The following text is a translated transcript, taken from a final presentation given during the Online Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian Summer School of 2021.
The first thing you need to know about my grandma Zijada is that she is a woman of her time. By “a woman of her time”, I really mean that she wasn't the kind of person to speak out against anything. The list of what to listen to went in the following order: Allah, her mother, and then her husband. Everybody else was an afterthought.
Of course, that was her when she still cared. Now she says that she is too old, too tired, and most importantly, too bored to listen to anybody. This means her favourite hobbies are talking about herself and talking about why you should never listen to others.
The second thing you need to know about my grandmother is that she worked in the same company as my grandfather. He bought local produce for the company to resell. She kept the documents in order. My grandmother, grandfather, aunt, and mother lived in a tiny town called Počitelj, but nobody stayed there. School was in another tiny town called Čapljina, and eventually in a bigger city called Mostar; work was across the Croatian border, in Metković, a 30-minute drive away. Počitelj was the base they dragged you back into when you got tired.
The reason this is important is because, from the day she started working to the day she went into her pension, Zijada refused to wear any shoes that didn’t have a heel. She told me that the flattest pair of shoes she had was still three centimetres tall, ad verbatim. These little things gave her a joy in life. Being able to wear heels. Having expensive purses. Suit sets and the latest fashion of hats. If you couldn’t tell by now, my grandmother used to be a looker.
When the war in Bosnia really kicked off, she took all her shoes, paired them up in their individual boxes, and placed them in an upstairs room for safekeeping. The shoes with three-centimetre heels, she wore around the empty house. You could hear the heels clicking against the fake floors as Zijada cleaned the house, a metronome as her husband smoked next to her in silence.
As soon as they had a way out, my aunt and my mother had taken a bus out of Bosnia. My grandmother had sewn hundred-mark bills into the waistbands of their jeans. It was the only idea she had to hide the money. My mother took that bus all the way to another tiny town that she won’t tell me the name of. I know is that it was close to Italy and inside Croatia. She spent months stuck there, sleeping during the day and waking up at night, so nobody would notice two extra bodies moving around.
There was no way of reaching them except by phone, but there was no phone, except a select few in the capital city, Sarajevo. There was no way to get to the capital city, except for one.
When my grandmother made that decision to walk the 150-kilometre trip to Sarajevo, no matter what, she broke her two rules. First, she had the largest and greatest fight of her life against her husband, who forbid her to go. He said she was still his wife, and had to listen to him. She said that they still had children, so if he wanted to worry about new kids, he could go find a new wife. Second, she had to either wear flat shoes for the first time in a decade, or walk the three-day trip from Počitelj to Sarajevo in heels. I guess blisters on her feet meant more than looking nice.
There was still no way to get new shoes. She contacted one of her old colleagues living nearby, and asked her to bring a pair of flat shoes from Čapljina. It took that colleague three days to figure out how to buy flat shoes, shoes that would be good for hiking, and send it to Počitelj without being noticed. As soon as those shoes came, my grandfather threw his hands up and said he wouldn't even try anymore. She was free to do as she pleased, and if that meant taking an impossible trip across the country, just for the chance of maybe calling her daughters in the middle of a war, then she could do that in any pair of shoes she wanted.
My grandmother left that same night.
There was a guide, taking people from across the country all the way to Sarajevo. These people were desperate. On that first night, the guide told the group of mostly women to stand at least five metres apart. This was their version of social distancing: if foreign forces caught sight of the group, they would start launching grenades in their direction. Five metres apart didn’t just mean they would be harder to hit. It also meant that if one person got hit, shrapnel wouldn't reach anybody else.
My grandmother told me that some of the woman stopped their journey there. They couldn’t handle the idea of not reaching their destination. The guide waited for those women to leave, and then he turned around and started walking. The group walked throughout the first night and most of the second day. Some of the woman started complaining, right around dawn, but stopped when the guide told them to be quiet.
This is still a point of pride for Zijada. Her feet hurt as well, of course. But this was something she was used to. Heels and her husband had taught her how to stay silent. She was able to make this terrible journey without saying a single word.
But they had to stop eventually. The second night, they spent in a wooden cabin in Jablanica. This cabin was completely disconnected from the rest of the world. It was in the middle of the woods. The forest here was full of thick, old trees. Walking five metres apart in forests like these meant some of the women got lost.
Imagine, please, just for a moment—you’re alone, surrounded by trees that have been growing for God knows how long. The only people next to you are strangers. You’ve been walking for a whole day and a whole night. Your feet hurt. You don’t dare call out for help. It was up to you to find your way to the cabin. So, you did. But once you got inside the cabin, you were able to whisper.
The women talked about the plans they had, once they reached the city. One woman was visiting her brother. Another woman was trying to find a way out of the country. My grandmother told them she was trying to call her daughters. These women spent the night sleeping next to each other. They woke up before the sun rose and kept walking.
My grandmother never discovered their names. It was just one of those things.
She says the second day was the worst. It was so much harder than the first day, even though they had slept. She says that nothing could have prepared her for the backbreaking feeling of walking for two days in a row, not even growing up on a farm. Not even working a decade in heels.
They spent their next night just outside of the city, in Hadžići. Google says that the trip from Jablanica to Hadžići is 60 kilometres. Similarly, Google says that the trip from Počitelj to Jablanica is 75 kilometres. What they don’t tell you is this: most of that trip is uphill.
Počitelj is 6 metres above sea level. Mostar, which is 30 kilometres away from Počitelj, is only 60 metres above sea level. Jablanica is 45 kilometres away from Mostar, but Jablanica is 202 metres above sea level. Hadžići is 555 metres above sea level. That means that in two days, she went 500 metres upwards in elevation. And for at least three days, she had contemplated walking that journey in heels.
She made it to Hadžići. Out of the frying pan, and into the fire. Sarajevo was under siege, at the time. There was one way to get into the city, and that was with the Tunnel of Hope. Some people called it the Tunnel of Salvation, or even the Tunnel of Safety, but those were misnomers. Hope was the best thing it had. The rest was a hand-dug tunnel that flooded, that had air so thick your lungs would tear themselves apart, going underneath the airport runway from one neighbourhood outside siege lines and into another neighbourhood right inside. But you still had to get to the tunnel.
Next to the airport, there was a piece of land controlled by the United Nations. Getting there from Hadžići was the easy part. If the group wanted to get to the tunnel entrance, they would have to leave the piece of land controlled by the United Nations. They would have to run across the airport landing strip, in plain sight, with armed forces waiting to shoot at them. Sometimes people made it. Sometimes they didn’t.
The group decided to cross together, at night. This sounded like a good, strategic plan. After all, you don’t see well at night. Groups that went at night had a better chance of making it across. But that also meant this group had hours to think about what might happen.
My grandmother spent those hours reciting phone numbers. Her husband had written several numbers on a piece of paper, and that paper had spent the trip under her shirt. Before the group left the house in Hadžići, she took the paper out and held it in her hand. Just in case.
She said she had never run so fast in her life. One of her shoes fell apart, halfway across. But there were no shots. Every single person made it across the airport and to the tunnel entrance. She crossed that land twice; once running for her life above, the second crawling on her knees below.
When she popped out on the other side of the tunnel, the first thing she did was find her brother. She walked across the city to find him. He told her she was crazy for coming. She told him she needed new shoes, and chucked the shoe that had made it down a broken alleyway for the tanks to run over.
Her brother was the one who took her to a working telephone. She took that piece of paper and dialled the number that her husband had given her. She had walked over 150 kilometres just to check whether her daughters were alright. This was the moment she had used as motivation. This was the moment that would make it all worth it.
If this was a good story, this moment was perfect. I wish I could tell you that it was perfect, and everything was okay, and she got to rest for a few days before making the trip back to Počitelj. Instead, I’m telling you the truth. Her husband had given her an invalid number.
When her brother found out, he almost broke his promise of staying in Sarajevo just to take the trip back to Počitelj with her to beat my grandfather up. By the time they got back to his house, he was calm again. He sat her down, put a hat on, laced up his normal shoes, and went to talk to some people. He didn’t come back for hours. But when he came back, he was carrying another slip of paper, with a new number written down in a shaky, unfamiliar handwriting.
My grandmother refused to get her hopes up. She didn’t let herself think anything until she dialled the number, walking with her brother all the way back to the telephone line again in complete silence. But this time, when she dialled the new number, my mother picked up.
If I ask my mother about this story, she’ll say that her first reaction was to start crying. If I ask my grandmother about this story, she’ll say that my mother’s first reaction was to ask how my grandmother was even in Sarajevo, let alone calling, before they both started to cry. I’ll let you decide who to believe.
That was it. My grandmother got what she came for. She got new shoes from her brother—don’t ask me how he got a pair of woman’s shoes in Sarajevo at the time, I don’t know—and she made her way back to Počitelj with a new group. There were a lot more people leaving Sarajevo than there were entering it. Some were entire families, paying all the cash they had for passage through the Tunnel of Hope. Some were soldiers and volunteers, carrying supplies. And some were people like her, who had gone on this trip alone and were now ready to make their way back home.
She never talks about the trip back. She never mentions how it was like, running back across the airport landing strip. She doesn’t have any stories about sneaking back into Počitelj, almost two weeks after she left, stealing down the hills like a thief and slipping back into her house. She’s never told anybody about the reaction her husband had, when he saw her again, safe and sound, their children safe and together in a city with no soldiers. This is where the story ends for her—with the phone call with her daughters.
There’s a reason I decided to talk about this story. I had other options. But I decided to talk about this, because while this is a story that happened during the war, it is not a war story.
This is a story about a woman. Another person would say this is a story about a Bosnian mother. But before she is a mother, she is a woman. Before she is a Bosnian, she is a human. In the end, this is a story about a woman who went against everything she knew, everything she had been taught to believe and to follow, so that she could check on somebody she loved. My grandmother may never admit this out loud, but I know the truth. If you really want to know my grandmother, this is the important point. The second reason she walked to Sarajevo was because she knew she could.