The Story of Jovan Basara - Serb refugee from Croatia
by Ivana Jankovic
He was not yet thirteen years old in August 1995 when he drove a tractor loaded with seventeen others - all women apart from an older cousin - from Croatia to Serbia. The two of them took turns at driving the tractor during the thirteen-day journey. On arrival Jovan Basara was hailed a child hero. Journalists interviewed and photographed him, some even paid for the privilege. His brother, a war invalid, joined them soon after.
Today he lives in Apatin, all alone. He emerged last year from a home for young delinquents. He is unemployed. He dislikes journalists, does not like to be photographed, and refuses calls. When we called him he thought it was someone making fun of him and in any case he had no time for journalists. But he let us visit him nevertheless.
‘I was awoken by the noise. I came out of the house and saw the main road blocked with traffic, with people from Korenica [in Lika] and nearby villages. The women and children were crying, some older people appear to be dying, my heart failed me. They told me we would be shelled and that we should flee. But where were we to go, what was happening? The army came and told us to move. They told us the order was to retreat and move away.’
They packed a bag and their school certificates. They took the neighbour’s tractor, into which fifteen women and the two of them climbed. Their aunt wished to take everything, including the fridge, but he told her it was more important to save people. ‘Less than a mile away a shell had fallen and killed a neighbour. I could not think of anything but saving ourselves. I had no idea where we were going, nor where we were, neither the road nor the place. We had joined the column and moved with it. It rained every day during the thirteen days. I was wet, tired and sleepy. I had nothing to eat. I remember a place where they gave us beans, and that along they way we were give yoghurt and bread. But imagine dividing two loaves between seventeen people!’
The police in Brčko would not let them proceed. Shells were falling, fire everywhere, they slept in the tractor because they had no relatives in Brčko. All kinds of things happened on the way - he wanted to forget it all. But he remembers Rača. ‘The police insisted on disarming us: everyone had to leave their weapons. A man arrived with his wife and two children. He had a permit for his handgun and refused to part with it. He was told he had to give it up, but he refused. After a while spent in the dispute, he took his gun and killed his wife, his children and himself. The police hurried us on, fearing the spread of panic.’
He had his father’s hand gun. His father had died two years earlier. When the war started, he brought him a shell case to play with. The children always played war games. Jovan thought that war was a kind of game.
When they arrived at Sremska Mitrovica [in Vojvodina], they were placed in a nursery school. It was overrun by people. On the following morning they continued to Idrig. A sister who was already there pulled them from the convoy. They then left for Apatin, where they were once again placed in a nursery school. They were then told they would be sent to Kraljevo, but in Kraljevo the police and the army blocked the train, preventing them from leaving. ‘We were told that they had found us a place to stay, but we quickly learned that this was not the case. They were sending us to Kosovo. The train stopped in Raška. A man with a child got out and stood in front of the train: ‘You cannot send us to an even worse place.’ They got out, but had no money, no documents and no one they knew. An Albanian told them they could get refugee documents, which gave them free transport. Having got these they went to Belgrade and from there back to Apatin.
Jovan did not go to school. He had to work. Their need was great. He did all kinds of jobs. Their landlady was an alcoholic. Jovan’s earnings would disappear. They fed her and her children. They moved to another house, where they got accommodation in return for keeping the house. But then Jovan’s sister had a baby and the landlord complained so they had to leave. They lived off the brother’s pension and Jovan’s earnings. He sold cigarettes like so many others. But it proved difficult, since everyone else was doing that in order to survive. He ended up in a young delinquent’s home in Kruševac, which he finally left on 9 March 2004. ‘I got caught up in bad company.’ During his stay in prison he completed his primary education and learnt new skills: to be a hairdresser and a tinsmith. He did not wish to speak of his prison days. He was a good student, yet remains unemployed.
He remembers his childhood before Operation Storm, when his family had a farm with horses, cattle and sheep. They had land, a house and a large family. On leaving prison he had nowhere to go. His mother wished him to return to the family, but he had quarrelled with his brother. He found a protector in a café whose owner Slavica has become a second mother to him. He has no other friends. He does odd jobs. He would like to return to Lika, to his family farm, but does not have the necessary papers. ‘I would like to return, I don’t need much, enough to find accommodation and maybe open a hairdressing shop. There is money to be made in hair-cutting.’
Translated from NIN, (Belgrade), 4 August 2005.