Milena's story

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The Independent Culture
On the patch of grass where I found 18-year-old Milena Malobabic's body last May, they have now piled concrete and steel girders to rebuild the hospital in which she was killed. And a truck stands on the spot where we found her exercise book of poems to her lover, handwritten in ballpoint pen, with the words "I love you Dejan" in English.

There was a silver earring still sparkling in her left ear that day, and her hair drifted over her dead face. Beside her, below the pine trees, lay the remains of her brothers and her mother, whose legs had been sheared off by the bomb that Nato had dropped on the hospital just after midnight on 31 May. "A military target," Nato had called it at the time. "Collateral damage." No apologies.

I saw the bodies later, in blood-stained sheets, dumped in a truck along with at least 14 other civilians. Milena's poetry was as poignant as it was childish - a girl's infatuation turning into a woman's love - and I could not bear to throw the notebook, scorched by the fire of the Nato bomb, back on to the rubbish tip. Who was Milena? Who was Dejan? How had she come to be in this remote hospital in the mountains, 10 miles from the Bulgarian border? Why had she had to die?

Yes, her life must have been a tragedy. But I could never have guessed, when I returned to Surdulica last week, how heartbreaking her story would turn out to be. Her name now blesses the marble war memorial in the town square, along with those of her mother, Bosilka, and her brothers Rade and Milenko. But as they told me in Gringo's coffee shop - where Milena once worked - the family were not hospital patients but refugees from Croatia, driven out of their home in the Krajina village of Vrgin Most by the American-backed Croatian Army in 1995.

"Everyone knew Milena, because she was so pretty and so in love," Radivoje Jankovic said. He runs Gringo's and he too had gone to the hospital after the bombing and found a notebook of Milena's poetry. In it, she had written of her love for Dejan Iskrenovic: "It is all so hopeless."

Radivoje sighed: "She was very young, and Dejan is married with two children," he said. "He, too, found a book of her poems to him. It was a love affair, but Dejan never made promises to her. Dejan would try to calm her by saying: `Milena, I am a married man with two kids. I can't give you anything.'

"But from her side, it was a very deep love. Everyone in Surdulica knew about it, and still Dejan grieves. He runs a radio station with his brother Predrag. And every day he plays a song called `Milena'."

I found Predrag in a two-storey house with a transmitter on the roof, playing pop songs for the people of Surdulica. Dejan was at a wedding with his wife, he said. Somehow, I didn't feel like going to look for him. Milena had worked here too, it turned out, spinning discs for the two brothers. "Milena's family were refugees and she was deeply shaken by this experience," Predrag said. "Her father was missing; most probably he was killed in Croatia. When they reached Serbia four years ago the Malobabic family were settled in the old school. But, with the war, some soldiers moved in to the school - so they put the refugees in the hospital."

The war still troubled Predrag. Milosevic, he said, had made a terrible mistake "because Nato's power was so overwhelming and we couldn't fight them". But there was no doubt in Predrag's mind that Nato had intended to hit the hospital. "I was a soldier and saw them earlier bomb the barracks in the hills," he recalled. "A plane came down low and first hit the building where the soldiers slept. Nato was very precise. Of the 30 buildings in the compound, they hit the dormitory. Only then did they go after the warehouses, hangars, kitchens, power plant, the ambulance. Of course, the soldiers had all been moved out..."

Where to? I wondered. And I remembered finding, some distance behind the hospital, a series of narrow fox-holes, the kind soldiers dig to avoid bombs. Predrag didn't want to talk about Milena's private life - and I could see why - but he was awed by her death. "I used to see her sometimes, standing at the hospital gate beside the pine trees," he said. "All her immediate family were wiped out. Her family no longer exists."

It was Radivoje who offered to take me to her grave. It lay next to a cemetery of marble and stone memorials to the great and good of Surdulica. But Milena was buried in a pauper's grave, a cheap, low cement wall surrounding a patch of mud topped by a row of equally cheap wooden crosses. "No one had any money, so the brothers were buried without coffins. But we had enough cash to buy coffins for Milena and her mother." Milena lies between her brothers. "You know, they told stories of how she would work all day in the fields at her home in Krajina, singing with her brothers. The villagers would say: `There go the Singing Malobabics!' But her father wasn't killed. He was in mental asylum in Zagreb. It was her greatest sorrow."

Before the bombing, it transpired, Milena tried several times to go back and live in the old school that was once her home. "She was so afraid," Predrag said. "She was claiming she was going to be killed at the hospital. Everyone heard her say that. The day before she died, Nato dropped bombs on either side of the hospital - on a water-supply plant and a pig farm." But why was Milena so certain of her imminent death?

Radivoje took me to see the pig farm, now a blitz of smashed concrete and wood. "People started to say that Nato wanted to hit the hospital," he said. "And poor Milena, she just wanted to start a family and have a life and some land and have children there. She was sitting outside on the night of her death, on a seat in the hospital grounds. We all stayed outside when we heard planes. But that night, we heard no aircraft; Milena went indoors just 20 minutes before Nato bombed. A few days after the family were killed, a certificate arrived from the government, giving them land on which to build a house. But you need to talk to her best friend, Zvezdana. She has not recovered from Milena's death."

When we drove into the yard, Zvezdana Gagic came to the door of the hovel- like school where Milena had once lived. She broke down in tears the moment I mentioned Milena's name. An older woman walked up to us. "I was at the hospital that evening," she said. "But a friend of ours kept insisting we sleep in his apartment. That night, I saw Milena sitting outside and I wanted to tell her to come along with us. But I felt uncomfortable because the invitation came from someone else. Something inside me told me to take her with me. But I didn't..."

Zvezdana's face was wet with tears, but she wanted to tell the true story of Milena's fate. "She was a very brave girl. In Krajina, when her family were being thrown out of their home, a Croatian gunman threatened to cut her throat because she couldn't stop a baby crying. She comforted the baby. But the day before her death, when Nato hit the buildings near the hospital, I remember Milena saying to me, `All of us are going to die', because the army were in the hospital. There were lots of soldiers there - they were sleeping in the building that was hit. But they were on the ground floor and only one of them was scratched by the bomb. The soldiers had the refugees above them, on the first floor - and so the refugees were all killed.

"Can you imagine this? They took us from this school because they said that there would be soldiers here, and then they go and put us in a place where there were even more soldiers."

Zvezdana waited for several seconds to see if I had understood the awful implications of her words. When she spoke again, it was as if in a dream. "Milena was a strong girl - she quarrelled a lot with her younger brother, who was 16. He was a menace, a very vivid character, but he had a good soul. The family man she loved most was her brother Rade. She would swear on his name. Her mother, Bosilka, had to be mother and father to all of them when her husband left for the mental institution. The bomb cut off the back of Milena's head. Isn't life a cruel thing?"

How could I disagree? Abandoned by her father, chased from her home by Croatians, betrayed in love, used as a human shield by the army of her own Serb people, then slaughtered by a Nato pilot. Milena Malobabic. Could there be a more powerful symbol of the end of our terrible century?

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