A story by Bosnian author Faruk Šehić, translated by Irena Žlof.
How distant we were from the crimes happening before our very eyes. Sometimes you would hear stories about soldiers of the Knights battalion ripping out heads of the Serb army regulars who got captured on the local front. Some saw in this the reason to admire the military skill of those soldiers and the courage to slit someone's throat and rip their head out thus directly contributing to the imaginary count of dead enemy soldiers. To others, images of decapitation generated in their virgin minds would be the cause of nausea. Such events, which back then no one called war crimes, were not often talked about. The struggle for survival justified all actions and events, especially if you find yourself in an enclave, an open-type concentration camp with three different armies fighting you: the Bosnian Serbs, the Knin Serbs and Abdić's autonomists. No place for Humanism and Renaissance, those were our thoughts back then, and I cannot recall anyone ever mentioning the phrase war crime, which I was first to hear on CNN in relation to Omarska and Keraterm, and later in stories mysteriously circulating amongst us, following the fall of Srebrenica. Our military information and morale service never even hinted at the real truth about Srebrenica. As usual, those responsible for our morale read to us latest censored news from the eastern Bosnia front. In those reports there were mentions of soldiers we lost, but nowhere near the actual figure of 8000 people who actually got captured and killed. They also itemised all tanks, vehicles, infantry weapons and ammunition confiscated during the march of people of Srebrenica and Žepa towards the free territory of Tuzla, which provided us all with false comfort. The fall of Srebrenica was portrayed as an unfortunate military defeat, and never as a war crime, although the bitterness and anger were apparent in the words they chose as well as those they left out. I learnt the real truth only when the war ended and military secrets became pointless, but even than I was nowhere near capable to fully comprehend the scale of this tragedy, later defined as genocide in the ICJ's ruling in Den Haag.
And so, we would hear stories about the torture of the autonomists (the notorious ones and the alleged ones), and the occasional Serb (of those two or three who were living in the town) under accusations of being spies, typically at times when the situation at the front where we fought the autonomists was exceptionally difficult and on the verge of a disaster. Rumour had it that the tortures were being handled by the local and imported criminals who were serving in the civil police. There were talks of torture methods which involved connecting electricity to a prisoner's testicles or feeding him salt and then forcing him to drink litres and litres of water. Those stories did not particularly appal us either, because we considered the autonomists (especially them) and četniks our worst enemies to whom we were to show no mercy in direct combat; or perhaps because we ourselves were fighting the worst fronts and our minds were programmed to a single autosuggestion: stay alive!
There were also talks of Serbs captured at our local front Ćojluka, being beaten to death with spades and steel cables from the torn out transmission lines. That particular image I was able to construct in my head, and it then got stuck to the inside of my face because I could not comprehend how someone could butcher a prisoner when he was unarmed and helpless, away from the battlefield, in some basement, devoid of all features of a menacing enemy. For the military police torture was a daily routine, they were beating četniks so they would not have to go to the front. Some were there to revenge their lost brother, daughter or son.
During the time spent at a military estate, a solder took me to a barn where the Serbs captured on Ćojluka were being tortured and executed, and a place nearby where they were buried, only to be exhumed and transported to be exchange for our soldiers, for bodies of our soldiers, to be precise. I cannot recall a single exchange of live soldiers. I spent several nights near the barn of torture and execution. Before the war this is where cattle had been bred. I abhorred that place from which neither water nor years could wash the blood off. I did think about the people who performed the torture and executions, but only very briefly, because what I felt at those moments very much resembled madness, and shutting you brain down was the only smart move.
During a large scale offensive operation, in a predominantly Serb village, we came upon a woman who stayed at her home, refusing to flee with other villagers. The entrance to this rich and tame village was thoroughly burnt down, because that was where the Muslim houses once stood. The thoroughness of the arson was a testimony to the precision of the local hygienists in charge of cleanliness of the heavenly nation. I had no time to consider the fate of their inhabitants.
A middle-aged woman, stout and well rounded, her rosy cheeks like two ripe apples framed by the headscarf. She was sitting in her backyard as if nothing out of the ordinary was happening. We stumbled upon her by chance, because our attack on the village was coming from more directions, and there was chaos and confusion typical of an operation involving units from several different brigades.
I heard her say to the soldiers nearby: "Are you mine, the Serbs? Yes you are, I know you are, you just don't want to admit it, my Serbs...“
I am not sure if the gunfire came while she was still in my sight, or whether I was already turning the corner of the barn, in a hurry to reach the next hill as ordered. I do not recall it, I may have even seen her dead, but my mind refused to store this image of a crime scene. Those are moments when your mind is running at neck-breaking speed and anything unrelated to your singular aim is being played out in the corner of your eye, a daytime horror of a dream.
After the gunfire we continued towards our hill upon which the September night was already descending. As we passed by an Orthodox church we heard gunfire and RPG explosions. A commander of a commando unit told me to get moving because the četniks were shelling the village, although it was obvious that it was them who were firing RPGs in an attempt to bring the church down. When we finally emerged on the hill, we spread along the ridge and fortified our positions. We stayed there for ten days. Those houses still had electricity, and we watched Croatian TV programme like hypnotised. As far as ammunition, weapons, food and cigarettes, those were the golden days of the war, its final days. We withdrew on a dark night, without a fight, on orders from the headquarters. The village disappeared in the darkness behind us. The area was known for its plump red peppers which favoured its fertile sandy soil. Its colour reminded me of the colour of the woman's cheeks, seconds before she was shot dead.
The first days of the war were young as dew and dizzy as a drunken bumblebee. We were forced to move to Una's left bank. I shall focus on people's faces and things which resurrect from my memory. Location: abandoned houses on the left bank which lost their warmth and the original purpose on the second or third day of the war. Their residents have disappeared and turned into refugees. Their faces are blurry and out of focus.
Although men carrying weapons usually moved fast and always ran under showers of shells and bullets, when I play it now it is in slow motion, frame after frame freezes, until they all look like figures in a wax museum.
One face in particular stands out in this chaos, the face of a man in his early twenties with a scar and the squint. His hair is dark, his complexion light, eyes positioned in such a way so that his face looks Asian. His moves are energetic, his body is strong and handsome. The face is rough and gentle at the same time, his desire to appear dangerous is in contrast to his young age. He has one foot lodged in a window frame, while the other is carrying his weight as he balances on the couch, his gaze is fixated on the other river bank, where the enemy is hiding, armed to the teeth.
„Those are our local Serbs and their cousins from the slopes of Grmeč who came down from the mountain to get rid of the turks once and for all," he says, looking at the other side.
„You are totally out of place here. You look like a daddy's boy. You'd better get lost while you still can.“
He responded with some derisive remark, his eyes shooting around the room which suddenly became claustrophobic from our presence. Objects in the room were swollen with damp. A light fixture on the ceiling was irritably intact. The floor boards were pretending to be sea waves frozen in time by a move of someone's omnipresent hand. If a seven-spotted ladybird as big as a Red Delicious were to anchor mid-air, flapping its wings slowly, and started laughing hysterically, the roof would collapse and the house, along with our tragicomic characters, would sink to the centre of the earth.
His entire body was emitting nervous field lines and I was too frightened to look him in the eyes. Something in his face got unhinged and all the demons were let loose. That was the first and the last time I saw him.
In nineteen-ninety-three we watch as the city we know disappears. It is masked by plants and ruins, and despite continuous explosions, it acquires a hypnotising aura. It becomes a vast, foreign metropolis of our utopia, which is: I want to return home and I want everything to be as before. No one now thinks of the water and the river. Towards the end of April, the nature awakens with a loud yawn which goes unnoticed. Slowly we return to more primitive ways of living, where your primary goals are to feed and to stay warm and safe. We teach ourselves to hate, because that is the only path to survival, hatred helps you stir up anger and ghosts, which will keep you alive, which will give you the will to live. Learning how to hate is not difficult, you just have to let your body do the work.
How funny it is, this wish to keep your body whole. Men go to extreme efforts to stay intact. He establishes strong boundaries on his surface to preserve this pile of flesh and bones, his heart, and maybe his soul. After that the city and the man will never be the same, provided that the man sees the end of the war. The city cannot be destroyed, it is untouchable and the man will devote all his strength to rebuild the city and, on its ruins, to build his butchered soul. From the start, the attempt is destined to fail. Nothing can be as it once was, only no one knows that yet. Everyone believes in the future and the prosperity of their city, which is understandable, that is how people always think after a war. A moment of doubt and uncertainty passes, and once again I believe in the city and its river whose undercurrents will help people rise from the real ash.
Streets are full of rubbish and skeletons of burnt-down houses. In ten years time these superficial traces of the war will only be visible on black and white photos. That which is paradoxical is destined to win.
And the young man, the one whose penis was chopped off and fed to him, he has been dead for seventeen long years.
In my library of Alexandria, the one that should be made of small objects, inconsequential daily rituals or memory shards, an old Toshiba cassette player found its place. I bought it in a stationary shop in early eighties, it had two heads and was the first model which had its buttons underneath the deck in which you inserted cassettes. It was light and proportionate, not too tall and not too chunky, made of black plastic, it had a radio scale illuminated just like the places it would transport you to with a flick of your finger, distant places like Riga or Vilnius, the cities which back then I struggled to place with certainty. Its names sounded as if coming from another planet, and that is precisely what the Baltic, non-Slavic part of the CCCP was (save the Lithuanian basketball players in Zbornaya komanda). The cassette player became out of date at the same speed the technology was coming up with better design and more and more newly invented features. The capitalism, still distant from us all on this side of the Berlin wall, performed miracles which we were to witness much too late for it to matter emotionally, for we were by that point lost in our own lives, in our attempts to reinvent them, make a whole of its fragments and build our simple happiness. That is why the nineties have a strong hold over us all as a totalitarian memory.
In my library of Alexandria, I see that now, this cassette player will rank highly on the scale of importance. I left it in Zagreb on 15 April 1992 when I decided to take off to my war-ridden country. East Bosnia was already on fire and I saw with my own eyes refugees from Zvornik standing at the car park in front of the Zagreb mosque, holding plastic bags and suitcases, people who were to become first refugees, shot off into the world like tracer bullets into the night sky, dispersing in all directions. A few days earlier peaceful demonstrations were taking place in Sarajevo demanding peace and preservation of Yugoslavia. Half-witted miners marched the streets with Yugoslav flags in their hands and socialist songs on their lips until četniks put an end to it all with their sniper shots fired from the roof of the Holiday Inn.
In the movie Blade Runner buildings of the futuristic city are plastered with mega-adverts of TDK, the company I will always remember for their 60 minute and 90 minute tapes. There is bound to be a planet somewhere in the universe, a world containing all things lost and unfashionable, and their adverts which are pulsing with the eternal neon glare.
In 1994, at the battlefront, I rescued a Sanyo cassette player from a house whose roof was a blaze of raging fire – the spirit of our times, and this one would last me good fourteen years.
The battlefront was made of mud, rain, clouds and grey trees, like the Russian front in late autumn, before the snows, ice and frost. Our front was worse than the Russian, for there were no steppes we could retreat to, but it was our front. Whenever I think of it, I feel coldness in my bones, but then it turns into a pleasant source of warmth, a fireplace I invoke not, but feel its warmth all the same. Rutger Hauer then appears in his long leather coat, rain is poring on our front, and he is pushing his way forward through the thorny undergrowth, all the time repeating: This is not Time to die. This is not Time to die...
Even when I stopped using it, long after the war, it stood there amongst the useful items of my surrounding as a relic of the past, my past. Its plastic body has melted substantially in the fire. It had a war scar and it ended up in a bin in a remote part of the city.
During my short dream I saw the Toshiba cassette player before me. It was all broken, held together only by wires, it was sitting on a table. The radio scale was illuminated by weak blue light, its inside was virtually intact, it had rows of distinctly yellow diodes reminding me of mighty power-carrying plants. Lonely monuments of old technology like abandoned towns from the early days of the Wild West, that is what his interior was like. It was all broken on the outside, but it was working. Were we not just like that immediately after the war? Unaware of the damage done by the omnipresent corrosion, but charged with mad adrenalin of the survivors.
It is because of the cassette player and many other objects which got lost that I started building my library of Alexandria. Each time I store an item in the library it automatically ceases to work. It disappears mysteriously, just as it should, making me a happy archivist of my past.