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Olja's story: a missing husband, an interrupted life and no way out

29-02-2008 Feature

A decade of armed conflicts in the Balkans in the 1990s caused thousands of people to disappear. The following is one woman's story of the pain of a husband gone missing, of holding out hope in vain, and the support that helped her get through it all.

   
© Nick Danziger / nb pictures for ICRC    
 
  Olja at her husband's grave.    
     
 

   
© Nick Danziger / nb pictures for ICRC    
 
  Olja's journal which she began when her husband disappeared and ended when she was able to bury him.    
     
 

   
© Nick Danziger / nb pictures for ICRC    
 
  Olja leaving her office.    
      

My husband Rade Budimir, from Pristina, Deputy Director of a renowned travel agency, was kidnapped on 2 August 1999 in Pristina, and I will never know how or why. Most probably he was murdered right after. If there is eternity, he knows how much I miss him.

I fled Kosovo with a single bag in the car. I had no work, no place to live and no money to buy food. What I did have was the burden of a missing husband, an interrupted life and no way out.

 Strength in numbers  

When I arrived in Belgrade, I read in the newspaper that there were other people like me. I tried to contact some of them, to share experiences and to make sure I wasn’t forgetting to do something I could be doing to find out what happened to my husband. I learned that the ICRC was organizing a meeting of the families of missing persons. I went there, stood in a corner, and shed tear after tear behind dark sunglasses. There were many people like me, all equally disturbed, unhappy and helpless, but at least someone was listening to us. They suggested that we join forces and form an association in order to make an impact, and we embraced this idea immediately.

 
"I was lost and felt as if I had no body, no soul, no feelings…"
 
 

I realized that we could make progress only in an organized manner – through contacts and by making proposals – and that there was nothing I could do all by myself. The ICRC covered the costs of the association’s office and provided its members with computer courses. I was the first one to get down to work. I devoted all of my time and effort to the association, which I served as secretary-general for three years. It was therapeutic and meant a lot to me. I would have gone crazy if I hadn’t kept myself busy. Also, thanks to my work I could keep abreast of things, and that helped me to adopt a constructive approach which could benefit both myself and others.

 'Staying active saw me through'  

Being active and working a lot saw me through the most difficult moments. This is what I would suggest to anyone in this situation. Work brings financial benefit and security. We all feel more secure and braver when we do not have financial worries. Reclaiming one’s place in society is a matter of fitting in on the same terms as everyone else.

I was given his remains, which were found after a long search, on 14 September 2002. The remains had been exhumed, an autopsy performed and DNA samples taken in May of the same year. At the end of July, a test confirmed a match between the samples and my husband’s DNA.

 The long wait is over – and new pain begins  

Even though my husband’s burial took place three years after he disappeared, I felt as if he had died that very day. Years of searching were filled with the hope that he might still be alive, so the shock was especially severe, all the more so because of the pain that had been smouldering for years. I was lost and felt as if I had no body, no soul, no feelings… That state – of accepting the fact, of helplessness and pain – is indescribable. I c ould feel nothing but how torn apart I was. I was probably unaware of my own existence. Horror. Then, after the funeral attended by thousands of people, I remained alone in the hotel lobby – alone except for all my pain and the silence in the hotel.

After Rade was found I felt even more lonely and even more in need of support. While I was looking for him I was still his wife. When that changed, support was nowhere to be found, and the burden was huge. And I had to go on. I wanted to go on.

I was driven by an inner need to go on, by my love and my emptiness. Strangely, the more helpless I was, the stronger I became. Even when I went to bed feeling discouraged, I would get up, after sleepless nights, with new energy to keep me going.

 No one takes responsibility  

I receive no support whatsoever from any other organization. I have no legal rights that I can exercise. But I do have to consider an abnormal loss as a normal thing, for which no one takes responsibility. It is very sad. I don’t like dwelling on disappointments. I am not disappointed. I am unhappy because what happened to me is hurting me so much, but a person has to cope with whatever comes along. I can’t say I’m disappointed with people. We’ve all been through so much in recent years and we are all fed up. Some people have it even worse.

My greatest joy lately is that I can often go to the mountains. I am close to nature and to people, and that means I’m alive again. It is hard to be a woman and to have a loved one disappear. I am one such woman and I have met many others who have suffered the same fate.

 The strong have it harder  

I believe that those who appear to be strong are actually having a more difficult time than those who allow themselves to be weak. Strong people receive no offers of help. Everyone believes that the strong are self-sufficient, but the truth is that they are not. I would prefer not to be strong, but to be protected, average, “tucked in” and spoiled. I have not been so fortunate. What remains for me is to keep following my life’s path and not to allow myself to be put off by obstacles. My life is mine alone. I am the only person responsible for my life.