The killing of a math prodigy
by Nada Dragic
Translated by Gordana Simovic
Edited by Jared Israel [emperors-clothes]

  • col·lat·er·al
    col·lat·er·al (ke-làt¹er-el) adjective
    collat., coll.
    Situated or running side by side; parallel.
    2. Of a secondary nature; subordinate: collateral target damage from a bombing run.
  • A question from emperors-clothes: If Sanja Markovic's death was secondary, what was the primary target?


"Don't be crazy, mum. Who's going to drop bombs on a small town?"

These were the last words Sanja Milenkovic spoke before she left for a walk Sunday, May 30, 1999. No ordinary day. Day 68 of the NATO attack on Yugoslavia.

It was a sunny, busy shopping day, Pentecost. Young people strolled on the streets, some went onto the local bridge they liked so much because it offered a magnificent view of the Morava river and surroundings. The roar of warplanes cut short the life of the bridge and of those residents including Sanja Milenkovic.

Sanja and her family, whom she loved most in the world besides math, led a quiet life. As a gifted child, who had been given many awards, she came from her native village of Donji Katun near Varvarin, to the capital, Belgrade, to enroll, without an entrance exam, in the Mathematics High School. There were, as publicized in numerous interviews, no insolvable math problems for her. She had won many Yugoslav and international prizes, and she was preparing for the Mathematics Olympiad and surely for another of her trophies of world importance. She could explain everything logically or in terms of mathematics. The New York Times and the Washington Post wrote about our Sanja, a Serb girl from Varvarin, describing her as the greatest math talent of today, killed by NATO bombs.

Sanja was very close to her mother Vesna. Vesna was 21 when she gave birth to her first child. At fifteen, Sanja was a pretty and bright girl. "Sanja was like younger sister to me; she was also my best friend," says Vesna.

When the NATO aggression against our country started, Sanja traveled back to Varvarin to be with her parents. Vesna and Sanja's dad, Zoran, believed Sanja would be much safer in a small place in the country where there were no military installations. But NATO targetsincluded hospitals, schools, kindergarten, roads and bridges. Cynical news of "collateral damage" came out of NATO headquarters every day. So Sanja was one of several thousand ordinary Serbian people who died of missiles targeting even insignificant bridges in small towns throughout Yugoslavia.

One of them was the bridge in Varvarin. It led to the local Christian Orthodox church and therefore innocent civilians, who happened to be on it that sunny May day, on the Christian holiday of Pentecost, were killed. Sanja and two of her friends were among the victims.

It was a little past noon. The shopping day attracted more crowds than usual. The memorial liturgy was in progress at the Church of the Holy Mother at that moment. No one knew that up in the skies there were warplanes that already had the bridge in their sights and were ready to rain down death. In the 68 days of the aggression, people were used to being bombed by night. So, very few believed that the 52-year old bridge that was the town's lifeline and that did not straddle any of the major transport routes, would be picked. It is a three-hour drive to Kosovo and Metohija from there. It was exactly five minutes past one p.m. Vesna and Zoran were fixing lunch for their daughter when they heard a strong blast nearby. Vesna's mum immediately picked up the phone to check if it was still working. The telephone lines ran across the bridge. The phone was dead. She dashed into the car and headed for the bridge. She looked through the window searching for the loved face.

The river bank was deserted. The crowd had rn away fearing another strike. Vesna stood alone on the bank, calling out her daughter's name. And then she saw Sanja. She lay on a broken slab of the bridge, motionless. It was much later that she was told what had happened and how Sanja died. As the first missile hit the bridge, its footpath collapsed into the river. Sanja and her friends fell into the water, as well. Sanja was unharmed, while one of her friends had her arm broken and the other a leg. Like the rest of the pedestrians, Sanja could have reached the bank, but she chose to help her friends. Ten minutes after the initial attack, the NATO pilot came back to finish his job. The explosion had cut the bridge in half. The religious service in the church stopped and everyone rushed to help the wounded. The explosion stopped them in the process. Another seven people were killed. Sanja was struck in the back by a shrapnel. They put her into an ambulance. Her eyes were open for a few more minutes. Her father encouraged her to fight for her breath. A couple of minutes later Sanja's eyes closed. "I knew it was for ever," said her dad Zoran, "I was hopeful, nevertheless." The fight for Sanja's life went on in hospital, where she was injected with adrenaline shots. But death got the upper hand. Sanja lay motionless in the pink T-shirt that she had put on that morning. She was 15 and a half. The following day Jamie Shea held his regular press conference in faraway Brussels, as he did every day .

Sanja Milenkovic will not dream out her dreams. However strongly she felt about numerals and the logic of life, there can be no explanation for her premature death. Sanja's teachers and peers believe that, if it had been according to the laws of mathematics, Sanja's name would have been predestined to become famous and be inscribed in international yearbooks of the greatest mathematicians.

Those who died early and whom we were indebted to during their lifetime oblige us to remember them always. The name of Sanja Milenkovic will always be in the minds of those talented like herself. That was the reason why a Fund, named after her, was set up. The Fund serves to award scholarships/fellowships to young gifted secondary school students and university undergraduates in the field of math and technical sciences. The Fund was established at the initiative of Mr. Zivadin Jovanovic, Federal Minister for Foreign Affairs of the FR of Yugoslavia, and Mr. Milutin Mrkonjic, Director-General of the Country Reconstruction Directorate.

Sanja's granddad, Ljubomir Milenkovic, was appointed an honorary member of the Fund.

Twenty young people were awarded scholarships from the Fund on November 5, 1999. In addressing them, Minister Jovanovic said that this Fund was set up to keep the memory of Sanja alive and by keeping it alive to demonstrate our attitude towards the highest achievements and greatest successes in learning and studies. The talents now financed and yet to be financed by the "Sanja Milenkovic" Fund will keep alive the memory of a youth cut short prematurely and of wishes and dreams left unfulfilled.

They will also keep alive the name of Sanja Milenkovic.

[Note from emperors-clothes: At the suggetion of a reader from California we're inquiring about how people outside Yugoslavia can contribute to this fund.]

**** [emperors-clothes]