Grandma went to town yesterday and never came back. What happened? I don’t know.
Alma tells me not to worry. She says: “Don’t be scared, Nenad”. But I’m not scared: I am not a child! I am just a little sad. She is my older sister. She is 11 years old, she is four years older than me. I am the latest addiction. She is always nagging me about the fact that she is a big girl because she was born in 1984. This long number is the first she taught me to read on the school wall: “Sarajevo 1984”.
It is an old rusty billboard with a skier on it, and I have never seen that place, but mum says it was beautiful before the tragedy occurred.
Daddy too left one day and never came back. But he was fighting in the war. We were at war as well, but children, mothers and grandparents did not hold a rifle.
This morning the Chetniks were all around the houses, laughed and waved at each other with three fingers. They burnt the barn while, Alma, mom, my older brother Azir and I were escaping in the woods. This time, the geese did not escape because they had already been stolen the first time the Chetniks had come to the village. On the dusty road, I saw the big turtle, like on TV. It creaked like the pit wheel, it groaned loudly, and it was bigger than the men who were walking by. Azir called it tank, but I am not sure it is: on my grandpa’s tank you could load hay, here there is no room.
Then we found ourselves at the fountain and someone said we had to set off for the city. We took few belongings: I only have my rucksack with my grandpa’s chess, and my favorite sweater, even if it’s very hot. Dad would have taken us by car, as if we were going to the Mosque, instead we all had to go by foot to Srebrenica.
I am a little hungry and I am worried about grandma, even if Aziz says we will find her in town.
Srebrenica is the largest city I have ever seen. And there are many people in the streets.
We don’t know where to go, so we ask around. Azir sees Nemanja, a boy he knows, and asks him if he has seen grandma. He is huge, like a giant, and he answers badly. My brother then says “Nemanja, you bastard”. It is a bad word, I know that, but he is a big boy, and if he has said it, there must be a good reason. My brother is skinny but he is not afraid of anyone.
We walk to the square. On a half-ruined building someone has cancelled the writing “This is Bosnia” and has written “This is Serbia!” nearby. They were wrong twice: that is the library wall and it is written on the door.
We can’t stay here. We have to go north, to the factory. Over there, we’ll find the soldiers with the blue berets and they will give us something to eat. I am still hungry.
So, we are still on our way. Mum asks me if I want to be picked up for a while, but only little girls and children are picked up. I am tired but I want to walk. I ask Alma about Nemanja. He tells me that he and Azir always quarrel at school, because Nemanja never wants to let him play basketball, on the pretext that he is short and incapable. But my brother, even if he looks younger, is 14 years old!
The sun is hot in the sky, and our procession has neither flags nor imam. I can’t see the clouds, but a storm is coming somewhere: the thunder we hear is scary.
“When will we arrive? Are we already there?” I keep asking.
Along the road, the electricity wires fall on the asphalt and on the wall of a house someone left a drawing: a head without skin, without eyes nor hair, and two crossbones. I have already seen that drawing on the iron box at school, just smaller.
In the woods by the road walk men with rifles. They go up the hill, towards the storm. Mom comes close to me and takes my rucksack. I don’t want her to take it from me, but she hides the money inside the chessboard and then gives it back to me, without other people noticing. The smell of smoke is everywhere.
In the end we get to the factory, and there are so many people there. There are a lot of trucks parked along the road. I also see the blue berets. They don’t look like soldiers: they look like big children, with fair skin and even fairer sparse hair under their helmets. They all wear the same clothes. Real soldiers have a beard and long hair.
We are tired, extremely tired. They don’t let us in. We sit on the grass with the others. A soldier brings us some water, to quench our thirst, and a few beans: better than nothing. Azir wanders around but Alma and I have to stay with mom. “Nermina, Nermina” a woman nearby calls her. If I call her this way, she gets angry. She does not want it: I have to call her mom, always. The women speak softly, I don’t understand what they are saying.
A group of girls arrives. They must have quarreled because their hair isdirty and their clothes are ragged, too much even for having worked all day in the fields. They don’t cry but it is clear that they aren’t happy.
The Chetniks go up and down the road. They have trucks. It is said that tomorrow we are leaving by bus. I no longer see the road, now: there are too many people, they hide everything. Children cry, women cry, but I am big boy and I don’t want to cry.
When the darkness finally comes, the warmth leaves. We can see the fires and smell the smell of meat, but the smell alone is not enough to satisfy our hunger. “Try to sleep”, Alma says, and that’s what we do. We are squeezed, I am stuck to a woman who smells of fear. I would have liked to take out grandpa’s chessboard and play, but I could not move, and maybe I dreamt but I don’t remember what.
The grass is wet and the light of the new day has put out the fires. Alma is awake and has said “pray God”. I did so; but I don’t think it’s the same God of the Chetniks, and who knows if the blue berets have their own God. In the factory, there is much movement. We are in line down the road, like an anthill.
The buses come: they are big like beasts with huge bells. The soldiers let women and children get on. Many people discuss and don’t want to get on. I hope grandma has already got on, even though nobody has seen her yet. They will take us to Tuzla. It’s a long journey. Alma says it is even farther than Sarajevo. But luckily, we don’t have to walk anymore. Now, it is our turn to get on and a soldier asks Aziz how old he is. My brother doesn’t answer and mum says “twelve”. This is a lie, I know that; but if Nermina has told it, it means that it is necessary. Even the man thinks he can’t be 12, because he slaps mom in the face. He wants to hear Azir’s voice and asks for his age again: he doesn’t trust a woman.
I think I am scared now, now that Azir tells the solider “pig” and throws himself against him. The man hits him on the mouth, and my brother’s blood soils Alma’s veil. The Chetnik stretches his arms, takes Aziz by the shirt, lifts him up and, on the soldier’s arm, I read a number: 1389. Azir’s red lips scream fourteen. “Fourteen, you pig, fourteen!” And I think I’m very good at numbers.
On the bus all seats are taken. They push us towards a truck. To get on, we have to climb a stepladder. Mom screams, Alma cries. I am careful not to lose my rucksack. We are squeezed inside the truck, and above it a cloth waves like a kite.
The Chetniks speak, the blue berets listen. The sky is filled with the smoke coming from the trucks, while we leave the factory.
Dust flies everywhere: only sweat keeps it. It’s the first time I have made such a long journey. It is always sunny, but that bad storm follows us closely.
I did not understand when we arrive. It is a very large house, and inside I see the baskets hanging from the ceiling. I wish I had asked my brother to teach me to play basketball but it is not possible: I had forgotten Aziz was gone.
We sat there, on the soft colored floor, and my stomach remembered being hungry.
The nurses do not wear a veil here. They came and examined the children. They gave us some apples and I peeled them in order to eat them. I played for a while with the peels, and then I ate them too. It was hard, but eventually I managed to sleep.
Today I have found out that people can speak our language here. It is a surprise, after such a long journey. However, not everybody can.
Some people came to see how we are encamped. There is a black-skinned man who takes pictures and a guy who speaks for them. They want to ask mom a few questions.
“Where do you come from? Where do you hope to go?” Mom caresses Alma and looks somewhere else. I think she does not want to talk at all.
So the man smiles at her and asks if we’ll go back home when the war is over.
Mum shakes her head.
Why did she say no? Why? I will come back. At the end of the war, I will take the right path and I will go home. I will look for Azir, I will find grandma, dad will be at the village, and I will not forget them.
The Serbian-Bosnian army managed to enter Srebrenica on the 11th July 1995. Bosnian males from 12 to 77 were separated from women, children and old people, apparently to conduct evacuation; they were actually killed and buried in mass graves. According to official data, there were more than 8,372 dead.
Translation by Valentina Ornaghi (edited by Irene Tossi)
 Nenad: name whose meaning is “unexpected, unhoped-for son”.
 Srebrenica: Bosnian city under the protection of the UN, with three Dutch companies of blue berets.
 1389: symbol of the Serbian identity and of nationalistic pride, the tattoo refers to the year 1389, when the Ottoman army defeated the Serbs at the Piana dei Merli.