Today afternoon a friend texted me the horrible news that Icelandic police had finally found the body of Birna Brjἀnsdottir, 20 years old and missing for eight days. It has been a story that has transfixed the country like no other. Gone without a trace, no answer on her cell phone, no response to text messages, a frantic Mother searching for her daughter who can be seen on video footage getting into a stranger’s white car in the early hours of the morning, all alone, looking disoriented, confused and most probably frightened. For eight days, all of Iceland held their breath, hoping and praying that this beautiful young girl would be found safe and alive, that she had merely run off with the driver and that the story would have somewhat of a happy ending. I prayed with them. For eight long days and nights, people all over this beautiful country organized search and rescue teams, held vigils, and hoped her Mother, family and friends would see Birna’s big smile again. Eight days. They were surely the most horrible and unimaginable eight days Birna’s Mother will probably ever have experienced in her entire life. I know. I know this because in January 2008 I went through the same, only for my family and I the horror lasted three days. Three days that may as well have been a lifetime.
On that horrible morning in early January, I came home from visiting a friend to find my Mother inconsolably crying, while my Father paced the house, telephone in hand. I asked what was wrong and just presumed someone in our family had either died, was in bad health, or had gotten into some sort of accident. Instead, what my Mother told me completely blindsided and shocked me. She told me that a few hours earlier she had received a call from relatives in Croatia informing her that my cousin, Kristina Šušnjara, my uncle’s daughter was missing. “What do you mean, missing?” I repeated over and over again while stuffing a slice of mum’s newly baked apple strudel into my mouth. I didn’t take her seriously and didn’t understand why my Mother was over-reacting. “MISSING! Stop eating and pay attention for a minute! She has gone missing! She cannot be found and they think someone kidnapped her,” my Mother shouted. That got my attention, although I still thought she was panicking for no reason. How do you kidnap a grown girl of seventeen in a town of 20,000 people where everyone knows everyone?
My Mother went on to tell me that she had received a call from her sisters, my aunts, who were in a state of heightened panic. The night before, Kristina was to have met two of her friends in a nearby town and attended a post-New Years Eve concert by a well-known singer. Only she never made it into town. In fact, she never made it to her friend’s house either. When she did not return the next morning, or answer her parents’ and brother’s text messages, her Mother (my Aunt) called the friends phone number only to be told that Kristina failed to show up at the agreed upon meeting place. That set into a motion a series of events that forever changed our lives. My Mother pleaded with me to tell her if I perhaps had a secret? Had Kristina ever confided in me? Did she perhaps have a boyfriend nobody knew about or was she involved in something she did not want the family to know about? I even recall rolling my eyes and making fun of my mom’s conservative, Christian way of life. This was her way of asking was Kristina friends with the wrong crowd, did she live an ‘alternative lifestyle’ or perhaps have a boyfriend who she knew we would disapprove of and had simply run off for a few days? I laughed and kept telling my mum that she was crazy, nuts, that they were all losing their minds. Of course she wasn’t living an alternative lifestyle, or had some moronic boyfriend that they didn’t like. She just hadn’t come home which was unusual for her and was probably at someone’s house or had left the city for a few days. She was 17-years old after all and was free to do as she pleased, even if this was a small town and even if everyone was in a complete state of disarray. My Mother reminded me that at 17-years old, Kristina was not an adult under the law as the legal age in Croatia is 18. I hadn’t thought of that, but it didn’t really matter. Kids there are introduced to alcohol, drugs and sex at a much younger age than in North America, and that was my point. What was all the fuss about? Surely, she would return home in a few hours and her mobile phone probably just ran out of battery I assured my mum. That seemed to calm her fears for a little while and for the first time I saw her sat down and mumble, “maybe you are right.”
The truth was the opposite. As much as I was trying to calm my Mother down, the more she kept yelling at me reveal any small tidbit of a clue, the more perplexed, worried and agitated I became. To protect my Mother from the worst possible fear – that Kristina had been kidnapped or worse, I kept trying convince her that this was all one big misunderstanding. Deep inside however, I was completely falling apart. If this had been any one of my other cousins I probably would not have been so worried, but Kristina was different. She was an introverted shy girl, who kept mostly to herself and to her books. She was studious and harboured dreams of going to University and becoming a writer. She was not a flashy girl, she didn’t go out to pubs and cafes as her peers did, and this was considered somewhat unusual for a teenage Croatian girl, pubs and cafes being introduced in our culture at quite a young age, but responsibly. Not Kristina though. She was always concerned for the welfare of others, particularly her parents and animals, and when she wasn’t helping others she could be found writing away for hours on end. On one of the last occasions on which I had seen her, she went on and on about her aspirations to become a writer and her hopes that she would get a scholarship like I had and leave to study abroad. I told her to consider Harvard or Yale and that I would help her with the paperwork. This was a girl who had no interest in boys whatsoever and at 17-years old I don’t even believe she had ever even had a serious love interest, much less an actual boyfriend. She was very tall for her age, with long reddish-blond hair and big, beautiful blue-green eyes. She was precocious and pretty even as a little girl, with long goldilocks like curls that my aunt would weave around her head, in a braided pattern.
My Mother and Father busied themselves on the telephone making frantic phone calls and waiting by the telephone for what seemed like hours. As Kristina was much younger than me, I was in constant text messaging contact with my other female cousins - Milena, Ana, Ivanka, Mirella and Magdalena - those closest in age to her and the daughters of my other aunts. Everyone was immobilized by panic and nobody could account for what had happened to her. It was as if she had just vanished into thin air, nobody had seen her, and repeated calls and text messages to her phone appeared ‘delivered’ if unanswered. As bad as it was on the first day, nobody really thought to think the worst, and if we did, we kept it to ourselves, none of us confiding our thoughts to one another. At the time, I was in a relationship with a Polish man. I remember he too kept trying to offer words of comfort by falling back on the one line we all kept repeating like a safety blanket, “Come on, don’t think the worst. This is Croatia for Christ’s sake? This sort of thing just doesn’t happen in our countries. She probably ran off with some Albanian or Bosnian guy and is too embarrassed to face the family. You’ll see, she’ll probably be back tomorrow.”
As sad as that now sounds, back then those words actually gave me some false comfort and security. I am certain someone must have told Birna’s Mother the same. I can’t fault the people who told me such things because they meant it with the best intentions. Looking back, I think when this sort of thing happens, you don’t want to think the worst because you are afraid that your thoughts will somehow allow a reality to occur. As well, we all falsely comforted ourselves with the fact that her disappearance DID in fact happen in a very small town, and in a very small country. With 4.5 million people my ex was right, this sort of thing just didn’t happen in a place like Croatia. Rather, it was easier to believe it occurring in larger countries like Canada or the US. We kept convincing ourselves of this on day one and tried to make it through a night of fitful sleep knowing that by the next morning a text message or some sign of Kristina would manifest itself.
Only it did not. On day two, the police, who had already been informed the day before, began an official search as at this point 24-hours had already passed. Given the six-hour time difference, by the time I woke up the next morning in Toronto, Canada, her disappearance was all over Croatian state TV and splashed across the newspapers of every major publication in the country as well as neighbouring ones. By evening the search and rescue operation was the largest in independent Croatian state history and our family name was splashed across Google headlines when just typing in the word ‘Croatia.’ Once you see your family home on television hour by hour, your loved ones photographed and video-taped while wailing in pain, journalists and reporters elbowing to get them to say a few words, the severity of the situation hits home. That entire day I sat in the living room of my parents’ home with my younger sister Ana, who of the five of us siblings was closest to age in Kristina and the one who had interacted with her the most. My sister was inconsolable and between the shaking, crying, and constant vomiting, she kept repeating the absolute worst, that someone had surely stalked Kristina while she was innocently walking, had dragged her into a car and had taken her off into the unknown to do unimaginable and reprehensible things to. Being the calmest one in the family and often the voice of reason, I kept urging her to settle down, think positively, and not upset mum and dad. It was during this three-day waiting period that my sister Ana began to develop panic and anxiety attacks which later led to severe migraines that have endured to this day. We probably all had nightmares and didn’t want to tell each other for fear of upsetting one another. For me the nightmares of bad people chasing Kristina and me not being able to reach her in time and save her, continue to occur year after year, and I am not even her Mother. I can only imagine how much worse it must be for my Aunt.
As news of her disappearance spread to neighbouring countries, friends from Montenegro and Serbia who were familiar with the last name began calling me, completely freaked out. Each message began with, “I saw the last name and thought of you. This cannot possibly be someone in your family, can it?” they asked. Only it was. People never think this sort of thing can happen to someone you love, someone in your family, because it is too horrific and unimaginable to even comprehend. I know this because I used to be one of those naïve people. I used to think that this sort of thing can only happen to ‘other’ people’s family. I used to wonder what the mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters of missing kids felt like. I’d stare at their faces in the newspaper for hours wondering how they even found the will to get out of bed in the morning, to go on knowing that a piece of them was gone forever. I remember one particularly horrible and notorious case that gripped Canada many years earlier where the victim, Kristen French, a girl who was the same age as myself at the time, went missing. For many weeks after her kidnapping, all of Canada prayed and hoped she would be found. When her body was finally discovered, dead and unrecognizable, I recall the grief of my own family and all the families of my friends. The same grief was experienced by the entire country of 30 million people, but despite all this it was probably one-one-millionth of the grief felt by Kristen French’s parents. So was the case with my cousin Kristina’s family and so surely is the case with Birna’s.
While we waited for any shred of news about Kristina, story after story began to emerge. The two most believed variations were that she had hitch-hiked for a ride into town and that a blue vehicle with French license plates had pulled over and she had gotten in. The belief that it must have been a crazed tourist that did this was so heated that the Minister of Tourism got involved and made a public plea asking Croatians to refrain from attacking French tourists until every lead was double checked. By the second day, it went from being a French tourist, to a Bosnian national, and ultimately two men from both countries were questioned and dismissed. There was no evidence to suggest they had been involved. With no real leads, the press began writing all kinds of things that upset us and hurt us deeply. They tried to paint Kristina as a ‘loose-girl’ who perhaps was drunk or on drugs, even though everyone they interviewed told them over and over again that she wasn’t like that at all, and was more a child than a teenager. It got to the point where I had to physically turn off the satellite TV and take the iPad away from both my mum and dad, everything we were reading was misleading, repetitive, and to horrific to grasp. I just wanted just wanted this hell to be over.
On day three I got my wish. It was about seven o’clock in the morning when I woke up to a sound I don’t wish to ever again hear in my lifetime. It was the sound of my Mother’s screams. Knowing this could only mean the absolute worst, I got up and went downstairs, not even checking my own phone which at this point was flooded with hundreds of text messages from relatives and friends. In the kitchen of my parents house I found my Mother at the table, trembling, barely able to breathe, gasping for air while clutching a framed picture of Kristina to her heart. Behind her stood my younger sister, who embraced my Mother while sobbing, wailing, and shaking herself. My father, a strong but quiet man, visibly upset and distressed stood behind them, while the older of my two brothers paced the floor and exchanged text messages while fighting back tears.
My cousin Kristina’s body had been found down the side of a deep mountain ditch in a remote part of the country literally on the border with Bosnia. A man walking his dog early in the morning noticed the canine growling at something deep below in a ravine. He tried to control the dog, but the dog kept dragging him further down the mountain side towards a dangerous cliff. From the precipice on which he stood in that early morning January fog, his eye made out what he thought looked like a human leg. Thinking it was a hunter who had fallen and lost his way in the heavy morning mist, he called the police who in turn called search and rescue. Only they did not find a wounded hunter. They found my cousin Kristina.
Search and rescue didn’t take long to deduce it was her even though her body had begun to decompose. She was identified by her pink jacket, her handbag (a Christmas gift from my Aunt) and her shoes. Soon after, a swat team of police officers and hundreds of emergency vehicles arrived at the home of my aunt and uncle. As everyone in the city bears the same last name, they all knew that the arrival of the police, especially the Chief of Police of the entire province of Dalmatia could mean nothing good. I wasn’t there but I was told that the crying began even before they reached my aunt and uncle’s house, a line of relatives and neighbours standing outside their front doors crying, grieving and begging the police to tell them she was at least found alive. When the Chief of Police put his head down and refused to look at them, everyone understood it to be the worst. An entire village sobbed and held onto each other. My aunt had been on heavy sedatives for three days already and under watch by doting neighbours and even her own brothers. It was her brother who answered the door and collapsed into the arms of the Chief of Police when he was told. That was how the rest of us found out, the image of him being hugged by a tearful Police Chief on national television. My aunt did not even hear him say the words, because one look at all the important police dignitaries of Croatia assembled in her humble kitchen confirmed her own worst fears and she fainted then and there. None of us had expected Kristina to be found alive, but as the investigation unfolded, none of were prepared for what we were about to hear and it was even worse than we had imagined.
Kristina was forced into the vehicle of a man from a neighbouring city while she was innocently walking towards a friend’s house, not even three kilometres from home. When she tried to protest, he hit her repeatedly and gripped her arm as she tried to open the door to escape. Somehow, she got free and ran out. He then pulled the car over to the side of the road and ran after her. When he caught up with her a struggle ensued and it was then that he beat her with a steel rod, the type one uses to change a tire. Apparently, he had hidden it within his jacket (ironic as he later lied about this in court claiming he was ‘mentally insane,’ then retracting the statement when the judge pressed him on it). The force of the impact knocked her out and he dragged her half-conscious body back to the car and then drove her to the border region with Bosnia where for hours he raped, tortured, and continued to do all sorts of disgusting and heinous things to her while she lay there wounded and pleading to be released. When he was finished, he dragged her body to the tip of the mountain and threw her down, like she was a bag of potatoes. No consideration for a human life whatsoever. I wish I could tell you that her misery ended there, only it didn’t. We later learned from the coroner that she somehow survived this tumble, hitting rocks and crags as she was hurled down. She was alive for a few hours more before the hand of God took her. Of all the things we heard after her body was discovered, that was the hardest thing to bear. My aunt would cry over and over again, “to think how cold and bruised she must have been, calling my name in the snow and, rain and I couldn’t help her.” I cry while typing this, a river of tears every time I think of it and in Croatian it sounds so much worse than in English. Can there be anything worse in this world than for a parent to lose their child and in such a way?
You think you know what a person must be going through and feeling, but there is no possible way to know. Take your own grief and multiply it by a million and still it is not enough. For my Aunt, the grief was so overwhelming that it felt like a 60,000,000 pound weight dragging her deeper and deeper down the ocean every single day. My uncle retreated into himself. My cousin Luka, who was to have driven his sister that fateful day but couldn’t get to her in time, can one just imagine the thoughts that will plague him for the rest of his life? For me personally her death brought out so many ‘what if’s.’ For days, weeks and months, I used to fantasize about the type of personal revenge I would extract on her murderer. Of course we live in a country where a crime is punishable by the rule of the law and the law only. However, if you think that prevented the worst sorts of thoughts from entering my head, or that of my male cousins, think again. It was probably the only thing that kept me going and which kept me sane. I know people judged me for it and called me crazy and truthfully, I don’t care. Until it happens to you or your family, you can never understand what this type of pain means or what it can do to a person, even a sane and rational one. I stopped believing in man’s justice and only craved heavenly justice. For three long days that seemed like eternity we all held our breadth, and the entire nation did as well. I recall the grief-stricken face of the Mayor, a family friend, truly sickened and upset, the anchorman on the main state TV station who couldn’t keep a tear from sliding down his cheek while reporting on the day of the funeral, or the wife of the Prime Minister, a personal friend who wept as if it were her own child. When I look back on this from today’s vantage point eight years later, I know that it is because as a small country, where everyone knows everyone, we felt we were invulnerable from this sort of thing ever happening. For this reason, the fear and sorrow that gripped the nation was understandable. The support and kind wishes of our neighbours, friends, and even our enemies, was indescribable. In this one thing - the brutal murder and loss of a child, a daughter, sister, niece, cousin, friend and citizen - everyone was united in their own variation of heartache and sorrow.
In writing this, I know that Iceland will wake up tomorrow with some closure and that the nation will feel a little bit better knowing that Birna’s beautiful soul will finally be put to rest and that her family will finally be able to hold a funeral and ‘move on’. However, let me remind you that funeral’s do not mean the grieving ends, and her family will never be able to ‘move on’, at least not in the way that people seem to think they will. Her death only marks the beginning of a new and never-ending chapter of grief that will affect them, shape them, haunt them, and yes, dare I say it, even strengthen them until the day they see her lovely face again. I know...because it happened to me.
In commemoration of my cousin, Kristina Šušnjara, a beautiful and talented girl, whose Shakespearean voice was taken too early, and whose writer’s voice was silenced. I carry on your flame and your pen…. And to you Birna Brjἀnsdottir, a young woman I never had the opportunity to know, but who was blessed to walk the shores of Iceland, the country I plan to one day call home, may the angels shine their light on you and keep your smile forever.