I’M AFRAID I CAN’T HELP IT

‘The wisest thing to do if you’re living in hell is to make yourself comfortable.’

After days of relentless  bombardment drove us underground, just feeling the sunlight on our skin became a luxury. I’m sitting in the sun, reaching out to it, touching it, breathing it in, and swimming in its heat. I wish I could drown in it. I wish I could track it across the sky from east to west to keep track of time. I wish my time was flying instead of dragging like this. I wish I could stop watching the clock and do what it does. Keep going.

Another lifeless day is lazily passing by, lethargy creeping over my face like shadows at dusk. There’s nothing to do. Nothing I can do.

(Apr 6, 1941. ‘German ground forces crossed the Yugoslav border and the Reich Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels announced Germany’s declaration of war. The invasion and concurrent bombing of Belgrade coincided with Orthodox Easter Sunday, according to the Julian calendar.’)

Apr 6, 1999. Mom’s shriek interrupted my slumber abruptly this morning. The first bomb was dropped immediately after the siren went off. I think we counted 6, only one of which was far off. The lights went out right away. The whole house shook, jumping up in fright, and the doors were blown off the hinges. We’re lying on the ground covered with jackets and blankets. I lift my head to see mom holding a big cushion like the halo over our heads. I feel my bowels move, a burning sensation in my stomach rising in the chest, and spreading to the neck, throat, and mouth. I hear squeaking, gurgling and rumbling inside of me. My skin itches as if tingled by the scratchy fabric. I think I’m gonna throw up…We find out later the target was an army barracks some 985ft (300m) away. The windows of nearby houses were blown out, and surrounding walls pockmarked with fist-sized holes, the explosion sending a shower of splintered wood, plaster and bricks flying all over, and landing in our gardens and on roof tops. By sheer coincidence, no one got killed. After a while, the hall unexpectedly fills with silence, tangible, oppressive and heavy like a bulky carrier bag. So much quiet makes your blood freeze.

We pick up where we’ve left off, sis and I playing cards, our parents catching up on some sleep. At one point, you have to consider entertainment, books, movies, board games and crosswords being a good place to start. Another decent time waster is the PlayStation. The only store in town offers loads of content to explore, car racing games being our favorite. We lie around like couch potatoes with an irrational hatred of anyone who sets foot on our lawns. Enjoying legal immunity from prosecution, my friends, sis and I lose ourselves in the marvelous Land of Oz, walking its endless roads paved with gold. The ultimate jerkland. The pleasure is always there but the mess afterwards is a pain in the butt and back. As our sex drive’s insatiable, once we’ve cummed and the initial ache has somewhat waned, we’ll be back for more.

I crawled into bed around 1AM that night though I didn’t feel like sleeping only to leap out of it shortly, frightened out of wits by the sudden return of the planes and the piercing noise tearing up the sky. As soon as it subsided, we took turns running to the bathroom to set our neurosis free. I had a strange dream. I’m in it though I can’t see myself. It’s as if I was holding a camera and shooting. I see a young Asian woman with her hair put up in a bun, wearing a transparent dress. She calls herself the mistress of the dark and asks me to come with her. The quiet of the night brings on stressful thoughts. The panic at just the prospect of sleeping through the bombs and not waking up has kept me awake for a long time. After tossing and turning for hours, I finally fall asleep, but it’s not long before a loud detonation startles me out of bed again. We became quite good at abrupt awakenings. No wonder the whole nation suffered from sleep deprivation and was on either anti-depressants or sleeping pills, or both.

The harsh sound of an alarm clock had always stressed me out (along with the Wake uuuup alreeeeadyyy! angry voices), which is why I ditched it a while ago and learned to rely on less-jarring a.m. wake-up aids, such as natural sunlight or setting the clock radio to the classical station. Some need a siren to get up in the morning though (trust me) not the kind we got used to. There’s no worse alarm clock than air-raid sirens, warplanes or detonations, creeping into your homes and heads like sneak burglars deep in the night. However tired or sleepy you are, rest assured you wouldn’t dare to hit the ‘snooze’ button because sleep is the last thing on your mind when your life’s at stake. The day before Easter, we’re spending our endlessly long time squatting by the candlelight, and, locked in our darkness, wait for the worse yet to come.

April 12. It’s been 20 days already. It’s freezing in the basement, the cold air leaking around the door. It was a noisy night and I couldn’t help feeling like a little pig, threatened by a big bad wolf. Would we be better off if we had stayed in our house made of bricks, instead of this one, made of straw and sticks which now seems so easy to blow down if the huffing and puffing gets stronger? I wonder how many planes there were in the air tonight. It must have been dozens as many towns were bombed after midnight. Later that day, sis and I stopped by our mom’s workplace when we heard two detonations. A railway bridge was bombed, hitting an international passenger train Belgrade-Thessaloniki, Greece, 15 of the killed civilians identified, a large number classified as missing, 50 casualties reported by a Yugoslav news agency, and up to 60 according to other sources. Additionally, 6 civilians were killed in a village marking the administrative boundary line between Kosovo and the rest of Serbia. A couple of days later, NATO aircraft repeatedly bombed the Albanian refugee convoy over a 12 m (20 km) stretch of road in western Kosovo, killing 73 civilians and injuring 100, Human Rights Watch (HRW) documented. It’s pouring with rain. I’ve been listening to Enigma all day, my thoughts scattered like shrapnel all over.

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April 16. It’s been a while since we stopped turning off the lights in the evening, only making sure the windows stayed covered with blankets and the shutters were down. We heard a series of strong detonations today. The anchor of the evening news kept reading a list of towns bombed last night, so long, I lost count of it. Sis is waxing her legs and plucking her eyebrows. Out of spite. If I must die, I want to die beautiful. (Can we pick up where we’ve left off, really?) We have been going out lately, strolling around the town, meeting up with friends for a daily intake of laughter to survive a thousand daily deaths, and sitting in cafés, without ordering anything. Everybody’s broke. Nobody’s mentioning salaries.

The next day was quiet and cool. The air smelled of spring blossom, moist soil and life growing. Three huge hits on the industrial complex in a city near Belgrade enveloped it in clouds of black smoke. By dawn, dozens of people were hospitalized gasping for air, struggling to see and unable to digest food. The sun was blotted out for nearly a day as people moved with rags over their noses and mouths through the fog. Flames will leap from the site for days. I’m breathing the cool mountain air. I wish I could stay outside forever. I hear news of a three-year old girl struck by a rocket shard while on the potty in the suburbs of Belgrade. I wish I could stay inside. Forever is an illusion anyway. April 21: the second bombing of a Serbian refugee camp in western Kosovo, 4 civilians killed according to The Los Angeles Times, 5 reported by a Belgrade-based bulletin. There’s been a heavy thunderstorm all morning. Whether it’s a sharp, loud crack or a long, low rumble, I can’t seem to tell a crash of thunder or a swollen river from planes and thundering bombs apart. Blasts often sound like a heavy clap of thunder, while thunder resembles cruise missiles hitting the ground. I hate thunder. I’m afraid of it. It’s a family thing. My granny was scared, my mom too, now I am scared, every generation making sure the next one inherits the dread. April 23: the Serbian state television and radio headquarters (RTS) in central Belgrade was hit, which makes it the largest incident in the capital so far, killing 16 civilian technicians and other production staff and wounding 18. The broadcast was blacked out as a result, but resumed three hours after the bombing. We watched as many as 5 movies today. We can no longer listen to the radio since the transmitter near Belgrade was bombed. April 30: bombs strike a village in Montenegro, killing 6 civilians, 3 of whom were underage. I have a terrible stomachache all the time.

Strong detonations startle me awake the following night. Barefoot, we dash into the hall, squeezing ourselves against the wall, wishing we could squeeze ourselves through the crack in that wall. I stop breathing for a brief moment, eavesdropping, feeling heartbeats in my lower stomach. I didn’t choose this life. I wish I could start afresh, and throw dice like in Monopoly with as many as 40 different squares to land on. I wish I could buy and trade freedom or draw a card that would enable me to move. I wish I had picked the one with different results, receiving income and paying taxes. I wish the culprits ended up in jail. I wish I could drive greed into bankruptcy and wake up to a world regulating monopolists and discouraging killings, a world without deer heads on the walls. I wish…

The candle is slowly dying and I’m writing this is complete darkness.