My family is from the former Yugoslavia and it had been a family tradition to go back and visit the homeland of my grandparents. Unfortunately for me, by the time I could go, my father had passed and I found only one cousin willing to do it again. As luck would have it, it was the summer of 2000 and I thought the war had been long over. It was only recently I discovered that the horror continued right up until just before my arrival there.
After a short stopover in Frankfurt, we boarded a smaller plane to Zagreb. The flight was beautiful, the scenery, breathtaking.
I thought about the stories I was told about this place. My family were farmers there, and I was excited to experience the way of life that used to sustain them. I wanted to see the animals, horses, pigs, cows, chickens, the fields of vegetables, and how they did it all. I had heard about how they would slaughter the pigs, then salt and smoke them, and I really wanted to know how. I don’t know if you’ve had them, but Yugoslavians are famous for their cabbage rolls. I wanted to know how to make the sour cabbage, and how they did all this for ages without refrigeration. I was fascinated with the idea of being self sustaining off the grid, and how they managed even after the war.
We rented a van to get to the tiny village of Covac near the larger city of Okucane. I was surprised at the military presence there still, there were checkpoints with armed guards asking to see your passport. Luckily most of them spoke English and didn’t actually seem that concerned with us. We must have went through three before getting to our destination.
Arriving in Covac, it was like nothing I had ever seen. One gravel road, off of another gravel road, one small store at the corner. There were maybe 40 houses altogether, surrounded by fields and farther back, forests. At one time this place was beautiful. Now, unreal. Most of the houses had been destroyed and abandoned. Some had walls missing, bullet holes marred the surface of the concrete, trees even growing where the roof once was. The town pavilion that once held meetings, dances and parties was reduced to rubble. We pulled into the gravel driveway of the house we would be staying at.
Our hosts came out to greet us, a young lady and her elderly mother. The house was small by western standards, a concrete square with a kitchen, bedroom and cold room. The kitchen had a table and chairs, a woodstove and small counter, and a laundry line all lit with a single bulb hanging from the ceiling. The bedroom held two single beds, and a dresser with a television with rabbit ears atop, again all illuminated with a single bulb. The cold room was farthest away from the woodstove, just a concrete room with shelving on all sides which interestingly doubled as the room to bathe in. The outhouse was about 40 feet away, past the open well, unlit of course. My cousin told me a story about using the outhouse while a chicken pecked her from below, I guess that’s when they closed it off at the back. Regardless, I still had some anxiety about using the outhouse at night. The well was open, like the ones you see in old fairytales, with a roof and a bucket on a rope. Looking down into the water, I counted four frogs swimming around down there. I hoped they boiled the water before drinking. They didn’t. Meals usually consisted of smoked, salted meats, sausage or bacon, eggs, fresh vegetables like tomato and onion, bread and soups.
I remembered my Grandmother telling me about picking beans in the fields, and moving the livestock from the forests to graze, and back to the barn. Looking out at the fields, there was nothing but weeds. The only livestock in the town was some chickens and a cow. I asked what happened, the stories I was told and the place I was in seemed vastly different. When the war came here people fled and later were forced out or had their homes destroyed or taken over. Most of the younger people never returned leaving a town of mostly elderly. There was no one to do the hard work involved in farming here, and no one could afford the start up costs again even if they could. At one time this land was self sufficient, the people were happy and free, now barren, a way of life lost. I wanted to walk in the fields that sustained my family for generations, I was told I was not allowed. Not allowed? Apparently it had not yet been cleared of land mines so it would be an enormous risk. I still can’t believe that a tiny village, so far away from a small town had been hit so hard in this conflict. I recall a story from my Grandmother about her family hiding from the Nazis back in the war. That happened here, at least twice people were murdered in war, here, on this tiny strip of houses, seemingly in the middle of nowhere.
We went to visit other relatives in nearby Gredjane, I had hoped they fared better, they didn’t. My Grandfather’s brother and his wife lived in a small brick house, the size of a shed. The four of us couldn’t all be inside at once it was so small. It held a single bed, a woodstove, and a table and chairs. Nothing here was refrigerated, they had no electricity, not even a light. The towns people came by to say hello. Once again I was surprised at the age of the people who remained here. It amazed me that the elderly people chose to stay or come back while the youth took to the cities and stayed there. Leaving that place, it would be the last time I would see my relatives again. My Grandfather’s brother died two years ago, six months after my Grandfather.
Back in Covac, it was bath day. My gracious hosts had to heat buckets of well water on the woodstove for me. I bathed in the cold room, in a plastic bucket a foot deep, two feet across. It wasn’t pretty, but it did the job. I had to get used to brushing my teeth outside, and just spitting on the grass. I had never done laundry by hand, that wasn’t so bad. All in all, life there seemed so quiet, peaceful. It was actually hard for me to sleep at night, I wasn’t used to it being so dark, and so quiet. There were no streetlights, no traffic sounds, not even the familiar sound of dogs barking.
They did have a small garden close to the house. They grew potatoes, onions, carrots, cabbages, tomatoes and beans. Since the summer was ending we did get to help with some of the harvest. At this time, they didn’t pull out all of the root vegetables, just some for the cold room to use, and some for next years’ planting. We put the seed potatoes in a hole near the house. It was full of hay, we placed the potatoes and onions inside then covered them with hay and buried it. The cabbage was harvested, washed and placed in large tubs with brine, enough to just cover them.The tubs were stored in the cold room, then covered with fabric, a wood plank, and weighed down with a brick. Unfortunately my stay was not long enough for me to try them once the process was complete. I must say, although delicious when cooked up, the smell of them fermenting was a little harsh.
I did not have the opportunity to see any meat processing but I was told how it was done. Once ready, the meat was salted, and then smoked in smokehouses. This would occur in the fall so the meat was then hung in the attic which vented the woodstove smoke in one end and out the other. This would continue the smoking process thus preserving the meat longer for later use. After my visit, the smell of a wood fire always reminds me of my trip, and the taste of homemade smoked bacon.
Three weeks had gone by so fast, even here where there were no distractions in daily living. On the long ride home I had a lot to think about. I believe the one thing that made the deepest impression was the fact that this village, so remote, and so small was so deeply affected in their own TEOTWAWKI. I had just assumed that in almost any situation fleeing the cities is always plan A, this trip taught me otherwise. I believe we need to be careful in creating a plan for disaster that is sort of one size fits all. In this situation, in this civil war, the resources in the city were better. Those left in the country were completely alone in a horrific time and to this day, many of their stories remain untold.