They fled the war in Yugoslavia as teenagers without their parents. Thirty years later they are still living in Holland

Her mother grabbed the tea from her shoulders. “A little while later, when we get close to the corner and walk to the bridge, you will run across the street without looking back. Without even turning back, no matter what happens. Got it? You keep running.”

T Elisevic (now 45) is a child psychiatrist, mother of two and lives in Horn. When she walked with her mother to the Karinski Bridge in the Bosnian city of Mostar in May 1992, she was 15 years old. Tea is a cheerful teenager growing up in a warm family. The live music that flows into her bedroom from the café she lives above does not bother her but rather calms her until she falls asleep.

Mother Mirjana is of Croatian descent, and every Croat is automatically classified as a Catholic. The father of tea is Muslim, so tea is also seen as a Muslim from birth. Although it doesn’t feel that way; Religion plays absolutely no role in the Eliseovich family. School is easy for her, she has many friends with whom she plays outside a lot and she plays handball six days a week with the talents of local club Ghalib Mostar.

That quiet life in Mostar, the old trading city in the Yugoslav country of Bosnia and Herzegovina, was turned upside down in the space of a few months.

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Bus to Holland

“Keep running.” Her mother’s voice was never stern. Across the bridge is the western part of Mostar. There will be a bus leaving for Holland in an hour. Te’s mother does everything she can to take her daughter to that bus, which is waiting at Rondo, the grand roundabout of the Opera House. Like all bridges over the Neretva River, the Karensky Bridge has been under heavy fire for several weeks now, and the sound of war has become a part of everyday life in the city. A few weeks ago, T often had to hide for hours in the basement of her apartment, with neighbors and neighborhood kids. Grenades are launched from the mountains. Snipers shoot anyone who ventures into open ground, and they like to set their sights on bridges.

Once Tea saw it with her own eyes. She was playing with some friends near the bridge when a man was injured, who happened to look his way. The man was hit in the back and fell to the ground half a turn to the right. It happened at lightning speed, and the tea experienced it in slow motion. The corpse lay there for hours. No one dared to take the dead man out of the street in broad daylight.

split

It wasn’t until the last straw for Mother Mirjana. The bucket had overflowed before; She had decided long ago that she should try to get her daughter out of the war. Get out of Mostar.

Under President Josip “Tito” Broz, who founded the Republic of Yugoslavia after World War II, the people of Mostar lived in peace for decades. The city with its famous arch bridge – old Stari Most pictures on millions of postcards – is a melting pot of races. Catholic Croats, Muslim Bosniaks, and Orthodox Serbs; They live and huddle together in the pearl of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Mixed marriages such as T’s parents’ marriage are common. Mostar is the typical Yugoslav city of Tito.

After Tito’s death in 1980, the glue that held everything together slowly began to fade. Nationalist voices are rising and independence parties are gaining popularity. On March 1, 1992, the majority of the population of Bosnia and Herzegovina voted for independence. Just like what happened a few months ago in the Republic of Macedonia. And before that in Slovenia and Croatia.

Mostar residents are hiding in a cellar.

Mostar residents are hiding in a cellar.

Yugoslavia is disintegrating, and this is not without a clash of arms.

Serbs fear the population of Bosnia and Herzegovina, a third of the population, of being a minority in independent Bosnia and Herzegovina. It is this fear that fuels the war. From the mountains, Serbian militias are trying to conquer Mostar. They are supported by Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, who wants to preserve the union and who claims a central role for Serbia. In the valley, mostly Bosniaks and Bosnian Croats unite to defend the city.

them and us

Because of the bloody fight, feelings among the residents increase. People choose positions, speaking in the language of “them” and “we”. Friends come face to face. Good neighbors begin to distrust each other. Mixed families are being torn apart. Now that the communist cover that Tito believed had quelled centuries-old ethnic conflicts had been lifted, Yugoslavia was in flames.

Joˇsko Stanic feels called to action. Stanic is the Minister of State for Sports of Bosnia and Herzegovina and founder, president and coach of the girls’ handball club Galeb ‘seagull’ Mostar. The club has for years been supplying talent for the national youth selection. His players, including T-One, train five days a week, and play matches on the weekends. Stanic regularly takes his pupils to foreign tournaments and training camps, provided that their school performance is good. Joshko, 54, of Croatian origin, is like a second father to girls, who look forward to a bloated man. They call him “Drue Joško”: Comrade Joško.

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Photo of the team in S+K with tea seated in the front row (second from left).

Photo of the team in S+K with tea seated in the front row (second from left).

Under pressure at bay

Hence the sense of responsibility. He has to do something to get his “girls” to safety. But getting out of the city safely seems impossible. Mostari has been hiding underground for weeks and civilians are being killed every day. Without ceremonies they are hastily buried in gardens and flowerbeds at night, because cemeteries are also under attack.

Children are not safe either. Joshko knows a girl who was murdered when she ran away from the shelter to bring home a Walkman. As soon as she entered her bedroom, she was hit by a grenade. She died instantly.

The whole city is a battlefield. Driving a bus through it would be crazy. However, this is the plan unfolding in Stanek’s head. Childhood friend Marinko Ostojic, who immigrated to the Netherlands as coach at Blockers Handball Club S+K, will ask for an official invitation to attend the annual Whitsun Championship. This invitation can serve as an exit and border transit visa if it is at the border. Stanic will arrange a bus and a driver, collect as many of his players and coaches as possible. This is how they will flee from Mostar.

mixed ethnicity

Tea runs across the bridge without stopping or looking back, just as she was told. She listens: to her mother’s footsteps behind her. She just hopes there won’t be a gunshot in place. This does not happen. They cross the road, and reach Rondo, where the bus is waiting for her.

Tea finds a place by the window. She would rather stay at home with her brother, but her mother convinced her that she would be back in a few weeks. Then why is her mother crying there? Tea presses her face to the glass: “Hello mom, see you soon.”

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The 26 handball players Ghalib Mostar on the bus – the youngest of whom is only 13 – are a mix of ethnicities: they are Croats, Serbians and Muslims. So the sports team is a reflection of the unified ancient Yugoslavia. This makes their journey even more dangerous: no matter what army they encounter on their way, they will always have someone from the enemy on board.

More players are surprised at how emotional their parents are when they say goodbye. It might be the war, but they’re still “only” having a tournament overseas for a few weeks. This is how Gushko Stanek portrayed them. By the time you return, the war is over.

airline

Stanek and their parents know best. This is a trip. Nobody knows when the bus will return to Mostar. Blokker’s host parents also don’t know, handball club S+K have asked them to vacate a bedroom for players from Yugoslavia for a few weeks. It took a little effort on the board to find enough families. S + K and Galeb Mostar have had a promissory note for a few years now. In addition, news of the war in Yugoslavia is on top every night. All parents agree that girls must be saved from these atrocities.

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Once you arrive in the Netherlands, weeks automatically turn into months. The months slowly turn into years if the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina does not end, but it culminates in a second war when Bosniaks and Croats (who were initially fighting together against Serbian militias) also came into conflict with each other.

Mostar turns into a ruin. In West Friesland, handball teenagers and their baby sitters are judged each other by circumstances.

to adjust

As for the young players, contact with their parents was lost in Mostar. It takes most months before they receive their first letter from home. In host families, they have to adapt to a culture they don’t know, learn a language that is difficult for them to pronounce and go to schools without friends. Each step of adapting more to their new country feels like further alienation from Mostar.

On the contrary, all these families try as much as possible to shelter two traumatized teenagers in the Netherlands against their will and thanks.

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When their compatriots are at home opposite each other literally in front, handball players cling to each other. They remain united all with their different backgrounds. Village club S+K will be their permanent base, Ghalib girls train there every day and the canteen is the second living room. They play useful matches and tournaments all over the country. It’s amazing how much better their Dutch rivals are.

The numerous handballs are distracting, but it is not enough to forget the situation in which they left their families behind. After each final cue, players are returned to the harsh reality. In the cafeteria they hear news of a missing family member, a classmate who died in a fight, a found who ended up in a concentration camp. On the TV hanging on the wall, they see their city and beloved Stari Most being shot at, and possibly their future as well.

Can they go home?

This publication was made possible in part thanks to financial support from the Special Journalism Ventures Fund and the Lira Authors Fund Reprorecht. www.fondsbjp.nl

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