During my time in Hungary, there wasn't much talk of the war that raged just a few miles south in Yugoslavia. My roommate, Gingie, sometimes shared her grief as she heard news of the bombings, but mostly kept her sadness inside. Her own city in Serbia was under attack, and American planes had dropped the bombs that killed her neighbors and destroyed buildings in her city.
She told me her family turned to the black market just to get groceries because trade embargos made it illegal to import food into the country. She would go home on weekends to bring supplies from Hungary to her parents. Some of the other students at the Bible college happened to be from Croatia, and we all knew they dreaded news of the violent Serbian attacks that ravaged their towns and villages, leaving thousands dead and homeless. Though our countries were all on opposite sides of the conflict, Americans, Serbians, and Croatians all prayed together for peace. We were thankful for the unity we shared in the Lord.
The war escalated into one of Europe's deadliest conflict since World War II, but everything seemed so peaceful in Szeged where we lived just 40 miles away. One spring day, Gingie was all smiles. The warring parties agreed to a ceasefire, and Yugoslavia was enjoying a moment of peace. From her perspective, this was the perfect time for me to join her on a trip to her beloved hometown. I packed my backpack with extra snacks, just in case we couldn’t buy food, and headed to the bus station...
When it was time for the bus to be searched, a group of soldiers began opening the cargo doors and shouting things I could not understand. Another solder with a gun that looked too heavy for his small frame boarded the bus, snatching passports from all of the passengers. He looked into my face with wide and questioning eyes, as if he had never seen an American girl, and then he disappeared with a big stack of passports.It seemed like time stood still as the soldiers unloaded all the cargo from the bus and piled it beside the tall, barbed-wire fence. The passengers on the bus fell silent; my friend Gingie assured me that this was normal protocol and everything would be all right.
An hour must have passed before an older man in uniform boarded the bus, shouting orders. All the passengers began to rise from their seats and funnel out of the bus. We were near the back as we watched and prepared to go ourselves. The border guard pushed his way through the aisle with just a few passports in his hand. Suddenly he was standing a few steps from my seat handing back our passports to my friends and me. In broken English he said, “You stay, you are only children.”It was just the four of us who were left on the bus as the soldiers shouted orders to the crowd just outside. The bus pulled away as we watched the men and women who had been with us just a few minutes earlier form a line against the fence that divided the two countries, a small wall between war and peace, as kid soldiers held tight to their guns.
We spent only three days in Serbia. The streets of Subotica were dark and filled with rubble, and emptiness hung in the air. Gingie pointed out buildings that had been bombed and told the stories of heroes and victims. Over the weekend, we visited a zoo full of scrawny animals and bought pumpkin seeds from street vendors—there was no other food. We visited the only market still open and found only a few packages of flour and some eggs for sale. The shelves were bare, and all of the other stores were closed. War had never felt so close, so heartless. This was nothing like the far-off images flickering on CNN; this was real life for real people. Real life and real death.
On Sunday, we walked past abandoned tanks and over piles of scattered rocks on the way to church. We joined a small group of people for worship at the Calvary Chapel in the city, and in the midst of devastation, they sang with all their hearts, clinging to God in ways I couldn’t understand.
When the weekend ended, I was eager to return to the peace and safety of our refuge on the other side of the border. How close we were to such horrors, and I hadn’t even known. We took a train back into Hungary, hoping to avoid the situation we encountered on our first border crossing. But our return was not uneventful.
When the train stopped just before leaving Serbia, a border guard once again began collecting passports. He seemed angry with us and was speaking words we couldn’t understand. He referred to “Americans” in an unfriendly way as he opened our passports, searching for something he obviously couldn’t find. Gingie looked fearful this time as she conversed with the angry man. He called her off the train and into the border station. She turned to us and whispered, “The ceasefire has ended, and all Americans must be registered with the police when entering the country. I didn’t know! Now you must pray!”
So we prayed, and we waited. My parents didn’t even know I was in Serbia. Josh didn't know the danger I faced. God was with me, and I knew that my life was in His hands, but I felt so foolish for boarding that bus in the first place. I had no idea what war was! I didn't know that a ceasefire could be so fragile and would end the day after I arrived. Now the war was back in action, and my fellow Americans were flying enemy missions in the sky above. It was a long time before Gingie and the border guard returned to the train. Gingie silently slipped into the seat beside me and didn’t say a word, but under her breath, she was singing, “Yes, Jesus Loves Me.” The guard held up passports one by one. Some passports were returned to their owners; other people were called off the train like before to line up by the fence. I heard my name called. I worried that I would be left standing by the fence this time.
The man opened my passport and avoided eye contact as he quickly stamped the page and pointed back to my seat. I was free to go, and Gingie’s face broke into a smile. A few minutes later, the half-empty train carried us back into the safety of Hungary, and I told myself that in the future, it might be wise to stay out of countries that happen to be at war with the United States. I wrote a letter to Josh on the train ride back into Hungary, but I decided not to tell my mom and dad about my misadventure until a few years later. I didn’t want them to worry.