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The Paradox of Loss

My relative Rada came to Belgrade from the mountains of Montenegro, to look after my father, a widower. Before that time, Rada cared for her sheep, children, and grandchildren?a huge, healthy, emotional, and intelligent woman who loves nature, and, as she puts it, all other living creatures.

Then she entered my father's apartment, a technological pyramid built by an engineer hypochondriac for an asthmatic, disabled doctor (his wife, my mother) who hated people and germs. Rada suffered a severe identity crisis. Windows didn't open, air came through special filters. No sunlight, but an artificial system of buttons that shed light by schedule.

Nature was banned in the name of survival. Rada settled down with the TV and, after a few days of watching it intensively, she started crying. I asked her, Do you want to go back home? No, no, she answered firmly, I dream of sheep every night and I sleep well. It's that news that makes me cry. I never knew there was so much evil going on in the world.

Rada's paradoxical loss is an example of a Serbian proverb: If you have nothing, you'll have nothing to lose. Much like that CNN postmodern view, that makes us screen heroes or primitive aborigines, who live or suffer like movie stars, but only for one day. The problem with these new wars and new losses (when they are not on-screen) is that they are not at all exciting. They are rather boring and very alienating: you find you have no true enemy, no real causes, not even a definite loss, except for your own life... an unimportant detail in the global game of survival.

I remember a refugee camp in Macedonia, in the middle of the bombings of Yugoslavia and the huge Kosovo refugee crisis: one million living under one roof called the sky....After surviving the state terror in Serbia, the ethnic cleansing and shelling, an uncertain trip to nowhere among armies that wanted them dead, or out, and armies protecting them....

After the survivors took their first deep breaths and found they had some food, drink, and medicine?their real problem was how to spend the day: nowhere to go, nothing to do.

I visited a refugee camp of war victims fresh from Bosnia, people deeply traumatized by torture, the loss of homes and loved ones, in a well-kept camp near Budapest, in 1995. I was interviewing a rape victim among tears and hysterical laughter, when all of a sudden, composing herself, she asked me: Now wouldn't you like a tin of really good Italian sardines? I'm sure you haven't had them for some time. And a true Italian coffee?

I was really happy to taste those goods. When I offered her money, she said, Keep it for yourself, cash means nothing to me here, we have it all for free and we have nowhere to go. I will also give you some shoes for your daughter....She was delighted to help me with sardines and shoes, since she knew very well that we in Serbia were living on the black market of humanitarian aid....Her own loss was complete.

During the NATO bombings, after the customary alarms, we gathered and watched the sky instead of our TVs. During daylight, however, out of our wits with boredom, everybody in Belgrade was painting the walls, the fašades, rebuilding the flats, furniture....A worker came to help me adapt my flat for bombing conditions. That is: move the furniture out of the way, so you won't trip over it when the lights are blown out. Place all the beds in one room, so the family can share the fear and, perhaps, the eventual death. Take care of heavy objects that might fall and crush you during a detonation.

This guy asked me shyly for a glass of water. I gave it to him and he said, Thank you thank you so much, please can I have another one. Sure, I said...and he asked for another, and another...until I realized that he came from the part of Belgrade that had been without water for days.

So I said, Well, take a shower please; I will give you some bottles to carry. But he said, No, I bring home the money, my wife brings the water, while the children find the bread. But if I drink enough, I will be OK for a day or two.

This shows that workers are the first to firmly respond to the needs of a new economic and social organization. My own family life was not so well organized, since we are some kind of late-hippie clan with spoiled, loud, Serbian children who grew up in cozy isolation. Personally, what cracked my nervous system was the fact that nobody wanted to accept the change in the rules. The new rules of life during wartime were simple enough. Buy candles during daylight, before you need them. Cruise for cigarettes, bread, bottled water before dark, before you get hungry, thirsty, and crave a smoke. But nobody unplugged our fridge, computers, and TV before the power surges of the detonations. Nobody wanted to hunt in the dark for our missing household articles.

I was cruising the Net with my laptop and batteries, writing my war diary, to be sent off into the world on a regular basis...assuming, that is, that the electricity or phone lines would work. Light came and went randomly from one neighborhood to another; the same for phone service. While writing my diary and emailing it, I could generally use the same electricity to fry up some meatballs?lunch for my spoiled, uncomprehending family. Power often came in spasms of five minutes or less, not enough time to finish either text or meatballs. A friend's flat might well have electricity, but there was no petrol, no bus, no way to get there on foot before their five magic minutes of light had run out.

Chasing electricity posed another problem. Light was given to Belgrade's priority centers, which were also the so-called "legitimate military targets." I never knew before how many police or army points existed in my city. The army was camping all around us, in schools, in hospitals, in the parks....The whole of Belgrade was a legitimate military target.

Soon the city reorganized into very small blocks. I realized that, between two alarms, I never had time to leave my flat and reach my parents. They were old, and helpless without their maid, who was living with her own family, completely traumatized, at the outskirts of Belgrade, bombed on a regular basis. Therefore, I traded parents with a friend of mine who had her own parents in my neighborhood. I brought them water and bread, corn flakes and candles, or meatballs. She did the same for my parents.

Babies and old people were behaving better: They loved the collective lives, intimacy with strangers, and playing with shortages. You can give a baby boiled grain in water and say, This is an Arab specialty, couscous. Teenagers and working people, by contrast, were really pissed off. Every corner of the narrow curvy streets of Belgrade had household chairs on the pavement where young guys were drinking beer or smoking joints. After a few days of general military paranoia from the draft, the drafted soldiers were openly joining the teenagers....I was afraid of those wild groupings at first, afraid for my teenaged daughter, it was anarchy in the streets....A friend of mine said: I am afraid of crossing parks: what if I see my husband on a bench kissing some girl?

My daughter admitted afterwards that, every day, she and her best friend would find some bus with petrol, then ride the whole route, looking for destroyed buildings and gawking for dead bodies....It broke their tedium.

The alarm routine was our firmest timetable, and in wartime it is very important to have one. NATO was really precise in targeting. They did it twice a day for months at exactly the same time. Whenever the planes didn't fly and the alarms failed us, we really got nervous. We couldn't switch to the usual candles, taste the food we hunted for that day, exchange our war gossip...move around the basements with heads down as if it were raining, scuttle through our restricted blocks....We sat up till dawn waiting for an alarm, hoping to get it over with. Some people took sleeping pills at the first alarm, hoping to wake at the all-clear. We even lost our fear of the detonations; we opened our windows to save the glass.

My father had been preparing himself for this catastrophe all his life. This was his instinct as an engineer and World War II survivor. He had supplies of all sorts of tinned food and tools. Unfortunately, he couldn't prepare himself for his loss of a male traditional role. With my mother sick, he had to cook and wash all the dishes. He did this under her severe control. As the state TV building exploded in flames, littering their street with corpses, my mother screamed at him because he'd dropped a pan.

Like everyone else, we watched CNN in order to see what was happening to us. The NATO briefing was a high point of our day. We generally had electricity at that time, because the family flat was quite close to the military secret police. When my husband failed one day to come home for the NATO briefing, I worried...and I was right, for he'd spent his time with an opposition journalist who was assassinated a few minutes after they parted. Naturally, we saw that on TV, too.

Like old-fashioned patriarchal families, in wartime we had new rules of reticence and silence. Even my daughter, the youngest of us, never said she was afraid. She merely said that the planes were too low, that she had to close her windows. I knew she was afraid of the noise, but couldn't tell her that, any more than I could tell her that I was afraid of exploding shards of glass. I managed to get invisible tape to brace her windows, for she found the colored tape embarrassing. After all, she was a teenager; a war always takes place in specific worlds.

I remember that I scorned my poet friend when, years ago, he told me that he could only read properly in his own room, in his own chair. At that time I read in buses, on beaches, holding a book in my lap under the table during boring conversations. Reading was impossible in wars and camps. Every sound was like a spoken word, bearing more truth than the words in books, which seemed like gross lies....Writing was easier and everybody did that, besides renovating the flats, houses....You can also raise flowers and plants in wartime: from marijuana to salads. When torrential rains frustrated the NATO pilots, from the cracks of the walls from explosions, huge edible mushrooms sprang....what a joy for all of us.

You do not watch football matches or sports....We sat on the terrace and watched the cockroach fights. The bugs came out of nowhere in huge numbers, with strange patterns of cockroach behavior, actually ap-proaching people, as if begging for something....We couldn't frighten them. Nobody dared step on a cockroach, not even the most daring children. They became our entertainment, like some night club on a different planet; we took part in their way of life.

Wars are an anticonsumer's adventure. Like those hippie castaways who spend months on treasure islands, low on clothes, food or water, hunting for love and nature....Yet death becomes more natural than it ever is during peace. As time goes by, the more I become aware of the horror, the trauma that we all went through, almost without real argument.

Every night I carried my handy refugee kit to the shelters. Contents: first aid, passports, some jewels, a phone book, a notebook, a pencil, a bottle opener as my self-defense weapon, and plenty of pills for eternal or temporary sleep. That kit is still ready in my closet. I can leave my country, in war or peace, in five minutes flat, and that feels good.

This article in Whole Earth may not be entirely useful for future catastrophes, but then, that's the way. The advice we got from email friends in besieged Sarajevo didn't apply to our daily situation in Belgrade. The Sarajevans had a list of how to cope with elementary needs. In Belgrade we had it all and yet nothing, especially no future. Every war has a different code as an artistic creation; every war has its own language.

If wartime happens to you some day, it will be different from this. You yourself will be a different person from what you are today, without your paradoxical aura of things and needs, your alienating civilization of postmodern capitalism....It happened to my relative Rada the other way round, but it was still traumatic: to suddenly have a TV, instead of always living without one. They may tell you certain things that sound useful: such as to fill the bathtub with water, so as to have some handy when the taps stop running. Try that in real life, though, and you'll flood your neighbor downstairs.

If all the medicine is gone, just don't get sick. Crazy as it sounds, that sure works best.