The day is finally hear, thanks to God! My book is available for order from amazon.com (link provided below). It is the compilation of all of the chapters I have been previewing and discussing on this blog! Support, share, and spread the news! Thank you to God, my family, friends, colleagues, supporters, and everyone I know! This is truly a special experience for me! 🙂
Happy Monday! This is a continuation of my journey out of Bosnia during the war. Read on and as always, comments and suggestions are appreciated! 🙂
Passing the Border
I cleared my throat and called to Dara, “If I have any trouble getting through, please take Samir to Belgrade with you. The birth certificate does not have any connection with me.” My mouth was dry, and it became harder and harder to pronounce words.
“I have another concern,” Dara added, “but I will ask you about it later.”
“I’m frightened,” confided Petar, lighting another cigarette. “We cannot go straight to the border.” He took a handkerchief, dried his hands, and then tucked it in his shirt. Dara bent from her seat and whispered something in his ear. Peter scratched his head and informed us, “We are going to visit our friends before we cross. My friend has a boat, and we may decide to use it to cross the Drina River after midnight. My friends are willing to help us.”
The car stopped in front of a house in a quiet village neighborhood. Petar announced, “My wife, my friends, and I are going to make a final decision. You two stay in the car.” He closed the door.
Dara looked at me. “Can we talk outside for a moment?” She stood behind the car and whispered, “Is Samir circumcised?”
Her question astonished me. Circumcision is mandated by Islam. Muslim males are all circumcised.
“Yes. Why are you asking?” I paused. “Are they going to check it?” I froze.
“They could. I don’t know,” she answered and headed to the house.
I went back to the car, squeezed my eyes shut, and hunched my back, as though I could somehow hide from whatever might be coming. My head felt like it was coming apart, and my entire body was covered in sweat.
Samir looked at me. “Mom, are you okay? You don’t look so good.”
“I am not sure about this trip anymore. It’s too dangerous,” I whispered.
“Mom, we are almost there. In another half hour, if God will help us, we will be out of this war zone. We’ll be fine.” He patted my tense shoulder.
With a sigh I looked into my son’s bright eyes. His hope touched my heart, calming me for the moment.
“You’re right. I had a good dream a few nights ago. With God’s help everything is possible.” I paused. “Samir, let’s pray.” Our lips moved as we recited our prayers. Dear God, You conduct our entire universe. We are asking You by all of Your names to help us today to cross to the other side of the river safely. We want to go to a safe place and glorify Your name.
“It’s time to go.” Petar seemed little relaxed as he settled himself in the driver’s seat.
I squeezed Samir’s hand tightly, and he gave me a calm, confident look.
After a few minutes of driving, we slowed down, almost coming to a stop. The hundreds of cars in front of us and surrounding us created a large knot in front of the border gates. Drums played so loudly in my ears that they muted any sounds from the outside world. I tried to speak, but bitterness glued my lips shut. We stopped. I dried my palms. Was there an accident in front of us? Suddenly I recognized the offices, the gates, and the place where I was thrown off the buses twice. Once again those agonizing memories became vivid, and I heard a voice in my mind saying, “I thought that our Republic had been cleaned out by now, but look, the Muslim is still here! How dare you come here! What do you want here?” My body felt numb.
The color drain out of Samir’s face. I opened the car window to get air. I looked at my face in the rearview mirror, and met Petar’s eyes. He quickly put the car in gear, turned into an emergency line, and drove straight to the border gates. When he squeezed the car back into line, Dara looked surprised that no one had stopped him.
Ah, the border. To be or not to be. The car in front of us was waved on through. A border officer came up to Petar’s car. I saw his dark blue uniform and black shoes, but I was afraid to raise my head. Fear paralyzed me. What do I need to do with my eyes? I looked at the car floor. The officer would notice that my face and the photo on the card did not match. I became sick, ready to vomit. With shaking hands I handed the ID card and the birth certificate to the officer. I have to look at him. It will be lass suspicious. Our eyes met. Cold sweat glued my clothes to my body, and a hundred invisible nails pierced my flesh. I lowered my head until my chin touched my chest and closed my eyes. I tasted the bitterness in my dry mouth and heard only the music of dead drums in my ears. Time stopped. Seconds lasted forever.
Suddenly the sound of paperwork changing hands broke the silence. Petar put the car in gear, and we began to move forward. I raised my head at the same time the barrier was lifted and the car move up onto the bridge. I almost strangled Samir with a bear hug. A brightness from his eyes melted my heart, and I wiped tears of happiness from my face. My muscles began lessening the grip they had held on every part of my body for so long in my life. Dear God, this journey is Your reward. I had tried to pass the border twice before and failed. Thank you for accompanying my son and me with good people who helped us to pass the border. Please reward all of them.
I rolled down the window and thousands of suns smiled at me from the sparkling river. A stone in the river looked like Nana’s shoes and glued my gaze on. The water shaped the stone! The flowing river is touching the white hard stone sometimes pleasantly, peacefully, but other moments wildly, gustily, and agitatedly. The water of the same river is always new and different, like our days. Water is always moving, finding a way to touch the stone on the top, the sides, or even comes inside. I couldn’t move my eyes from the stone’s shape but an enjoyable sound of gurgling water touched my ears, and, I understood that the Drina River was whispering, “Good-bye, good-bye—and good luck!”
Hope everyone is having a great week! The story this week is a continuation of my journey out of war-torn Bosnia in hopes of arriving to a safer land. Writing this feels surreal as I am sitting in my safe home in America. There were several times that I could have died, that my family could have died, that we could have been separated, that we could have never made it to America…but God wanted things a certain way and He saved us. Long enough for me to tell you my story today.
Please comment/share/like! Have a wonderful Easter Weekend!
As I entered my house, the sound of people’s voices and the clink of coffee cups on saucers were coming from the kitchen. I went immediately to my room focused on what Samir and I should pack. We would need summer clothes for now, but we had to travel light and would have to worry about winter clothes when the time came. Even so, for memory’s sake I put the wool socks Mother had knitted for me and the children into the suitcase. When I opened the family picture album, the tears poured. I placed the album in my purse next to our documents.
Around sunset I walked to Mehmed’s house. I sat in the same place where I had sat three years earlier when Husein and I had made the hard decision to separate for a time. I swallowed hard before I spoke. “It is no longer safe for Samir and me to stay in our home, and we will be leaving in the morning.” I dried my eyes. “God knows that I did what was in my power, but for whatever reason it was not His will that I should succeed.” I cleared my throat.
Mehmed sighed and told how many times he had checked our home in the late hours of the night, worried about Samir and me. I thanked him and his wife, tearfully telling them that they had been like parents to me.
I prayed a long prayer at Habiba’s house and asked God to protect us on our trip and to reward all those people who had helped us during these last few very trying years. It was probably about midnight when the children finally fell asleep. The house was finally quiet, and it was the perfect moment to shed light on my plan.
“I have a secret to share with you,” I whispered. “Samir and I are leaving tomorrow morning, inshallah.” My voice became shaky. “Please, keep us in your prayers. We plan to go to Belgrade.”
“It is impossible.” Habiba looked at me with her eyes wide open. “Go to Belgrade again? Why are you doing it? You couldn’t pass the border a few months ago!”
I looked at them half in fear, half with courage. “You’re right. It is risky, but I have no choice. It is too dangerous for Samir and me to remain in our home. I simply must put thoughts of what might go wrong at the border out of my mind. This time I have my friend’s I.D. card.”
“You’ll be fine this time,” said Seka with a hint of a smile. “You have no other choice. Your husband and daughter await you in the United States. God knows your courage and your love for your family.”
“I deeply appreciate your help. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.” I said softly.
Habiba supported her chin with her hand and sighed. “You helped us too. You taught me how to pray. Even though the war is all around us I feel the deepest peace I have ever felt. I had the best Ramadan of my life I have learned how important it is to build closeness to God.” She became silent for a few seconds. “I will try to join my brother and sister in Sweden.”
Seka looked through the window into the distance, and said, “We don’t have anybody to sponsor us. I don’t know how we are going to survive.”
“I’ll try to bring you to the United States once I am there.” I said, touching her hand.
With the first trace of dawn I awoke from an easy sleep. Images from my dream raced through my head, and I thank God for a good sign. In my dream I was driving a car. I slowed down as I approached the point where the street became one-way, in the opposite direction I was traveling. I looked from the sign and the street in front of me was empty. I considered my options for a moment and then carefully continued, even though I was driving against the one-way signs. The end of the one-way street connected me to traffic in both directions. As I merged into normal traffic, I woke up.
A hard rain beat against Habiba’s window. I performed the fajr prayer, (the prayer before sunrise) while Habiba made coffee.
“We don’t know when we will drink coffee together again,” I said with a touch of bitterness in my voice. “It is very hard to leave you, and I will never forget you.” Habiba quietly cried, her face buried in her hands. Samir, who had just awakened, walked slowly through the room and opened the door. Seka and I went outside where the morning rain washed away our tears.
A white car approached the house. My sister signaled for me to open the garage door, and the car slid slowly in.
Petar, a middle-aged gentleman, about my height, confused me with his first words. “Could we postpone our trip until next weekend? This is a very dangerous journey we are embarking on you know.”
I searched for Dervisha’s eyes, but she looked at Petar. “I don’t see any reason for changing the plan. This trip will always be dangerous.” “Let me see your friend’s I.D. card,” said Dara, Petar’s wife. She look at the card carefully, raised her eyes and looked at my face. “I hope we’ll be fine. They have some similarities, but if someone looks carefully, differences are noticeable.” Dara looked at the card again.
“Dervisha is right. This trip will be always dangerous,” said Petar. He moved closer to me and whispered, “I want to help you, but what happens if we have problems at the border?”
“We have problems here already. We can’t even sleep in our home.” I looked at Samir. “If we face problems on our way I will not blame you. You have come to help Samir and myself, and I will never be able to thank you enough.”
Peter looked through the garage window. “I am building a weekend home. That lumber you have behind the garage would make a good roof. Could Zaim, Dervisha’s son, come with my friend and take it?”
“Of course,” Dervisha and I said almost in unison.
“Come Samir. Let’s get the suitcases in the trunk,” said Petar.
I tiptoed quietly to the room, dressed, made the last look and came back to the garage. Petar and Dara were already in the front seat of the car. Dervisha opened the back door, and Samir and I squeezed in.
Slowly the car moved toward the street. Our dog looked at us. The bowl of food we had set out the night before, sat untouched in front of her. I could not risk one last look at her for fear she would bark and awaken people in our house and in the neighborhood. I sat back listening to the rain pounding the car, and watched the neighborhood as it slid by. I closed my eyes and the memories of two decades of our life in this neighborhood occupied my mind. The tears showered my face and it looked like the whole neighborhood was crying with me.
As we entered Dubrave, Dervisha squeezed my hand and gave Samir a love tap on his shoulder. “Good luck my dear sister and my nephew.”
The car stopped. My sister got out and didn’t look back. She walked away from the car and I imagined walking back with her to my childhood. Now I had not only cut all ties with those I had known and loved, but also, temporarily deny even my name. My heart cried.
Dara turned her head toward me and said, “We are all losers in this terrible war. Petar and I worked hard in Germany and built the weekend house on the Adriatic seashore in Croatia, but now, as Serbs, we cannot go there.”
Suddenly the car stopped. A Serb soldier came up to the car. Dara gave him her front seat and squeezed into the back with Samir and me. I froze in fear.
Why on earth did Petar pick up that soldier? Did he want to help him, or did he think the soldier could help us somehow? Wasn’t Petar afraid of an unexpected police or military patrol?
As we traveled through one destroyed village after another, the soldier talked about the battles he had been in. He smiled when he told us how soldiers from Serbia had come to help them to “free” those villages. “Muslims and Croats had fought together; but when we captured a several Muslims we asked the Croats to free them. The Croats told us to do whatever we want to do with them.” Petar and the soldier laughed. “Muslims certainly paid the highest price in this war,” the soldier continued. “Both of us, we Serbs and the Croats have our countries behind us. They support us like a mother would support her children. But what do the Muslims have?”
I could barely hold back my tears and anger as I listened to the soldier ramble on.
The soldier got out of the car at the edge of Brcko, and a cold, tense atmosphere took his place. Petar lit a cigarette, and the smoke so nauseated me that I had to open the window for fresh air. I recognized the house where we had stopped when I traveled in December. I felt a stabbing pain in my stomach again. My hands became ice-cold, and I closed the window.
We are so close to the border. What is waiting for us there? What if they recognize me? And if the policemen realize that I’m not the same person whose picture is on the I.D. card. Will they arrest me? What would they do with Samir? He would have to know everything on that document. Oh dear God help us.
Hope everyone is having a great week! This week’s entry is about the difficult beginning of the journey towards safety, towards America. It is very emotional for me to recount the difficulties in this journey and leaving the people that I love and have known all my life behind. Imagine leaving your home, friends, and family for a country where you don’t know the language, people, or culture…it’s starting all over. But, I believe that God makes everything happen for a reason, and one of them just might be so that I am alive to tell this story today!
The Trip Preparations
On Saturday morning we left from our new refuge, Habiba’s house, before dawn and returned home. Dervisha followed me, quiet as an early morning breeze. Her tired eyes told me that she had had a sleepless night.
“The couple from Belgrade, Branko and Dara, came to my home last night,” Dervisha said. “They are returning to Belgrade tomorrow morning, and you and Samir need to be ready. Pack your suitcases and; when no one is paying attention, hide them in the garage. Be extremely careful with this trip.”
“I can’t just disappear from here without saying goodbye to my friends,” I protested.
“You have to be smart and think of the journey ahead,” said Dervisha as we entered my room. “What would happen if the people in the house or your next door neighbor discover your plan? Do you remember what happened to Mina and Nijaz when they left their home? Your risk is many times worse.” Dervisha dried her sweaty forehead as she spoke. “You are 45 years old, but you behave like a child, and I am beginning to think that you will never mature.”
“I think that I never was a child,” I replied. “I watched our father die of a heart attack when I was only five. While the other kids played under our oak tree, I pulled weeds from cornfields and measured how much milk our cows produced.” I became quiet for a moment. “At age six I took care of my three year-old brother Alija. I wanted to be a good girl, because I was terrified that our mother could die. She was our anchor, our protection, and our shield from storms, and I did not know how we would survive if she died. ” That old memory bubbled up like clear spring water from a hillside.
“One day my brother and I broke the window. Mother came home exhausted, but she immediately noticed the missing window pane. My heart was pounding, but I managed not to blink as she walked across the room to where I was standing. But rather than punish me as I feared, she encircled me with her arms, embracing me tightly and told me in a gentle voice that one day everything would be fine.”
Dervisha hugged me as my mother had when I was a child, and our sobs filled the room.
“I am afraid now,” I said, “afraid that we will not make it across the border. I have already tried twice and failed both times.”
“I have the feeling that you will make it this time,” Dervisha said, drying her eyes. “Believe me, I have a good feeling, but please be extremely careful.”
As Dervisha left, I took my newest brown purse and walked to Yelena’s house. The walk was one of ecstasy and agony. My mind first presented me with the image of Samir and myself successfully crossing the border and walking hand in hand on the far side of the Drina River. But that joyous picture lasted only long enough to make its dark twin that much more terrible. In the second image we were caught at the border, and the police roughly pulled both of us from the car and threw us in jail. Our dream was gone and our lives in peril.
“Oh dear God,” I prayed under my breath, “Protect us on our trip!”
Yelena opened the door. Her eyes were tired and worried, the lines of strain on her forehead were deeper, and there were strands of grey in her hair that I had not noticed before.
The words that were on the tip of my tongue rushed out. “We decided to leave. Sunday morning. Do you still feel giving me your I.D. card?”
“Oh Aisa, yes! If I were able to share even my soul with you, I would do it this instant.” Her eyes filled with tears, and we embraced. She walked to her bedroom and came back holding the I.D. card. Our arms brought us together in a second bittersweet embrace, and even the walls of the room seemed to cry with us.
“I don’t know how to thank you,” I said. “God will reward you for your courage and your generous spirit. Please keep this brown purse as a remembrance of this moment.” I paused. “If I get into any trouble, I will lie that I stole your I.D. card from this brown purse. Remember it.
“I hope you’ll be fine. I don’t want to think about anything else.”
We walked together to the end of Yelena’s street where we finally hugged each other one last time. I began to walk quickly away, but after about 50 meters I heard Yelena’s voice again, “Aisa, wait!” She was almost running toward me, and my stomach immediately knotted. Has she changed her mind? Does she want her I.D. card back?
“I want to walk with you a little farther,” she said when she had caught up with me. “I don’t know when or where we will have a chance to walk together again.”
“Thank you, dear Yelena, but I think I’m under surveillance these days. I don’t want to create any problems for you.”
“I don’t care.” She put her vest across her shoulders. “Many people look at war as an opportunity to become rich. They bring back trucks, cars, furniture, and even clothes, things they looted from the people they fought against. I don’t know why they would need all of those things. Greed I suppose.” She paused. “The way you fought and survived here was an incredible feat of courage. Something inside me says that you will cross the border without any difficulty.”
“I certainly hope so,” I said softly. “My richness is the good people around me, especially you, my dear friend. I am thankful to God that He sent you to offer me your I.D. card. Without your help this trip would be impossible. Thank you for your enormous help. I admire you.”
“No goodbyes today,” Yelena said. “I hope that we will see each other again someday.” Yelena turned and walked fast to her home. I didn’t look back. I only listened to her quick steps until they completely mixed with the faint sound of the spring breeze.
Hope everyone had a great weekend! This weeks post is about the power of helping someone in need, and having friends that are willing to sacrifice for you in order to save your life. Powerful story, and an even more powerful lesson. As always, I appreciate your comments, suggestions, shares. Thank you!
The Birth Certificate
My dear friend Yelena promised to give me her I.D. card to travel to Serbia. I thought, It is true that real friends are like a four-leaf clover: hard to find, lucky to have. I needed a birth certificate for my son Samir, one with a Serbian name. Milan Rozic, one of Samir’s school friends, lived in our neighborhood. I decided to go to Milan’s home and ask his mother for a favor, but realizing full well that if she granted my request she would be putting herself in danger. After the sleepless night, with the first rooster calls I finally decided to go to the government office and ask for Milan’s birth certificate without his or his parents’ knowledge.
I arrived at the office feeling very nervous as if I were walking into a bank to rob it. When I recognized a former student Maria working there, I felt better.
“Hi, Mrs. Softic,” she greeted me politely. “How can I help you?”
“I need a copy of my neighbor Milan Rozic’s birth certificate. His mom asked me to do her a favor and get a copy of it for her while I was in town.” It was a lie, of course.
“Do you know the date of his birth?” She looked at my hands, and I squeezed them to keep them from trembling. But my hands betrayed my true state of mind and kept shaking. So I put them into my pockets.
“Yes, yes. Milan was born on September 26, 1979, six months after my son.” When I mentioned my son, Maria was quiet for a while, as if she had discovered my intention.
“Why didn’t Mrs. Rozic come for the certificate herself?” She now looked at me suspiciously. A tinge of fire spread across my face, and I hid my eyes like a child caught stealing a cookie.
“And why does she need it?” Maria’s body language and facial expression signaled that she was uncomfortable.
“I don’t know. I didn’t ask her,” I blurted.
“Do you want to call her and ask her?” Maria pushed the telephone towards me.
Oh my God, what should I do now? I thought. “Oh no, that’s okay. She is working now, and I don’t know her work number.” I looked at the floor.
“Where does she work? I can find the number in the telephone book,” Maria said. She walked towards the shelf. “Besides, her sister works in this building.”
Another pang of fear stabbed my soul. This wasn’t as easy as I had imagined it would be. “I don’t want to disturb her at work.” I paused. “If it’s really a problem to get it now, I can tell Mrs. Rozic to come by another day.” I sat making myself smaller and wanted to disappear from the room and from the world where my son and I could not travel as Muslims.
Maria was quiet for a moment. The seconds ticked by like hours, and finally I turned and grabbed the doorknob.
“Come here, Mrs. Softic.”
I turned my head.
“You are my dear high school teacher and my principal. I like and respect you because you emphasized the importance of good character, and you were always ready to help your students. I still remember your sentence: ‘Do good deeds, and do not regret doing them.’”
She removed a huge book from the shelf and sifted through the pages until she got to Milan’s name. The hope of getting the document was slowly returning to my heart. I blinked several times in thankfulness that I had become a teacher, and that I had helped my students to build strong characters, stronger than the stupid rules of war.
“Mrs. Softic, please sit and relax for a moment. I’ll get it ready for you now.”
“I don’t want to cause any problems for you.” My mouth was tight and bitter as I forced the words out. She moved swiftly, her eyes glittered, and her fingers played on the keyboard like a skilled musician playing the piano. I sat on a chair and looked at the brave young lady who was putting her own job at risk to help me. She knew. It was clear enough that she had the courage, when she saw an unjust rule, to break it.
After about five minutes Maria gave me the birth certificate, and I saw the same brightness in her eyes that I saw on her graduation day when I handed her the diploma she had earned. I sighed. I couldn’t say “thank you” to her, but my tears could.
Later post this week, but here it is nonetheless. This story is difficult to read as there were many threats made against me- to have my house and family taken away, physical harm, emotional abuse…I thank God each day that I was saved from this day because as you’ll read in the story- it was a close call. I had to escape, and make a journey away from everything I knew. To save myself and my family. Read on.
Life at Risk
After a few days I began to feel as if I were running a hotel for pilgrims. So many people shifted in and out each day and it was impossible to keep track who was arriving and who was leaving. I was still fine with the women and children, but I didn’t trust the men and avoided them whenever possible. My house became tense, devoid of any peace.
Finally, I wasn’t able to handle the disorganized confusion any longer, and I went to see Yelena. As I shared all my worries, she promised to come by later in the day to assess the danger.
I just finished spinach pita, when Yelena entered with her son Sasha. She took only a few bites, left her plate, and said, “I go to the living room to see what is going on there. I’ll be back soon.” Yelena walked quietly to the room and closed the door behind her.
Sasha shared his plan of going somewhere to devote his life to God. We had just begun our conversation when Yelena came back with a worried look on her face.
“Aisa, you are not safe here. You have to go from this house as soon as possible.”
“Why? I was treating them with respect and dignity and was sharing my home and my food with them. We were only using one room in the entire house,” I whispered.
“Even this room is no longer safe for you. Leave! Now! Do not stay here even a single night longer!” Her lips became tight.
“It is impossible. I don’t know when the bridge will reopen.”
“I’ll give you my I.D. card, and go to Serbia. It could be dangerous, but staying here is worse. Believe me. It is worse. You have a 50 percent chance of saving your life and Samir’s. But if the two of you stay here in this house, you will almost certainly die. Think about it!” Yelena said firmly, but in a low tone. She closed her eyes and frowned. “Come to my home. Don’t sleep in your house tonight,” she said with finality and they left.
“I am going to Dubrave to get milk for us. I’ll be back before dark.” I informed Seka in the hallway.
“I’ll rest here. Ride safely.”
As I pedaled toward my sister’s home, I noticed the elementary school I had attended so many years before, and my memory floated back to the day I enrolled in the first grade. I almost heard Mother’s words again, “Follow this path, and it will lead you to the school. You cannot miss it. I know you can do it.”
“Oh my dear mother, I had indeed followed the path much farther than you and I ever expected.” The memories of those years filled my eyes with tears, and I had trouble standing on my bicycle. “I am searching for the right path now not only for me but for my son too. I love him more than I love myself.” I dried my tears and prayed: “Dear God, open a good path for my son and me and protect us. You are a great protector.”
When Dervish saw traces of tears in my eyes and heard about Yelena’s suggestions in my trembling voice, she frowned. “It is too dangerous for you to travel by bus.” She became quiet, but her eyes moved as if she were making a plan. “My daughter Esma and her husband Hamdija have friends in Belgrade, maybe they can help you. With two Serbs in the car “your” documents would be less likely to be questioned. I’ll call Esma and see what they can do.”
My throat tightened, and I couldn’t talk. While Dervisha walked to our brother’s house to ask Serbs there to use their phone, I meandered behind her house and hid under an apple tree. The land under my feet was too hard, and the sky above me was too high. I prayed,
Dear God, I am begging You to send good people now to help me to travel safely from this place and guide my son and me to join my husband and my daughter.
Dervisha came back smiling. “Esma’s friends are coming on Friday after work. They are returning back on Sunday. She is positive that they will help.”
I took the gallons of milk with mixed emotions; excited that that respectable response from Belgrade came so quickly, and scared of the trip with the false documents. Even with the spring’ gorgeous flowers and renewed green grass, my village looked somehow gloomy, empty, and frightened.
My home appear in the distance, but I found myself afraid to return. When I opened the door, Seka, looking white as a sheet, grabbed my arm and pulled me into the room. Closing the door quietly behind her she faced me and, with her hand partially covering her mouth, whispered almost hysterically, “Oh my God, I heard them! The door was open, and I heard every word. One of them was yelling that he was going to stay here in your house and that he was going to ‘take care of you. Good care!’ He laughed maniacally as he mentioned your name.”
“Go ask Habiba if we can sleep at her house tonight,” I said, holding her hands.
I went to the kitchen. The women were fixing supper, and the men were sitting around. Everyone was quiet. Too quiet. I gave them a gallon of milk and took some pitas out of the fridge. I pretended that everything was fine, but my trembling hands couldn’t lie.
When the house became quiet, Samir and Seka walked on their tiptoes from our room, through the hallway, and down to the garage. I locked our room and followed them. When we reached the yard, I turned and looked at the building that was our home. The lights were on in different rooms, but their glow no longer seemed to have the warmth of home. I was too tired, cold, and I shivered.
Habiba had made a comfortable bed for me, but I couldn’t close my eyes with my mind racing with thoughts ideas about our upcoming journey.
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.”
Happy Monday! To freshen things up a bit, I decided to post one of my excerpts from life after the war and adjusting to life in the United States. Before coming here I didn’t know the language, didn’t have a job, and was still adjusting to the place where I was living. It was extremely hard as any refugee will tell you and finding a job was difficult, stressful, and intimidating because of all of those factors. There was a lot of pressure to find a job fast because I still had to support my family, so this along with learning the ropes of a new job was just too much. This story is about when I accepted a job as a school bus driver and ultimately quit. Read on, and as always comments, shares, likes are always appreciated!
The School Bus Driver
I came to the United State from war-torn Bosnia – a refugee who had lived in fear of my life. My family and I were trying to start a new life and I needed a job desperately. But how could I find one, fill out an application, and go to an interview when I knew almost no English? I was fluent in Bosnian and Russian, and had studied Latin, but my wealth of language skills was of no more use to me than the house and the gardens I had left behind when I fled my homeland.
I enrolled in a language school to learn English. After a few months the teacher assigned us an essay about work we wanted to do as Americans, the contribution we wanted to make to our new country. I thought about the topic, looked at the blank paper in front of me, and recalled my days as a teacher in Bosnia. Suddenly the memories flooded my mind. I pictured my classrooms, my students, their smiles, my lessons, the graduation trips and ceremonies. My students were gone, and with them all the joy and sense of accomplishment that teaching had given me. It was all part of the past – gone forever. My future was bleak and blank as the sheet of white paper in front of me. Tears, my only friends, dripped onto the paper.
The teacher noticed and asked me softly, “Aisa, do you have any skills?”
I didn’t know enough English to tell her that I had been a teacher, and that my heart was still in my classrooms in my old country. I simple answered, “I was teacher.”
“Do you know how to do something with your hands?” she stirred her hands as if she was moving a steering wheel.
“I drive car,” I said in broken English, moving both of my hands as she had.
She looked at my hands, blinked her eyes and asked, “Can you drive a school bus?”
“Oh, school bus, yes, yes.” My face cleared like the sky after a spring shower and I felt my heart lighten. It was a great idea. I could be with students again; a bus could be my classroom. I found a dry place on my paper and wrote, “I drive school bus.”
My teacher helped me to enroll in a school for bus drivers. The first day I hid behind the other students. I didn’t know the meaning of words like “curves,” “intersections,” “engine,” “windshield,” and “wipers.” I knew the meaning of the word “break,” as in “lunch break” and “work break,” but I couldn’t connect the word with a bus. Why does a bus driver need a lunch break or a work break while transporting children? I asked the teacher to give me a book to take home. With help of a dictionary, the words eventually clicked. I even saw pictures of a bus’s brakes. After one month of studying, I passed the written tests for professional drivers and rest of the summer I spent as much time as possible behind the wheel of a school bus practicing.
By the beginning of the new school year I had a job as bus driver, transporting the students with special needs. The bus was huge, making driving difficult on Cincinnati’s narrow, hilly streets. On the first day I drove very carefully, slowly, like a turtle. The box above my head made a buzzing sound that distracted me. I tried to ignore it, but the buzzing just went on and on.
“Hey driver, answer the radio. It is buzzing for you,” said my co-worker.
“I am busy driving the bus. I don’t have time.” I could hardly take one hand off the steering wheel to wipe the sweat off my forehead.
“Our boss is asking why we are late. Parents are nervous,” said the co-worker as she finished radio conversation.
Safety first, I want to bring the children home alive. The parents don’t know how difficult the bus is to handle on unknown streets, I thought silently in my Bosnian.
It took me three to five minutes to get a student in a wheelchair out the bus, and all the while I had the bus stop sign and red lights on, completely blocking all traffic in both directions, tense rush- hour drivers leaning on their horns in frustration. It sounded like Bosnian’s wedding. Hey guys, I am a new bus driver. Wait a minute!
I lasted only two weeks. One dark morning with rain pouring down, I was too scared to drive, admitted my weakness, and quit. Time moves. Driving school bus guided me were my heart wants to be. I am now an American citizen in classroom again teaching the students I used to drive. I still have a professional driver’s license, a memory of my short bus-driving career.
Happy Monday! This week’s post is continuing on in my memoir with the next visit from Serbian soldiers resulting in them taking away my car. Read on, and as always comments, shares, likes are appreciated! 🙂
The knock on my door froze blood in my veins. While I glanced through the curtains, two men were standing at my front door. A tall slender man with long oily hair in civilian clothes and no visible weapons was banging the door with his fist. He was accompanied by a short, wide-shouldered man with clean black hair. I couldn’t see their faces very well. As the tall man increased frequency and volume of his banging, I sensed trouble, and opened the door.
The short man turned his almost rectangular face with deep, dark owl’s eyes toward me. He tried to move the corners of his thin lips into a smile and mumbled, “We are looking for Mrs. Softic. Oh, oh, I recognize you. You are Mrs. Softic.”
The tall man climbed one front house step biting his lower lip. A beard partially covered the yellow skin stretched tight across the bones of his face. I was shifting my glance from one face to the other in the hope of figuring out who they were and why they had come to my house.
“Mrs. Softic, I don’t know how to explain the reason for our visit. It isn’t easy to explain, but you are a smart woman, and you’ll understand.” The short man paused, and his lips danced into a smile. “You know the war is going on. You can imagine soldiers’ lives. We are safe here with our families while they are defending us in a war zone.” He paused. “Our soldiers need cars to come home to visit their families. The army has ordered us to take your car for their needs. Is your car in the garage?”
I thought of a Petar Kocic, a Bosnian satirist who wrote about the Austro-Hungarian occupation of Bosnia. In the play, David Shtrbac, the police came several times to collect excessive taxes from David, a poor farmer. Because David could not pay each time the police came, they took one of David’s animals, beginning with his valuable cow. Each time David thanked the “merciful emperor” for relieving him of the burden of caring for the animals. Now I was about to lose my car, and suddenly I felt like David, but I wisely held my tongue.
“Give us the key. We will write a document stating that we took your car,” said the tall man.
“I’ll give you the key, but I’ll need to keep the car battery. We connect the battery to our radio so that we can hear the news. Bring another battery and take the car,” I said politely.
“What are you saying? Are you joking with us? Do you want me to destroy your entire house and show you how we make jokes?” The tall man screamed crazily, violating my personal space. “Your husband is fighting Serbs in Sarajevo or Zenica, and you are joking with us, with our army?”
I took a few steps back, and the short man came between us. “Wait, wait, both of you wait!” He faced his friend and said, “Mrs. Softic didn’t mean to keep the battery. We cannot drive the car without the battery. She knows that.”
Suddenly he returned to me and said, “Mrs. Softic, my friend came from the war zone last night. He wanted to come alone to take your car. He is tired, and he cannot control himself. That is why I came with him. I don’t want to see anything bad happen here. We don’t need that. You understand the situation here.”
“Let me show her,” the tall man roared. “She is like a turkey gobbling in a big house. My parents are in the basement. She is playing games with the battery. She must get off Serb territory! She must go where other balijas (very rude name for Muslims) are!” The tall man shouted.
“Mrs. Softic, give us the key and the battery, I don’t know how long I will be able to restrain this man. I told you…” he said, making the sign for a crazy man and tilting his head and eyes at his tall companion.
I went to the house, grabbed the key and the battery, and handed them over. The tall man moved a cigarette from his shaking hand to his thick lips and grabbed the battery. The short man took the key. I opened the garage door and waited outside. I heard their voices for a few minutes, and then the sound of the engine starting. The car slowly backed out of the garage, turned onto the street, and disappeared.
My heart tightened as I looked into the empty garage. It seemed horrible with all the holes in the door, a gigantic hole in the wall, and empty darkness inside.
Imagine having the police show up at your front door and confront you immediately and accuse you of hiding someone in your home. Imagine the confusion, panic, and utter disbelief that this is happening to you. It seems dream-like yet it happened to me. They came to my front door, accused me of hiding political propaganda and people, and searched my house without cause. I felt very violated yet in my state of fear and the fact that I was a Muslim woman, there was nothing I could do. Read on below for the full story.
The screeching sound of a police car slamming on the brakes and five policemen jumping out right in front of our house started me. I glance the pale faces of the refugees in my home. The front door shook with the violent pounding of a fist. I forced myself, in spite of my fear, to turn the knob, pull the door open, and stare into the hard faces confronting me
“Do you have any refugees here?” one of them asked sharply.
“Oh, oh, yes, I am hosting one family,” I answered in a quavering voice, afraid like a rabbit surrounded by wolves.
“We have to search your house,” the policeman said, and all of them came inside. Their footsteps on the wooden floor in the hallway sounded like thunder.
“How many are there?” asked the first policeman coming into my kitchen.
“It is one family, three brothers and this young lady with the baby.” I was shaking.
“Why did you let them stay in your house?” A blaze of anger accompanied his words and he ground his teeth.
I looked at his shoes and said, “A young couple with baby were on the street in the cold. I let them in to warm up in my home.” I paused. “This isn’t the first time that I hosted refugees. Serbian families from Croatia stayed in my house twice. I helped them too.”
“It is not the same. This is the Serbian Republic, and we have to help our people, but we cannot help Muslim refugees. Do you know that?” He raised his voice. “These people could be soldiers. Did they bring any weapons?” He paused. “Where are they?”
“Belkisa with the baby is here,” I looked around. “My son is sick. I took him to the doctor, and we came back a few minutes before you arrived,” I said trying to find the best answer. “Belkisa, do you know where your husband and his brothers are?”
“They went to obtain transit visas for us. We couldn’t cross the bridge and go to Western Europe without them.” I noticed her trembling hands holding her baby. All of the customary brightness and gentleness was gone from her face.
“Do you have extra medicine in your house?” The policeman moved his gaze from the baby to the china cabinet.
I looked at my sick child and my throat tightened. “My son was sick for two days. I do not have anything to give him, nothing to lower his fever. I took him to the doctor today even though I don’t have insurance,” I felt pitiful and couldn’t talk any more.
“We are going to search your entire house. We will see what you are hiding here,” the policeman said firmly and gave an order to his squad where to search. I didn’t know what they were searching for. What did they hope to find?
Why did the policeman ask me about the medicine? What is their plan? Will they accuse me of being an illegal drug dealer? I had hidden all my money in the books upstairs in my room. For sure they would take it with them. Oh, and I also have some religious books. Policemen and soldiers didn’t like the books in where God’s names are mentioned, especially if they are written in Arabic. Will they burn my books and perhaps my house along with them?
I don’t have any weapons, but they could bring a few guns and “find” them in the house. The five of them are going to witness against me. Are they going to take me to jail, or kill me here? Will these be the last minutes of my life?
The room was spinning around me. I became ice-cold, trembling and shivering like I was falling apart. Samir, Nana, and Belkisa looked at me. I stood up, walked to the window, and looked at the quiet garden. Belkisa joined me, and our eyes met. We were quiet. Even the baby didn’t make any sounds.
Objects, mostly books, were falling on the floor. The policemen’s belittling laughter struck me. They sneered at all that they touched.
“Are those materials from your Muslim political organization?” asked one of them from another room.
I wasn’t sure that I was able to shout back so I walked to the hallway. I found him looking through piles of materials from Social-Democratic party meetings.
“I am not a member of any Muslim political organization. I don’t have any of their written materials,” I said, just above a whisper, my mouth dry and bitter. My tongue could barely move, and I wasn’t sure he heard me well. I collected my last strength and said, “I am a congressional representative of the Social-Democratic political party in our local government. I have their written materials. Do you want to see them?”
He turned his hands from the materials as if they were on fire, walked a few steps toward me, and opened his eyes wide.
“Are you an active member of the government?”
“Do you go to the government meetings?” He frowned and his eyebrows moved close to each other. He came closer, trying to distinguish my weak voice from noise that other policemen were making as they searched the house.
“Yes, I do. Do you want to see the materials from the last meeting? We have discussions.”
He interrupted me, “No, no, you are fine. You are fine. I am sorry, we made a mistake. This is our mistake,” he said softly. Suddenly he looked like he were scared of me, an unarmed Muslim woman.
“Hey, guys stop your work immediately!” he roared, “all of you. Put back everything where it was and clean up your mess. Did you hear me?”
Silence. The policemen picked up all books from the floor and placed them gently on the shelf. They straightened other books that they hadn’t even touched before.
“I am sorry, Mrs. Softic. I did not know that you were a representative of the government. You didn’t warn us when we entered your house. How would I know that?” he paused. “We didn’t harm you. We really didn’t do anything wrong. Your rooms will be in the same shape as before our visit. You have unknown refugees in your house and we wanted to protect you; to be sure you were safe. That is all.” Suddenly his voice was as soft and gentle as though he were my guardian angel.
I was confused by the sudden change in the behavior of the policemen.
“Mrs. Softic, can you come to my office tomorrow morning, please, and register them? Bring the I.D. cards of the people who are in your house. They don’t need to come with you. They can pursue their transit visas through Croatia, no problem. Poor people. Look what the Croats are doing to them! They are taking money for nothing. Everybody can go through Croatia without visas except the poor Bosnian refugees,” he said, smiling.
The other policemen walked quietly through the house. Nobody mentioned any religious books or money that they found. As they closed the front door and walked toward their car, I ran upstairs. Everything looked as it had before their visit. All the books and the money were in the same place. I thanked God for His intervention, to help this positive outcome.
After a few minutes the refugees came back into the room quietly.
“How did you disappear? Where did you go?” I asked.
“We jumped over the balcony fence and went into the garden. We didn’t even want to cross paths with the policemen,” said the youngest.
“Soldiers took our father and he never came back,” said Muharem, Belkisa’a husband. “That day we jumped out the window of our home, ran to the woods, and thank God we survived.”