Ivana Bodrozic Simic was nine in the summer of 1991 when she and her older brother were sent from her home town Vukovar, a town at the river Danube on the Croatian-Serbian border, to relatives at the Croatian coast. War was looming and her parents felt that the children would be safer there. Her mother joined them soon afterwards. Her father stayed in Vukovar.
"My father didn't say: 'I'm going to give something for Croatia now.' He lived his regular life and then some people appeared. I remember that some Chetniks [nationalist Serb paramilitaries] with beards began walking around the city. Those were frightening scenes. They came suddenly and said: 'Get out of here, we will liberate Vukovar!' I mean, liberate it from whom? You live there all your life and then someone tries to convince you that he will liberate that city from you. And then the most natural and normal reaction was for you to say: 'Well, no! I don't want to get out of here. I have made my life here.' So, it was not so much about Croatia. My father did not go somewhere, some 200, 300 kilometers away to defend an ideal. He just stayed home because to him, it was unnatural to leave."
The city was besieged by Serb forces on 25 August and fell after 87 days on 18 November 1991, reduced to a dystopian landscape of ruins. Around this date Ivana's father called for the last time to comfort the family, saying that he was ok. Then he disappeared, never to be found again.
In 1996, close to 200 bodies were exhumed from a mass grave close to the town, but Ivana's father was not among them. Officially, he is still considered missing.
In 2010, at the age of 28, Ivana wrote "Hotel Zagorje", a book about the childhood and adolescence of a displaced person. It is in large parts a story of her own life. Hotel Zagorje, a former communist retreat, was where Ivana lived for years with her mother and her brother. She describes the desperate efforts to get news about her father, the struggle to find better accommodation and the challenges of life as a displaced person. Ivana explains that she added some fictional moments but that the novel is basically autobiographical:
"I lived in Vukovar. I was nine when it all started and I wasn't even sure what I am in terms of nationality. In our family, that question was never raised. My parents had Serb and Bosniak, Muslim friends. And then something happens – the war happens. And then the fact that you are a Croat became the most important thing in your life. That is because someone wants to expel you, because someone wants to kill your brother, father, uncle and you cannot avoid it being somehow engraved in you. Such a society forms you, completely perversely, and the fact that you are a Croat becomes the most important thing in your life. And I think that when such a trauma marks your life, then it is very, very hard to get rid of it later …
The story is told from the perspective of a child, as it turns into a young woman. Recollections of a happy childhood in Vukovar mix with bitter disappointments at the hand of officials. The young girl falls in love, finds new friends and gets drunk for the first time. Yet the novel also describes the girl imagining how her father might have felt when faced with the bullet.
The book was a success when published in Croatia. It was also translated and published in German, French and Serbian. She acknowledges that initially she feared going to Belgrade to promote her book and worried about it being a "disturbing experience." But as it happened, she made Serbian friends. As she entered the building where she set to speak, a janitor gave her the thumbs-up for her book.
"It became clear to me that as long as such good people exist in that society or in any other society, I would never think that all the Serbs are the same …
I feel that I really live reconciliation with each of my engagements. I try to relay a message which is not nationalist, because nationalism can only bring bad things, regardless of which nationalism, whether Croatian, Bosniak, Serbian, or whichever."
Ivana now lives in Dugo Selo, just outside Zagreb, writing and raising her two children, trying to explain them the family history without filling them with hatred.
"My daughter is six now. She sees things about Vukovar from time to time, especially during anniversaries of the fall of the town or when there is a documentary or when we were in Vukovar. And she wants to know. She asks questions. Up to a certain point, those were the 'bad people,' because to me it was most natural to name them like that. Now, I regret it, but I cannot say this differently because the Serbs who came to Vukovar then did not come there under the flag of the 'bad people.' They came as Serbs and they wanted to conquer the city as the Serbian Vukovar. And I am sorry, but I think we need to spell it out like that.
But on the other hand, while explaining that, both you and your child must remain conscious that not all Serbs were like that. You must remain conscious that it merely was a certain group of people who came under that certain name and wanted to do what they did. I don't want to make my children the kind of people who would mark a group of people as bad for whatever reason just because they belong to a certain nation."
"Personally, I was not ready to listen to some things that were happening to people of Serb nationality in Croatia for a long time. It's not because I am a bad person, but because your own trauma fills you so much that you feel a righteous fury and you actually do not care. However, in order to live in a healthy and normal society, you have to accept that, too."