That is as real as real can be.
I asked them how long they had been married, and she told me it had been about three months. Nenad smiled, patted her stomach and said, “There is already a little Nenad growing inside.” Milena blushed and he hugged her and kissed her on the cheek. We sat on the bank, and she offered me some pastries she had made that morning. She told me her father was the CEO of a paper mill, and her mother worked at a bank. She was their only child.
“You must be quite spoiled?”
“Of course,” she answered and smiled.
“Look over there, Nenad said and pointed at a red VW Golf parked under a large willow.
“This was the present from my father when I finished school,” she said.
“On which side are you on? The Serbian or Croatian?” Nenad asked me before I had time to ask them how they had met and what their parents thought about their marriage. I told him I wanted to remain neutral.
“So you think we should only stand aside and watch?” He gave me one of his sharp looks I remembered from our school days.
“But what can we do? We’re just ordinary people. We’ve no power whatsoever.”
I looked at Milena wishing she would say something, but she seemed not willing to participate in our discussion. She sat with her legs drawn up, her arms on her knees, silently watching the river teeming with bathers. Nenad went on telling me about the crimes the Croatian nationalists committed during the Second World War, and the death camps where thousands of innocent Serbs had lost their lives, only because they were Serbs. I had heard these stories many times whenever I had a discussion with a Serb, and I believed he or she was using the suffering of the Serbs in the past to justify the crimes the Serb army was committing today. I did not want to spoil this beautiful day by arguing with him and nodded approvingly. I knew that we could spend days and weeks talking about who shot first, and we would never agree.
There were a few moments of silence, and I was asking myself how to change this contentious topic to something more pleasant, when he blurted out, “I have signed on as a volunteer.” I thought this was one of his jokes, expecting him to burst out laughing, but his face remained impassive. Milena did not betray any emotion either.
“Seriously, mate, I’m going to war, this week or the next one.”
I looked at him in the eye, still incredulous, shocked. In my mind, he would be the last person to care about politics and be ready to sacrifice himself for a principle. I always saw him rather as a jester and never as a warrior.
“But how can you leave behind your pregnant wife, your mother and your friends, now when you’ve got everything to live for? Do you really wish your wife to become a widow and your child to grow up without a father?”
“You don’t understand. There’re more important things than a family. They’re killing my people at this very moment, my nation, my blood. It’s better to be dead than sit like a coward.”
He did not wait for my reply, but got up and ran into the water, throwing himself in. Milena and I followed him. I swam a few strokes towards the middle, and when I turned my head, I saw them playing in the water. She swam away from him, and he pursued her. When he reached her, he pulled her close to him. She wrapped her arms around his neck and they kissed on the lips, a long, passionate kiss. They disappeared under the surface and after a few seconds appeared again, their lips pressed together. They swam towards the opposite bank, stopping for a moment, kissing and floating, as if they lived in their own world, oblivious of other people and the grim reality. The scene released a flow of feelings in me. I felt an immense loneliness. “No girlfriend for you, man,” said my inner voice. “No kisses or hugs.” But I was glad that Nenad had found love, although I feared for his future. He was throwing himself willingly into the cauldron of hatred, where rules of war and humanitarian international laws did not exist.
Five days later, I went to town to buy some bread and milk. On the main square there were five busses filled with soldiers. Hundreds of family members had come to wish them good luck at their departure to the frontline: mothers, fathers, grandparents, sisters, wives, girlfriends, neighbours. Babies cried in the arms of their fathers, red-eyed wives and girlfriends hugged their men, mothers held the hands of their sons. Old and frail grandfathers, their suits and shirts covered in medals from the previous war, were giving last advice to their grandsons and telling them if they were younger, they would join them at once. Some soldiers cracked jokes, tried to laugh, but their laughter was forced and strained. They knew that in an hour or two they would arrive at the grim place where they could be killed or maimed at any time.
Student or Learner