People who have lived through war are often reluctant to talk about their experiences – it’s like you are speaking another language – one that most people don’t understand nor care to learn. So when someone shares even a smidgeon of common experience or gives you a speck of recognition, the feeling is relief. We don’t really want to be alone.
About a year ago after an event at the store, I heard a young woman behind me say she was from Croatia. I turned and asked, from where exactly? She responded, you probably don’t know the place: Knin. I said, I do – I lived there. Knin is often described as dreary, sitting over the last rocky mountain range before reaching the stunning Dalmatian coast. In 1991, the Krajina Serbs declared it the capital of their self-proclaimed country. From June until December 1992 I was based there with the UN Peacekeeping mission in former Yugoslavia – UNPROFOR.
I didn’t always feel comfortable on those dusty streets – strangely dark with soldiers looking out from the shadows of the perpetually open bars. But gradually, I made friends – mostly with women. Relationships were usually limited, because of language barriers, to smiles and shared Turkish coffee cooked over propane or wood stoves because more often than not, there was no gas nor electricity.
A few months older than Molly, the girl in the bookstore had been an infant when the shit hit the fan. I left Croatia around the time she was born, on my own maternity leave – earlier than expected because the slow simmering conflict of four years, was escalating. Shells were being lobbed between the two sides. The Croatians were done waiting and were taking back control of what had been UN ‘protected’ but Serb controlled areas. In August, I was across the Adriatic in Italy with Molly in my arms as I watched the news – the roads out of Krajina to Serbia packed with cars and horse drawn carts for carrying hay loaded with suitcases, refrigerators, whatever they could carry. I searched the faces for my former landlord, my neighbors and local colleagues.
The girl told me her mother would know about that time and worked nearby at a hair salon not more than a mile from here.
It took me a year, but last week I called the salon and asked for an appointment with the woman from Croatia. An attractive, fashionably dressed woman greeted me with a warm hug. She said, “It’s been awhile! How have you been?” I told her we had never met. “But you look so familiar. I know your face.” Well, I said, that’s interesting… and then I told her how I knew her tiny, troubled town twenty years ago. Her eyes filled and so did mine. She grabbed me and insisted on introducing me to her colleagues, “Look! She lived in my town!” They smiled politely. “Come, I have to tell my boss.” A short man sat going over a paper with another stylist – he looked up as she said, “You have to meet this lady! She lived in Knin!” “Was there water and electricity?” he asked, thinking he was making a joke. “Only sometimes,” I answered. He went back to his work.
Sitting in front of a mirror for the next 40 minutes as she combed and snipped, we disappeared into another time and place. I wanted to hear her story and I knew what questions to ask. I know something of the roads she traveled.
She told me they were a ‘mixed’ family meaning she was Catholic (Croatian) and her husband, Orthodox (Serb). She remained in Knin with her husband and the Serbs instead of leaving for the beautiful Croatian town on the coast where she was from. She didn’t mention this as being unusual but I know, it was. The family fled Krajina that August with only some clothes packed beside their babies in a Yugo. They crawled along on the road full of refugees, driving to Serbia. She’d had a good gig cutting the hair of UN soldiers from Kenya and the UN police from all over the world, and saved her money – enabling them to rent a little house in Serbia rather than be put in refugee hotels. Her husband was called up by the army and he said, “To fight for what? I’ve already lost everything.” So they threw him in detention. After a few years, they made it to the States as refugees and landed in a large, very depressed city in Connecticut. From there, they rebuilt their lives.
She nursed her baby during the 10 hour trek out of Krajina or she said, her daughter might not have survived since there was nothing else. Across the Adriatic in Italy, I nursed my girl and watched the news.
“You don’t seem bitter or angry. How is that?” I asked. She shrugged and said, “I was young. If this happened now, I’d have a heart attack.” But I think it’s more than youth this ability she and others have to not be swallowed by sorrow. Of course, she knows she is luckier than too many from those years – her family alive and well – her beautiful daughters all thriving. But it’s more than that – this woman of warmth, life and humor seems determined to always choose love. And she also has a skill. While we were talking she’d stop and say, “You should put some color in you hair!”
We were both moved – and perhaps me more than her. She told me she Skypes regularly with her family there and couldn’t wait to tell them about me. And of course she is with her husband – they made that long journey together. But I have no one to speak with about this time – it’s too complicated to explain and frankly, no one is really interested. I was glad to remember and share this stretch of history with this vibrant woman. The stuff of our lives, the joys, the sadness — we long to have it recognized by someone else, don’t you think?
Like any war, there were many villains and so much evil there. But there were also families, nursing mothers and little children wanting nothing more than to live there lives.
I am glad to have connected with this kin spirit of shared roads, a mother who moved beyond her loss and obstacles to live a life of joy.