Pro Memoria

Returnee from the Last Gate
That night, 29-30 April, our traditional friends rocketed the General Headquarters in the center of Belgrade. He, a guard on duty at the City Civil Protection Office, rushed with the team to save the wounded. Carefully calculating the time, the killers came back twelve minutes later and bombed the same place. He lost both legs and the ground underneath. His chances were slim, but he survived. Today we can learn from him how to fight for life and meaning, how faith can move the mountains

By: Mišo Vujović
Photo: Personal archive

That spring morning of 2000, on the anniversary of the NATO bombing, we found ourselves in a pub on Kvantaš in New Belgrade, where we were brought by the hung-over dawn directly from Bata Peugeot from Novi Sad, in whose restaurant we had spent the afternoon and all night. We drank celebrating life, pouring out drop by drop for the unfortunates who had been left in the ruins of buildings, bridges, markets, kindergartens, hospitals, maternity wards. For heroes of the sky and defenders of the border on Košare and Kosovo and Metohija drenched in blood. The forgotten and snatched like the Kosovo peonies whose blossom reminds us of the time when elegant death was paid with life and when the nobility was adorned with the crown of chivalry and the halo of immortality. The Serbian army is one of the few whose crowned heads, from the Nemanja to Despot Stefan Lazarevic and Petar I, walked before to their warriors. It was written as a stimulus and as a warning.
”It is all pathetic statistics”, the well-fed lot of washers of blood from the windshields of NATO’s flying killers will cry. It is the same mindless mass of frenetic NATO supporters whose welcome to Solana, Henri Lévy and other Serb-hating advocates of the killing of Serbia will remain recorded as Olympic records in the discipline of obedience to criminals and treason.
And what are the emotions, what is the wounded soul, what is poetry? What is a nation without myth? Without the epics and tragedies on which it built its peaks!? Isn’t life in the Balkans pathetic!? Pathetic created somewhere far away. Without horsemen, knights, swords or rifles. Here, at our doorstep, the biggest polygon of the death industry has been made.
”Everything here is twilight. The country is veiled by the darkness of force and by the force of darkness”, Ratko Bulatović observes over cigarette smoke, asking me if I knew where they bury the amputated parts of human bodies.
”I wish I knew where they buried my legs. So that I can light a candle for them. To light a candle to the second half of the body in the other world”, my good Rale goes on absentmindedly, more to himself.
Zoran looked at him with eyes filled with tears. They did not know each other before Ratko was wounded. I met them in the summer when Ratko started walking again. From that moment until Zoran’s departure on 16 September 2006, on the day of the parade of the first cadets of the Serbian Army, we were inseparable.
”You know, the longer I know Ratko the more I like him. There are few people who can carry their misfortune so elegantly, as our Rale. He is a man for literature. He is a living hero of our harsh time in which every day is history”, he spoke sadly that morning when we parted with Ratko, my journalist role model and teacher Zoran Bogavac, a rare journalist with the soul of a child and the wisdom of an ancient elder.


”On one side is strength, power, money. On the other, are we, alone, like a straw in the wind. We stopped the devil’s force. Fallen angels in black shirts from a cuckoo’s nest spit death. They hired hospitals and funeral companies for an indefinite time. We are yet to feel the magnitude of this misfortune. The sewed will fill the cemeteries and empty cities and villages”, Ratko was talking that morning like a blind prophet staring at the sooty ceiling.
”God Almighty knows who will win. Dark or light. The unease throws me down, the truth lifts me up. The body gives in, the soul feeds it with hope for God’s justice. I feel like a stranger in this world that does not understand me, but I understand even less this empire of lies, deceit, frauds and illusions. I only rely on the truth. God-given, unique and indivisible. The only one. It is my faith. My symbol of faith and vow. They denied me my legs, but will not do this for the truth. I will bear witness in this world and before the heavenly jury. The altar of truth is the only court whose scale finely measures justice as strong and weak. If not so, if the truth does not triumph, everything loses its meaning. Even our existence.”
And the truth is sometimes incomprehensible. Cannot be grasped by the mind, like hands catching an eel from Skadar Lake.
They fought us cruelly, I thought while listening to Ratko, hating both them and the government and the people who celebrated victory over NATO forces after seventy-eight days, believing that the fall even more difficult than the bombs and the mindless act of great powers was coming. At that time, I did not even dream that we would break ourselves up and break up the country like a stolen car in a car dump. I could not even imagine that morning, while burning of the desire to see the end of Milošević and his kind, that the new governments would act as occupiers and that the country would soon become a protectorate in which various interest clans would rule, that along with the state the boundary between reason and insanity would also disappear, just like every moral boundary collapsed into shamelessness.
Nearly two decades have passed since the conversation in the pub. A lot has changed. Everything has become generally acceptable and justified. The prostituted truth reigns, no one is even trying to retract the lies. People are withdrawing into their shells. Those who have no shelter somewhere in the village or in nature withdraw to themselves. Self-isolation becomes a mass phenomenon. Unfortunately, many did not endure, they have stepped into a premature eternity, alone or with the help of NATO radiation.


I find Ratko in the village of Jalovik near Vladimirci and Šabac. He is pruning young fruit trees. He is engaged in the construction of a new substation, the replacement of outdated power line pillars, road repair, assistance to the village school for almost two hundred years. There he moved the library. He writes poems for children, dedicated to his granddaughter Teodora. We remember our encounter in the ER. Those days, professor-priest Radovan Bigović, my late friend, had an urgent surgery. He held the affixed bags in his hands, slowly walking to Ratko’s room to support him in day-to-day fight with terrible pain.
”How is it, Rale?” I asked him trying to establish some kind of sense in the chaotic emotions I barely restrained.
Today, after two decades, he answers this question into the camera of Nebojša Petrović, the magician of moving pictures, whose skillful eye captures every detail of Ratko’s life drama.
”My mother helped me get back on my feet. Just like he gave me life through motherhood, her eyes and pure prayers returned me from the gates of the other world. Instead of the soup I sipped through a straw, with my eyes I pulled the strength from my mother’s eyes and her cry: ’Hold on, Rato, you are strong!’ That shook up my dying will. I was in the white light, in some interstate, on the road, or at the crossroads.
And while I was dying and leaving this world slowly, and as I listened to my old mother softly crying, mourning the son who was parting with this world in front of her eyes – I thought: ’You will fight this, Ratko, if not for anyone else, then for your mother, the poor sacred mother’.”
The story of Ratko’s suffering, struggle, life I published in July issue of magazine Duga.
”The smoke gushed out from the wounded building. On the other side of the street, the building of the Federal Police was bombed again. Ratko did not manage to lift the radio station, the country earth burst into flames again.
Exactly twelve minutes after the first stroke, the sowers of death hit the same target with another few tons of the destructive metal.
The guardians of humanism and democracy calculated exactly how long it takes for rescue teams to reach the location...”
Ratko Bulatović did not manage to hide, he remained buried under debris. Those days, I learned in the Press Center of the Yugoslav Army that he was rescued by certain Marinković brothers. One of the brothers was employed as a driver on ”BK Television”.


Ten years later, on his fiftieth birthday, 15 September 2009, Ratko Bulatović, in a hairdresser’s salon, met a nurse who was on call in the ER that night.
”I was sitting on a chair beside her, noticing that she was looking in my direction very often. She looked at me somewhat shyly and at one point she excitedly asked if I was Ratko Bulatović. After affirmative answer, she continued almost overwhelmed:
’Sorry for talking to you like this, I am Tanja, I work as a nurse in the ER and, believe me, thirteen years of hard work I had not had a case more difficult than yours.’
’How?’ I asked confused. Whenever ER is mentioned, I feel the creeps. Images from the most difficult days of my life come before my eyes, painted with wounds, pain, blood, bombs...
’That evening between 29 and 30 April’, Tanja continued, ’when they brought you to the ER, I took you out, together with a colleague, from the red Lada of the fire brigade in which they brought you wounded.’
For a moment we both fell silent, surrounded by grave silence. I looked at her in disbelief, aware that new knowledge would further deepen some of the questions to which I still have no answers today, aware that even the greatest philosophers and knowers of human mind have not deciphered them. I searched through various scenes in my head unsuccessfully trying to remember that voice, its tone. Many voices that I heard then hovering over my mutilated body echoed in my head. I couldn’t recognize Tanja’s voice, but I felt that every word poured into that melodic tone was true. Even her face I could not place into any detail of my suffering. I looked at her blankly trying to remember anything at all, voice, image, hair, uniform, hands...
Confused and unprepared, interrupting that unpleasant silence, I asked her what her name was.
’My name is Tanja’, she repeated looking straight into my eyes and continued with some strange firmness in her voice, which no longer vibrated with excitement. ’I will never forget you!’
Again, a pause, sigh filled with disbelief.
’How come you don’t remember anything’, she said with her pupils wide open.
’That morning, while my colleague and I were taking you out of the red Lada, something terrible happened, something I can never forget. That had not happened to me before and I hope it will not happen in the future... I pulled out only half of you, because your legs stayed in Lada, jammed between the front seats.’
I left the hairdresser’s salon dazed and confused, not knowing who I was or where I was or why I was, or how I was...”


After the accident, about a dozen ”rescuers” contacted Ratko Bulatović, including Marinković brothers, and a certain person with the same last name with a plea that he finds job for his son.
The most painful of all was that, on that night, I lost not only my legs but also my wallet and my gun.
”I woke up in intensive care tied-up. I could not speak, from the tubes in my nose and mouth. My whole body was numb. I pointed with my head that they untie my arms and asked for a pencil and paper. ’I have my legs?’ I wrote to a doctor who just nodded, put the paper in the folder and went out. When the nurse untied my second arm, I lift the blanket and went numb. At that moment I was not sure if I would accept the fact that I was an invalid. That I do not have my legs.”
”Sometimes I wonder why I actually left Lipovo!? I don’t know a place where flowers smell better and where grass grows faster than in my Lipovo. I don’t know a place where dawns are clearer and mornings cleaner than in my Lipovo. I don’t know a place where you go to sleep more easily and where the dawn comes faster than there. I watched a herd on Sinjajevina, bathed as a non-swimmer in the lake.
My friend Raco Mašanov waived his arms and legs trying to swim to a small island just ten yards from the shore. Suddenly he sank. He was drowning before my eyes. I jumped without thinking and managed to, by waving my arms, somehow grab his hair and drag him to the shallow. That is why often I say that no one has drunk more lake water than me.”
Ratko Bulatović was born almost 60 years ago in the village of Lipovo, as the fifth of the seven children of honest and poor villager Vukota Bulatović, who fed his large family with miner’s bread with nine crusts. Mother Krstinja, a housewife, was the pillar of the family. The father, always in the field, gave everything to them. In the summer, Ratko would watch the herds on Sinjajevina, bathing in Sava’s water, lake on the top of Sinjajevina, dreaming that one day he would finish great school, give relief to his mother and father. He finished primary school in Lipovo, grammar school in Kolašin, Faculty of Law in Belgrade.
”My life was really hard. Already as a pupil I had to work, as a student I did various jobs through the youth cooperative. I married as a student, my daughter Jelena was born when I became a soldier. Some are destined to go easily through their entire life, and someone must work hard for everything. Life teaches you to respect natural laws, to help people. My job was not at all easy. Responsible, unrewarding, but my motto was and remained: ’Respect the law and stay true to your soul.’ And I really tried to look at all the circumstances, to reconcile that human, life moment with the legal one. Now, in these long, sleepless and painful nights, I analyze, rewind the film, put the pieces together. Now I have all the time in this world, all my life I ran, worked day and night. I was taught that things taken from others are damned, and that only what you make yourself is blessed. Since a very young age I am used to walk upright, even without both legs...” he spoke into my voice recorded immediately after leaving the hospital.
Pause. Long drag off a cigarette...
”This phantom pain is killing me. Sometimes it seems I will go mad. Even these narcotics for pain do not work, I will not take them. Imagine, all I need now is to become a drug addict” – he tries to overcome the pain coming from his left foot with a joke. The foot that, on that 30 April, remained in the abyss of the single-mindedness of the New Order.


Ratko Bulatović (Gornje Lipovo, Kolašin, 1959). He finished elementary school in Gornje Lipovo, and gymnasium in Kolašin, graduated from the Faculty of Law in Belgrade. He worked in state administration bodies, Vračar municipality, Belgrade parliament, Ministry of Trade, Tourism and Services. The Aggression of the North Atlantic Treaty against Serbia in 1999 finds him working as Assistant City Secretary of State for Inspection Affairs in Belgrade. During the war he was also Assistant Head of the City’s Civil Protection Staff. In the night between 29 and 30 April 1999, while performing his duty, he came out to help the wounded in a rocket attack on the General Staff. Twelve minutes later, the killers returned and bombed the same place.
Seriously wounded, Ratko Bulatović lost both of his legs ”high above the knees”.
The prognoses were slim, but he survived.
He was decorated with the Order of Merit in the fields of defense and security, of the first degree. He wrote the book ”Merciless Angel” (2011). He lives in Belgrade, with his wife Sofija, daughter Jelena, son Jovan and granddaughter Teodora.


Phantom Pain
”It seems to me now as if someone hooked wire through my thumb and is pulling to the left, as if to pull it at any moment, while the other toes would go to the opposite direction. It is an excruciating pain, for as long as the center in your head does not accept the fact that one part of the body has disappeared forever. Simply, something you do not have hurts.”


A Confident Step in the Head
”I was always disgusted when, at the traffic lights towards Batajnica, I would meet several war invalids from Bosnia who begged. If I had any money, I would always give them. That image, ”The People Will Reward All This”, always made a strong impression on me. I would think about those poor guys all the way to Novi Sad. I felt some strange restlessness, fear, as if I was sensed that this would happen to me. I was not sure at the first moment if I would accept this cruel reality. But God eventually gave me a confident step in my head!”


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