The ice bullet - an Olympic tale
by Aleksandar Hemon
So these days I sometimes also watch the Winter Olympics 2002. There’s not much to see. NBC, which has sole broadcasting rights for the Games, is choosy. It seems as though only Americans are competing, there’s hardly any live coverage, and between events our minds are crammed with educative stories about sportsmen and women who - in slow motion and against a background of pathetic music - at some point and in some place overcame some difficulties and are now fulfilling their dreams in Salt Lake City. This naturally fills me with a superabundance of malice: when an American woman, who the commentators said had fallen in every important race over the past two years, capsized again during the Super-G, my icy heart leapt for joy.
These Olympics remind me inescapably of our own Olympic Games. Last night I told my wife Lisa about the drunken guard who slid down the icy bob-run then on a cardboard box - he hadn’t felt like walking - and managed to survive with a few cuts and bruises. And how in the ‘Una’ restaurant they tried to cheat Kirk Douglas. That’s about all I can remember, and even these stories came to me second-hand.
That’s because during that winter I was at Stip in Macedonia, defending our (former) homeland. On the day the Games opened, my infantry unit was in the field. We slept in dugouts, in holes in the ground, despite the fact that it was one of the worst winters in Macedonian memory, because our captain Vidoje Milosevic had decided to harden us. Captain Milosevic was an idiot and he ordered us to excavate our dugouts at the bottom of a hill, so that the rain poured straight down into them. In those dugouts I learnt what a grave looks like from inside: the smell of clay has remained forever imprinted in my brain cells, I think I’ll recognize it when I am dead. Then he got the idea that we should dig fireplaces in our dugouts: a hole in the clay wall with a little chimney made of tin cans. Since we were freezing, we lit our fires; but naturally the fireplaces wouldn’t draw. So the six of us, each wrapped in two blankets, slept in pairs hugging one another, the lower part of our bodies in icy mud and the upper in dense smoke.
Like all idiots Captain Milosevic was ambitious and unscrupulous - qualities which must have endeared him to the commander of the Stip garrison, a certain Lieutenant-Colonel Ratko Mladic. Having received orders that the army was to watch the opening ceremony of the Sarajevo Olympic Games, Captain Milosevic directed us to dig out an amphitheatre on a hill (a different one), so that the whole unit could see the great event. The unit spent the whole day scooping out the seats, or terraces, from the muddy hill; then Captain Milosevic installed a TV set at the bottom, and the troops watched the ceremony from beneath leaky, makeshift tents as a mixture of rain and snow poured down. Many fell asleep and slid down the slope, rather like the above-mentioned guard, but slowly, with muddied bottoms, towards the Olympic flame that was unable to warm them.
So everyone saw the opening ceremony. Everyone, that is, except me. Since Captain Milosevic knew that I came from Sarajevo, it gave him particular pleasure not to allow me to watch the opening. Rather than supporting the Olympics, my duty was to dig out the truck (I was the unit's driver) from the mud in which Captain Milosevic had wedged it up to the axles. There was another Sarajlija in the unit, who I think was called Nermin, from the Third Gymnasium, who described the opening to me: 'It was super', he said. I also recall Nermin (if that was his name) sitting on straw in the village school in which we slept once we’d escaped from those graves, staring at the opposite wall and singing some stupid song by the New Fossils which was a hit that winter. It would be right to say that I never heard a sorrier musical performance in all my life. All that I saw of the live coverage of the Games in that village was when I entered Captain Milosevic's rooms to report and found him watching the skiing from his bed, with one hand in his breeches up to the wrist. I then glimpsed Jure Franko flying across the finishing-line to the joy of the local public. So altogether I saw about thirty seconds of the Sarajevo Olympics.
And when anyone asks me to recall the Olympics, I have nothing to recall, except the hatred I felt for Captain Milosevic and the JNA. That winter I spent a week in hospital, after Captain Milosevic had ordered his unit to do the morning drill in their underwear in the middle of a snow storm, trying to work out how to murder him without being caught. The only thing that occurred to a mind distorted by Agatha Christie novels, hunger (for seven days I swallowed nothing but plum compote) and fever, was to somehow forge a bullet out of ice and shoot it into Captain Milosevic's heart, where the ice would melt and no one would know what had hit him. I never managed to design the bullet, so Captain Milosevic remains, alas, alive and well and on some list of war criminals.
In January this year I went skiing in Montana (I grew up on skis), making a stopover at Salt Lake City. Since we had to spend a couple of hours at the airport in the Mormon-Olympic metropolis, the obvious course was to have a snack. The cashier working at the airport sandwich bar was called Aida. Even before I saw her name on the tag pinned to her chest, I heard her speaking Bosnian to some other women. When I said 'Good day' to her in our language, Aida smiled and replied in English. I didn’t give up, somehow it seemed important to me that we should speak one of the Olympic languages in Salt Lake City, but Aida was not to be overpowered - she continued to reply in English. If she’d answered in Bosnian, I don't know what I’d have said to her, maybe we’d have talked about the Olympic Games - these ones and those other ones - maybe we’d have talked about Bosnia. But as it was Aida and I were two different worlds, and I somehow feel it was all because of Captain Milosevic. If I’d managed at the time to devise an ice bullet, maybe things would all have been different. Or it may be that the ice bullets have missed Captain Milosevic and hit Aida and me, and have not melted yet.
Translated from Dani (Sarajevo), 22 February 2000