Happy Thanksgiving

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Yesterday after work I traveled from Cincinnati to Boston. On my way I thought how distances has been changed today. Many years ago I traveled in horses wagon from my village of Dubrave to the city of Banla-Luka for entire night. Today I flow thousands of kilometers for only two hours.
The security on the airport recognized my accent and asked me where am I from. When I mentioned Bosnia, she said that my home is so far.
“That one there is far away,” I answered, “but I have here several homes.”
“You must be very reach,” she smiled.
“I did not built those houses, but people who lives there are waiting happily for me to visit them and I am looking forward to see them. I feel good in their homes and I am thankful for that feelings. That is real reaches for me.”
Happy Thanksgiving”

Current Events- Comments on Milorad Trbic Trial

With this week being Thanksgiving and a short week, I thought I would switch up the format a little bit and provide my thoughts and comments on the current Milorad Trbic trial.  Here is a link to the most current news and a source for my commentary: http://jurist.org/paperchase/2014/11/un-rights-experts-urge-Bosnia-not-to-release-convicted-war-criminal.php

Milord Trbic was responsible for the 1995 Srebrenica genocide in Bosnia that killed over 8,000 men and boys. Trbic himself is responsible for 300 deaths, and was convicted and found guilty in 2009 and sentenced to 30 years in prison. Even this sentence, in my opinion, is not long enough for the atrocities that he created in Srebrenica and the lives and families destroyed, let alone a retrial where his new verdict will likely be a lesser sentence. Has that much time passed that we have already forgotten the impact of what has happened in Bosnia? Have we not learned a lesson? We should be ashamed and embarrassed in front of the families affected by Mr. Tribic’s actions that he should not receive a harsher punishment.

I came as a refugee to the United State from war torn Bosnia the end of September 1995.  .I found part time cleaning job and went to school to learn English. One day a teacher gave us homework to write several sentences using the given words. Instead of sentences my tears dropped on the paper. I put the pen down, placed my hands on my face and sobbed uncontrollably. “O my God, the war took everything what I built for years. I was high school teacher and principal, but look at me now. I am handicapped person, unable to speak and illiterate. I lost my education, house, garden, fields, and car. I lost everything.”  As hard as it may have been for me, my friend Mula Kadric was from Srebrenica and lost even more. Mula lost her 17-year old son, her husband, and 27 other members of her family to the war. Her husband worked in Iraq while she raised her three sons by herself. At the beginning of July in 1995, Dutch peacekeepers allowed Serbs to enter Srebrenica, which at that point had already been declared a UN protected zone. The Serbs immediately separated the women and children from the men. Mila managed to survive and escape the war with two of her sons. Her husband and third son were killed and only years later their bones were identified amongst the ruins.

Mila’s story is one of several thousand that happened in Srebrenica. Due to ruthless, immoral, and cruel men like Mr. Trbic. And now, nealy 20 years after the war we want to reopen those deep seated wounds and not only insult these families by giving this man an opportunity for plea but also the possibility of making an example that his actions were not that ‘harsh’ to the world? The UN has pleaded with the Bosnia criminal court to not hold the retrial or reverse the sentencing, however, the Bosnia criminal’s court decision remains to be seen. My life, Mula’s life, and so many others in Bosnia as well as Palestine today and Syria are prime testaments to the effects of ethnic wars- of the brutal turmoil, casualties, and deaths that this pointless struggle for power and destruction does. We have to put more pressure as citizens on these international trials and ask for them to not forget what happened- to not let history repeat itself. Not forgetting what happened in Bosnia is one of the main motivators and reasons behind my memoir- I am not writing these chapters of my life to relieve through the pain and fear I felt back then for myself. I am writing these stories to tell people my story but also to give them a first hand account of what it’s like to live in perpetual fear, to have your home burned down, to have your families ripped apart and killed…I am writing this so that no more Bosnians have to suffer in the future. So that Palestinian children can be given a chance to grow up. So that Syrians can have a chance at a future as well. I am writing these memoirs so that the world can wake up and realize that we cannot turn our backs on inhumane attacks like these and that most importantly the people who commit them do not go unpunished.

I will keep you updated on the trial as more information is released. In the meantime, please keep Bosnia in your thoughts and prayers and I sincerely hope that the Bosnian criminal court does the right thing and does not lessen the punishment for Mr. Trbic.

The Attack- Women and the Bosnian War

Imagine going home on your routine drive/walk/ride home and being stopped cold by a soldier because of your religious view/ethnic background/gender. That is what happened to me in this excerpt when I was stopped by a Serbian solider and could have been killed or worse raped as was common practice during the war. Thank God, I survived but to this day this story haunts my dreams and memories. I would never wish this upon my worst enemy. This is the sad reality of what happened to most women in Bosnia during the war and we can never forget this- sexual abuse and rape are war crimes. And using women as a means of shutting a country down from the inside out is the worst possible act of war imaginable. Please read on and leave comments/questions. We need to keep people aware of this issue so that it is never forgotten!

The Attack

We never know when dangerous is lurking. The bus route to and from Topola school ran through my home village of Dubrave. One day on my way home, I decided to stop in my dear village, and pay a short visit to my sister’s and brother’s families. As I left the bus and the sound of the engine faded, I entered into a frighteningly deep silence. The cold wind brought drops of rain, and I protected my hair and ears with my scarf, set my purse strap close to my elbow, and put my hands in my coat pockets to keep them warm. The village where I was born, grew up, and now visited weekly had become a strange place. The villagers, the majority of them Muslims, peaceful and hardworking people, kept their doors always open to all guests and visitors and shared their food, now were locked in their homes. Even the houses, with blinds pulled down like cataracts over eyes, looked fearful. The evening sky was a dark gray with not a gleam of moonlight.

As I entered into brother’s home, his and sister’s families swarmed around me and we discussed recent war reports from Croatia and the events in the village (The war had already started in Croatia, which was six kilometers from Dubrave).

“Black clouds are blotting out the sun,” said Satka, referring to the war.

“It makes my flesh crawl thinking about how you are going to your home,” my brother said. “At twilight we lock our doors and become prisoners in own homes.”

“This village is the most beautiful place for me. If I were in need, all the villagers would come to my aid,” I said smiling.

As early dusk covered the village, I returned to the bus station. Serbian army trucks were moving on the road pulling strange machines behind them. Several soldiers, carrying their weapons on their shoulders, walked on the other side of the road. The strange, murky faces filled my heart with fear.

The wind played with my wet scarf and brought with it the frightening chatter of rifle shots in the distance, so I did not hear the soldier’s steps until he was just three meters from me. The air around him reeked of alcohol. I stepped down from the sidewalk and looked at the brown grass trampled by human feet in front of me, hoping that he would pass. He made a few steps, stopped just in front of me, and asked in a heavy Serbian accent, “Do you know where the community office is?”

I glanced at that tall dark stranger, with his, broad, willow-colored face, his locks of brown hair sticking out from beneath his uniform hat and spilling down his forehead, and his sullen, bleary eyes. I was confused and thought: Why is he asking about the office? He must know that all government offices are open from seven in the morning until three in the afternoon. Does he want to know if I am from this Muslim village? What to do? I took two steps away from him. If I answer him perhaps he will leave me alone. My eyes were glued to the rifle on his shoulder and I said, “The community office is in the old school building. Turn left and a few hundred meters down the road you’ll see the school. The office is on the first floor.”

I was silent, waiting for him to follow my directions, but he did not move. His unwelcoming presence created a whirl inside me and my heart beat faster. An approaching car shed light on him and I noticed that his face was creased, but not wrinkled. He could have been a few years older than my daughter. He frightened me with his bulging eyes and his strange face. I tied my scarf thinking: Why did you come here from Serbia? Go home and live a peaceful life. Suddenly, he grabbed my jacket and pulled me close to him. I froze, unable to move for a moment. He bent his head and rumbled in my ear, “Are you Muslim?” I was suddenly frightened at the thought that I was in real danger, and my fear mixed with the cold paralyzed me. After a few seconds, I looked for anybody to call to for help, but the street was empty. The silence around me forced me to use my own self-defense and move his octopus hands off me.

“Listen to me. Go there.” He stretched his index finger toward a bench and huskily murmured, “Don’t be stupid. Do what I tell you to do.”

I opened my eyes wide, pushed him with my elbows, and took a few steps back. Car lights were approaching and I frantically waved both hands signaling the driver to stop. The car slowed down, but passed. “Oh, no, do not go! Take me!” I panicked and looked for any other way to get far from that soldier. He grabbed me again. His strong hands were like an iron grip on my shoulders. The cold rifle touched my face. “Are you crazy? If you don’t go there immediately, I’ll kill you! Do you hear me? I’ll kill you!” He looked like a monster. The alcohol in his body made him unstable and I seized an opportunity, pushed him hard, and ran. You can kill me, but you cannot make me feel awkward or embarrassed. I will not let you make my soul or my body dirty. I did not come to your country, you came to my village to wreak havoc. Every muscle in my body stiffened, expecting a bullet from his machine gun, but I ran. My whole body was numb, but I still ran. I could feel him aiming at me but I could not bring myself to look back.

I searched for any protection, any word or act, to survive. God be praised, at that moment I saw a car coming in my direction; its high-beamed headlights picking me out of the darkness.

When I recognized the taxi sign on the top of the approaching car, I ran into the middle of the street and waved both hands. Dear God, please stop this car before a bullet comes, please, please! Protect my body from those hands! The tires squealed, the taxi stopped, and the driver opened the door.

“Take me! Take me, please!” I pleaded, jumping into the car. I closed the door and the car moved. “Go! Go! Hurry up! He is going to kill me!” I covered my ears with my hands, lowered my head below the window, feeling more like a culprit than a potential victim and shaking with fear. The driver glanced back at me and said, “What happened? Who wants to kill you?”

“The soldier, the soldier was there,” I hesitated looking at my still-trembling hands, “I was ready to be hit by your taxi rather than fall into his hands again.” Even after a short break, I found it hard to explain what had happened. My lips were glued to my teeth and my tongue barely moved. Cold sweat covered my shivering body. I felt a terrible headache come on and I became quiet.

When I realized that we were far enough from the bullet, I began to breathe more slowly and thanked the driver.

“Tell me your address and I’ll drive you home.”

The driver walked me to the front door and talked to Husein. Husein frowned and I felt his trembling hand on my shoulder. I noticed Samir’s watery green eyes and tears slid down my face. I hugged my son tightly and my sobbing penetrated the quiet air of our neighborhood.

When our neighbors, Mina, her husband Nijaz, and her father Mehmed saw the taxi in front of our home, they came running across the yard to our front door. I explained the event through my tears and the entire room was filled with our sobs.

Mehmed looked at the rug in front of him, and as said with a shaking chin, “I cannot see a future for us here. The Serbs want to kill us or expel us from our own country and take our belongings. That is their goal.” He dried his face. “I saw several buses in front of the Gymnasia with big signs reading, “CHETNIKS.” We know who chetniks are and what they did during the last war. Who called them to come here?”

Nana patted my shoulder gently. “You are lucky, Aisa. God protected you from death today for reasons that only He knows. We all know that Aisa would help, share her food, and give the blouse off her back to anyone who asked.”

“We have to go from here as soon as possible.” Mina said as she paced the room. “I cannot imagine what could have happened if one of my daughters was there today. It is better to go than wait for a tragedy.”

Nijaz’s face reddened, anger flashed in his eyes, and he raised his voice, “It is not easy to leave everything we worked all these years to build. Leave it for the Chetniks and go homeless to an unknown country.”

Mina shook her husband shoulder. “If the Chetniks kill me or any of you, what do material things matter to me? Now is the time to protect our lives, nothing more.” She lowered her voice and continued, “Aisa and Husein are blessed; their daughter is in a safe place.”

“You can report him,” said Mehmed, “but I am sure they won’t lift a finger about it. They wouldn’t do anything if he had killed you.”

My stomach ached and pain hammered my head. Samir, still only 12 years old, sat next to me. He put his head on his knees and hugged his legs. While touching my fingers, his twinkling, green eyes came nearer, and he asked, “Mommy, why did the soldier want to kill you? What did you do wrong? How can I help you?”

“He was drunk. He did not know what he was doing,” I said softly, thinking what a tender heart my son had. “I am constantly asking God to protect us. The soldier couldn’t use his rifle at that moment because God protected me”.

I couldn’t sleep that night, and when the house was quiet while my family slept, I sat on a chair and lifted a blind. As moonlight illuminated the diplomas and the jewelry on my dresser, I thought how, in the blink of an eye, all of that could lose its value. A hush filled my soul as I thought of the village cemetery across from the mosque. Tonight, except for God’s protection and courageous of a taxi driver, my soul and my body could be in a totally different place right now.

Paklenik Massacre

BiH News Platform

Paklenik massacre exhumation 31.8.2000

On 29th of October Bosnian State Court in Sarajevo found Predrag Milisavljević and Miloš Pantelić, two members of the Reserve Police within the Public Security Station in Višegrad guilty of murder. The two men were sentenced to 20 years in prison for the execution of 48 Bosniak civilians from Višegrad in June 1992.

According to the  indictment against the two men and a third one, Ljubomir Tasić (who was acquitted) they took part in a systematic attack by VRS (Army of the Republika Srpska), Bosnian Serb police forces and paramilitary formations directed against the Bosniak civilian population of Višegrad from April to June of 1992. The indictment said that during that period the men accused took part in the persecution of the Muslim (Bosniak) population of Višegrad; “on ethnic and religious grounds by way of undertaking: killings, forcible transfer of population, imprisonment, torture, coercing another…

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Targeting our House

This passage was probably one of the scariest events in my life. Our house in Bosnia was literally a target during the war. Thank God that my son and I and mother-in-law survived it to tell the story today. It is also a story of how neighbors can come together and help- and who your true friends and supporters are when situations like these happen. I am forever grateful to Allah and my family for being alive and having survived the war but believe that we need to talk about these scary moments as painful as it may be to relieve them. No one should ever have to go through their house being purposely targeted. Absolutely no one. Please read on and as always, comments are appreciated!

Our House Is a Target

Many wars are fought for resources, but this war was robbery on the state level. Individuals tried to plunder as much as possible for their own gain. At the end of June 1994, I was coming home from work one day when I noticed that Cvijeta was standing in the shade of Mina’s house. The garden in front of her looked beautiful, blessed the previous night with a soaking rain. Mina’s pink, red and yellow roses decorated the fence, giving it a heavenly appearance. I sighed, thinking of how much Mina tended and loved her flowers.

Cvijeta motioned for me to come close to the fence and whispered, “I have been waiting for you. Two men were looking for you this morning. When they couldn’t find you, they came to my house and asked about you and your family and your house. They surprised me with all the information they had about your family. The younger of the two was very angry, even rude. He wants to take your house away from you for himself and his family. I told them that you have a job and you don’t plan to go anywhere. I defended you as much as I was able, but it didn’t work very well. For everything I said, he had his answer, and in the end, I don’t know how to protect you.” She blinked several times and looked at my house.

I understood that both of us had the same goal: to save the house. I thanked Cvijeta for her help and entered my home with an uneasy feeling. Samir gave me more details about the visitors’ appearance. “One of them was in uniform and looked like Djuradj, the soldier who took our wheat. He was young, tall, and strong. He had a rifle and two grenades. The second man was much older and looked like the soldier’s father. He was short, and didn’t carry any weapons,” said Samir.

I told Samir that God was protecting us and the men couldn’t hurt us. I took a basket and went to the garden to pick vegetables for lunch. As I touched a golden pepper, a deep male voice startled me, “Hello Mrs. Softic!”

I raised my head and recognized the two men from Samir’s descriptions. They were standing under the apple tree shade, a few yards from me. The young man looked irritated with his tanned face and large brown eyes. Oily black hair covered his forehead. An obnoxious odor filled the entire garden. In his military boots, and fully armed, he looked like he was coming from a battle. The older man fixed his silver hair and tucked in his clean summer shirt.

“When are you leaving, Mrs. Softic? Tonight I am moving into your house with my family,” said the soldier. The apple tree leaves moved above his head, seemingly from the strength of his voice. .

“I am here in my house, and I am not leaving,” I said searching carefully for every word. “If you don’t have a place for your family, you can come to my house. We have enough rooms for my family and yours,” I said, thoroughly frightened but looking them both in the eyes.

The soldier frowned. He moved the hair from his forehead, cleared his throat, and asked, “Where is your husband? Why didn’t he go to fight for his home and his family? You have to leave this house. I need it for my family.”

“I have my mother-in-law with me. She is sick, old, and unable to walk. I cannot carry her,” I said softly and walked towards the house.

“Why did your husband leave his mother here? Does he expect that we will take care of his mother? It is ridiculous!” He paused, looked at the house, and said, “I don’t care. I am coming tonight. The house must be empty! Did you hear me? The house must be empty!” The entire neighborhood echoed, “Empty, empty, empty!”

The soldier led the way from the garden to the front door, the old man trailing after like his shadow. I tight to my basket to muffle the sound of my beating heart. As we walked along the side of the house the thought came to me that if the soldier took our house, perhaps Nana, Samir and I could live in the unfinished basement. But after a few steps my brain rejected it. This is my land, my house, my life. I am not moving anywhere. I became strong as stone. But I have to do something now, something quickly, to change the soldier’s mind. Tonight it will be too late. Fighting is not an option for me. I have to do it with kindness.

“Come into the house to meet my mother-in-law,” I said kindly, and opened the door. They followed me. Nana was lying on the sofa. She looked like a dead person with her closed eyes and wrinkled yellow skin. Her breathing, mumbling Arabic words, and deep sighs from time to time were her only vital signs.

“Have a seat. I am going to make coffee for you,” I said, moving the chairs toward them.

“No, thank you,” the soldier said and walked backwards from my living room, keeping his eyes on Nana’s face. It looked like Nana had hypnotized him. As he bumped into the hallway wall, he said, “Okay, I am going to search for another house. If I can’t find one, I am coming back here tonight.” His voice mellowed and he kept staring at Nana.

“It is fine. I’ll be here with my family.” I spoke as though my words were my final decision.

As they left, I sighed. How many of these visitors was I going to host? I cannot disappear from my house. I cannot do it; at least I cannot do it now. Is he really coming tonight with his family? I offered him half of my house, but he refused. He wants the whole house. What arrogance!

I became twitchy; my ears, like antennas, reacting to every sound in or around the house. As the night progressed I couldn’t relax, thinking about how hard we had worked building our house and how much love we had put into it. I went to the balcony, sat down, placed a few pillows behind my back, covered myself with a blanket, and let the memories swirl.

The House ????

In the spring of 1977, Husein and I drew up a plan for our home. We went to Split, a city in, and bought a full truck of cement. We invited many people from Orahova and Dubrave to help us build the foundation. My sister and I cooked tirelessly from sunup to sundown the day before the foundation was laid, so there would be enough food to feed the 50 or so people who were going to help us. While a huge pot of cabbage rolls was sizzling on the wood stove, we made 70 pitas, as well as several cakes, and many loaves of bread. Both the electric and the wood stoves were kept busy until the sun set.

As soon as Dervisha went home to rest after our marathon day of cooking, and my family went to sleep, I prayed: for a strong house filled with prosperous lives.

Early in the morning on April 23, the ground on which our house would rise looked like a beehive, and the 50 people who came to help literally worked like bees. The builders measured and marked the land, some workers shoveled, nailed boards, put wires and steel rods in their proper places, mixed water, gravel and cement, and poured the foundation. Our old friend Ramo ritually killed a lamb, in God’s name, in the appointed corner of the house foundation and later roasted it for lunch. Mina opened her summer kitchen, rolled up her sleeves, and helped us to warm up food, serve it, and wash dishes.

At noon, a gentle wind brought soft music and the sound of the speeches and applause from the town’s freedom ceremony, the day the town was liberated from Nazi occupation. Not long before sunset, the sun’s rays gently touched our foundation, urging us all to end our labor, pick up our tools and belongings, and return to our homes. From the bottom of our hearts, Husein and I thanked all the people who helped us.

A few days after the foundation was finished, my mother and my brother, Alija, decided to make bricks for half of our house. “Please accept our gift. We will make bricks from your father’s and grandfather’s field. We hope the bricks will keep you happy, warm and dry for as long as you live in the home you are building,” said Mother as happiness sparkled from her blue eyes.

“And it will save you money as well,” Alija smiled. My brother worked hard. He made, dried, and baked 12,000 beautiful good bricks.

During my school’s summer break, we built the first floor. I made food for all of the workers. Every day I woke up a few minutes after four o’clock in the morning to make and bake pita or other food, and two hours later I was ready to travel with Husein to the site of our house. I stayed there to help our builders as Husein went to work at the hospital. I carried the bricks with eagerness. If we were shorthanded, I carried heavy buckets filled with the cement or sand. I ran to a store for additional materials and whatever else was needed.

Husein’s mother reminded us to feed and pay the workers well. “God rewards with His blessings those who treat others with fairness and justice,” she said.

We were ready for the final roof work. According to custom, the workers nailed a big branch on top of the uncovered roof and hung presents for the workmen. The chief builder, Selim, blessed the donors loudly from the top of the house. As I gave out the presents, Selim shouted as loudly as possible, “Dear God, give good health and a good life to Husein Softic and his family and elderly mother. Bestow happiness on them in this house. Let Husein perform the pilgrimage to Mecca with his wife. Guide their children on the straight path. Let all of them live life with Your satisfaction. Amen!”

By afternoon, the branch looked like a Christmas tree. While we were placing tiles on the roof, Selim softly sang old folk songs. I liked one that told the story of building a castle with songs instead of stones, and I said, “I’d be glad to live in a castle made from songs. I imagine life would be pleasant there.”

“We can finish your roof singing our best songs,” said Mina as she hummed her favorite song. We all sang with her. A young worker, Sabro Shibic, chose the song about a rich young man who wanted to marry a poor girl. His father objected, but the son explained that he loved the girl more than all of his father’s gold.

Even though none of us had sung together before, we were in unison and in great harmony with all of the songs.

The neighbors heard our singing and brought two pots of coffee, along with milk, sugar, and cookies. We sat in a circle and enjoyed our refreshments. Selim said, “A good marriage is heaven on earth, better than all of the castles and all of the gold. Material things are more for showing off and provoking jealousy. Empty hearts can only be fulfilled with pure love. Love is medicine for the heart.”

From the roof, the center of the town looked closer to our home. The sun was shining on the leaves, giving them a gold-like appearance. The Sava River, wide and muddy, moved slowly and gently touched its banks. A huge bridge, named Brotherhood and Harmony, connected Bosnia to Croatia. The two mosques with their tall white minarets and the two churches looked peaceful on the right side of the shore.

Selim put the final roof tile in place and said, “The roof is finished. The house has its blanket.” He came down and looked at the house from the street. “This house is strong enough to protect and keep safe and warm not only you and your children, but also your grandchildren. Why does every generation need to build a house?”

As I looked admiringly at our house, Hedo, the roof builder, came close to me and said softly, “The house looks like a castle. You are lucky. You are young and your house is almost built. You do not need to worry about where to live in your old age.”

Husein returned and remarked that the house was too big, but that the second floor would provide plenty of space for our children. “We don’t know what challenges they will face,” he said, “but having a place to live will certainly ease their lives, regardless what the future has in store for them

“Is there a Mrs. Kukavica?” asked the unfamiliar voice of a woman.

“You have the wrong number,” I replied ready to finish the conversation.

“Wait, wait. I have the correct number. Is this the house where the Softic family lived?” the woman asked.

“My name is Aisa Softic, and I live in my house,” I made it clear.

“Oh, Mrs. Softic, your house belongs to the Kukavica family. They must be there already, but it is not important now. I have sad news for Mrs. Kukavica. The Muslims killed her brother today in fighting on Mount Igman. I am calling from Germany to inform my sister of what happened. I am sorry for the late call, but I just heard the tragic news a few minutes ago.”

“I don’t know how I can help you. I don’t know Mrs. Kukavica.”

“She’ll be at the house at any moment. Please inform her of the tragedy, will you?”

“If she comes I’ll inform her.” I finished the conversation and walked to the bedroom.

I walked only a few steps when the phone rang again.

Who is calling now? I don’t know how I am going to survive tonight. Who is the Kukavica family? Are they coming tonight? Did Muslim soldiers really kill her brother? Is this all a game and lies? I looked out at the dark, scary night. Is the soldier who visited me today coming tonight with his family as well?

I was angry, scared, and tired, but I picked up receiver. “I am calling from Serbia. Our brother died today. Muslims killed him. Oh, is my poor sister there?” cried a different woman’s voice.

“I am sorry for you loss, but your sister is not here and I have never met her. I don’t know how to help you,” I said and my blood boiled. The calls smelled of foul play. As she thanked me I disconnected the telephone. I walked for a few minutes, and when my legs became heavy, I sat on my bed, leaned on the wall, and put my painful head on my knees.

The sleepless night left me with a terrible headache. I walked to work rather than riding my bicycle, hoping that fresh air would help. Just as I reached the office two people, a middle aged man and a young woman approached me. They looked like father and daughter, based on their ages. The woman moved closer and said kindly, “My name is Nada. I knew you when you were the principal of the high school.” She paused. “This gentleman is my cousin Milan. He came from Visoko, and he wants to talk to you about trading houses.”

“Trading houses? I don’t want to trade my house,” I said.

“You are right,” Milan said. “Nobody wants to leave his or her home. I didn’t want to come here, but I didn’t have a choice. May we come to your house to talk a little bit? I have many pictures and I want to show them to you.”

“You can come, but I cannot make any promises,” I said, walking toward the office.

“We will give you enough time to consider it. We don’t want to pressure you. Trading houses is a big decision, but let’s talk about that possibility.” He paused. “What would be a good time to come?” the man asked smiling.

“Can you come tomorrow?” I paused in front of the Merhamet.

“Today is better for us. Tomorrow I am busy,” said Nada, moving her eyebrows towards each other.

“Okay, today at four,” I said giving me some time to rest.

“Four o’clock is fine,” said the man, but he didn’t even ask where my house was.

After work, I took a nap. A knock on the front door at five minutes after four o’clock, reminded me that I had visitors. I stood up and realized that my headache had almost disappeared

“You have a nice, pleasant house. How do you keep cool air inside?” Nada asked, looking all around.

“The house has insulation,” I said. “I open a window early in the morning and let the cool night air in.” I poured fresh coffee into the cups.

“You will never be hot in my house,” said Milan “Trees shade the house throughout day.” He opened a big envelope, took his glasses out, and pulled out the pictures.

The one-story house looked fine, but I looked at the pictures to be polite.

“Your house has two floors, but look at the buildings around my house. I have a summer kitchen, a smoke house, a place for wood, a separate garage, and a well. Look at the well. Of course we have water in the house, but in summer we drink fresh cold water from the well. On our entire street, only we have a well. It is a real asset to have a well in your yard. It’s worth more than some houses. All our neighbors come to drink our water.” He paused.

I looked at his face and happiness sparkled from his eyes.

“All of that richness can now be yours.” He placed the pictures on the table in front of us and sipped coffee. He didn’t wait for my answer and he continued, “My wife is there, waiting for you to come. She is doing there exactly what you are doing here. We are smart. We don’t want to lose our houses. Look at this war, look at this stupidity. People are moving like flies, leaving their properties, saving their lives. What would it be like to be homeless?” He became quiet, waiting for my answer as a measure of the quality of his speech.

“You spent time and a great effort to keep all those buildings in good shape. It looks nice,” I said picking up my cup of cup of steaming coffee. “But I don’t know anybody in your town, I’ve never been there…” I paused. “I don’t want to leave my home.”

Milan frowned, his eyes looked somewhere far away, and he stood up. He came close to me, and, leaning on the table, he almost whispered, “You need to be very careful. Those soldiers want houses too. Some of them have never had their own houses. They see war as an opportunity to become rich. It is true what our Nobel Prize winner, the writer Ivo Andrich, said, ‘There comes a time when smart people become quiet, the unwise open their mouths, and the homeless become rich.’” He stopped, took a handkerchief from his pocket and dried his face.

He looked at me and because he couldn’t see excitement on my face, he continued louder, “Nobody asked us about the war, but we are paying the consequences with our lives and our properties. We don’t want to trade our house, but the politicians decided to divide Bosnia into three parts. People must live with their own people or be killed.” He stood up and walked across the room, lowering his voice. “I am not telling you all this to make you frightened or bitter, or make you hate other people. I want to help you and me to save our properties through this terrible war.”

I couldn’t move, couldn’t talk. He really wants my house, I thought. He is making me nervous, and there is something unsettling about him. This is ethnic cleansing. He would move in here to live in a ‘clean’ Serb Republic, with no Muslims here. By trading houses with him, I am helping him to accomplish his goal. How would I make it to Sarajevo’s suburbs alive? The whole of Bosnia is under Serbian occupation except for the big cities, and there are established front lines. How would I cross the no man’s land to get into Visoko? I am sure that nobody asked him to leave his home. He came here of his own free will to join in this ethnic cleansing.

He read my thoughts, came back to sit, and said in a soft voice, “I liked my town and had a good life there. It is only 40 minutes from Sarajevo. Your children could travel to college from home. You could save on their education. You and your husband would find jobs immediately. With my good house, among your own people, I guarantee you would have a good life.”

“My people are here. I’ve never been to Visoko and I don’t know anybody there,” I said.

“Don’t worry. You’ll thank me. We can find an attorney and make our changes official. You can go there and my wife can come here.” Milan’s gaze moved through my house as he spoke, fixing his eyes on the garden, and a happy smile covered his face. We exchanged telephone numbers and I promised to call him if my husband allowed me to trade the house.

As they left the house some pressure disappeared, but I still didn’t feel comfortable.

The next day I met Milan in front of the Merhamet and informed him that Husein wasn’t ready to trade houses. All the happiness disappeared from his face. “Talk to your husband again and explain that a soldier can destroy your house, take all your property, and push you out at any time,” he said in a demanding voice.

For two weeks I had no visits from soldiers and no late night telephone calls, but the silence wasn’t peaceful. I couldn’t relax, wondering what the next dawn would bring with its light. The peaceful life was far away. I bought wood for the winter, and Samir and I stored it on the back balcony. The wood was heavy and I was concerned that the balcony might collapse.

On the first Wednesday in September the weather, except for a cool morning, was very summer-like. I was busy all day working in the yard. As the sun slowly sank in the west, I completed my day’s work by placing red pepper, onion, cabbage and tomato seeds in marked paper bags, wondering as I worked who would be planting them in the spring.

As night covered the town with its dark blanket, I checked and locked all our doors and windows and stepped out onto the back balcony to enjoy the twilight and breathe in the fresh evening air. Even the weapons seemed to take a break and allow themselves to be replaced by the soft sound of distant accordion music. As I pushed my hair behind my ears to hear better, I heard a familiar song that brought back happy memories of proms, weddings and parties. Ah, those were good times, wonderful memories, I thought to myself. A new crescent moon was sailing on the sky like a boat on an ocean. The stars glittered and immersed my heart in deep silence.

Is this war helping us draw closer to God, to clean our hearts, to realign our lives? After searching for the answers, I walked down to the sink, filled a pitcher with fresh water and returned outside to make ablution. A soft breeze was gently moving the leaves on the nearby apple tree, and flowers in the garden spread a pleasant scent all around me. I sat on a smooth stone, enjoying my beautiful magic-like surroundings. I prayed to God to forgive my sins and allow me to clean my body and my soul from all wrong things, everything that God does not like. I asked Him to protect me from inappropriate listening, seeing, communicating, and everything that was not good for me. I asked Him to help me be one of His good servants who does not feel fear or sorrow. I thanked Him for the clean water that He granted us, water to drink when we are thirsty and cleanse our bodies when we are dirty. I washed my mouth and I asked God to help me use good words and keep my mouth closed when I needed to listen, reflect and absorb. I cleaned my nose and asked God to help me to recognize the smell of paradise and protect me from hell’s fire. I washed my face and prayed that God would give His light to my face just as He would give it to those dear to Him on the Day of Judgment. Clean drops of water rolled down my right forearm like pearls as I asked God to give me the book of my good deeds in my right hand and help me to pass my test on Judgment Day. I touched my hair with my wet right hand and prayed to God to help me enter paradise with His mercy. When I washed my ears I asked God to help me be one of His good servants who always listens to His words and follows them. I touched the back of my neck with my wet hand and prayed that God would free me from hell fire. I soaked my feet in water and while washing them asked God to forgive my sins. Fresh water cleaned my body and took the burden from my shoulders. My prayers helped me regain peace in my heart and I went inside and to bed.

At two in the morning a loud explosion shook the house.  Oh, my God! What happened? Did the whole house collapse? Did Samir and Nana survive? Is another explosion coming? Where should I go?

An icy fear seized me and chilled me to the very marrow of my bones. In the next instant I heard Samir’s voice. Oh, thank God, he is live. I opened the door and crawled to his room. He was sitting on the bed in utter shock; his eyes were open but he was disoriented. I hugged him and helped him to sit on a blanket on the floor. The broken pieces of glass from his bedroom window were still falling out of the window frame. “Mom, what happened? Was that thunder or an earthquake? It shook my bed and woke me up.” Samir was moving his terrified eyes from the broken glass to my face.

“I don’t know. I don’t think it was thunder,” I paused. “There is no wind or rain,” I whispered. A breeze was coming in through the broken window and played with the curtain.

“This room isn’t safe,” I said. “Let’s move to the hallway.” I took Samir’s hand and walked. Once in the hallway, Samir lay down on his blanket.

The idea of checking on Nana stopped my hand from touching her doorknob. What if she had been killed? I waited for a minute, opened her bedroom door slightly, and peered inside. Nana lay motionless on her bed. Is she alive? My heart pounded. I came closer to her bed and noticed that her yellow and green striped blanket had a shallow, but regular up-and-down movement. I let out a sigh of relief. Sometimes it’s good to be deaf, I thought to myself as I glanced at her unbroken windows.

I couldn’t hear our dog. Oh poor dog, she must be dead.

I shivered at the thought that a second bomb might be coming. I looked around, but there was nowhere to hide. I picked up the telephone and struggled to dial the police station. I introduced myself and in a trembling voice reported that a bomb or explosive damaged our house. “Three of us are here.”

A policeman’s voice interrupted me. “Wait, wait! Would you feel better if I told you that a Serb house was burned tonight?” he said and hung up on me. I couldn’t control my fear and anger any more. I threw an empty Coca Cola bottle through the broken window and threw another at the wall. I walked to the TV to grab it and throw it, but my brain finally took hold of my anger, and I stopped. “He didn’t even ask if there were casualties!” I shouted at no one. “He didn’t care if anyone was killed.” I gazed through the broken window into the dark, indifferent night. A frightening, deep silence, worse than any sound, chilled me. My head felt like it was coming apart, and beads of perspirations covered my forehead. My shoulders didn’t have any strength and my heart was pounding so hard that my whole body was trembling. I sat in the hallway close to Samir, and pressed my back hard against the wall.

After a few seconds I realized that my family had survived, and I became thankful. Dear God, thank you for saving my family tonight. Samir was so close; I do not want to imagine the catastrophe that could have happened. All material things are replaceable. Thank you. My heart softened and tears accompanied my prayers.

I remembered my neighbor Ljubica; she offered to shelter us during the nights. It was three in the morning I hesitantly called her. Her alert voice surprised me. “Thank you for calling. The explosion woke me up too. I was pretty sure it had come from your house and I couldn’t sleep,” she paused. “Don’t go outside now. Close all your doors and wait in your hallway until dawn. Pray! I will pray for you too. I am sure God will answer our prayers and protect your family. There is no change or power except by the will of God.”

Her words took about half of my burden away. I sighed, thinking how much of a blessing it was to have a good neighbor. With the window broken, a moist chill spread through the night, and I covered myself with two warm blankets. Suddenly, the barking of our dog moved my heart to beat faster and filled me with happiness. Our dog is alive! She is alive! Thank God for saving her.

I ran upstairs and looked to east, where the sky was turning to pink and gold. The sun rose slowly behind the forests and fields, which still rested in the foggy morning twilight. All the clouds sparkled with astounding light! But below me, there was an ugly hole in the garage wall. I rubbed my eyes, looked around, and noticed the broken stones and glass in front of the garage and on the steps. I walked through the hallway, and opened the front door inch by inch, fearing another explosion. I didn’t see anything suspicious, so I opened the door wide. The instant the dog saw me; she jumped from her dog house under the balcony, ran to me, and licked my hand, all the while wagging her tail. It was a wonderful embrace.

The garage door was covered like a sieve with the small holes, and the windows and the first and the second floor were broken out. I looked at all the damage and shook my head. Just then I heard Ljubica’s quick steps. She looked at the hole and said, “Somebody who wants your house caused this explosion. He wants to save the house but scare you out of it. He could just as easy have destroyed the house and killed all three of you if he had wanted to.”

It must be Milan, I thought.   I am almost sure. He wanted our house so badly. The fire of anger inflamed my face. My throat choked and I became quiet for a second.

Many people came to see me, and their hugs and tears were more beautiful than words. Some of them brought food for my family. Before sunset a few of them came with thick plastic sheets and nails and covered our broken windows. They also helped me clean up the broken glass in and around the house.

Part 2 of Teacher Evaluations

Happy Friday readers! As promised here is part two of my chapter about teacher evaluations at the school in Bosnia that I was teaching at during the war. Let me know your thoughts!

Group C

All the unpleasantness of that school year and all the negative energy it generated wore me down. Over summer break, I spent time with my family. I worked in my gardens, chards and fields. These activities restored my spirits and my energy.

In mid-July, on a trip downtown, I happened to meet Sherifa, a fellow teacher.

She asked me immediately, “Did you hear about our evaluations?” her smile disappearing as she spoke.

I shook my head. “No. Where are you and I ranked?”

“We are in Group C, the lowest group we can be in and keep our job, just above professors Haskovic and Kozarcanin, the only two in Group F. All those drunks are in groups A and B. Even the professor who has been accused of a sexual relationship with a student has been rated above us.” As she became angry, she started spiking faster and louder. “I feel like ruptures in my skin, painful whenever I move.”

Suddenly I felt her pane. “Why didn’t the principal contact me with this information? Where is the list?”

“The list is somewhere in the school,” she said pausing for a moment. “Go to the school and ask the principal where it is, that you want to see it.

I was dumbstruck by the information, and for a few seconds I forgot where I was. I was even unaware of the July heat that was beating down on us.  I headed straight to the school and went directly to the principal’s office. I had to see the list with my own eyes.  Our principal was the only other Muslim besides the four lowest rated teachers.

“I heard that the evaluation list is finished,” I said with an edge of anger in my voice.  “I want to see where I rank.”

“I do not know where the list is,” he said, glancing up from his desk. “A teacher’s place on the list is not important, and will not have any effect on your job or salary.” He was uneasy as he spoke, and immediately looked down and began shuffling papers around on his desk.

“My place on the list is important to me,” I said, my emotional level rising and beginning to fuel my anger. “I heard that I am in Group C, just above professors Haskovic and Kozarcanin. How did I end up there? What is it about my teaching that caused you to rank me so low?”

I felt an ocean of rage coming from his eyes and washing across his desk toward me, but strangely, having stood up to him, I was unperturbed.  Truth was on my side.

He, on the other hand, completely lost control of his temper. “You have no appreciation for the fact that you have a job!” he screamed. “We couldn’t put all the teachers in Group A. And anyway, we are all capable of improving our performances. What difference does it make if you are evaluated on a par with Professors Haskovic and Kozarcanin?” By this time his face was red, the sweat was running down from his forehead, and there was spittle at the corners of his mouth.

“I don’t support my country’s enemies,” I said, defending myself.

At that he opened his eyes wide, came around the desk to me and said almost in a whisper, “Remember, those two professors did not support any enemies either. Our enemies are in this town and in this school. Go home and be thankful that you even have a job.”

He returned to his desk, sat down again, and went back to shuffling his paperwork, dismissing me without the courtesy of a single word.

I was shocked. His words struck me as both odd and incomprehensible. My principal, a man I had worked with and respected, had disappeared. In his place was a diminished man I didn’t recognize, sitting in a chair behind a desk. The chair, it occurred to me, was fitted with wheels that the wind could blow in any direction. Just now, I thought, the wind was blowing him in the direction of self-preservation.

For the first time in my 14 years of teaching, I did not want to come back to work at the end of the summer. I wanted to be home and remain there with my family, my gardens, my orchards and my fields.  The only bright spot was my students; young people I respected and trusted. With them I had built a special bond.

Coming to America- A Short Trip

I had sent Aida, my oldest daughter, off to America during the war. I wanted her to survive and we had a chance to send her to become educated there and I took that opportunity to do so. I missed her terribly, but of course I still had Samir my son with me. This excerpt is three years after she left and my quest to leave the country and see her- even if for a day. Any mother will understand the pain of not seeing your child. I hope you hug your children a little closer today and never take for granted that you are in each other’s lives. May God bless us all.

    The Unforgettable Trip 

I planned to go to Zagreb in Croatia with Merhamet, but I had missed the list approval deadline, and my trip to Zagreb was impossible.

Muslims couldn’t travel through Serbs territory, but the wish to see my child was greater than any obstacle in my way.  My friend, Habiba, encouraged me to find a solutions.  “Our Serb neighbors don’t have any problem traveling to Belgrade. Can you borrow an I.D. card   from one of your friends and travel to see your daughter?”

“That frightens me,” I said.  “What if police notice that the I.D. card isn’t mine?”

“They don’t look at pictures. They only read the names, and if a person has a Serbian name, there is no problem,” said Habiba. “Perhaps you could find someone who looks like you.”

“There is a lady who works in the hospital who is about my age, with green eyes and curly light brown hair. She told me that some people called her Mrs. Softic, but I don’t know her very well. I don’t know even her name.” I paused. “I am not sure that it is a good idea.”

“Is it a good idea to keep us here as though we were in a concentration camp?” asked Habiba. “Why can’t we travel like other people? Catholics are able to travel to Croatia, Serbs to Serbia. What can we do to make our trip possible, Aisa?”

Seka came in and joined our conversation. “You cannot lose anything if you ask her,” said Seka as her fingers played with her chin.

I contemplated about using a false I.D. card throughout the entire evening. One moment I saw myself caught at the border, frightened half to death as the police handcuff me and take me off to jail. The next moment I saw myself crossing the border without difficulty, hearing my daughter calling my name, feeling the hills reverberate to the sound of her voice, and looking after along three years at her beautiful face and into her sparkling blue eyes. My heart tightened with mix of anger and sadness when I looked at my name on my now useless I.D. card, the name I had always been proud, but now the name was preventing me from seeing my bellowed daughter. It seemed horrible that my name, the best present that my parents gave, had become wall separating me from my first born.

It was snowing as I walked toward the hospital, and I hunched inside my coat against the cold. As I entered the hospital, deep in thought about the I.D. card, I did not hear the noises and commotion that was going on around me. I thought about how would make my request, sighed, waited a few seconds, and then quietly knocked onto the office door.  A great block of ice settled in my stomach.

The lady opened her eyes widely when she saw me enter. “Oh Mrs. Softic, how can I help you?”

It was the perfect question. I looked around the entire office.  Glad that she was alone, I took a deep breath and said almost in a whisper, “I came to ask you to lend me your I.D. card.”

She frowned. I understood that she needed to know all the details, and, taking courage, I continued, “My daughter came to Germany from the United States. I haven’t seen her for three years. You know that I am Muslim and cannot travel anywhere. If I have your I.D. card, I’ll be able to travel to Belgrade,” I said, looking deeply into her eyes.

She sat very quietly as I spoke, and I could tell by the look on her face that my words had not softened her heart.

“I will be going alone,” I continued rapidly, my hope fading, “I will be leaving my son and ailing mother-in-law behind here in our home. I will spend only two days with my daughter. That is it.”

I looked at what was left of my hope, but she was silent, and her face had turned to stone. I knew that I had asked a great deal, but mother’s heart was heedless, seeking only the small laminated card that would open the way to meet my child. To see her again would bring me endless happiness.

“Why are you asking me? Don’t you have any friends who will help you?”

“You and I have physical similarities. I hope that I could pass the border with your picture,” I said, holding down the feeling that she didn’t want to help me.

“It is a very sensitive issue. I will have to talk to my husband,” she said as she looked down at the papers on her desk.

“It is a very sensitive, yes,” I said, desperately searching for a way to soften her heart. “If you were in my shoes, I would do it for you.” I paused.  “I don’t have any legal way to travel and meet my child. I am Muslim, a prisoner in my own homeland,” I said, ready to cry. “Our religious differences do not matter. We are mothers and only we know how much we love our children. If someone told me I had to walk on hot coals the entire 250 kilometers to Belgrade to see my daughter, I would do it without hesitation.” My tears prevented any further discussion and I turned and walked toward the door.

“I’ll inform you tomorrow what my husband decides,” she said as I left her office.

The next day, even though I knew that the woman was going to turn me down, I returned to her office to hear the words from her own mouth. As I opened her door, she immediately began shouting at me, “My husband is surprised that you could think about committing such a crime and involving me into the bargain. How dare you come to me with this request? Using a false I.D. card is a criminal act.” I closed her door and felt like a hungry child caught attempting to steal a slice of bread.

I walked home in tears. My heart was broken.  My child came from Dayton, Ohio to Frankfurt, Germany and she is ready to come from Frankfurt to Belgrade, but I cannot travel 250 kilometers from Bosanska Gradiska to Belgrade. Dear God, help me to see her sky-blue eyes, squeeze her in my hug, touch her hair, and hear her voice. Those feelings are dearer to me than any material things on earth.

At home, Habiba surprised me with the information that I could obtain a legal document from  the police that, together with my I.D. card, would allow me to travel to Belgrade with my . I looked at her suspiciously, but she was positive. She urged me to go to the police station and find out.

I went to the police station at 7 o’clock the next morning, and asked the policemen at the information desk how I could obtain the travel document that Habiba described to me.

“You need a document saying that a Muslim woman can travel through the Serbs Republic to Serbia?”

I nodded.

“I don’t know if that is possible.” He looked at me like I had come from another planet.

“Could I talk to the chief of police? He must know is it possible.”

He shook his head, but gave me the office number.

I knocked on the door that matched the office number, but when I entered I found that a secretary was stationed in front of the chief’s private office. When I told her who I was and why I had come, she narrowed her eyes and in a firm voice told me to wait in the hallway until the chief was available. I waited for about two hours. Other people came, went into the office for a few minutes, and left, apparently having been successful with their request.

By 11 o’clock, a line had formed, and I stood up and took my place at the end.

When I entered the office, the secretary yelled at me, “Why did you come in? You need to wait in the hallway. The chief is not available for you yet!”

“Other people were coming in, and I thought it must about my turn.” I mumbled.

“Your turn is when I tell you. You have to respect rules,” she screamed. I returned back to the hallway like a dog prevented from reaching his food dish.

What kind of “rules” do I have to respect? Muslims don’t have any rights in the country where we, our parents, our grandparents, and our great grandparents were born. Our rights are like dust on the floor, and we are being robbed, raped, forced from our homes, and even killed.

Tears filled my eyes when I prayed to God for self-discipline to control my reaction.   

I stood up, refreshed, and paced the hallway again.  After 2 o’clock I became nervous again. It was less than an hour until the office closed. I felt only bitterness in my mouth.

At a few minutes three o’clock the chief appeared in the hallway in his winter coat with his briefcase in his hand. He said, “My secretary is writing the document for you. Good luck!” and walked toward the stairs.

“Wait, please wait,” I walked behind him. “You mean I will be able to travel to Belgrade to see my daughter?”

“The secretary will give you all the instructions.” It was hard to separate his words from the sound of his shoes.

The secretary opened the door and gave me the signed and sealed paper with written permission to travel to Belgrade.

“Is this document sufficient to travel?” I couldn’t believe it.  Is this all real or am I dreaming? Oh, this is unbelievable! Thank God!

“This document is enough,” she said, and smiled like she was joking with me. I had the impression that she knew that something creepy was enclosed in the envelope. .

“I need to buy a travel ticket for my trip. I will call my daughter in Germany to advise her to buy a ticket for her trip to Serbia. Do you think we can do it?” I looked at her puzzled.

“Why you are asking me what you need to do? You have your life and do what you want,” she said bossily.

I went straight to the bus station and bought the ticket for the first bus from Bosanska Gradiska to Belgrade. On my way home, I stopped at Ljubica’s house and informed her about the news. She gave me a puzzled look and suggested that I hold of telling Aida to come until I had gotten across the Serbian border. Ljubica took a piece of paper and wrote down a phone number. “Slavica, my husband’s niece, lives in Bjeljina . She runs a restaurant there. Here is her number. In case you don’t passed the border, you can come back 20 kilometers, find her, and sleep in her house. Mihailo will call her.”

Aida screamed when I informed her that I have the necessary travel document and my bus ticket in my purse.

“I am going to search for the best travel connections from Bremen to Belgrade,” she said.

“I hope to see you soon in Belgrade, but don’t buy a travel ticket until I have gotten across the border,” I said.

Samir looked at me and said, “I haven’t seen my sister for three years. I’d be glad to see her too.”

“I know, but it is dangerous to travel to Belgrade this time.” I shook my head looked at my fifteen-year-old son, reluctant to admit the misgivings I still had about the success of the trip.

Nana took something covered in a magazine from beneath her pillow and gave it to me. “This towel is a gift for Aida. Tell her to use the towel to dry her hands before her prayers and to remember her Nana. I am not sure that we will see each other again in this life. Please ask her to take good care of my Husein, and give her my salaams.” Several tears rolled Nana’s face.

“Don’t worry about Samir and Nana.” My friend Seka touched my shoulder. “Habiba and I will be here entire time and we will take a good care of them. Enjoy your time with your daughter.”

I left my bed when I heard the first roosters’ calls and asked God to protect me and my daughter on our trips and keep safe the rest of my family while I was gone. The cold of the frigid December morning, combined with the thoughts of the upcoming scary trip, seemed to constrict the very flow of my blood.

The bus came on time. I took a window seat about halfway back, placed my bag on my lap, and looked quickly at the other passengers. I couldn’t recognize any of them. As I was setting myself, a young woman set down next to me in the aisle seat.

“You are traveling to Belgrade with us?” The bus driver asked looking at my ticket.

“Yes.” I answered briefly,                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        as I returned my ticket to my wallet.

“I am going to Belgrade too,” said the woman sitting next to me.

“I hope we will have a safe trip.” I didn’t want to be impolite, but I opened a book as a shield from her possible questions. I felt fortunate that she left me alone. As we passed the town of Derventa, the war showed its devastation. I sighed as I saw empty villages and destroyed houses on both sides of the road. A few dogs were scavenging through the debris, and I noticed an oak tree that hosted several crows.

Suddenly, the bus stopped.  Soldiers crowded on board, filled every empty seat and the aisle. The entire bus now smelled like a pub. Frightened by their presence and their weapons, I crouched against my window, making myself as small as possible. I looked at my book again, but couldn’t read even a sentence.  After about seven hours of riding, the bus finally stopped in front of a new house with a restaurant in it. The driver announced a 30- minute break.

The other passengers went into the restaurant to eat, but I was too nervous and walked off a little ways to be alone with my thoughts. The lady who had sat beside me on the bus, who had brought her own sandwich, joined me. “We are almost in Serbia,” she said. “We have only 40 more kilometers until the border.”

When she mentioned the border, my heart skipped a beat, and I found myself unable to speak.

“Why are you going to Serbia? She asked.

“I want to see my daughter.” I sighed.

She came closer to me and asked softly, “Are you Muslim?”

Her question surprised me. I waited a little bit, looked around, and half-whispered, “Yes, I am Muslim.”

“I assumed.” She smiled.  “As the soldiers entered the bus, your hands trembled and when we passed all those destroyed villages, I noticed tears in your eyes.”

We were quiet for a moment. “I have a document from our police, but I am frightened. I am not sure that the police will let me pass the checkpoint.”

“I trusted the news reports broadcasted in Serbia that the Muslims in Bosnia were causing all the trouble for themselves in order to gain the world’s attention. Then I spent ten days in the Serbs Republic, and what I saw changed my mind.” She looked at the frozen grass in front of her. “During those days, I was ashamed of what the Serbs soldiers were doing.”

“I cannot think about this dark past right now,” I said. “My fear is about what is going to happen at the checkpoint.”

“I am sure that your police know what kind of documents you need in order to pass the checkpoint.”

Suddenly, my empty stomach growled with a stabbing pain. I bent double, unable to move. The passengers were coming back to the bus. My newfound friend offered help, but I motioned for her to return to the bus. My pain subsided a bit and I followed the passengers.  I put my coat on my lap and placed both sleeves around my stomach. The pain soared again, and I grimaced.

After about forty minutes, the bus stopped again. The driver stood up and said, “We are at the Serbian border. Have your I.D. cards ready. I hope we will continue our trip soon.” He opened the bus door and two policemen came in.

“I. D. cards please,” said one of them as he began to look at the cards on my side of the bus. My hands were trembling, but I pulled out my I.D. card and the special Muslim travel document. Everybody was quiet until he looked at my card. “You are Aisa Softic!” He gazed down at me. “Go to the office!” His strong, angry, bull-like voice rose and paralyzed me. I couldn’t move.

“I have the d-d-document. You d-d-didn’t see it,” I mumbled.

“Go to the office! Did you hear me!” The policeman frowned.

I stood up, but I couldn’t stop my legs from shaking. I put the coat on my shoulders, picked up my bag and purse, and headed slowly toward the bus door. As I was passing the driver he asked me, “Did you take all your belongings with you?”

I nodded and left the bus. I was the only passenger who was taken off the bus. As the policemen stepped down, the door closed, and the bus began to move away from where we stood. The distance between me and the bus became larger and larger until the bus passed the checkpoint and crossed the river Drina into Serbia. As the bus slowly disappeared, my hope and excitement at the possibility of seeing my daughter vanished. I was standing and staring as if I were in a dream.

“Come on! Why are you standing there like a statue? Move! Another bus is coming!” a policeman yelled.

I sighed deeply and walked toward the office like a robot. The policeman who checked my I.D. card was standing behind a desk. An older policeman was sitting in a corner.

“I thought that our Republic was clear now, but look; some Muslims are still there! How do you dare come here? Look at where you came from! What do you want?”

My legs were quaking, and I could barely remain standing against the force of his shouting.

“I want to go to Belgrade. I have a document from our police,” I said and placed the paper on the desk in front of him.

He took my document, crumpled it, and threw it in the trash can.

I couldn’t keep silent any more. “I waited for that paper an entire day! I only want to see my daughter!” I was hardly able to contain my anger and my pain, but I did not feel fear anymore.

The older policemen came over to me. “Go to Bjeljina police tomorrow. They need to call us and announce that you are coming with their permission. The police know what they need to do to make possible for you to cross the border.”

I sighed again, dried my face, and I left the office. The sun had disappeared, leaving a gentle ribbon of light on the horizon. The bridge over the Drina River looked cold, sad, and distant.  The other side of the river was so close-a few minutes walking distance-but in this complicated, war-torn part of the world so very, very far.  A cold breeze chilled my face and brought the sad sound of the flowing Drina River to my ears- sound like crying.  My eyes filled with tears. Cry, my beloved river, and my favorite country, my heart is crying too. I desire for you, my precious river to flow peacefully and that the bridges above your water connect your banks and connect people. I wish for you, my beloved country, to be a safe place for all Bosnians who want to live here.

I dried my face and walked towards a small group of people. I came close to a young lady who held a baby and asked, “Excuse me, how can I find a bus to Bjeljina?”

“Wait here with us. We are going to Bjeljina, too. I hope the bus comes very soon,” she said and moved the child to her other arm. I was going to Bjeljina for the first time. My eyes grew moist with gratitude when the woman promised to help me to find Slavica. The chains around me broke and I breathed easily.

I thanked her from bottom of my heart and, following her directions, I walked to Slavica’s restaurant. A half- moon, slipping in and out from behind scattered clouds, was my new companion. The blowing wind brought the sound of howling dogs and I shivered at thought that they might attack me. I was relieved when they passed me seemingly without interest. I slowly walked to the other side of the street and turned my head down into my coat as much as possible.

I noticed a middle-age woman standing in front of the restaurant door. “My uncle asked me twice about you already. I was nervous, not knowing what was going on. Come in.”  She opened the restaurant door and found a seat for me in a quiet area. After a few minutes, she came in from the kitchen carrying a big tray with hot soup, chicken and potatoes, and cake. The soup tasted very good.

As I finished the soup, two older ladies joined me. I offered food to them, but they surprised me with their request. “I had my supper, but you can buy one drink for me. A small glass of sljivovica (plum brandy) would warm me this cold night,” said taller one.

“Sljivovica is fine for me too,” said the other lady.

I became quiet. Muslims are not supposed to partake of alcoholic drinks, nor are they supposed to buy, sell or serve them.

Suddenly, I was in an uncomfortable situation and I just stared at the two women. But the lady in the fur hat went on, as though she not had noticed my silence, opened her purse, and pulled out bunch of cards. “Are you a member of any of our patriotic organizations?”

I put a bite of food in my mouth to make myself unable to answer.

“We are very active these days in the fight for freedom. It is time for all Serbs to live in one country. Only harmony will save the Serbian nation. I am serving Arkan’s soldiers. This card is proof of my membership.”

The other lady showed her cards. “This one is evidence of helping Seselj’s followers. I also advocate for Drashkovic’s movement. Look at these documents!”

The food I had started to swallow stuck in my throat, and suddenly I felt like a mouse in front of two large hungry cats.  All three of the organizations were among the most radical of Serbian organizations, and among the cruelest of Muslims’ enemies.

Slavica’s voice freed me. “Ladies, leave my guest alone. Take another table please. She needs to finish her supper and I need her help in the kitchen.”

“Oh, we didn’t know she is your guest. Is she your guest? We only talked to her about our work as freedom fighters.”

“You are sljivovica fighters; fighting only with words over drinks. I’ll bring your drinks and you can go,” said Slavica, taking my tray and giving me a signal to follow her. She found a chair in her kitchen and let me finish my meal.

 Slavica treated me very well. She shared her secrets about how she was helping and protecting her Muslim friends and neighbors.

She made a bed for me in an attic bedroom. The bed linen, white as snow, looked fresh.  She brought a snack and juice. When she was ready to leave me, I asked, “What do you think about my chance of crossing the border tomorrow?”

“Honestly, you have a very small chance.”

“I want to try,” I said. I asked where the police station was and how I could get there. She promised to wake me up in the morning and give me directions.

Another sleepless night was in front of me. I found a newspaper and read that former American president Ronald Regan had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. The man who was able to lead the strongest and richest country in world was becoming forgetful. Nobody is excused. Diseases attack kings just as they attack every other human being. People need to fight diseases, not each other.

In the morning, I headed to the police station, ready to wait the entire day if necessary. I was surprised that the policeman at the desk treated me very professionally.

“I am going to write the document for you. You can go and buy a ticket, and I will make call to the checkpoint,” the policeman said.

A few minutes later, with the document in my hand and hope in my heart, I called Aida. “It looks like this time I will be able to get across the border to see you.”

“That is wonderful.  I am going to buy a ticket as well”.

I bought a bus ticket to travel from Bjeljina to Belgrade. The bus left at 1 p.m., and I had just enough time to inform Slavica and thank her for her help.  She was astonished that the policeman wrote the document for me.

“You are very lucky, and I am surprised. I did not think the police were willing to help Muslims in any way. But we never know,” she said, as she stared at my document.

As the bus came to the checkpoint, a policeman came to check our I.D. cards.  I handed him mine without fear. When he started yelling, I mistakenly thought he was screaming at some other unfortunate Muslim who was without the proper document from Bjeljina’s police.

“Are you deaf? Can you hear me?” he asked me angrily.

“Are you speaking to me? I have a document from Bjeljina’s police,” I said, handing him my authorization.

“You are crazy, woman! Go out!” he screamed, shaking his head.

I stood up, speechless, stepped off the bus with as much dignity as my surprise and anger would permit, and strode quickly to the office.

“There is a mistake here,” I said to the border officer. I obtained a travel permit from Bjeljina police just a few hours ago, and the officer who signed can it said he would notify you, and he said I would have no trouble traveling to Belgra de.”

“You cannot pass the border! You must go back!”

The room began to spin and I walked, somewhat unsteady, outside into the cold. I gritted my teeth and kept my mouth shut to keep from crying.  How can people be so cruel? Why are they playing with me? Are they happy doing this? Don’t they realize that someday, they will be asked to account for how they treated other people, regardless of their religion?    

It was around two o’clock. I found out that the next bus to Bjeljina was leaving at five o’clock. That meant I would not be able to get to a phone in time to make an international call to Aida to tell her not to fly to Belgrade. I didn’t have time to wait. I walked toward the border checkpoint and noticed a black Mercedes with a driver and two passengers in it. I approached the driver’s side and asked if I could go with them to Bjeljina. The driver allowed me to get into the car, and as I sat down, the lady asked me, “Why are you in such hurry?”

At that point my self-control broke and I couldn’t hold in my anger and frustration any longer. “I think that the Serbs are treating us Muslims the same as Germans treated the Jews.”   I covered my face with my hands and sobbed. “I couldn’t pass the border again,” I said and cried.

When I finally reached Aida by phone, I was extremely upset and, instead of using words, I sobbed.  “Mom, are you okay?  I am sorry for all of your troubles, but you did all that was in your power to make our meeting possible. It looks like God has a different plan for us. Don’t be sad. If it is God’s will, we will see each other again soon.”

Aida’s gentle words were calming, and I felt some relief from the pressure I had been under. Aida was right. I would have to trust in God that I would see my daughter another time. How many mothers do not have that hope? I must to have more patience.

“What happened? Why couldn’t you pass the border this time?” Slavica hugged me.

“It is the same reason as yesterday,” I said and tears flooded again.

“Time fades everything, even our hair.  These difficult days will someday be only as a bad dream.” Slavica patted my shoulder. “I have to work and you’ll be bored in my house alone. Go visit my Muslim neighbors, Muris and his wife. They are very good people. You can talk and drink coffee with them. When I finish my work, I’ll come to bring you back.” She smiled, but I was unable to smile back.

I liked the idea, left the restaurant and walked down the street. Just as I got there I met a lady in a long dress and a warm vest. I greeted her with Muslim greetings, assuming she must be Muris’s wife. She didn’t answer, turned her head, and walked up outside stairway to the second floor.

“Excuse me; I am looking for Muris and his wife. Is this their house?”

“They live on the first floor,” said the woman from the highest step.

Muris and his wife welcomed me warmly. Their gray hair and wrinkled hands and faces revealed their old age, and their eyes could not hide their sadness.

“Who lives upstairs?” I asked, as I sat on a sofa.

“Shshsh,” Muris said touching his lips with his index finger. “A Serbian family took over our second floor.”

“Slavica called recently and asked if you made it. I don’t know what we would do without her help. She brought us bags and bags of flour. It is our secret. We must be careful. If other Serbs find out, they might kill her.”

The smell of fresh coffee filled the room. After few minutes, the room looked like a nursing home filled with old people. There weren’t enough seats on the sofas and chairs, and some of them had to kneel on the rug. Every one of them had a similar war story to share, and all talked at the same time, making the room sound like a beehive. I listened quietly. One lady asked me why I had come to Bjeljina.  The question quilted the room, and since I had everyone full attention, I told my story. They listened to me carefully and asked many questions about my daughter’s life in America. Once I started describing my experience at the border, I broke down sobbing. Many of them dried their own tears.  Muris shrugged his shoulders hopelessly. One lady moved closer to me and, with deep compassion, patted my hands. “We are afraid even to leave our houses,” she said. “You are brave. God is protecting you.”

The prayer call from a clock interrupted our conversation and we performed the evening prayer. Shortly after the prayer, Slavica came and we walked to her home.

In the morning, I thanked Slavica and prepared to return home. Slavica had told me that I would not be able to catch a bus at the bus station, so I walked out of the city and waited at a roadside bus stop where I found a group of people already waiting.

“Where are you going?” I asked a lady in the group.

“I want to go to Banja Luka, but I haven’t been able to catch a bus for the last three days. I’ve been waiting here every day from dawn to dark. Some buses haven’t stopped at all. Some of them picked up only one or two passengers, and they were always men, because men are stronger and push us women out of their way. I am losing hope of ever getting on the bus,” she said with sadness.

“I have a sick mother-in-law at home. I cannot wait here that long for a bus.” Based on discussion in Mr. Muris’s home, I was positive that I was only Muslim in a group of Serbs waiting for the bus.

I am stuck here. I cannot go anywhere.

“Look, a bus is coming!” she said.

I noticing that people were converging from different directions on the bus stop. Strong men and several soldiers pushed me back to the end of the line.

“I am not sure that all of us could fit in the bus even if it was empty,” said the woman I had been talking with.

Oh my God, it is true; I don’t have any chance to make it onto the bus. This bus looks full.  How am I going to get home? 

The bus door opened and I recognized the driver’s face. As my brain raced to figure out what to do, he looked at me and said, “Make space for this lady to come onto the bus, please.”  All around me were men. Does he mean me? I placed my right hand on my chest in the  form of a question.

“Yes, you from Gradiska, you came with us here two days ago. I remember you,” he said. Maybe twenty men stepped aside and made a way for me only to get on already full bus.  Oh my God, this is a miracle. Among all those people he chose me, even though he must have known that I was Muslim.

  “Thank you, thank you very much,” I said, as I climbed aboard the bus, relieved of my recent fear.  As I walked toward an empty seat, somebody called my name,

“Hello Mrs. Softic, what are you doing in Bjeljina? I never expected that I would see you here.” I turned my head and recognized my former student Svetlana.

The memories from my teaching experiences came back. I sighed as I pictured Svetlana’s seat in her classroom and remembered how good a student she was.

A gentleman seated next to Svetlana, stood up and I eased myself down into the still-warm seat.  I explained to Svetlana all of my attempts to see my daughter starting with asking the lady in the hospital to lend me her I.D. card and ending with the second time I was turned back at the border.

“Oh my dear teacher, I am so sorry for all of your struggles,” said Svetlana with compassion. “Sorry that nobody who knows you was there for you. I am positive that all of your students would help you.”  We were quiet for a while until she broke the silence. “Can I do anything for you, Mrs. Softic? Do you want me to go back and meet your daughter?” She patted my hands on my lap and I could feel the warmth of her friendship.

I answered carefully asked questions from time to time until the bus stopped in Svetlana’s village and she left.

My son, Nana, and my dear friends welcomed me back with open hearts.

“God gave you love for your child,” Nana said. “You did your part. Have patience, my daughter. Look at my life. I delivered seven children, and now there are none here to take care of me and I am not sure that I will ever see any of them again.” Nana dried her tears and I thanked God that I had finished my unforgettable trip

Working for Free

Today’s blog post was one of the hardest for me to write while I was compiling all of my stories for this memoir. It always evokes the same emotions when I think about it…the shock, the disappointment, and the gut-wrenching sadness…This post is about the time when I went back to the school that I had been teaching at for a long time now. The war was already going on and I had been laid off at this point already. It was winter and bitter cold and we were barely surviving on the little money I had saved. I remembered that at the end of the year if the school had a surplus they would distribute it amongst all of the teachers and staff. So I decided to try my luck and bike to the school and ask for what was rightfully mine. There were Serbs, Croats, and Bosnians who worked at this school- why should I have been denied my rights just because I was Muslim? Here is an excerpt of the story…

Irony of the List

“It demands great spiritual resilience not to hate the hater whose foot is on your neck, and an even greater miracle of perception and charity not to teach your child to hate.”– James Baldwin

December 1992

The winter nights, cold, dark, and filled with fear, seemed endless. We quickly ran out of candles and, like many of our neighbors, we created a new source of light by burning cotton fabric strips soaked in vegetable oil. The new source of light produced clouds of smoke worse than the dense cloud of cigarette smoke in a crowded café. Nana, Samir and I gathered around it and shared our life stories to distract us from the fear of artillery or the sound of human steps. Once the rhythm of Samir’s breathing assured us that he was asleep, Nana and I would pray. We knew we had no refuge other than with God, so we asked for mercy, for the easing of our loneliness, and for protection, with so much sincerity that tears accompanied our words. We would chant: “La ilaha ilalah, La ilaha ilalah, La ilaha ilalah” (There is not god, but one God) until we fell asleep.

One night, as I closed my tired, worried eyes, the squeaking sound of footsteps on the wooden floor froze the blood in my veins. I didn’t know if a soldier, a ghost, or a burglar walked through the darkness a few meters from me. I panicked and tried to wake Nana up. When I touched her empty bed, I realized she must have been pacing in the dark room. My twitching nerves didn’t allow me to close my eyes the rest of the night.

The next morning I dressed warmly, placed the last of my money in my pocket, took my bicycle, and headed towards the pharmacy to buy sleeping pills for Nana and me. The cold north wind urged me to push the pedals fast. When I reached downtown, I heard someone shouting my name. I turned my head and recognized Mirsada, a worker from our school, running toward me.

“You cannot imagine what our coworkers are doing. They are giving payment to every employee who worked this year. Only five of us are not on the list. No paychecks for the Muslims.” Her voice was filled with disappointment and her eyes burned with wrath.

In our system there was a certain amount of money allotted to the school. In December, if there was a surplus, it was to be distributed as a bonus to employees based on how many days each had worked during that fiscal year. Since I had worked every day in 1992, I should not have been excluded.

“Wait! They must give us our part. We worked the entire year.” I clenched my fists. “I have to see for myself. Do you want to go with me?”

“I cannot. I am not sure that I’ll be able to control my temper.” She shook her head.

I grabbed my bicycle and headed straight to the school. My blood rushed and I didn’t feel cold anymore. I carried my bicycle inside and parked it under the steps. Teachers were waiting in line in front of the accountant’s office. I joined them and felt my heart thumping in anger and apprehension as I stood waiting. When I finally reached the head of line, the accountant, Mrs. Draganovic said, “I’m sorry Aisa, your name is not on the list. You need to talk to the principal. It is not my say.”

“Is everybody who worked this calendar year on the list?” I asked politely, looking at all people around me. Some of them looked at the floor, some looked through the window, and a few of them even looked at me, but didn’t speak. I didn’t move. I wanted them to witness discrimination and injustice.

Mrs. Draganovic sighed and said carefully, “I cannot make any changes. Go talk to the principal, please.” I noticed both, sadness and fear in her brown eyes.

I left he line and walked toward the principal’s office, remembering all the injustices he did toward me. I have to talk to him… fine. I am not afraid. I only fear God.

As I entered his office and walked toward his desk, his smile faded. He fixed his glasses and nervously straightened a pile of papers in front of him.

“Why isn’t my name on the list for the bonus pay?” Rage beamed from my eyes, but I controlled my voice. Words are like arrows, once released, they cannot be recalled Great wisdom is given to one who can control what is spoken and when. I was granted this gift, and for many years I had trained and perfected the skills necessary to tame my emotions.

He was still looking at the papers in front of him as if the answer has been written somewhere on them. Finally he raised is head and said, “Oh, are you inquiring about that little money?” He paused. “It is not salary, it is a gift for people who celebrate Christmas. We all know that Christmas isn’t your holiday and, therefore, you don’t qualify for it.” His lips moved in a horrible smile.

“I worked the entire year. Celebrating holidays has nothing to do with it. What you did is discrimination!”

As I pronounced the last word, raising my voice a bit, the principal stood up, put his glasses down, narrowed his eyes, and shouted, “How dare you say such things? You are questioning paying honest, hardworking teachers their bonuses for their holiday? You are the most ungrateful person!” He was yelling at this point and his face turned fiery red.

“I am not questioning Christmas, you know that very well. I am simply asking why I wasn’t paid what is lawfully mine,” I said in a firm voice.

He was quiet for a moment, lowered his voice, and said, “I have an idea. Don’t worry; I will give you the special increase for your holiday. Eid it’s called, right? I will make a request for a huge permanent increase in your salary, for the rest of your life. I’ll make an exception, only for you, so I will correct my discrimination. Are you satisfied? ” He chuckled.

My eyes barely held back my tears of anger. I couldn’t talk, but I prayed silently, Dear God, he is making fun of me. Obviously, he isn’t going to do anything about the pay. I am giving our disagreement to You, You are the best judge. Please give me the ability to control myself and be patient.

On my way home tears showered my face and I felt that the sky cried with me.

An Unforgettable Trip

This blog post is a piece of my story that I submitted to the StoryCorps, an organization with a mission to preserve the stories within each one of our lives and share them with the world. The story was recorded and also preserved in the #libraryofcongress, and is now an official part of the StoryCorps Archive. The official and full story will be published as part of my book. I would love to hear your suggestions and comments below!

“Is it a good idea to keep us here as though we were in a concentration camp?” asked Habiba. “Why can’t we travel like other people? Catholics are able to travel to Croatia, Serbs to Serbia. What can we do to make our trip possible, Aisa?”

Seka came in and joined our conversation. “You cannot lose anything if you ask her,” said Seka as her fingers played with her chin.

I contemplated about using a false I.D. card throughout the entire evening. One moment I saw myself caught at the border, frightened half to death as the police handcuff me and take me off to jail. The next moment I saw myself crossing the border without difficulty, hearing my daughter calling my name, feeling the hills reverberate to the sound of her voice, and looking after along three years at her beautiful face and into her sparkling blue eyes. My heart tightened with mix of anger and sadness when I looked at my name on my now useless I.D. card, the name I had always been proud, but now the name was preventing me from seeing my bellowed daughter. It seemed horrible that my name, the best present that my parents gave, had become wall separating me from my first born.

It was snowing as I walked toward the hospital, and I hunched inside my coat against the cold. As I entered the hospital, deep in thought about the I.D. card, I did not hear the noises and commotion that was going on around me. I thought about how would make my request, sighed, waited a few seconds, and then quietly knocked onto the office door. A great block of ice settled in my stomach.

The lady opened her eyes widely when she saw me enter. “Oh Mrs. Softic, how can I help you?”

It was the perfect question. I looked around the entire office. Glad that she was alone, I took a deep breath and said almost in a whisper, “I came to ask you to lend me your I.D. card.”

She frowned. I understood that she needed to know all the details, and, taking courage, I continued, “My daughter came to Germany from the United States. I haven’t seen her for three years. You know that I am Muslim and cannot travel anywhere. If I have your I.D. card, I’ll be able to travel to Belgrade,” I said, looking deeply into her eyes.

She sat very quietly as I spoke, and I could tell by the look on her face that my words had not softened her heart.

“I will be going alone,” I continued rapidly, my hope fading, “I will be leaving my son and ailing mother-in-law behind here in our home. I will spend only two days with my daughter. That is it.”

I looked at what was left of my hope, but she was silent, and her face had turned to stone. I knew that I had asked a great deal, but mother’s heart was heedless, seeking only the small laminated card that would open the way to meet my child. To see her again would bring me endless happiness.

“Why are you asking me? Don’t you have any friends who will help you?”

“You and I have physical similarities. I hope that I could pass the border with your picture,” I said, holding down the feeling that she didn’t want to help me.

“It is a very sensitive issue. I will have to talk to my husband,” she said as she looked down at the papers on her desk.

“It is a very sensitive, yes,” I said, desperately searching for a way to soften her heart. “If you were in my shoes, I would do it for you.” I paused. “I don’t have any legal way to travel and meet my child. I am Muslim, a prisoner in my own homeland,” I said, ready to cry. “Our religious differences do not matter. We are mothers and only we know how much we love our children. If someone told me I had to walk on hot coals the entire 250 kilometers to Belgrade to see my daughter, I would do it without hesitation.” My tears prevented any further discussion and I turned and walked toward the door.

“I’ll inform you tomorrow what my husband decides,” she said as I left her office.

How it All Started- A Flashback to Bosnia’s War

“You were born to make manifest the Glory of God that is within you.

         It is not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And, as you let your own light shine, you unconsciously give other people permission to do same.” Nelson Mandela

Prologue

August, 2010

The telephone’s insistent ring blended with the sound of a school bell in my dream. For a moment, I did not know where I was. Was I in the school in Bosnia where I had once taught or was I in my American home? When I finally realized the sound was my phone, I jumped from my bed, stumbled across the room, and answered the phone.

“I know it is very early in Cincinnati, but I couldn’t wait; I want to congratulate you,” said my sister, Dervisha. “You finished your Master’s degree; I couldn’t sleep from excitement.”

The first rays of the morning sun pierced the horizon just as we ended our call. The rays lit the photos arranged on my desk, and I saw myself as a preschool girl with my parents, brothers, and sister in our old house. The sun moved behind a cloud and my room darkened. The wind outside blew through the trees and I feared the coming storm. I glanced at the living room door and memories of my father flooded my mind. I had a clear image of him as he died holding and supporting himself with a door frame in our Bosnian home.

As quickly as the dark memories appeared, the sunlight outside returned and, for a moment, danced again on my school pictures. Ah, school – my destiny. I had spent more than half a century, as a student and teacher, in schools. I recalled my days as a teacher in Bosnia, picturing my classrooms, my students, their smiles, my lessons, and my last teaching day.

But clouds were playing against the sun, and the images on my desk faded into an image of a Serbian soldier who grabbed me at a bus station, his hands as rigid as a steel trap on my shoulders. I remember how his cold machine gun had brushed my face and how he shouted, “Are you crazy! If you don’t get yourself on the bench immediately, I’ll kill you. Can you hear me? I’ll kill you!” I could still remember his cold, stone-like appearance and my certainty that he intended to rape me. I turned a light on in my American home to stop the awful memories.

A sudden burst of thunder startled me and other memories of the war resurfaced. It was no longer thunder that I heard, but rather, from out of my past, the sharp sound of explosions. I stood in silence, but the explosions embedded deep in my memory became louder and louder, forcing my heart to beat rapidly. The sounds of machine guns accompanied by the blasts of thunder turned my hands to ice and I shivered. I remembered for a moment the destroyed villages and towns in Bosnia, the broken boards on sidewalks, the bricks, and the shattered glass from the windows of houses, mosques, and businesses that lined the once lively streets. During the war, chaos and destruction were everywhere.

The lightning illuminated memories of thousands of Bosnian refugees on their unforgettable journey from Bosnia and Croatia. The refugees twisted the Brotherhood and Unity Bridge from dawn to late in night in a huge undulating line that looked like the biggest and ugliest snake on the Earth. Elderly residents, wishing to take their the last breath in their homes, were standing on the Sava River’s Bosnian shore, waving with their shaky, wrinkled hands and drying their tears as they called their grandchildren’s names. “Hassan, Hussein, Fatima, Amra, Leila, Said, Yusuf, Ibrahim…..don’t forget Nana, don’t forget Grandpa, don’t forget Bosnia.” The wind had muffled their words and wrapped their sentences in the river’s waves.

My reminiscing faded as heavy rain pelted my windows. I walked a few steps, collapsed on the bed, and covered my face with my hands. Uninvited, the memories came again, and I saw a soldier in my wheat field wielding an axe. I moved my head toward the door and met another soldier ready to enter my house. I recalled my friend, Yelena, giving me her I.D. card so that I could attempt to cross the Serbian border. Tears rolled down my cheeks and my hands still trembled.

I believe that God heard our prayers and saved us during the last Bosnian war, so we thank Him and spread words about His power and His blessings. Our only weapons were our prayers. I never prayed more seriously before – crying out and asking God for protection – as I did during the war. I had nobody to defend me, no human power to rely on.   God prepared me, built my strength, he gave me special tasks and placed me in special families with strong grandmothers, and great parents and to Him, I offer my undying gratitude.