Saturday, December 6, 2014

Sirens in Belgrade

Last Tuesday afternoon, just as J and I took the first sip from our glasses of steaming mulled wine, a loud siren broke out. Sudden loud noises have an adverse effect on my nerves -- something that I should have looked into before moving here. I'm usually ashamed of my many frailties, and try to mask them, but the siren that afternoon was unbearable. I somehow put my glass down on the cask, my hands shaking, and looked all around to see most people standing in the middle of the roads, with their hands covering their ears. Still shaking, and with one hand on my chest, I turned to look at J, and was struck by her expression. She looked very disturbed, and seemed to struggle to breathe. The noise continued for a few minutes more, and seemed to approach from a bus, which slowly turned away from the square, and rolled down the road, taking the noise of the siren with it.

Once it had faded out completely, and people started moving about again as if nothing had happened, I tried to look normal, while feeling my still-hammering heart, and my violently shaking hands. I tried to give J an apologetic smile, but she didn't noticed. She looked down at her glass, looked up, and said that sirens make her especially nervous because they remind her of bomb raids in her Heimat, Belgrade, in the summer of 1999.

That summer, NATO bombed Belgrade for three months. J would turn ten in a few days, and recalls the initial days as happy for most little children, as school was suspended and they would spend whole days playing in sheltered courtyards. It was when the bombing continued without any sign of ceasing, that grown-ups, scared for the safety of their families, decided to move. Yugoslavia, before the fall, was one big country, where grandmothers were born in (what is now) Croatia, and mothers would spend all the summers of their childhood in the Croatian farms where their mothers had grown-up. However, the situation in the newly-formed states of ex-Yugoslavia was different. It was nearly impossible for a Serbian to be granted a visa to Croatia, even if he had best friends living on the other side of the border. That summer, amidst the bombing, J's mother went from pillar to post, trying to get a visa for Croatia, and telling the officials how absurd it was for her visa to be refused when her mother was born there; and still owned a farm there; and she had spent entire summers for over twenty years there. She--and many others--were finally granted visa on only one ground: She had at least one parent who was born in Croatia. J's father was not so lucky. Two months after the bombing began, J and her mother, both crying uncontrollably, crossed the border to Croatia, while their father stood on the other side, waving goodbye. J realised that she would spend her first birthday without her beloved father, but that wasn't the only reason why she cried as she stood on the other side of the border. Behind her father, she could see the Serbian sky filled with fighter planes, dropping bombs in her city, and flames engulfing whole buildings and reaching up for the sky. She was leaving her father under that sky.

She celebrated her tenth birthday in a quiet farm somewhere in the heart of Croatia, Her mother and grandmother cooked her favourite dishes, and she woke up to the sound of cows mooing. Her father called later in the day, and she cried for him over the telephone. A month later the bombing stopped, and she returned to Belgrade, and to her father.

All this came back to her after all these years with the suddenness of a siren going off in front of the Christmas market in Sheffield on a beautiful but cold day in December. No one knew what had caused it. But I learnt a little about bombing and sirens in Belgrade in the summer of 1999, and about a little girl's enduring love for her father and her city.