Young woman with dark hair sits on rail with hills and trees in the background

Childhood in the Mountains Before the Yugoslav War

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By Adriana Ivezaj

Growing up I lived in a country called Yugoslavia, in a popular tourist city named Podgorica. Our city was surrounded by bodies of water so blue and unreal-looking and mountains outlining the city borders. It was beautiful, it was one of the many reasons our beloved city was filled with tourists. It was a big city filled with houses, stores, and lots of apartment buildings. All our buildings were built so close together that we became a tight-knit community. Everyday my family and I would go to a different house from the neighborhood and I would watch my parents drink Turkish coffee. There were very few occasions other than sleeping, that you would see people indoors. The streets were always full of life, laughter always traveled around and could be heard for miles. Even on the coldest of days, when snow would beat down and chill the ground, kids and adults would be seen playing outside making snow angels, building snowmen, or even having snowball fights.   

I never had much as a child. We had to use our imagination and play with the rocks and sticks that were around us, but I was grateful – my heart was full. One of my favorite things to do to do was climb up the mountain and make my way over to my grandparents’ house. Because of school, I was frequently busy, and could only visit them on weekends. A routine was established between us which consisted of greeting each other, then helping with the farm work (milking cows and sheep, feeding the animals, etc.), after I would help harvest the crops and food. Potatoes, tomatoes, figs, pears, and, really, any crop or vegetable you could think of covered my grandparents’ massive yard. It was hard and exhausting work but lifting that weight off my grandparents’ shoulders and getting a tableful of my favorite dishes was worth every minute of it. It really was rewarding to know that everything we cooked and ate was homemade and grown from our backyard.

Family gatherings were a big part of my life. We would gather around and listen to grandpa’s stories, fight over who was sleeping over at grandma’s, and swim in the river that was about forty feet from my home. Life has always been so precious to me. Quite often, I would stop and admire nature. I would feel the grass beneath my feet, see the vibrant colored flowers around the garden, and feel the warm, refreshing breeze that welcomed me home on my face.

Change was quick. It was so sudden that it rocked me to my core. I never thought my life full of laughter and no worries would change drastically into a life of constant fear. The Yugoslav Wars started in the year 1992, where a sequence of separate wars were fought, wars of rebellion and independence. After the war started, we hoped and prayed for a miracle of some sort. We so desperately craved change, but nothing got better in the years to come. Shortly after, the Serbians set up a base close to our house. They required my father to serve in the war and would call upon him when he was needed. Montenegro had not yet been involved in the war, but its people were used as pawns to go fight battles in other states for Serbia. It felt like a betrayal to our Balkan people, we were deeply conflicted fighting against our brothers and sisters from Macedonia, Croatia, and Bosnia. We were in a constant state of confusion and fear for the unknown. It was excruciatingly painful saying goodbye to my father and uncle and watching them leave, for we never knew if they would make it back. No contact was allowed, so we could only hope for their safe return. Landmines, which are explosive devices placed underground, were placed all along my neighborhood and at different parts of Montenegro. It had become so unsafe to walk outside that all public transportation and buildings, like school, were shut down. We would see debris from the explosives all around our backyard and other houses not too far from us. I can still remember the vivid memory of my mother telling me one of our neighbors had been blown up and decapitated as a result of the mines below our feet. I was revolted and in absolute shock. Nothing could have prepared me for that. It quickly became clear we needed to leave, not only for our safety, but our sanity.

It took a while, but after an excruciating time of waiting, my aunt obtained documents for all of us to come to the United States of America. After a few months of testing and screening to make sure we were in perfect condition to enter the U.S., we were finally approved to leave Montenegro. We quickly packed and I left for New York with my parents and three brothers. Traveling light with only essentials was a priority, so I only packed my favorite pairs of clothes and shoes. I remember looking back at my home and thinking we would return, I left believing we were going on a vacation and would return shortly. Little did I know that I would never return to the place I once called home. My favorite pieces of jewelry, my personal items, all objects showing my family’s existence were wiped away. I remember the empty feeling in the pit of my stomach that had me distraught and anxious for the unknown. Being a kid, little senseless things crossed my mind to occupy my thoughts during the journey, things like wondering if I would fit in or if I would like America. I was both stressed, and thankful for these distractions. 

When we got to America, a weight I hadn’t known I was harboring finally left my shoulders. I was relieved, yet I felt contradicted, empty even. I felt guilty for the ones we left behind – the ones who we couldn’t acquire documents for. It was incredibly hard at the time to receive documents, because the Embassy was shut down and the only option left was to travel to Serbia in hopes of getting a visa; even then, there was no guarantee. So, my loving grandparents, my considerate uncle and his family were all left to live in the conflict of war among these newly formed states. Not a day went by where I didn’t feel grief and concern for the ones we left behind. I sat in uncertainty, never knowing if I had already shared my final moments with them – if they would just become a distant memory, only to be remembered and cherished by their loved ones. 

Today, I rest easy knowing I’m safe and surrounded by the people I care most about. I am grateful that of all places we could have gone to, we went to a country so beautiful and accepting. A country that cherishes and celebrates each person’s uniqueness and culture. I have made this place my home, my safe haven. I flourished under undesirable circumstances and came out a successful businesswoman who has her husband and five kids by her side. At the time, I didn’t know coming to this country would be what I needed to start my life, a life that I truly aspired for myself. My American dream came true and at the age of 43 I have more than I could ever ask for. I feel as if life could not get any better. I have made a life for myself here and all I want to do now is pave a way for my kids and raise them, making sure they have everything they could possibly need to succeed. My only wish is to make sure my children feel safe and content: I want to ensure all the pain and heartbreak I have felt throughout my childhood is never reciprocated.

Traveling has now become a big part of my life. I gained perspective and never want to take my life for granted; instead, I want to travel the world and see all the beauty in life and what each experience has to offer. I travel for enjoyment instead of escape. No matter where I go though, I believe I will never feel as safe and welcome as I do when I’m in the United States. The Yugoslav Wars brought destruction, pain, and took away my freedom, but America took away all my burdens, nurtured me, and gave me back my freedom. She helped develop me into the woman I am today, and even if I was given the chance, I would not reside in my Motherland. My past is kept with me and will never be forgotten, but it does not define me, and it certainly does not hold me back. I am free like the wind and resilient like a river. 

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