Before the war, you worked in an office. You took care of your parents, who were getting older but still managed to tend their vegetable garden and read the newspaper every day. For your daughter’s 9th birthday, you bought her a bicycle. Your teenage son played soccer for a local team, and when you could, you went to cheer him on.
When the war started, you could not believe that such a thing was possible in this day and age. “It’s the 20th century,” you told your husband in disbelief. You did not understand how people could kill their neighbors. You blamed the politicians for this sudden contagion of nationalism. People will come to their senses, you reasoned, even as things got worse.
Finally, you sought refuge in the town—Srebrenica, the one the United Nations had disarmed and subsequently declared “safe.” You reasoned that if U.N. troops had disarmed it, they intended to protect it. It is only logical, you thought. And eventually several hundred Dutch troops were deployed there. You did not speak their language, and they did not speak yours, but they stood between you and those who wanted you dead.
Almost overnight, the old life slipped away. War brought massacres, starvation, and a siege that cut you off from food, medicine, and the basic necessities of human life. Sewage overflowed, disease spread, women died in childbirth. You traded everything you owned, including your wedding ring, for food. But the next day your children were hungry again.
When the town fell, men were separated from women, and you had only a few moments to say good-bye to your son, your husband, your father. You prayed fervently for a detention center or concentration camp—better alternatives than death—and for a future prisoner exchange that might, one day, reunite you.
Despite the fact that it was July, your son wore everything he owned: a sweater and socks you had knitted, a jacket, and heavy boots. Winters are brutal in eastern Bosnia, and somewhere in the future a sweater might save him from freezing to death. In his pocket was a photograph. Or a letter from his girlfriend. Or a prayer. Or a heel of stale bread. Or a small bag of salt. Or, miracle of miracles, an apple. And you wondered if he remembered the house, his grandparents’ vegetable garden, the childhood that you gave him before this nightmare began.
Author’s Note: When Srebrenica fell on July 11, 1995, requests by the Dutch battalion for air support were answered by the United Nations, but strikes were abandoned when the Bosnian Serb army threatened to kill Dutch hostages. Bosnian Muslim men and boys were shot beside pits and buried in mass graves. They were caught as they tried to flee, taken to warehouses and factories, and executed. In all, up to 8,000 were killed.
No one is sure how many people died in the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina during the 1990s, but estimates range from 100,000 to 200,000—overwhelmingly Bosnian Muslims—with many hundreds of thousands more displaced. The problem with casualty figures is that they suggest that things can be quantified and boiled down to recognizable, if tragic, terms. Numbers can be disturbing or sobering. But they are never as chaotic as the realities they enumerate.
Courtney Angela Brkic is the author of Stillness and Other Stories and The Stone Fields. She teaches at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. Excerpted from Dissent magazine (Summer 2007). Subscriptions: $24/yr. (4 issues) from Box 3000, Denville, NJ 07834; www.dissentmagazine.org.