Six Minutes to Destroy; An Eternity to Forget

VEDRANA DAMJANOVIC

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Photography by the author

When my father ran through the house in a panic, yelling for us to take the most valuable and needed things in the suitcase and leave the house, he thought of medicines, blankets, food, documents, and money. I took only my four albums with 200 printed photos in each and put them in the black Kappa suitcase I bought when I first left to the U.S.A. to go to the university.

“Water can take everything, but not my memories,” I thought to myself.

I looked at my room desperately, hardly believing that I had to leave the very little 80 by 90-inch room with tons of folders, books, and hand-crafted memory boxes on the shelves. The light-peach orange walls, decorated with pictures and frames, complement a beige couch full of colorful, plush toys, two giant flower-patterned pillows, and a blanket that read “Milka,” the name and pattern of our best chocolate.

The current hurricane season and flood warnings in Florida remind me of a similar experience back home. May 15, 2014, is a date I will never for- get. A severe flood hit my hometown, Doboj, in Bosnia-Herzegovina. It was a historic, one- time natural disaster.

Yet, this one was the second occurrence. It came almost the same day 49 years after the first one hit the city on May 16, 1965. A year after the dreadful event, I’ve finally gathered the strength to put my ever-painful and vivid memories into words.

When I finished my second college year at the University of Florida, I flew back home as usual for the summer break. I arrived on May 6 and spent a few days with my parents and brother at our vacation house, making barbeque and remembering the good old days when we would gather like that every Sunday. Though it was raining most of the days throughout the country, the gloomy weather had no chance of ruining my time with my loved ones.

The night before the flood, I was preparing to go to Novi Sad, Serbia, where my boyfriend is studying. I really wanted to see him after four months of waiting, Skyping, messaging, and constantly missing him. The news at 7 p.m. was filled with bad weather forecasts across the coun- try and region, and severe rain was predicted for the next day. Everyone was skeptical about my trip, including my boyfriend.

“The stones can fall from the sky, but I am going to Novi Sad. What could rain possibly do to me sitting in the bus?” I retorted.

Despite my family marring my excitement with anxiety, I held up to my decision.

Just like any other Thursday, everyone was at work or in school the next day. An unpleasant and confusing call from my mom at work woke me up at 7:30 a.m.

“Veco, where is your dad? Did you already leave the house?” she asked frantically, one question after another.

“I don’t know, Mom. I’m sleeping. My bus is in an hour,” I replied, uneasy, but still half asleep.

“Good, don’t go anywhere! The exit of  the city is blocked. Bosna River overflowed,” her voice shivered. “Tell him to pick
me up from work, NOW.”

She raised the volume of her voice as she said it, drawing it out to “N-o-o-o-w.” I jumped out of the bed and told my father to go get her. Standing by the window  motionless, I waited for them to come back. The cars lined up in front of our house, jostling desperately to leave the street. The un- comfortable silence emphasized the clock ticking on the wall. Water was coming from the right side, slowly reaching our house.

In a few minutes that felt like an eternity, my father’s car emerged from the left side of the street, and he miraculously managed to park in the garage. As soon as he closed the door and he and Mother entered the house, the water was all around the house. It was a matter of seconds. The entire city flooded in six minutes.

At the time, neither my parents nor I could imagine how severe the damage would get. My mom’s chin and cheeks were shaking from the stress and panic as she explained how stressful it was at work that morning. Her glazed-over and fearful blue eyes convinced me of the seriousness of the situation.

We watched the news on TV, with all the reporters saying the same announcements: “The level of water is rising — Maglaj and other cities were hit by the waves during the night — Rural areas are getting flooded — People are trapped by water in their houses.”

Unease in our house rose with every minute, and the minutes became hours. It was the longest day of my life. My parents and I sat in the living room, frantically taking turns at the window to check the water level. Not knowing how high the water would rise, we thought it safest to stay in our home. Luckily, the living area of our house is on the second floor, so if the water were to come in, it would be in the business space. Our stairs became a unit of measurement, and we gauged the danger by counting each of  the four front steps under water.

“It covered the first one,” I reported two hours after the flood started.

“Now it’s over the second one,” my dad said, checking the stairs after three hours, lighting his thirtieth cigarette or so from the second pack- age that day.

Nothing implied the water would withdraw soon. We lost electricity and water by the time the flood reached the third stair at about 7 p.m. Later that evening, the three of us huddled around a candle, unsuccessfully pretending we were free from worry. Our predicament reminded my father of the civil war we had from 1992 to 1995, an event still fairly recent in his memory. “This is how we would sit in the bunker in the war zones, light- ing only a candle and making jokes while trying to overcome the panic.”

“If it’s true, then we’re all gone in one minute,” shrieked back a widowed neighbor.

People started packing and driving the children up the hills to friends’ houses. My father said we needed to do the same. “Everyone is saying it’s false, but they’re all leaving,” he said in exasperation. “This is what they did in the war: saved their families and left us on the front lines. Go to the house and pack the most valuable and needed things!”

I knew he wanted to protect Mom and me, so I had to do what he said. I grabbed my photo albums first, and then some medicines and packed the rest of my suitcase. My stomach was giving me a huge pain and a severe headache.

Mom’s blood pressure was really high, and I worried she would faint. I waded through the horror of mud and dirt, with my mom and dad following behind. The city felt like an underwater industrial graveyard, enveloped in mud and smelling of sewage. It appeared a haphazard version of its former self, the pipes lying above ground and every plant uprooted. We heard a sad cacophony of sound from each home, with families hurling destroyed furniture and memories out the door.
Soon after, we came back to our house because the friend’s house where we were supposed to stay was empty and locked. He had moved out somewhere. On my way home, I was horrified by the view of the ruined houses, the dirt and mud on the street, as well as the polluted air. It was very hard to breathe.

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Photography by the author

The following days and months of recovery are a separate story. The flood took some lives that the media was hesitant to publicly display, destroyed homes, and left a thick brown stamp of mess and sludge in every little corner of  the city.

A couple of days after cleaning, I went to the graduation of my UWC friends in Mostar. The bus was again leaving early in the morning. I fell asleep as soon as I took my seat. The sun shining through the window woke me up. I was shocked when I saw the clean road, green bushes on the sides, and the bright, sunny sky. As I gazed into the sunlight, I was struck with the powerful feeling of hope: for my country, for my town and for my family.

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