From Griffith REVIEW Edition 35: Surviving
© Copyright Griffith University & the author.
Written by Nikola Gurovic
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Nikola Gurovic’s biography and other articles by this writer
THE grey light of the cold November afternoon, like tracing paper, was getting weaker as he reached the southern edges of the Arizona flea market on the northern plains of Bosnia. The fear of war was creeping like a slow and silent beast into the lives of common people, and Babo considered himself one of them - except he was not afraid. He had promised a new iron stove to his mother who, despite her old age and health problems, refused to abandon her house and animals in the village to spend the winter with Babo, her eldest son, and his wife and two little boys in his city apartment. Asparuhov - ‘the Bulgarian', as everyone at the Arizona market knew him - had sworn he would have those stoves in stock by late September. Since then, instead of goods he was delivering one pathetic excuse after another.
Babo wasn't fooled easily, but he didn't have much choice. The talk of war meant people were buying wooden stoves, petrol lamps, candles, torches, and stocking up on food and fuel.
On that late November afternoon Asparuhov didn't appear at his usual spot at the Arizona market. His neighbouring tradesman, a cheerful young Chinese selling underwear, flannel shirts and huge chequered plastic bags, spoke only a few words of Bosnian, usually those that would facilitate his trade, and was not of much use. Babo wasn't sure whether the Chinese understood his questions about Asparuhov, but he didn't want to give up and leave the market empty-handed once more.
‘He won't be back,' snapped an old woman sitting on a small fruit crate and displaying contraband cigarettes on another. ‘He lost all his money playing blackjack at the Monte Carlo Motel, up on the highway. He couldn't afford a pack of Marlboros - how on earth could he provide the stove for you, mister? Get serious, my man!'
Babo tried his best to suppress a growing anger. How could he trust the bloody Bulgarian? Why didn't he listen to his friend Milan and ask his former business partners in Slovenia to get him a stove? He lit a cigarette and turned to leave the ugly place. Not twenty steps from where his Volkswagen Golf was parked, he heard a voice: ‘Hey mister, hey mister... Do you want to buy a gun?' The boy hurried to keep up with him. He wore jeans stained with splashes of beige paint, black Nike sneakers and a heavy handmade crewneck jumper.
‘I don't need a gun,' Babo replied mildly, while regarding the stranger with suspicion. No older than seventeen, he thought. The face was still boyish, but the strong lines of his chin and jaw, cheeks and nose were chiselled like those of a young man. He was smiling, and his dark eyes couldn't hide the thirst to make a deal.
‘It's a very good gun, it's new, never fired a single shot, it's a gem,' the boy continued.
‘What is your name, boy?' Babo asked.
‘Robert, like the Red Star midfielder who played in the mid-1970s?'
‘Yes, my father is a huge Red Star fan and so am I,' the boy said proudly.
‘Why would I need a gun?' Babo asked. He was starting to enjoy the conversation.
‘There will be a war soon - everyone needs a gun,' the boy said, as if declaring the simple fact that tomorrow it would snow on the plains of Northern Bosnia.
‘Who says that the war is coming...your father, your mother, your teacher?'
‘No, my older brother Vladislav.'
‘And Vladislav is a clairvoyant, or a defence minister, or a CIA agent?'
‘No, no, he is studying medicine in Belgrade and he is a huge supporter of Slobodan Milosevic.'
‘Why would your brother support the Serbian leader, such a warmonger?'
The boy hesitated for a moment. He didn't want to say anything that would push away a possible buyer. ‘Because Milosevic is promising that all Serbs will live in one state and no one will subjugate them ever again,' he said hurriedly.
‘Tell me something, Robert, has someone been harassing you here in Bosnia?'
‘No, but who knows what could happen tomorrow.'
‘Do you think that I could be capable of harming you or killing you?'
‘I dunno, mister. You didn't tell me your name or ethnic origin.'
‘They call me Babo but my real name is Ahmed. I am a Bosnian Muslim, and when it comes to humans the only distinction I make is between good and bad.'
‘So, you don't want to buy a gun? How will you be able to protect your family and yourself when the war starts tomorrow?'
‘I don't need a gun, Robert, and there will be no war tomorrow or next week, or next month or next year. Get back to your painting business and don't worry!'
‘I'm still in high school - I just helped my friend Haris to paint his room,' the boy said, looking down at the stains on his pants.
‘Haris is a Muslim, I assume,' Babo replied.
‘Yeah, he is my best friend, and he agrees that there will be a war soon.'
‘And would you fight against Haris if the war starts?'
‘No, no way, he is my friend - we've known each other since first grade.'
‘See...there is no reason to fight. No war, then.'
The boy was silent for a while. ‘Haris and I are just little mushrooms in the immense woods of Bosnia, mister. You will need a gun, and you'll see that I was right,' he whispered, making a final attempt to sell the gun, which was wrapped in several layers of thick hazelnut-coloured paper under his right arm.
‘Go home, Robert - selling guns is not a job for a boy like you. Just go home.'
‘See you in the war, mister,' the boy said extending his hand and smiling.
‘There will be no war,' Babo repeated, taking the boy's hand and sensing that he sounded utterly unconvincing. He walked to the car, opened the door and put the keys in the ignition. The engine didn't start. He tried again and again, pausing to allow the battery to recuperate.
HE WAS LYING awake and cold sweat was covering every inch of his body. Instinctively he turned his head towards the bedside table with the oversized digital clock: 3.43 am, his usual time to break off from another nightmare.
Almost twenty years, several oceans and a few continents were dividing his present life on Australia's eastern shore from the shadows of his past in the hills of Bosnia.
He slowly removed the blanket and got up.
‘Where are you going? It's too early,' his wife whispered. ‘Did you have one of those dreams again?'
‘Everything is fine - try to sleep, Alma. I'll make some coffee and go for my usual walk.'
Moving carefully in the darkness he reached the kitchen, turned on the rangehood light and put the kettle over the ring of blue flames. He lit a cigarette and checked on his grandson Dino, who was sleeping in a room at the far end of the hall. Dino, the youngest, was his favourite. He was only five and didn't mock Babo's broken English or make funny comments about Grandpa's boldness like his two older brothers: Vedran, nine, and Amar, eleven. Babo loved them all tenderly, but he had a soft spot for Dino.
From the threshold of the boy's room Babo could hear regular breathing. Back in the kitchen he put three little spoons of instant coffee into a half-litre yellow thermos, one of the rare objects he saved from his previous life. He poured the boiling water carefully, waited for the steam to become invisible and screwed on the plastic top.
He put on a long-sleeved shirt with oversized front pockets, jeans and a pair of joggers he left at the front door of their townhouse. It took him about fifteen minutes to walk from their dead-end street, through the sleepy Gold Coast suburb, to reach a promenade that stretched at least a mile along the ocean and ended at a massive white wooden jetty illuminated with old-fashioned pole lights on the left side. He walked slowly, feeling the warmth of the flask in his hand and the coldness of the salty air on his face.
Every hundred metres or so he would stop to turn his face towards the breeze coming from the crashing waves. He would take a deep breath and try to keep it for ten seconds.
Then he would continue his lonely walk, feeling that with every break and breathing exercise the heavy burden of his dreams was dissipating into the darkness.
People who come from the countryside usually feel unease, even fear, when they find themselves by the ocean. The first time Babo saw the Pacific was the morning of his arrival at the Gold Coast after a long, exhausting journey from the refugee camp in Hungary. The ocean's terrifying vastness meant freedom at last, a universe of water to protect him from the killing and hatred of war, and the misery of the camp.
It was still dark when he stepped onto the deserted jetty. He sat on a bench and stayed motionless for a while. Even a slow, longer walk was an achievement for his heart patched with double bypasses and for his lungs congested with nicotine from years of smoking. His promise to the Australian surgeon that he would give up tobacco lasted shorter than his recovery after a successful heart operation.
He lit another cigarette and poured coffee into the plastic cup of the thermos. Daybreaks at the shore had become his salvation since his arrival in Australia.
IN THE BEGINNING he had hoped that the memories of war would be replaced by the events of his new life in a foreign country so different from his native land. The summers were endless, the winters mild and brief, the people reserved but genuinely kind. He and his wife's poor English made their social life unrewarding. They were lonely, but he refused to consider his wife's suggestion that they seek out new friends among other refugees from the same part of the world. ‘I had enough of them in Bosnia,' Babo would say if his wife started nagging.
He enjoyed his night shifts at a busy petrol station and from time to time he would manage to have a chat with a customer. Everything was fine until the heart attack that came out of the blue for his family but not for him, who had stubbornly ignored chest pain, prolonged headaches and shallow breathing. The truck driver who found him unconscious on the floor of the petrol station took him to the Gold Coast Hospital and from there he was flown to Brisbane for an urgent operation. Six months later a Social Security officer told him that he was eligible for early retirement because of his health problems.
Long days at home and sleepless nights made him depressed and the nightmares about the war were recurring even more frequently. Robert was in most of them. Several months of counselling didn't help much. As the sessions advanced he was talking less and his counsellor more. Both were aware that any progress was insignificant.
The coffee was cold when he took the first sip, and he tried to light what remained of a cigarette that had died out while his mind was stumbling through the labyrinth of his previous life.
WHEN THE FLAMES of war reached Northern Bosnia, Babo was among the last men to leave his small town, which was known for its huge oil refinery.
‘They are coming!' his neighbour shouted and waved from the street. He had a bursting canvas rucksack on his shoulders and sheer panic on his face.
‘Where will you go?' Babo asked, standing by the window of his kitchen, his expression calm.
‘Into the woods,' the neighbour said, as if he was going fishing.
As the sound of heavy gunfire became louder Babo had no choice but to leave in a hurry. He abandoned his apartment without locking it and with no idea where he was heading. On the kitchen table he left a bottle of homemade plum brandy sealed with red postal wax. Under the bottle was a note written on a sheet of paper torn from his son's notebook. He had written in neat block letters: TAKE EVERYTHING BUT DON'T INCINERATE, PLEASE.
Five weeks later he was leading a crew of twenty-seven, most of them boys not older than twenty but eager to fight. They marched during the night and rested high in the mountains during the day. Babo and a couple of the boys knew every inch of the terrain from their Scout days, when he spent many summers in the woods teaching school children about survival skills and life in the wilderness. Being in his early forties Babo was the most natural choice for a commander. He accepted this duty with no grudge and no goal in mind but to save the lives of these youngsters and to see the end of the war they were thrown into unwillingly.
THE SUMMER MONTHS were marked by frequent skirmishes. A couple of risky night operations enabled Babo's unit to get automatic rifles, ammunition, boots and proper winter clothes. With the cold late autumn, the crew's morale started to erode. The boys missed their families and girlfriends, movies and soccer games, and most of all proper meals made by their mothers.
The intensity of the fighting diminished as the days got shorter, which made things no easier for Babo. He missed his sons and wife as well. From occasional messages passed by couriers he knew that they were safe in a refugee camp in Hungary. His twin sister, Azra, remained in a Serb-held town with very few Bosnian Muslims. She had never married and her job in a small flower shop owned by a Serbian woman, Milena, was her life. Milena's husband, Danko, was a kidney patient dependent on dialysis twice a week in a local hospital. Their only son was recruited into the Bosnian Serb forces just a week before his eighteenth birthday. Working for about a year for Mrs Milena, Azra grew close to the family. Still, for security reasons she was hesitant to leave her apartment close to the train station and move into Milena's house. Things changed when she found a message on her apartment's front door. ‘Whore, go to Tehran,' it read in the Cyrillic alphabet preferred by Bosnian Serbs. She packed and half an hour later knocked on Milena's door.
Less than two hours' drive up in the mountains, Babo got an order from the regional commander to take more initiative and switch to daily operations. ‘Serbs must learn that the war will last much longer than they hoped for.'
‘Do those morons in Tuzla think I am in charge of a battalion of the best trained soldiers eager to go into open fights with Chetniks?' Babo swore and cursed. He wanted desperately to ignore the orders. During the first summer of the war his crew had only lost two men, when a landmine had gone off.
He wanted the coming spring to see some palpable results of the international efforts to stop the bloodshed. He never understood why the West gave up on Yugoslavia and then on Bosnia. One of his boys had a small FM radio. The late-night broadcasts of an independent station based on a cargo ship cruising in the Adriatic Sea off the coast of Italy were Babo's only connection to the wider world. The reception was usually poor, and what he could hear was wrapped in diplomatic hypocrisy. Yet it couldn't camouflage the bleak truth: the international community could not, or would not, intervene. Not yet.
DECEMBER STARTED WITH light snow, thick, milky morning fogs, freezing temperatures and instructions for Babo's company to take control of two remote hamlets loosely connected to the steep mountainous road the Bosnian Serb forces used for random attacks on the Bosnian supply line. Heavy snow would make that road useless until early spring, but that was still in nature's hands.
Babo got through his briefing quickly, the company packed in a hurry and they reached the first hamlet of simple white houses well before noon. The buildings had tiny low windows and shingle roofs, and were scattered on a kidney-shaped clearing bordering old black pine trees on one side. Not a creature could be seen or heard, save for a hawk cruising high in the sky. Half an hour later the unit was marching again.
If Babo's recollection was correct, the second village was about two miles away. He ordered his men refrain from smoking and use sign language. They were entering territory that might hide unpleasant surprises. First they saw black smoke coming from the direction of the hamlet, stretched on a slope and touching a creek hardly five metres wide. Still, there was no way to cross it and keep your feet dry. Waiting was risky, to move even riskier. Babo was not a gambler but he rolled the dice. Halfway across freezing knee-high water he thought: if the Serbs are waiting for us this is their best chance to shoot us like a flock of wild ducks who lost their way.
The platoon crossed the creek in groups of three and was just two hundred metres from the first houses when shots rang out. The boys flattened themselves on the ground and reached for cover behind huge piles of firewood, unused building blocks and a wall of dry stone marking the boundaries of the property. The Serbs opened up with four AK-47s and four or five semi-automatic M59s - the Yugoslav army version of the Soviet SKS carbine. Babo's men responded with a burst of machine-gun fire, peppering the walls of two houses held by the enemy. With every round Babo's men were getting more accurate. Inside all that noise he came to the conclusion that the unit was facing a mere dozen adversaries. Still, he didn't want to see his boys crawl forward and enter the range of hand grenades.
The adrenaline of battle diluted his perception of time. Babo could only judge by the first shadows of dusk that the shootout lasted half an hour or so. They waited another half hour in silence and then moved towards the village. The search-and-destroy mission started with the houses the Serbs used during the skirmish. The first one was deserted. Hundreds of small-arms shells, cigarette butts and an empty half-litre bottle of brandy on the rough timber floor covered with mud were the only remains of fresh combat. After a while Babo and Mirza, his back-up, slowly pushed open a screeching door of the second house, not thirty metres away. The cobalt light of late autumn evening left little visibility indoors. As his eyes adapted Babo saw a man seated by the window with his back towards the room. He pressed his AK-47 to his right shoulder and aimed at the motionless silhouette. Mirza followed.
‘Hands up - don't move!' he shouted, and waited.
‘Have you been wounded?' he said in a firm but not unfriendly voice. Mirza had his gun ready but Babo was hoping to see a sign of life. In the eerie silence they moved closer. A metre from the seated body Babo knelt down. His first impression was that the enemy soldier was still alive.
He put his index and middle finger on the soldier's neck, trying to feel his pulse. ‘Torch,' he whispered to Mirza. The yellow circle of light landed on the beautiful face of a young man, a boy almost. His beard, if that was the right word for the line of gentle dark moss on his jaw and chin and space above the upper lip, would within a year or two have turned into something distinctive.
The boy's dark eyes were wide open and ghostly. Tears ran in two tiny streaks down bloodless cheeks, which were covered with a fine layer of ashes from the houses his unit was burning and looting before Babo's company arrived. He had been crying before his heart took its last beat. Did he feel that the end was near? Did he beg his comrades not to leave him behind, or call for his mother or a sibling? Did he pray to be forgiven?
A mixture of sudden anger and sadness or something deeper engulfed Babo's heart. He thought the war made him tough, capable of facing death and suffering and yet remaining in total control. In Bosnian his nickname meant father, old man, someone who commands wisdom and respect. He was in his late twenties and working at the oil refinery as a sales representative when he was given the nickname. Premature baldness and quiet manners, even in the most heated debates at work or on sporting fields, had earned him unusual respect.
Again he looked at the dead boy's face: chiselled as if following the canons of an ancient Greek sculptor. ‘Keep that torch steady,' he said in a toneless voice. He searched the two upper pockets of the boy's olive-grey woollen jacket and didn't find anything except the tiny hole encircled with drying blood where the bullet hit him in the chest. From the lower pocket Babo fished out a piece of hard plastic no bigger than a business card. He knew that he had found the identity card.
Mirza moved closer, doing his best to keep the torch steady.
‘Robert Beljanski, born October 26, 1974, Doboj, Bosnia Herzegovina. Address: Belgrade Street, 48.'
This boy was barely eighteen, Babo thought.
He felt Mirza's hand on his shoulders. ‘Let's go - we can't help him. It's all over for him.'
‘Gather our company - we will bury this young man,' Babo said in a voice that wouldn't brook argument. Mirza didn't move for a second, and then he handed his torch to Babo and rushed through the door.
Ten minutes later the loud voices coming from outside signalled that the unit was waiting for Babo's order. He got up and switched off the lamp. In the darkness he could still recognise his men.
‘I need two volunteers to take the body from the house and another four to dig the grave,' he said, trying to remove any emotion from his voice. Silence followed.
He repeated his demand, and after another silence Pasha, the bravest and the most outspoken soldier in Babo's company, said: ‘Why should we bury a Chetnik? Don't you see what his companions are doing? They are not humans, they are animals, and they are burning, looting, raping and killing... I would leave him to the hungry wolves. He got what he and people like him deserve.'
‘Do you all agree with Pasha?' Babo asked as the silence became unbearable.
Silence made their answer clear.
‘This boy deserves a decent burial,' Babo continued, his voice still calm. ‘We don't know if he did anything wrong. Maybe he just followed orders; he is only eighteen and he was called into this war the same as you.'
‘He is not a baby - he knew what he was doing,' Pasha said without suppressing his rage.
‘If there are no volunteers I will bury this young man myself, but in that case you will have to choose a new leader and he will have to take command from this very moment. Understood?' Babo slowly turned and entered the house.
He sat next to Robert in full darkness and tried to light a cigarette. His hands were trembling and his whole body hurt; his heart was pounding as if it would explode. Tears of sadness and defeat came slowly to his eyes.
He had hoped his boys would grow tough and strong but not ruthless, brutal combatants, the same as the soldiers from the other side of the trenches. Had the war killed all the innocence and kindness in their young hearts? What would become of them when the war was over? Would they be able to live with a past so tarnished by revenge and bestial acts?
As the tears dried up he was able to light a cigarette and inhale deeply.
‘I will help you bury Robert,' Mirza whispered from the door.
‘Let me finish my cigarette first,' Babo said, regaining his composure.
Mirza switched on his torch and placed it on the window's edge, turning the light towards the room. Babo slowly moved Robert's body from the wall and lifted his torso from under the armpits; Mirza grabbed him at the shins. They watched their every step to avoid Robert's arms hitting the ground, wall or doorframe. Once they were out they put the body on a patch of grass protected from the snow and rain by an elm tree.
The unit gathered.
‘I will dig a grave, but that doesn't mean I changed my mind,' Pasha said, anger still in his voice. ‘Where would you like me to start digging?' he asked, coming forward from the semicircle the unit had formed.
Babo grabbed the torch from Mirza and scanned the terrain quickly. ‘This will be fine,' he said, drawing a rectangle with the torch.
When Pasha bent to press the small soldier's shovel with his right foot, two other soldiers came to do the same. Babo disappeared towards the creek and a short time later he was back with two straight birch logs for the cross.
He took the knife off his AK-47, sat on the threshold of the house and started to carve a connecting point for the cross into the wood. He was not happy with the outcome but at least Robert's grave would be marked, he thought.
Mirza, assisted by two soldiers, wrapped the body in to a washed-out army tarp, tightening Robert's feet and positioning his arms across his chest.
The skies were clearing when they lowered the body into the grave, filling it with dark reddish earth without waiting for Babo's orders. He fixed the cross at the head of the grave, pushing down with all his weight to stabilise it. Mirza was always the quickest to read his mind. He handed over fist-size stones to be arranged around the base of the grave and strengthen the makeshift cross.
‘Can we pay tribute to Robert Beljanski with a minute of silence?' Babo asked when the job was done.
The soldiers took their berets off and stood motionless.
‘The war is over for him at least,' Mirza said after a minute passed.
‘We will spend the night here and move around 5 am tomorrow,' Babo said.
SPRING CAME WITH no significant change on the battlefield or in international diplomacy. The tectonic shift occurred in June, when Bosnian Serbs intensified their attacks to prevent their territories being cut in half by Bosnian Muslim forces.
Babo's unit, like many others, started to feel the heat, with no opportunity to select targets or the time of attacks. They became a target themselves.
As the situation deteriorated, the order - shocking to them all - came to surrender to the Croatian units, which had become more aggressive on Bosnian soil. The day he and his boys surrendered was the saddest since the start of the war. They were taken by a Croatian army truck to the football stadium in the bordering town on the Sava River. Days of humiliation followed. They slept on the soccer field, and sweated during the long and scorching summer days. The food was disgusting and they were allowed a quick shower only twice a week. It was a life like those Babo had read about in books written by Soviet dissidents.
The Red Cross delegation visited the camp in early July. Mirko, a Croatian major whom Babo knew through his work contacts in the oil business, guided it.
Mirko was reserved but before the delegation left he promised Babo to hasten prisoners-of-war exchanges with Croatian forces, which were now fighting against Bosnian Muslims in several regions. The war had reached the stage where three ethnic groups in Bosnia were all fighting each other.
In late August Babo was allowed to join his wife and sons in their refugee camp in Hungary. His ailing mother was there as well. The family hadn't heard any news from his sister, Azra, for several months. When the excitement of the reunion faded Babo started his search with the help of ‘Uncle Janos', the administrator of the camp, a cordial Hungarian with short white hair and a cheap bulldog pipe always in his mouth. Babo started making calls late at night from Uncle Janos's office, phoning his acquaintances all over the former Yugoslavia, developing a web of contacts that might help him locate Azra.
In mid-September the International Migration Organisation officials visited the camp, offering resettlement to Canada and Australia.
‘Is it cold in Canada?' his mother asked.
‘A bit colder than in Bosnia,' Babo replied, knowing that he was telling a little lie.
‘What about Australia?' she continued with a faint smile.
‘That's a continent of long summers, endless beaches, sleeping koalas and lush gardens,' Babo said cheerfully.
‘That sounds nice - can we try to get visas, son?'
‘Yes, mother, we can try,' he said softly.
By mid-October Babo learned that their visa applications for Australia were accepted and that they would probably depart in late November from Vienna. His family was over the moon, but not him. He wanted to find Azra before leaving.
AS NOVEMBER STARTED the anguish in Babo's heart grew stronger. How could he ever depart without knowing what had become of his sister? Was she alive and safe? How was she coping with the fear of persecution and hatred?
The answer came suddenly. Early one morning Uncle Janos knocked on Babo's door. ‘There is someone on the phone for you,' he said. ‘Come with me to my office.'
Babo didn't bother to find his joggers or to put on his jumper. He rushed through the long corridors of the former orphanage and found himself struggling for air.
He almost fell on the table while trying to reach the receiver.
‘Babo, is that you?' a familiar voice asked.
‘Azra, my God, is this real? Where are you calling from?'
‘From the flower shop. It's still standing, and I continued working for Mrs Milena.'
‘Are you okay, sister, can you talk?'
‘I am fine, thanks to Mrs Milena. She is my guardian angel - she protects me and she gives me shelter at their place. I moved in last autumn because I was too scared to stay alone. Mrs Milena has been insulted quite often for helping me, but she doesn't care.'
‘I am glad that someone is watching over you, sis. I will find a way to show my gratitude and to repay Mrs Milena.'
‘She doesn't need that - she is happy that I am helping with the shop and with Mr Danko, whose illness is getting worse. They are so worried about Robert, their son. They haven't heard from him for a long time. They were told he was wounded and evacuated to Moscow to be treated by the best Russian doctors. At first Mrs Milena learned that Robert was recovering in Belgrade's best military hospital, so she rushed there and, after three days of visiting various hospitals, didn't find him. She had been crying, praying that Robert would ring the doorbell some day.'
‘Wait, sister, wait... What's Mrs Milena's surname?'
‘Beljanski. I think I mentioned that a long time ago. Why?'
‘Beljanski from 48 Belgrade Street?'
‘Yes, they haven't changed their address for ages.'
Babo couldn't believe the coincidence.
‘Listen to me, Azra, listen to me carefully. Robert Beljanski, born on 26 October 1974, was killed in action and I buried him in the mountains less than a year ago. You can tell Mrs Milena that her son didn't suffer but his companions left him behind. I could not provide a priest or organise a proper service according to the Orthodox tradition, but Robert was buried like a human being. It's not much, I know, but that was all I could do in the madness of a bloody war.'
‘Are you absolutely sure about this, Babo?'
‘I am absolutely positive. I still keep Robert's identity card and I can send it to the Beljanski family some day if they want me to.'
HE EMPTIED THE last drops of coffee into the ocean, replaced the plastic cup on top of the flask and was about to leave the pier when the first fishermen started to arrive and arrange their rods, nets and buckets, hoping for overcast weather and a good catch.
Dino was still asleep when Babo sneaked in. His wife was waiting for him with breakfast and fresh coffee in the plunger.
‘I must buy some paint today for the front fence if it's not raining. Tonight I am going to call Azra. We haven't heard from her for a week.'
Real characters and events inspired this story.