War Torn

When foreign lands fall into chaos. In this memoir, Ryerson Review of Journalism reporter Vesna Plazacic asks why her younger self blamed Canadian media for failing to fully expose what happened during the Bosnian War, or as she calls it the Bosnian horror.

When my older brother and I were kids, around ages 10 and 6, we would gather with our friends by a small river on the other side of the fence of our grade school. When the sun went down we’d scour the neighbourhood, collecting empty aerosol cans and building small piles of them by the riverside. Later, when our parents weren’t around, we lit our treasures and ran as fast as we could into the nearby bushes. When the cans exploded they sounded like thunder blasting through the sky, powerful enough to jolt anyone passing by on the street.

Our childhood days were endlessly exciting. We spent the spring and summer running around grassy, open fields and crossing cold, fast-flowing rivers in which I’d hop on my brother’s back, my bare feet bobbing in and out of the water. We loved searching through deep, quiet forests and swimming in calm, clear waters, slipping on clay stones all the way back home; muddy and tired, with satisfied grins on our faces. It was near perfect.

And it would not last.

The end came in the waning days of the spring of 1992. It came when tanks punched through mountain valleys. It came when soldiers marched past my school, my forest hideout, my home. It came when the sounds of explosions no longer signaled a bunch of mischievous kids giggling behind bushes, but real death and injury. And it came when the river, my water wonderland, carried bits of grenade and other armaments from battles upstream to us. The water was no longer a fresh, cleansing tonic, but a river of misery and sorrow that often ran ash-grey and, if you believed the propaganda, ran thick with the blood of civilians.

I was born in Bosnia in 1984. My father is a Bosnian Serb, and my mother a Bosnian Croat. Which technically makes me a Serbo-Croatian Bosnian and, now, also a Canadian. Both my parents worked as teachers, which gave us a certain amount of prestige and a respectable income in what was then Yugoslavia; a communist federation which comprised Bosnia, Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Macedonia, Montenegro, and two autonomous regions in Serbia, Vojvodina and Kosovo. It was a federation of handcuffed nationalities, full of tensions and hidden fears that would erupt in the years following the 1980 death of the country’s president for life, Josip Broz Tito. In his time, Tito was viewed by many as not only the country’s liberator, but also as a kind of holy man in an atheist dictatorship. In every classroom, hospital and government office, as in our family home, there was a framed photograph of Tito. His story and his legacy, my parents would later learn, are littered with cover-ups, secrets and murder.

“Back in those days,” says my mother, “we heard stories of people simply disappearing into thin air for having a negative viewpoint on Tito’s government. It was one party, one man and one god. No alternatives.” Following his death, the country introduced a nine-member presidency rotation. Then, in quick succession, came the fall of the Berlin Wall, the dissolution of the Soviet empire, Slovenian independence and a referendum on Bosnian independence, which was boycotted by Bosnian Serbs. On the other hand, Bosnian Muslims and Croats voted in favour, prompting local Serbs to occupy Bosnia’s capital, Sarajevo. Hostilities escalated and spread to other areas in the country, including the region where I lived.

It didn’t take long before my mother began to receive repeated death threats from her 14-and 15-year-old students because of her ethnicity. They warned that bombs would be thrown at our house if she didn’t give them the grades they wanted. Fearing for our safety as explosions and gunfire in the hills carried on night after night, my mother fled our hometown of ibonica, just outside of Tuzla, taking my brother and me with her. My father stayed behind to pack our belongings.

In 1991 the first wave of residents escaped, unfortunately we were not among them. They were lucky enough to take most of their possessions with them. We had stayed far longer, despite my mother’s protests to my father, who was counting on it all being over soon. But once the tanks’ presence became permanent and the whistling of the grenades were more frequent, our mother had seen and heard enough. One night as darkness fell, she and a family friend led us through a forest to my grandparents’ house in Tuzla, 30 kilometres away. We would stay there for a month before fleeing to Croatia.

We were the last family to leave ibonica. Later our hometown would become the setting for a prisoner exchange — a desolate place where government officials would come to barter for members of their community. It is estimated that of the near 4.5 million people inhabiting Bosnia in 1992, more than 100, 000 of them were killed in the war; though even today the statistics and death tolls remain disputed and it is presumed there are many undiscovered graves. But no matter the exact number, the conflict involving Bosnia, Serbia and Croatia would lead to the highest death toll in Europe since World War Two.

Within days following our hasty retreat from Sibosnica, tensions rose from all sides, resulting in the closure of borders and preventing my father from reuniting with us. Phone calls were rare and letters travelled slowly, usually through UN representatives my father knew. It would be two years before we saw him again. He spent those years teaching with a few of his former colleagues in a makeshift school near our hometown. He was often accused of being a spy because of his open and vocal disdain for the war and his reluctance to blame one ethnicity for what had happened. He visited old friends, both Croatian and Serbian, and wasn’t afraid to travel on foot across mountains and through military blockades — despite being constantly scrutinized for his actions and often held at gunpoint. He was once directed to walk through a forest, only to find out later it was a trap and that he had walked through a minefield. But he never gave in to fear and never gave up on his ideals. Today when he recalls those times he recoils with a kind of sadness I haven’t seen in him before.

When my family finally arrived in Canada from Croatia in 1996, the group of church sponsors — who fronted money for our plane tickets and found us a small house to live in — were surprised that my mother and 12-year-old me were not covered by veils like the Balkan women they often saw on TV prior to our arrival. We faced weeks of demoralizing integration into the western world, like watching the sponsors show us how to flush the toilet, make coffee, and turn on household appliances — all of which we knew full well how to do. Then came the unnecessary lessons in groceryshopping and banking. We took English lessons at the local community centre to overcome the language barrier in an attempt to put our lives back together.

We turned out to be pretty regular citizens. My parents took jobs as line workers at the local Green Giant, and I entered Grade 7 at St. Pius X Catholic Elementary School in Tecumseh, a small town outside of Windsor, Ontario. At the time I just wanted to be a regular kid and leave the past behind. Being in Canada was the first time I had felt safe since leaving Bosnia and I didn’t want anyone to know where I came from and why. I was embarrassed of my roots, of my parents’ thick accents, of being different from everyone else. I certainly didn’t know much about what happened politically in Bosnia, or who was to blame for the war, and I didn’t think too much about the pictures shown on TV of the continuing warfare going on back home: the Srebrenica (a Bosnian Muslim town) massacres, where a UN report estimated as many as 7,000 men and boys were executed; the constant shots of rural Muslim women wearing traditional garments; the streams of people walking down dirt roads, following horse-drawn carriages; dirty children crying; corpses by the roadside.

For years I pushed those memories to the back of my mind. But as a 2011teen I started to think more about my past, my present, and all those pictures from Bosnia and other Balkan regions that influenced how Canadians saw my family and our homeland. By age 16 I was developing an interest in journalism, informed in part by wanting to fully understand why and how everything got so bad so quickly. I also wanted to understand this: why my younger self blamed Canadian media for failing to fully expose the Bosnian horror.

To continue reading War Torn, visit the Ryerson Review of Journalism website.