A Bosnian Son
by Peter Palmer
As the aeroplane accelerated along the runway, Jovan felt an unexpected tightness in his stomach. Gripping the arm-rests, he pushed his head back against the seat, straining with the effort to collect himself in the face of a sudden feeling of disorientation. It was not the physical sensation of the plane heaving its bulk off the ground that so disturbed Jovan. Rather, it was the violent realisation that, with this departure, he was returning to a world that, through all of the traumas of his recent experiences in Bosnia, had remained unchanged. For his family in England, for his girlfriend, he was the same person who had set off on an adventure that spring. They had shared none of his experiences in the intervening period. How would he explain to them what had happened and how he had been changed?
In Belgrade, he had thought that he had adequately rationalised what he had seen and taken part in. It was war, and terrible things happened. That was how war was. Bad people had their golden moments under the temporary dispensation in which literally anything went. But after the storm the psychopaths faded back into their private depravity, and the old rules re-asserted themselves. It was a temporary upheaval, like a revolution, unpleasant while it lasted, but an inevitable part of historical struggle. So it had always been.
Sitting in the London-bound aeroplane, Jovan realised that for most of the people he was going back to, it had never been like that. None of them could imagine what he had seen and felt in Zvornik, with the possible exception of his father. Would his father understand what the son he had raised in England had seen in Bosnia, the land where he had himself been born and which he had fled fifty years earlier?
Jovan tried to recall the person he had been only a few weeks earlier when he said farewell to Suzy at Heathrow. In his early thirties, he hardly knew Yugoslavia, which he had visited only once before as a child. But his upbringing had been steeped in the stories of his father and other members of the Serb émigré community. Jovan had lived in two worlds. In one he spoke English, he had British friends and a British girlfriend, and among them he was no different from any other young, upwardly mobile Londoner. In his other world, he spoke Serbian. It was a world of stories of a harsh homeland, of suffering, persecution, and heroism. These two worlds, his own life in England and his father's earlier life in Yugoslavia, had until recently been quite separate. Now, having seen Yugoslavia for himself, the world of tales told by others had been invaded by his own experience.
He had arrived in Belgrade in the spring. The city was in a ferment of national euphoria. In the city centre, street vendors sold national flags, pictures of past and present Serbian heroes, tapes of nationalist music and aspirational maps of Great Serbia which smothered the corpse of former Yugoslavia. Men strutted about in military fatigues, some dressed like Rambo, lounging in cafés, impressing their girlfriends. Others mimicked the World War II Chetnik irregulars with long greasy beards.
Watching the unfolding war from the bars of Belgrade, Jovan began to worry that events might pass him by. Then one evening he met Milan, who had just returned from Bijeljina, the first Bosnian town to be won for Serbdom. Milan had seen action with the warlord Arkan and his Tigers. Milan was different from the other fighters whose company Jovan was keeping. No bragging Rambo, he dressed in Italian designer clothes, and it was only a faint scar under one of his eyes, a relic from his days on the terraces of a Belgrade football team, which hinted at the harsher core beneath his civilised veneer. Perhaps it was Jovan's credentials as the son of a World War II Chetnik which interested Milan. There was to be a move on Zvornik, a town just inside Bosnia, and if Jovan was interested in joining in, he should call Milan the next day.
So Jovan found himself with a group of volunteer fighters bound for Zvornik, armed with an automatic weapon which he had bought with Milan's help. The bridge across the Drina River to Bosnia was guarded by police and Yugoslav army soldiers. The middle-aged policeman who waved them across appeared troubled, uncertain as to his role. The kaleidoscope of his world had been shaken up, and the pieces had fallen back into a new pattern in which he did not know where his blue policeman's uniform fitted. The rules which he had been supposed to uphold had gone. That morning in Zvornik, it was clear that authority lay with these armed volunteers from Serbia.
It was clear immediately there was to be no fighting as such. Groups of men, women and children were herded through the streets. As a column of men filed past, escorted by volunteer militiamen, members of Jovan's gang lashed out at them with fists, feet and rifle butts. Terrified, most of the prisoners made no attempt to avoid the blows lest they provoked a worse onslaught. One man looked back at his attacker, defiantly, accusingly. But in his accusation he was appealing to a set of rules and conventions that had that morning been suspended in Zvornik. Pushed against a wall, his attacker used his rifle as a club to break each of his legs. Then, with methodical blows, he smashed his skull. As they moved on, Jovan tried to appear relaxed, to give away no sign of shock or weakness.
They stopped in a street lined with large, detached houses, built for extended families of children and grandchildren, fairly new, but already with peeling plaster and rickety doors and window frames. Local youths pointed out Muslim-owned homes, and the volunteers set about breaking down the doors. Jovan followed Milan into one of the houses. A middle-aged man sheepishly told the intruders to take everything they wanted.
One of the local youths sneered at the man. 'So Esad, where is your daughter?' Growing paler, the man repeated, 'Please take anything. But my family has done nothing to offend anyone. We have lived here quietly and never made any trouble.'
'You offended me by being here, you stinking Turkish son-of-a-bitch. Now, first hand over your documents, your car keys and your money. Then bring me your daughter.'
His hands shaking, Esad placed the requested items on the table, while two other volunteers trooped past with the television and video recorder.
Milan held a knife to the trembling man's throat. 'Give me the rest of your money, or I'll start by cutting off your ears.'
'There's, there's more upstairs. I'll have to go upstairs.'
Milan motioned with the knife to the front door, to the side of which a staircase led up to a terrace and a separate apartment. The local youth followed them up.
Jovan walked through the house to a shabby garden, a few untended rose bushes and the remains of vegetables which had been left to rot in the ground. To one side was a lean-to shed with a depleted stock of firewood, the remnant of what had been used during the winter just passed. Hearing a movement behind the woodpile, he discovered a woman and two young girls, cowering. The woman, the girls' mother, held a hand tightly over the mouth of each of her distraught daughters.
One of the girls was aged about fifteen, the other much younger. Despite her distress, Jovan could tell that the older girl was very pretty, dressed in jeans with a pink heart sown on to one of the legs, and a baggy crimson sweatshirt. No doubt, the local boy who had led them into the house was searching the upstairs rooms for this girl at that very moment. Jovan could have no illusions as to what he had in mind for her. Away from the other volunteers, he had no hesitation about what to do. Putting an index finger to his lips in a gesture intended to reassure them, he told the mother that they had to get away from there, with no time to lose.
'But where can I go,' whimpered the woman. 'The Chetniks are everywhere.' As she said that, she grimaced and looked at the ground, fearing that the pejorative use of the word 'Chetnik' might have offended the man.
Jovan looked away, unable for a moment to face these people upon whom such a disaster had fallen, in which he had a part.
'You're not safe here. Is there no one that you can go to? A Serb family?'
The woman shook her head doubtfully. 'I have hardly spoken with my former colleagues for weeks. My husband's boss, maybe. But he lives on the other side of town.'
'You have to take a chance, and quickly. Staying here is not an option, believe me.'
The woman saw his eyes stray to the teenage girl as he said this, and she knew what he meant. Stroking her elder daughter's hair, she rose to her feet, pulling the girls with her.
'Come my babies, we will go somewhere where we will be safe.'
With a glance at Jovan, she led them over the fallen-down wire fence into the neighbouring garden, both the girls sobbing uncontrollably. At that moment the local youth came out on to a balcony overlooking the garden and let out a howl of triumph.
As the young man dashed back down and around the house, the mother pushed her elder daughter away from her, shouting to her to run. The girl looked back at her mother despairingly, turned and tried to lift her legs. But her strength failed her, and she fell to her knees. The young man, whooping with delight, pulled her up roughly, kicking away the mother, who tried desperately to hang on to the girl.
Leading the girl round to the front of the house, the young man called out to some other youths, 'Look what we have here. Lejla has come to have some fun with us.'
The other youngsters, their eyes shining, fidgeted awkwardly, hardly able to believe that such possibilities had opened up. Jovan walked slowly back round the house. The last he saw of Lejla, she was being led inside by a gang of three men, her eyes expressionless, empty. No more sobbing or shaking, just resignation and horror too great to find outward expression.
Jovan was shaking now. He had to get away. He could not be in hearing range of what was happening. Just as Lejla was led inside, her father was led out, struggling frantically and calling back to his firstborn child.
Milan, walking behind, told the other men, 'OK, if he wants to watch, take him back inside.'
A truck was making its way along the street, loading up with television sets and other electronic equipment. As Milan passed, he glanced at Jovan, noting his weakness. Jovan felt a sudden pang of shame that he had not lived up to Milan's expectations. Pulling himself together, he ran after the truck. Muslim families were being forced out of the houses, the men separated from the women and children. Jovan joined the volunteers herding a column of men.
They took them to a dilapidated warehouse, damp and with half of the windows broken, a monument to communist industry. Jovan started to feel better, calmer. Local police arrived. Names were called out, and some individuals were led out of the hall. The appearance of an orderly procedure, of processing the prisoners, seemed to reassure some of them. Several of the men were already severely beaten and bloody, but now that the police were there, perhaps it would all be sorted out.
Any such hopes were dashed by sounds of wailing from outside. The men inside hung their heads. Some of the militiamen picked out victims at random, while locals chose their targets by name. Going outside, away from the cries of pain, Jovan thought of his father and the stories on which he had been weaned of the sufferings of the Serbs at the hands of their cruel enemies. The vengeance being meted out now was rough. However, he wondered, from the perspective of his comfortable English upbringing, should he judge these people, however uncomfortable he might feel?
He watched two policemen lead a man out towards a side gate on to what might have been a service road, screaming abuse at him as they went. Five minutes later, the same policemen returned to the hall. They emerged with two more Muslims, cursing the men's mothers, and headed back through the gate. Jovan followed them.
What he saw astonished him more than anything that he had seen that day. He might be able to accept the brutality of the cleansing of Zvornik as the way of warfare in these parts. But here, among all of that, were two Serb policemen hugging their Muslim friends and pushing them quickly into a car, helping them to escape. Suddenly the new Balkan reality he had been ready to accept faded before the simple actions of two policemen for whom reality had not changed.
Jovan's confidence was shaken. What was he doing here? This was not a surreal world in which black was white and right was wrong. Zvornik might be in the grip of some kind of fever, but this was the same world with which he was familiar. There was no separate Balkan reality. As the car pulled off, the two policemen turned round and saw him watching them. Jovan realised that, for them, he represented the new order which they, by their actions, had undermined. They looked at each other nervously, then turned and walked quickly away.
As Jovan walked back to the warehouse, the remaining prisoners were being led out. Some of them were in a pitiful state, bloodied, broken and dazed. For those who were too savaged to go further, bullets rang out. And there was Milan. As Jovan met his eyes, again he saw that look of contempt for his weakness. Jovan was gripped by a sudden determination to prove himself. He walked up to a Muslim, his face bloodied, his features swollen and unrecognisable. The man's eyes were nearly closed. Jovan did not need to look into them as he fired a round into his head. Having committed this act of murder, which he justified as an act of mercy, Jovan walked away as casually as he could. He did not look at Milan, not wanting him to see the beads of sweat breaking out on his forehead. He hoped Milan's good opinion of him had been restored.
As the town was emptied of its Muslim residents, some of their former Serb neighbours ventured into the streets. There was booty to be had which had been rejected or missed by the militias. Others remained for now behind their curtains, confused and afraid by the train of events, which the leaders for whom most of them had voted had set in motion. A few of them fussed protectively over Muslim friends and neighbours, whom they would shelter until it was safe to get them out of town.
Jovan joined a group of volunteers lounging outside a café, drinking brandy from bottles looted from a wrecked Muslim store. Joining in the celebration was an old man wearing a World War II Chetnik cap, who toasted the young heroes and told them how he had driven the Muslims out of the villages in 1942. Jovan tried to picture this toothless old man in his youth, when he had perhaps stood side-by-side with his father, defending their villages from the Germans and Croat Ustasha fascists. But no, that was not what this old man was speaking about. His recollection was of Serbs driving out Muslims, a very different story from the one he had learned from his father and other Serb émigrés in England. Jovan racked his brain for any memory of his father speaking of violence against Muslims. But none came. Always the picture was of beleaguered Serbs defending their homes, or of the flight of Serbs before the remorseless enemy.
Jovan spent that night in a vacated house in Zvornik. The next day, a Serb couple, Momo and Milica, moved in from an outlying village. Recently married, they had been staying in the cramped house belonging to Momo's parents. This was the story of so many families in Bosnia. But now the war had offered them an opportunity, and they had seized the chance to have their own home, a place in town, where they could escape the backwardness of the village and find town jobs and a better life.
Zvornik returned to some semblance of normality. The streets were swept, shops were opened, and the police patrolled again. But the people were different, even those who had always been there. It was not possible to watch the expulsion of life-long neighbours and be unchanged. After such events, the dignity of a town and its people could not be restored in one generation. The very moral fibre of Zvornik had been expunged. Even though Jovan had not known Zvornik before, he felt the unease which in their hearts many of the Zvornik Serbs felt. Momo and Milica felt it too, as they sorted through the possessions, the lives of the people who had gone.
The cleansing of the villages around Zvornik proceeded, their Muslim populations terrorised into leaving, the Mosques dynamited. Local Serbs were joined by volunteers from Serbia and Montenegro, weekend psychopaths who came to join in a not-to-be-missed opportunity for slaughter, rape, and pillage.
Back in Belgrade, it seemed to Jovan that the atmosphere had changed. The heady nationalism was still there, but it had come of age. The picture of bandoleered thugs returning with their booty hardly suggested romantic notions of heroic struggle. And so the myth began to take root that all sides in Yugoslavia had made a big mistake in destroying their beautiful country. It was a tragedy, but Serbs had no choice but to defend themselves. Sure, they had their black sheep, but the others did too. Euphoric nationalism turned into sullen and resentful nationalism, defensive against an unsympathetic world, but in its heart, somewhere deep down, conscious of its ugliness.
Jovan reflected on the country and the people he had been brought up to regard as his own. He had until recently known them only through the stories his father and his émigré friends had told him. Now he had seen for himself, and he had his own story to tell. His image of a rough country, of hatred, fear and brutality, accorded with what he had seen in Zvornik. But there were nagging questions. He knew almost nothing about normal life in Yugoslavia when there was no war. Among the tales of corpses and graves, his father had not told him how the Serbs had lived with their Muslim neighbours, when they were not being butchered by them or, Jovan now realised, butchering them in return. Yet here in his mind was the persistent image of the two Serb policemen hugging their Muslim friends. And that of a middle-class Muslim family, a girl with a heart patched onto her jeans...
There was plenty to silence the whispers of doubt in Jovan's mind. The Belgrade newspapers told stories about the depredations carried out against innocent Serbs in Croatia, and the alleged plans of Bosnia's Muslims to impose Islamic Law. The books and pamphlets which he picked up, with their graphic details of the slaughter of Serbs in past wars, exhorted him to defend Serbian graves. The descriptions of death and graves, mutilation and desecration, were familiar to Jovan and reassured him.
He held on to his carefully-crafted justification right up to the moment in the aeroplane when he realised it simply wouldn't wash in England, not with Suzy. His relationship with Suzy, his job, his friends, his hopes and expectations for their life together in England, occupied a space in Jovan's mind, which had always been separate from the world of his father. There had never been any crossover between the two before, the one real, the other his father's stories.
Suzy had no idea of the fascination Yugoslavia exercised over Jovan. She had never heard him speak Serbian. His determination to go to Bosnia had been incomprehensible to her. Jovan had spoken to her on the phone from Belgrade. It was their normal type of conversation. Everything was fine, he missed her, he would be back soon. That was all acting now. But what could he say? 'How was my day? Oh, I met a fifteen year-old girl, who was gang-raped in front of her father. Then I shot a man in the head. How was yours?' He could not tell her what he had seen and done. There was a chance she would not be interested in the details of the war.
But his father would be interested in everything. He would have been following events closely, listening to Belgrade radio reports, reading Serbian newspapers, going over the details with his Serbian friends. Now he would expect a first-hand account from his son. But what could he tell him? That they walked into Zvornik and murdered, raped, and terrorised the Muslim population into leaving?
Jovan was struck by the thought that, just as most of the Serbs in Belgrade had a pretty good idea of what was happening in Bosnia, but were in self-denial, it was the same with his father. Even from the Serbian media reports, it was clear to anyone who cared to look that the boot was on the Serbian foot. And having listened to the old Chetnik in Zvornik, Jovan was now sure the Serbs had not only been victims fifty years earlier. His father had constructed a myth, which was part of a collective myth. They were all in on it. The truth of what really happened remained unspoken, except by veterans like the old Chetnik, who was too stupid to understand his part in the myth and described events just as they had been.
Did his father prefer the myth to the truth? This was the crux. Jovan was ashamed to tell his father what he knew. And if his father faced up to what had really happened, he would have to be ashamed of it too. Jovan was a murderer and an accomplice to rape. If he could not tell his father what he had personally done, why should he make up a story to comply with his father's version of what was happening in Bosnia? Yet if they stopped the pretence, the carefully-constructed myths of a lifetime would collapse. What would they be left with?
As the aeroplane flew towards London, Jovan realised what they would be left with. Among all the violence, the shame and the disgrace, there were people – the two policemen in Zvornik – who were the real Serbian heroes. Any dignity and honour on the Serb side was theirs, and that of others who refused to accept the reality of Milan and his thugs.
Jovan loved and respected his father. He did not want to build a wall between them. But if he couldn't tell him what he had experienced in Bosnia, this would in itself build such a wall. As the aeroplane descended through the clouds above Heathrow, Jovan's apprehension grew, because of the impending meetings with the ones he loved.
He emerged through customs, into Suzy's waiting arms. As she took his face in her hands, did she notice something different in his manner? Was he paranoid? Had he betrayed his sense of guilt to her already?
He heard her asking, 'How are you? How was the flight?' Small talk. Jovan couldn't stand it. He wanted to bear his heart. But that he could never do. She became increasingly distressed by his strange behaviour. He pulled himself together. Holding her to him, he pressed her head into his shoulder, so she could not see his eyes.
Two days later, Jovan visited his father. As he opened the front door, his father showed an agitation Jovan had not seen before. He hugged his son tightly, kissing him on the cheeks as he had not done for years. Tears ran down his face. Stunned by his reception, Jovan too burst into tears. When they collected themselves, Jovan's father looked hard at his son, his voice trembling.
'Tell me, my son, was it terrible?'
Jovan realised his father was not referring to any danger he might have been in. He could see with his own eyes his son was unharmed. All at once, Jovan felt the ice had broken. There was no need for secrets between father and son.
'We're killing them, taking everything they have. They haven't got a chance.'
His father looked at the kitchen table, taking Jovan's hands in his own.
'Is that how it was before?' This was the question burning in Jovan's mind. Had his father known what it was like? Had he misled him?
'It was like that. Sometimes it was we who were suffering. First when the Ustashas came through Bosnia, and afterwards with the Germans. But when we had the chance...' His father's voice tailed off. 'People were frightened. After what had happened with the Ustashas, and the reports that we heard. You understand? All of us simple people. It was about survival. It was the way that we knew.'
Jovan looked hard at his father. 'But not everyone there is like that. I saw for myself that it does not have to be like that.'
His father stared at him, his mouth slightly open. But Jovan was not going to stop now.
'I killed a man. A helpless man. He was pulled from his house, beaten into a pulp, and then I shot him. That's where all this leads.'
Jovan's father raised his eyes to meet his son's. 'They have killed us too, my son.'
Jovan suddenly felt alienated from his father. The old man knew what the Serbs were doing in Bosnia, but he would not condemn it. He had heard what his own son had done, but he justified it. Looking at his father, Jovan realised he had shed the baggage of his upbringing. For all that he loved his father, he could no longer see Serbia and Bosnia the way his father did.
The two strands of Jovan's life had been joined together in Zvornik. Yugoslavia was no longer a world of tales and myths, but part of his own experience, as real to him as his life in England with Suzy.
His fascination with Yugoslavia remained undiminished, but its content changed. He knew he would go back to Serbia and Bosnia. He did not know in what capacity. But he would learn about the country in which diversity had not always meant violence. He would look for people, like the two policemen in Zvornik, through whose example some kind of redemption was possible. He hoped his father would reject the lies and be proud of his son. And he vowed never again to do anything to make himself ashamed in front of his future wife
First published in The London Magazine (October/November 2004), edited by Sebastian Barker.