‘Come on, get up! Wake up, come on, it’s started again! Move! Let’s go!’

The blast shook the house. Mother pulled me out of the bed and down the stairs, clutching my sister in her arms.

Another blast.

We stopped in the stairwell. There was a short stretch of terrace we needed to run through in order to reach the cellar door. We waited, then started running between two blasts. She held me tightly behind her and shoved me inside the cellar, where another stairwell led us deep under ground, into the dark. We were already safe when we heard the third blast. My aunt appeared at the bottom of the stairs. The candle in her hand cast a shivering light entrenched in shadows. We went down. I was still dazed from sleep. Wasn’t this supposed to be over? How will I go to school tomorrow? Why did they start again? I could not ask anything out loud. Instead, I looked at the bleak expressions of the adults around me standing in a half circle around a couple of burning candles. My great-uncle met my gaze and read the fear.

‘I will get a gun and go into the trenches! Our children had had enough!’ he snapped, rising unexpectedly quickly onto his old, quivering legs. My aunt and my mother, two sentinels at his sides, just put their hands on his shoulders, steadied him and soothed him into taking a seat, back on one of the overturned plastic crates we had been using as chairs throughout the war.  He was in his late seventies. The fluff of snowy white hair trembled with his anxious, angry movements as he spoke.

‘Four years! And they want more? In the middle of the night! Unannounced! There weren’t any sirens! Cowards!’

I could hear the explosions in the background. They were growing more distant and less regular. My gaze roamed around the small, cave-like room and only then did I realise that we were not all down. My father had not yet arrived home. He would be somewhere outside, walking, in the open. Shelters, sandbags, and barricades had been removed. Where would he go? I was shivering in my thin pyjamas, standing barefoot in the coal dust. I scanned the darkness and realised that my grandparents were not there either. I could feel Uncle’s warm, protective hand on my shoulder. My mother and aunt were talking quietly, foreheads almost touching. While giving her my sister, who was wrapped in her blanket and wearing a cap, my mother said: ‘I’ll see where they are. They might be sleeping. And I’ve got to get you something to put on your feet,’ she said glancing at me and already turning toward the stairs that led up to the terrace.

This was one of those moments I had imagined and replayed in my mind numerous times during the four years that we had spent in that cellar. She would go up, alone, then we would hear the deafening roar of a falling grenade and when we came to the surface, the house, and my mother, would be gone.

‘I’ll come with you,’ I said, tears stinging my eyes. I could already hear the blast, feel the house shudder, see the piles of rubble and her hand, covered in dust, protruding from under a large cement boulder, like they had found our neighbour in the ruins of her house about three years ago.

‘No, you’re not going anywhere. Stay here and don’t make trouble.’ 

I could see her back vanish into the darkness up the stairs.  She had always been like that, matter-of-fact, straightforward, in control. She worked in the state hospital and she went to work every single day of the war to take care of the wounded and the dying. I used to make sure to wake up before she left and say goodbye every morning. Overcome with immense feeling of loss, I would watch her back as she went briskly down the street. There were people who would take care of me, but without her, I would be alone in the world. The same feeling clutched at my chest as I watched her climb the cellar stairs. I remembered the day when a grenade hit the museum across the street and a piece of shrapnel lodged in the forearm of our neighbour’s wife. One of her veins was nicked and blood came out spurting with every heartbeat. They could not get her to a hospital in the midst of a brutal attack. Luckily, my mother was home. I still remember the commotion. Screams were coming from the open cellar door. I was taken up, to the garage reinforced with sandbags, but somehow I managed to sneak away, urged by curiosity. I peeked through the cellar door. These very stairs had been spattered with blood, walls smeared. I could hear the wailing coming from one of the underground rooms. I crept downstairs and stood at the entrance of the room to the right. The sight of my mother, practically covered in blood will linger in my mind forever. She was compressing the wound on the woman’s forearm, using cloths and tea towels as makeshift bandages trying to stop the bleeding. She didn’t speak, she just focused on the wound, as if the arm had been detached from the body that was desperately moaning, wailing, and calling for God. My aunt and grandmother were holding the woman in a vain attempt to calm her down. Somebody pulled at my arm. My great-uncle led me to the other underground room, closed the door and made me sit down on one of the improvised beds made of a mattress laid over a neat pile of logs. He took out a deck of cards and sat opposite me.

‘It’s going to be fine. Let’s play.’

I heard the door closing. She was out. Shots and blasts had become sporadic and more distant. It seemed that they were subsiding. I looked at my bare feet numb from cold. I kept trying to focus my thoughts. What does this mean? Do we now, after we had had a taste of freedom, return to the life under ground? What about school? Am I going to get killed running across the open streets and hiding behind crumbling walls on my way there? I knew that many kids had died while going to school or playing outside. I had seen blood-red snow, overturned sledges, a glove without a hand in it. The siege of Sarajevo had taken a monstrous toll. I had already experienced what it felt like running from one building to another, from one sandbagged barricade to another, listening to my pulse beating in my temples and expecting the shots and the darkness that comes with them.

Aunt cleared out another crate and told me to sit down. She was walking around, constantly moving and rocking my sister gently in her arms. I could barely sit any longer. The pit in my stomach had grown too deep. I was alert to every sound coming from upstairs, hoping to distinguish my mother’s footsteps. The shots had died down by then. There was something ominous in the silence. I expected it to be shattered by the most ferocious blast. Any moment now. But nothing happened. I focused my gaze onto the floor, my ears perked, listening to the breathing of the people around me, to my aunt’s soft footsteps, my sister’s munching on her pacifier, water dripping in one of the dark corners.

Suddenly, there was a commotion upstairs. Somebody was running down. I could hear voices. We all stopped, raised our heads and gazed at the dark stairwell leading to the cellar door. Maybe she had found them all dead or wounded upstairs and was now scrambling for help. The worst, bloodiest scenario was flashing, rewinding, and fast-forwarding in my mind and I knew that my thoughts were shared by the others because they had turned pale, anxious, expectant. The door opened abruptly letting in a stream of light that splashed down the stairs. Mother was grinning.

‘It’s fireworks! Just fireworks!’

‘Are you sure?’ asked my aunt incredulously.

‘Yes, Grandpa and Grandma were on the balcony, watching. We’ve missed out. Come on up!’ 

She turned the lights on and we all squinted and slowly got up. My legs could barely carry me up the stairs. I trembled from the inside and my feet were numb from cold. I stood on the terrace, between my mother and my old uncle, and I stared at the sky where the last embers of a dying firework slowly dissolved into the darkness. It was beautiful, yet every shot made me flinch.


© 2016 Erna G. – All Rights Reserved

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