The morning of 6th April, 1941 dragged us in “A state of armed conflict between different countries or different groups within a country…” What was that? It was WAR.
World War 2, the bloodiest war in the history caught up to us before we could even understand what war meant. The invasion of Yugoslavia also known as the April war started pretty near us as we lived in the outskirts of Belgrade.
. . .
“Senka! Senka!! Senka where are you?”
I shouted at the top of my voice as I passed through the playground, post office and church one after the other. “Sheesh it’s always like this. Why do I have to find that idiot?” After searching half the place I arrived at the riverbank that is just slightly away from the town. It is his favorite place.
“Idiot Senka! Where are-“a flying sandal stopped me mid-sentence as it hit my face hard.
“Yes idiotic midget, what do want?” Senka teased from his usual sitting place on a tree’s branch.
“We are of the same height you fool. You better get down NOW you monkey!” I shouted with my index finger pointed at him. He was always a jerk. ALWAYS.
“GO TO HELL”
“NO YOU GO TO HELL STUPID SENKA!”
“SORRY BUT I DON’T LIKE TO FOLLOW MIDGETS!”
Panting we both took a break from our cursing and burst out laughing. The last part got me.
“That was a nice one” I giggled as he climbed down the tree.
“Yes I know I am better than you” he teased again.
“That’s not what I meant!!!” I shouted again and so I chased him all the way back home.
I and Senka became friends sometime after kindergarten. I was in a hurry and fell down while running and Senka was the one who picked me up and carried me on his back till we got home. To start with we were both orphans and lived in the same house, but that day was a marker of our friendship. After that he helped me out countless times and soon we became a real family. It was the same for the rest of the kids too. Having lost their parents they sought refuge here at the town’s orphanage and found nothing less than what they needed; the warmth of a family.
Ms. Daisy is our mother here and we all love her. She is pretty, smart and the kindest person I have ever known. To explain briefly, she is the kind of mother we all wanted.
“So why were you stalking me?” Senka asked with a plain face.
“I wasn’t stalking! Senka why can’t to talk like a normal person for once!” I huffed with exhaustion. Conversations went nowhere with this boy. “It is koko’s birthday and Daisy baked a cake too. Everyone’s waiting for us.” I couldn’t hide my excitement on the thought of having a party and that to when it was Koko’s 1st birthday.
Senka was the one who picked up koko as a puppy about 6 months ago during a stormy night and brought him home. At first daisy was lost as to what to do but she accepted koko into the house. She said something about Senka having really determined eyes and that is what convinced her. And so Koko became our responsibility and we were happy for the same.
. . .
…We were just a few meters away from our home. Laughing at each other, we could smell the freshly baked cake from inside the house as koko came running towards us. We could see everyone through the open gates.
Smiling, Daisy waved at us and I waved back. We were almost there now; the three of us, when we heard a loud noise. A plane… no, soon the sky was full of planes. They almost looked like a flock of birds with really long wings.
A strange smell filled the air. “Smoke…” Senka muttered. He was right. It was smoke. In less than a minute the town rose in commotion. Loud noises filled our ears. I had no clue as to what was happening, yet, I trembled. Something terrible was about to happen and sadly we would be there to witness it all…
. . .
Far away in the distant sky we spotted a plane just above us. It dropped something. What happened next was too fast for me to grasp. Senka shouted and pulled me and koko away from the house. As I turned I glanced back at everyone. Were they still smiling? I couldn’t tell anymore as my eyes welled up when realization hit me almost physically. We were under an Air attack. Even though we lived in an insignificant place, we got involved in the war. I wonder… were our lives so important that they had to be sacrificed for the war? Or were we so insignificant that killing us wouldn’t even shake their conscience. Which one was it?
“Sila… Sila… SILA!” Senka was shouting as he pulled me roughly while running frantically. “Snap out of it! RUN!”
And I obeyed. My mind was blank. We ran and ran till our feet started to hurt badly. Soon we reached the riverbank, we had never crossed it before.
“Are we crossing that? We shouldn’t Senka, Daisy told us not to, its danger-“
“Daisy is dead.” With cold eyes, Senka silenced me completely. I knew that too. It happened before us. Daisy, tutu, john, kila… everyone was gone and they were not coming back.
Senka suddenly turned around and grabbed me by the shoulder “Listen Sila, this is not a drill it’s the real thing. We have already lost our home but we will live. I want us to live. We are going to survive together till this ends and one day, we’ll come back home.” Maybe these were the eyes Daisy was talking about. I wanted to act strong just like Senka but I couldn’t stop my tears, so I smiled through them instead. “Yes” I replied.
’ As long as he was here we would survive’, is what I felt.
I picked up koko from where Senka had put him and we crossed the river steadily. A small stretch of forest lay ahead us and then a long stretch of barren land. We heard about this from Daisy. But anything after that was a mystery for us. We glanced back one last time before leaving. The town looked like it had been set ablaze.
“Let’s go” Senka turned around and so our journey started.
We crossed the forest easily but the barren lands were not going to be easy. It started getting dark and we weren’t even halfway across the land but were far enough from the forest. There was no place to rest for the night and the ground was starting to turn cold. But we continued walking. It was sometime around dawn that we spotted a village but the previous day’s activities had drained us a lot and we were in no shape to take even one more step forward. I remember watching Senka fall on his knees and then everything went black.
“OI! OI get up lil’ missy!” I could hear a hoarse voice distantly till a splash of cold water woke me up and I gasped loudly. A tall and well-built man stood in front of me with a bucket and smiled a little apologetically, maybe because of the water. Senka lay unconscious beside me on the floor. The room looked dingy and a little dark from which I figured out that it was probably evening outside.
“How can you be sleeping like that in the middle of nowhere? We are at war at the very moment you know!”
“I’m sorry sir…” who was this man? “Where are we right now? Our town was attacked and then we were walking…” my head still felt dizzy.
“Yes, it’s the Germans and well exactly speaking they are the Axis powers. Looks they want to take over Yugoslavia and Belgrade was a perfect place to start. Are you from there?” The man asked looking a little concerned.
“Yes… from the outskirts of Belgrade. It doesn’t matter anymore though.” Belgrade was finished, and so was our home.
After pausing for a few minutes he started speaking again “This is the basement of our house. It’s not sturdy but will hold up for now. It has been 3 days since the raids started. You were down for quite some time and your friend here to. Wait let me wake him up.” The man picked up the bucket and threw the remaining water on Senka and laughed loudly as he gasped out of his sleep. It looked like we had found ourselves some nice company-
KOKO! That’s right I suddenly realized he wasn’t around here anywhere. “KOKO?” I got up hastily and almost fell from a head spin but the man caught me.
“Calm down the dog is here. He was the one who lead us to you people.” The man said smiling and whistled loudly. Soon a little white guy entered wagging his tail.
“Koko…” I knelt down tears welling up. I don’t want to lose anyone else.
“So… where are we?” Senka asked.
“Let’s talk after we have our dinner ok?” the man suggested and our stomachs growled in unison and that said we had food finally in 2 days.
Soon the basement flooded with children. It seemed like this was a refuge center for the time being for children like us. The man in charge was called Igor. He was a good hearted person and laughed a lot. The food served was warm and everyone seemed thankful for whatever they could have.
“Hi I am Luke” a boy sitting next to me introduced himself.
“Sila” I smiled back and waved hands with him.it seemed like the place we were living in was a part of Kragujevac. We had heard the name before. He told us many things about the other kids and introduced us to everyone. It seemed like most of them were either orphans or had gotten separated from their parents. Well in a way the rest were ‘would be orphans’. Negativity seemed to be downing up on me till I thought about Senka. How was he so strong? Almost like the war had no effect on him, I on the other hand, was dying every second inside.
“Let’s go to bed everyone” Igor announced and we all got up and cleaned up the dishes, and made space for laying out futons and rugs. Soon the lights were put out and people fell asleep instantly. Everyone was tired and dreams were an escape.
It wasn’t long since the light had been put out when someone got up and went to the next room. From the silhouette alone I could tell it was Senka. ‘What was he up to now?’
I silently followed him to the next room. He was sitting in front of a small window which was on the top of the wall. Only a small portion of the outside world was visible from here. In the dark room moonlight entered softly through that window and fell on Senka’s face, it seemed almost magical. I tip toed behind him to get a closer look at what he was doing. After getting close enough I suddenly realized. Senka was crying. At the same moment he noticed me creeping up behind him and pushed himself away with one hand while he hid his face with the other.
“Sila! At least tell me when you are here! Idiot I just came here for something and um… uh… dust got into my eyes” Senka’s voice grew fainter as he our eyes met. He could see that lying was futile at the moment.
“Senka… are you scared?” I asked as I sat down next to him.
“I am scared.” I confessed. Saying these words out loud actually made me feel a little more at ease. “I am shaking inside. I want to live too, still I am shaking. I keep thinking about when they will kill us. But you know Senka I am not afraid of dying as much as I am afraid of losing you and Koko. Everyone is scared and uneasy. Like you said yourself, this is not a drill. It’s the real deal now and we are on our own.”
“I just don’t want you to see me cry.” He suddenly blurted out. “I want to stand strong in front of you and Koko and I want to guarantee that I’ll protect us…” Senka lowered his head.
“Of course you will Idiot. I believe in you. So you can believe on me too. You don’t have to act strong on your own. We can act strong together you know.” I felt like I had said really heavy lines but maybe not being able to say these thigs was what was killing me. Senka finally seemed like he had calmed down a bit.
“But really you are such an idiot! What the hell do you think you are you monkey?! My hero? I am strong too you know!” As expected that ticked off Senka and he hit me hard on the head but at the same time we burst out laughing considering the king of discussion we just had. Seemed like we had grown up a bit in the past few days.
“Feeling better?” I asked.
“Yeah” we both smiled at each other and Koko entered the room wagging his tail.
“Sorry Koko did we wake you up?” Senka asked patting his head. Koko huffed and started licking us. We sat there for about another 15 minutes. With every passing minute, our will to live longer grew stronger. Stronger than ever before. We were determined to live for each other.
The raids dragged on with bombs flying here and there and families dying. We stayed in the basement and occasionally got out only to collect food. The main time of the day would be when we all sat together around an old radio in search of some good news when finally after almost 10 long days the invasion raids stopped.
We rejoiced for the moment that finally we could live outside the basement and so the preparations started. Even though Igor had already done so much for us, he continued extending his kindness.
As time flew by, October arrived and it soon started turning really cold, in many ways. The wars stretched out with the number of causalities grew without bounds. We considered ourselves lucky to have survived so peacefully for so long. Somehow Senka, I and Koko had found a new family. It started feeling like we belonged here. As talks deepened amongst us we got to know about everyone’s past.
It turned out that the reason Igor was like this was because he lost his son in the war recently. It was one of the air raid attacks and somewhere deep within Igor blamed himself for what happened thinking that he should have been there. All the kids had their own brutal stories as well.
But war wasn’t the only thing we talked about. It seemed like Luke liked a girl who lived with us. Her name was Gia. We did believe that she had her doubts but never showed any and Luke would just loiter around her the whole day, but it was somewhat relieving to know that people still had their hopes up; although the nature of this hope was different but it was fun to tease him.
“Hey Luke do you want to play with us?” Senka asked in a mischievous tone that I was well aware of. Luke had been following Gia around the whole day and politely declined the offer. Next up Senka asked Gia.
“Yes I would love to! What will we play?” Gia asked getting all excited.
“Let’s play hopscotch!” Senka suggested to everyone who had gathered to play.
“Ehhh?! Um…count me in to, I love hopscotch!” Luke flew in when Gia joined us and this got everyone laughing. Till now everyone had a good idea about the condition of Luke’s heart and maybe even Gia. “Oi don’t mock me!” Luke started shouting and chasing after Senka.
“Um, Sila?” Gia called me from behind with a flushed face.
“Oh… Ah… they are just teasing you, don’t get embarrassed. Wait I’ll stop them!”
“No, that’s not what I wanted to say. It’s about tomorrow” Gia lowered her eyes as her face turned to a deeper shade of red. “Its 20th October tomorrow… It’s Luke’s birthday, and I was thinking of giving him a present…” well from this angle I could understand why Luke found her so cute.
“Really?! That’s wonderful!” I exclaimed cheerfully. “Well let’s go inside and decide on what we are going to do then!”
“Don’t get the wrong idea ok? It’s just because he is always taking care of me ok!” Gia flustered on with a bright red face now and I giggled just to tease her. See? Life wasn’t so bad. We were all moving forward.
. . .
That night I had a sick nightmare. There was a strange creature with big ears and an ugly face. It was smiling and staring at me from the window of our previous home.
I saw everyone there just like last time. Daisy was holding a cake and suddenly the cake and their faces started melting. I tried to go to them but I realized that something was holding me. When I turned around I saw that it was that creature. I told him to let go of me but no words came from my mouth and so I stretched out my hand for them to hold onto… but they melted away.
I woke up drenched in my sweat and tears. It was just a dream I told myself and tried to sleep again but it was no use. Somehow an ominous feeling crept into my heart.
The morning of October 20th was chillier than the one’s before. It was 9 am
. . .
“We will have the party in the evening but you go and give him your present now so that he can wear it.” I told Gia while pushing her out of the house as Luke and some other boys had gone out to buy some grocery.
“Oh-ok!” Gia looked determined. No matter how one looked at this situation the look on her face was not of ‘just a birthday present’ it was ‘THE birthday present’.
“They are here! Luke, Gia wants to talk to you about something so rest of you come inside!” I waved to them.
“SILA DON’T SHOUT!” Gia got flushed again and I pulled the complaining boys inside the house while trying my best to not to laugh. As soon as we closed the doors everyone gathered around the window. We had been waiting for this moment for months now.
Although we couldn’t hear what they were saying but Luke first looked surprised and when he saw the present he started blushing. Both of them looked like ripe tomatoes and we all just giggled and struggled for a better view. Luke opened the present carefully and took out a handmade bracelet. He looked happy and wore it immediately.
“Wohoo! Nice going Gia!” we all rejoiced from inside the house at the top of our voice while opening the window and as soon as they heard us Luke started pointing at us and said something inaudible with an embarrassed face and all Gia did was look in a different direction.
“Gia, I’m sorry for their stupidity I really like you gift” Luke said smiling, but Gia never looked at him. “Gia…?” Luke asked in a worried tone and all she did was point in the direction she was looking.
“Look at that… they are coming” she whispered.
. . .
Till then we had all realized that a flock of people were coming our way shouting and cursing with guns in their hands. Along the way they picked up boys and men and started gathering them in a place.
. . .
“RUN AND HIDE!” Luke shouted out to everyone in the house as he got hold of Sila’s hand and ran inside. “We have to hide somewhere or run away from here.”
“Yes but where? How about the basement?” someone suggested.
“They will find us there” Luke whispered loudly. Everyone was now in a state of panic and we could hear the shouting getting louder. We could make out what they were saying. “We want the men. All men come out” is what we could make out.
“They want us?!” A boy almost screamed out and started crying.
“Stop panicking. It seems like the basement is all we have got. Let’s go” Luke led everyone downstairs and we took our spots silently.
Senka and Igor were not in the house at the moment so all I could do was hope that they’ll be alright. Koko whimpered and snuggled closer to me and the house fell into pin drop silence. For a moment it even felt like maybe people were holding their breath to. Suddenly someone started banging on the door frantically. I just clenched onto Koko tightly and closed my eyes.
“It’s us. Open up!” I heard Senka’s voice from outside. Quickly we got them inside.
“Where were you? You IDIOT!” I charged at him with tears welling up.
“Sorry we got you worried. But listen, we cannot stay here. We need to run before they start getting inside the houses.” Senka suggested.
“No! We don’t want to go outside! Hiding is better” someone said and a few agreed with them.
“Luke come one we need to go. NOW” Senka focused on talking to Luke.
“Fine. Just let me convince the others.”
“We don’t have time to convince we only have time to run”
For a brief moment they just looked at each other with concern. Though they said nothing, I got a feeling that they said more than they could using words alone. Finally Luke smiled and turned to the rest of the kids.
“Senka, you take Sila and Gia with you. We will join you in no time.”
“OK… you better hurry.” Senka smiled back and got hold of Gia’s and my hand. “Igor come on!”
“I’ll come with Luke. These are my kids now, I’ll leave with them.” Igor smiled and beckoned us to leave first.
Somewhere deep within I felt guilty for leaving like this. Of course we were going to wait for them outside. Gia did not say a word the whole time. We got out in no time and found a higher ground to stay low and watch the house for when they would come out. Every minute felt like an hour.
“They are wasting too much time!” Senka muttered in a frustrated tone. We could now see the German officers were approaching fast. They were almost near the house when Luke and the others got out.
They got out late and at the wrong time.
We couldn’t even shout to them or the officers would find us to. Gia started crying beside us as they surrounded everyone and threw the boys and Igor to one side on the ground and it looked like they wanted to start with Luke.
“We have to do something” Senka hissed. I could tell by his face that he was trying to find a solution, but there wasn’t anything we could do. Suddenly I realized that Gia was no longer with us. She was heading towards them in full speed.
“GIA!” Senka shouted out giving away our position as well.
Luke could see her approaching too and started getting up on his feet. Maybe he wanted to stop her. Or at least tell her to go away but he never got to. Before Gia could reach them, one of the officers shot her through the head. Luke lost himself there and ran towards the soldier but another one of them shot him before he could make it.
“What’s this ruckus about? Keep it down its just 10 in the morning!” He shouted glaring at Gia’s and then Luke’s dead bodies and then eyeing us sternly. He then pointed towards us and a few soldiers started running in our direction.
“Luke!” Senka shouted almost inaudibly, “Sorry…”
We had no time to feel sorry anymore. We ran for our lives. But there was no place to hide. Soon we realized that we were almost surrounded. The whole of kragujevac. We arrived at a place where there were many dead bodies piled up together and someone was putting them on trucks. We almost puked but controlled ourselves. Right now the dead bodies seemed like an opening and Senka and I were thinking the same thing. After the last of the bodies were put on the truck, we quietly snuck in from behind the man and climbed onto the pile and acted like corpses. They had already checked and confirmed that all the bodies were dead so we felt hopeful that we wouldn’t get discovered. And we didn’t. Soon the truck started moving.
Tears started rolling down my cheeks. Just when we thought that the worst was over, we had a nightmare again. Senka just stared straight at the sky while Koko snuggled closer to me and occasionally licked the bodies.
We got out from the truck when it halted for some time in the middle of nowhere and searched for some food and water.
We were starving and cold and we were survivors.
We realized it that day, that we were the lucky ones. We could have died back in Belgrade, but we made it this far. Although being this kind of lucky didn’t mean much to us anymore considering the bonds we lost; yet, we were lucky.
“We can do this” Senka suddenly said in a lost voice.
“Hmm” was all I could say to reply back.
After this we wondered off to various places hiding and running but nothing could stop us. We were surprised at ourselves as well. After almost 4 long years, in the year of 1945, we set out on our return journey. The April war was supposed to end in May and we wanted to be where it all started first for us. It seemed like war could teach people many things. We grew more compassionate and strong than ever.
. . .
On the evening of 14th may, 1945, we stood in front of the barren lands after which lay a small stretch of forest. We walked till dawn but the sand felt warmer than ever before. Soon we saw the river that was dangerous 4 years ago. The tree which was the favorite spot of a boy. The almost run down church, office and playground and finally a big house with open gates. Well the roof was open now as well but we could fix that. We were finally home after all, we could start over any number of times we wanted.