Standing in a clearing on Lake Peruca, I awaited the completion of the negotiations and approval to pass through occupied territory. It was late autumn 1993, and I accompanied the Red Cross medical corps and served as a translator. International forces came to the area to reach a ceasefire agreement, facilitate entry, and evacuate the local population. There was an urgent need to supply food, water, and medicine for the residents who refused to leave their homes.
During this time, the Yugoslavian army and paramilitary forces occupied the left and right side of the river Cetina in the Croatian villages of Vrlika and Kijevo. Most of the locals had fled from their homes fearing an invasion of armored vehicles, ground tanks, and “big black birds” that flew and alternated high in the sky over the banks of the Cetina. Some people, especially the elderly, stayed behind despite anger and constant fear. The military occupation had lasted so long that food and medicine ran out. The occupying forces shut off electricity and water, causing fear to grow wider and wider. Every night brought a new uncertainty, with little hope of surviving the next day.
Our medical team received the order to assemble a team for a daylong mission, but we had remained suspicious until the message was verified for authenticity. There was an urgent need to decide who would comprise the team and whose orders to follow. Based on that preliminary message, we gathered a team, joined the convoy, and left. While European Union observers, armed head to toe with walkie-talkies boasting sky-high antennas, came around in an armored vehicle, we were clad in wrinkled white coats each with a taped red cross on the upper arm. We had not received any instructions on the safe zone in Vucepolje. Feeling apprehensive, we awaited permission to move beyond the 20 or so kilometers of occupied territory to the first houses and people. After standing there for hours, we suddenly heard a translated message from the international peace forces: “Please do not talk. Show everything that you have in your hands, and be prepared because they can start shooting at us at any moment.” The startling message continued:
– If you hear gunfire, run immediately for cover on the side of cars, behind stone walls, or large rocks. Do not leave your cover until we give you a sign. Further, we suggest that the driver should stay in the front of the vehicle while doctors and nurses lie in the rear so everyone is together if an accident happens.
After we listened to the broadcast message, my blood ran cold and I glanced over at the doctor who had turned as pale as a ghost. We both had thought that we would stay there no matter what happened.
At that point, thoughts swirled in my head about the good people brought in wounded from the field, full of bullets, and awful bleeding. I had writhed with more disturbing thoughts of sirens wailing and death. In my mind, I was saying goodbye to my daughters, parents, and colleagues who all did not know where I was, except one colleague with whom I left some personal belongings and partial information about my location.
The doctor uncontrollably said:
– We have no armor, but we are surrounded by medicines, a blood pressure monitor, and you got the blood glucose meter back so these will save us.
My eyes were dry and no tears came as I prayed the Our Father. I had felt mixed emotions: fear, anger, helplessness, and hope. While praying, I heard “Go, go slowly and be ready to react when there is shooting.”
Traveling to the village had seemed to last forever. Each curve in the road had brought new uncertainty; every mile we moved exposed us to the enemy like lambs to the slaughter. We witnessed mass destruction in horror: destroyed and burned houses, the church in Kijev replaced by marred tanks and grenades, a shelled church in Vrlika, and sacred statues in pieces. The meadows and willows along the banks of the river Cetina and Lake Peruca were decimated by heavy tanks and rockets. Saplings of oak and ash as well as grass sprouted around the havoc and chaos. I had tried to hold my breath and tears looking around at this altered world. We had stopped alongside the armored vehicle of some peacekeepers in the center of a formerly beautiful mountain village. They had escorted us to the first house where an older man wearing tattered clothes greeted us. We watched the expression on his face change from joy to sadness then to fear. He jumped up from a small chair and embraced the doctor and me. After he stepped back looking confused, I felt the dampness that his sweat left on my cheek. With a shaky voice, he introduced himself as Elias and his wife, Mary, a small elderly woman who looked older than her husband. Due to the electrical outage, it was too dark in their house so he went to light a fire in the fireplace. Before then, Mary blocked him from the fireplace. She told Elias:
– We have to save wood. During the day, there is no need for wood and we cannot chop it at night.
He left the fireplace and placed a few glasses of water on the table, which revealed that their supply of coffee had finished a while ago. Although they did not complain about the vast changes in their lives, I felt an inexplicable tension and fear that took hold of me. The doctor had given them an examination and noticed that Elias had severe health problems such as a large purple bruise on his chest, high blood pressure, and low blood glucose. While Mary had stared at the floor silently, Elias simply told us that the bruise was because he had fallen over the cat. After the examination, neither Elias nor Mary wanted to know what our findings were.
When told that he had high blood pressure, Elias shrugged it off:
– It is fine; take blind Iva’s blood pressure, now go, and worry about your own. A long journey awaits you and the weather is good. It will be night soon, do not wait until then. There will always be blood pressure and someone must die from it.
He asked me with a wink:
– Isn’t that so, nurse?
I quickly left to find Iva who lived with her sister two houses away, but European Union observers instead stopped me. They yelled:
– Where are you going crazy woman? This is a war. One wrong step and we are gone.
I had gone back into the house not believing what I had done. All I wanted to do was find the blind woman. My knees were weakened so I sat down. When I looked up, two women entered the room holding hands. To my pleasant surprise, Iva was one of them. I promptly took her blood pressure and glucose measurements and while waiting for the results, I glanced around the kitchen. Some fixtures were out of place and the shelves were empty. The food bowls for a chicken and skinny cat had remained empty. From the car, I took out a warm blanket, medicine, vitamins, and some food. I returned to the car to get more bread rolls that we always needed. I asked the women if they needed anything, but they pretended not to hear me. Only one man from the village mumbled:
– We don’t need anything. Just leave.
As we were leaving, he quietly added:
– Be careful and don’t come back anymore. We have everything we need. It is the most beautiful thing to die in your own home.
We did not speak on the way back but some anger and anxiety stayed with me. After a few days, we joined some translators on the field. I spoke with one of the translators whom I had met previously. He recounted the horrors of the war and mentioned that the Chetniks had killed our host, Elijah, on his doorstep. Suddenly, I was overwhelmed with the same fear and anxiety that I had lived through that day. Images flew like lightning, God, should we give up? I thought back to Mary’s lowered eyes, the bruise on Elijah’s chest, his foreboding message: be careful and do not come back. They knew.
Mira Talaja is a lecturer at the School of Health in Split. She obtained her bachelor’s degree in nursing from the School of Allied Health in Zagreb and her master’s in nursing from the University of Split School of Health Studies. At a health care facility in Split-Dalmatia county, she was an attending nurse. Striving to help children in need, she was the head nurse and a member of the Emergency Medical Corps Health and a coordinator of the Baby-Friendly Hospital Initiative program sponsored by UNICEF. In 2012, she was an active participant in the international 4th Croatian Congress of Schools and Universities of Medicine in Split.