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Practical Pandemic Advice from a Genocide Survivor

Part I: What To Do in a Pandemic: Staying Positive

Would you hate me if I told you that this virus might be exactly what you need to make your life better? Would you think that I was crazy to tell you that this virus could very well be the reason we create a better world? Would you think I was insane if I told you that a part of me is really excited about everything that’s happening right now? I am genuinely excited!

Hi, my name is Maja, and you may have never heard of me. I am a motivational speaker. Basically what I do is travel around the globe inspiring and motivating people. I use my life and all the lessons I gained during my life in genocide and try to help corporate leaders, and their employees stay positive and motivated. Needless to say, with all the travel bans, quarantines, and bans on gathering for any group larger than ten people, all of my bookings have been cancelled until further notice, rescheduled, or postponed.

The event industry is a mess and suffering just as much as any other industry - well, except for the owners of Lysol and Charmin toilet paper! But, I am really excited, energized, and happy. I have been trying to hide this excitement, because it’s seems so wrong in the face of everything that’s happening. People losing jobs, people dying, people hungry. Believe me, I am well aware what has been happening. It’s a mess.

With the world falling apart around us on a daily basis, this is the time for motivation, inspiration, and lessons on how to best handle this situation. I’ve spent unusually large amount of time on social media these past couple weeks and I see my fellow speakers — motivational speakers — try to motivate and inspire the masses. Many of them preach on positivity, but they aren’t actually being positive. They are hoping for positive outcomes - but that’s not positivity. It’s the illusion of positivity, just fluff.

In reality, people are afraid. You may feel better for a moment while you listen to your local 'motivational speaker' or favorite Instagram guru say something along the lines of: “Stay positive, we’ll get trough this together.” But what does that even mean? As soon as you stop listening to or reading this latest “positivity” message, your own positivity slowly disappears. Right now we need concrete advice and methods to truly stay and be positive. Ways we can actually help out, which in turn will create lasting positivity that will make a difference. Not just be a bunch of words on FB page that fade as quickly as they appear.

In the motivational speech I like to give, there is one lesson on positivity that I share with my audience. It’s a simple yet powerful phrase. Positivity is a matter of perspective, and perspective is a matter of choice. And without giving you an entire speech and sharing my entire life story, let me hone in on that one important part.

When I was 16 years old, I was in the middle of genocide. My family and I were stuck with 60,000 other civilians in our city of Mostar, Bosnia, between two armies that were attacking us. We had no food, no water, no medicine, no electricity, and no outside contact. This was slightly worse than the COVID-19 pandemic, but now you can relate to at least this part of my story.

One beautiful, sunny afternoon, as I was washing my hands in the bathroom of our third floor apartment, I heard my friends chatting. I tried to talk to them from the bathroom window, but I was too high up for them to hear me. I decided to run downstairs and chat with them. As I walked through our apartment, I saw my mom standing in the kitchen washing dishes. I knew if I asked her to go out and chat with my friends she wouldn’t let me. So I decided to sneak out, talk to them, and come back before she even had a chance to know I was gone.

I snuck past her, and I started to run. I ran so fast, taking the steps three at a time. I still remember the grey marble staircases as I flew through the air, hurtling my body forward to make sure I’d be back before my mom realized I was gone. I was an athlete - with aspirations to be a professional athlete - so I loved to run and jump and play, just like I was now. It was during this moment I wish someone had stopped me and said: You know, you are doing this for the last time. You better make it count.

We all have those last times that we take for granted and vanish into thin air.

The last time we talk to someone.

The last time we hugged someone.

The last time we argued….the last time we kissed…..the last time…..

Totally oblivious to my last time running, I ran downstairs, and just as I sat next to my friends, I started to choke. I couldn’t understand what was happening.

I was choking. I was…choking?!

I felt something sharp in my throat, cutting me as I tried to breathe, and all I kept saying to myself was, “Breathe, Maja, just breathe. As long as you breathe, you are going to be okay.”

A split-second later, my instincts kicked in. I grabbed my shirt and pulled it over my mouth. I felt myself go, “Aaahhhhhh” and take breath that didn’t hurt or burn. Not knowing what was happening, I focused on breathing. What was going on?!

In those moments, your primitive brain takes over and doesn’t let you just look up and see what has happened. No. It feeds you information little bits at a time as to not overwhelm you.

I started looking around me in concentric circles, trying to piece together what was happening - what had happened to me. I first looked at my left arm. It was bloody and throbbing. It felt funny. A feeling I never felt before. Then I looked at my legs and my feet. They were bloody. My shoes were ripped, shoelaces untied, hanging and soaked in blood. My legs throbbing in pain.

I saw it all, but I couldn’t understand.

It felt like I wasn’t grasping anything, and I was tired. I had a hard time holding my body up, so I tried to move back to lean against the wall behind me to rest. But as I moved, my legs hurt even more. Hurt a lot. It felt like someone was ripping me apart.

I managed to move an inch and lean back a little. Still confused, I started to look around me in a bigger circle. I looked to my right and I saw my friend with her four-year-old daughter sitting in her lap. Dead. Heads loosely fallen forward, brains oozing from the mother’s head, her dead arms wrapped around her dead four-year-old daughter, protecting her child. She died protecting her child, doing the most noble thing any mother can do, and her little girl died in the best place possible, her mother’s arms.

Her husband, who had seen all this happen from his second-floor kitchen window, runs down and is crying and wailing, apologizing to me: “I am sorry, Maja, I can’t help. My family is dead. Maja, my family is dead.” He was also a nurse by training and knew he should help me, but he just couldn’t. The pain and shock and torture of seeing his dead family was too much, so he kept apologizing. And I felt awkward.

Why is saying he is sorry to me when his family is dead? I should be telling him that I am sorry. I am sorry that they are dead, and I am not.

As I tried to process this new and overwhelming information, I look further left and I see two more of my friends. They were both twelve and were hanging out in the courtyard because this was considered a safe location. But in the genocide, safety is an illusion. Both of them were dead, their bodies scattered across the floor. I couldn’t understand what I was seeing. I couldn’t understand what happened. I kept searching for answers. So I looked in an even bigger circle and to my left I saw another friend. She was walking towards me carrying two canisters of water.

And, just as I looked into her eyes for an answer, I realized there was nothing behind them. Her look was blank. Her eyes were empty. There was no soul behind them. As I am trying to process this disturbing image, I see someone run by her and say: “I am sorry, I have to run and help Maja.” As I keep staring at her, gravity pulled her canisters down. She fell to her knees and collapsed. Dead.

Your mind is not prepared to see a dead person standing. Zombies in movies scare us for a reason. Dead people doing living things is creepy, scary, unnatural — even if it’s a simple as standing in a walking motion and just staring back at you.

I am desperate. I look around me in an even bigger circle and right across the street I see my younger brother looking at me. I still remember his big beautiful brown eyes, filled with tears, mouth slightly ajar, shock in his face. And it’s almost like in that moment I got into his body and through his eyes I saw what happened to me. I saw that a bomb had exploded less than ten feet from me killing all five of my friends instantly, and I was severely injured.

Now I want to ask you: how do I stay positive in the midst of this situation? This is true test of positivity. It’s easy to stay positive when things are going pretty good. When you feel safe, and your life has some “normal” obstacles.

But the real question is: how do you stay positive when your world is falling apart?

How do you stay positive when shit has hit the fan and there is a pandemic around you, when the markets are crashing, the economy is halting, the travel is banned, and you don’t know what tomorrow will bring? How do you stay positive when the bomb has landed in your lap, and how did I stay positive in the midst of my bomb?

Like you, I have and had two choices. I could be the victim of my situation, or I could be a hero. I can look at my brother, who was across the street doing the exact same thing I was doing - hanging out with his friends - and I can say, “Why me? Why did this happen to me? Why did my friends have to die and I had to get injured?” — as a victim. This mentality would dictate my approach to my recovery — it will be a slow painful recovery with me dreading every minute and every day. It will be a battle uphill I will struggle with. Because I have decided I am a victim of my circumstances.

Or I can turn around, look at my dead friends and their dead bodies and say: “Wow, I survived! I get a chance to live my life out and make it worth it. Make it matter.” In this case, I am hero, just for making that decision.

The facts of my situation are exactly the same — nothing has changed except my perspective. I get to choose if I am going to be a victim or a hero. Because positivity is a matter of perspective and perspective is a matter of choice. Your choice.

In my heroic mentality my recovery will be fun, exciting. My amputation without anesthesia, endless changes of dressing where my flesh was cut off while I bit on a teddy bear, the 100+ surgeries I will undergo later, I will handle also like a hero. I know it will be hard, but I will be excited, hopeful, strong, grateful, because, unlike my friends, I have the chance to live my life and make it mean something. So now, in this pandemic, what do you choose to do? Are you going to be a victim and spread fear, dread the next days, and worry about the outcome? Or are you going to get excited about the opportunities that lie ahead of us? The things we can learn, and the lives we can improve. Because as bad as your situation is — I can guarantee you, just like I looked at those dead bodies, you can look around and see millions of those less fortunate than you. You can be grateful for your situation, no matter how horrible it is. Because as long as you are breathing, as long as you are alive, you have hope and the power to write your future and become the hero of your own life. I know from personal experience.

Stop dreading the virus, stop fearing the virus, stop panicking, stop lying around, stop worrying about the economy and GET EXCITED! Get excited about what’s happening and be happy about it. You are alive to work towards a better future! This is why I am excited and happy about it. I know true positivity in the face of adversity. I know that I am excited and happy that I get to be a hero again. I get to make the world and my life just a little bit better than before.

I am excited to help out people because I know what that felt like before.

I am excited to learn from this, because real life lessons change the world.

I am excited because I know this will create many opportunities for us all.

And you, too can be happy about the situation, because you are here - and you and I both get this opportunity to shine. A lot of people dream about the heroic things they would do if presented with an opportunity to be brave, wise, and helpful. This is your moment. You have the opportunity to change your life by truly helping the people and the world around you, it's just up to you to take that first step.


About the Author: Maja Kazazic is an internationally recognized motivational speaker and author originally from Mostar in former Yugoslavia. During the Bosnian genocide, she and five friends were caught in an RPG explosion. Maja was severely wounded, and all of her friends were killed on impact. Maja was later evacuated to the United States for extensive medical treatment. She re-learned to walk, attended college, and, in 2006, founded a successful web development company. Today she lives in Florida with her family, including her service dog, Rosie, and is an active kayaker, tennis player, and golfer. Maja has been featured in Reader's Digest, Good Housekeeping Magazine, Fox News, BBC News, Discovery Network, the Philadelphia Inquirer and more and has delivered her timely messages to clients from organizations big and small all over the world. 



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