Novak Djokovic, the No. 1 tennis player in the world at the moment, recently reminisced on the traumatic experiences he had in his early childhood, during NATO's bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999.
The Serb, who was 12 at the time, remembers being "horrified" during the war, struck by a feeling of hopelessness as he hid in the shelter of his grandfather's apartment. In a heartfelt interview with Graham Bensinger - which was shot in his grandfather's Belgrade apartment - Novak Djokovic opened up about his troubled past.
"In 1999, when we had the bombings, we lived in an apartment 500 feet from here," Djokovic said. "We would come to this building every single night of (the) bombing because our building did not have a shelter."
"It's crazy when you think about the amount of people that would come here and hide. It's definitely the same as it was 20 years ago. The whole building, with [people from] 50 apartments, will be here. People would just hide in corners and try to find a safe space," he added.
It was a horrifying experience for everyone: Novak Djokovic
Novak Djokovic also spoke about the mental toll that the war took on him and his family, and how strange and scary everything felt to him at the start. Eventually, however, they started accepting the explosions as something normal, which was disturbing at a whole different level.
"It all feels so different now. I don't remember most of this, I was so small, feeling unsafe and disturbed emotionally. Unaware of what the next moment brings to me, my brothers, my family. It was a horrifying experience for everyone. Particularly for children. We did not understand what was happening," Novak Djokovic said.
"After a month, we just stopped reacting to it. I remember celebrating my 12th birthday party at the tennis club where I grew up and during the happy birthday song, there was a plane flying over," he added.
Novak Djokovic says the trauma 'stays with me'
Novak Djokovic, who is well-known for his humour, looked extremely somber during the chat. He recalled a nightmarish experience from the bombings, pulling out a disturbing memory from the recesses of his mind that he believes will never truly go away.
"It was the first or second night of bombing. We were just about to fall asleep, when a huge explosion happened. My mom stood up very quickly and hit her head, falling unconscious. We were crying because of the bombs, because mom was not responding. Luckily my dad managed to help my mom get back to normal," he said.
"We collect our stuff and go out. It was so loud, we couldn't hear each other. My dad was carrying my brothers, my mom was carrying other stuff and that's when I slipped. When I looked towards the building, I saw the planes flying, dropping things and the ground shaking. That is one of the most traumatic images I saw in my childhood. It stays with me."
How Novak Djokovic found a way to forgive and move on
Novak Djokovic admitted that the bombings made him extremely angry in his growing up years, and that the anger even helped him at the start of his career. However, he added that he has now found a way to forgive and move on, because that resonates with his "philosophy of life".
"I used that anger in a way that fuels me to be successful in tennis. But that changed. I really don't have this emotion anymore. I will not forget what happened, but at the same time, I don't think it's good for anybody to be stuck in the emotions of hatred, anger, rage," he explained.
"How is it possible that big countries come together and bomb small countries. Helpless people on the street, and just destroy everything. I couldn't understand it. There is no justification for war. That made me and everybody in Serbia very angry. Those scars are still present with everybody.
"But I worked on myself, on those emotions, to forgive them. You need to forgive. How can you be fueled more by anything else but love? Love is forgiveness. That's my philosophy of life."
Novak Djokovic has diligently followed a philosophy of love and wellness over the last decade, and it has led him to becoming the most dominant player in tennis. It's truly surprising - and commendable - that that philosophy of peace was born out of such violent and horrific beginnings.