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While I Wait: A Journey of Recovery

Memories of Life in a Besieged City

Copyright W.C.Turck 1996Fact One: Bomb Shelters are Scary

“Walking through shit and not caring at all,” Olja sung into my ear to a tune of some old-fashioned folk song, making me laugh out-loud and earning me a scolding from the lady living on the first floor.

We watched as Mama and Radovan tried to break through the door that led to the shelter unsuccessfully. A few minutes later Djole, the architect whose apartment was on the ground floor, appeared with the key. After a long shower of very descriptive swear words and heavy grunting, three of them together pushed open the sticky door. Leading with a flash light Djole entered a tiny administration room that led to the shelter door made of heavy steel. Since the area was underground, it was safe to turn the lights on and so we did.  

The room was tiny, with just enough space to house a couple of chairs and a bed. A tattered, decades old gray and blue carpet covered the floor and a strong smell of mildew permeated each corner. Straight ahead, was a massive steel door that led to the bomb shelter.

“It looks like an entrance to a submarine,” Olja said. Indeed, the door opened by a large turn-wheel, similar to those seen in the movie Hunt for the Red October. It took the power of several men to open the heavy contraption, and we hesitantly entered a tiny hallway that led to another narrow space before it opened into a large square room. To the left of the hallway there was a row of six fully equipped bathroom stalls, which we were relieved to see.

“Thank God! I was already envisioning myself crapping in a bucket surrounded by people, all of whom stared at me. You know, just like in those movies about prisons,” Olja proclaimed loudly.

Chuckling nervously, most neighbors enthusiastically agreed as we proceeded deeper into the shelter. I felt as if we were in a bad horror movie and a deranged, half-human creature was about to descend upon us with a chain-saw or something alike. Thankfully, Olja’s constant silly remarks helped lighten the mood and reduce the fear and anxiety we all shared as we moved forward.

The large and windowless room, adjacent to the bathroom was made of concrete. Dust and cobwebs covered all surfaces, and I began to gag from the smell of dust, mildew and something old and rotted. I was relieved to see that the rotting smell belonged to a dead rat sprawled near door. In the left corner there was a large, cumbersome looking machine with an electric motor, a handle bar intended for manual use and several pipes leading into the wall.

“So there is the air-filtration system,” I heard Djole say. A marvel of Yugoslav technology, this generator was designed to pump clean air into the shelter. In case that there was a power outage, the crank-handle would ensure that the motor was running. Unfortunately, a couple of unruly and bored children would break the handle within next few days, making the generator useless. Until then, we gladly accepted this small assurance that we would not suffocate, all crowded in a couple of  tiny, concrete cells without any contact with the outside world save for the small, battery powered transistor radio cradled gently in Mr. Halil’s arthritic hands.

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