Survivors from Yugoslavia's wars remember the people who saved their lives
During several years of traversing the war zones in Bosnia, Croatia, and Serbia, Belgrade physician Svetlana Broz gathered stories: stories of terror and death, but also stories of people aided or rescued by their supposed ethnic enemies.
The horrible conflict in this town between the Croats and Muslims started for me on June 30, 1993, although objectively speaking, it had begun a month and a half earlier. On that day in June, on the west side of town, all Muslims from the ages of 16 to 65 were transported to a camp. Due to my first name and surname, which couldn’t be identified as belonging to a particular religion, as well as my place of birth, I wasn’t included in this roundup. I stayed in my flat, but I didn’t know whether to be relieved or not. That was the most horrible night of my life. Screaming and moaning could be heard as children and wives were left without their fathers, sons, and husbands. I don’t know how I managed to get through the night. I left my flat in the morning, hoping I could reach the hospital where I worked; I knew I couldn’t stay hidden waiting for another knock on the door. But as soon as I stepped outside I came upon a painful sight—I was surrounded by members of the Croatian Defense Council Forces. Many of them were neighbors, young men I saw every day. I stood in my tracks, numbly waiting to be arrested, but nothing happened.
It seemed like an eternity before I saw a neighbor unlocking his car door. He noticed me and took the key out, as though he were coming over to me; but then he turned back. I stood speechless, giving no sign that I expected help.
He made the decision himself: He approached me and said, "What are you doing here?"
"I’m going to work," I muttered.
"Get in the car. I’ll give you a lift," he said with a trembling voice.
"Do you know what you’re doing?" I warned him in a low voice. "You have daughters. You may get into trouble. Think carefully!"
"I’m doing this for my daughters! My children and yours grew up together. If I don’t help you now, I won’t be able to look into their eyes as long as I live."
For me that offer of a ride to safety was a flash of light stronger than the flash of any artillery shell. It shines still today.
Zora Udovcic (Serb)
I used to live in Novska with my husband and two sons. The town was part of Croatia, and as Serbs we felt more and more unsafe there after war broke out. Our eldest son was completing his obligatory service with the Serbian military and our younger son was 15. With the situation getting worse, we sent him to live with my sister in Bosnia, where we hoped he would be safer.
The trouble came to a head in October 1991, when a worried neighbor, a Croatian woman, came to our apartment and said: "You must leave town now! They’ve started taking Serbs away to a camp!" I started packing, but my neighbor insisted that it was too dangerous to take anything. She said they were arresting anyone on the street who they suspected were trying to get away. I told her we had no money for the trip. Sobbing and hugging me, she slipped me a rolled-up bill as we left. Terrified, I had nothing but a purse full of our documents and her 50 deutsche mark note clutched in my hand.
We got out of town and made it to a village where we lived as refugees until April 1992. Our younger son spent all that time in Zenica, Bosnia, with his aunt. As soon as we realized that war was about to break out in Bosnia as well, my fear for him became unbearable. I pleaded with my husband to go get the boy, but he said there was no way that a man eligible for military service could go. I’d never make it," he said. "They’d pick me up along the way."
My maternal instinct overrode my fears, and I set out myself. I hitchhiked to Tuzla but couldn’t go any further. Buses had stopped running to Zenica, and taxi drivers refused to make the trip. Desperate, I sat down on the sidewalk and burst into tears. A stranger came over, a middle-aged man, and asked me what was wrong. I told him how desperate I was to reach my son and looked at him with hope.
"You’re really asking the impossible," he answered. "There are barricades up every few miles, and armed men at every checkpoint. No one will drive you."
I sobbed miserably. After a moment he told me to get in his car: He’d see what he could do.
I sat as if hypnotized as Tuzla fell farther and farther behind. He told me he’d try to get through on the special transport roads that ran through the woods—if they weren’t already barricaded. All I said, over and over, was that I had to reach my son. I never even asked the stranger for his name.
Early that evening we pulled up in front of my sister’s house. My sister was overjoyed and wanted us to stay, but the stranger insisted that we had no time—we had to be back by dark. In the car my son and I talked about what had happened in the year since we’d seen each other. Every so often I’d remember the stranger and look up to see his kindly eyes as he drove in silence. I didn’t even notice that we’d already driven straight through Tuzla. Intoxicated by my joy, I was startled when he finally spoke.
"This is as far as I can go," he said. "The Serbian barricades are just beyond the next curve. You’ll have to do that part on foot."
I thanked him and asked him what I owed him.
"Nothing," he answered. "Your happiness and your son’s are all the payment I need."
As we walked to the Serbian barricades, his car sped back toward town. Only much later did I put two and two together and realize that he had to stop because he was not a Serb.
Ahmet Gobeljic (Muslim)
Four Serb fighters came into our flat one night in the beginning of October 1992. I lived alone with my mother. It was forbidden to lock the door, and even if we did lock it they would break in simply by kicking the door in with their boots. They searched the whole flat without saying anything. As they found no money or jewels or weapons, one of them attacked me with a knife. All our neighbors heard the noise and the uproar, but nobody dared come out to protect us. Only one, Milan, was brave enough. He put a cardboard box on his head so none of our neighbors could recognize him and ran to the police station.
"Some fools are attacking my neighbors!"
He didn’t say "my Muslim neighbors," but simply "my neighbors."
We had a close call—it was a matter of seconds. The soldiers couldn’t make up their minds whether to kill us with a knife or throw us from the 15th floor. They had just about decided when, luckily, the police arrived and pounded on the door.
We owe it to our friend Milan that we left town alive. He helped a lot of people in this war. When he heard what had happened, he said, &;quot;Regardless of the fact that I am on the Serbian side in some things, I would never permit anybody to abuse or kill my neighbors, friends, and fellow citizens for the sake of ‘ideals.’"