Letters from the Fire

Sadness in Novi Sad, Serbia
by Alma Hromic

April 10, 2000

Note from the Editor:  In this powerfully written piece Alma Hromic details with sensitivity the aftermath of the war raged by 19 nations against a small country, Serbia. She visited Novi Sad after the war and witnessed the dire conditions of a city far away from Kosovo, the place that was supposedly to be "liberated" from those "subhuman Serbs." Once you read her piece you'll start wondering whether within Serbian "subhumanity" people indeed are, like you, very human. Hromic was born in Novi Sad. However, she has lived outside her native country for most of her life. She now lives in New Zealand. Letters from the Fire, written with R. A. Deckert, is a story of two ordinary people swept up in the extraordinary events of NATO's war against Serbia. It's an E-mail story that will be particularly attractive to an audience that's used to cyberspace. It's a story of transformed enmity into friendship and love. The book can be ordered from this Web site.

Painfully familiar and yet unutterably changed. That was the impression borne upon me as I returned to Novi Sad, the city where I was born, after an absence that covered almost a decade and a destructive war. There are many kinds of damage here, some bitterly obvious (the shattered bridges in the Danube) and others far deeper and more invidious, in the people. They are wary; some are downright paranoid (there are places where you get your knuckles rapped if you take pictures although I had not gone so far as to have films confiscated). Others are merely happy to have survived. They ride a maelstrom of emotions; there is plenty of pride, fear, anger, heartbreak.

I went down to my beloved river one day in the afternoon, when the light was fading into old gold. You drive up to the quay along the main boulevard and up until then it was easy to believe, somehow, that nothing was wrong at all - but there is a certain incline you drive up on that boulevard, and as you do you can see the shape of the bridge in front of you. And that was not there. The sensation is rather like a stiletto in the gut. The bridge lies broken in the river, like a shattered spine. That is the so-called old bridge, the first one to be destroyed; that's bad. The others are, if anything, worse. The railway bridge is so completely obliterated that nothing remains of it at all as though it never existed, and that is hackle-raising. The other, the newest, the white suspension span once called "Freedom" is... haunting and haunted. And yet... in the shadow of that third, wounded bridge, there are outdoor cafes with blaring music; youngsters are playing basketball on the sand. A people, surviving. They have their bad apples, like most barrels. but at their best they are unparalleled. At the worst of times they are capable of knuckling under and finding something to smile about, something to treasure, something to put back into a shattered life. They cross themselves in the orthodox way, and light a candle, and shed a quiet tear into the Danube when nobody is quite looking. And then they shoulder the empty shopping bags, tighten the belt if necessary, hoe a straight row and harvest a basket of inimitably fragrant peppers and large scarlet tomatoes when they ripen, look at the sky and say, "good morning". And mean it.

But living is difficult. This was a country crippled by sanctions long before the jets screamed in her sky. It is a fact of life that pensioners receive half their pensions, dated up to three or four months before, on the first of the month if they are lucky. While I was wandering up and down the quay in shock and shedding tears over the bridges that were gone I was brought down to Earth abruptly by the approach of a painfully groomed senior citizen who had made an effort to be presentable - carefully ironed creases on neat if somewhat out of style trousers, clean blouse with demure décolletage showing an old-fashioned necklace, shoulder-length snow white hair combed and neatly clipped back. "May I please sketch your child?" she asked my sister politely, offering a portfolio of her "work" for inspection. She was not what you might call an artist; her sketches were passable but not exceptional in any way. The tragedy was that this was an ex-schoolteacher of a couple of decades' experience who has found it impossible, like many others, to survive on the crumbs of her pension. So instead of begging she walks the quays trying to look like she does not really need the money... and sketching children of indulgent parents for the equivalent of 50 cents a sketch. The first instinct of us visitors was to offer her some money and we were sharply told that to do so would be an insult to all that she was trying to achieve.

And if it were only the pensioners, that would be harsh but, still, it would affect only one part of the population. But it is more widespread than that. The city of Novi Sad has had some sort of normal water supply restored to both sides of the river, intermittent and unreliable as it is, only a week ago - which is some weeks after I left and a considerable time after it was wantonly destroyed. This in itself does not mean much because the water actually tastes contaminated, and few people drink anything other than bottled water. For a family of four, for example, that means at least 4 litres a day. That's 120 litres of water to be bought in the shop every month. For stretched budgets this is not trivial.

This was a city that spanned both banks of a river; people routinely lived on one side and worked or had business on the other. Since the bridges are down there is no way across the river except the ferries (which are free but inevitably crowded with long waiting times) or the little boats that weave between the two shores every few minutes... at a price. As a child I had been comprehensively terrified by the tales of the powerful whirlpools and the strong current in the Danube; these small boats look like they are walnut shells set adrift into the dangerous water. I crossed the river in one of them, and the feeling of being this close to the Danube that I love and I fear, its dark waters within reach of the fingertips of a stretched out hand, is indescribable. And once again, it adds up. The fare across and the fare back, if the river is crossed regularly, are a major financial drain on people whose incomes just aren't happening.

Petrol stations still stand in Novi Sad but they look suspiciously abandoned. In order to buy petrol you go to the guy down the road of whom you have heard through word of mouth, and you buy what is probably watered down petrol, poured into your tank down a funnel from a plastic jerry can. The abused cars bunnyhop and backfire a lot in the streets of Novi Sad, where the public transport often resorts to running the buses on a more rarefied Sunday schedule to conserve petrol.

The one thing these people will never do is starve. They are blessed with a land on which anything grows, and grows spectacularly. The marketplace is full of home-grown vegetables, honey, cheeses of every description. Some things are suspect - this year's peach crop suffered from the bombs; the watermelons are peculiar this season; some of the grapes from the slopes of the heavily pounded hills of Fruska Gora just over the river are too suspect to actually eat. But there is always the bread - the pride of this wheat country. Anything from pretzels (and I don't mean the dinky little cocktail things in packets, I mean something you can really get your teeth into, crunchy whorls the size of a buggy wheel) to large white loaves; bread is cheap and plentiful. If you can't trust the fruit and can't afford to buy meat there is always bread to fall back on to.

They are surviving, the people. The young, as young do everywhere, have sloughed off the experience and are to be found in tight knots giggling on streetcorners; the older people have new lines on their faces and plenty of stories to tell. In Detelinara, where a "stray" missile blew a hole it subsequently took 120 tons of rubble to fill in, right in the middle of a knot of a secondary school and two apartment blocks during broad daylight, people recall being flattened against the walls of their apartments five blocks away. No casualties are admitted to on this occasion but the locals are not convinced of that. They cross themselves when they talk of the people in the apartments on ground zero, as though they were speaking of the dead. Elsewhere, a father went to urge his daughter and her young family of three children to move from their quayside flat to the safety of his own, further into the city; as he was talking, a missile took out one of the bridges just across the street from them. As the building shuddered the grandfather grabbed the 8-year-old and raced down the stairs from the 10th floor apartment to the safety of the ground; around about floor 5 the second missile hit, throwing him and the child he was carrying down the stairs. They all survived; but the children dream of it at night. So does the young son of a friend, who had the bad luck to be wakeful one night during the war; the mother took the boy out to the nearby quay for a walk. She wound up throwing herself bodily over her son as the missile came hissing in to take out the Old Bridge that night. The boy, who starts school this year, now plays no games that do not involve war and destruction.

Everyone remembers the taste of grit and the smell of petroleum that descended on the town the day after the refinery was subjected to a final sustained attack - not with the peripatetic single missiles carried by jets but carpet bombed by a large aircraft whose drone, approaching, woke many memories of the raids of 50 years ago in the people who had endured those. The barrage lasted for a long time, and the cloud hung over the city for days afterwards. There are photographs of perfectly ordinary side-sunlit streets or buildings with the sky above them a terrifying solid black. Subsequent thunderstorms took on unnatural tinges of royal purple and blue-green, and individual thunderclouds would trade lightning shots with each other instead of throwing lightning bolts at the ground. Even now sunsets are strangely tinged by things that still lurk in the air.

I came home from that first visit to the river, and spent the next week hugging my two young nieces, gathering up the scattered pieces of my heart, and being thankful that the living had not met the shattering fate of the inanimate that I had loved. I know that I - and they - are blessed to have one another; alive and whole, and while inevitably affected by the whole sad affair at least still capable of knowing that we are, always will be, there for each other. But although she spent the 78 days of the bombing campaign as a refugee who did not directly experience the war, having been snatched from the burning, there is a reflection of it in my sister's eyes. She is older. She smiles, she laughs, but there is a mote of sadness in her eye. And although she probably doesn't even realise that she is showing it, it stands out to me. Like black smoke against a blue sky.


This Week's Other Article

The Troubling and Challenging Economic Divide - by Jan Baughman


Resources on the War in Yugoslavia and its Aftermath


Articles Published on Swans Regarding the War in Yugoslavia and its Aftermath

Published April 10, 2000
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