When we passed through the city centre, I told the driver to pull over. I went outside and asked some passersby where I could find a shop that sells artists’ materials and equipment. Four did not know, but the fifth gave me the directions. We drove there and I purchased watercolours, paper and two paintbrushes. It cost me a fortune, but I wanted to surprise Jelena and make her happy.
The streets of the capital were busy with traffic, but as soon as we left the outer suburbs behind us, the road was almost empty. Beside a few military vehicles we saw only tractors and other agriculture machines, driven by exhausted drivers. I was thinking about the coming operation and how to prepare my soldiers mentally. There would be casualties. Some of them were going to be killed. Some would lose their limbs, become blind or paralysed. They would tell themselves it was bad luck. They needed just one step to reach the goal, but they had failed. They would console themselves that at least they were alive. But I knew what was awaiting them. They would receive attention in the beginning of the post-war years, and then they would become invisible, a burden for society and politicians, who would rather see them dead. And many would be dead, killed by their own hand. The sweaty general had said that within 48 hours a breeze would turn into a hurricane. I would keep my soldiers in ignorance until tomorrow morning. Let them enjoy fully these few hours of peace before mayhem starts.
We arrived in the village at sunset. Compared with the greyness of the capital it appeared like a paradise, with all those flowers and fruit trees heavily laden with ripe fruit. The rays of the sinking sun fell over the greenery like a painter’s brush, making them glitter and flicker against the shadows. The soldiers in the orchard seemed to be in a party mood. Pop music was blasting from the radio, while some soldiers danced around it. A group of them was playing football with a deflated ball, using plum trees as goal posts. A barbecue was in progress also, as well as card games. There was no doubt that while I was away, they had bought moonshine from the villagers. But I had decided to turn a blind eye, at least today.
I walked into the house, my heart beating from excitement. This was my second home. I knew that I would return one day when the war was over to meet these brave women again, and tell them how much their home meant to me during this time of madness. The house was completely silent. I opened the kitchen door but there was nobody there. I walked up the stairs, but after four steps I noticed traces of blood on them and on the wooden handrail. My body shook with fear. It seemed to me that my own blood in my veins had evaporated. I hardly could move my legs and did not want to continue, but I forced myself to walk on. There was more blood on the landing and the wall. I carefully opened the door of Jelena’s room and a gruesome crime scene hit my eyes. Walls, floor, bedclothes, furniture and the door were splashed with blood. Tufts of human hair lay on the pillow, crusted with dried blood. Broken vases and trampled flowers littered the floor. There were no bodies, but all those marks of meaningless violence made me howl like a wounded animal. I bounded down the stairs, then through the house and stopped in front of the soldiers. If I had a weapon in my hand I would have probably shot them all. They had not deserved to live.
“Bastards!” I yelled. “How could you have done such a thing to me? You are worse than animals. You bloody murderers!”
I was yelling at them, insulting them and threatening them. But they sat impassively, not looking at me, but through me as if I were a ghost - a casual visitor in their cruel world in which humanity did not exist anymore. Their wicked behaviour had become a natural state of mind in this irrational world in which almost everything was permitted, even the most disgusting, perverted acts. In their minds, I was not a figure of authority and their commander, but a spoiled little boy who was too sensitive to be a soldier. I was completely broken. I bent my head and walked away to the edge of the woods. I sat down on a beech log and started to cry. The red ball of the sun was sinking slowly making the village and surrounding hills even more beautiful. If my two angels were still alive, I would have praised God and its creation, but now, I hated him. As I reeled in my rage I tore the gold chain with a cross from my neck and threw it into the thicket. I pulled out the picture of the Virgin Mary and ripped it to shreds. I could not delude myself anymore. I could not believe in lies and expect salvation which would never come.