The Scoop - Resilient
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"We were always crying, always." - Jovana Grozdanic
Many childhood memories conjure up innocent images of catching fireflies at dusk and playing stick ball with neighborhood kids. But, for Jovana Grozdanic, a Serbian girl who grew up in Croatia and then Kosovo, childhood memories consist of fear, absolute destruction and war.
“I remember the sky being red from the bombs,” Grozdanic, 17, said. “We always heard little pops during the night. It looked like fireworks, but it wasn’t pretty.”
The bloodshot skies above the former communist state of Yugoslavia resulted from a series of events spanning the decade of the 90s. The republics of Serbia and Croatia marked the epicenter of the conflict. Tensions reached a boiling point with Slobodan Milosevic’s rise to the Serbian Presidency in 1989 and the Croatian Parliament’s announcement of a new Constitution in 1990.
The ethnic Serbs in Croatia consequently seceded in 1991, establishing the Republic of Serbian Krajina (RSK). The Croatian government declared the act a rebellion and ordered military forces to quell the uprising.
Enter the Grozdanic family. Grozdanic was born on January 15, 1991, in the rural village of Zegar, Croatia. Her family lived a normal life before war erupted in its backyard. Nevnka Grozdanic cared for her two young children, Jovana, age four, and Jovan, age three, while her husband Cedomir carried out his Serbian military conscription in the Croatian mountain region of Velebit in the summer of 1995.
The fighting lasted four years until Croatia upped the ante against the RSK in August 1995 by launching "Operation Storm." The increased military campaign overran the remaining RSK forces and led to the ethnic cleansing of an estimated 200,000 Serbs within a four-day timeframe. The Croatian government systematically claimed previously occupied Serb territory and left the Serbian minority no choice but to flee.
“If you were Serbian, you had to leave,” Mrs. Grozdanic said. “It didn’t matter if you were a child or an old person; you would be killed. It was a massacre.”
Mrs. Grozdanic and her mother gathered the two children and whatever supplies they could, leaving behind the family’s home and belongings. The four escaped on a neighbor’s tractor, which was the only source of transportation in their farm community, and headed south to the Bosnian border. Thousands of Serbs followed suit, and suddenly families and tractors lined the often-empty roads.
“Everyone was leaving,” Mrs. Grozdanic said. “There were several hundred thousand people leaving at the same time. I was so scared for my kids, but I was young and I didn’t know what to think. The Croatian army was so close.”
The family persevered through bouts of bad weather, no shelter and minimal food and water for 12 days. Generous village residents along the Bosnian route saw the refugees’ plight and offered assistance. But supplies were limited because of the thousands of Serbs moving throughout the land. The two children were constantly hungry. Any food the family scrounged was usually prepared on the ground and had often gone bad.
“We were always crying, always,” Grozdanic said. “We didn’t eat much for almost half a month. My stomach was always hurting. I do remember that.”
The children found solace in two stuffed animals their uncle had given them just weeks before the escalation. Other than these small tokens, normal life failed to exist. To live through this ordeal depended on luck and self-preservation. The Grozdanic family had both.
The family eventually reached the Bosnian border, where Mr. Grozdanic reunited with the other members after relinquishing his military post. The Republic of Serbia became well aware of the consequences surrounding the latest military advancement. Families quickly sent members to the Bosnian border to search out relatives.
Fortunately, Grozdanic’s great uncle spotted the weary family and offered to take the young children back to the Serbian capital of Belgrade. The children could go, but the parents were forced to ride in the tractor for an additional five days due to lack of space. The family reunited in Belgrade at the end of August 1995.
Mr. Grozdanic decided to start anew and moved his family by train to Kosovo’s capital, Pristina, in October. Kosovo remained a province of the Socialist Republic of Serbia. The family pursued its new life with the assistance of the United Nations, which provided support for thousands of Serbian refugees during this time. The Grozdanics’ new home consisted of a back room located within a sports-convention center turned makeshift relief site.
The family lived in the austere quarters with four other families for six months before the Serbian government coordinated an assisted-living program. The adverse living arrangements continued when the family of four moved into a 10-by-12-foot hotel room.
“I was happy because we were alive,” Mrs. Grozdanic said. “We could all be dead just like that. We were lost. It wasn’t easy to make a decision on what we were going to do going forward.”