As my flight descends toward the snow-dusted mountains surrounding Sarajevo, my mind harks back to a rainy Saturday afternoon in a university library—an afternoon when I discovered the meaning of “Sarajevo.” The name, Sarajevo, originates from the Turkish phrase Saray ovasi—the “plain around the palace.” While “Saray” refers to a palace in Turkish, the word is a synonym for “inn” in my mother tongue, Hindi, and “harem” in Urdu.
Closing my eyes, I imagine Sarajevo flying like a broken kite, taking on different colors as it floats over various cities. Waves of Turks, Mughals, Ottoman soldiers and travelers on horses tag diverse identities to the same phrase. Brushing off that cobweb of distracted thought, I look outside at the runway coming into focus in the distance, its wet tarmac lending it a sleepy feel. Yellow and blue-tipped tails of the B & H Airlines planes line up at the gates of the airport while red-tiled roofs cover the surrounding hills.
As we screech past the airport’s jetways before taxing slowly back, I remember my first international flight—from Mumbai to St. Louis, Missouri. I would never have imagined then that the trip would put me on the road to Sarajevo today, where I’m heading to attend the memorial for the twentieth anniversary of the massacre in Srebrenica.
More than twenty years ago I had landed in St. Louis—exhausted, jetlagged and already homesick—at the beginning of a spring semester to start life as a graduate student at Washington University. The office-bearers of the Indian Students Association who picked me up at the airport showed me a list of Indian students looking for a roommate. I picked Preethi Mathur, who was doing her PhD and who had been living on campus for almost six years.
Four weeks in, Preethi told me she wanted her boyfriend to move in with her and I promised her to move out by the end of the semester. However, within weeks, her boyfriend—who had lost his assistantship and didn’t have a place to stay—was in the apartment every time I walked in.
Leafing through the ads for a sublease in the local newspaper, I could find only one ad for a room within walking distance of the campus – a sublease for a bedroom in a townhouse on Fowler Street, posted by a certain Rahim. I waited a few more days; still no other ad. Finally, I called Rahim and left him a message.
Rahim, who called me back the next day, spoke with an accent that I wasn’t sure was European or Arabic. “I had two roommates who lived in the other room. They had to leave because of an emergency,” Rahim informed me. He did not intend to take a third person in unless I wanted to, he added.
The very idea of living in a house with a male roommate would have been unthinkable for me, a few months back. For the next few days, I pored over every rental ad in the local newspaper. All the other available subleases were quite far from the campus. Preethi’s boyfriend, meanwhile, was now practically living in the apartment. If I wanted to be on good terms with the first person I had befriended after moving to this country, I had to move out quickly.
The next few nights, I slept poorly as I continued to ponder over moving into an apartment with a guy, while taking into account the fact that this was something I could not tell my folks back in Mumbai. While a voice within me whispered reassuring words, I could also hear another voice wondering if I would be moving in with a Hannibal Lecter. Who knows? Well, I was going to give it a try.
Weeks after moving into my new home I returned from campus late one evening, tired and famished. I dropped my backpack and the pile of mail I had collected on the coffee table, parked my butt on the couch and reached for the remote. It was just my third week in the new home and at least a week since I had seen Rahim. For a moment, I wondered if I was obligated to check on a housemate who apparently hadn’t been home for more than a week, before deciding that I’d telephone his department lab the next day.
Sitting on the sofa, I finished a bowl of cereal as there was nothing else in the fridge to eat. Reluctantly getting off the couch, I walked to my room to change into more comfortable wear. I had just taken off my top when a loud clanging jolted me. For a moment I stood paralyzed before ducking under the bed. The initial explosion was followed by the sound of things falling or breaking.
Even in that moment of panic, it was obvious that whatever was falling or breaking was happening in Rahim’s room. Someone was shooting at his window! Accompanying these noises were male voices shouting from the street. Soon, a car engine revved and it was all quiet again. I don’t even remember how long I stayed crouched, motionless under my bed.
Was Rahim in his room all along this evening? After another long wait, I finally crawled up to the window, raised my head, turned the blinds a few centimeters and stared at the street. Lutz Avenue was dark and quiet. It was an eternity before I crawled on all fours to Rahim’s room—my jaw still chattering. Pushing the door to his room open, I noticed shards of broken glass glinting on top of the dresser and on the floor. I crawled back to the living room, grabbed the phone, stayed low to the floor behind the couch, dialed 911 and began to explain in a trembling voice.
The cops who arrived soon after enquired about Rahim. I told them that I had not seen him for more than a week. The officers assured me that the rocks were aimed at my housemate and it was not an accident that his window was targeted. Apparently, there had been trouble in this house previously—though no one was charged at that time. This situation was what had led Rahim’s former housemates to move out. The police informed me that they would post an officer outside to watch the street and advised that I go to sleep.
I switched off the light in my room soon after and tucked myself under the covers. Yet every five minutes or so, I would wake up and check the streets while the cop car remained parked outside.
The next morning while doing my laundry in the laundromat at the corner of Lutz and Chauncey, I ran into Amanda, the girl who lived in the next house and told her the events of the previous night. She repeated what the police had told me—that Rahim and his previous housemates had had some serious altercation leading to his two friends moving out.
“You know what’s happening in Yugoslavia, right?” asked Amanda.
“Of course,” I said, though I hadn’t a clue what she was going on about.
“He and his roommates belonged to different groups that are fighting the war,” she added.
Back inside the house, I called Rahim’s office. His officemate who picked up the phone informed me Rahim hadn’t shown up for the past week and he believed Rahim had gone to his native country on an emergency.
Switching on the TV, I tuned in to CNN. There was a discussion about an ongoing siege of a city with footage of soldiers, of shelling, of bombs and smoke. Of people carrying injured human bodies, of family members crying and screaming while hugging corpses. Realizing that I hadn’t watched the news channels for some time, I read the ticker headlines at the bottom: Siege of Sarajevo.
Rushing to the pile of mail for Rahim that I had picked up over the last week and set aside in the kitchen cabinet, I looked at the first envelope. It had Airmail stamped on it and the mail had been posted in Sarajevo. There were three other letters from Sarajevo amidst the pile. All from a certain Lamija Siljadic.
Last night, I stayed at Lamija’s one-bedroom apartment in the Ilidza suburb of Sarajevo. Now, sitting next to me in the backseat of the Skoda taxi, she is dressed in a teal-colored kameez with long white sleeves and jeans with a lavender scarf draped around her head. Lamija works as an analyst for a government agency that helps to identify the remains of war victims in Bosnia.
Unpainted brick houses rise and disappear as we drive through the hills in silence. An hour and half after we had started our drive, a sign welcomes us to Gorazde—the last town in the province before entering the Bosnian Serb-ruled autonomous territory of Republika Srpska.
My thoughts flash back to the testimony of Marja at the Bosnian War tribunal in Hague more than ten years ago. I had listened to her testify about throwing her son out through an open window of the house on Pionirska street and then jumping out herself. She had kept running, she said, even as she was shot before hiding in a sewer. She had stayed hunched in the sewer watching the house she ran away from burn with seventy live human beings and an infant inside. “I had to choose,” Marja said, “between getting shot and being burnt alive.”
“It must be like a ten-minute drive from here to Visegrad, right?” I ask Lamija.
Lamija shakes her head. “No. It’s at least an hour.”
“An hour by car? Really?”
“It’s almost forty kilometers from here, Kareena,” Lamija explains to me.
During her testimony Marja had deposed that after hiding in the sewer for three days with maggots eating at her bullet wound, she had walked all the way to Bosnian majority town of Goradze before she could be taken to a hospital.
On reaching Visegrad, we check into a hotel adjacent to the famous Mehmet Sokolovic Bridge, built more than five hundred years ago. Leaving our baggage in our room, we walk to the restaurant across the street, choose a table on the sidewalk and order lunch. At the table, I sit facing the bridge, built by a boy who had lived in this town in the sixteenth century until he was dragged away from his home by the Ottoman Sultan’s men. In the background, Visegrad is a neighborhood of homes gliding down the hills and on to the river. The houses, painted in a riot of spring colors, dot the slopes of the hills.
I imagine little Sokolovic’s mother running past me toward the river—toward her little boy as he is taken away to Istanbul by the Sultan’s men. The young boy screams, crying and fighting against the soldier’s grip as he turns back only to see other soldiers hold back his crying mother. The river, Drina, must have stood as a silent spectator watching over the scene of the struggling woman and her flailing boy who is being hauled into the boat, his ears filling with his mother’s screams.
Long after his mother had passed away, the boy, Sokolovic, would return to Visegrad as the sultan’s Grand Vizier. Did the Drina recognize Mehmet Pasha Sokolovic, or remember his mother who had cried her heart out on its bank? Sokolovic would soon build a bridge across the Drina—a bridge that would endure for centuries—before it was damaged and destroyed by Austrian Hapsburgs during the first world war. Only to be rebuilt as part of the reconstruction after the war.
“We have been trying to get those who were forced out of Visegrad during the war to return,” Lamija says, her voice bringing me back to the present. “But of course, they don’t want to. Even without the constant reminder of lost family members, their lives are permanently damaged. Yet, without them coming back, it’s like we continue to lose. The Chetniks,” she says using the slang for the Serbs, “wanted to cleanse Visegrad of Muslims. And this town, once sixty-five percent Muslim, is completely Serbian now.
“I know I should be ashamed to say this. It makes me seem vindictive,” she says staring at her plate. “But those who killed, burned, and raped us, those who told us at gun-point, ‘Move out or every one of you Muslims will be butchered,’ succeeded in their goal. Didn’t they? Even if we managed to send a handful of them to jail, it would never change what has already occurred.”
I do not answer her.
“Say something,” she insists, as if I could invent the magic words to cure her impotent anger.
Lamija has already told me that she will not accompany me to Andricgrad, where I was planning to go for a stroll after lunch. So, while she walks back to our room after lunch, I head toward the newly built “town” in the city square, right at the tip of the “thumb” of land that sits between the Drina and Rzav rivers. This is a plaza I had wanted to visit, though I understand why Lamija, like so many Bosnians, doesn’t want to come here. This plaza was built at the site of barracks that were used to imprison, torture, and kill Bosnians not too long ago.
At the plaza, I stand in front of the huge statue of Ivo Andric, wearing a long winter coat, his hands shoved into the pockets of his coat. The eyes of the man—whose writings introduced me to Visegrad, the Bridge and the Drina—are cast down. I sit for a few minutes on the steps leading up to the statue while Andric stares at me through his thick-framed glasses. I wonder what he would write about Visegrad today and what it has gone through since his time on earth. Only the half-sarcastic and half-sympathetic smile on his lips answers my unasked question.
When I return to our room by the Drina, Lamija shows me pictures of her daughter, Karinja, who is attending college in Gothenburg, Sweden. Lamija had spent a month last spring travelling with her daughter around Scandinavia.
I ask Lamija if she misses her daughter and she frowns. “I don’t know,” she says. “I never was a good mother. Besides, I can’t just give up on this place however messed up our lives are.” She looks down, staring at a freckle on her forefinger. “Everyone tells me to leave but I can’t. At the same time, I want Karinja as far away from here as possible.”
After I wake up from a jetlag-induced nap later that afternoon, we order tea in our room. Lamija asks me if I would like to go out and I quickly nod. Once we get into a taxi, Marja’s testimony buzzes in my mind again.
“Can we drive through Pionirska Street?” I ask Lamija.
“Sure, and we can drive to Koritnik from there. It is not far.”
On Pionirska Street, the house with the burnt brick wall is easily distinguishable in a neighborhood of newly built houses. The ground floor is a mass of rubble and knee-high weeds. The victims burnt here were herded from the village of Koritnik, seven kilometers north.
As we drive away from Visegrad, the surrounding hills are covered with tall desolate pine trees. Evening sunlight filters through the foliage making the brown earth look redder. A brown mist of gloom hangs around the landscape while occasional brick houses peek through the trees. Some houses have small white billboards in front of them. I ask Lamija to translate one of the billboards. She translates: Our neighbors, war criminals, robbed and threw us out of our homes and then burnt us alive. Eight of us survived. I realize we must be driving through Koritnik. A few hundred yards further down, Lamija tells me that she would like to stop by to visit a family in the next town on our way to Srebrenica.
As we drive along the road that runs adjacent to the Drina, Lamija gives directions to the driver. Before long, he pulls up outside a barbed-wire-fenced brick-and-mortar house that looks more like a warehouse than a residence, save for the small white single-paneled doors on the first and second floors. Grass taller than ankle height along with overgrown dandelions and other weeds overwhelm the front yard of the property. Bushes of lavender-colored flowers are scattered around a lawn devoid of trees and covered in litter. A lonely haystack sits in a field behind the house like a silent spectator.
“You should come in too. You can stretch your legs,” Lamija persuades me as she steps out of the car.
At first, I ignored the pile of mail for Rahim piled up on the table, but my eyes kept returning to it. Lamija Siljadic’s letter from Sarajevo sitting on top of the pile winked at me each time I walked through the room. The morning after the window of Rahim’s room was broken, I rushed to the computer center. I set up a user ID “Karinja” on several Yugoslavian UseNet sites. After logging in to these sites, I read through detailed descriptions of the events unfolding in Bosnia in general and around Sarajevo in particular.
Coming home for lunch, I cooked rice and made dal. Yet even as I tried to focus on my meal, my eyes kept returning to the pile of mail. Finally, I could hold myself back no longer. I wetted the glue on the envelope addressed from Sarajevo and pried it open, millimeter by millimeter, to find pages of handwritten letters with writing in Cyrillic alphabets on both sides. Two more letters from Lamija remained in the pile of mail, waiting for me to explore their contents as well.
I headed back to the library, made copies—two each—of all three letters, before heading back home. After stuffing the letters back in their respective envelopes and gluing it back as well as I could, I spent the rest of the day buried in newspaper and in the history section of the library, hunting for journals and books about the Balkans.
I called a friend who was majoring in European History and asked how I could get the letters translated. Two days later, he informed me that one of his professors had an acquaintance at Oregon State University who was fluent in Bosnian. He gave me the address of this acquaintance in Portland and I faxed the letters to the number immediately.
Twoweeks later, I receivedthe translation via emails. Bits and pieces of those letters, which I realized where from Rahim’s sister, I would remember by heart long after I had read them.
I must get Mum and Dad out of Visegrad. In Srebrenica and Bratunac, the Chetniks and JNA are shooting our people on the street. The JNA commander has already informed Bosnians, “Run away from Srebrenica and Bratunac now. Or we will kill all of you.”
Dad is convinced that Uncle Nezir needs help in Srebrenica. Since everyone in the town knows him, uncle is already a marked man. Dad wants to send somebody to bring his wife and children back to Visegrad. My fear is that if he can’t find someone to bring them, dad might go himself.
I think I should go home. But I don’t know how, as everybody is telling me that it is hard to get through Goradze now that I must to pass through Chetnik territory to get to Visegrad. Tell me what I should I do.
Paragraphs described Lamija dodging snipers to walk to the post office, looking for letters from Rahim. On the rare occasion when she got one, the joy made up for all the times when she had walked back disappointed, she wrote.
Whenever she did step out of house—such as to bring water to the house or to buy groceries—Lamija would unexpectedly run into someone she had not met for months. They would cry in relief exchanging news that someone they both knew was still alive while discovering that some other mutual acquaintance had been killed or disappeared recently.
I don’t know if you’ve received my previous letter. Please reply if you can. Uncle Nezir is dead. I don’t want you to know the details yet but if I don’t go, Dad will do something stupid. They’re executing people on the Mehmet Pasha Bridge in public. The river washes the bodies away. I don’t know how I’m going to write to you once I leave Sarajevo. I don’t even know if you’ll ever receive these letters. But writing this letter, letter that you might never read, still brings me so much relief. Praying for you…
Rahim, I learned, had been working to move his family out of Bosnia but was unable to make progress with the US immigration authorities and with the local government in Bosnia. The local government was not very supportive of locals fleeing their country as it wanted its people to stay put and help the cause of defeating the invaders. Allowing Bosnians to move out of their villages would make it all too easy for the Serbs to take over such abandoned towns.
I picked up Ivo Andric’s Nobel-prize winning book, The Bridge on the Drina, from the university library and researched the history of the bridge in Visegrad. I read BBC reports of women being raped in the public square right beside the bridge—mothers in front of horrified daughters, daughters in front of helpless, screaming mothers. Corpses of women, raped to death thrown away on the street, body parts mutilated and giant crosses scored off their flesh.
After days and weeks of brooding over it and tossing away the paper on which I had written the first paragraphs, I finally finished a letter to Lamija. Before signing the letter off as Rahim, I edited and re-edited many paragraphs. Whenever I tried to write in more personal terms, I was made acutely aware of the fact I didn’t even know how Rahim addressed his sister. In my first version it was Dearest Lamija. In the one that I finally mailed it was just Dear.
I try to watch the news on CNN and gather as much information as possible on the internet. I am so sorry and miserable that I’m not there with you all. I have been working hard to fly back, but it is almost impossible to do so now because the government here won’t let anyone fly anywhere near Sarajevo. I’m thinking of flying into Vienna or Budapest and finding my way home. Also, I twisted my ankle playing football and now I’m in the hospital. The doctor tells me that I will have to be on crutches for the next few weeks. Hoping to be home very soon.
Be brave. Help is coming. The US and the UN are working—though you may not know it from the news you get there—to send troops. This will happen soon. Don’t lose heart.
Over the next four months, more letters arrived, though they were not delivered in the order in which they were post-marked in Bosnia. I was to learn later that even aid agencies that helped pick up mail in Sarajevo did so only occasionally, as it was getting increasingly hard to evade sniper fire.
Soon, letters from Lamija ceased.
When I sat down to write another letter to Lamija it was already three months since Rahim’s disappearance. Suddenly, it seemed enormously childish to expect that my adolescent writing would have any positive impact or console a family living through war. I never mailed the next one.
It rained heavily that summer. Almost every weekend. Whenever I stepped outside after hours spent watching news and reading books on the Balkan history, the sky would wear a murky leaden look.
By the time the landlord moved out all of Rahim’s stuff, I had picked a subject for my doctoral thesis—ethnic conflicts in Europe since the Second World War, with emphasis on the conflict in the Balkans. I found a professor in the department of Social Sciences who was impressed with my master’s thesis, although he was initially skeptical about why I would want to research a subject that had no connection to my own roots.
By summer, a Thai girl had moved in as my new housemate. Naiyana was not only a warm and friendly person, she was very tidy as well, in addition to being unobtrusive. She also cooked excellent Thai food. Nevertheless, the house had begun to have a haunted feel for me. Each time I sat on the couch or when the TV was on, I was reminded of the day when the window of my home was shattered by a rock. My thoughts would trail off and I wondered if Rahim had gotten back together with his family, and whether Lamija and her parents had managed to survive.
Each time I walked across a bridge, all that I could think of was men forced to line up to be shot. I could distinctly hear their bodies thudding into the brook below and turning the water red.
After finishing my PhD, I moved to Detroit as a post-doctoral research associate at Wayne State University before subsequently taking up a teaching position there. The war in the Balkans was over. Bosnia and Herzegovina had become an independent country with Sarajevo as its capital while Visegrad was now part of Republika Sprska, an autonomous region in Bosnia with a Bosnian Serb majority.
I follow Lamija slowly out of the car, taking in the surrounding scenery. The haystack still holds my attention. It reminds me of my grandfather’s old home in rural Ludhiana—a yurt-shaped haystack from which the bottom quarter has been pulled clean, revealing the center pole. Two goats lunge and nibble at the base even as they keep a wary eye on us as we walk past them. The animals wear a guilty look on their faces, as if they know they are not supposed to steal hay.
By the time I arrive at the front door, it is already wide open. I hear loud and excited conversation inside as I stand at the front door and peek inside. Lamija and two elderly ladies are standing in the middle of the living room. One of them is heavier than the other. The two women each wear a long skirt and blouse and they appear to be in their sixties, although one looks older than the other. Lines crisscross their faces and there’s only a smattering of dark hair on their heads. The smaller woman has her jawbone sticking out as if she has lost her molars. Perhaps they are younger than they look.
Lamija introduces me.
The two ladies laugh and flash a bright smile at me.
“Lamija say,” says the leaner lady pointing to me before pointing to Lamija while trying to compose her sentence in English. She turns to Lamija and asks, “Kako ti kazes zester?” (What is the word for sister?)
Lamija blushes before answering, “Sister.”
The lady continues, “Lamija says you and Lamija sisters.”
Smiling even more radiantly, the older woman points her index finger at herself and then at the other lady and says proudly, “We are sisters also.” She then walks toward me with open arms. I hug her and then the other one.
Lamija introduces them: “They are my distant relatives. Aunts,” she explains as the two leave us alone and walk inside.
Pointing to the two of us, I ask Lamija, “Between the two of us, who’s the older sister?”
“That would be me,” says Lamija, giggling.
The older of the sister-pair returns from the kitchen. I can’t help but notice how much they smile when they look at Lamija.
“Sit down, sisters,” the older one says addressing us before guffawing again.
She sits down seating the two of us on either side of her on the sofa. The younger one places two plates of assorted sweets and savories on the table. Without understanding her words, I watch the older one insist that we eat. Lamija protests that this is all too much, before the younger aunt presses lightly on Lamija’s shoulder, holding her down in the seat. Lamija explains to her that we’re full and that we don’t need refreshments. The aunt dismissively asks her not to protest too much before the three of them walk back to the kitchen.
The aunts serve us tea that tastes so delicious and so different from the Bosnian tea that I had ordered several times in the Little Bosnia area of St. Louis.
When we get ready to leave half an hour later, the sisters walk us all the way up to the car. Tears stream down their cheeks as they hug Lamija—little trickles that stumble and lose their way as they work their way down the crease-laden faces. The older one says something to Lamija, then points to me and asks her to translate what she said. Lamija struggles to find the words in English herself while obliging them, “They want me to tell you that I don’t visit them often enough. That I would visit them often, if you visit me frequently and insist that we travel together.”
This time I step forward and hug the aunts as I feel my eyes growing damp.
When our driver has us back on the main road, I notice Lamija’s eyes scanning the scenery intensely. “My aunts have only each other for company. Husbands, children, parents… They’ve lost them all.” She wipes her eyes.
“We should visit them more often,” I suggest.
“These hills and valleys are full of widows,” she says wistfully. “Men and boys executed. Daughters and daughters-in-law raped and killed. The only reason these women were left to live was that they were considered ’too old’ to conceive or be raped.”
“Do you mind?” Lamija asks pulling out a pack of Virginia Slims. When I shake my head, she lights up a cigarette, staring at its tip intensely before inhaling. I place my hand on her left wrist.
That night in Visegrad, Lamija and I go out for a walk on the Bridge. The bright orange fluorescent lights reflect brightly off the newly painted walls of the bridge. Young couples walk past us, laughing and holding hands.
“There is a woman who hid in that house.” Lamija points to a house at the bottom of the hills. “She hid with her little daughter while her mom and dad were taken away. And then through her window, watched her mom and dad being shot on this bridge.
“Then there’s this woman who now lives in Potocari,” she adds, “who saw her four-year-old son being thrown like a basketball into the river. They shot the boy while he was still in the air.”
Lamija, who looks like she is muttering to herself, sits down on the benches at the top of the bridge. Leaving her on the bench, I stroll ahead but my thoughts inevitably return to those who must have stood where I am standing right now, waiting to be executed by the Bosnian Serbs, before their wounded bodies fall into the water—their bodies floating like lily pads on the calm and serene Drina. My legs feel numb.
The killings on the bridge diminished only when the people living upstream began to complain that the dead bodies in the river was starting to obstruct the flow of water into their areas. That was when they started burning the corpses instead of dumping them in the river.
Blinking myself out of this daze, I realize I am standing in the center of the bridge, the kapia, with its memorial tower and the Arabic inscription on it, praising Mehmet Pasha. I recall the translation of the inscription that I had read in Ivo Andric’s work:
I pray that by the mercy of Allah this bridge will be firm
And that its existence will be passed in happiness
And that it will never know sorrow.
Walking back to the bottom of the bridge, I notice Lamija walking toward me.
“Kareena, can you sit down with me for a bit?” she asks.
Sitting down next to her and observing that she’s struggling for words, I lay my hand on her wrist.
“I’m sorry I didn’t tell you.” Lamija mumbles. “I asked you to come here this time for a reason.” She pauses. “Not just because tomorrow is July eleventh. It’s unfair, I know, but I wanted to l ask you.
“A couple of years ago, I was informed that they had identified one of Rahim’s bones, the femur, in a decomposed graveyard upstream. There was a DNA match. Later, they found two more pieces somewhere else.”
I remembered reading that as the war was coming to an end, the Serbs dug up the bodies from various mass graves before scattering and reburying the remains at many other places so that none of the corpses could be recovered as a whole.
“I have to bury him tomorrow. Three of his bones.” Lamija looks remarkably calm. “They have his coffin ready. I would like you to be there with me. My mom, you know, she can’t. You’re the only other one still alive who knew him. Besides, you’ve been the sister that I never had. If you don’t want to, I fully understand. You can stay in the hotel. I will be back by tomorrow night.”
She looks up at me for a response, but I am unable to find the right words. “I have done this for fifteen years—informing relatives, digging up graves, burying victims. Still this is so… They found the femur three years ago. Just one. Since they have found two more elsewhere, how long can I wait? How long should I wait?” She sighs. “I’m scared. There is nothing more to hope for after this. I don’t know, Kareena. I don’t know shit about anything.” She turns her head abruptly away from me.
“We have a saying in this part of the country,” Lamija says. “The sky is too high, and the ground is too hard. You just have to grin and bear it.”
I inch closer toward her and touch her on the shoulder before she turns around, weeping on my shoulders.
“I will be there, Lamija. I’m so glad you want me to be there.”
Not long after I had taken up a position as an assistant professor at Wayne State University in Detroit, Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic, the Bosnian Serb leaders who carried out the genocide had gone into hiding. A normalcy of sorts had returned to the Balkans in the months following the signing of the Dayton Accord. I was becoming increasingly interested not only in the writings of better-known contemporary Balkan fiction writers like Ismail Kadare and Dubravka Ugresic but also with the works of journalists and reporters who worked in the region.
I was particularly drawn to the writings of Ana Duric, whose essays and memoirs—about life after the fall of Communism in the former Yugoslavian countries, and more contemporaneously, about years of the Balkan war—were well-known all over Europe. My department at Wayne State, though, was the first one to invite Ana to a lecture tour of the United States and Canada.
When she was a guest at the university, Ana and I established a rapport of sorts. Her writings included almost-biographical stories of women held in rape camps by Serbian soldiers and warlords. I learned from her that the perpetrators of these camps were walking free now—some of them running prominent business establishments, and even soccer clubs that participated in European leagues. Ana and I promised to stay in touch even after she returned to Europe.
When the International Criminal Tribunal for the former republics of Yugoslavia began its sessions in The Hague, Ana invited me to attend it. One summer I sat in the visitors’ gallery in the Hague and watched the proceedings as a balding man greying at his temples testified about the Pionoriska street fire – a fire in which almost forty members of his extended family including his father, mother, and a sibling were burnt alive. He was a completely unremarkable man as he sat there calmly answering the questions from the defendants’ lawyer. Two of the three main defendants in this trial are siblings—one of them a police officer just like the witness. The defendants’ lawyer was evidently trying to prove that his client was nowhere near the vicinity of the crime even as he offered the witness his condolences. Despite his calm appearance, I was certain that this man was wondering why it was that destiny had to pick him to sit on the witness stand and relive such horrors from the past.
Lost in my ruminations, I did not hear the conclusion of his testimony or the next witness being called to testify. Only when this witness—a lady in her thirties who worked for the prosecutor’s office in Bosnia and who collected DNA and other forensic evidence—took the stand, did I pay attention to her. The moment she started talking, this slim attractive woman dressed in white Bosnian attire and a translucent shawl draped around her head seemed familiar. Ana, who had accompanied me to the court that morning, meanwhile had stepped out for a meeting. We were supposed to meet for lunch.
At the end of her testimony, I rushed to the court clerk’s desk and sought the name of the witness. The moment I saw the name spelled out in the list that the clerk started looking through, I felt my knees turn wobbly. I rushed to the restroom, sat in one of the stalls and let the tears flow freely. Lamija Siljadic had survived the war!
During my lunch with Ana, I was unusually quiet. I had decided I would ask her about Lamija later that evening. Yet just as we were about to finish our lunch, Ana made a call on her cell phone, wiped her mouth with a tissue and asked me, “Kareena, there’s somebody here who has read your work, who wants to talk to you. Can you spend a few minutes with her?”
I had an inkling about who that person might be but was unwilling to show that I was surprised by her question. I merely nodded.
Within minutes, there she was, walking over to my table—the lady who I had last seen on the witness stand. She smiled at me, folding her arms respectfully. I was too stunned to respond.
Ana introduced us, excused herself and quietly walked away.
Seated across the table, Lamija and I ordered coffee. She opened the binder she had brought with her and brought out my letter preserved in a plastic folder. I immediately fixated my eyes on the ceramic cup in front of me, not wanting to meet her eyes. It was as if an embarrassing childhood episode was being exposed in front of my eyes, except that I had been much too old at the time to claim the excuse of “childhood.”
“This letter meant so much to me,” said Lamija in a faltering voice. Stunned, I glanced up. “During those days when there was nothing to look forward to. Nothing to believe that anyone cared.”
Rahim had returned home long before my letter reached her, Lamija told me. When she received the letter that I wrote for him, Rahim had told her, “Kareena’s a nice person. Smart too. You will like her.”
Since then, Lamija had followed my academic work and the papers that I had published. She has been working with Ana for quite some time as well. Ana, though, had never mentioned Lamija’s name before.
She had christened her daughter Karinja, Lamija told me. Tears began to stream out of my eyes.
The day following our walk on the bridge in Visegrad, it is past nine by the time we arrive in Tuzla—the venue for the annual burial ceremony for war victims. The crowd is starting to arrive in droves at the site—a swath of wide-open area surrounded by hills, that makes me feel as if I’m inside a stadium.
The number of victims buried at this annual function keeps coming down with the passing years. There are only one hundred and twenty-seven coffins to be buried this year—the twenty-first anniversary of the massacre. Lamija leads me though a sprawling tarp-covered area. The coffins, lean and compact and lined up in rows of eight, look like green canoes lined in the parking lot of a sporting goods store. Lamija knows where she’s going as she walks past women kneeling beside some of the coffins, and I follow her.
The marker at the spot where Lamija stops, has a nameboard in front of it—Rahim Siljadic. Lamija slowly goes down on her knees. Pulling out a Koran from her handbag, she begins reading it.
Avoiding making eye-contact with her, I stare at the freshly dug mounds of earth and the new coffins all around me. But it feels as if the remains of more than eight thousand human beings under this ground are observing us.
Lamija stares blankly ahead—unsure of what to do next. When she turns to look at me, I ask her if she would like me to leave for a moment.
“No. Stay with me,” she replies quickly, holding my hand.
Lamija pulls out her handbag, picks up a cigarette pack and lights up one. Still looking at the coffin in front of her, she places her right hand—palm and all five fingers—on the green cloth covering the coffin. I kneel down next to her.
“Rahim,” she says before pausing to compose herself.
“Rahim, I’m here with Kareena. You remember her, don’t you?” says Lamija earnestly. “Your roommate. Yes, she has travelled all the way.”
Lamija inhales two long puffs before biting her lips and tugging at her scarf. She continues, looking at the ground before her.
“If you must know, I’m angry. I’ve been sad for a long time, but today I’m angry. The last time you said good-bye, you told me…” Now, Lamija’s voice cracks. “You told me to take care of Mum and Dad. To stay safe and not step out of Sarajevo. I did all of that.
“Dad died six years ago. And now, Mum can’t remember anything. How convenient for her, isn’t it? But I did take care of them as you wanted me to. For the last twenty years.” Lamija wipes her eyes.
“I lived up to my end of the bargain, Rahim. What about you? I begged you not to go back. I begged you to stay safe. You promised you would. But you didn’t. You betrayed me. You haven’t met my daughter, your niece. She is all of nineteen years old now. Yes, nineteen.
“And after all these years, all that you have left for me are these—just three bones. See, what you have done to me? Three fucking bones from your leg is all that I have. This is what I, your little sister, get for decades of waiting.”
Lamija’s body shakes violently. I step closer to her and wrap my arms around her, while silent tears start to trickle down my face. As her body trembles in my arms, it feels as if we are not here in Tuzla but on the bridge in Visegrad, and the river underneath is rocking us.
Kripa Nidhi is a fiction writer from Texas. His short stories have appeared in various publications. His first collection of short stories, The Silence of Time And Other Stories, was published a few years ago.