Remembering the Forgotten

Author: Marija Zaruba

Tags: Europe

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They had not been there since 1992. The year the war started. The year I was born. It lived in mystery, this house. That fateful year, my grandparents abruptly cut their visits to Dragunja, the village where my grandpa grew up. The city we lived in was already being shelled constantly, so venturing to the countryside was out of the question. In 1994 my mom, dad, and I left Bosnia, and the little house floated out of our immediate consciousness and flitted in and out of my imagination.

            It was strange, then, to find myself in a taxi this summer with my mom, grandma, and grandpa as we drove out of Tuzla, the third largest city in Bosnia, to Dragunja. I could not even find the village on a map, but the savvy driver knew the way. His little red car hugged the voluptuous curves of the winding road. The horizon made its cheerful appearances only to hide again behind the green hills. Upbeat music with an Eastern European flavor sang out of the speakers.

            I absorbed these details eagerly as we drove on. We passed maybe four little villages before we reached our destination. It had taken 40 minutes to arrive at the nook in the road. Hardly a village at all! A little girl watched us from her yard as the cab driver chatted with a man washing his car.
            “Wait here until 2,” my grandpa told the driver.

            The four of us headed up a steep incline. I gazed around me, amazed at the lushness of my surroundings. As the incline leveled we found ourselves under the shade of trees. My grandma told us that she needed to rest, but that we should go ahead. I looked forward at the weed covered path ahead of us, incredulous at what we would find.

            My grandpa picked up a big stick and began slashing at the weeds and undergrowth like a machete-wielding jungle explorer. A heady, wooden scent hung in the air as we navigated through the thick brush. Though he was tired, my grandpa insisted we go forward. We got snagged in thorny tree branches a couple times, but we just laughed, picked ourselves free, and plodded onward. I took pictures and my mom picked various flowers. None of us said anything about it, but I know that a deep-seated need to know the fate of the house propelled us. 

            “It’s this way,” my grandpa motioned. But we had stopped. Slender trees had grown where there was once a path, their branches twisting impossibly to obstruct our way.

“We can’t get through,” my mom said, disappointed. I tried calculating some way we could take to get there, but she was right. Blocked. We stood, considering our options. My grandpa took some steps. “There!” he exclaimed, “do you see it?”

            I followed his gaze. There it was! I saw a stone wall. Or, at least, I thought I did. But it was not the wall. It was the foundation. That was all that was left of my grandpa’s house. It had not escaped the fate of the other destroyed country houses. Though I was bewildered, he had expected this. We walked away quietly, but with a sense of closure.

           As insulated as the village seemed, so much had changed in those 17 years. Bosnia as a whole has undergone much change since the war, but even so, it retains a beauty I will always remember. When my grandma asked how it was, I smiled and gave the only answer I could: “Breathtaking.”