Monday, June 15, 2009

Exiling our home

As I mentioned before, prior to the war we lived in an apartment in the suburb Dobrinja. It was close to the military base and the airport, so there was a lot of military movement around the buildings in the days leading to April 5th 1992. When the city then became blocked off, and all roads closed, families have rapidly leaving our neighbourhood. Very few people who stayed behind, were forced to stay inside most of the time. Even in those early days, residents of Dobrinja had already had a different war experience from people who lived in other parts of the city and were able to walk outside freely in those days (for the most part). My mom and brother, and other people who stayed, started receiving threatening phone calls that the Serbs are coming to our building the next day and will kill anyone who hasn't left. Mom spent several nights on the floor by the front door. with a knife in her hand.

The soldiers and other armed men, from both Serb and Bosnian side, came several times during the days, to find out who lives there, and see if there are any soldiers and weapons. There were often gun fires outside, and they had to keep the blinds closed, and often turn the lights off. One day, somebody even started shooting at our bird on the balcony, and mom was furious and started yelling at an invisible attacker downstairs. I remember them telling me on the phone when they had the first bullet hole in the house. It went through a closet and into mom's fur coat. She was so upset, and was figuring out how it can be fixed. They had much bigger troubles ahead.

During the month of May, 1992, it became increasingly dangerous to live there, especially in our apartment that was on the corner of the building, top floor. In one day only, they would receive several dozen grenade hits. During the day, my family would stay at our friend's apartment on the first floor in the middle of the same building. Gradually, more and more people were gathering there. Their neighbours left them keys of their apartments, so people spread out in apartments in the first two stories in that staircase. Since they lost electricity during that time, they gathered all the food from all those apartments to consume it before it goes bad. They had big feasts.

By June, out of some 252 apartments in the two block area, there were only 40 people left, and they all congregated in that one staircase. The front of the building, which faced the Serb side, was too dangerous to walk in front, so mom and my brother used the back side and entered through balconies of the apartments on the ground level to get to our apartment. When it became too dangerous to go back every night, they packed a suitcase each, and with the bird cage, moved to the place in middle of the building. Mom carried all of her jewelry in little sacks around her neck, but didn't want to search through my room in order to take mine until the very last time they went back. The soldiers, this time from the Bosnian army, were already in the apartment, making them self comfortable, and one was sitting in my room. My inheritance was no longer there.

Those brave forty realized their lives were really in danger and decided they will all leave together on the morning of June 5th (I am going on memory here on these dates, so I'll have to confirm them later with mom). The gun fire had some pattern by that time, and they knew that it's usually calm early in the morning. There were few Bosnian men with guns there with them, guarding the entrance to the building. Since most of those entrance doors were tempered glass that has shattered, people welded steel bars to protect strangers from entering. On the morning of their set departure, they were awaken by guns near by. The men who were there to protect them were either asleep or not at their posts. Some Serb soldiers, who were not informed that there were still civilians in the building, were startled when they stumbled upon people in their surveying of the area, and started shooting. At that moment, my brother was on the ground floor and mom on the first. My brother's friend's mom grabbed the two boys, and started running across the street to the other side of the wide avenue. My mom saw them through the window and at first though "at least he will be saved". Then she realized that he is still a 13-year old boy and needs her, and jumped from the balcony, injuring her ancle, to run after him. They left all the possessions and suitcases behind, including our bird. All they saved was what they had on them, my mom's jewelry, and my brother's playing cards and dice. They hoped they'll come back to it in the next few days, but that never happened.

As they ran across that avenue, several people got killed and their bodies left their for days. The Serbs brought tanks near our building, and no more crossing to the other side was possible. When they made it to the building on the other side, parallel to ours, they knew they couldn't stay there. The grenades were forcing them to move further into the neighbourhood, so they made it to the next parallel building and then to the one perpendicular to it. That one however was facing the airport, and several tanks started approaching and shelling that building. They now had to run across another street to the building parallel to the one facing the airport, but on the opposite side. That street was extending all the way toward our building and further, and Serbs had the tank sending grenades down the street all day. It took them several hours until they could finally leave that area, a distance of maybe 200m. They stayed with another friend for a few days, until the local government gave them keys to another apartment to use.

Mom came back to the edge of the building from where she could see our apartment for several days following their exile. She wanted to make sure it is still there. It was getting severely damaged, but was still in one piece until one day in July. She came to that corner and saw the apartment on fire. All three stories were burning, and nobody of course was trying to put the fire out. The building is made of concrete, so it was still standing, but everything that was flammable was burning. It burned for 2 days, until there was nothing left. Because our apartment was on the top, it was heated the most, so even the metal structures got bent out of shape from all the heat.

After the Dayton agreement, while this was still the Serb territory, I went with a friend, the one who used to send inflammable bullets at our apartment, to see if there was anything left. There were still land minds in the building, and he lost his heel on a landmine as a soldier during the war, so he knew what to pay attention to. I followed him in his foot steps. The staircase was completely charred and full of bricks, concrete chunks, and other debris. The tiles have fallen off, the railing was half gone, and all apartments were just holes with no doors. There was very little debris in our apartment, just some trash left there by the soldiers. There were no remnants of any furniture, no parquet nor cabinets, and huge holes in the walls. Half of the bathroom was gone. We found a metal frame with
wires in the living room and couldn't at first figure out what it was. Then we realized it was from our piano. We found some ceramic pieces in the living room, collectibles from the old china cabinet. I collected and glued those back together, and those were the only physicall memories we have from the previous, peaceful life.

These are some before and after pictures. The middle pictures were taken after only the interior and the windows were fixed, and the last ones after all exterior was completed.

This is the back side of the building, facing the avenue that divided the two armies. Our apartment is the top left one. Most apartments still had just foil on the windows.

This top window used to be my room, that I moved into not even a year before this all started. People got the materials to repair apartments from different sources, and that is why the windows are all different.

The front side of the building, with my brother's and mom's bedrooms. You can notice how the higher floors have much more damage. The corner room was actually missing half of the wall, but it has already been patched with new building blocks on these pictures.

Apartment entrance.


  1. I wanted to let you know I have been reading your posts but I have been unable to get the comment section to work. Sometimes what you write fills me with such sadness and yet you always seem able to show such enormous strength and hope through it all.

  2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  3. Dear 'Toccata'
    I too had trouble figurring out how to un-publish your comment after I realized your email is in it, so I had to delete it. Sorry.
    I have added the Contact Me section on the right for now, so you can write me there.
    I am actually in Sarajevo right now, in a way reliving these storries, and I don't know when I'll be on the net again these days.
    Thanks for reading. I hope you'll continue to find hope in these writings - life would be really sad without hope.