Nothing has the power to hold my attention. I can’t concentrate for long enough to read a book. I’ve never been interested in or played sport. I shudder at the sight of the television screen. Music provides my only solace. I take my iPod everywhere I go.
I wake up, throw off the blanket and run my hands over my bald head. I can’t believe it. I’ve been asleep for two days and all I took was one of my mother’s sleeping pills. I’d wanted to wipe out the past and the pain. But it’s all still there, only now it’s combined with lethargy.
I was seven, twenty years ago in 1991, when my world became irreparably altered.
None of us had known where my father was going on that particular morning. When he returned three hours later, carrying an old machine gun, we found out soon enough. He couldn’t contain himself. And on this occasion, even my mother didn’t try to silence him.
When he allowed me and my brother Stipe to handle the brutish gun, we were over excited. I remember how Stipe’s eyes lit up and his round face was one huge smile. It was a Soviet submachine gun, a PPS 1943, left over from World War Two. It had a 71-round magazine, so my father told us. He was extremely proud of it. My sister Marija cowered in the corner of the living room while my father stood towering over my brother and me before launching into his speech.
‘I’ll kill those bastards. They won’t know what’s hit them when they see me coming.’ And so he went on, waving his arms in the air and shouting. He was referring to Serbs and Chetniks, and within no time at all my brother and I became infected with his desire to kill, as we too, had grown up learning to hate the fuckers.
I was at school when the first siren sounded. I remember the girls in my class screaming and panicking. Our teacher, Mrs Letica, an old woman with grey hair in a bun on top of her head, was calm. She blocked the doorway, insisting that we assemble in an orderly line before she walked us to the nearest air raid shelter.
My friends and I loved it. The sirens sounded up to four times a day and we were delighted that our lessons were disrupted. It was all a wonderful new game. The underground concrete shelters had been built in the 1980s, when the country was still under communist rule and the government had been concerned about a nuclear threat during the Cold War. The shelters were spacious and equipped with army beds and portable toilets.
Not long after he joined up, my father left, telling us he would be fighting to defend our town, Slavonski Brod, that is situated in the interior of Croatia. He was gone for months at a time. We never heard a word from him when he was away; there were no phone calls or messages. But we had power cuts from the start of the war so that was not surprising.
Fascinated by anything to do with the war, my friends and I collected cartridges and shrapnel. We’d sit on the steps in the park at the end of our street, and trade them as though they were marbles. I was proud of my substantial collection which came from an unexpected source. My father always left on one of his forays with our neighbour Ivan, who was his right-hand man, and when they returned, from time to time, Stipe and I were invited to Ivan’s wine cellar where he kept his gun collection. The guns were trophies he purloined from dead Chetniks and Serbs. He had cartridges too. He shelled these out like sweets. But the highlight was when he let us choose a gun and took us outside into the street. We could fire it, but only once. I pretended I was shooting the Serbs who lived nearby. They used to be our friends, until we found out they were engaging in clandestine warfare and shooting unsuspecting Croatians who’d once been their friends.
Perhaps because we were children, we were fearless. If my mother had found out we did not always go to the shelters when the air-raid warnings sounded, she would have been furious.
I remember the day my brother and I were sitting with my friend Josip on our favourite steps, counting our cartridges, and I heard the scary whistling sound. We all knew what it was, only today, it was louder than usual. On the other side of the Sava River, no more than a kilometre away, were the enemy’s rocket propelled grenades and mortars. The ominous whistling sound was too close for comfort and I reacted immediately. I bolted for cover, shouting for my friends to follow. We watched wide-eyed from the shelter of a stone wall close by as a grenade exploded on the spot where we had been sitting. My mother was working long hours every day in a furniture factory and she never found out about our brush with death.
Not long after this incident, when Ivan arrived home by himself, he hurried over to our house to let us know that my father had been injured. We were to go to the hospital where he would be arriving in a short while. By chance, we turned up when they were unloading him from an ambulance. He was lying on a stretcher with blood splattered all over him. His left arm, from the elbow down, was hanging over the side of the stretcher. It was flapping like a pidgeon’s broken wing. His elbow had been shattered and his forearm was only attached to his upper arm by a thin piece of flesh. My mother, with us in her wake, reached out to him, but she was blocked by the nurses surrounding him. His face was grey, and his eyes were closed, and when my mother called out his name he did not move. He had shrunk in size. He was once a tall well-muscled man. I was used to looking up at him, so far above me. But today, he appeared wasted and withered. His hair, spread out on the stretcher around his head, was long and untidy. There were plenty of grey streaks. I was certain he was dead; a lump formed in my throat and tears were hovering at the back of my eyes. But I knew I must not cry. We had been taught never to show grief. It was unacceptable. Neither of our parents had ever cried in front of us. It did not happen, no matter what. We were allowed to express anger, but never fear. I don’t know how, but I kept my emotions in check.
Later, we learnt that my father had been fighting with a group of fifteen men across the river in Bosnia when they’d been ambushed by Chetniks. Although he’d told his men to flatten themselves on the ground, only one had obeyed. Thirteen had been shot and killed when they stood up and ran. He and only one other man escaped.
After losing a lot of blood from the wound in his arm, my father had come close to death. The first few days were critical. Several times they told my mother to expect the worst, but we were lucky. He survived although he remained in hospital for six months. We were all relieved that the surgeons were able to reattach his arm at the elbow, even though he lost the use of his fingers and thumb and his elbow joint did not function normally.
During the war, we lived in an apartment in an affluent part of Slavonski Brod. The residents there had plenty of money to buy arms and the men were well organised. Ours was a markedly different area in comparison to many of the poorer suburbs.
On the night my father came home from hospital, he and his friends were drinking in the shelter beneath our apartment. Blackout was compulsory at night and we were not permitted to use candles. As the shelters were well lit they were the most usual place for men to drink after dark. Copious amounts of alcohol were consumed during the war as most men had a need to blot out their pain and suffering. They drank to excess without feeling guilty. On this particular night they were all well on the way to being inebriated and it was easy for me to hide in the corner of the shelter behind a bed and listen in to their conversation. My mother had given up trying to keep track of my whereabouts. She had too many other problems on her mind. She struggled to go to work every day as well as cope with the gigantic upheavals war had inflicted upon our lives. She came home most days completely exhausted.
That night, the main topic of conversation between my father and his friends was the conflict in Bosnia. It was well past my bedtime. I was struggling to stay awake, until my father spoke in a louder than usual voice.
‘What was that? What did you say those bloody Serbs called us?’ he said.
‘White Eagles. Because we are such invincible bastards,’ Ivan replied. Their conversation didn’t make sense to me, but when I continued to listen, it became clear. Apparently, my father and the others with him, had found out that our neighbourhood had been nicknamed the White Eagles by the Serbs. The title was a compliment. It meant that our defenders were exceptionally strong, invincible warriors putting up a solid defence. As a consequence, our part of town stayed relatively unharmed. My father found the nickname particularly funny and he let out a huge belly laugh.
‘I told you I’d stop the bastards, didn’t I?’ he said before laughing loudly again. The more he talked the more I became overcome with pride for my father. He had a big heart, he was brave and determined. I longed to be just like him. The following day, I couldn’t wait to tell my brother what I’d overheard and when I did, we decided to invent a new war game. From that day onwards, we played Operation White Eagle.
After my father recovered it was particularly difficult for my mother. She worried about him all the time when he was away. Even more so now, because of his crippled arm. He could no longer fire a machine gun and was reduced to firing grenades or mortar from rocket launchers. The day she heard that a boat full of men, who were attempting to cross the river, had been hit by mortar fire, my mother was convinced my father had been in the boat and he was dead. He wasn’t, although we didn’t find that out until six months later when he returned unscathed.
In 1993, the air raids had begun to decrease, notwithstanding, there were casualties happening all around us. Ivan came home with shrapnel wounds, and one morning when he and I were both outside on our respective terraces talking to each other, a grenade, which came out of nowhere, hit him and severed his head from his body, right in front of my eyes. All these years later I still see him in my nightmares – a dreadful bloody twitching mess.
After more than two years with endless trips to the shelters we were becoming complacent. None of our immediate family had been killed, so we went to the shelters less and less often. The authorities must have thought we and others were becoming demoralised and it was then that they showed footage on television of the fall of the nearby town of Vukovar in 1991. We were ordered to watch the documentary. It was a decree by Tudjman’s Government. Their attempt to make us rise up and fight with greater enthusiasm. I had no idea what I was about to see on the television screen when my mother insisted we watch it. For the rest of my life I will never forget it. In bed that night, I woke up screaming. I had watched a Serbian soldier cram a screaming baby into an oven before turning on the heat. My poor mother had no idea what the programme would contain, and she never forgave herself for abiding by Tudjman’s order. But, you could say the programme had the desired effect. At the tender age of ten, I wanted to kill all Serbs and Chetniks with a savage determination. My sole frustration was my father. He would not permit me to use a gun.
My sister Marija, who was sixteen in 1991, also suffered during the war years. Twelve boys from her class at school, who were too young to join the regular army, were readily snapped up by the Croatian Defence Force. It was an appalling shock to us all, that by 1993, they were all dead. Marija took their deaths especially hard, and today she continues to visit their graves in the cemetery.
Luck abandoned our family about half way through the war when our first family member was taken from us. My uncle Jure, my mother’s brother, was in a trench in one of the nearby fields, smoking a cigarette during a lull in the fighting, when the soldier standing next to him was hit by a grenade and blown to pieces. Uncle Jure was unharmed, but he was covered from head to foot with the grisly flesh and blood of his friend. His comrades washed him down, and because he was traumatised, the platoon commander sent him home. Our house was close to where he was stationed so he made his way there instead. It was a Sunday and my mother and Stipe were on the terrace hanging out the washing. When he got near to the house uncle Jure spotted them and called out. These were the last words he spoke before he was killed by a grenade. Today, I can still hear my brother, who is eleven months younger than me, emitting ear-splitting screams as he clutched onto my mother’s apron.
Next, my mother’s older brother Dušan, and two young men who were with him, were captured when he was driving a truck belonging to the engineering company where they worked. All three were taken to a Chetnik lair where their captors set upon my uncle and beat him. He was strong and came out bruised and battered, but alive. When they started to beat up his seventeen-year-old companion my uncle became incensed with rage. At an opportune moment, he jumped the two Chetniks, snatched a knife from one of them, and slit their throats. He and his companions fled and ran towards the fields. Chetniks from the house next door had heard the skirmish and were on their trail within minutes. They were too late. The threesome reached the field and disappeared between the tall stalks of corn just as their pursuers were closing in on them. The Chetniks gave up pursuit; they knew the cornfield was a minefield. It was a miracle that Dušan and his companions escaped from their Chetnik captors, but it was an even bigger miracle that nobody stepped on a mine.
The death of one brother and the close call with the other became too much for my mother. She asked the doctor for medication to help her sleep. She looked old. The corners of her mouth were permanently turned down and her face was etched with lines. She was short tempered and had developed a twitch in one eye. I knew she was pregnant and wondered if that accounted for her altered state of mind. It was then when disaster struck. She went into labour the first night after she started taking the sleeping tablets. It happened during an air raid. There was no privacy in the shelter and everyone around her knew what she was going through. When my brother and I heard her pitiful wailing we huddled together and held each other. I wiped my uncontrollable tears on the tail of his checked shirt. I could not let anyone see my tears. A short time later, my mother gave birth to a baby girl. She was stillborn. My mother was inconsolable. She was convinced the doctor had prescribed medication that had brought on the premature stillbirth. When my father came home and found out what had happened he was livid.
‘I’ll kill the bastard,’ he shouted. My mother’s friends only just stopped him carrying out his threat. To this day, I don’t believe my mother has ever been the same since she lost her baby. She collapsed with chronic exhaustion towards the end of the war. She is permanently depressed, and survives with on-going medication.
The grizzly event I witnessed on television played on my mind and increased my desire to kill. I became obsessed with guns. I knew my father had several hidden in the house and I made it my business to find them when he wasn’t at home. I was small for my age and I spent my free time squeezing into spaces to see what might be hidden there. On one occasion, I was rewarded when I found an old rifle at the back of my parents’ wardrobe. This one was an SKS Carbine from the Soviet Union. It was cumbersome and I knocked clothes off hangars when I was prising the rifle out of the confined space.
I was so delighted with my find that I took it to the living room and showed it to my brother. No one else was home at the time. My excitement was complete when I found cartridges. I loaded one before folding up the bayonet. We took turns staring down the barrel to see if we could see the loaded cartridge. We couldn’t. There was nothing in the barrel but blackness. I remember Stipe’s innocent words well.
‘Do you think it can shoot?’
‘No, it looks too old, but we could give it a go,’ I said.
‘Come on, let’s pretend we’re fighting in Operation White Eagle, he said with childish enthusiasm.
I lifted the barrel and put my finger on the trigger. The rifle was too heavy and it wobbled as I struggled to squeeze the trigger. I was about to declare the gun useless, when it fired and I went flying backwards. I’d narrowly missed shooting my brother and had shot a sizeable hole in the living room ceiling. We were both shaken up, and as fast as I could I put the rifle back where I found it. I hoped with all my heart that my father would not see the hole. When he did, I had no choice but to confess what I had done. He was the angriest I had ever seen him. He gave me the worst thrashing I’d ever had. I had welts on my skinny bum from the buckle on his belt. It hurt to sit down for days afterwards. He also deprived me of my share of the treats he’d brought home – Frisbee chocolate and three day old burek. We had plenty of bread and meat in our diet during the war, but goodies like chocolate and fancy pastries such as burek were scarce. Lots of items were scarce, even toothpaste, but I was a child and didn’t care if I couldn’t clean my teeth every day. It never occurred to me that they would become discoloured and full of holes from lack of regular cleaning. Today, when I look in the mirror, they are a permanently dirty shade of yellow and riddled with holes.
How did I feel when the war ended? Not much different. It wasn’t as if it came to a sudden halt and everything went back to normal. Too much will never be the same again. Even after twenty years, I can’t say I’m glad it’s over. I’ll never get over my pain, anger and frustration. I’ve been to a trauma counsellor, but that was no help. He prescribed pills that turned me into a zombie. More recently I’ve been taking my mother’s powerful sleeping tablets, but they didn’t help either.
My childhood was taken away from me, as were many of my friends and family, and it’s impossible to get any of them back.
What would it take to heal me? Another war. If one was declared tomorrow, I’d be first in the queue to join up. My desire for death and revenge against all Serbs and Chetniks is all-consuming.
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