`Will I be dead or will I be alive?'

Fear and uncertainty haunt Belgrade girl

April 26, 1999|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BELGRADE, Yugoslavia -- Tamara Trikic is proud of the fortress she has created for her parents and brother, the tape on every glass pane in the apartment, the two mattresses piled against a window, and the living room transformed into a bedroom for the whole family.

And on nights when she feels brave enough, the 13-year-old joins her father on their sixth-floor balcony and takes a front-row seat for NATO's air war against Belgrade.

"You hear boom, boom," Tamara says in a rapid-fire voice. "There are red and white flashes. That's when I'm scared. I don't know who will die under those bombs. The planes are flying by our house, and I think my name is on a bomb. And I think, will I be dead or will I be alive? And if I live, what will I tell my children and my grandchildren?"

These are strange days and nights for the Trikic family and millions of others living in daily fear of bombs dropping from the sky. They never planned for an air war and never imagined that they would work their lives around the shrill shriek of nightly air raid sirens.

They know all about London during the World War II Blitz and Sarajevo during the 1990s siege when shells devastated a city and the ideal of a multiethnic Yugoslavia. But when the bombs are falling on your city, even in the sporadic attacks launched by NATO, it is a chilling experience.

"This is no movie," says Tamara's mother, Zorica Trikic. "This is for real."

The Trikic family is like many others here, decent and hard working, trying to create a brighter future for the children even though Yugoslavia has been shattered by sanctions and now war.

Zika Trikic is a 40-year-old lawyer with a trim beard, easy manner and sly wit.

"What's the difference between Las Vegas and Belgrade during the bombing?" he asks in a mood of gallows humor. "Both have bright lights, big sounds and gambling. But in Las Vegas, you can get a quick divorce."

His wife is a 39-year-old psychologist with auburn hair and a fiery spirit. She has worked for years with children from all parts of former Yugoslavia, trying to boost shattered spirits and rebuild bridges among all communities.

"War, for me, is like a personal affront," she says.

Tamara is tall and expressive, learning English and Russian. And 22-month-old Nikola has the run of the apartment, climbing on the dining room table to eat chocolate or barreling along in his red plastic car.

But when the air raid sirens sound, it's Nikola who comes to a quick halt, tears welling in his eyes, panic scarring his young face.

"It's just a truck horn, dear," his mother coos as his father lifts the boy and gives him a hug.

The boy relaxes and gets back in his car.

The parents ponder what the war is doing to them and their children. They love this apartment perched in the middle of the city, with views of the Danube and the countryside beyond.

"We bought this apartment for the view," Zorica Trikic says. "When the days are clear, you can see for miles and miles. But in one night, what you got pleasure from turned into your worst nightmare."

Now, they can look from their balcony and see bombs fall and buildings burn.

"It looks like a man working with meat, cutting this place apart piece by piece," Zorica Trikic says, looking at a charred high-rise in the distance.

The family will never forget the opening night of the bombing March 24. It was the shock that came when war finally arrived in their city.

Tamara was panic-stricken, crying and shrieking. Her brother thought it was a game. Her mother was angry. Her father was analytical, trying to decipher what was happening.

"We started rearranging our lives," Zorica Trikic says.

Tamara started taping windows and moving furniture. She packed her bags with pictures because she had heard from so many children in Croatia and Bosnia that war had taken their treasured memories of growing up. If the family had to flee, she wanted to be prepared.

"She wanted to keep those memories," her mother says.

On the third night, there was a blast at a chemical plant, and Zorica Trikic, a woman of steely nerve, broke down and cried.

"I just thought, `They are going to kill us all,' " she says.

But now, she transforms her fears into jokes, claiming that all these bombs and all the potential environmental damage is turning her son into a "super-Serb, filled with uranium."

The family still has fears but has grown accustomed to the sirens and the bombs.

"Each day brings more and more casualties, but we care less and less about the alerts," Zika Trikic says. "I'm not adjusted to the bombing -- just how to act."

His wife says the bombing is just one more problem to befall a people who have endured hardship and heartbreak through Yugoslavia's bitter breakup. They are just getting by now, purchasing only necessities such as food and gas, and waiting for war's end.

"You can't kill a dead man," she says.

But what does bombing do to children?

"They can miss," Tamara says of the NATO warplanes. "But I am satisfied that they're like a surgeon -- very precise. I don't see it as a bombing. I see it as a big surgery. They're operating, and their patients are dying slowly."

Zorica Trikic hears her daughter's words and interrupts: "They are learning a lesson I would not like them to learn."

She adds: "If you're precise, you're allowed to do what you want. For children, it's like a video game, and I don't want that."

"But it is only a video game," Tamara says.

Yet even a 13-year-old realizes how deadly serious the bombing is. Unlike some of her friends, Tamara and her family have chosen to remain in their apartment instead of heading to the bomb shelters that dot the city.

"I am afraid of the shelters," Tamara says. "It would be a slow and painful death if you were bombed. I would want to die fast."

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