Schools. Airplanes. Pandemic.
Updated: Mar 24, 2020
What do you do when you wake up one morning and find that life has forever changed? As a survivor of the Bosnian genocide, I am always prepared for the world to fall apart. But I also know that crises represent our best opportunities to come together.
The situation right now with the coronavirus feels all too familiar to me. In the nineties, my family and I survived the Bosnian genocide. What we learned from that time - how to find a new normal, how to live one day at a time, how to come together - are among the many skills critical to surviving this moment. This post is the first in a series exploring my thoughts on living through a crisis.
I was living a happy, simple life in Yugoslavia. My childhood was perfect. I played outside most of the time, had a great lineup of friends, and practiced sports every single day. I loved to travel, and, thankfully our family was always on the go. Every weekend we would spend down by the river or at one of the summer houses our families owned. During the summer, we would go to the Adriatic Sea and, like many Europeans, spend over a month on vacation, in our case enjoying the turquoise waters of Bosnia.
The small town of Neum was a perfect place to go. Water so still it glistened in the sun, inviting you in. Us kids diving in and out all day, inhaling the salt water, while rays from the sun darkened our skin. Once I got exhausted from all the jumping and swimming, I would take an inflatable raft and just lay on it, looking at the surrounding mountains as though they were protecting us and the sea. The sky overhead blue and painted with little white clouds. I remember laying like that many times, looking at the commercial airplanes flying over us leaving that white contrail. I used to lay there and imagine that I was on that plane traveling somewhere exotic. I would wonder where the plane was going, and imagine myself going to these places, too.
I used to do the same thing with clouds. Sometimes when the clouds would move fast in the wind, I would wish I was on that cloud flying over the world looking at all the beautiful places and people on earth. Different types of people, different cultures, different languages. Doing it all so inconspicuously that no one would notice and everyone would go about their business as usual. I loved these summer days. Neum was, and still is, one of my favorite places to visit.
In 1991, when we came home from our summer vacation, the first signs of war started to peek their heads up. Contrary to popular belief, war, like most other tragic situations (including a pandemic), doesn’t happen overnight. Grave and tragic situations usually don’t escalate from 0 to 100 in a day. Instead, it all happens gradually. It is almost not even noticeable until you're smack dab in the middle of it and life is forever changed. Maybe some of you can relate to that feeling right now.
For us, it was on a sunny Saturday afternoon while we were visiting my aunt and cousins and having our regular weekend family gathering that we heard a rumble. The ground shook and everyone stopped in their tracks. Not having any idea what it might be, we all rushed outside to see what had happened. Was it an earthquake? But we’ve had earthquakes before - this didn’t feel like one. Was it a dam breaking? Nope, there was no signs that the river was rising. While standing outside trying to figure out what happened, we saw smoke in the distance. Dark, black smoke rising from the opposite side of our city of Mostar. It was miles and miles away, yet very visible.
It turned out someone had parked a large gasoline truck in the city and lit it on fire, generating a huge explosion. The truck was parked at a strategic location in a part of the city where there would be no casualties — and there were none. But it was the beginning of it all. Up to this day we still don’t know who placed the truck there, but it did its job: inspiring fear.
Yes, we all went home, and brushed off the explosion as a freak incident. Up to that point, our city of 250,000 people had a non-measurable crime rate. We had an extremely strong middle class, free education, free healthcare, and high employment. The idea of war coming to us - or something bigger happening - never occurred to anyone.
But…the media plays its role. Little by little “bad news” started to flood the television and papers. Fear started to rise. Fear from what — we are still not sure about. But it was there, very much present and influencing all decisions we made. The tensions between different religions, different ethnicities, different groups, got worse and worse and day-by-day the situation became dire. We didn’t know what to believe or whom to believe. All we were being told is that we should fear each other. Those different from us were bad.
We didn’t know what the future would bring, but we knew the situation was actually getting bad, because we could now hear gunfire in the distance. Having the national army deployed to deal with the unrest was unreal. What would happen to us?
We didn’t know what to make of it. We had no idea what to think, how to act, what to expect. It was all very much surreal. With each day, we kept saying and thinking and hoping that it would soon be over so we could go back to our normal lives.
But it didn’t get better. Little by little, it got worse.
As we were coming off of our summer break, the first sign that this new situation wasn’t stopping any day was when they canceled school. I remember being so happy. I didn’t know or care what was happening. All I knew was that my summer was extended and I didn’t have to go to school for two more weeks! How exciting for a 14-year-old! The best news a kids can get, really. Totally oblivious to the adult world, I hoped they would extend the break even longer. I mean, can you imagine the fun I would have if they extended our summer not just by two weeks, but by a month, or two, or indefinitely. But I thought to myself — No, that’s too good to be true. That would never happen. Adults in our culture placed way too much emphasis on good education, and they would never cancel school longer than couple weeks.
But one week later, I got the best news: school was postponed indefinitely. Yup — not one month or two, but who knows how long. I mean it could be years! I could safely forget about my summer reading report that was due when we got back. I could just relax and have fun without any of the pressure of school and homework.
But the enjoyment and freedom from school was short-lived, even for us kids. Soon after, the Croatian Army started marking people and separating them into groups. Some people were taken to concentration camps. Some people who knew what was about to happen just disappeared. I remember one day running over to my friend’s house to see if she would come out and play. But as I knocked on the door, it slowly creaked open. Thinking that the family just didn’t latch their door properly, I knocked more strongly and called out their names, waiting for an answer. All I heard was the strange echo of my own voice. It sounded different than usual. It sounded hollow.
I thought, This is really strange. I knocked and called out for them louder as I kept walking into the apartment. But immediately something really odd hit me like a ton of bricks. As I walked in, the entire apartment was empty. There was nothing there. It was totally cold and hollow, just like my echo. I thought I was imagining things. Just yesterday I was playing with my friend. They must have packed up overnight and left. I don’t even know how they did it so fast, because they took everything, including water faucets and - literally - the kitchen sink.
It was a strange experience that left a mark on me. I wondered why? And where? What did this mean? Was I never going to see my friend again? No goodbye. Nothing. One day she was just gone.
But life went on. The situation got worse and worse, until finally we had to flee our house, too. When we returned many months later, our house was destroyed. The army had charged in and stolen anything of value, then burned and destroyed everything else. Our photo albums and videotapes, all gone. My Lepa Brena barbie doll, stolen. Walls destroyed from bombs and fire.
Thinking it was over, we started to rebuild from scratch. We started to clean up. Every day in the morning we would walk to our apartment, clean, and make repairs. And in the evenings, as the sun set, we would walk back to the other side of river to my aunt’s house where we would stay the night.
During this time, you don’t know what to feel or how to feel. Just like today, we had to take it one day at a time and do our best with what we had.
One day, while we were cleaning our apartment, the Croatian army decided that they wanted to take over the right side of the city, and so they hurled 60,000 civilians to the left side. At this point we were surrounded by two armies. We had no food, no water, no medicine, and no outside contact. People were dying on a daily basis, and BBC anchor Jeremy Bowen was there filming the entire situation. (You can watch his documentation of the situation on YouTube in a documentary called Unfinished Business. )
Day in and day out, people were killed. We tried to live a normal life, and I started to miss school. This joy of being out of school was now a nightmare. And to top it all off, I could no longer go into my own world and imagine I was one of the passengers on a commercial airplane, because those planes had stopped flying over the war zone. It was odd trying to imagine a pilot chatting to an air controller who might be saying: Yeah, I know you are trying to get to Italy, but you gotta stay away from that airspace because they are killing people there. And the pilot nonchalantly saying: Copy that. As though what was happening to us was normal, easily avoided by entering different coordinates and heading away.
I know this sounds strange, but one important thing I learned during this time was that, as long as school is in session and commercial airliners are leaving their beautiful white tracks in the sky, we are okay. We are at peace. It is when disruptions like that start to happen that you really need to begin to worry.
After my injury from an RPG explosion, I was evacuated to the U.S. for medical treatment. The first thing I wanted to do when I got here was to go to school. School meant normalcy. The medical staff used to take me out of the hospital with IVs still attached so I could at least go to school for a half day. But most of all, even now when I see a commercial airliner pass above me and leave a trail — I no longer think or wish I was on that plane. Instead, I take a deep breath of relief and sigh saying softly to myself: I am safe.
Today, as I hear of many school cancellations, flight cancellations, and children being so happy that the school is postponed, I can’t help but wonder — are we on the brink of something bigger? What will tomorrow bring?
But, just like during those times, we have no choice but to take it all one day at a time. Just one day. All you and your family have to do today is survive. Make it a good day. Worry about tomorrow, tomorrow. While this pandemic is horrible on so many levels, try to see the good about it. It is teaching us to live in the present. To stop the ball, lift our heads up, regroup for a moment, and realize what really is important in our lives. Your kids are happy that school is out: let them be happy - but don’t forget that they are watching you. They are picking up on your vibes and learning from this how to handle difficult situations.
As I am traveling back to Florida from a trip to see my family, I still see a few commercial airplanes. But this time I sign and say: “I hope I am safe. I hope we are safe.”
This is a very difficult time for all of us. We are all filled with fear and uncertainty. We don’t know what to do or how to act because we have never been in this situation. Regardless of how difficult this is, regardless of what’s happening, I want to remind you that we are all in this together and together we will get through it. I lived through the genocide. It was hard and there were many casualties, but we survived and now strive. You will do the same. You will survive this, and after, we will all thrive together.
This virus may have physically distanced us from one another but at the same time, it made us work together in unity. From many corporations that are making special provisions to help people, to all the healthcare workers that are tirelessly fighting, to Disney streaming Frozen II early, everyone is doing their part in their own way. And together we will win.
One for all, all for one.
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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