As all-consuming as wars are, we rarely pause to think what part children play in them, and how much they understand. It’s the adults who start wars, kindling small sparkles into devastating flames, and then end them. Of course, both adults and children suffer the consequences, but how do the latter see the war? What does it look like through the prism of childhood?
My friend Igor grew up in Croatia during The Croatian War of Independence. The war was fought from 1991 to 1995 between Croat and Serb forces. A struggle for land and sovereignty, it claimed thousands of lives on both sides. Igor had just turned three when the war broke out, and, unbeknownst to him and others in his generation, it became the background of their childhood memories.
“I don’t really have any war stories. I mean, it was war, but for us it was normal. It was simply our childhood,” Igor explained. “We watched children’s programs on TV in the mornings, went to schools or kindergartens, played outdoors — sometimes with wooden guns. And if we heard the alarm, we went home.”
They took civil defense sirens as a given, something they’d heard dozens of times before. If a battle was unfolding a few kilometers away from the city, a special siren would guide everyone back into their homes.
And a different type of alarm warned of a possible aerial attack. Day or night, Igor, his family, and fellow townsfolk would rush to the basement of the local sugar factory, the only ad hoc bomb shelter they had. While the parents may have been terrified every time, or disturbed at the very least, the kids seized the opportunity to play with multi-colored sugar cubes of different shapes that were stored in the factory’s basement.
Sometimes the factory would be closed at night, so Igor’s family had to get their sleeping bags out and spend the night in the hallway of their apartment where the window was the smallest and the effect of a blast wave would have been the least dangerous.
Županja, Igor’s hometown, became infamous as the city with the longest uninterrupted period of general alert during the war. Three and a half years it lasted, but luckily the children weren’t entirely aware of the dangers surrounding them.
“As a child, you both understand the weight of the war and you don’t. It’s just a part of your reality. You understand it, but you’re not distressed by it.”
The war was everywhere those days — in the streets, in the bombed school, at home on TV. For five years, the anchorperson of the local Eight O’clock News would wrap the program up with a nod toward the country’s soldiers, wishing them to stay safe. Not all managed to. The war came with devastating losses, and when the News would cover the numbers after a battle, a child in front of the TV would be thinking, “Is it my dad? My brother? My uncle?” Sometimes, it was.
While men fought for their homeland, women had to sustain their families. They went to work just as they would in peacetime; raised kids, took them to school, safeguarded their childhood. And if the sirens forced mothers and grandmothers to pick up their kids from school early, the children didn’t mind. Why not spend a few hours playing with sugar cubes, as long as it’s a no-school day?
Classes were cancelled during occasional sieges, too. Since Igor’s hometown was located near the border, the Serb forces would attempt to penetrate it every now and then. At times, a siege could last a few weeks. Buildings would be covered with tree trunks and sand bags to protect them from stray shrapnel. With shops closed or bombed, people received food rations, including canned provisions, instant mashed potatoes, and powdered milk. “It’s not like we were starving. We weren’t lacking meat or dairy, as far as I remember. But we did get something extra for the siege period.”
Water and electricity were sometimes in limited supply. It’s hard to say what was more at fault here — the war or the still-wobbly economy of a young country. Either way, power could be out for hours on end, leading to family dinners by candlelight. As for the water, every time Igor’s granny poured him a glass, she’d have to fill up a bowl too, in case there was nothing more to drink later.
Even with the sieges, scarce supplies, sirens going off, and fathers away at war, life went on in Igor’s small city. It wasn’t the case in the whole of Croatia: some places were occupied, others faced protests or served as military bases. But the people of Županja led lives as normal as the war allowed. The local establishments — from a school or a factory to a restaurant or a bowling alley — continued to operate even during the war.
Holidays were observed as well, with Christmas remaining the most magical time for every catholic child. And it wasn’t just the promise of a miracle that kept the magic going — December came with its own unexpectedly sweet perks for the children growing up in the war zone. Kids from more fortunate countries, like the Netherlands or Norway, would pack and mail them toys, a tradition that also went on for a few years after the war.
Thus, on the last day before Christmas holidays, Igor and his classmates would each pick a nicely wrapped gift with a bow on top. Inside, something very simple could be hiding, like Happy Meal toys, Haribo gummy bears, old dolls or trucks the other children no longer played with. Those presents often came from families who couldn’t afford to buy a gift but wanted to do something sweet for Christmas. Still, some presents were brand new — stuffed animals, the latest Barbies, Toy Story or Power Rangers merchandise. Igor’s favorite was a blue teddy bear called Vunica (‘Wooly’) that he got from a child he’d never met.
The true miracle of it all was, however, not the gift-giving, but the friendships formed. “I remember once a girl left her contact details in the package, and my sister mailed her to thank her for the present,” Igor said. “The girl wrote back, and so they sent each other letters back and forth for a few years. Some other kids did that as well.”
To think that an entire generation, the notorious millennials, was raised during the war or in the still chaotic post-war times. In the next few years following the war, guns or explosives would occasionally go off in quiet Croatian neighborhoods. Mine-infested forests would be too dangerous to enter. Schools would show kids educational videos telling them not to touch certain toys or lighters lying around, because they might explode.
The nineties aren’t that far behind, and yet The Croatian War of Independence is forgotten by many outside the Balkans. Not by those it affected, of course. “You can’t go through five years of war and not be damaged.” If the children may have been shielded from the horrors of the war — the lucky ones, at least, — the adults couldn’t really escape it. PTSD, ruined families and homes, violent outbursts are but a few bitter gifts the war left behind. Independence came at a cost.
Croatia won the war, and victorious were the children whose childhood memories weren’t smudged too hard by it. Igor, for one, doesn’t recall much of the bad. He and many others simply grew up during the war, and it’s a part of their past that they don’t have to dwell on.
“I don’t have any triggers or horrible memories. I didn’t lose my childhood. It was just a different childhood.”
Author: Lada Redley
Lada Redley draws inspiration from her travels, experiences, and the people in her life. She writes both prose and poetry, and has an MA in Creative Writing from the University of Westminster, London. You can follow Lada’s adventures on Instagram: @ladaredley.