On April 6th, 1992, nationalist Serbs shelled Sarajevo and my mother was stuck at our apartment alone, just after she sent my Dad and brother to a cousin’s house two neighborhoods away. It was “stupid” to leave the apartment, she insisted, but she sent them out of an “overabundance of caution” – she was going to join them in the next hour as soon as the spanakopita (zeljanica) was out of the oven. After a surprise round of shelling, nationalist Serbs also cut off my neighborhood within that one hour, and for a week none of us knew if Mom was dead or alive.
On that same April 6th, 1992, I was a bushy-tailed and bright-eyed college freshman in America, but only by accident. None of us EVER thought the war could come to Sarajevo, even if for months it had been ranging just a few hours away in neighboring Croatia. I never even thought about it seriously when I left for America just the summer before; my Mom didn’t believe it until the hour the shells rained.
The trauma of not knowing what happened to my Mom on that first day of war didn’t stop. She did eventually re-unite with my Dad and brother, and after surviving the brutality of war and moving around Sarajevo where there was “less” shelling and snipers for a while, my Mom and brother were finally a part of the humanitarian convoy allowed to evacuate the city. Dad stayed behind to defend. Little did we know that right after the convoy left Sarajevo, barely one suburb away, the nationalist Serbs hijacked the entire troupe of 5,000 women and children whose safe passage was “guaranteed” by the U.N. and all. Again, no contact, and no knowing if Mom and brother were dead or alive. A few weeks later they made it safely to Croatia. Finally, in the summer of 1993, after what seemed like an eternity, my Mom and brother joined me in St. Louis, Missouri, thanks to the efforts from so many wonderful Americans.
However, the communication lines with my Dad still defending Sarajevo were now even more sporadic. Months would pass without contact, with only CNN and rumors by other panicked Bosnian refugees to go by. We tried some creative new phone route nearly every day. Once, we finally did some kludge with a satellite call to a ship in the Adriatic (at $10/minute on a college student budget), who relayed us via amateur radio ham operators to someone in Sarajevo, who connected us with my Dad. After a Verizon-commercial-like “can you hear me now?”, “can you hear me now?” a million times, we finally heard my Dad’s voice loud and clear, the first time in many months. Shocked, confused, exhausted, and thrilled, my brother and I were speechless, and the first and only thing my Mom could muster to say is: “How are you, how is the weather over there?” Like it was any ole’ daily breezy throwaway conversation. “How is the weather”. But we learned all we needed to know – he was alive, and he was well. Might as well talk about the weather. Two years later we reunited with my Dad, but many of my close friends were not so lucky, with over 200,000 perished in the aggression of Bosnia by Serb nationalists. The war ended in four years.
The war ended
1. You will learn the power of prayer, whether you are religious or not – use it.
2. You must stay well, physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually – you are no good to your people if worry paralyzes you, as it will. Self-care is not selfish or disrespectful to people in the actual war, it helps all. This will take time, you need the strength to carry on.
3. Not being able to communicate with family & friends there will traumatize you. Don’t look for them or your house on CNN or on social media or news bulletins. If you can, get professional trauma help now, or you will later. PTSD is no joke. Slightly better to treat it before it’s “post-traumatic”.
4. Fake news will cut the deepest, especially the kind like “Ukrainians are bombing their own hospitals and markets for the cameras” and “Snipers were hiding in that maternity ward.”
5. Armchair rationalizations of war, and justifications for Putin by some of your (new) neighbors will drive you crazy – you can’t engage in all of them and right every misconception, move on.
6. As much as possible surround yourself with other Ukrainians who somehow manage to keep hope alive from afar. Despair about your homeland from strangers is not nearly as damaging as constant gloom scenarios from your own countryfolk near you. Help them, but don’t get dragged down further by their own endless doom. And don’t spread the doom amongst your own, they already know it’s bad. Spread hope. If you run out, manufacture it, make it up.
7. Organize, organize, organize – we are not tired of your social media posts, and we won’t get tired even if years pass. Prod, engage, ask, confront, share, urge and don’t quit. It took the Bosnians four years to arm ourselves, change global public opinion, and with the help of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, Clinton finally bombed the Serb nationalists around Sarajevo, without causing nuclear war.
8. “Russians” and “warmongering Russian nationalists” are not the same thing. You may no longer frequent your favorite Russian bakery because they are still pro-Putin, fine, but there are orders of magnitude more Russians, and Serbs, who are not warmongering nationalists, and their understanding and support can be especially soothing. Encourage them to talk to their own people about what’s really going on.
9. All wars end. This one will too. Cities get rebuilt. Friendships forged now will last a lifetime. Hope dies last. You must keep the hope.
10. And at last, come up with a list of questions to ask your family and friends still in Ukraine in advance. But even if you can only muster “How is the weather over there?” it will be more than enough for both of you.
With compassion and hope,