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.

I’M AFRAID OF THE WORLD

 ‘What is your youth doing while you’re sleeping? – It’s awake, lurking. And when it loses patience, it wakes you up.’

On Mar 28 1999, shortly after the bombing of Yugoslavia started, the world had its mouth full of us because ‘the Serbs did the impossible and shot down an F-117 Nighthawk, deadly not only because of its extreme maneuverability but also its ability to be invisible to radar. It was the only time such a plane had ever been destroyed’ (source: War History Online) and was the pride of American aviation. On the same day, a rock concert was held at noon in downtown Belgrade although the siren indicating the cessation of danger hadn’t gone off. 30,000 people gathered to express their disapproval of the war and show they were choosing life over death, many with a transparent in their hands: No Ryan will be saved. Sorry, we didn’t know it was invisible. Clinton, do you happen to have an F-118? We are no Indians. NATO made a mess, will you please kiss my ass? Columbus, you curious mother fucker. Only your brains are invisible. I’m not Monica, America is. Hillary, don’t be Eva Braun. I swap the F-117 for a pack of cigarettes. Monica was good, but Tony (Blair) is better. The U.S.A.: The United Serb Association. Clinton, you should’ve taken that left turn at Albuquerque. Mission Impossible. Dream Team: YU Air Forces. If only we had known about the rubber (Bill’s parents). I’m not a mushroom to grow in the basement. Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing…

In a couple of days, the world will start protesting against the US-NATO bombing campaign, with tens of thousands of people in the streets of Europe, North America, Australia, New Zealand and India. There are over 15,000 protesters in Vienna, 20,000 in Rome, Genoa, Turin and Milan, we hear of incidents in Athens and Skopje, Macedonia…Most Britons, according to a survey of public opinion, accuse Tony Blaire of hypocrisy and attack on sovereignty. The Italian Parliament, with a majority of 380 votes, makes a plea for the cessation of air strikes. It means so much to know we’re not alone.

The siren went off again during the night. My sister and I jumped out of our beds and ran into our parents’ room, mom screaming frantically: ‘C’mon, the siren, the siren!’ She put on her pants hurriedly but took them off in a few after we’d decided not to go to the shelter. I wasn’t able to return to sleep, wishing it was my youth that kept waking me up. Later that day, sis and I went out to do some grocery shopping but to our surprise (or not) there was no more canned food on the shelves, nor candles for that matter, so we went back home with a bottle of yogurt, which was the only thing we found. We’re doing our best to make ourselves busy but somehow always end up wandering aimlessly around the house. Mom opens a window wide, letting the pleasant smell of spring walk in and spread unpretentiously across the living room. I catch sight of the bright yellow cornelian cherry flowers bent over the edge of the TV screen. The TV’s out after the transmitter was hit. We heard on the radio that a couple of NATO planes were shot down, an American pilot caught, another one on the run.

We have only three TV channels, always playing the same WWII movies, with our guys outsmarting the Germans. Dad comes from work. He’ll be home the following four days. A new (war) work schedule. He says the roads are congested, people leaving the cities and fleeing to villages. Phone lines are dead. We can’t get through to granny, aunt and uncle who live in a near-by town and when we do, once in a blue moon, we’re either breaking up or getting cut off. They are doing the same, sitting and waiting. Mom is bringing us food again although we don’t feel like eating. She tries to sound composed. The two of us try not to show we’re scared. We try to lead a life behind bars imposed on us. I can hear my own fear mocking me.

On the first day of April, a bridge in Novi Sad, the capital of Serbia’s northern province of Vojvodina, was destroyed by NATO projectiles. Citizens of Belgrade, fearing the same destiny, made a live bridge, holding hands and pictures of targets on a bridge across the Danube, along with its architect. It’s been two days since we slept at home, mostly snoozing in the hall as there are no windows here. I was roused by the rumbling of the planes after midnight. Oddly, I didn’t feel anything. No pounding heart. No restless legs. Nothing but sheer indifference. Fear doesn’t dwell here anymore. I don’t want to be afraid. I fell asleep like a baby, who, after having a bellyful, felt there was not one reason to cry. I wake up to the news that downtown Belgrade was struck, cruising missiles hitting the Yugoslav Ministry of Defense building next to the obstetrics and gynecology clinics and psychiatric hospital.

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In the meantime, another family with two small children joined our one-room shelter without a toilet, which makes a total of 24 of us, packed in like sardines. Everyone’s tense, listening to the radio and waiting for new lies and misinformation. I can’t stand these people any more. I look through them as I look through this moment, uttering a few lazy words only when asked, politely and reluctantly. I mainly just nod or shake my head, avoiding excessive wh-questions.  I prefer looking around, staring at the crumbly walls or soft ceiling that might fall down any second. I’m watching our lives crack and break down like poor quality plaster, friable between our fingers. I can’t breathe. I can’t….I have to go out to catch some fresh air. There are no street lights and stars in the night look like airplanes, the moon snarling at me. Detonations are coming from all possible directions, the evening sky turning purple every time it hits. I’m losing the ground beneath my feet. I’m so tired. Tired of sleeping during the day and staying up late at night, tired of running nervously down my street with eyes high above, I’m tired of putting the pillow over my head to block the sound of the planes, I’m tired of waking up to the familiar noise of explosions, crawling in bed with my clothes on, and being angry all the time, I’m sick and tired of eating in haste, I hate swallowing before chewing, gulping my food down in one bite, and stuffing my face with it like a squirrel, not knowing when I’ll eat again. I hate this life.

The following days saw lots of civilians dead: 11 killed after a village in Kosovo was hit by three missiles, 3 workers killed in the oil refinery in a city near Belgrade, which ignited 80,000 tons (88,185 metric tons) of oil into flames, the concentration of carcinogens over the city rising 10,500 times higher than local laws allowed. 1 person killed after airstrikes hit power plants in Belgrade. The outskirts of the city where my granny, uncle and aunt live, 25m (40km) away, hit with 11 bombs in broad daylight, killing 2 civilians and injuring 15. Last night, I heard our ground based anti-air systems, missiles and guns, trying to shoot down the incoming cruise missiles. I didn’t feel my smell, I didn’t hear my voice. I didn’t see my thoughts. I don’t want to see. 12 civilians killed in a southern mining town, 35 houses and 125 apartments destroyed, with no military target in the vicinity according to a Serbian newspaper. I want to remember better days, carefree and distant. I don’t want to be a part of the world dreaming of death. I need to wake up to a new day and a new night.

‘You’ve admired their efficiency, their comfort, their values, their hygiene, their might and their will. You hate the geography mistake that didn’t allow you to be a part of another world that isn’t chronically in love with conflicts and misery.’ Now you despise the very world you thought so highly of. You loathe it and are afraid of it. You prefer your world, however flawed. A world which seems incapable of peace.

I’M AFRAID OF AMERICANS

Attention, attention. Air raid. Go to a bomb shelter immediately. Open the windows, lower the shutters, turn off the power supply, turn off the gas, and take only the bare necessities with you. If you are in a vehicle, park it on the side of the road and head to the nearest underground shelter. Air raid, please follow the instructions provided by the Information Center. Over.

On March 24, 1999 at 7:45 PM CET, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) launched air strikes against the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY), composed of Serbia and Montenegro, during the Kosovo War, with the bombing of Serbian military positions in its southern province of Kosovo. An uninterrupted 60 second signal tone denoted a state of emergency that lasted until 5.30 AM the next day. We heard bombs rumbling in the distance. I remember the panic, the terror, limbs going numb, heart racing, squatting in the middle of the living room and holding each other tight. An ‘imminent threat of war against Yugoslavia by NATO’ was declared on national television right after the fist bombs hit, along with a list of instructions on what to do when air raid sirens go off, followed by a huge mobilization of troops and resources. As of day one, the creepy music of penetrating warning sounds was played on a regular basis, giving us chills every fucking time.

The following day, the sirens start wailing at 1.30 PM. Once again, we switch off the lights and electrical appliances, open the windows wide, and lower the shutters, blocking out the sun, rain, wind, life. Wrapped in a blanked the color of veins, I’m kneeling on the floor in the dark half of the hall in the central part of my parents’ house, listening to the indistinct voices of the street, the voice of a mother, a grandfather, a brother, a husband, a toddler, whimpering dogs, and bewildered roosters. In the night between Mar 25 and 26, I heard the deafening noise of swarming planes for the first time. Deadly mosquitoes buzzing endlessly in the skies above made our blood run cold and caused us to develop an arrhythmia on the spot and chronic insomnia and noise phobia with time. The sound produced by warplanes, especially when flying low at high speeds and perceived as danger, is hard to describe. Your body reacts without conscious thought, seeking cover, and you feel its intensity in your nostrils and your throat, it chokes you, it makes your knees tremble, it vibrates in your stomach, turning your bowels upside down, it incapacitates your legs, paralyzes your spine and tongue, blurs your vision and messes with your brain. The lights have gone out, candles being a rare commodity these days. We have only one left which we decide to keep for a rainy day. I close my eyes for a few seconds and feel a wave of claustrophobic darkness wash over me.

Three days after the bombing had started, the wise men of our small tribal community decided we should start hiding in the basement of a shaggy old house at the end of the street. Most towns didn’t have a proper underground bomb shelter so that people were mainly hiding in house/apartment building basements. The decision to leave your house and join a bunch of strangers isn’t the one you’ll make lightly. However, the elderly think it’s necessary when the unthinkable occurs. Choosing your emergency shelter supplies is not easy either as you have no idea how long the air raid could last and what might come out of it. Most importantly, you need something to keep you comfortable and well-fed during the time you’ll spend there. A sandwich, enough drinking water and blankets were a must. But, as no one could imagine a temporary visit to the shelter would turn into a prolonged stay, a couple days’ worth of non-perishable food, let alone the first aid kit, wasn’t on our mind. Everyone thought about how to make it that very day. Tomorrow was too far away.

Our new temporary shelter was a centenarian, which made it the oldest fella in the neighborhood. Stone, and blocks made of mud and straw were protruding everywhere. In today’s world of advanced architecture, such a home would be considered healthy and safe for a living after some additional renovations, but no house can be safe enough to protect you from bombs unless it’s a proper fallout shelter. In spite of this, at the time being, we find comfort in sharing our plight with others, although we don’t really know each other. Ironically, a couple of decades later, I’ll read about a video game, the war and post-war world of the underground nuclear fallout shelter that will prove to be massively popular on mobile phones and PCs, which will be downloaded by millions and earn staggering $5m in its first two weeks on sale. It’ll be described as ‘a highly addictive building and management game in which you construct your own vault and carefully manage the people and resources to create a thriving sun-free community.’ They suggest stockpiling granola, as well as salt, pepper and other spices. Oh boy! If the game makers had known half of what we did about the shelter, they would have never come up with such a dull pastime because it’s impossible to turn an apocalyptic hell into a home.

I walk into a dungeon I’ll be sharing with my neighbors, cramped in a matchbox with wooden benches on the side, waving hello to wrinkled faces of the elderly, kids chit-chatting, serving tea and sweet coffee, sleeping, acting out, a two-year old girl who can’t stop crying, and her older sister who has a hard time being called by her nickname (Nato), preschool and elementary school children with their parents who cling to the hope that this frenzy will soon come to an end and a charismatic guy in his late 60s apparently skilled at making everyone feel better. I’m trying to avoid close encounters, unnecessary remarks and compulsory smiles, turning my head not to feel bad breath coming from teeth they haven’t brushed in days. It’s terribly cold and smells of mold. I’m wearing a T-shirt, an undershirt, a sweatshirt, a woolen sweater, a warm hoodie, a winter jacket, thick tights, two pairs of woolen socks pulled over my knees, and sport shoes. I take a seat on a bench without backrest, feeling cushions underneath, and cover my shoulders with a blanket. After a few hours of uncertainty, the sirens blare the end of danger and we all go home only to head back to the improvised bomb shelter as soon as the ear-piercing screech goes off again. We’re back to black: drowsy kids, worried parents and toothless old women in PJs who hurried back, obviously forgetting their teeth at home. They don’t feel like prattling any more, and place their hands over their mouths when laughing wholeheartedly. Leaning against the wall, I’m closing my eyes to catch up on some sleep but wake up at the slightest sound. From a heavy sleeper, I turned into a light one. A pin dropping two rooms away behind a closed door would startle me awake, let alone a truck driving by or honking.

I’ve been dreaming a lot lately. I had a dream that all people were created equal…

 

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* Originally published at Morality Park