VRPOLJE, Croatia – In Tomislav Salopek's hometown Vrpolje in Croatia, residents refuse to believe Wednesday's reports that the 30-year-old surveyor appears to have become the first Croat to be beheaded by the Islamic State group.
"No, no, no," Goran Blazanovic kept repeating as he sat in the local cafe filled with pale and quiet guests who were switching from one news portal to another on their smartphone screens, looking for signs that would give them hope that the reports were mistaken.
"Nothing is proven," Blazanovic insisted. "We hope that he will come back home to his wife and children."
Salopek, who was working with France's CGG Ardiseis, was abducted on July 22 in Egypt and appeared last week on an Islamic State group video as a hostage demanding Egyptian authorities to free "Muslim women," a term referring to female Islamist prisoners detained in a sweeping government crackdown following the 2013 military ouster of the country's Islamist president.
Then on Wednesday, IS sympathizers circulated an image on social media that appeared to show Salopek's beheaded body lying on desert sand with a black IS flag and a knife planted next to it. The picture or the information about his execution could not be officially verified.
Croatians had hoped diplomacy and reason would prevail and that their citizen would return home to his family, far away from the conflict he had nothing to do with.
Addressing the nation, Croatian Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic urged people not to expose their children to the gruesome image and said "we can not 100 percent confirm it is true but what we see looks horrific."
Croatia's President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic also spoke of "moments of deep uncertainty," and her country's determination to continue to search for Salopek as long as there is a "glimmer of hope."
That is the only message Vrpolje residents are willing to repeat for now, filtering out from the story facts they don't want to hear: that his kidnappers had promised to kill him if their demands were not met and that Wednesday's photo after the alleged execution showed a person wearing a beige jumpsuit resembling the one Salopek had worn in a previous video.
"We hope those reports are lies," said another resident of Vrpolje, Ilija Funaric.
In front of Salopek's home, reporters were waiting in vain for some family member to come out. A family friend, Stipe Bilokapic, appeared only briefly to say everyone inside is in shock and on sedatives.
"The shock over what I saw on the Internet is too strong. Beheaded. We as believers will rise above revenge and hatred," said the local priest Ivica Krizanovic who has been organizing prayers for Salopek.
"It is still not officially confirmed and we will pray for Tomislav this evening as we do every evening," he added.
So like before, residents sat in the church benches with heads bowed, eyes closed and rosaries wrapped around their palms, repeating "Mother of God, we are begging you."
Except this evening, most of them cried.