TW: Contains swearing, gory violence and trauma.
When the war ended, I thought I would feel free, liberated. I didn’t. Oh, I admit, I felt a fleeting joy as we watched the cursed Nazis turn tail and flee from Belgrade. When women and children wept with joy to see their men return home. But these sparks of happiness soon faded into the empty void inside of me. Even my parents’ shouts of pure delight at seeing me alive did not warm my heart for long.
When Marshall Tito spoke to us among the ruins and rubble of Republic Square, proclaiming a new, free Yugoslavia, everybody cheered and roared their approval. Everybody but me. This was it? It was over? Surely not.
My chest tightened. I couldn’t breathe. My hands trembled, and my eyes snapped shut against my will. I tumbled to the ground. The cheers and roars around me morphed into screams of pain and terror. A hand grasped my arm. With a great force of will, I forced my eyelids open and saw… Petar? That couldn’t be right.
‘Get up, brother,’ he said, shouting so I could hear him above the screams. Blood and dirt stained his handsome face.
I looked around. I wasn’t in Belgrade anymore. I was in a forest. What was going on? ‘Petar, what’s… what’s happening?’
‘MOVE BROTHER,’ he shouted again. He hauled me to my feet, thrust a rifle into my hands and dragged me deeper into the trees.
Screams and shouts came from behind us. Pleas for help, young men begging for their mothers. The stench of blood and sweat, of piss and shit, hit my nostrils. It was the stench of war. The stench of death.
We stopped to shelter behind a large tree. Petar turned about and fired off a burst of shots. My mind raced. Where was I? What was happening? And how in the name of God was Petar here beside me?
My brother slapped me in the face. ‘Enough daydreaming, Miroslav. I need your help.’
My head spun. ‘Help?’
‘Yes. Shoot, damn you. Shoot. They’re coming.’
I peeped around the edge of the tree. Scores of grey-coated German soldiers streamed towards us, stomping over the bodies of our fallen comrades.
Yes. Yes. That’s right. We were fighting. Ambushing a Nazi supply column.But something had gone wrong. We’d been betrayed. As soon as we opened fire, hundreds, thousands of men poured out from trucks that supposedly held only supplies.
That wasn’t even the worst of it. As me, Petar, and our comrades took shelter in the forest, we heard an unnatural screech. The sound of Stuka dive-bombers. The next thing I knew, there’d been an explosion, and everything went black. I must have hit my head pretty hard. I’d hallucinated a whole war.
Petar shook his head. ‘There are too many. We have to fall back. Come on.’
Together we ran. Dashing and darting among the trees as bullets sprayed all around us. A heady mix of fear and relief filled me. So much I had dreamed. So many deaths.
In my distraction, I didn’t watch where I was going. My foot snagged on a loose root and sent me tumbling to the ground. Petar spun about and helped me up. Then I saw him. A Nazi soldier raising his gun. Quick as a flash, I jerked my rifle up, took aim and pulled the trigger. Click. Nothing happened. No flash of fire. No cry of pain from my enemy. My rifle wasn’t loaded.
The Nazi fired. Petar jerked and convulsed as bullet after bullet smashed into his flesh.
I screamed. No. No. This couldn’t be happening. It was a dream, only a dream. It wasn’t meant to come true. The Nazi turned his gun on me, and I welcomed the chance to join my brother in death. But just as he was about to pull the trigger and grant me sweet oblivion, a rifle fired beside me, killing him instantly.
I reached out to Petar, but rough hands tugged at me as my comrades pulled me away. ‘He’s gone. You can’t help him.’
With my comrades practically dragging me along, we soon made it out to the other side of the forest and hurled ourselves into a waiting truck. As the driver raced to get us to safety, I collapsed in exhaustion. I closed my eyes to blink away the tears, and when I opened them again, the truck was gone.
I lay on the cold ground of Republic Square, dozens of concerned faces peering down at me.
‘Are you okay?’ asked an elderly man in a battered trench coat.
I sat up, shaking my head to clear it. ‘Yes. Yes, I think so. I don’t know what came over me.’
Years later, I walked across Republic Square again on my way to work. Where once had been dust and rubble now stood gleaming new buildings. Father said Yugoslavia was a phoenix, rising from the ashes stronger than ever. I wasn’t so sure. If it was a phoenix, it had been twisted and tainted during its rebirth. While I had a good job working as a supervisor in a munitions factory, too many others weren’t so lucky.
A shriek sounded from the edge of the square. I turned to see a neatly dressed policeman hitting a raggedy beggar woman. I recognised her. She’d been a partisan once but had hurt her leg. Since she couldn’t work, she spent her days begging on the streets of Belgrade. I gave what I could, but it was nowhere near enough.
As I watched, The policeman continued to kick and beat her. I should have just carried on and minded my business, but I couldn’t. This wasn’t what I fought for. It wasn’t what Petar died for. The future was supposed to be brighter. We were supposed to be equals. Free. Not seeking scraps in gutters. Not being beaten for the crime of surviving.
Before I knew what was happening, my legs were moving, carrying me towards the scene of conflict. My throat roared a challenge. The policeman turned to me, his eyes cold and hostile. My mind whirled as I considered what I could say to help the situation. This sense of confusion spread to the rest of my body as my muscled convulsed and my breathing grew faster and faster. I closed my eyes, seeking to calm myself.
When I opened them again, I wasn’t in Republic Square anymore. I wasn’t sure where I was. Some kind of military base, maybe? A barbed wire fence stood at my back, a large but squat building before me. The sky was dark. Fires raged in the distance. Voices shouted in fear and alarm. German voices. Yes. I remembered. This was a Gestapo base. I was here on a rescue mission. Rosa. I had to save Rosa. She was one of our best informers. Nobody got information out of Nazi officers like her.
A wailing scream pierced my ears.
With a newfound sense of purpose, I dashed into the building, following the sound of screams. I raced along narrow corridors, my feet pounding on slick linoleum. Finally, I crashed into a room resembling a twisted doctor’s office. Cruel metal instruments covered every surface. Pliers and tweezers, scalpels and syringes. Most of them looked bloody. All looked well used. In the centre of the room, two white-coated ‘doctors’ towered over a bloodied mess of a woman. A woman I knew. Rosa. Beautiful, elegant, Rosa.
When I saw her… when I saw the things those Nazi’s sons of bitches had done to her, I… I…
Other partisans often spoke of a red fog that claimed them in times of particular stress or anger. I never believed them. I thought it was their way of distancing themselves from their less savoury actions. That wasn’t me. I fought for freedom, not revenge. I sought safety for the people of Yugoslavia, not death for the people of Germany. But that night, something in me snapped. The red fog claimed another servant.
My hands were not my own as I went about my brutal work. I don’t remember what I did. All I remember are the screams.
When the red fog lifted, I expected to see the broken and beaten corpses of two Nazi officers. Instead, I saw a Yugoslav policeman. His arm twisted, his leg snapped, and a pool of blood spreading where his skull had cracked against the ground. I glanced around and saw the beggar woman I’d intended to save still cowering on the floor. ‘I didn’t mean to,’ I said. But she didn’t care. She scrambled away, looking at me not as a saviour but as a demon sent from hell.
They didn’t send me to jail, though they might as well have. I spent my days locked in an asylum. I was sick, apparently. My mind crippled by years of war. Those pigs. It wasn’t the war that did this to me. It was the peace. Their peace.
Every week, I met with Doctor Petrovic. He sat there with his beard and his spectacles and his little pad of paper, and he studied me like a caged dog.
One day, I’d had enough. ‘When will you let me out of here?’ I asked.
The doctor stroked his beard. ‘Miroslav. You killed a man. You won’t be getting out for a very long time. Certainly not until we know what’s wrong with you.’
‘I know what’s wrong with me. You are. You and your bourgeois friends. You stole our victory from us. We bled for you. We died for you. And then you kicked us back into the dirt.’
Petrovic sneered at me. ‘You are deranged, Miroslav. I am as good a communist as you. Better, I would say. I am here working while you are nothing but a drain on the state.’
‘I’m only a drain on the state because you say I am. It’s not for you to say what is and isn’t right. It’s for us, the people. We fought for this country. We deserve a say.’
Petrovic shook his head. ‘You scum deserve nothing but that which your betters see fit to give you.’
Something about those words, or maybe the way he said them, took me back. Though by now I had experienced it many times before, the symptoms of my transportation never failed to leave me disoriented. One minute I was sat in Petrovic’s warm, oppressive office. The next, I stood in a wintry forest amongst snow-covered trees. There were several of us there, wrapped up in our winter coats and woollen hats. We had an important task. A small village nestled in the hills had a little food to spare. Good patriots that they were, the villagers offered up their surplus to help us through the winter. We trekked for hours over terrain so rugged that our feet practically begged us to stop. But still, we kept on.
We shouldn’t have. When we arrived, the village was gone. Instead of houses stood burnt-out ruins. There was no food, not even a scrap of bread. All the villagers had vanished.
Bosko, our best tracker, found a trail leading to the south. We followed it, hoping to find a few survivors. Our hopes were in vain. The trail led us to a small clearing less than a mile away. In the centre of it was a large, shallow ditch, half covered with snow. I wish to God it had been fully covered.
As we looked closer, we saw things poking out of the snow. A glove. A hand. A child’s shoe. It was a mass grave.
As my comrades vomited and wailed, I looked around. Sure enough, nailed to a tree nearby was a sign.
No mercy to enemies of the German people.
I fell to my knees, pounding the floor. ‘You bastards. You bastards. YOU BASTARDS’
When my mind returned to Petrovic’s office, I was already in a straight jacket, with two burly orderlies dragging me away. Petrovic was alive, if a bit shaken. I’d broken his nose.
He never spoke to me again after that. The establishment left me in my room and forgot about me, locking me away from a world that no longer belonged to me. A world that they stole. But I don’t care. In fact, I’m grateful. In here, I have my dreams. In here, the world can be as I make it. The way it was supposed to be. Though my body may be caged, my mind is free.