Let us hope that the Ukraine doesn't become yet another statistic...
ALWAYS THE INNOCENT
Sarajevo, ruins near the Vrbanja bridge - Wikipedia commons
May, 1993, Sarajevo
I had thought it would be cold in the chill wind of Sarajevo's Bogomil cemetery, but I didn't feel a thing. Standing quite alone amidst the pockmarked once-fine tombstones, I looked down at the fresh grave, bereft of flowers because not even weeds survived long here. A surprising mixture of emotions coursed through me: anger, hate, despair, and great sadness: all these manifestations of humanity racked me as I looked upon her name carved in the simple wooden cross. But most of all I experienced an abiding love, for what we had shared and been to each other.
When only eight, we had watched the 1984 Winter Olympics, enjoying the bequest to our school by a Bosnian philanthropist.
Marta was Bosnian; I'm Rihad, a Croatian Muslim. We played in the streets, oblivious of our country's tragic future. Boy and girl, in love, the same the world over.
We were book-lovers, and enjoyed reading to each other from the world's classics. Our favourites were Dickens, Cervantes, Hasek, Kumicic, Bozic, Virgil, Popa and Shakespeare.
We both liked history at school. Marta and I grew up with this sense of a new order emerging, throwing off the shackles of the doctrinaire past. Our future seemed so full of promise, so bright.
We had hoped that one day Sarajevo's name would no longer be linked with the start of the first world war - the assassination of the arch-duke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his consort: the place, Princip Bridge, is marked by the student assassin's footprints in the pavement; now, there are so many assassins around, it would be pointless to mark their footprints.
Our two families were close. Inevitably, we married - about a year before the fighting broke out - and honeymooned in the once-beautiful old walled city of Dubrovnik, a city founded thirteen hundred years ago by - irony of ironies! - refugees fleeing the destruction of their Greco-Roman city. Here, too, as early as the fourteenth century, an old people's home was built and slavery was abolished. An enlightened place, then, where we spent blissful days and nights.
Marta and I strolled Dubrovnik's old narrow steep streets, with their shadows, overhanging lanterns and flowers, and gazed at the seemingly immutable old Sveta Klara convent where Europe's first orphanage was founded in 1432.
We prayed in the small Renaissance chapel of Sveti Spas and visited the monastery's library of old manuscripts and pictures; here, we viewed a painting of the city before the great earthquake of 1667, not appreciating an equally devastating future awaiting us and this city. The statue of the city's patron saint, Sveti Blasius, held a model of the city in his hand - ‘until,’ Sanala, an evacuated friend said, ‘it was blown off...’
Sometimes we made love in the wheat-fields, breathing in the fragrance of oleander, camellias, orange trees and each other. At Dubrovnik we felt invincible in our love.
We had no idea how it all went so very very wrong. Greedy men in power grasping more land and power, perhaps. Whatever their reasons, they seem totally inadequate to explain the horrors inflicted.
With growing unease on our return to the village, Marta and I watched the newsreels until the fighting was too close.
Then, our families packed their most precious belongings and fled with so many others into Sarajevo.
For the first few weeks, the city could support us; but the flow of frightened refugees continued to fill the city's streets. Food became scarce, and the black market flourished.
Electricity interruptions were commonplace.
Then the siege began.
Street fighting started as various factions formed, even neighbour against neighbour, some groups composed of looters - sadly, there are always those who will profit from the misfortune of others.
Now, the city's survivors scrabble in the wreckage of a once-proud and beautiful city. Everything about this civil war is prefaced with once-, it seems. The people walk as if drugged, lacking sleep, sanitation and even hope.
We earnestly hoped the European Community would help us, that they would enforce a 'cessation of hostilities' - euphemistic jargon for 'stop the killing'.
Through the countless worthless cease-fires, we never gave up hope that one day we would be rescued. The humanitarian convoys bolstered our repeatedly dashed hopes. We could see the shame and frustration in the young UN soldiers' faces. They were simply feeding us until the inevitable end.
Marta and I had been foraging for wood and food - the rest of our family were too ill or too scared to venture out. Returning, we had pockets crammed with grass and an armful of books each.
Marta's red-rimmed eyes still managed tears, even after shedding so many, at the thought of burning books to survive: we had to sterilise the water retrieved from the drains. The Miljacka River was the only moving thing that could enter and leave Sarajevo with impunity; but tackling its muddy banks was often too dangerous.
When we turned the corner and saw the devastation of our friend's home, we were shaken. A mortar bomb had destroyed our families, huddled together, Moslem and Bosnian, in a friend's cellar.
I find it difficult to relive those awful moments of realisation, when those you love dear are gone, snatched from you before their time, by the will of some military man.
Of course the fact the perpetrators were Serbian is of less relevance than the fact that people of any kind could commit these acts. There are no victors in a war, this is a universal axiom, yet the people who direct their military men seem to ignore this truth. And the innocent suffer; it's always the innocent!
Later, in the ruins, we listened to the car radio hooked up to an old battery. Soldier of Happiness is the most popular song: ‘I don't like bullets, You can kill my summer but my spring will survive. If a bullet should shoot me, please don't cry.’
We cried over our lost friends and family. Alagic the sublime pianist died from shrapnel wounds, Sanala of the shining eyes and tender heart from gangrene; and Alan, Muhamed and Rosa were mortared as they tended wounded children. Good loving people with talents to share, to bring happiness into other lives, all gone.
Afterwards, we burned our books in the roofless kitchen, and heated water and grass. We shared the grass soup. We shared everything we could.
When we had finished, our stomachs still rumbled.
Marta looked wan, cupping the chipped mug in her thin hands, her dark hair straggly and her brown eyes lacking the old lustre. My heart ached, though I wondered what state I presented to her: no better, I felt sure.
We didn't speak much now. As one, we stood up. The meagre fire spat sparks - the cover of Thomas Paine's The Rights of Man crinkled and curled in the embers, then it was gone, blackened beyond recognition, like our homeland.
Gripping our cherished copy of Shakespeare to my chest, I held Marta's hand and we strode over the rubble and across the street.
Often in the last few weeks we had spoken about the poor demented souls who had had enough, who decided to commit suicide by simply strolling outside in broad daylight, down streets once tree-lined and bustling with life, echoing with the sounds of leather- and copper-ware vendors, of sellers of filigree work and linen cloth sewn with fine gold and silver thread; streets vibrant with the songs of birds and the discord of vehicles.
The Begova Dzamija mosque is silent now, its forecourt's covered fountain is dry and no worshippers perform their ritual washing. Water is a luxury, to be hoarded.
Everywhere you look, there are buckets, guarded by old men and children, under drain-spouts, ready to catch any rain.
Instead of the city's usual sounds there is the staccato report of automatic weapons, the crump of mortar shells, and the crying and moaning of an abandoned people.
As we boldly walked the wide street of Obala Marsala Tita that runs alongside the municipal park now stripped of its bark and firewood, I quoted from the Serbian poet, Vasco Popa, his words resembling so many menacing signals of despair in a seemingly empty universe,
‘We danced the sun dance,
Around the lime in the midst of the heart.’
And Marta looked up and smiled, adding,
‘The miserable have no other medicine but only hope; I have hope to live.’
She was ever hopeful, ever cheerful, and I ached with love for her and dismissed the rest of the quotation from Measure for measure - ‘...and am prepared to die.’
At that blessed moment of togetherness we kissed amidst the rubble. The bullet-scored smoke-blackened buildings shimmered, transformed into waves of wheat, the debris-strewn cracked paving-slabs became warm earth under our feet, our bodies revelled in the heat of a glorious summer sun, and the fragrance of oleander was in the air: we were shot by a sniper. A single bullet - we even shared that - killed us both.
The picture of us lying in each other's embrace was sent round the world, courtesy of satellite technology. For a day and a night, we lay there, and my lonely ethereal self hovered watchful over us, waiting for someone to defy the snipers and retrieve our earthly vessels, to accord them some last ritual of remembrance and thanks for our all too brief lives.
Eventually, two brave UN soldiers dodged bullets to carry us into shelter. That evening, under cover of darkness, we were buried.
As I gaze down at Marta's cross, I smile. She must have been uncertain about her incorporeal state, for only now has she been able to take on her old form. The stresses and privations of the last year have washed away from her features: she rises from the mound of fresh soil smiling and beautiful.
I take her hands in mine and kiss her.
As one, floating a little above the cemetery, we turn and stare at the orange halo over our strife-torn city. We feel sad, not only for the dead and dying, the bereaved and injured; we feel sorrow for all the men - and some women - responsible for death and destruction throughout the world. Perhaps if they too had enjoyed love like ours they would not commit such heinous crimes. They cannot comprehend that whatever they do, they cannot vanquish love.
I hold Marta tenderly and feel tears.
We laugh, not appreciating until now that ghosts could cry.
There are many ghosts crying in this once-beautiful land.
And Marta remembers another quotation, from Virgil, ‘Love conquers all things: let us too give in to Love.’
***Dedicated to Bosko Brckic, Admira Ismic, little Marza and all the other dead, wounded, maimed, and bereaved in former Yugoslavia – and indeed in all war-torn lands…
This is the Suada and Olga bridge (previously Vrbanja bridge) of Sarajevo, named after Suada Dilberovic and Olga Sucic, the first victims shot a the beginning of the Siege of Sarajevo.
Obviously, this is a fictional treatment inspired by a real event. The real victims were left on the Vrbanja bridge for eight days for fear of snipers. They were reburied in 1996.
Previously published in The New Coastal Press, 2010, and in the now out-of-print collection, When the Flowers are in Bloom (2011).
Copyright Nik Morton, 2014.
My short story collection Spanish Eye,
featuring Leon Cazador, private eye in 22 cases is published by Crooked Cat Publishing and can be obtained from
Amazon UK here
Amazon COM here