Learning from the Velić family - Samira (1/07/2012):
It’s been almost two weeks since we arrived at the homes of our Bosnian hosts in a remote village in Eastern Bosnia. My new home is a quaint green house surrounded by breathtaking hills and buzzing with wildlife and forests. And when I say buzzing with life… I truly mean ‘buzzing with life’! I’ve seen the most beautiful and bizarre creatures of the insect world… varieties of ladybirds and locusts and bees and bugs in general (much to my husband’s disdain!). The almost deserted hilltop is called Nova Kasaba, and in the Serb dominated municipality of Milići. I say deserted as even though there are seven family homes where we are… only three seem to be occupied at the moment. This is a common phenomenon, mainly due to the lack of opportunities particularly for Muslims here in the Serb controlled Eastern Bosnia (Republic of Srpska). Nova Kasaba is one of many villages that in the past decade has tried to rebuild itself after the devastating war in the 1990s which saw many areas of Eastern Bosnia ethnically cleansed of its Muslim majority.
My family, the Velić family, is just one of many thousands of Bosnian Muslim families that have persevered over the last decade to rebuild their lives and help reestablish the Bosnian presence in Eastern Bosnia. They are Returnees who have come back to reclaim their land.
For the next few days, the Velić family opened up their home and their lives to two young strangers who did not speak a word of Bosanski…except Da (yes) and Ne (no).
Admir, a young imam, cum local activist, cum farmer, is an amazing historian and scientist, well versed in global politics and currents affairs. He has been an invaluable host and guide during our stay and I can honestly say that he has made our time here most enjoyable and interesting. His wife, Adina Velić neé Husseinovic, is mother to the adorable baby Ahmed, homemaker, with a degree in child psychology and sociology from Tuzla. A real girls-girl, with love for the more delicate things in life. Baba is an ever-smiling man, not so much older than my own Dad, well travelled, having worked for construction companies in Iran, Libya and former Yugoslavia. He communicates with a mixture of Arabic, English and sign language – my favourite moment so far was when he misplaced his phone and we found it near his bag; he pointed to his head and says in English ‘computer no good’ followed by a loud hearty laugh. And Mama … what to say about Mama Velić, the matriarch of the household. The true life and spirit of the home, a woman full of laughter and amazing wisdom reminding me so much of my own mother – perhaps this is a universal trait all mothers have, but her ability to envelop two strangers with so much love and compassion has been deeply appreciated by the two of us. And her force feeding has been equally appreciated by our own mothers, with their first questions being if we were eating well!
In almost no time we were communicating and conversing as long lost relatives, with Admir and Adina being invaluable as translators, together with the use of phrasebooks, dictionaries and sign language. I’ve learnt a few important words – nos (nosh) is knife, Kašika (kaashika) is spoon, compier is potato… yes… most words are food related, but that’s not my fault… the family spend a lot of time eating and discussing food!
The family owns a sizeable self-sustaining plantation growing all sorts including raspberries, (which aside from creating amazing desserts with, they sell by the kilo to the local market), potatoes (if you’re ever in the area you have got to try Mama Velić’s compiere pita), carrots, peas (shelling peas is quite relaxing believe it or not), onions, tomatoes (the reddest and juiciest ever), cucumbers (equally mouth watering) and so much more. They have a cow (creamy milk), sheep and lambs, and chickens for eggs and meat, and roosters that wake me up for the Fajr.
During the day, when Mama is not forcing me to go for a siesta because it is ‘puno ručo’ (very hot), I shadow Mama and Adina, baking bread, cooking meals, washing up and my favourite pastime by far is babysitting Ahmed. Adina’s main responsibilities revolve around Ahmed and the house. Mama’s responsbilities also include the farm – looking after and feeding the animals including the stray cats that call the Velić farm home (3 new kittens were born yesterday bringing the total number of cats to ten!), helping Baba and Admir on the field, tending to the vegetables…basically Mama has superwoman duties.
Nights have been filled with much talk and laughter, although many times the mood becomes quite somber as we discuss current affairs and what the future holds for Bosnians. During one evening the family were good enough to talk about their own personal experiences during the war – they were some of the lucky ones, being able to escape from Srebenica to Tuzla before the Serbs closed down all access. From Tuzla, Mama and young Admir (8 or 9 at the time) moved to Sarajevo, while Baba went abroad to find work and bring money in for the family. They lost an older son during the war, although I’m not sure what the circumstances were - they haven’t offered the information and I hesitate to ask. What I do know, from bits and pieces of conversation with different family members, was that he was a medic of some sort and he died in the war.
Admir took us for Jumaah prayers to his Dzamija (Masjid) in Pobuđe where he delivers the Friday Khutba (sermon). There on a memorial dedicated to those who perished in the conflict, were names of hundreds of Muslim men and young boys; one of the names engraved was ‘VELIĆ A. AbdulKadir 1975-1995’. He died at the tender age of 20. There isn’t any one single person you meet here who has not been affected by the war. Mama Velić, in one of the more somber moments asked, to know one in particular, ‘Why did the mothers of these Serb soldiers not stop their sons and keep them home? Why did they allow them to murder?’