Babo - Page 3
From Griffith REVIEW Edition 35: Surviving
© Copyright Griffith University & the author.
Written by Nikola Gurovic
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.