The story of a child forced to flee his homeland

In December 1995, dozens of children from war-torn Yugoslavia arrived at Thessaloniki railway station to meet Greek families that were ready to offer them love, family warmth and security as part of the «children of war» project organized by the Central Union of Municipalities (KEDKE). Among the new arrivals was Lazar Mentarovic, a 9-year-old Serb from Bosnia who, like the other children, carried a change of clothes in his luggage and his own drama – the horror of war – which he had experienced in his village, Mocronoge, near the town of Dirvar. Waiting for him on the platform was a family from Kalamaria. He didn’t know a word of Greek and spoke no other languages but his mother tongue; his hosts didn’t know a word of Serbian. Yet a strong bond grew between the terrified child and the family of Evdoxia Malli, a bond that has endured. Mentarovic’s story is one of many that unfolded during the civil war in Yugoslavia, when Greek families offered to help children, soothing some of the pain and distress they had suffered as a result of the carnage. Malli has written the story of her family’s relationship with what she calls their «adopted child,» she told Kathimerini, and plans to publish it soon. «They were such intense moments that they came out effortlessly on paper,» she said. «The first day was awful. I had on my hands a child who wept continually. I didn’t know how to reassure him. I didn’t know what he was thinking – he didn’t speak. I didn’t know if he was afraid of us. I tried to calm him down by speaking to him gently and I hoped he would understand that from the warmth of my voice. I put him to sleep with my other children. But in the morning, he wouldn’t come out of the room. When I went into the room, two tearful eyes peeked over the blanket and looked at me in despair. I hugged him and talked to him non-stop. He withdrew into himself and kept reading a little book which, as I found out much later, contained wishes from his relatives who had written about the trip to Greece. That ordeal of distancing lasted for three days, until the children found a means of communication by playing with a deck of cards. That’s how he began to learn his first words of Greek.» From then on, they lived together normally. Lazar’s Greek improved in the classes that were being given for the visiting children, and the families overcame the difficulties of the unusual relationships by talking with psychologists in specially set up groups. At first, whenever Lazar heard an airplane, he would run and hide. Gradually, however, the problems were overcome and Lazar started to integrate into the family. He would call family members «grandfather,» «grandmother,» «uncle» and «aunt» but never «mother.» Time passed pleasantly into the summer, with excursions to different parts of Greece. «We became close, we exchanged confidences and formed tender relationships,» said Malli. «Besides, he’s a very good person. He didn’t come here to have a good time and then disappear. His family reciprocated everything when we we visited them in Novisad.» «The landscape had lost its color,» Lazar told them when he showed them the village from which he had fled with relatives, leaving his mother for five-and-a-half years. He went by cart to Novisad, where his aunt lived. His father and two older brothers were still fighting in the war. His mother stayed in the village with her elderly parents and father-in-law’s brother. When they heard that the Croats were entering the village, she decided to leave. She put the three old people on the cart and set out with them and her livestock (150 sheep) for Novisad. On the way, one of the elderly people died and they returned home to bury him. By night, in torrential rain, they dug the grave, hurriedly buried the body, then fled once more. The journey took 70 days. By the time they reached Novisad, all the animals had died. «We brought back what counts,» she told her relatives: «Human lives.» Lazar’s older brother was missing for two years until the Red Cross located him. His other brother was found in a camp and he too returned to Novisad after the war. When the whole family – grandparents, brothers, children and grandchildren – were gathered together again at the aunt’s house, they heard about Lazar’s stay in Greece from his school. «I didn’t know where the country was,» he told his «adopted mother» later. «And I thought they spoke Serb there too.» Since then, Lazar has visited every Christmas and summer except in 1999, during the bombardment. The family went back to the village after some basic repairs were made to their ruined house with United Nations aid. «In 2002, we went to see them again in the village. They received us with love; we felt very close. As we were leaving, Lazar’s mother looked me in the eye and said: ‘I gave birth to Lazar; you brought him up. You’re his second mother.’» Lazar is now in the final year of senior high school. He turns 18 in July. Ahead of him is military service, study, a career. «I feel a sense of responsibility for that child and I worry. I dream about him, being a mother to support him, a friend to stand by him.»