It was a perfect sunny afternoon when seven-year old Laki (pronounced "lucky") was playing the popular singing game of Ring Around The Rosie with her best friend, Lejla, and her cousin in the neighborhood park as their mothers and Laki's aunt sat talking, smiling and watching over their children. People were milling about joyously despite the Bosnian War that had started recently. Laughter and conversation filtered out of the nearby coffee shop. Laki twirled and turned around while playing the game and then her entire world changed forever. Snipers took aim at her and Lejla and fired. She luckily dodged the bullet as she was twirling but Lejla wasn't so fortunate. The bullet hit dead center in her chest, blood spurted everywhere and she fell dead to the ground instantly. Laki's aunt and mother rushed to them, picked Laki up and dropped her off in an alley shielded from sniper fire. Then they ran back to help Lejla's mother who was holding her daughter in her arms and was crying hysterically. They helped her walk to a secure spot. Blood was everywhere and people were running for cover shouting to each other and calling out their family members to safety. As Laki watched in shock from the alley, everything seemed to be moving in very slow motion. Time stopped and nothing was the same ever again for this fragile seven-year old girl. Her innocence died that day.
Laki recalled this scene with immense clarity 23 years later when I spoke with her during our recent plane ride from Croatia to Italy. The sound of thunderstorms still creates immense anxiety in her, she says, because it reminds her of that fateful day and many other days when grenades fell all around her. If power goes out, Laki's anxiety gets into high gear as they had to keep the lights out at night during the war lest they become the target of bombings. When you meet her though, it's impossible to imagine that this elegant, well-spoken woman, who studied game theory and economics in graduate school and now works as a financial analyst in the State of Utah's Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health, had experienced childhood horrors that most of us only read about in history books.
Laki was born in 1986 in the small town of Metkovic, about an hour from Dubrovnik in Southern Croatia but was raised in Capljina which is now a part of Herzegovina. Laki's father was a Bosnian Muslim and her mother was a Croat Catholic. It was rare for such inter-caste marriages to occur and the couple was not accepted by their families. However, their love persevered. Laki's parents worked hard all day and, therefore, she was primarily raised by her paternal grandmother. They lived near a river and spent leisurely hours boating, fishing and walking along the river to pick raspberries. Laki would visit her grandmother's friend almost daily as the two women played cards and Laki pretended to drink coffee with them. She loved those simple moments of innocence. Her childhood was almost idyllic before the war broke out in 1992 when Laki was barely six years old. The war continued for over four years and left unmistakable scars among many families - Laki and her family were no exception. According to her, one of the most difficult things during this war was that neighbors and friends became Serbian spies and enemies overnight. They shot and killed their Bosnian friends and neighbors in the name of their country. "No one could be trusted," says Laki sullenly. A family friend, whose wedding was paid for by Laki's parents, turned into a Serbian spy and killed many of their neighbors. Her voice shakes a little and I see her eyes becoming moist as she recalls her father's story.
He was enrolled in the Yugoslavian army and sent to fight the war. Eventually, he was captured and sent to a concentration camp because he was a Muslim. Laki and her mother were able to bring bags of food to the concentration camp because her mother was a Croatian Catholic. Laki's documents were forged to show that her father was a Catholic Croat - that saved her from being sent to the concentration camp. Many of her friends were not so lucky. This limited supply of food was shared by her father with over twenty prisoners whose families were Muslims and were not given visitation rights. While in prison, his skull was split open, his jaws were stitched together and he was left with no teeth. Laki's father was released in about a year because of his "mixed-marriage" to a Croat Catholic. "He was only skin and bones when he came out. He used to be a happy-go-lucky man but the concentration camp made him a bitter, angry, and a sad person," she says, as the pain is clearly visible in her eyes.
After his return, they were asked to leave Bosnia. Laki remembers this as a very painful day because they had to leave not only their home and all their personal possessions behind but the one person she loved most - her grandmother. She recalls her grandmother running tearfully to their car as they prepared to leave. She handed Laki the only valuable thing she possessed - a gold ring. Tears rolled down their eyes as they hugged and kissed for the last time. Laki never saw her again as her grandmother was killed by a drunk driver a few months before Laki could save enough money to visit her homeland again. The pain returns every time Laki visits Bosnia because people tell her that she bears a striking resemblance to her grandmother.
The family's migration to Croatia was temporary until the Catholic Church in Salt Lake City, Utah, was able to bring them to safety to the United States. With no money, no English speaking ability, and no educational skills that were recognized in the US, they struggled with deep poverty and lived on donations. Even so, their spirit to survive did not diminish. They even adopted Laki's cousin because he had lost both his parents to war. Laki's father struggled with post-traumatic stress and brain damage, had frequent flashbacks and nightmares which led to him being hospitalized. He even tried to commit suicide by taking an overdose of prescription medications. Her adopted cousin struggled with substance abuse, recovered, got married, had a daughter, moved back to Bosnia, but succumbed to drug abuse again and subsequently got divorced. He continues to live in Bosnia.
Laki's story is heart-wrenching but, unfortunately, not uncommon for those whose worlds were and are still being torn apart by war, civil strife, famines, abject poverty and other societal ills. Laki found strength in her life lessons. She still cares for her father who has started to improve slowly. Laki regrets that she could not bring her grandmother to the US before she died. She wishes if there was a way for her to recover some of the childhood photos and if she could get back her childhood home. Laki's voice assumes a strong confident tones as she adds quickly, "Despite all the pain, I wouldn't change a thing about my childhood because this how it was meant to be. It made me stronger, adaptable, resilient, and compassionate to the cause of those who are suffering from mental health and substance abuse issues. I can handle anything now. I was once full of hate and anger and now I am deeply grateful for the life I have - so, I wouldn't change anything, not a thing."
Laki's innocence may have died in the Bosnian War but compassion and gratitude, proven and powerful antidotes to stress and anxiety, now fill her wise and resilient adulthood although anxiety episodes and panic attacks continue to plague her. The effects of the large number of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) that Laki underwent may continue to linger and manifest themselves from time to time. However, she is convinced that her compassionate work to help those suffering from mental health and substance abuse issues will continue to heal her as she witnesses the results of her work. Laki's story is proof that the ill-effects of ACE can be managed effectively and even overcome with active practice of gratitude and compassion.
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