Tonight, when I looked at my phone and it was twenty past eight in the evening.
It was a crisp, March evening and the wind cleared the sky, so even in central Belgrade you could see the stars, glistening at night. It was eerily quiet, except for the occasional howling of the wind, which blew in the streets emptied of people quarantining in their homes.
The image of these digits, 20:20 on a digital clock has always made my stomach churn a little. It was etched in my mind years ago, as I was standing in a doorway, maybe a meter away from where I am writing this, and looking at my grandmother’s old TV screen, its grainy image flickering to show a scene from a telenovela.
The siren started howling, and for my 10 year old self, it seemed like my whole generally pleasant, brightly coloured world shattered.
My heart sunk, as I stood, paralysed for a moment, until everybody around me started fluttering about, taking the pre-prepared packages (we knew it was coming) into their hands and then all four of us, my grandma, my mother and my dad, darted down to our neighbour’s basement flat. The bombing started, and my grandmother, and several older neighbours who sat with us in this small, but immaculately clean wood-panelled living room knew exactly what to do as they survived them before.
While they were vividly remembering what they went through as children, I could only imagine. And in the lead up to that night I have imagined all that I had (toys and books) destroyed and strewn across the ruins, my parents weeping, everything gone. I imagined all of that in the warm, beautiful weeks prior to that wailing siren, and imagined it very vividly a few days prior to that day, as I said goodbye to our family flat in a high-rise that was too close to military barracks, and moved to my grandma’s central Belgrade flat (which alas, was close to the HQ of national TV, another target, as it would turn out).
And there I was, in a clean wood panelled basement flat, (where I was to descend regularly in the coming months) surrounded by a dozen neighbours chatting about what was going to happen.
That night, and the coming nights, I would regularly turn to my mum to ask her, first tearfully, then increasingly numbly, about what she thinks is going to happen.
“Šta misliš šta će biti?“ was my mantra for the coming two months, its undulating sounds shushing sounds soothing me more than whichever nice little optimistic lie my mother produced („It will be over soon“, „It will all be okay“ etc.).
And in the end it was all kinda okay, but actually, in many ways, kinda not.
The worst scenarios I imagined thankfully did not become reality. All of my friends and almost all the people I knew back then were spared (one elderly neighbour was killed in a hospital by a NATO missile), and for a ten/eleven year old me that was as good as it gets.
But the part that was not okay, the part that for a long time I did not want to think about and which stayed part of me long after the bombing ended, were the memories of feeling, almost seeing deep, dark fear enveloping my world.
The memory of my fat little self tripping on the carpet in St Mark’s church as I tried to bolt out as the sirens started, and then me frantically trying to catch up with my mother (I haven’t run that far or quickly for another decade). The memory of me thinking for hours that I would find a completely destroyed city when a bomb fell only a few hundred meters from the basement where we were taking shelter and made all the floor boards move frantically as the air was sucked out of the room. All these little, shameful memories of fear and then some humiliation of having feared so much, of something that, admittedly, affected many others infinitely more and in infinitely worse ways.
And yet, here I am, almost exactly twenty one years later, in the same room, where those awful seventy seven days started, not only writing about all of this, but once again, wondering about what’s going to happen.
“Šta misliš šta će biti?“
Once again, I am mostly confined to this building, once again there is no escaping, and once again what I and my family do can prove to be insufficient to save us. Once again, there is no clear end in sight.
And yet, self-centred and self-pitying as I am, I can only think how many of my decisions, good and bad, were made to precisely avoid being where I am right now, to escape feeling that fear from 21 years ago.
I thought that being good at school and then going abroad, would save me from this. Then I thought that working a well-paid job would ensure I never have to face being locked in a flat and fearing for my family. Then I thought that traveling and writing would free me up from this nagging fear that dogged me and make me see things differently and be a bit wiser, bbe a bit less high-strung.
Yet here I am, back to the same place with that same old dumb humiliating fear creeping on the outskirts of my mind, with that same dark feeling in my stomach. All of these 21 years – admittedly mostly fun and exciting 21 years – only to be back to the place that I worked so hard to escape.
Now that I think about, I was probably only fooling myself into thinking that it is possible to escape these most basic of feelings: of fearing for your life, of feeling small, alone and ridiculous in the face of great horrific mystery that is life.
But I guess they are inevitable: living is, at its core, deeply horrifying and unpredictable.
Those of us who worked so hard to make it otherwise, can only be thankful for being privileged to have those moments believing in an illusion of painless life free of fear, but now, once that illusion is shattered, we need to move on and adapt as have in front of us what I can only guess is reality, with all of its deep horror, mystery and occasional flashes of joy, love and peace, that make it more than worth plowing on.