18 March 2022

We drove into Prijedor in the early afternoon. I must admit I didn’t recognize anything until we reached the city, then the memories began to materialize. When we crossed a bridge over river Sana, I saw Hotel Prijedor on my right. “My aunt and uncle used to live just next to that place” I said pointing to my right. “Dad and I used to go fishing directly below.”

I didn’t visit this place much after August 1992, when the last of my extended family left for America. Once in a while as a child, and later as a teenager, I would take the long route home from school along Partizanska Ulica to see their old home and the stairs of the riverbank where we once used to sit. I did this frequently with many places in the city that marked my childhood, strolling past empty streets and buildings like a ghost, as if doing so was the only way to convince myself that they were not just figments of my imagination.

When I was occasionally sighted by a neighbor or an acquaintance, they would simply pause for a moment and then, as though I was an apparition or a bad omen, they would continue about their business as usual. Rarely did anyone acknowledge my presence, even as they observed me standing idly in front of the entrance or below the kitchen window of my childhood home on Ulica Ilije Bursaća 52.

We continued along the main road toward the city center and passed Stari Grad on our left. When we hit the pedestrian-only zone of Zanatska Ulica, we turned right to look for parking near some new memorial that I didn’t recognize. Exiting the car, I buttoned up my heavy coat and lengthened it down to my knees while breathing in the brisk air.

I came back to Prijedor a couple of times since we immigrated to America in 1999. The first time to bury my father in 2005, when I was twenty years old. I spent the entire month of June with my maternal grandparents in the village of Kozarac and saw my extended family for the first time since 1992. I remember starry summer nights – sitting, talking, eating, drinking, endlessly on repeat – at the picnic table beneath the shade of grape wine. I remember deep village silence and the smell of warm cow manure.

I visited Prijedor again in 2013, but only for two days. The rest of the time I spent in Sarajevo and with my grandparents in Kozarac. It was March and Europe was experiencing the biggest snow of the century and Bosnia received more than 5 feet. It was cold and difficult to move about, everything looked sad and barren, especially Prijedor.

Last time I came back was in 2015. It was an impromptu daytrip from Slovenia, where I had gone for vacation. I drove into town in the early afternoon and left quickly in the evening. Mom had told me that grandma was sick in hospital and that it was dire. I didn’t take it too seriously because mom likes to exaggerate but I went anyway, just in case.

The Prijedor hospital was an eerie place, an old building that predates the 90s war and seems as though it predates several others. Grandma laid in bed aching in pain. She saw me entering the room and, upon realizing who I was, she said smiling: “Dino, look at you my dear, you’re a real woman now.” I didn’t feel like a woman, but I was happy she seemed pleased.

It was difficult to see her in that condition. My grandmother was always on the move, even though severe illness had forced her to walk bent forward at a ninety-degree angle for nearly two decades. She told me she was thirsty, so I interrupted a covenant of apathetic nurses in the hallway to request a glass of juice. “We don’t have that” one of them smirked and rolled her eyes as though I had suggested something absurd. “What are patients supposed to drink when thirsty” I asked? “You could pour water from the sink” she said, “but you need to get your own glass.”

Prijedor in a nutshell.

I tried to purchase juice from the hospital shop but had no cash to exchange. Frustrated, I returned to grandma empty handed. I had arrived all this way – USA, Israel, Slovenia, then Bosnia – and I had nothing to show for it. I told her I would go into town to exchange money and be right back, but she insisted I stay. I sat on her bed for a short while and we talked until she was too tired to continue. I watched her as she struggled to fall asleep, which she eventually did.

We drove to Kozarac from the hospital to say hi to my grandfather who, in a usually distant manner, greeted us at the doorstep of their summer kitchen. He was on his way to take fresh clothing and refreshments to my grandmother. We exchanged only quick greetings before he left. I thought I had told him I was driving on. He thought I was waiting for him, so he rushed back from the hospital when I was already gone. I cried myself to sleep that night after mom told me about it, worried I would never see him again. I never did, in fact, see either of them again. Grandma died later that year and grandpa followed a couple of years after. All of Bosnia took on a different meaning for me once they were both gone.

We approached the city center from the bottom of Zanatska Ulica, sighting on the way a number of shopping stores, restaurants, and cafes. The cobble stones were renovated, it seems, as were many of the old buildings. I could finally see Patrija in the background, marking the heart of the city center. Patrija was once the city’s major landmark. It was the shopping complex that once made Prijedor feel like a modern city. All of the businesses and the building were abandoned during the 90s war and remained crumbling for more than twenty-seven years, until it was finally renovated just pre-COVID. It was really beautiful to see, people coming in and out of the spiffy new complex, occupying its cafés and restaurants, strolling around the building. Small shopping stands were set up in the main square around Patrija with people selling toys, flowers, and other trinkets. There was an uncertain sense of possibility in the air, hope that things might just be getting better and fear that it is too much to hope for.

I walked inside of Patrija to purchase a SIM card and walked out fully connected. “I think I should now call him” I said referring to the man guarding my paternal grandmother’s house in Urije, a neighborhood of Prijedor where I was supposed to be staying. The house is empty most of the year except for a few months during the summer when she visits from Australia, but this time it was empty for over 3 years due to COVID-related travel restrictions.

“Hi, yes. It’s me, Dijana. I’m at Patrija. Yes, I can wait for you to finish dinner of course, I’ll be walking around. OK, see you soon.” We walked around the main street soaking things in while waiting for the man to arrive. We circled back within the next hour, and I immediately recognized him standing there in the front. I had never met the man, but even from the distance he looked very much like the photo on his Viber account. “Hi, I’m Dijana, I assume you’re waiting for me” I said as I approached him. “Yes” he smiled gently “Hi Dijana.”

The small house sat near the main road with bedroom windows facing the street. I shuffled through the keys to find one that fits the front gate, unlocked it, and walked inside the front yard. It was dark and the front yard looked neat but starved for human touch. In the back of the house, and practically sprouting out of it, was my uncle’s renovated house and the old summer kitchen. To the right of the kitchen was the old shed and then the entrance to the orchard.

The caretaker began to tell me about how the orchard needs to be fenced in from the back and all I could think about was how I once picked apples from the tree right there at the entrance. It was the most vivid memory I had at that moment and even then, I could not make out any faces. I thought it was strange to have such strong emotions around something so poorly remembered.

We walked into the house, which was smaller than I remember. Everything looks bigger when you’re a child. The hallway and the doors were narrow, and everything looked as though it had not been touched for half a century. Grandma made only small changes since grandpa built the house in the 1950s. He bought the land after he moved from Kozarac and worked to quickly ready everything for his young wife and children. The floors were original; pale, unpolished, narrow, wooden panels laid out neatly next to each other. Only the hallway and the bathroom were covered with tiles. In the kitchen, the wood burning oven was still in its original place and ready for use. To this day, when my grandmother returns to the house in the summer, she uses the wooden oven to heat the house and to cook. It is my favorite household item from childhood memories, a relic from another time, a centerpiece around which all good company and meals were had. I am happy it is here, I thought, the house is not a home without it.

The house was unbearably cold, so I bought a couple of space heaters that weren’t doing much. It was my first night there and it was going to be a cold one. I sat in the living room with dim lights, observing every inch of space and every item around the room. I wanted to take note of everything, everything that I had missed all these years.

There I was, back in Prijedor again, this time to do my research.