Canada·First Person

26 years ago, war separated my family. My dad and I still feel the aftershocks

Nadja Halilbegovich was 16 when her parents found a way to smuggle her out of war-torn Bosnia. Today, she realizes she and her dad share the same wound: it hurts her to go back and it hurts him that she could never come back.

Even when we are physically together, it feels like there’s an ocean between us

A smiling woman with red hair puts her arm around the shoulders of a man with grey hair and glasses.
Nadja Halilbegovich, left, and her dad sit together on one of his visits to Canada. (Submitted by Nadja Halilbegovich)

This First Person column is written by Nadja Halilbegovich, a writer and survivor of the Bosnian War. For more information about CBC's First Person stories, please see the FAQ

My dad turned 80 this summer. We have been living on separate continents ever since he and mom managed to smuggle me out of our war-ravaged hometown of Sarajevo, Bosnia when I was 16. Desperate to salvage what little was left of my childhood, my parents made the agonizing decision to send me abroad and ensure my survival — even if it meant severing our family.

The following two-and-a-half decades of physical and emotional distance pulling at the fragile fibres of our once tight-knit unit is not the kind of loss that can be distilled into a hard statistic. But it is one of the most insidious blows the war delivered to our family.

My relationship with my dad is layered and wounded. It is imbued with love, but weighted by our shared memories of nearly four years of siege and terror. It is laced with longing for the lost time while simultaneously being hollowed out by the years we spend apart. Just saying the word "tata" compels me to replay various scenes that are both searing and bittersweet.   

We sustained our deepest wound when I was 13. It was a rare peaceful day in Sarajevo and after much pleading, Mom let me go outside. Suddenly, an artillery shell exploded nearby and I was caught in a rain of shrapnel. Just as Dad picked me off the ground, a stranger drove up to help and they rushed me to his car.

Dad held me in his lap as I soaked his shirt scarlet. 

"Don't let me lose my legs," I begged him. 

He flinched and pulled me closer as we zipped through the intersections. 

Bullets pelted our car.

"They want to finish me off," I cried.

A few hours later, both of my legs were bandaged by a panicked nurse in a roomful of the dead and wounded as the hospital walls quivered from explosions. Dad ran into a friend who offered us a ride home, but just as we were about to leave, blood seeped through my bandages. We had to go back for another layer. 

Finally laid onto the backseat with thick swaths of blood-speckled gauze wrapped around my thighs and calves, I was falling in and out of a sickly stupor until Dad pulled a piece of chocolate out of his shirt pocket. The blood had not seeped through the crinkly foil so he dropped a few squares between my chapped lips. It was the sweetest succor.

A woman sits next to an older couple.
Nadja Halilbegovich, age 21, sits next to her parents when they visited her in Indianapolis, Ind. (Submitted by Nadja Halilbegovich)

Ever since my escape at 16, I have never considered moving back to Bosnia. I have gone for short visits to see family and friends, but returning permanently was never an option. Even thousands of miles away, I live in the wake of war and its unrelenting tides. I cannot imagine ever feeling safe in a place where I lost so much — where we lost so much. 

Today, the streets of Sarajevo bear hundreds of concrete scars from the mortar shells that killed unarmed civilians. The pockmarks holed out by the deadly shrapnel spray outward from the crater, creating a flower-like effect. They have been filled with red resin and named "Sarajevo Roses" to commemorate the victims of the city's siege. I shudder every time I pass by a rose, always giving it a wide berth, but what is even more chilling is the fact that I need not look any further than my own legs to see the legacy of war and violence. Although my scars have largely faded, they are my Sarajevo roses that I cannot bypass.

A pockmark pattern in a road is filled in with red resin.
Sarajevo Roses commemorate the victims of the siege in Sarajevo. (Labattblueboy/Wikimedia Commons)

My last visit to Sarajevo was five years ago. After Mom died unexpectedly in 2013, going back became even more difficult — like a slow and deliberate picking at a wound that has never fully healed. Spending an afternoon in my parents' small apartment, each nook curated by Mom's delicate touch, stirs a unique kind of ache especially since Dad keeps their bedroom suspended in her perfumed presence: her hair elastics, makeup and a half-spent tube of lotion await as if she has just popped out for a quick errand. He doesn't sleep in their bedroom, but instead makes up a bed on the living room couch.

After having lunch, I was sitting in the living room while Dad made tea. I couldn't help but stare at the folded blanket, a crinkled sheet and a pillow stacked at the foot of the couch. My eyes gazed over the bookshelves above the TV and I noticed a small travel-size clock which we've had since I was a child. The hands were static — showing the wrong time.

"I think the little black clock needs new batteries," I said to Dad.

"No sweetie," he said, as he put the teacup in front of me. "I stopped that clock when your mom died."

A smiling man and woman sit on a couch.
Nadja Halilbegovich’s parents during a visit to Canada in 2012. (Submitted by Nadja Halilbegovich)

There was nothing I could say, so we sat in silence. Instead, my mind imagined scenes I had cobbled together from the snippets I heard from Dad and my brother: Minutes after Mom died at the hospital, Dad sat by her bedside and kissed her one last time. Her cheeks were still warm when he kissed them — once for me, once for my brother. 

I wish I had gotten up and hugged my dad after the silence had lapsed. I wish we had talked then, and I wish we could talk now about our grief over Mom and about the clock that no longer keeps time. I wish we could talk about that day at the hospital and the sight of my blood blooming through the gauze. I wish I could tell him about the milky puddle of chocolate on my tongue as I lay in the backseat of the car and how it was the sweetest last taste of childhood since I could no longer be a child. 

I realize now that Dad and I share the same wound — it hurts me to go back, and it hurts him that I could never come back. Sadly, even when we are together, there is an ocean between us. An ocean made up of missed birthdays and milestones; an ocean filled with quotidian joys and hassles, heartbreaks, real health scares, pesky colds and upset stomachs. Things that seemed too small or unimportant to talk about, or things that scared or upset us so much that we didn't want to share so as to not burden each other.

But in this well-intentioned curation of our lives, we did not spare one another like we had always thought. Instead, we missed out on countless opportunities to strengthen the tethers that bind us. Worse, we unknowingly let war sink its jagged teeth into the very marrow of our lives.

A man with grey hair kisses the cheek of a woman wearing a graduation cap and robes.
Nadja Halilbegovich’s dad kisses her on the cheek after she received an honorary doctorate in 2013 from Butler University for her work as a peace advocate. (Submitted by Nadja Halilbegovich)

I see now that we have often misspent our time together by cramming in as many activities as possible that briefly gave us a sense that we were making up for lost time. I wonder if all the self-imposed busyness was just a distraction and a way to avoid conversations that were likely to rouse grief, regret or resentment. Yet only if we reveal our wounds and clean out the debris together can we hope to heal.

The truth is the war has never stopped hurting us. We keep sustaining injuries even in the aftermath, only they are hidden and insidious. As Dad enters his ninth decade and I become acutely aware of the slipperiness of time, I catch myself daydreaming about what our future visits should look like: Tata and I sit and talk. We laugh and we cry. He teaches me how to make his scrumptious potato salad. He tells me stories about when he and Mom were young. We go for walks and take in the world around us. Together, we reclaim a few inches of what the war took from us.

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Nadja Halilbegovich

Freelance contributor

Nadja Halilbegovich is an award-winning author, public speaker and peace advocate. She is a survivor of the Bosnian War and the siege of her hometown of Sarajevo. Since her arrival to Canada in 2002, Halilbegovich has been a frequent speaker in schools and universities across North America and with the pandemic, her presentations have become virtual. Her book My Childhood Under Fire: A Sarajevo Diary was published in 2006.


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