It’s Tuesday, 25 May 2010. It’s a pleasantly warm afternoon and the streets are crowded. A forty-year-old man stops to buy a white rose from a flower seller on the main square. He had arrived just last night in the city where he had spent the best and the worst days of his life. A long journey was behind him, but he had to be here on this special day. No-one welcomes him, no-one embraces him. No-one asks all the questions they usually ask people who have been away for so long. He feels like a ghost; no one recognizes him on these streets any more.
He remembers how the 25th of May fell on a Monday fifteen years ago. It was a day which reminded him then of better times that seemed to have vanished forever. He would daydream of those better times, taking refuge in his memories to escape from the misery he had been enduring for more than three long years. May 25 – Youth Day, Comrade Tito’s birthday – used to be his favorite holiday. From all over the country – which, at the time, he believed was as solid as his love for it – good wishes were arriving for Tito’s birthday, even years after Tito had died. But, fifteen years ago, it was not Tito he was longing for – he had never met him, though he had had a few near misses and still knew by heart all the poems and songs dedicated to the beloved Comrade of his childhood. He will never forget all the acrobatics at the JNA stadium, performed at the central ceremony to mark Tito’s birthday, even though, as everyone knew, Tito’s actual birthday was two weeks earlier. What a genius! Tito even had two birthdays! As a boy, he yearned to meet his hero one day. But before he managed to meet him, Comrade Tito was no longer alive. He remembered vividly the day Comrade Tito died. He was a ten year-old boy; his Grandma and everyone else, including his teacher and all those football players on TV, cried big sad tears. For years afterwards, he felt ashamed that he couldn’t cry on the ‘saddest day’, even though he tried so hard. He remembered how he secretly spat in his hand and rubbed saliva across his eyes, so that it looked like he had joined the others, the whole nation united in crying. No-one noticed his fake tears as everyone was busy with their own real tears.
A year later, in 1981, on a school excursion, he went to Belgrade to visit The House of Flowers and to personally deliver his apology to the dead Comrade, hoping this time his real tears would eternalize his belated grief. But all was in vain – he didn’t cry then either. The stone faces of the guards watching over the marble cube with Tito’s name inscribed in it were too much of a distraction for the tears to flow. Instead, back at school, he wrote a poem that he dedicated to Tito and published in Osnovac, the primary school newspaper. The poem had a far-reaching effect among his fellow schoolmates and teachers, more so than any tears he might have shed earlier. It bestowed on him the deserved status of Tito’s role model pioneer, someone who knew how important the legacy of the revolution, of socialism and ‘brotherhood and unity’ were: schools that had pioneers like him didn’t need to worry about their reputation. And two years later, on the final primary school excursion, he got as far as Brioni, Tito’s paradise island. Among all the African animals in Tito’s own zoo, it was like being on a different planet. And while most of the other kids were staring at the antelopes, peacocks and other exotic creatures, he lingered in Tito’s museum, carefully studying each of the photographs of Tito that were on display. Since he regularly participated in the yearly contest ‘Tito’s Revolutionary Paths’, he knew most of the pictures, as well as the names of Tito’s renowned friends who were also in the photos: Gamal A. Nasser, Indira Gandhi, Haile Selassie, Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor, Ivan Ribar, Edvard Kardelj, Džemal Bijedić, Koča Popović…
He was proud of his knowledge and for being once called “a walking encyclopedia of Tito’s revolution” by Tomo, the history teacher. The pictures on display on Brioni also showed Tito in his standard poses: Tito as a hunter, a handy man, an intellectual, the Marshal, a diplomat, a citizen of the world who spoke many languages… But what he saw that day at the Museum on Brioni was something he had never expected or wanted to see, something that irrevocably tainted his own sacred image of Comrade Tito. It was a blasphemous picture of Tito in his boxers standing in the shallow, turquoise water of the Adriatic. Apart from his baggy, peasant-style shorts, Tito was wearing nothing else. His big hippopotamus belly, fat double chin, flabby arms and short legs made him look like an oversized cane toad rather than the hero from the Sutjeska, Neretva and Drvar battles. From then on, at the age of thirteen, he stopped studying Tito’s life, though he never disclosed to anyone what made him lose interest in his, until then, favorite topic.
Some ten years later, as a university student, he would remember it all, just as he recollects it today. On Youth Day in 1995, he remembered how much he missed his normal life, his friends and his family. He missed freely hanging around with his mates without fear of getting killed by a sniper or cut in pieces by a shell fired from one of the many hills surrounding the city. He remembered how he had loved those green hills once.
Today, he is walking down the same streets, with the events of May 25 1995 playing in his head. At the time, he had already been trapped in the city for three years, cut off from what had been normal, with only memories providing a safe escape from the besieged city, able even to take him to the safe haven of Brioni. He remembers how, fifteen years ago, he needed to share his nostalgia for Youth Day with someone. Dressed in his best pre-war jeans and T-shirt, he left his student dormitories converted into a refugee shelter for some of the thousands of destitute people who had fled their villages to the east. His nostrils ignored the smell of gunpowder and charcoal and chose to register only the smell of flowers, the smell of May he wanted to recall.
Arriving at the city’s main café mall, he was happy that the place was packed with other young people: chatting, listening to music, sipping their cappuccinos. It looked like Youth Day he wanted to have. It was as if the war had been suspended for the sake of this special day. He didn’t have money for a drink, so he roamed the cafés, looking for someone. Hoping he would see her that afternoon. He would only admire her from a distance as he had been doing for months. She must have come from somewhere. Probably from one of those burned-down villages along the river Drina? He didn’t know. What he did know was that every time he saw her he would feel the butterflies in his stomach. He never found enough courage to talk to her. He wasn’t one of those with large self-esteem and a lot of money, sitting with their always new girlfriends in front of cafés, drinking their coffee for hours and waiting for the war to end. He couldn’t remember when he had last tasted a cup of real coffee. His last deutschmarks were spent long ago and coupons wouldn’t buy luxuries like coffee. But it felt good being there, among all these people, anyway. Does anyone still remember Comrade Tito? – he wondered. In his mind he was playing a conversation with her, telling her all about his Brioni secret.
Sunken in his velvety inner world, he was on the stairs to the upper floor of the café, wondering where that blond hair was tonight. And, then, a sudden flash! A blast, ripping the café apart. Being thrown through the air. Tinnitus spreading through his bones. Smoke. Screams. Blood. Bodies. Bodies. Parts of bodies… Smell of burning. Smell of dust. Of blood. Burned flesh. Young people dismembered, like the country. War, after all, comes to a halt for the sake of no-one, not even for Comrade Tito.
Today, he is here again. Here, at the place where Youth Day was killed fifteen years ago. He reads the names inscribed on the white marble on the corner. Too many names to count. Too many dates of birth to register. But just one date of death: 25 May 1995. His name is not on the plaque, but he knows his youth was killed and his life stopped here that day. He discreetly lets the white rose drop on the street in front of the café. For her.
In the early evening hours of May 25, 1995, using a 130mm towed artillery piece positioned on Mt. Ozren, some 25km west of Tuzla, the Army of Republika Srpska shelled a gathering of young people in the part of the city called Kapija. 71 people were killed and more than 200 wounded. All the victims were civilians and the majority were between the ages of 18 and 25.