My childhood is probably a little different than your average Australian story. I was born and raised in a utopia, a land where the economy was good, the location was pristine and where everyone was happy.
I was born in Yugoslavia.
My family come from the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia or better known as (former) Yugoslavia. I was born in 1986, and for anyone who knows anything about that period in the Balkans, you’ll know that this is a few years before shit hit the fan.
When I tell people where I’m from, I get a lot of the same questions – “doesn’t Yugoslavia not exist anymore?” or “what was the war about?” or “which side were you on?” or my favourite, “yea, ok, Yugoslavia, but which part?”
Let’s break it down
These are all very reasonable questions, so for those of you who need some answers, here are a few quick facts about Yugoslavia to help you along:
– After a few name changes and the abolishment of the monarchy, in 1945 the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia was formed.
– Former Yugoslavia, and its land, have a rich history. Many ethnicities called Yugoslavia home. Here’s a bit of a map:
– Marshal Josip Broz Tito (we call him that because he was a Marshal) was the president of Yugoslavia between 1953-1980.
– I know he looks pretty serious here, so here’s another one to show you how friendly he really was:
– Tito was responsible for unifying Yugoslavia and essentially keeping the republics together. We could write books about Tito, but suffice to say that he was a mad-dog and the people loved him. Although you may hear words like ‘authoritarian’ and ‘dictator’ thrown around, the people and the country prospered under his leadership and the Yugoslavia he created will forever be missed by its people.
– Tito died on 4 May 1980 (may the fourth be with him) and this was the beginning of the end. Ethnic tensions, which were placated by Tito’s authority, were now brewing.
– First, it started with the Serbs being pissed off with the Albanians. Kosovo was part of Serbia at the time and Sebians considered Kosovo to be “the cradle of their civilization” where many of their historical sites and monasteries lived.
– But by now, in the 1980’s, 9 out of 10 Kosovans were Albanian and the Serbs living in Kosovo began feeling oppressed.
– Enter Serbian politician (future president of Serbia), Slobodan Milosevic.
– Milosevic saw an opportunity to advance his own political career and he now starts making public speeches segregating the Serbs from Albanians in Kosovo. He started making inflammatory promises that Serbia will come to aid their brothers in Kosovo (remembering that at the time, all Kosovo residents were all Yugoslavs).
– Milosevic started to unsettle the balance that Tito so carefully nourished during his presidency, and long story short, Milosevic, was getting a little too big for his boots leading into the path to his presidency.
– In 1991, after much tension and after seeing what was happening in Kosovo, Croatia and Slovenia declared their independence from Yugoslavia.
– Milosevic didn’t like that.
– Serbian uprisings were beginning to occur all over the place, especially in Croatia.
– By now, all the Republics are importing arms and stockpiling weapons.
– Slovenia’s independence came with fewer than 100 deaths and they were left alone largely.
– Croatia was not so lucky. After declaring their independence, the Serbians residing in Croatia now declared their own independence.
– Cue ethnic cleansing in both Serbia and Croatia. Throw in Bosnia for good measure. Watch the shit storm appearing.
– The war (or extreme violence, better put) lasted between 1991 and 1993 and the number of people killed during this time is estimated to be between 130,000 and 140,000.
I hope I’ve done this breakdown some justice, as you can tell, it wasn’t a simple war, it took many different facets coming all together to finally create the perfect storm that was the breakup of Yugoslavia. If anyone is offended by my version of events, write your own blog.
My family and the escape from Yugoslavia
So, let’s get to me and my family. My older brother and I were born in Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina (so that should answer at least one of your questions about where I’m from). Both my parents were also born in Bosnia, however my mother’s family was Croatian my father’s was Serbian. Once the war started, my parents were considered to be in a mixed marriage. That was bad.
My mother was an accomplished dentist. Here is one of my favourite childhood photos of us.
For the purpose of this story, I was fortunate enough to be born into a military family because my father was an Air Force pilot. To tell his story is a totally new blog post, so we won’t go there but let’s just say he was pretty high ranking (kind of a big deal).
In 1992, seeing that things were going downhill fast, my father decided that it was time to get the family out of Mostar. My mother didn’t think that the war would escalate that quickly and I think she hoped it would all blow over. My mother stayed in Mostar, in our home, and continued working while my father took us on a little vay-cay to Tivat, Montenegro where we have family. As I was leaving our home, I turned back around to go to my room, I left my box full of make-up. My mother stopped me and said that there was no time, I’ll be back soon to play with all my things. I was six.
The next time I came to Mostar, I was 19. You can read about that in Mostar – The place I was born, the place I am a stranger.
Shortly after my father, brother and I left, the Army base in Mostar blew up. My mother’s story of leaving Mostar also deserves its own post, but I’ll give the short version.
On the day the Army base blew up, my mother was getting ready to go to work (if you’re asking how many people would like their teeth fixed during a war, the answer is probably none – my mother was working at the emergency hospital, looking after injured civilians). When someone knocked on the door, she didn’t expect to see two officers at her door giving her two choices. The proverbial blue pill and red pill.
If she chose to stay, she wouldn’t be able to leave. Borders were closing, shit was gettin’ real. She can leave with them but she had to leave then and there. So she grabbed a jacket, my father’s two service guns, a bag with some things and she left our apartment, our home, forever. We never returned to live there.
My mother arrived in Belgrade, Serbia, and declared the guns she brought with her. She was arrested, questioned for hours and finally released – sans guns. Once we were all reunited, my father returned to the airport to get his weapons back – he arrived armed with another two guns and two hand grenades! Don’t worry, it appears he was very convincing and he walked away unharmed and with what he came for. AND THAT’S HOW YOU GET SHIT DONE!
My understanding is that after being in Tivat for many months, we immigrated to Serbia and my father continued working for the Yugoslav Army, but Yugoslavia was now only Serbia and Montenegro. As the war was well and truly on, the notion that he would be fighting against his own people was not appealing. In 1995, after 17 relocations, six different schools and three years of applying for a visa to enter America, Australia or New Zealand, we left Serbia and Yugoslavia forever and came to the land of the free (and the only place that would let us in) – good ol’ Wellington, New Zealand!
This is 11 year old me, on the first day of school in my first ever uniform for Hutt Intermediate School.
We were in NZ for five years where my parents had to learn a new language and start a brand new life. I was nine, I found friends easily and fit right in with my new life. I was probably too young to realise that we weren’t going back. That realisation didn’t hit me till many years later.
In 2000, we moved to Australia. I was 14.
The war itself continued for much longer than the violence. Shit kicked up again around 1999 and the unrest was never far from our minds, or far from our family still residing in former Yugoslavia. I can happily report that none of my immediate family were hurt, but more distant family certainly didn’t go unscathed.
It took many years for me not to identify with being a displaced citizen. Although my story was sad to me, many things have happened since then and I can no longer carry the past around like it’s the only thing that’s shaped me.
But this should explain why whenever someone asks me where I’m from, I don’t take the easy way out and say that I’m Bosnian. Because I’m not. That wouldn’t do me, my past, or the legacy of Yugoslavia, any justice. That will always be a part of my identity.
I am the last generation of Yugoslavs.
But I am also a first-generation migrant to Australia.
I am immensely proud of that. My entire adulthood was spent here, I met my husband and had my children here; none of that would have been possible had my story been different or if my parents didn’t make the difficult decisions they had.
So I will go through the motions of explaining that, no, Yugoslavia doesn’t exist anymore, I wasn’t on any side, I was on the side of unity, the place I was born is now exclusively known as Bosnia, and what was the war about? Who the fuck knows. About nothing. About everything. But let’s just hope it doesn’t happen again.
And I feel I’m in the best place in the world to enable a safe, beautiful, beach-filled life for my daughters and my family.
Thanks for reading and please feel free to join the conversation in the comments section.