I don’t remember much from the war. I’ve only ever owned a few memories. Barely moving still lifes of which I can’t even say how much they imitate the reality of my past. They could be carbon copies of what happened, or they could be constructions drawn from stories and photographs. But this is all I got.
Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina // There’s a bus. A parking lot. My dad. We’re standing next to the bus. My parents are in distress. My mom and I are now on the bus. Women I don’t know have surrounded us. They’re giving my mom water, and patting her face and neck with their hands. My mom opens her eyes.
Amman, Jordan // We’re outside. Walking. The light is golden. My mom said something about giving the family some time to be alone. I don’t understand why. We’re still walking. She’s making me recite verses of the Quran.
Budapest, Hungary // We’re standing next to a window. In a house with a huge dog. Everything is cold and gray and dark. My mom is on the phone. She’s crying. She gives me the handset, “You ask them,” she says. “Ask them,” she cries. “Please let my dad come for my birthday–Please,” I say.
Delft, Holland // My mom is angry. I’m not sure why. But I realize that I can no longer trust her with the truth, and so I lie.
Of course, there’s a bit more. The slap of a school ruler on my palms. Falafel (#294). My hands digging into bags of rice. A fig tree. Black and green shoes with yellow polka dots. A chocolate Santa Claus. The box of After Eights. The moment my training wheels lifted. The moment I realized I knew how to speak Dutch. A haircut and the birth of my cousin. A canal and my brother walking out of a car. Those blue curtains with white, tiny flowers behind which I slept and the world was mine. The tropical, chemical smell of Taksi fruit juices mixed with the fumes of fresh paint. The airport, the run, the hug–dad (#450). And the one memory that ended the war: my dad waiting for me in the hallway of my school with all the other moms and dads. And that elephant outside.
That’s all I remember from a war that I didn’t witness but certainly did experience. Yet, what I remember most from the war, are the years that came after when everyone was reunited, and we were left to figure out how to be a family again. Those years are also now. And we’re still trying.
If I ever blamed the war for taking something away from me, it was a peaceful relationship with my parents and my brother. For one, I always thought that my difficulties with my brother had been caused by the temporary distance that the war had put between us.
When my brother joined my mom and me in Holland, I didn’t remember him as my brother. He was a stranger to me. And yet, here he was, expecting me to be his little sister. I found this stifling. Then and now.
It’s only recently when I reread the letters that my brother wrote to me during the war, that I realized that my brother had always cared more about us than I did. This gave me a certain peace about our current standing.
His letters helped me understand that the war hadn’t taken away anything from us. Whatever we are, we always would’ve been. With or without the war, this would’ve always been us.
This time, also, while reading the letters my parents wrote to each other and their children, I saw their humanity shine through. Their words told me about their fears, their love. I learned that my family is human after all. An insight most of us only get to learn once our beloved ones are gone.
These letters are like a fairy tale to me. A story about a family that cared and once was. A family that could be and still must be. Most gratefully, these letters are written proof of how much I was, and surely still am, loved. And that’s an insight a lot of us never get to learn.
Here are four letters that my cousin Aida and I translated from Bosnian. If you’re curious about the names and people mentioned, there’s a Who’s Who section at the end of this post.
July 29, 1993 · A friend to me
I miss you very much, and I’m waiting for you to come back to Sarajevo.
I’m playing with Tajma here.
We don’t go out on the street because there’s a lot of shooting on the streets.
I hope you’ll write me a letter,
August 1, 1993 · My brother to me
Happy 7th birthday! We all got you these earrings together. Irma and Tajma are asking when you’ll be back. I don’t know what to tell them. I can’t wait to see you again.
What are you doing?
How are you?
What place did you come in with your basketball team?
Write me back.
Tell mom to write me about you!!!!!
August 1, 1993 · Dad to me
To Mirha from Dad!
Hi, Princess from Toromanova,
How are you and what have you been doing on your vacation?
Does mom listen to you?
I miss you a lot, and I can’t wait to see you so that you can take me out for a beer and ice cream.
Happy birthday from your dad.
DAD ❤ MIKA
December 21, 1993 · Dad to mom
We’re sending you a fax again from warm Sarajevo. All of us here are doing well for now. Mahir has stopped going to school. He drops by every two weeks; they give them some homework and question them briefly.
On Saturday, December 18, 1993, UNPROFOR was handing out presents. He got little boots, socks, a hat, and gloves. They also had sweets, chocolates, Coca-Colas and fruit juices. He was blown away by it.
Grandpa Salko and grandma Bisa, grandpa Šefkija, grandpa and grandma Šuki are all well and healthy and send lots of love. Gaga and I are well. Let me ask you how you are doing? How is little princess Aida, the big princess from Toromanova, grandma Tima and you adults?
Mina, there’s a real possibility for me to send Mahir out in a convoy for Split, which is organized by the Jewish municipality. Please check with Senad whether you can arrange Mahir’s arrival in Split (Šuki tells me there is this “Mrs. Neva,” Sale knows her, who can receive Mahir) and further safe passage to Rijeka and Opatija.
The president of the Jewish municipality, Ivica Čerešnješ, would escort Mahir himself. For aunty Smiljka we’ll try using some other connections, and if that works out, all of our problems would be solved. The convoy is meant to leave between January 10 and 15 if everything goes well.
When you get this done, please call me home after 5 PM so that I can ask Ivica to get the necessary documents in order. I know it’s risky, but it’s worth a try.
We all wish you a Happy New Year 1994 and that we see each other as soon as possible and have fun together.
We send our warmest regards,
Mašo and Mahir
Aida, cousin, daughter of my mom’s brother
Bisa, grandma, dad’s mom, Bisa is her nickname while her real name is Bisera
Gaga, uncle, dad’s brother, Gaga is his nickname while his real name is Rehad
Irma & Tajma, friends who lived in grandma Bisa’s and grandpa Salko’s street (I wrote a story about that street, and it’s one of my favorites: #443)
Mika, me, Mika is my nickname
Mina, mom, Mina is her nickname while her real name is Jasmina
Princess from Toromanova, me, Toromanova is the name of the street where I grew up
Sale, aunt, wife of my mom’s brother, Sale is her nickname while her real name is Aleksandra
Salko, grandpa, dad’s dad
Šefkija, grandpa, mom’s dad
Smiljka, Aida’s grandma, Sale’s mom
Šuki, Aida’s grandpa, Sale’s dad
Tima, grandma, my mom’s mom, Tima is her nickname while her real name is Fatima