This a true story from 1992. It took place in the beginning of the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina, part of former Yugoslavia, in a town called Prijedor. Bosnian Muslims were the victims of an ethnic cleansing, committed by the Bosnian Serb Army of Republika Srpska.
I’ve read this story a dozen times before. The main character in the story is a close relative of mine and went through some hard times during and after the war. All the people in this story are part of my family and it tears me up writing this. I’ve chosen to respect their privacy so I have altered their names to keep them anonymous.
It’s about Ahmed, a young man born in Prijedor, Bosnia and Herzegovina. In 1992 the war in former Yugoslavia erupted. Over the course of 3 years (1992-1995) an ethnic cleansing of Bosnian Muslims, also known as Bosniaks, took place in the whole region of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Ahmed was 28 years old when it all began. He is a Muslim and has fallen victim to the Bosnian Serb Army of Republika Srpska.
Slobodan, also born in Prijedor, is one of Ahmed’s best friends and was a Bosnian Serb. He lived across town but the war separated them because they had different beliefs. Ahmed was hiding after his village got attacked by the army. To cope with the fear that he had to endure, he decided to write a letter to his friend, not knowing if he would ever receive it.
I have buried my father yesterday. He hung himself in the early morning. He couldn’t bear the insecurity and fear that was amongst us these past few days. On the 20th July, they invaded our houses and my father and I were waiting at home for them to pick us up. The army has passed our village and took all the men with them. Luckily, they have skipped our house. We sat there waiting, we weren’t allowed to go outside without permission. They sent us back inside and told us to stay put, that we would be safe there. The night fell and we were all sleeping in the same room; mom, dad, my sister Medina, aunt, little Vedo and me.
We were woken up by gunshots around 1 o’clock and Medina noticed that dad was gone. I checked the whole house, the outdoor bathroom, he wasn’t there. I thought he had gone to the basement because the gunshots were heard less there. We were afraid to go outside because of the loud gunshots. My mom went to the basement around 5 o’clock and noticed that a rope was missing. She knew what was going on. I headed down to the woods behind our houses, to the stream nearby; and halfway I returned to get a knife, prepared for the worst. ‘The old guy’ sometimes drank too much and I, being the oldest, went to get him in the café. That’s the feeling I had while I was cutting the rope. I expected one of his angry remarks: “***hole”, or something similar, which often made me laugh. This time there were no comments like that, only a stiffened glance and other signs in cases like this. He still had his characteristic smell that I couldn’t compare to others. My mom told me that she heard me scream and call him, even though I don’t remember it. You knew my ‘old guy’, he was serious, the silent type, unless he had a few drinks, although that happened only occasionally the past few years, maybe once or twice a year.
We were at the house, he and I, booted and well dressed, waiting for them to pick us up. We were drained in sweat, more because of the fear than the midsummer heat, smoking the last few cigarettes we had. Only in the evening we became aware that we were in greater danger because we stayed home. Shots were being fired around us, and we were waiting for them to break into our home. We laid there, frozen with fear. In some way we were able to fall asleep, and it seems like ‘the old guy’ couldn’t. He left through the window so that he wouldn’t be heard and then put himself out of his misery. I buried him with the help of 3 old men that remained in the village.
Gunshots are heard right outside the house. I’m sitting here and waiting for them to get me and send me to the ‘hunting ground’. I hope that moment comes soon. I’m going to tell Medina to keep this for you. You’ll probably survive. They took my two brothers, ‘the old guy’ is gone, only I am left waiting for the mercy or disdain of a soldier or more who will peek inside. There is no place to hide and my knee is swollen again. It dislocated while I was dragging my father’s body out of the woods. I’m afraid I’ll lose my mind because of this uncertainty. When I hear an unexpected gunshot, I sometimes shiver with fear, my whole body shakes and sometimes it doesn’t affect me at all. Like Kiš said: “Despite everything, temporary suffering in life has more value than the final emptiness of nothingness”. I would maybe, as a result of all the suffering at last and all the fear I’m enduring, maybe because of that I would love to survive and of course, in defiance of everything, remain sane. My cousin told me the last time we met that he believes that the three of us will meet for a coffee after all of this and that on that encounter he will bring the Thomson transistor that you gave him. I hope he’s right.
Fear, Slobodan, I’ve met fear. I’m sweating, smoking some rolled up cigarettes. Maybe it’s unfair to burden you with this, but I feel like I need it. I assume that you will survive this, and that Medina or Amina will deliver my letter to you. That is my explicit wish. I hear the voices around the house now. They still haven’t invaded our house. I keep wondering if there is any sense to surviving this and it seems to me like my father has made a good move, even though I don’t think about that, enduring how much I can.
10 days ago the situation here was mostly calm, and it seemed like it was coming to an end. Now, any moment a soldier can come up to the house and he will notice us. I’m in a dilemma, figuring out if I will try to give them an explanation, if an explanation would help, or that I should let them kill me without expecting any mercy, because mercy is something they don’t have.
I’m afraid, Slobodan, I think I’m losing my mind. I’m writing you this letter with breaks. I started today at noon and it’s 6 ‘o clock now. I’m writing you because writing helps me overcome or soothe this terror I’m living in. It’s a one-sided conversation for me, there’s no one to share my sorrow for my father’s death with. This is the only way for me to complain to someone, it helps me for now.
The latest news, dear Slobodan, is that they will escort the women and children to the town tomorrow, and for us who are left, meaning also the men older than 60 and younger than 16, they haven’t said anything. If the information is correct, I don’t know, a woman heard it somewhere, only women are allowed to walk around. I’d love for something to happen as soon as possible, this is unbearable. This talk about migrating is confirmed, women have already started wailing about their houses, gardens and cattle. “Only one place in the world you can call your home”. How to leave all this? I’ve made a really good bench for us to sit on at the spot where we sat last time you were here. The bottle of wine we drank then is still somewhere in the grass. Will we ever encounter again?
If I leave this place, my father’s grave will be left unmarked, and maybe this will also be the case for my resting place, if there is even going to be one because who knows how and where my relics will end. The soul, I’m starting to believe that my soul will wander around and meet with others. I try to make jokes in these circumstances. Do you remember what Holden Caulfield (Salinger) said about war? He said that he was happy that they’ve made a bomb (atomic) and that in case of war, he’d like to sit on top of it.
A half hour has passed without hearing the sound of gunshots. Is it that or is it because I have told you what has happened to me these days that I feel some kind of relief? I believe in the second reason, because now they’re shooting to make up the time they’ve lost not shooting. It’s easier for me, I hope that death comes quick and that I won’t suffer.
For the end, dear Slobodan, not without shaking hands, I’m in a dilemma for what my close should be: goodbye or see you soon.
“See you soon”, because, as they say, hope dies last.