Lazar’s Story


My husband, Lazar, was born in the 1970’s in the former Yugoslavia. Ethnically, he’s a Serb, although he comes from an area of eastern Croatia called the Krajina. Krajina means literally ‘end’, as in ‘edge’ or ‘frontier’. His ancestors settled in the region several hundred years ago when the Austro-Hungarian emperors offered Serbs free land there. In return for the free land (confiscated, unfortunately, from Croatian feudal lords), the Serb settlers were expected to form a military frontier at the edge of the Austro-Hungarian Empire to guard against further westward expansion by the Ottoman Turks. So the Krajina essentially became a Serb-majority enclave at the edge of Croatia. Its provincial capital was a town called Knin, and for the next several hundred years my husband’s forefathers lived in a village called Orlić about 7 kilometres outside Knin.

At the onset of the Yugoslav wars of the 1990’s, the Krajina Serbs, for reasons too convoluted to delve into here, declared that if Croatia was going to continue down its path towards independence, then they would declare their independence from Croatia first. They set up the SAO (Serbian Autonomous Region) Krajina, a self-proclaimed Serb republic inside Croatia. War broke out between the SAO and Croatian forces in late 1991. My husband was thirteen years old.

Living in a village helped make the war more bearable for Lazar’s family than it was for those in, let’s say, Sarajevo. Although my father-in-law, Ilija, was soon conscripted into the SAO forces, the rest of the family managed despite his absences. When the electricity to the Krajina was cut for months on end, the villagers of Orlić helped each other: they took turns to slaughter their livestock, dividing the meat amongst everyone so they could all eat. At night, once the kerosene supplies ran out, families illuminated their houses with homemade lamps made from potato-skin shells filled with used cooking oil and shoelaces or strings as wicks. The most visible (and audible) signs of the war was the constant background noise of shells and artillery firing and the presence of guns everywhere; the empty shops; and the prisoners of war that sometimes peered out of the town’s prison windows at the kids that ran by.

Then, in August 1995, after almost four years of war, the Croatian Army launched its massive ‘Operation Storm’ and Knin and the Krajina fell. On that day, my mother-in-law Branka was in Knin. When the shells starting raining down, she set out to walk back to the village of Orlić, desperate to know if her teenage children were all right. The seven kilometre walk through the shells took her twelve hours. By the time she arrived home, she was covered in black ash from head to toe.

In Orlić, word quickly spread that the Krajina’s frontlines had fallen. Panic ensued: in this war, everyone knew, when enclaves inhabited by minorities fell, massacres usually followed. The only chance of survival, everyone said, was to get out before the victorious army arrived. The enclave’s leaders brought in buses and trucks to take the women and children out. There was no time to pack anything, not even the family photo albums, no time to arrange passports or visas. My mother-in-law, Branka, and sister-in-law, Marina, were allowed onto a bus. Lazar, now aged seventeen, was not. He said his farewells to his mother and sister and watched them drive off.

For the next twenty-four hours, Branka would be hysterical with fear, wondering if her son had made it out. He did — on a tractor.

Because none of the cars in Orlić were driveable (there had been no petrol available for civilian use for some time), Lazar hopped in the one vehicle that did still have some fuel (diesel) left in it: the old family tractor. He drove it after the women’s trucks and buses with sixteen or so other boys and old men hanging off it. At one point, he told me, driving uphill in the night, he looked back, and couldn’t believe the enormous snaking trail of lights behind him: it wasn’t until that moment that he realised this was more than just a few villagers fleeing. In fact, the refugee column that he was in would become the biggest single movement of displaced people in the entire Yugoslav wars, as more than 200 000 Krajina Serbs fled Croatia. Over the next two days, this enormous column of refugees moved through northern Bosnia and on into Serbia.

It would be a week before Ilija, my father-in-law, who was at the front when Knin fell, caught up with his wife and children in Belgrade. For that week, Branka, Lazar and Marina had no idea of Ilija’s fate.

Soon after arriving in Serbia and registering as refugees, Lazar and his family were resettled in a refugee centre in Kosovska Mitrovica, Kosovo. Lazar finished his last year of high school in nearby Priština. Soon after that, his family received refugee visas for Australia. They flew here in 1996.

When Lazar and I first met, he told me, as the main character in my novel, Dalibor, also tells his Australian wife, that he was a pacifist. But he was also only thirteen when the war started, and seventeen when he left the Krajina, and therefore incredibly lucky he wasn’t of draft age. Had the war dragged on for longer, had he been a few years older when it started… We’ve had many conversations about this, wondering ‘what if’, and my novel is very much the story of one terrible possibility of what might have been.

The return

In 2000, I joined Lazar for his first trip back to Croatia since the war. We flew into Belgrade, badly damaged by the recent NATO bombings, and travelled by car to Knin and Orlić. The population of Knin was still only at about 10% of its pre-war level.

We found Lazar’s family’s house occupied by a Croat refugee, a war invalid who was squatting there after having lost his own home during the conflict. He’d spray-painted on the garage doors: Zauzeto. Stop. Ratni invalid. Which means, literally, “Taken. Stop. War invalid.” He’d painted it, he told us, to stop any more would-be looters from breaking into the house. And though he was from ‘the other side’, though he was living rent-free in Lazar’s family house, he ushered us inside and served us homemade wine. He also returned to Lazar some rain-and-sun damaged family photos, telling us he’d found them scattered outside (the house having already been looted) when he first moved in.

Lazar would soon decide it was better that his house had someone living in it, rent-free or not, because those houses that remained uninhabited after the war had been stripped bare by looters. When we visited his childhood best friend Goran’s house, we found that everything — furniture, light bulbs, taps, pipes, doorknobs, sinks — everything except the tiles on the walls was gone. In Lazar’s old primary school, there was no furniture, only ancient school ledgers and flashcards strewn over the floor.

Below are some photos of Belgrade and Orlić.