have the newest European and American weapons. They are killing thousands of Serbs civilians and throwing them out of their homes. Croats are on the other side of the Una River only 40 kilometers away. They will be at the Sava River very soon.”

“What should we do?” I asked surprisingly.

“Oh poor Serbian civilians,” she said, clearing her throat. “I hope the Croats are not coming to Bosnia now, but you never know. We are so close to the border.” She blinked several times.

“I feel sorry for all the civilians suffering in this war,” I said, thinking of the many Muslim civilians killed in the war by both Serbs and Croats.  Each made its own concentration camps and torture centers, and each interned thousands of Muslims.

“I’ll be at home all day. If you need my help, please let me know,” I said, picking up my empty laundry baskets and ran through my garden to Habiba to share the news.

“This fighting isn’t good for us. The Serbs will come here from Croatia and push us out from our homes. Go home and pack your suitcase!” Her explanation made sense, but I just didn’t want to accept it.

“Why do we need to pay the price for their fights?” I was angry.

On my way home anxiety and fear took over. I went upstairs, collected all the books that had served as a hiding place for money, took documents, and jewelry and brought them all downstairs. I was exhausted, but adrenaline prevented me from getting any rest.

A few minutes after three o’clock, a heavy knock on the door scared me. I left some books on the floor and opened the door. A soldier, brandishing his weapons, was on my front steps.

“Mrs. Softic,” he said in a loud, intimidating voice. The people sitting on a truck in the driveway grabbed my attention. “My family and friends are coming to your house.” He signaled for the people on the truck to come in. I stood at the door, confused. When all of them had entered, I walked back inside as though I was one of the intruders.  My eyes stopped on the three elderly ladies, surprised by their sad look. One of them who dried her tears with the corners of her black scarves and sighed deeply. Five young ladies carried the children.

I rushed to the kitchen without finishing counting all of them and brought on the table all the food that I had.  “The food is ready,” I said looking at the younger ladies. “Please help yourselves, and feed your children. I am going to make soup, more fresh bread, and a lot of tea. We will have enough food for everybody. Please come to the kitchen, and I’ll try to help you.”

. Two elderly women came into the kitchen.  Still crying, one of them told me that their sons hadn’t been able to break through the Croat army line. Being a mother myself and having lived with my very ill mother-in-law when her son, a doctor, hadn’t been able to help her in the most critical moment of her life, I felt their emotions. I forgot that they were our enemies; and, since they had come to my house, I looked at them and served them as my guests.  There is no true victory in a war. Civilians are paying the price, I thought.

The soldier in uniform was in charge.  In the late afternoon more people came to the house without asking my permission. I was continually fixing food for newcomers, and the whole house smelled of fresh baked bread. I did not have time to pay attention to the sound of shootings going on outside. In the twilight, I met the soldier in the hallway, and he looked like some of the hatred had vanished from his eyes.  “Thank you for your help. It was very nice of you, but you really don’t need to serve us. We have enough young people here to take care of the children and the elderly.”

I looked at him, puzzled. Is he the same soldier? Did my bread change his heart?

“I am glad to help,” I said. “Let me know if you need more food or blankets.”

“We must use your rooms. We need a place to live, and we have no other choice,” he said softly. “You can keep one room downstairs for you and your son.” He paused. “Our people are going to use your kitchen. You can cook in your kitchen too.”

Just then a strong male voice calling my name interrupted our conversation. I was surprised when I saw my cousin Redjo, his wife, and their six children on the steps.

“We are terrified to stay in our own home tonight,” Redjo said. “Many Serbs are coming from Croatia, and we are frightened they could come to our home and kill us. May we please sleep here?”  Redjo whispered, holding a baby in his hands.

“Yes, of course!” I said and walked towards the kitchen.  “Thank God we have enough space in the kitchen for your family.” I had two sofas and several blankets for Redjo’s family.

“We have many guests tonight.” I did not mention who they were.

When Seka, Habiba and her children came to our room, we locked the door and made places to sleep. Samir and Muhamed, Habiba’s son, slept on the sofas, but Habiba, her daughter Aldiana, Seka, and I sat close to each other and listened carefully to all the sounds in and around the house.

“How many people are in the house?” Seka asked softly.

“More than 30,” I whispered.

“I’m frightened,” Habiba said, “frightened that they may come upon us in the night and kill us all. Some of them looked very angry.”

“I am not sure that we are safe in this house anymore,” said Seka as she pulled the coffee table closer to the door.

“It is good that Redjo came with his family here,” I said softly. “The Serbs don’t know who he is, and they may think he is our protector.”

Around midnight all sounds ceased. Habiba and I shared our fearful thoughts until the roosters announced the coming of a new day. I walked through the house, silent as a shadow, and made myself ready for prayer.

When Redjo recognized the people in the kitchen, he jumped up as though a hornet had stung him, signaled his older boys, grabbed the hands of his young children, and ran outside. I followed them carrying a basket with bread and sour cream. Once outside Redjo’s wife and I spread sour cream on dinner rolls and gave them to the children who were still half asleep.

“Why didn’t you warn me who your guests are?” Redjo protested.

“Thank God, we survived,” his wife said as they walked home.

The kitchen became a beehive. I showed the ladies how to mix powder and water to make milk and where the tea herbs, coffee, and sugar were. When I began making another ball of bread dough, the elderly lady came close to me and touched the dough. “Thank you for making bread. Everyone likes it.”

“If we have bread, we cannot go hungry,” I said, still kneading the dough. “Look, Monday, May 8, is a holiday for me. I am Muslim, and I celebrate Eid. I’ll make pitas for all of us that day,”

“Are you really Muslims?” she whispered and our eyes met. I didn’t understand what she wanted to know. She noticed my confusion and then clarified, “Your mother, father, husband, and children are Muslims too?”

“Yes, we are all Muslims,” I answered washing my hands.

“I’ve never met Muslims before.  I thought that Muslims were different: dirty, unfriendly, ignorant – that they were all our enemies. I didn’t want to come here yesterday, and I especially didn’t want to end up spending the night with Muslims.”  She became quiet for a moment. “But your hospitality and generosity have surprised me.” The tone of her voice sounded like an apology.

I surveyed the area with a few quick glances and whispered, “God is one. He created Adam and Eve. All of us are their children, one family with similar souls and bodies. We are born with different talents and different abilities and we are divided into different religions, races, and groups in order to help and learn from each other. It is people who breed pride and hatred, spread misunderstanding and even blood on this earth in the name of religion, ethnicity, culture, or tradition. But every one of us has to return to one God and answer to Him about our deeds and doings on this earth.”

“You are right,” she said with a gentle smile.

After lunch a strange mix of screaming, crying, and laughter was coming from upstairs. I ran to the hallway, and heard, “Mr. Golic just came back from Croatia. His family and friends are shouting and crying for joy.”

I didn’t want to disturb their celebration and went back to my room. The older lady opened the door, and the soft glow in her eyes touched my heart.

“Thank God, my son came.” She paused. “We are leaving your house now, and I want to thank you for everything you did for me and all of our families.” She opened her old arms and embraced me.

“I am only sorry that we had to meet under these terrible circumstances,” said a strong voice coming from a tall, middle aged, exhausted officer. He sat on the steps, covered his face with his hands. “Oh, Mrs. Softic, our leaders, Serb leaders, betrayed us.” He sobbed. “At the beginning of the war they gave us weapons and instructed us to resist Croatian politics. They promised to support us to build Serbs Krajina. Yesterday they left us to defend ourselves! This is a great shame!” Tears rolled down his cheeks.

I was quiet, uncertain of what to say.

“Western Europe, especially Germany, that old bitch, gave the Croats the best weapons. They killed many Serbs yesterday.” He stood up and pointed with his finger. “I am going to Banja Luka to kill Croat families and take their homes. Their soldiers pushed me from my home, and that is what I will do to them.” He paused. “Thank you for taking care of my family.”

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