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Selco interviewed by Daisy Luther
(Dec. 2017) Have you ever thought about what an SHTF Christmas would be like after an end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it event? I’m not talking about a minor issue that just affects a few people, but a full-on disaster that changes everything.
Today, we have a first-hand look at what a post-collapse holiday is really like. I interviewed my friend Selco and his answers are really food for thought. I have learned more about long-term survival from Selco than probably anybody else and have based a lot of my own plans on things I’ve learned from him. For most of us who write about preparedness, it’s research and theory. For Selco, it’s real life.
This interview is in his own words.
I read over the answers to his questions at least a dozen times and thought about how fortunate we are. Even our most difficult times here, in our society, would have been the height of luxury during the war in Bosnia.
But will we always be this lucky?
First, give us a little bit of background. What was going on? Please describe the circumstances in Bosnia during this time.
War in the Balkan region (Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, Serbia…) started during the 1991 and went on until 2000 (if you include war at Kosovo and NATO bombing of Serbia in 1999), but historians mainly narrow it to a period of 1991-1995 if you do not count Kosovo war and NATO bombing. In some literature, you’ll find the name “Yugoslav Wars“ which is same (all the above-mentioned Balkan countries used to be states in the Federation of Yugoslavia (Jugoslavija or roughly translated to English it is “country of south Slavs“).
…Yugoslavia (as a socialistic-communist country) founded after WW2 in 1945, and stop to exist in 1991 with the start of the wars. Shortly prior the war socialistic system (communistic) fell apart as a part of bigger events (fall of Soviet Union, fall of Berlin wall…) and democracy came, together with democracy, rivalry between states that wanted to stay in the Yugoslavian union and states who wanted independence raised sharply, that resulted in riots and small and isolated fights, leading to full use of Yugoslavian army (JNA) which was 4th largest military force in Europe in that time.
Wars had all features: Independence fights, aggression between states, civil war, genocide, re-alignments, or switching of allegiances as the operational situational changed, backing up from foreign forces (Such as US and NATO)… through periods of it you could say that it was an ethnic war or even religious in parts, but in the essence it was war for territory and resources between factions who were in power, based on personal gain of wealth and influence only.
I went as a civilian and later as a soldier through the whole period of wars, I was in different regions during that period. Harder period of those wars (because of numerous reasons) happened in Bosnia, and one of the main “feature“ of that period were “sieges“ of a couple of cities that lasted from few months to a couple of years.
Some of those sieges were complete, in terms that everything normal stop to exist in city- electricity, water, police, medical services and everything else that makes life normal, every normal service. Death from sniper or shelling was an everyday thing, but also death from gangs because law stop to exist, or death from malnutrition, lack of medicines or simply lack of proper hygiene.
I found myself in one of those sieged cities. I lived like that for a year and I survived.
Every day, for almost a year, for me was a constant fight for survival, I was constantly either trying to defend myself or to look for resources, for usable water, food or simply firewood. We scavenged through the destroyed city for usable items because everything was falling apart and we have to “reinvent“ things in order to survive, like the best way to stay warm, to stay clean and safe or simply to make home medicine for diarrhea or high blood pressure.
Can you tell us the usual Christmas traditions in Bosnia BEFORE this all happened?
As said, I grew up in Yugoslavia, which was a socialistic and communistic country. One of the thing in that country and system was that religion was not forbidden, but it was strongly, let’s say “advised“ that religion is way down in the list of life priorities.
On the other side, it was strongly “advised“ that we put aside our differences (we had many different ethnic groups in Yugoslavia, and a couple of main religions) in order to build one “ethnicity“ – Yugoslavian. As a result of that, all different religions kinda know each other very well, and people from different religions celebrated more or less or know all religions.
Christmas for most of the folks was very much connected to the New year holiday (again something that is connected to the official socialistic system) and it was just like everywhere in the world I guess, a holiday of presents and gathering of family. For example, going on midnight mass was a matter of being together with family and friends, and meeting each other-not so much matter of religion because there were not too many “real“ religious people).
I was a teenager more or less, but my memories of that holiday prior to the war are peace, good food, family gathering and presents, and of course Santa. It was a huge and “mandatory“ thing that kids gonna get big presents then.
I’m sure that then, everything was very different. What were some of the changes? How did you celebrate?
Everything was different when SHTF, yes. Living was hard, comfort was gone and everything was stripped“\ down to the bare survival. Lot of small commodities that we usually do not think about (we take it for granted) was simply gone because of obvious reasons (the whole system was out) but also because simply life becomes full of hard duties, to finish simple tasks and obtain resources becomes hard, dangerous and time-consuming.
Celebrations become rare and not so happy and big (not even near) but at the same time, they become more precious and needed too.
Get-togethers (family) become even more important because people lean much more on each other between groups or family, simply because they needed much more support – psychological. too – than in normal times.
A lot of religious people lost their faith when they saw family members dying. On the other side lot of people found God in those desperate times – as an only hope.
Being together with family members for small “time off“ become almost like small rituals, like a ritual of finding inner strength and support in order to push more through hard times.
Yes, religion was a big part of it, but it was not only about religion. It was about finding the strength in you and people close to you – family, and sharing it between each other.
Without access to storebought presents, what kinds of gifts did people give?
It could be divided into two groups:
Things that help you in the new reality:
All kind of things that helped you to solve all kind of problems that SHTF brought. For example, people who were skilled in handcrafting used to made cigar holders out of wood and bullets casing, it was very popular for smokers and the reason for that was because cigarettes were rare, and people usually smoked bad tobacco rolled in bad paper and good cigar holder (as a combination of cigar holder and pipe) was essential for smoking that stuff.
It was a small thing but really important if you were a smoker at that time.
Another example was a small handmade stove. It was made from thin metal, and in some cases it was portable. Point was that kind of stove needed a really small amount of wood ( fuel for the fire was important and hard and dangerous to get in urban settings) to make it really red hot and cook something quickly or boil water.
So cool and usable kind of inventions.
Things that connect you to normalcy
In this other group were all kind of things that connect you to the normal (prior SHTF) life. It was not only cool and nice to have those presents, but also it was important psychologically to taste something that actually makes you feel normal again.
For example, after living for months through collapse, one simple bottle of beer could make you feel human again, and it would somehow give you strength.
Sweets (candy), beer, spices, or even a few songs that someone play on guitar for you were precious.
What did you do for the children at Christmas to make it special?
Kids were somewhat “forgotten“ in the SHTF times. Quite simply not many people paid attention to them other than keeping them safe from dangers.
People did not have enough time to take care of their needs.
During the holidays, people usually wanted to give some kind of joy to them or to “keep the spirit“ of the holiday alive for them.
In the majority of cases, it was a very poor imitation of holidays in normal times. For example, I remember that making pancakes (jam was made out of tomato juice and very expensive sugar) was considered alone like a holiday. Special food, or attempts to make some special food, for kids, were usual holiday presents for kids during that time. Today that kind of food would look ridiculous and not even edible probably, but in that time it was precious.
What did families serve for Christmas dinner in Bosnia during this time?
Traditionally for Christmas and New Year holidays in this region here, we eat huge amounts of meat, and drink wine, so people during the collapse tried to keep that tradition.
Again it was mostly unsuccessful in terms of normal, but in that time having hot stew kind of meal from MRE was considered holiday dinner, and actually, it was very very tasty and a “holiday spirit“ dinner considering what we usually ate.
Wine was not an option most of the time but hard alcohol was there.
In general, were people happy and joyous to find a chance to celebrate, or was it grim and depressing because it was so different?
The general picture looked like this: we were cold, more or less hungry, dirty, tired and unsure in the future, but yes we appreciate feeling of getting together for holiday and we were trying to keep the “spirit alive“.
Truth is that sometimes it worked, sometimes not.
But generally yes, psychologically it was important, it had its place, the get-together, take some time to try to feel normal again, to remember that we are still humans.
Definitely those moments were not bright and happy, like in normal times but on the other hand, those moments were appreciated and were much more real than in peacetime.
Do you have any holiday stories you can share from this time?
It is a big thing (I guess just like everywhere) to leave presents under the tree for Christmas and New Year here.
It is custom here to buy big bags (kids motifs of cartoons, fairy tales and similar) and fill it with favorite snacks, sweets, and toys of each kid and leave that bags under the tree (we did not have custom of socks or similar, we had those bags, to literally translate the name would be “kid package“).
Of course, it was out of the question to have the bags and sweets and toys in the middle of SHTF.
My uncle in that time came into an opportunity to make a deal with local small “warlord“ or gang leader if you like.
The deal was about giving some weapon for food (the guy had a connection with outside world) and my uncle “made a condition“ on the whole deal with the term that he will give a weapon for food but the additional deal was that he also need 3 “kids packages.”
In that time and particular moment, taking into consideration with what kind of people he was making a deal it was like he was asking a serial killer, to his face, to sing a gentle lullaby, and my uncle said that those guys simply could not believe what he asked.
Everybody was looking for or offering weapon, drugs, violent contract deals or even prostitutes from those people but he was looking for “kids packages“.
But they indulge him, and my uncle said that he thought they indulged him simply out of the fun, and out of the fact that it is gonna be a very interesting urban legend that someone could obtain kids packages in that time.
The guy even wrote down the list of sweets and toys that my uncle asked from him.
I think those sweets and toys when they came were one of the most unreal items in that time and place, but they were worth the effort.
It really gives you something to think about.
What a reality check. And how fortunate we are. Our version of “things were really tight this Christmas” is laughable in comparison to what is described above. I can’t thank Selco enough for sharing his stories with us.
I’ve often recommended prepping with things like cake mix, birthday candles, extra Christmas cards, and items that support your family traditions, and after reading what Selco had to say, I believe it’s even more important. You can’t overstate the psychological aspect of being able to provide that sense of normalcy.
What are your thoughts? How would you keep things “normal” in such a situation? Let’s talk about it in the comments section.
Selco survived the Balkan war of the 90s in a city under siege, without electricity, running water, or food distribution. He is currently accepting students for his next physical course here.
In his online works, he gives an inside view of the reality of survival under the harshest conditions. He reviews what works and what doesn’t, tells you the hard lessons he learned, and shares how he prepares today.
He never stopped learning about survival and preparedness since the war. Regardless of what happens, chances are you will never experience extreme situations as Selco did. But you have the chance to learn from him and how he faced death for months.
Real survival is not romantic or idealistic. It is brutal, hard and unfair. Let Selco take you into that world.