Bless all the dear children…

Speed-writing amid the madness of Christmas Eve – so this may be a stream of semi-consciousness! December has been hectic and the last few days were simply too short. Meeting deadlines and getting things sorted for the festive season… This year, though, it’s a different type of Christmas. Perhaps 2015 has forced us, across Europe, to wake up to the reality of our unjust world. To make us respond to those seeking safety and shelter. How have we reacted? Have we said ‘welcome’ or ‘there’s no room’? It’s a Christmassy kind of question.

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At a lovely ‘Santa Lucia’ feast-day event organised by a dear friend in aid of my appeal.

Anyhow, to answer it in a personal way, I’m heading to Croatia on Monday (28th December) to volunteer for two weeks with the ‘Dobrodošli’/‘Welcome’ Initiative, which has been offering tremendous support to refugees there. And, thanks to incredible help from many people in Ireland and beyond, I’m delighted to say that I’ve far surpassed my fundraising target of €2,000! This money will go to Croatia ADRA, which is bringing essential aid to refugees in the main camp in Slavonski Brod. Please check out this link for details of my appeal: https://www.gofundme.com/BalkansRefugees

Yesterday, I read about a Syrian woman who had just given birth to a baby in Slavonski Brod, shortly after she and her family arrived in the camp. Whether or not you celebrate Christmas, her story has huge human resonance. But she’s not the only mother to have made this trek, not the only pregnant woman to have braved this difficult journey. Her children are lucky to have survived the merciless seas which claimed more young lives this week. The least I can do is spend a little time lending a hand of solidarity with people like her.

In the meantime, I want to make tomorrow special for my kids. I’d also like to wish you all ‘Sretan Božić i Sretna Nova Godina!’ with an image that my eldest daughter created…

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Have yourself a merry little listen!

Handing over to the gang of three… Here are my daughters singing their own multilingual production of ‘Silent Night’. Please take a few minutes to enjoy a Bosnian-Irish musical treat!

We wish you Nollaig Shona agus Sretna Nova Godina!

For other posts in this series, please see: 

An Advent miscellany: http://wp.me/p3NO7M-ma

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In the bleak midwinter

So this is Christmas… and my penultimate offering of 2014. The ‘elves’ in my house are planning to hijack this blog for a final yuletide message. Though, already, the making of their surprise post has sparked rebellions in elfdom. As the saying goes, ‘girls wreck your head’.

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Sometimes, so do places. Like my old ljubav, Bosnia. It’s been an eventful year there. The country has featured in international news for a range of reasons. Protests in February. Devastating floods in May. The commemoration of the assassination in Sarajevo which triggered World War I. Euphoria as the Bosnian football team played in its first World Cup. The hopes and hype of Rio gleamed… but soon faded. Reality gushed in again.

Elections in October saw the constellations of power in Bosnia and Herzegovina shift slightly, although nationalist parties remain dominant. Just another case of plus ça change? Or could 2015 auger progress for a country hamstrung by the legacy of conflict? An initiative seeking to kick-start Bosnia’s flagging EU accession process has recently been proposed by Britain and Germany. Understandably, after years of fruitless negotiations, scepticism prevails as to whether this scheme can prompt the reforms required for EU membership. However, any renewal of interest which might lead to a more effective European approach towards Bosnia is welcome.

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Bosnia’s present stagnation benefits no-one but its ruling elites. Instead of trying to build a functional state, they thrive on generating insecurity. Two decades since the end of the war, many of the divisions it caused are as raw today as they were in 1995. But despite undeniable differences, there’s much scope for unity. Demonstrations and plenums in the spring highlighted how most people in Bosnia face the same socio-economic problems – unemployment, poverty, limited prospects. The massive voluntary response which brought relief to those affected by flooding further proved that citizens from all ‘ethnic’ backgrounds can co-operate.

From a personal perspective, I’m glad my family and I were able to fundraise in our local area for the Irish Red Cross Balkans Floods Appeal. In Bosnia during the summer, we witnessed some of the damage left in the wake of the deluge and spoke to people involved in dealing with its aftermath. It was clear that the country needs ongoing support to recover from this disaster. We also went to Srebrenica and were struck not only by the scale of the atrocity that occurred there but by the questions it still poses… How? Why? Is it possible that healing can follow genocide? Such queries hovered in the sultry air above a cemetery which is now lodged in our human conscience.

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No matter how many times you visit Bosnia, it’s somewhere that always astounds… and disturbs. This year more than ever, it’s plagued me with a yearning to forge connections that extend beyond family trips – a desire to do something constructive. I’ve been investigating a few potential avenues in this regard. So far without success… lack of finances being a major drawback. But I’ll continue to explore these ideas. Perhaps I should ask Santa to send me a wealthy philanthropist! Along with a helping of luck, a marriage counsellor and a good night’s sleep. Though, if these demands defy even the magic of Mr. Claus, a book token will do fine.

Well, now, I ought to get my Meryl Streep skates on and rustle up an Oscar-winning Christmas!  Writing often seems pointless, yet I’m not sorry to have ‘wasted’ time, amid the commercial frenzy of December, on this series of short pieces (see links below). They’re chronologically arranged, based on the events to which they relate, but their topics also reflect the symbolism of the Advent wreath.

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Entwined in pine, the first two purple candles signify hope and peace. Hopefully, 2015 will bring both to Syria. And, although we can’t stop the war, we can still show solidarity with the Syrian people by donating to humanitarian organisations which work with them and by raising awareness of their plight. Meanwhile, here in Ireland, it feels like we’re on the cusp of a rising thought wave. We’ve got a rare chance to challenge established currents. Are we ready to take risks to create an equal, harmonious society? Or will we just go with the flow and put up with the status quo?

Globally, 2014 was grim. Fighting in Ukraine, attacks on Gaza, institutional racism in the USA, floods in the Balkans, worrying predictions about climate change – there was little cause for rejoicing. Even on an individual level, I must admit, it was a year I’d rather forget. But when all seems dark, brief instants of respite become more meaningful. A pink birthday candle. Or this, the last of the purple ones… The candle that stands for love.

Please check out previous posts in this series at:

An Advent miscellany: http://wp.me/p3NO7M-ma

Happy Xmas (war isn’t over): http://wp.me/p3NO7M-md

We’re dreaming of a better Ireland: http://wp.me/p3NO7M-mf

On a twelfth birthday at Christmas: http://wp.me/p3NO7M-mh

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On a twelfth birthday at Christmas

Christmas birthdays add extra sparkle to the annual festivities… and a lot more hassle. My second daughter is one of those blessed or cursed to have been born in this crazy season. Twelve years ago, on 12 December, she tumbled wiry and wailing into the world. A Thursday’s child, the line from the rhyme saying ‘far to go’ was inscribed in her cheeky look. A tad superstitious, I was relieved she’d been induced on her due date, rather than letting Nature prolong the torment of labour until Friday the thirteenth. Somehow, though, I don’t think she’d have waited. Full of energy from the start, she began to make an impression by exercising her lungs. Sleep was pretty low on her agenda. Aching and light-headed, having been awake over twenty-four hours, I could’ve done with a bit of rest. Instead, I spent the night after her arrival waltzing her around the post-natal ward. Five babies snoozed peacefully in between their feeds. One did not.

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And that’s been the story since… Maybe it’s the infamous ‘middle child syndrome’. With an older and, four years later, a younger sister, Number Two has learned to assert herself. Although that’s no problem to someone so adept at stealing the limelight! Her first Christmas set the tone. Youthful and idealistic, I was determined that everything would be calm and bright. In hindsight, I was way too high on adrenalin. Trying to write assignments for my Masters, decorating the tree, squeezing back into trim skirts (thanks the miracle of the Japanese Velcro corset) and even planning the perfect Christmas dinner! My colicky new-born did her utmost to sabotage the big day. The meal was over-cooked and a veritable disaster. The baby howled through it. Her elder sister, then aged two, fell asleep. Tough turkey was served with a sauce of tears and exhaustion. But we survived.

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Slowly that weary winter melted into spring. My diva cut teeth early and ran before she walked. Soon, she was crowned the queen of tantrums. A title she still holds! My husband claims it’s because she was ‘made in Sarajevo’. I was pregnant with her when we returned to Ireland. Perhaps the upheaval of moving had some effect… or the DNA of her volatile parents. Whatever influences might’ve shaped her personality, she’s quite a conundrum. Fearless yet deep-feeling, sociable but occasionally shy. A speed-devil on bikes and scooters, she picks herself up quickly when she ends up over the handlebars. Sensitive, enthusiastic, loving, madcap, artistic… And now the candles glow twelve on her birthday cake. Nearly a teenager!

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It’s scary, the too-fast passage of years, the future that lies ahead of her. She’s growing up into the maze of modern womanhood. One minute dancing to Taylor Swift, the next she’s curled beside me like my Christmas child of 2002. Then I realise how lucky I am to have her and her sisters. Even as a flawed, unorthodox kind of mother who freaks at the stereotypes still associated with that role. At least, though, dirty nappies and puke-stains are things of the past. These days, life’s more about slamming doors, jokes and neon nail-polish, rows and times of the month and, when needed, simply being a cry-on shoulder. As, one by one, each of my daughters discovers it ain’t always easy to be a girl.

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We’re dreaming of a better Ireland

‘Twas World Human Rights Day and, all through the centre of Dublin, the streets were awash with colour. The city was stirring on 10 December – it was alive with chants and laughter. From pensioners to babes in pushchairs, thousands assembled at Merrion Square for another mass demonstration against water charges. There was no sign of the ‘weather-bomb’ forecast the previous night – blue skies and crisp sunshine boosted the high spirits of the protestors. Not much evidence of trouble either. A few minor altercations with Gardaí caught the media’s eye, but these occurred beyond the main gathering. Marching from O’Connell Street, women tried to cajole police officers to join and, although their invitations were declined, the exchanges were good-humoured.

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The overall mood of the protest was jovial and welcoming. While certain political elements sought to score opinion poll points from their involvement, they couldn’t monopolise this display of public dissent. Community groups were by far the most vibrant participants, with their handmade placards and wit. Taking part, even for a short time, felt empowering. And meeting an ‘old flame’, demonstrating on his lunch-break, was a tiny bit nostalgic. Though amid a throng of folk who hailed from Cork, Clondalkin, Dundalk, and all the way from Detroit… there’s a fair chance you might find a lad from Sarajevo!

Large protests on this issue, which have been held across Ireland since the autumn, have forced the government into making concessions. In November, it promised that water bills would be capped until the end of 2018. But our leaders would be ill-advised to think that the problem is solved or to dismiss the concerns of the electorate. Demonising those who continue to object to these new charges is destined to backfire. Unlike prominent politicians, most families in Ireland don’t consider €160 a negligible sum. There’s also widespread fear that while payments for water may initially be fixed they will inevitably increase in coming years.

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People can’t trust an evasive, arrogant government. They’ve lost confidence in the Taoiseach, Enda Kenny. Although his view, however cynically expressed, that the protests aren’t just about water is essentially true. They’re about all the penalties imposed on the population of Ireland over the last six years of austerity. Repaying international lenders for the recklessness of bankers has been the official priority. Our ministers are now taking (faking) a sudden interest in the environment and conservation. After they poured taxpayers’ money – more than enough to repair every leaking pipe in Ireland – into the sewer of a bailout that has drained the country. Water charges are the latest in a series of cuts to household income which has impacted most severely on the poorest. Funds for public services have been slashed. The health of the nation has been jeopardised. Education has also been targeted, with children from Traveller and immigrant backgrounds and children with special educational needs among the worst hit.

The human cost of Ireland’s deepest ever recession is enormous. Its toll can’t be calculated in euro alone. Yet the government has the audacity to tell us our situation is improving, based on figures of little relevance to daily life. It crows about employment statistics without acknowledging that these disguise the frustration of thousands of capable people whose options are limited to internships and precarious positions that are often nothing more than exploitative. Meanwhile it woos multinationals with lucrative tax incentives. It boasts of job creation – in software, in finance, in financial software. The property market is buoyant again. Rising rents are forcing families into homelessness. But for landlords ‘tis the season to be jolly…

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Is this the most our country can aspire to – the glorification of greed and the growth of inequality? Events over recent months suggest a hunger for new ideas. Post-colonial politics, peddled by twentieth century parties for their own gratification, has failed. Approaching the centenary of the founding of our state, perhaps it’s time for reflection. Especially when, for many people – despite reports of booming sales – tidings of comfort and joy remain distant dreams.

There’s a well-known Irish tradition of placing a lighted candle in the window at Christmas. It’s worth remembering, though, that it originated from our history of oppression – it was once a symbol of resistance and solidarity. Maybe we need to revive this custom in our hearts. To fan flickers of inspiration which can reach out to others and kindle a brighter future for us all.

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Happy Xmas (war isn’t over)

The first anniversary of the abduction of Syrian human rights defenders, Razan Zaitouneh, Samira Khalil, Wa’el Hamada and Nazem Hamadi, was marked in Dublin on 9 December. A few of us gathered at the Amnesty International memorial sculpture, on a traffic island near Busáras, to raise awareness about this brave group of people known globally as the ‘Douma Four’.

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Lawyers and activists, the four have striven to protect the oppressed in Syria, both before and since the uprising began there in 2011. For over a decade, Razan has defended political prisoners. Her husband Wa’el is one of the founders of the ‘Local Co-ordination Committees’ which, among other vital functions, deliver humanitarian aid to communities affected by the war. Samira has worked to help women in the city of Douma and has written about her country’s notorious system of detention. Nazem is another lawyer engaged in activism – he’s also a poet.

These are just snippets from the profiles of those courageous individuals who were involved in human rights monitoring with the Violations Documentation Centre in Douma before they were seized a year ago. They struggled for justice against all forms of terror in Syria – from the brutality of government forces to abuses perpetrated by organisations such as the so-called ‘Army of Islam’ which is believed to have abducted them.

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In the twelve months since December 2013, Syria has been steeped in even more blood. The barbarity of ISIS, whose emergence was in no small part facilitated by world indifference to Assad’s torturous regime, has wreaked further suffering. According to a new report published by Amnesty International, approximately 4 million refugees have fled the war in Syria. 98% of them are hosted by five countries: Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt. These surrounding nations can barely cope with the influx. They’ve started closing their borders. The World Food Programme for Syria’s refugees, which aims to meet their most basic requirements, recently faced suspension due to underfunding. Families are enduring yet another freezing winter in exposed camps. While, within Syria itself, millions more are displaced and in dire need of assistance.

The crisis is now apocalyptic. But the response of the world’s richer countries remains pitiful. Calls on their leaders to accept at least 5% of the refugee burden have been ignored. On 9 December, Europe committed to admitting a further 38,000 Syrians – about 1% of the total. In 2014, Ireland has taken 90 people from Syria through a very limited resettlement programme and has pledged to provide a similar number of places in 2015 and 2016. Another 111 Syrians, who have family members already resident in Ireland, have been granted temporary permission to come here. Although, in the cases of those qualifying for this provision, their relatives have had to prove that they can fully support them.

Such reluctance to resettle Syrian refugees compares poorly with Ireland’s acceptance of over a thousand Bosnians during the conflict in the Balkans in the 1990s. This previous scheme included medical treatment for the injured and fairer criteria for family reunification. Sadly, however, the current Irish effort mirrors that of most EU states. With official channels so restricted, Syrians – like many others from regions of unrest – have tried to enter Europe by whatever means they can. This often involves crossing the Mediterranean at the hands of human traffickers. It’s a dangerous journey – an estimated 3000 asylum seekers have drowned en route in 2014 alone.

The tragedy of Syria has become so huge, it’s almost unthinkable. Ironically, this seems to ensure that we deny it any thought. But imagine if around 80% of the population of the Republic of Ireland had to flee as a result of war… Where would we go? What welcome would we expect? Or if your partner, sister, brother or friend was taken captive for defending human rights… How would you feel? What would you do?

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Our plan to light candles at the Dublin memorial was thwarted by heavy rain and gale-force winds. It was hard enough to hold on to our posters! Yet, from within the sculpture which was commissioned as a reminder of prisoners of conscience across the world, a gas flame burned behind us. That stormy night, the chains and bars enclosing it represented the fate of Razan, Samira, Wa’el and Nazem. The dim light inside signified our wavering hope that Syria’s detained and disappeared will, one day, be free. It leapt with the warmth that Ireland could offer vulnerable Syrians… if our country chose to shine as a source of refuge.

For further information please see:

Irish Syria Solidarity Movement (Facebook): https://www.facebook.com/IrishSyriaSolidarityMovement

Front Line Defenders – Syria: No word on four abducted activists; A year on, no information on Douma Four (9 December 2014):

http://www.frontlinedefenders.org/node/27770#sthash.cUz6zmh1.dpuf http://www.frontlinedefenders.org/node/27770

Amnesty International – Left out in the cold: Syrian refugees abandoned by the international community (December 2014):

http://www.amnesty.org/en/library/asset/MDE24/047/2014/en/f9a8340f-d247-4c84-b3b8-ce4e8cbebf0d/mde240472014en.pdf

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An Advent miscellany

Since the summer, for too many reasons to enumerate, my blog posts have gone from fairly regular to rather erratic. Disillusioned, I thought about quitting my virtual soapbox. But a couple of events in December have left me itching to write again. So here’s a bumper džezva of Bosnian-Irish coffee – served in espresso-size doses!

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As the short pieces to follow are on various themes, I opted for a seasonal sort of structure. The traditional Advent wreath, with a candle lit at the beginning of each of the four weeks before Christmas, offered a metaphor. While it’s part of Christian culture, the concept of twisting evergreen branches together and creating brightness in winter goes back much further – it’s inclusive.

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The colours used in the wreath also lend themselves to interpretation. With three purple candles, a joyful pink in the middle, and a white one at the end, it’s a handy frame for different hues of writing. Even if I’m a little late in starting and things at this time of year are very rushed.

Please click on the links below for a few quick reads… preferably with mince-pies and mulled wine!

1. Happy Xmas (war isn’t over): http://wp.me/p3NO7M-md

2. We’re dreaming of a better Ireland: http://wp.me/p3NO7M-mf

3. On a twelfth birthday at Christmas: http://wp.me/p3NO7M-mh

4. In the bleak midwinter: http://wp.me/p3NO7M-nn

Let them eat well-mixed cake!

A chilly afternoon, we’d be coming home from school raw-cheeked with the cold. Pushing the back door open, into our tiny kitchen… and the smell of Christmas cooking! My mother, in a flitter, would hoosh us out of the way. She’d look flushed, exhausted from vigorous stirring – you must ‘get plenty of air in, keeps it from sinking’. Better again if the mixture hadn’t already gone into the oven. We could lick the wooden spoon before the wash-up. Or scrape leftovers from the bowl. My mother would write a note on a tab torn off a cornflakes box: a list of times from start to expected finish, with reminders of regular checks in between. She’d tape this across the cooker switch, lest my father turn it off in a fit of safety consciousness. If it was windy, she’d worry a power-cut might sabotage her baking. She needn’t have fretted, her cakes were always perfect. They still are.

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I’m not a fan of tradition. It’s often laden with nostalgia, heavy as lardy pudding. A whiff of conservatism hangs around it, coated in an oversweet ideal of the past. Much as I love my mother’s Christmas cake, I couldn’t imagine myself as an heiress to her recipe. Apart from the fact that the culinary arts aren’t my strongest suit, the concept of perpetuating a ‘typical Irish Christmas’ has never appealed to me. Especially since I entered into an intercultural relationship, not long after leaving the nest. My husband and I would’ve felt awkward, foisting ourselves annually on my parents for the big event. Plus my mother had enough hassle, trying to put up with my younger siblings. So, although the drift towards the homestead (in the hope of decent food and freebie lodgings) has become quite a phenomenon in Ireland, I couldn’t act the ‘kidult’. Instead, I knew I’d have to create my own version of Christmas. And that meant learning how to cook.

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Fortunately, I discovered that while it sounds – and tastes – impressive, the making of a Christmas cake is well within the capability of domestic dummies. The skills it involves are fairly basic. All you do is weigh out copious quantities of dried fruit, throw in chopped almonds and glacé cherries, then steep these ingredients overnight in brandy. The next day add butter, sugar, flour etc., whisk a couple of eggs and apply brute force in the mixing. Be generous with the booze and you can’t go wrong. The tipsier the cake, the happier the guests – though it mightn’t be advisable to drive immediately after a slice of mine! Top with marzipan, white icing and some cute decorations, et voilà…

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Novelty can also whet the appetite. My seasonal cuisine has gone down a treat as far away as Bosnia and Japan. Changes of location can lead to improvisation. Dates, now a trendy addition recommended by TV chefs, served as a substitute for sultanas in Sarajevo. My notion of nutmeg was confined to the ground contents of a spice jar until I had to buy a ‘real’ one in Baščaršija. Milling it myself, using a contraption borrowed from my mother-in-law, its piquancy was memorable.

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As were many other aspects of Christmas in Bosnia. Going to midnight mass with my Muslim brother-in-law in the hush of feathery snowfall was soul-searing. Less mainstream than in Ireland, Sarajevo’s Yuletide was stripped of commercial glitz. Perhaps that allowed its pure magic to seep through. Trees draped in fairy lights can transcend divisions based on ethnicity and creed. Whether for Christmas or New Year, or both, a jelka brightens the bleakness of winter. And Deda Mraz / Santa Claus is a cross-cultural kind of bloke. Our kids are among the luckiest in the world because he calls twice to our house! Not only does the sleigh stop here on Christmas Eve but, following a garbled rendition of Auld Lang Syne, ‘Grandfather Frost’ drops back from Bosnia with more gifts.

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Celebrations bring out the best in cultures. They capture the joy that unites human beings. But such harmony isn’t easy to sustain. Differences don’t vanish, nor does the need for negotiation. Thoughts of the holiday season are soon obscured by clouds of everyday problems. Yet I wish the spirit of our Irish-Bosnian Christmas could somehow last. After the turkey-and-no-ham dinner (with vegetarian options) has been devoured. When the chocolates at the bottom of the tin have disappeared and there’s not a crumb of cake left…

In a few short weeks our jelka will lie discarded, shedding needles, on the porch. How to hold on to its zest? Maybe that’s a personal challenge for 2014. Until then, as my daughters are writing in cards to their friends:

Sretan Božić / Merry Christmas!

And, as this is probably my final blog of 2013:

Sretna Nova Godina / Happy New Year!

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