THE BLOG

Starting Over Again in Croatia

The wars in former Yugoslavia led to an enormous displacement of people. Even before the war broke in Bosnia, nearly 300,000 refugees from that multi-confessional region flooded into Croatia. As the wars spread and the refugee flow increased, the Bosniaks -- Bosnians from a Muslim background -- usually treated Croatia as a transit point to a third country. Bosnian Croats, on the other hand, tended to settle in Croatia. According to the 2001 census, 450,000 Croatian residents were from Bosnia. Another 70,000 arrived between 2002 and 2009.

Kristina Micanovic was not yet a teenager when the war broke out. She was born in the Bosnian town of Brcko. She and her family became refugees in Croatia, traveling from one place to another until finally ending up in the walled city of Motovun, about 30 kilometers inland from the Adriatic coast.

"We were like second-class or even third-class citizens," she told me in an interview in Motovun last August. "I remember when we moved from Vinkovci to Dalmatia, near Split. There were five of us children -- I have three brothers and one sister. We came with my mother because my father was in Switzerland. We spent one year in that little village near Split. They broke the windshield of our car. Generally children avoided me and my brothers and sisters. They said, 'They're from Bosnia -- we can't make friends with them.' I didn't understand why. I really didn't understand what was going on. We were living in this part of the world having a normal childhood. Then the war came, and we were trapped somewhere else. And people acted like we were some kind of losers. It was hard. It was strange. A year after we came here to Motovun, they slashed our tires."

But they were lucky, Micanovic insists: "We lived through the war and the refugee process better than many. Some people were in the camps, and they really were harassed. Families were separated. And many people were killed. We didn't have anything like that. Thank God. We were lucky. The family stuck together, and we didn't have to go to the camps."

Of her life in Brcko, she doesn't remember a time of harmonious ethnic intermixing. "When I was at school in Brcko, the three nationalities were separate in the schools," she told me. "We weren't separated in the classes, but the Serbs were mingling with the Serbs and Muslims with Muslims. We didn't have friendships with the others. So it's all so sad. When I was talking about how people treated me when I came here, it was the same as we treated each other there. My parents also said, 'Don't make friends with them, they're Muslims.' It was the same thing, actually. And it's sad because children are taught from the beginning to be separate because of the nation and religion. And this is the 21st century."

Today, she and her husband run Atelier Art In Situ, a graphic design studio and store. When I visited Motovun last August, I was charmed by the designs displayed inside the shop. With her representations of Motovun, Micanovic nicely captures the corkscrew layout of the medieval city. Business is good, she told me. She would also like to sell her paintings, but she can't for local licensing reasons. Also, it's expensive to live and work in Croatia these days.

"We were in Finland this winter, and the prices in the grocery shops are the same," she said. "It's crazy -- our salaries are so much less. I don't know how people manage to live, particularly people with children. Well, there's the grey economy. And we are also in the grey economy with the paintings. People who make the handmade jewelry and stuff, there's no way they can do that legally. It's like they're selling drugs. I'm selling my jewelry or paintings -- I'm not selling drugs. I'm not selling people or something. But I can't do it legally. You have a bunch of people who are running the country and stealing, and that's okay. But you can't sell paintings. It's crazy."

The Interview

When the war broke out you went to Croatia. And do you remember as a child the kinds of attitudes people had towards you?

Yes, of course. We were like second-class or even third-class citizens. I remember when we moved from Vinkovci to Dalmatia, near Split. There were five of us children -- I have three brothers and one sister. We came with my mother because my father was in Switzerland. We spent one year in that little village near Split. They broke the windshield of our car. Generally children avoided me and my brothers and sisters. They said, "They're from Bosnia -- we can't make friends with them."

I didn't understand why. I really didn't understand what was going on. We were living in this part of the world having a normal childhood. Then the war came, and we were trapped somewhere else. And people acted like we were some kind of losers. It was hard. It was strange.
A year after we came here to Motovun, they slashed our tires.

Did you know who did that?

No, no.

We were Catholic. My mother was very religious, and my father still is. I'm not anymore. But in those days we were practicing our religion and going to church every Sunday. I met a girl who was my age, and one day she told me, "Oh, I can't play with you anymore, and I can't be your friend because my mother told me that you are a Muslim."

And I said, "How?! We were in church! You saw us! How does she think that we're Muslims?"

"Oh, I don't know, you're from Bosnia, they are all Muslims..."

And that kind of stuck. At some point I was really embarrassed about my nationality. It is sad when you reach a point when you're embarrassed about your nationality. Because of other people.

Were there particular words that they used to describe you in Croatia?

No, just Bosanka.

Bosanka. That's a Bosnian woman?

Yes. But I don't think that we had it so bad. We lived through the war and the refugee process better than many. Some people were in the camps, and they really were harassed. Families were separated. And many people were killed. We didn't have anything like that. Thank God. We were lucky. The family stuck together, and we didn't have to go to the camps.

Did you have family who either stayed behind in Bosnia?

My grandparents stayed there as long as they could. Everyone told them, "You have to leave, they will kill you, the Serbs will kill you, the Muslims will kill you." And my grandfather said, "No, no, I can't leave my house. This is the place where I was born." But at some point he left Brcko with my grandmother, and they stayed in Croatia for a few years. When the war was over, they went back. My grandmother is dead, but my grandfather is there, and my two uncles are living there too. We still have a house. Our house wasn't destroyed. We were there a few months ago.

What was it like to go back?

To read the rest of the interview, click here.

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