What Is War

This essay, originally comissioned by the daily newspaper SME and now authorially translated from the Slovak original, has been published on the Visegrad Revue in a slightly edited form. It touches on my experiences with war, its incomprehensibility and the reality of being a refugee. Here is the essay as originally intended.

Being a refugee is, ultimately, a frame of mind. A frame that, all the way from the first liberating breath on a territory viscerally defined by an absence of existential threats, differentiates. A frame cutting both ways — compelling one not only to self-reflect and retreat within, but also to observe outwardly and look for an interpretation of why one’s newly-found surroundings are so different. On the one hand, a predicament that bestows a detached critical perspective on host country’s affairs, yet, on the other, a predicament which one guiltily and soul-crushingly abhors since it reeks of ungratefulness towards a nation that offered help and asked for nothing in return.

Therefore, in exchange for the safety, a new chance for a life, and a citizenship that it granted me, if Slovakia ever asks of me more than just my taxes and obedience of its laws, I would put forward the most precious thing I have: a recounting of my family’s experiences with war and my sincerest wish that nothing of the kind ever happens to you or your children.

In 1992, the year the fighting broke out in Bosnia, my parents were just another typical couple among the pre-war twenty-somethings. Their off-to-a-good start newlywed lives, manifested by the two blond-haired preschoolers running around the living room, were a unique contribution to the generational testimony of the ’80s socialist Yugoslavia. They had it all: a prospering restaurant; a house with a spacious backyard and a creek under its windows; friends; savings; a familial safety net — and a bright future within grasp. By the sheer force of their will, my parents have molded their circumstance into reality that many an enamored Yugoslav couple dreamt of; and they did not plan on letting go of their grip on it. This family life, calmly unfolding all around them, was real and no one of a sane mind would doubt it’s longevity — a longevity seemingly categorically irreconcilable with the threat of an armed conflict and ethnic cleansing that the whole world was about to watch on live TV only a few days later.

The prospect of a full out war was simply unthinkable. Even the first signs, the unending convoys of buses crammed with refugees from Eastern Bosnia where the war started a few months sooner, could not sway the belief in the security of our own lives. The buses stopped next to our house and the people — palpably scared and evidently unprepared for the long journey to the unknown — asked to use our toilet: one woman after another to the house, one man after another to the creek.

Propaganda, radicals and unyielding, nationalistically principled exclamations of the power-hungry politicians and generals were slowly inching towards Sarajevo. Reports of forced displacement, property confiscations and deaths multiplied, nevertheless the multiethnic and idealistic capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina simply couldn’t fathom the eventuality of one ethnic group fighting another after four decades of peace and coöperation.

There was no time to pack our family photographs or the little trinkets; to say goodbye or to think about the news and their consequences. The date is 18th April 1992. A cowboy movie is playing on TV, we’re drinking tea, my mom and my grandma are sitting on the couch in their nightgowns. Suddenly, bright yellow lines appear behind the windows. I’m six and my first naïve thought is of New Year’s fireworks. I look towards my mom just as the realization of what’s going on dawns on her face. It’s bullets. What follows still remains a blur. An explosion of grenades, crawling under the table, a night on the cold windowless hall of my grandma’s flat.

It’s 19th April. All the passes leading out of the mountainous Sarajevo are being blocked by Serbian units, but miraculously, we manage to slip out. Our first stop is Vojvodina, an autonomous region in the north of Serbia where my grandma’s Slovak relatives lived. Kulpín, my father’s maternal village, was meant only as a temporary refuge. When things calm down, we are going to come back and continue where we left off, my parents kept on saying. In spite of facing the danger — grenades on the streets of Sarajevo, images from the front-lines and forced evictions of entire villages on the borders of Serbia — they could not bring themselves to believe, that the real conflict will truly break out. These were just skirmishes — they said — no one will let this happen, the West will laugh at us, the West will intervene, surely the friend that I drank my coffee with every morning is not suddenly going to become my enemy.

Day by day the situation worsens and we realize we cannot stay in Serbia any longer. My dad’s aunt that lives in Germany offers to put us up at her seaside house on the Island of Rab in Croatia and, after a convoluted mess of borrowing relatives’ cars and sleeping over at their places in Zagreb and Ljubljana, we finally arrive safe and sound.

Some locals don’t hesitate and share with us their belief that we are making this war business up and that our being on their island is solely to take advantage of the free swims and the nice vistas of the shores lined with palm trees. Not even the opening of a Red Cross emergency station, where me and my brother are given double-breasted winter coats donated by caring Italian families, manages to convince them of our predicament’s precariousness. We don’t blame them as not even us fully comprehend what’s going on. My father wants to go back to fight for our lost life, for our house and for everything we left behind, but ultimately realizes his own mortality and choses to try securing his children’s future.

We eat the Red Cross spaghetti with ketchup every day. Winter at the seaside house is unbearable: the freezing damp wind keeps on blowing through the inch-wide gaps between the floor and badly insulated French doors and we continually try to stuff them with coarse blankets received from charity. Someone scrounges an electric heater which we crowd around for weeks at an end.

Sporadically, news from the family and friends comes in. Some eded up in Macedonia with do-gooders that picked them up from the street, some stayed in Sarajevo to fight. Many did not manage to escape and were forced to raise their newborns in the cellars of high-rises while listening to incessant gunfights above. And the ones living on Croat borders are given the opportunity to get Croat passports — provided they renounce their faith and publicly convert to Catholicism. Facing the possibility of death, they call it a humiliation without a choice and ultimately take the deal.

We have no money — and getting a job is next to impossible. My grandma’s Slovak roots prove to be a blessing as she is able to contact an acquaintance at Matica Slovenská, a cultural institution of the country, and persuades a clerk to fax us an invitation letter to enter the country. We arrive to Slovakia in a blue van on December 26th 1992. We’re not sure about anything as our lives are defined by existential stress: we don’t know the country; there is no time or capacity for self-reflection, philosophy, understanding, thought-out stances or rational reactions. We have lost everything and are forced to start from scratch in a country the language of which we don’t speak, the habits of which are unfamiliar to us, and which itself does not know where it’s headed after going through the Velvet Revolution. 

And all of this is playing out in the midst of a peculiar historical constellation. While Slovakia just recently split peacefully with Czech Republic, Yugoslavia experiences a disintegration leading to a violent war filled with victims and confused refugees. Reality is being shaped by bizarre analogies of two stupefied cultures going through an existential re-birth among which thousands of families find themselves between a rock and a hard place. We are all looking for a safe spot under the sun: Yugoslavia by way of a bloody conflict, Slovakia by trying to ease the friction between the totalitarianism and an unexperienced democracy marred by organized crime. The space that we shared was, in a way, analogous for all of us: filled with uncertainty and hazy future prospects. Admittedly, these are bizarre analogies, but ultimately, historical perspective has a strange way of binding together things seemingly diametrically disparate.

These days, more than 20 years after arriving to Slovakia, with greater clarity than ever before, I understand that the accidental chance we were given at the beginning of the uncertain ‘90s could’ve never materialized. Yet, war is not just a singular event where the signing of a peace treaty brings true closure. War marks you for life. Those who never left Bosnia are marked by the two following decades of economic malaise and societal paralysis, by uncontrollable flashes of memory and unforeseeable consequences recapped and played out daily in the trams of Sarajevo, in its coffee houses, in state offices and during desperate unrests on its streets. Bosnian peoples’ future is still uncertain, frozen in the same place it was at the war’s end in 1995.

And those of us who ended up in Germany or Austria, or as in our case, Slovakia, the war forced to give up worldly possessions, our trust in the system, dreamed-up lives — and bullied us into starting from the real, hunger-fueled square one. It strong-armed us into asking for charity from strangers; into overcoming our pride for a chance to survive; into ignoring the feelings of estrangement, uprooting and historical injustice perpetrated on us; into ignoring biting remarks of resentful individuals and the obstructions of the system; and, ultimately, into forgiving in the most difficult of places since living with hate is not living at all. And us, the children of the refugees, the war relegated to a life of hybrid identities belonging a bit everywhere, yet not really here, nor there.

And thus, if someone asks: “How did it all affect you; do you see things differently?” I respond with a gratitude for a Slovakia that did not recoil from fear at a critical moment and extended a helping hand towards us. And with a strong conviction, I add, that this hand needs to be extended towards other people in need again and again.