Three-Day Business Trip

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Non-Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic

Three-Day Business Trip 


I arrived in Zagreb, Croatia, on the evening of Thursday, April 15, 1993 — the first step of a planned, three-day business trip. I came to Zagreb to finish a job involving applications for new permits for international passenger transport, and I expected to return home to Bosnia as soon as it was done. The transportation company, Centrotrans, based in the small town of Kakanj in central Bosnia, needed those permits due to new regulations of transport between Bosnia and Croatia, newly independent countries after the dissolution of Yugoslavia. I was hired temporarily, just for that assignment, which I gladly accepted. For more than a year in war-torn Bosnia, I had been jobless. I was outside Sarajevo at the beginning of its siege, and my professor’s job at the University of Sarajevo was taken by another person.

I traveled to Zagreb by bus, an unpredictable and dangerous twenty-six-hour journey. The countless stops and long waits at barricades and checkpoints, set up by different military and paramilitary formations, made the trip six times longer than in peacetime. After many gray, cloudy days and pitch-dark nights without electricity in Bosnia, the brightness of Zagreb fascinated me. The city’s glowing streetlamps, luminous shop windows, and moving headlights and taillights all attacked my eyes. The newsstands were full of various daily papers, colorful weekly magazines, books, cigarettes and other things. That was a picture of ordinary, everyday life I had not seen for months. It took me back, for a moment, to my previous, almost forgotten, normal life. I bought a Globe weekly magazine which I had regularly read — before.

I found the hotel room, took a shower, and went to bed. My thoughts turned to Bosnia, to my wife Sevala and our children. I already missed them. It was very early in the morning when I left home, and the kids were sleeping — son Ismar, 16, and daughters Adviya, 12, and Jasmina, a three-month-old baby. I went to their rooms and softly kissed them on their cheeks. Beside Adviya’s pillow I saw a piece of paper. I read her handwriting, all in capital letters: “BABO KUPI MI CEDEVITU U ZAGREBU” (“Daddy, buy me a Cedevita in Zagreb”). Cedevita was her favorite multivitamin candy, which came in different fruit flavors. She preferred orange, and she hadn’t had it for a year. “Cedevita is life,” she often sang, imitating the commercial for that candy. “She was so excited, knowing you are leaving,” Sevala told me. “She stayed awake late last night. I didn’t see when she wrote it.” I put the paper in my jacket pocket and looked at her: “I should be back on Sunday.” Sevala drew herself close to me and rested her head against my chest. I hugged her, planted a soft kiss on her cheek, and left.

The next morning I got up early and left the hotel room around seven. I took a streetcar and arrived at the Croatian Ministry of Transportation sharply at eight o’clock. My longtime friend, Nenad, was already there waiting on me. Nenad was the senior advisor at the Croatian Ministry of Transportation; he was single and lived with his parents in a modest, old house in one of Zagreb’s quiet, green neighborhoods. I had met Nenad at a business conference in Zagreb in 1980. During that conference, Nenad introduced me to his old friends from school, Jelena and Ratko. For the remainder of the conference, we were together; we traveled across Croatia, ate and drank together, made jokes teasing Ratko about his adventures in love, and laughed ourselves to tears. The four of us became very close friends.

“You’re still alive? They didn’t kill you over there in Sarajevo?” Nenad jokingly asked me.

“No, it’s not easy to kill me.”

“Oh, yeah, I know why they didn’t kill you. You’re theirs because you studied in Belgrade,” he continued to joke.

“Of course, they know that I’m theirs. It’s written on my forehead that I’m a Belgrade student. They can read it from the hills through their sniper’s eye,” I accepted Nenad’s joking tone.

“What’s really going on in Sarajevo? We don’t have reliable and updated information here.” Nenad asked, now in a serious tone.

“They are killing anyone who dares to breathe, anyone who appears in a sniper's telescope — men, women, children,” I said with bitterness in my voice.

Nenad helped me fill out the permit application forms. We sorted all the necessary documents, and I turned them over to the Ministry’s receptionist clerk. The clerk gave me a signed receipt and said, “New permits will be delivered to the company address within two to three weeks.” That’s good, tomorrow I can go back to Bosnia and be with Sevala and kids by Sunday night, I thought. It was one o’clock in the afternoon when Nenad and I left the Ministry building.

“I’m starving. Let’s go get something to eat,” Nenad said.

“I’m hungry, too. Where do you want to go?” I asked.

“Kaptolska Klet. Do you remember we went there with Jelena and Ratko when we first met, and since then, we called that restaurant our place?” Nenad questioned. It was lunchtime, and the restaurant was full. At a table in the corner, close to the entrance, I recognized two Bosnian guys, the bus driver and one of the passengers from the bus that had brought me to Zagreb yesterday. They welcomed us, and we joined them. As we sat down at the table, the bus driver asked me,

“Did you know that our bus was the last one that came from Bosnia yesterday?”

“No, I didn’t know that. What happened?”

“Not a single bus came from, nor left for, Bosnia since yesterday morning,” the driver informed us. Then he continued, “The fighting between the Bosnian Government Army and the Croatian Defense Council forces has just begun. I tried to call my family in Bosnia several times but couldn’t get through. It looks like all lines of communication with Bosnia have been shut down.” I was speechless for a while. Then I said, “Now we have two wars in Bosnia — one with neighbors from the east, which has been going on for over a year, and one with neighbors from the west that has just started. They both want part of Bosnia, and it will be hard for Bosnia to survive.” 

“Bosnia will survive,” said the bus passenger sanguinely. He was a mustachioed, big man with a red face, obviously ready to discuss everyone’s dose of patriotism and to show his great readiness, which was increased by the strength of cognac he drank. He was fully prepared to defend Bosnia from his comfortable seat in this Zagrebian restaurant.

“Maybe it will survive, but it will no longer be the Bosnia we know,” I said.

“That’s not a big deal — the Bosnia I know and have lived in for forty-five years is a fucking communist, nondemocratic, poor country.” He was frustrated; his face grew even redder. He tried to look powerful and persuasive. On the contrary, neither power nor persuasion existed in him at the time. To me, he looked like a typical example of the newly-composed democrats, as ordinary Bosnian people called them, who, instead of democracy, brought more lies, dishonesty, corruption, and the worst nationalistic vocabulary in public life. Consequently, I tried to change the theme and tone of the conversation: “Yeah, maybe someday we will miss that poor country, but now, for us, it is most important to think about how to survive here while Bosnia is blocked. It could last for a long time.” Nenad and the bus driver were silent. I could see on Nenad’s face that he was uncomfortable and, at the same time, that he was glad that his home wasn’t in Bosnia.

For the next five months, I lived in Nenad’s house in a Zagreb suburban neighborhood, waiting on the day I could return to Bosnia. With the passage of time, I almost forgot the reason I had come. I spent days at a time looking for the possibility to call Sevala, and I spoke with her only four times in five months. However, my mood changed significantly when I managed to talk to her. The happiness and sadness switched roles during the conversation. I was glad to hear that she and the children were alright, but when she told me she was out of money and alleviating hunger had become the crux of their existence, I was stunned — speechless and motionless. “Everybody here now is thinking only about what to eat, not about bombs and sniper bullets,” she said. “The possibility of death from starvation is what scares me most.”


One day in the middle of July, while walking on the busy Ilica Street, I almost ran into my friend Davor. We knew each other from the Bosnian city Zenica, where we used to work together. I learned that Davor lived in Croatia now, with his parents, and planned to immigrate to America. He had a relative who lived in California. With my family on my mind after hearing about his, I told him my story. “Are you thinking of going somewhere?” Davor asked.

“Yes, I’m thinking of going to Bosnia” I replied.

“I mean, are you thinking of immigrating to another country?”

“No,” I said sharply.

“Ok, but if you change your mind, let me know. I heard the American Refugee Resettlement Agency was recently established here in Zagreb. Now it’s much easier for Bosnian people to get apermanent American visa.”

After meeting Davor, another month passed, full of unsuccessful attempts to find a way to return to Bosnia. During that month, I slept very poorly, waking up many times during the night with the echo of the words “death” and “starvation” ringing in my ears. One night,I woke up at 2 a.m. after a bad dream. In that dream, I saw my older daughter, Adviya, sitting on the couch and tapping her stomach with her hand, telling me, “Hey Dad, I ate so well. I am full.” The rest of that night I didn’t sleep at all, and I decided, Tomorrow I’m going to the American Refugee Agency to apply for immigration.

On Monday morning, August 16, 1993, I was the first visitor to the American Refugee Agency office in Zagreb, and I applied for immigration to the United States of America. Due to incredibly fortunate circumstances, my interview with a U.S. immigration officer was scheduled for the same day. Three weeks after my interview with the immigration officer, I got a letter from the refugee agency stating that my immigration to the USA was approved, and departure was scheduled for September 14, 1993. Destination: Cookeville, Tennessee.

Cookeville? Where is it? I couldn’t find that place on the map of America. In the library of the American Cultural Center, I found basic information on Cookeville: a university small town with about twenty thousand inhabitants and eight thousand students, eighty miles east of the state capitol in Nashville. 


On a hot September day, three people were waiting on me at the Nashville International Airport. The youngest person, a student at Tennessee Technological University, was holding a paper in his hand with my name on it. The other two people were professors at the same university and members of the Bosnian Refugees Support Committee.


Six months later, during a lunch break in the Cookeville Wal-Mart, where I got a job, I read the newspaper over the shoulder of my coworker:


At the White House ceremony in Washington, D.C., on March 18, 1994, Bosnian and Croatian prime ministers signed a Constitution for Federation. The war between Bosnian Government forces and forces of the Croatian Council of Defense is over. The officials on both sides expect that Bosnian borders with Croatia will reopen in two weeks.


“Thank God! They will come — they will come soon!” I shouted, jumped, and hugged everybody in the break room.

My thirteen months of illusion, hallucination, frustration, depression, and hopelessness ended the evening of May 24, 1994, at the Nashville International Airport, when I hugged and kissed Sevala, Ismar, Adviya and Jasmina. In the car, on the way from the airport to Cookeville, I put my arm around Adviya’s shoulder and said, “I brought you Cedevita. There is not much. It won’t last long, so let’s try something with American taste.” 

Submitted: June 20, 2022

© Copyright 2023 Mak Kulovic. All rights reserved.

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