SPECIAL REPORT / ON THE STATE OF HUMAN RIGHTS : The Two Sides of Humanity : When the Airplanes Appeared, My Life Changed Forever
For those who think that war happens to someone else, to people a world away who exist only when the television is on, consider my story.
I live in a town of 12,000 in eastern Croatia. In the summer of 1991, my friends and I spent our holidays at the local swimming pool or disco. Our parents discussed politics. We talked about Madonna. We awaited the new school year.
The heated conversations surrounding the disintegration of Yugoslavia became tense whispers about the future, as Croatia, a onetime republic, struck out on its own. I began to sense something horrible was in the offing.
War. The word sneaked into our mouths. It had always just been a picture on a screen, something happening somewhere else to someone else. But soon air-raid sirens wailed in my new reality. When they sounded, my family and I would race into a neighbor’s cellar. We had none. We didn’t think we’d ever need a bomb shelter.
For weeks, the sirens wailed, we scrambled--and nothing happened. But then, one beautiful sunny day, the airplanes appeared. I’ll never forget the sound. It was so close. We ducked our heads. The planes bombed the center of our town. Homes burned. Even the library--our only one--was gutted. That first day, 11 people died.
We rarely left the cellar after that. Instead of school, I huddled around the radio with my family in our neighbor’s cellar, listening to my country burn.
Leaving our circle was like playing Russian Roulette. I never knew if I would see my mother again when she left for work. We used to say goodby as if it were the last time. We organized ourselves. We brought a portable stove, couches, blankets and flashlights into the bunker. We went out to get food between attacks. The shells fell constantly. Someone nearby died every day. My brother-in-law left to fight. We didn’t know if he was alive or not. Late at night, I would hear my sister crying.
War seemed to last forever. I stopped counting the days and the number of shells that fell. Evacuations started. My parents decided to send me away. We packed a few things in a bag and drove like maniacs to a railway station that hadn’t yet been hit. They put me on the train to Zagreb, 70 miles away, where I would stay with another sister.
There, I tried to return to some sense of normalcy. It proved impossible. Every loud sound made me wince. I couldn’t concentrate. Once the best student in the class, I became the worst. I started to visit the school psychologist with my classmates.
They told stories worse than mine. Tamara had lost contact with her father, who had been taken away in the night to a prison camp. Vesna lost her only brother. The psychologist could not answer our questions. Why did the world ignore us? Why is everyone so silent? Were our lives not valuable? I had no answers, either.
The fighting died down in my town, and my mother sent word for me to return home. Visiting old streets, familiar places and friends, I tried to pick up my past. But it wasn’t the same place. There were few roofs or windows, only rubble and shattered glass.
School started, but all activity stopped at dusk. The town was blacked-out and the rutted streets looked ghostly. Peace proved to be an illusion. Air raids continued. If one occurred during class, we’d run into our school’s cellar. We listened to the shells falling on the roof, hundreds of us in silence. The people around me didn’t hate anyone. So, why were we shivering in the cellar? We had not caused this war. Why were we paying its price? I wanted to go outside, to see sunshine, to return to the life I once had.
It’s been peaceful lately. I’m trying to forget. I’m trying to study, to think about my future. I’m not sure what I want to do. I’m not sure the war is over.
But I am certain of one thing. I want to live in a place where I can say loudly and clearly what I think and feel. I don’t want to live behind a new Iron Curtain.
And there is one other thing of which I am sure. There are other high school students not just here, but everywhere, who are just like me.