Split, Croatia (Spring 2016)
I remember my experience in the Homeland War clear as day. It was the spring of 1991, and the war was just starting. As a medical nurse in the Crisis Health Center, my task was delivering medical equipment and medicines in preparation for the possible attack.
“They are definitely going to attack us today or tomorrow, you can feel it in the air,” said one of the staff members from the Vrlika Health Unit while I was passing through the ramp in Civljani on the way to Kijevo. The village of Kijevo was encircled by the Yugoslav Federal Army and Serbian paramilitaries. Yet, the people were staying in their homes as if holding on to a fistful of black soil from the land they owned for generations. It was difficult to leave one`s life behind. My driver said: “They can hold you back and not allow you to go back, but you must resist. You are the head nurse so you have the authority!” I was frightened, but his words gave me courage. They controlled the entrance to the village with a tank. And I felt like this reversed world around me, this new strangeness of the area I traveled to so frequently in the past, was everything but pleasant.
There was an eerie calm as we were driving through the cornfields where the Cetina river flowed slowly and with pride, vast fields where just bloomed poppies swayed, but you did not hear the song of the birds, there were no children on the meadows, no mothers preparing for work. Only here and there a chicken would appear in front of a house or a frightened cat running across the road. Everything that was familiar to me had changed. I felt an unrelenting fear and a restlessness that forbade me from breathing. I thought that the opposing forces were watching our every step, yet we did not see anyone. Only the unpleasant feeling, as if I was being held at gunpoint, accompanied me; feeling of one wrong step that would be my undoing. At the Health Unit, the medical team and a few village women were anxiously awaiting our arrival. As they had welcomed me, I thought we all shared the same feeling of having made it through. But tomorrow’s fate was still uncertain.
We were rushing to bring in the boxes, counting the supplies, and making a list of the missing items. A very old woman had gently approached me and whispered: “Yeast, nurse, we need yeast. We have medicines; it is the hunger that we are afraid of.” We have flour and salt, but there will be a lack of yeast. There are more sick people and children in the village; we are going to be hungry, hungry for bread. I was only allowed to transfer medical supplies and the food and milk for the children, nothing else.
On the way back through Civljani, we were held at a checkpoint at the ramp. As the military personnel checked our documents, we did not know if they were going to let us through or keep us there. Although we had smelled alcohol on their breath, we did not ask anything. It was of utmost importance to pass through, to return, and make the same trip tomorrow. When we came to the Community Health Centre, I found my coworker and had told her quietly, “We do not have a lot of time, please just work and do not say anything.” Calmly and patiently, we were taking the powdered milk out of its packaging and were replacing it with instant yeast wrapped in cotton wool that would prevent it from rusting during transport. Immobilization splints were splayed out on the floor and constantly in our way making us jump over them. Suddenly, I looked towards them and my colleague; we both nodded our heads and began to wrap the splints with layers of cotton wool along with the bound yeast. We had combined everything with bandages and prepared it for transport. Nobody was going to get hungry.
I awoke startled. It was dark outside and silent as a grave. Shrunken in the armchair of the study, I was wearing a white coat with a red cross on the sleeve. If I had not stitched it back in place, it would have fallen off. I had gotten up and meandered my way through the seemingly endless piles of neatly wrapped splints. Next to one of the boxes, I saw my colleague on the other armchair sleeping in her uniform, conquered by fatigue. As soon as the sun was up, we had drunk our coffee and set off for Kijevo.
The drive to the ramp in Civljani took us longer than yesterday. Even the unpleasantness was greater, as village yards were empty and a dense fog was everywhere. We were approaching the ramp, and the same soldier was there, staring at us with his unblinking eyes from the tank. While I was watching him, I felt the car stop, so I returned my gaze to the road and froze with terror. There was a dozen of fully armed soldiers standing there. They were noisy and cheered while passing along some bottle. The lump in my throat grew, my hands were cold, and my mouth was dry, but I walked confidently. I had strengthened my resolve with encouraging thoughts: this day is for bread, for the hungry children and the elderly; for the old woman who is waiting for us; for freedom and the joy of life; for the tears of my people; and for defiance towards my enemy.
One of the dozens of the armed soldiers commanded us with a sharp, aggressive voice: “Stop! Where are you headed and what is your cargo?” I had confidently presented my warrant from the Minister of Health, my head nursing license, and replied: “Good afternoon, I am headed to Kijevo with everything prepared for the vaccination of children on orders from the Minister.”
He had pulled the warrant from my hands, and an older soldier took it and waved the document around his head while muttering something to himself.
“Open the trunk! What do you have in those boxes? Move faster!” Then he had darted his harsh inquiry toward the driver: “Why are you staying quiet? What kind of a man are you letting her do all the talking? Is she your boss?” The driver had started walking toward one side of the car and me toward the other. The seemingly endless scrutiny had continued while I answered as best as I could.
“Here is the food, juices, and cookies for the children, so they do not cry when they see the nurse or the doctor as well as bandages for the emergency unit.” The soldier then asked: “What are these wrapped sticks? Where are you going with this?”
I had watched him moving the packed splints from one hand to another. My knees were shaking, making it hard to stand on my own, so I quickly grabbed hold of the car not to fall. I looked at the driver and suddenly realized at that moment that he was unaware of the smuggled yeast packed with the splints. I had feared that the soldier would open the packed splints and would discover all of the contents, so I had kept my voice level and calm and said: “This is for the wounded with bone fractures to stabilize the bone during transport to the hospital.” Abruptly, the tirade of questioning had ended, and we were told to leave. Before we had got back in the car, the soldier said: “I have one just like you at home, you nurses are all the same, and you do what you want to do. Now, get out of here! I then heard him mumble as he threw one of the packed splints into the back seat of our car.
I did not believe that we did it; we had passed the checkpoint! I felt like rejoicing, but I had to keep quiet about my secret triumph. Feeling proud, I had looked back at the packed splints and to my horror, two bags of yeast were on the seat. My mind raced as I had anticipated a negative reaction from the driver. Quickly, I used the scarf around my neck to cover the packs along with the ripped splint package from which they fell. Once I had confirmed that the yeast was covered, the car had already come to a stop. We had arrived at the center of Kijevo.
I felt that I had accomplished something great by providing for the people displaced by the war. As soon as I had opened the car door, the warm and welcoming eyes of the old woman, one of the many who had needed yeast, met mine. Without hesitation, she had hugged me as if she was awaiting my arrival and not that of the yeast.
I had whispered in her ear: “We got through with the yeast.” She had understood and her tears of joy that washed away my uncertainty and fear. With a renewed optimism, I knew that all of our lives would return to normal someday.
Ivana Bokan is a professional associate at the School of Health Split. She got her Bachelor degree at University of Split, Croatia and Master Degree in Nursing Sciences at the University of Split, Department of Health Studies. She is a member of Croatian Association of nurses and technicians in gastroenterology and endoscopy. She is striving to improve patient care education in Croatia, and enjoys long walks and hiking.