Cheese, Toothpaste & Fireworks

Years ago, I went for an evening walk forgetting it was a holiday weekend. Several minutes later, the neighborhood kids began lighting firecrackers at a nearby park--an ominous prelude to an evening of fireworks.  Suddenly, my mind and body were at complete odds with each another. I knew I wasn't in any danger, but my body overrode any logic and began to fall prey to the memories of my past. Loud bursts of color against the charcoal sky quickly became crackles of snipers and  explosions raining death and destruction. I started heading home, my summer stroll spiraling into an evening of tears and flinching at every cracking sound. The fireworks got so loud and intense that I couldn't walk any further and instead found myself crouching in someone's driveway with my back pressed against the garage. The cool, dusty metal of some stranger's garage door felt comforting against my clammy back. Moreover, it felt as though it was a shield offering a certain protection against the invisible perils only I could sense outside.  I had to call for a ride home that night.

I was reminded of that night this month when fireworks  in honor of Canada Day and Independence Day lit up the North American sky.  As a result, this stirred certain remnants of war I carry inside. To a survivor like me, fireworks don't evoke memories of summer BBQs and lazy evenings slumped in lawn chairs. Instead, they stir feelings of  dread and fear. To this day, my nerves twitch and pulsate at any loud, unexpected sound. They've been drilled, pulled and tattered by an unrelenting sergeant called fear.  It may sound paltry to someone unaffected by war trauma, but I've made progress since that night.  A couple of weeks ago on Canada Day, I still knew better than to take an evening stroll, but I was at least able to sit next to a tightly shut window and watch the fireworks in the distance. I've come to appreciate the party-colored choreography in the sky, but if it were up to me, I'd want the visual experience without any loud sounds or better yet, with Debussy's Claire de Lune playing in the background.

It is interesting for me to examine the various quirks and speckles of my personality which are a direct result of my experiences in Bosnia. I don't think about them often because to me they are simply the way things are. One funny 'quirk' that I've since phased out, was that upon my immediate arrival to America I had a ravenous  craving for cheese and all dairy products. The smooth, indulgent quality of various cheeses, flavored yogurt and ice-cream was a delicious antithesis to the deprivation and food monotony I had experienced in wartime. My host family swears that one particular evening I went to bed with a sizable chunk of cheese melting in my palm. I don't recall this, but I trust it is true. I figure I was  simply too delirious from creamy aged-cheddar to remember.  

During the first couple of months of my arrival to America, I had trouble stepping on grass or any unpaved surface. During the war, it was drilled into everyone not to step on grass. Many parks and nature areas became overgrown, almost jungle-like from the lack of tending which made them all the more likely hiding place for an unexploded mortar shell. In a tranquil Ohio suburbia, I was suddenly surrounded by expansive gardens and lush parks. My once imprisoned body ached to run atop soft, manicured lawns, but it took some time before my mind convinced my feet to once again trust grass. 

There are many other war remnants I could write about. My personal war menagerie still has a few pieces which are too personal, but  I hope to share them in due time. One I can share about right now is my slight obsession with having an extra tube of toothpaste stashed in the bathroom cupboard. At first glance, this may not sound like anything peculiar, but this need for a toothpaste-backup comes from the painful times when my family would squeeze out the last sticky gob of toothpaste knowing we didn't have another. Most of the stores in our once-thriving-neighborhood were destroyed or had only dusty, bare shelves on offer. A tube of toothpaste (alongside other everyday, once-taken-for-granted items) was extremely expensive on the black market. In order to be most frugal, we'd cut open the toothpaste scissoring along the seam on the bottom and the side until the tube opened up like some weird oyster revealing minty gunk inside. For days, we'd scrape our toothbrushes on the dried-up innards until all that remained was a faint smell of mint and the silver lining which began to flake and stick  to my toothbrush. To this day, I won't throw away a tube of toothpaste until it's been thoroughly used up. 

In closing, I'll confess that it feels good to be upfront and honest about the scars fate has chiseled on my life. At times I've felt embarrassed by them although I know full well they are a product of my wartime trauma. Perhaps all of us, regardless of our experiences, tend to keep our scars hidden away. Still, I believe there is something redemptive and healing in the act of revealing one's scars. Plus, and this goes back to my last post In Defiance of Cynicism, it is simply in my nature to trust that my fellow human beings will find compassion and understanding upon reading my musings and reflections.

Above all, the main reason for my posts is starting to crystallize: It is my hope that with every post I write I will help humanize today's war child. It is my hope that those readers who are fortunate enough to be safe, fed and free of war trauma, will gain a deeper understanding of the struggles that millions of children grapple with right now and the unique war legacies they'll have to learn to live with for decades to come. 

In defiance of Cynicism

A couple of weeks ago, I had a skype conversation with the director and cast of Sarajevo's Child, a play based on my book  which was about to premiere at the PortFringe Theater Festival in Portland, Maine. Just before the call, I got the same feeling I always get before sharing my story. It is a feeling of excitement at the opportunity to impart something valuable by sharing my war experiences and lessons I've gleaned over the years. I was glad to discover that the small cast of actors seemed excited to ask questions and hear my stories in greater detail. A day later, the director wrote to thank me for taking the time to speak with the cast saying that I left them "excited, inspired and with a little dose of reality" and that meeting me "moved them in a way that they will remember forever." He also noted that what he found most striking about me was my "lack of cynicism" despite the ordeal I had suffered. 

I thought about his comment and decided that the question "Why aren't I cynical? " warranted some reflection. As a lover of words and their etymologies I looked up "cynical" in the dictionary. The word "cynic" has a very interesting history and I invite you to look it up, but for the purpose of this post it's sufficient to say it comes from a Greek word kynikos which literally means  "currish" or "dog-like."  By definition, to be cynical is to be distrustful of the sincerity in other people's motives and to have a general "low opinion of humanity." 

Looking back, it is absolutely true that bearing witness to such blatant crimes of humanity could have resulted in a cynical or pessimistic view of humanity. In fact, I would be insincere if I didn't confess that during the war I sometimes plunged into excruciating periods of emotional quicksand where even at a ripe old age of 14, I believed that any fight or resistance was laughably futile. At times I felt that I, alongside every other citizen in Sarajevo, was a prisoner sentenced to imminent extermination and that it was only a matter of time when my number would be called up. 

I wrote in my Diary because I found relief and a sense of escape in recording my feelings. Still, there were times when even writing seemed pointless because I felt less like a diarist and more like a pathetic bookkeeper updating the daily ledger of death tolls and senseless tragedies. The truth is I was no stranger to pessimism and hopelessness, but I always found my way out. I credit this to the fact that I was surrounded by family, neighbors and citizens who struggled in the same way, but who showed incredible strength, resourcefulness and resilience in the face of adversity. In other words, I had plenty of role models after whom I fashioned my adolescent self. It was despite or perhaps because of the overwhelming darkness around us that we all looked within and dug deep in search of grit and grace. Ultimately, what we found was that the human spirit was our most powerful weapon. 

Today, as I read about the enormous human suffering of more than 60 million refugees around the world, I again find myself wrestling with immobilizing sadness and discouragement. Faced with such overwhelming statistics I question my own contributions for a more peaceful and just world. Doubt creeps in and I ask myself: "Am I doing my part?" "Is my contribution too paltry?" But just as I did some two decades ago, I somehow manage to find my way out of despair. I've learned early on that regardless of the complexity of the problems we face, nothing positive or productive can come from stewing in cynicism or hopelessness.

I remember when I first came to America I wasn't sure what kind of response I'd elicit from the people I'd meet there. Would they have compassion? Would they be friendly? One of my silent fears was that the students at my new high school would have trouble relating to me, connecting with me. I already felt isolated due to the fact that I was a child refugee still shell shocked by my recent experience. I also didn't speak English very well and I didn't have cool clothes and gadgets like my fellow students. On top of everything, there was this intangible yet somehow palpable sense of emotional heaviness that walked alongside me through the school hallways. Sometimes, I could feel the glances and hear the whispers by the lockers. What I didn't realize, and what ended up being one of the most encouraging lessons in humanity and compassion was that those glances weren't rooted in malevolence, but in genuine concern for my well-being and above all, genuine interest in my story. And those whispers weren't words of derision or disapproval but rather a slew of well-meaning, insightful questions. Buoyed by this realization, I began to share stories and offer answers to their questions in spite of my broken English and my obvious emotional rawness. Within a month, all of the students of Anderson High joined me in organizing a winter-clothing drive for families in Bosnia who were facing a long, harsh winter. 

Since my skype call with the cast and the director of Sarajevo's Child the young actors had 3 successful performances. The director sent me several touching pictures taken during the performance. I've read comments by audience members who attest to the powerful performance that "elicited fear, joy and above all..hope" and who urge that "this production should be seen by middle and high school students everywhere." It is indescribably moving and encouraging for me as an author and war survivor to know that these actors who have the good fortune of being strangers to war and conflict possess an earnest desire to portray not only my story, but in many ways the stories of millions of war children today.

This is another reason why I'm not cynical. Because for all the darkness and ugliness I've witnessed in my life, I've seen far more kindness and beauty. During the war, I saw power and resilience in my mother who risked her life every day to keep her job; I saw selflessness and courage in my father who stood in endless lines for bread and water as mortar shells rattled our neighborhood; I saw love and sacrifice in my brother's worn out hands as he returned from scrubbing the kitchen at the UN base where he worked in order to bring us food. 

In the two decades I've been living in North America, I've been fortunate to draw encouragement from readers and audiences who learn about my story and who feel compassion and often urgency to act for the betterment of their society. It is a beautiful synergy that takes place when my unique, but in many ways universal experience of human survival causes people to connect and see each other more for our striking similarities than for our differences. In these days of terrifying headlines and staggering statistics it is these connections that banish cynicism and offer hope and purpose.

 

 

 

 

The fragility of Hope. The necessity of Kindness.

I read stories about children of war almost every single day. I've developed this habit organically, out of deep compassion for their plight . My fierce interest is not only due to the fact that I was once a child of war myself. It is amplified by the tragic fact that children remain the most innocent yet often entirely voiceless victims of world conflicts. I feel a deep sense of responsibility to keep informed about them. As I read update after update by NGOs, the UNHCR and various media outlets, I am painfully struck by the similarities of the kinds of trauma children all over the world experience due to wars and violence. The country, the year of conflict, the circumstances are different, but their lives of deprivation and devastation are tragically universal.

Even in pictures , there are striking similarities between war children. Their bodies often curl inwards as they sit or sleep clutching a toy or a ratty belonging. I recognize myself in them, I recognize that desperate instinct to try to to make yourself smaller, more compact. As if that will somehow make you safer, a bit less exposed to the chaos outside. I search their eyes and at first I see the distress from what they've seen. I search a bit further and see their desperate questioning "WHY?" and "Is this really happening to me?" From experience, I know that at some point, the fear and the questions in their eyes will make room for the irreversibly painful knowledge that we as humans are capable of so much destruction. 

There are over 60 million displaced people today, many of them children. These figures are beyond staggering: 60 million people, 60 million stories. They scream for our attention, our compassion, our action. Governments, leaders and citizens alike should not avert their eyes and ignore their plea. I remember writing in my diary during the siege of Sarajevo. At first I was so hopeful that the world and its good people would stop the attacks on civilians, but then as time passed, my hope grew pale and I began to feel frustration, even anger, as the world remained inert and silent. Throughout the long three and a half years of living in fear and in a constant grip of anxiety, my hope sank, rose, sank and rose again. At times, even at the young age of 14, I felt numb, almost resigned to a slow and painful extermination.

Still, as we say in Bosnian "Nada je zadnja koja umire" ("Hope dies last") and so despite my struggles, I'd grab and clutch any shred of hope I could. I was heartened and inspired by the kindness of strangers (one example was my pen pal Gregoire from France who wrote me letters and sent the most wonderful box of candy and school supplies) and the help of organizations such as UNICEF which provided food, warm blankets and clothing. I remember being very touched by the special visit from Audrey Hepburn, UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador, who shared her own childhood traumas from WW II as she appealed for the cessation of bombings. Sadly, countless attempts at ceasefire, peace treaties and appeals for protection of children fell prey to senseless violence and aggression. Still I hung onto hope that one day peace would prevail.

I know that millions of children today in their war-torn countries and crowded refugee camps struggle to hold onto any shred of hope that someone is going to help them. Like many of you, I often ask myself: "How can I help?" Being a child of war I feel a deep sense of camaraderie and moral responsibility to do my part in advocating for war children. Sharing my story and giving speeches in schools and universities has offered me a sense of satisfaction in knowing that in some small way, I help inform and educate others about the plight of children. I believe that education and information are the first step to bringing about change. 

It has been enlightening for me to live in the West for the past 20 years. I have gained a unique perspective of what it feels like to be living in peace and comfort as people in many other parts of the world experience struggles similar,or worse, than I did. I know that most of us have busy lives, families, jobs and responsibilities. There are many people who are struggling to feed their own families and pay bills regardless of the fact that they live in a prosperous and free society. We all have hopes, dreams, fears, challenges, illnesses, anxieties. You don't have to be a victim of war to experience struggle or loss. But I also know that there are so many well-meaning people who want to help, but who feel overwhelmed and unsure of how to make a difference.

From my experience, I can honestly tell you that no kindness is too small to imbue some much needed hope into the hearts of traumatized children. There have been countless examples such as young school children sending colorful cards and letters to refugee children in camps, communities sending clothing, blankets and supplies, people giving monetary donations to numerous NGOs such as UNICEF, Red Cross and Save the Children. With a number of refugees arriving to Canada there have been many wonderful stories of volunteers welcoming families, helping them adjust to their new home, helping them learning a new language.

In the face of such global human crises, I hope we will choose compassion over apathy, action over inert silence.

I hope each one of us will find a way to offer hope, to offer kindness.

Peace,

Nadja

P.S. There are many wonderful NGOs working to help, but one very dear to my heart is UNICEF. Here is the link if you are able to volunteer or donate: http://www.unicef.org/

 

The beginning..

For years it seems, I have been resistant to writing a blog.

It's partly because I was uncertain of whether anyone out there would be interested in reading what I have to say. It is also partly due to the fact that over the course of my life, writing has been inextricably linked to some of my most emotional and traumatic experiences.  At times, writing felt like a perilous task associated with times of deep emotional upheaval and perhaps as such, a task best avoided. Still, throughout the years, I've come to learn that writing often brought me peace and an escape.

During the war in Bosnia, as a teenager grappling with daily and grim realities of life under siege, writing was my way of surviving, a way of preserving my sanity when so much around me seemed senseless and inhumane. Daily I wrote about bombings and the loss of human life. I wrote about my daily heartbreaks and the deprivations I faced every day which stung and reminded of a life that I once took for granted, a life that included freedom, running water and electricity and abundant food. I shared my deepest fears and anxieties, as well as some unexpected joys that arose in spite of the suffering. Quickly, my notebook became a trusted friend, my secret oasis to which I fled on countless occasions when my apartment building shook and heaved under the heavy bombing. As I silently prayed for my safety and the safety of my family, I was gripping the pen and my Diary as though they were my passage to safety, my poignant protectors.  Or, I thought, if I am to die in the bombing, at the very least something tangible will remain of me saying: "I was here. I felt each and every one of these explosions, and I had thoughts and feelings worth recording."

After I escaped the war at 16 and came to live in America, I found myself grappling with another kind of reality: a new country, new language, new family, new school...Again, I fled to the empty pages of my Diary and again, I found relief and companionship I needed in order to adjust to my new environment. Of course, I was very fortunate to be surrounded by a wonderful host family, helpful teachers and fellow students. I experienced many adventures and joys along the way, which were only made sweeter when I recorded them in my Diary.

After finishing high school and entering university, I stopped writing my Diary. It happened naturally and it didn't feel like a big loss or a sudden abandonment, but rather like moving away to another city, away from your best friend whom you knew would always be there, ready to pick up exactly where you left off. I was too busy anyway writing long papers and studying, and it was then that I really fell in love with English literature. I took a few English courses and one in particular "Creative Writing," really gripped me and yanked me back to the act of daily writing (this time prose and poetry.) I felt so consumed by it that at times I feared I had picked a wrong major. I went to school for Vocal Performance and Theater and although my love for both has been undeniable, the pull of the written word was at times dizzying.

It was around this time that I finished translating my already published book from Bosnian to English in the hopes of having it published in North America. It ended up being a journey of almost 10 years before My Childhood Under Fire: A Sarajevo Diary saw the light of day. Needless to say it has brought tremendous joy to my life to have people across the world reading my book, learning about the conflict in Bosnia and receiving my message of peace and tolerance. Since the first book, I've had dreams of publishing another one, and as I type this, I can see in the corner of my eye a stack of drafts and manuscripts that I plunged into writing, only to pause and restart writing again over the years.

And this brings us to today. As I sit here in my comfortable apartment, as May sunshine shyly bathes my desk, wars and conflicts still rage on in various parts of our planet and  almost identical traumas to those I faced some 20 years ago, are felt by millions of civilians, especially children.

I see myself in their stories and in their eyes I see in photographs every day. I read reports by various media and NGO organizations, and I not only sympathize with the victims and their current struggles as survivors or refugees, but I also have the unique perspective of knowing what it might be like for those children some 10 or 20 years from now when if they are fortunate to survive the carnage, they are left with the remnants of war and the trauma that still rages inside them.

How will they cope? Will they find positive, constructive and therapeutic ways to deal with it? Will they be nurtured by new found friends, families and communities as I was once lucky to have? Will they struggle with simple daily things like a sudden flashback of an explosion or be fearful of lightning and fireworks? Will they feel like they don't quite belong having seen and felt so much at such a young age? Will they become activists ever more passionate about sowing seeds of peace precisely because of having felt (and still feeling!) the searing wound of their own lost innocence?

These are the questions that arise in my mind as I look at the headlines and the latest updates by UNICEF and UNHCR. Their stories bring back memories forever etched in my mind and in the pages of my war Diary. They bring thoughts, ideas and reflections that I hope are worth reading and sharing.

So....I hope you will take some time out of your day to come on this journey with me.

Peace,

Nadja