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Knin: War and Suburbia

Knin - Croatia - flickr-wikipedia.jpg
Knin. Photo: Wikipedia Commons

In these pages we have featured the books and work of Tim Judah. But this book is by his wife Rosie Whitehouse. A journalist at the BBC she left when she had her first child, Ben. In 1990, a few weeks after the Romanian revolution they set off to live in Balta Alba a suburb of Bucharest where Judah began working for The Times and The Economist. In 1991, after the war began in Yugoslavia they moved to Belgrade. While he covered the wars from Vukovar, Dubrovnik and Sarajevo she manned the home front. Whereas in Romania she had scoured for food, in Serbia she grappled with hyper-inflation and in Sarajevo decided it was time to take the (now two) kids home after hearing shots a few minutes after a wedding party passed by. "Let's go back to the hotel, kids," she told them. "I don't feel safe anymore." The shots, in which the father of the bridegroom in a Serbian wedding was murdered, turned out to be the first shots of the Bosnian war. This is a book with a difference told from a perspective not often heard. In this extract, Whitehouse recounts the family's arrival in Knin in Croatia in May 1991 on the eve of the referendum in which local Serbs were about to vote to secede from Croatia. They have been put up in the local old people's home. Ben is three and his sister Esti is six months old.

I plug in my portable electric cooker and whisk up fish fingers and peas, which I bought earlier in Bosnia. Tim goes out to a midnight rally. I am so delighted to have found something so easy to cook that the sinister nature of events outside passes me by. It is only when the kids have fallen asleep that I stop to think about it. The next day, in a Stalinist-style referendum, the local Serbian population will vote to remain in Yugoslavia with Serbia. Not to vote in the poll would be to identify yourself as not being Serb and hence you would have no right to carry on living here. It would put your life in danger. Knives are drawn. War is looming. The dark feels dangerous. I long to know what is going on outside. I wish Tim would come home.

While the Sunday morning ballot takes place, we walk downtown to buy some bread and cheese to make sandwiches. Ben is holding Esti's pushchair as we wheel into a small shop, which is covered in Serbian flags. They are playing traditional, rousing nationalist songs. The assistant passes me a loaf that is identical to every other loaf in the country. It's fat, white and elongated. In fact it's a fatter, fresher version of the loaves on sale in Balta Alba. Ben pulls my sleeve:

"Why's the window of that shop broken, Mummy?"

"Ssh! Wait! I'll tell you in a minute."

"It's been looted and belongs to Croats who have fled," I explain under my breath once we have left the Serbian shop.  

"What does 'looted' mean?" he asks.

I could ignore him and dodge the issue but he needs to build up his vocabulary if he's going to understand his new world. I tell him.

We walk back up to the hotel and start packing the car. It's so filthy, that I decide to give it a bit of a clean. I sit in the front seat wiping the dashboard with a baby wipe, while I wait for Tim to file his story to London. A Scottish colleague of his sticks his head in the window and says:

"A bit of Sunday morning car cleaning? How civilised!"

I feel a complete idiot. The world is collapsing, war is about to break out, and I am tidying the car like a suburban housewife. Tim thinks this is a huge joke. I worry that it is in fact true."

We drive towards the coast through villages where some houses stand empty. They have broken windows. A few have been set on fire. Outside others, elderly neighbours sit watching the traffic.

"Cor! Who are they?" Ben points at a Japanese crew, who are recording the scene. "Where are they from?"

They look completely out of place. An old Croatian lady is shelling peas, on a bench outside her house. They film her carefully. She is completely oblivious to their presence, as if this happens every day. I don't feel so bad about cleaning the car. A few months later she and the rest of the Croats in the village have been driven out."

Are We There Yet? Travels With My Frontline Family. Rosie Whitehouse. 2007.
[pp.  59-60 / Reportage Press]

January 2009

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