Blackbirdan online journal of literature and the artsSpring 2015  v14n1
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Translated from the Bosnian

7 June 1993

Dear Arabela,

They came for me like for any other, in the morning, knocking innocently. That freckled boy, the baker’s son, frowning like a servant, and Goran, looking away and smiling the smile of the eternally blameless. I took what I could, what was left in the apartment, a suitcase of clothing and essentials, and walked in between them down the stairs. The courtyard was full of men with suitcases or rifles and the indistinguishable cries of women. They were rounding up the whole neighborhood, herding them onto buses, young and old. What a scene, Arabela, what a terrible and familiar scene, with that terrible and familiar disorder with which we do everything.

That was three days ago, I’m sorry I could not write to you sooner. But there is not much to write, not really. The bus drove us to Heliodrom, and after two nights in the sports hall I was put into a room on the second floor of the military college. They have boarded up the only window here, but sunlight peers in through the cracks in the wood. There are too many of us in the room, but that is to be expected, along with the smell, the heat, the restlessness and boredom. Mira’s son is with me, as I’m sure she has told you. He is doing fine, though I can feel my age against his impatience. He paces like a teacher. Today they brought in three more, including Mirsa, who stood in the center and asked what corner we use to piss in. We laughed, and so should you. There are toilets in the hall, there is food and water enough, and Goran is careless with his cigarettes. Life goes on. But to write about life here in more detail seems pointless, as absurd as describing the weather to you. Do not misunderstand my silence as a stoic withholding. And do not believe the gossip of Mira and the other women. They exaggerate, it is their right.

There are many of us here, but I keep to myself. So far I have been spared any labor at the front because of Jadranko. He says it is the least he can do and I’m beginning to believe him. My back only occasionally flares up, from sleeping on concrete.

Arabela, I miss you in the morning and I miss you at night. I miss the shudders of your body when you sleep. The murmur of your breath and its comfort. The animal sounds your stomach makes in the dark. I miss waking up to you still asleep, on your side, with both hands between your knees, in the silent radiance of our bedroom. I miss those mornings when you roused yourself with a sigh and came into the living room where I read, naked the whole flawless length of you, carrying in your hand your numb arm, fish-heavy and tingling with pain. I miss how you would let me straighten it out and rub it back to life, then kiss you from elbow to palm. Arabela, I miss you in the morning and I miss you at night, I miss and I miss.

Keep writing to me often. Take good care of the baby by taking good care of yourself. And after every breakdown, gather yourself and stand firm, Arabela.

I love you and always will,


12 June 1993

Dear Arabela,

I remember. Of course, I remember. Behind my father’s house, where the river narrowed with the willow trees on the banks, their boughs so close to the water that at the edges one could jump out and grab onto them, swing from them like the children did. And farther down the river, the old fishermen, catching trout and telling jokes as ancient as their bait. And you, your hips flickering in the green water, the white flash of your armpits as you swam.

I remember the summer Jadranko and his family went to Istria and left the house to us. Our weeklong imitation of marriage, you called it. Do you remember that? We lay in bed until noon every day, in a chaos of sheets, listening to American music and eating from your brother’s garden. Remember when we called “American music” all music that was not ours? Or French. You tipped the strawberries with cloudlets of whipped cream. I watched you eat.

Nothing has changed here, our lives go on. I worry only about Nermin, the powerful restlessness within him. The guards have begun to goad him. He talks about breaking out. Where will you go, I tell him. Mirsa says that the circus has come to town and we are its performers. The trapeze artists and fire breathers, tamable beasts. This cannot go on forever. We must come to our senses, while we can still look into each other’s eyes.

Keep writing, Arabela. Do not struggle alone, write your pain down and I will feel it. But do not linger in pain. Remember to let your hands wander over your belly for me.

I love you and always will,


16 June 1993

Dear Father,

Are your dreams still blameless? Is right still distinct from wrong? Like milk from blood, you said. Is the law still heavier than the cross, still the soil greater than the veil? You were always a man of logic and common sense, a Sisyphean passion, a faithless saint. You gave to your country until nothing was left.

In your heart you knew each man’s vice, but you held them all equal before the eyes of the law. You said intuition is intuition but a law is a law. You were well-regarded and treated each man fairly. You said charity is charity but a law is a law. Do not let them trample your conviction or poison your faith, you said. Do not let them turn you against your brother, for there will always be a wolf among the devoted hounds. And when misery comes to your door in the shape of a neighbor in uniform, do not let revenge turn your heart into a fist, because revenge is only revenge but a law is a law.

Father, you dreamed of a paradise on earth and believed it was home. I remember our walks together when I was a boy, the beauty you tried to impart to me, the pride. The rattle and crunch of our country roads, the soft tapping of the cobblestones in Old Town, how they amplified our footsteps, like we were a small procession of fathers and sons. Sounds of our land, you said. You lived for the smell of lilies, so overwhelming in the morning, for the sight of butterflies flitting over daisies and dandelions, a snail on a leaf. Sometimes, on our walks, your eyes would moisten, becoming a fainter green, almost transparent, and once I even saw a tear form on your cheek before the wind took it. You said no stone is just a stone in the country of your birth. You knew the names of trees.

Nothing binds a nation like victimhood and pride, but ours was bound by victimhood alone, shared wounds, a long history of the knife and the wire. For you Yugoslavia was too logical of an idea to fail, inevitable and correct, an invention of nature. But you were wrong, Father, our state was not a mountain, its law not a stream. You were wrong, not every pond within our borders was a watering place. Your laws have failed me. Your faith has deserted me. Your wrongs have wrecked my life. The nation you built has fallen into the nothing you built it from. Yugoslavia is dead. Communism is dead. Both died in their sleep, like you.

Sometimes I wonder about your ideals, Father, if without them the wind would have blown you away. Communism, that hollow faith, that blackout among stars, what would you have been without it? Without the law you practiced all your life, the land you cultivated only in your dreams. Father, you logician and saint, you sensible and fatal man, with a soul full of ideals and landscapes, I hope you have now reached the paradise you thought your country to be, felt the love of a God whose indifference you were all your life indifferent to, and I hope you are at rest somewhere where rest brings happiness.

I love you, Father, and can do nothing but love you,


23 June 1993

Dear Arabela,

I apologize for not responding to you sooner, but they have not let me see the doctor until now. I can judge the progress of the war by the mood of the guards. There is nothing new to report. I’m doing well. My back is only a little sore. I have a beard now. I have also gotten some new clothes from Jadranko, but they barely fit me. And the cigarettes he brought me are not my brand, though I can exchange them with Goran. There is nothing to write, Arabela, and I’m tired of writing nothing. I only live to read your letters. I cannot make my loneliness eloquent or my pain wise. I’m tired of trying. I’m tired of writing to an addressable but unreachable you, in only the language of loneliness and pain. I’m tired of memory and its clumsy echo. You tell me not to become desperate, to stay hopeful, yet all hope is desperate here. But you can tell from my handwriting that I’m calm. Should I tell you about the hunger that wakes me before the guards, the thirst which is much crueler, the humiliation of running in a circle while singing their songs. My feet are bruised, my skin hangs from my bones, and my asshole itches. My hands are dry and cannot make a fist. I lie in a small room full of shipwrecked men. I smell like an animal smells. But I will not cry out of guilt over you or pity for myself. I will not shed any tears for the living or the dead. Prison is a dry place. Three days ago I saw Nermin get beaten for spitting on the boot of a guard, get beaten until they could not beat him anymore, his teeth scattered on the ground, his mouth red and shapeless. I only chose one hell over another, mine over yours.

24 June 1993

Dear Son,

I close my eyes and I see you as you might look someday when you read this letter, tall like your uncle, as handsome as your mother, with her beautiful eyes, her beautiful heart, her soul. I see you in the yard of the building that was to be your home, standing in front of it as if for a picture. I close my eyes and there you are, in your room, my former office, at the roll-top desk, my desk, reading this letter. The dark is intimate, but it is not home. I open my eyes and you are gone.

My son, I do not write to you out of guilt or shame. I do not write to explain my reasons for anything, to confess or repent. I write to give you a history of myself, so that you are not without knowledge. I write to keep you company, so you do not feel abandoned. I write to you to have a reason to write, my son, my son, my son.

You know where I was born, and when. You know that I was an only child. And you might have heard that my father, your grandfather, was nothing if not a good man. He had good looks and a good education. He had good taste, sonnets and sonatas. He was strict in his realism, and his realism was practical and good. He was fussy and self-assured. Doubt and terror never assailed his mind. He was loyal to family, country and the law. What else can I write? I did not know him as well as I should.

When I was a child, he took me on walks through the city and countryside. He spoke of the history of our land and pointed out its beauty. He never talked more than on these walks. From our house on the banks of the Neretva we would go uphill into the city. On Fejić, people would stop and talk to him, their gestures playful and exaggerated, their voices like the voices of actors. The cafés were full of men under tilted shade umbrellas calling out his name. We walked past mosques with their heavy grey domes and silent minarets, and Father spoke of their beauty and their history and cursed their existence. Every day we crossed one of the three main bridges, Lucki, Titov, or the Old Bridge, depending on my father’s whim, and went west toward Partizan Park, where he read while I played. Before going home, we would usually end up in some pastry shop on Avenija to have baklava with lemon juice.

On weekends, the family visited your grandmother’s parents in Privorac. We walked through the copper and gold of pear groves, past tall black pine and down sunlit grass to the bottom of Hum Hill, climbing a gravel road only used by sheep and their herders. My father’s voice mixed with the sounds of animals and it seemed to come from as deep within him as the humming of bees or chirp of the sparrows that trailed us for the breadcrumbs. On those walks I learned about the Romans, the Turks, the Germans. I learned the names of our hills, our birds and trees. I learned more on streets and bridges, in orchards and on riverbanks, than in school.

Do the street names remind you of home, my son, or are they unpronounceable?

Your grandmother was a storyteller and jokester. She told stories of ghost children that swing from clotheslines and of an oddly shaped boy who lives trapped in spoons. She told these stories in a voice eager and warm, larger than her body, gesturing like a magician. I remember my mother in long skirts and light-colored blouses, swaying in the kitchen, her bare feet moving to a song on the radio. She would roll her hips and throw a free arm in the air. And when a favorite of hers came on, she would grab me and dance me from living room to kitchen and back, our naked feet turning in the amber and blond light coming through the beech leaves.

What I will miss the most is never seeing you run crying into your mother’s lulling arms, never hearing her voice grow husky with endearments for you.

The rain is wrinkling the windowpane, my mother would say. She called butterflies the drunks of the air, said their frantic wings were as silent as ghosts. She compared the yolk frying in the pan to the sun simmering in the sky. The blue of the sky blazes, she would say. She made up stories about the lovers who carved initials in the pale mottled bark of the beeches outside of our house, myths of eternity and longing. Both my parents wanted to describe their world to me, to show me the lurking wonders in familiar things.

Now I want to share some of that beauty with you. So you, my son, can see the house in which I grew up, the wooden porch in the backyard, my mother hanging out the wash on the clothesline, my father sitting with a book under a willow by the water. To see your mother carry a basket of vegetables and crouch down by a slow river, see her run through a pear grove, disappearing behind branches and waiting to be found.

I do not know you, my son, but I know that I love you, and is that not the height of love?

Your father

25 June 1993

Dear Arabela,

Do not give me terrible news I already know. I saw it with my own eyes and the memory of it torments me. There could not have been much life left in him when they dragged him away. I understand you want to be with her now, to bring with you a miracle for her, but Mira does not need you and your wanting to be of use would only make you stand more in the way. Nermin is gone from this world but he will never be lost to her.

Do not add to my troubles by writing about a return. You are safe where you are and I will join you soon. Just write to me for now. Tell me more about your life and ask me less about mine. I only live to read your letters. Tell me if you have gone swimming. Is the salt water stinging your lips? Are the mosquitoes pitiless? I know how you would rub your ankles against the rough edge of our bed at night. I remember the spider bites on your thigh, small and round, pale as scars. Keep writing about the life that is inside you, make me feel the shudders of his body. I imagine how big you will be when we meet, like there is a globe under your shirt, the whole world, Arabela.

Write, keep writing, write longer. Be true to us by never straying from yourself. I kiss your roughest knuckle, your belly and our child.

I love you and always will,


25 June 1993

Dear Son,

I met your mother in Makarska, though neither of us was staying there. A friend and I had rented a room north of Makarska, in a smaller and cheaper resort; your mother and her friends farther south along the coast. I cannot describe to you, my son, the first time I saw her for when I looked at her for what I thought was the first time, in a café, dipping a sugar cube into her coffee, I realized that I had seen her before, that I had passed her on the promenade, had noticed her on the beach. In the café she was sitting off to the side, by herself, yet somehow the center of everyone’s attention. This I noticed repeatedly, her proud and unapproachable solitude. She was lonely but unconcerned. She was quiet, which was intimidating because it was rare. She was tall and held her body straight. There was something of the aristocratic Russian about her, the long dark hair, her pale face, my imagination. From one of her friends I learned that she was involved with a tourist, an American. I imagined a rich older American with a summer house in the Adriatic, but it was only a young backpacker, rugged of build, blond of hair, from Montana. She called him Montana, never telling me his real name when she spoke of him. I never asked. She said she liked foreign men because she could change the meaning of her name with each new man, because foreign phrases of affection were easier not to mean.

Each morning I took the first bus down to Makarska and walked on an empty beach until I felt ready to call her. Together, we would walk up and down the promenade, then get coffee in the Old Town square before meeting up with our friends at the beach. She had a car and was more flexible than me, but her vacation was almost over while mine was indefinite. She could make me wait, I realized, and leave me with nothing. It was only on our very last day together that she told me that in a month she would begin studying at the University of Mostar. We had gone up some hill to see an old church there, and from the church took a path through the forest to the statue of Saint Peter, which overlooked the town, the red roofs of houses, the glint of traffic. It was morning, the sun low above the Adriatic, violet and orange spread out over the horizon. She touched the key Saint Peter held in his hand and I took a picture with her camera. On the walk back she told me about her plans, as though she did not know or had forgotten that I went to school there too. I could not make her aware of it again, for fear that she would not care. I tried not to show my hurt or anger and so became indifferent. Your mother had eaten an orange on the way to see the statue, and now I saw the orange peel she had left behind, mixing with pine needles and cigarette butts on the ground, stirring in the breeze. Birds sang overhead, sharp rapid notes, and small yellow butterflies darted above lavender shrubs. But she talked about her studies and her talk ruined everything.

The sundress she wore that morning was white and there was a yellow sweater tied round her waist. I remembered because I thought it would be the last time I would ever see her. Mostar was a big enough city not to run into each other, and the History building was miles away from Language. We stood on the cracked stairs on the top of the hill, ready to descend, when I told her that I would stay up here, lean against one of those graying church walls and read, patting my pocket as proof of the book that was not there. She gave me a look, angry, annoyed, but obliquely affectionate, coy. I resisted it, said that I would rather stay and read. She rolled her eyes, large and brown; who are you fooling, they said. She offered me her hand, but I ignored it like a shadow. Her features slackened. She told me then, in a voice tender and unforeseeable, that I would never understand her feelings for me. That is when I knew, almost too late. My son, I was a fool with your mother and lucky to get her, lucky the way only the foolish are lucky.

I will not describe to you our relationship in all its meanderings, but there are some things I want you to know. Your mother will tell you the rest, if you let her. We dated for a year and it was summer again. I worked the fields with your mother’s father like a character out of a Russian novel, my neck burning. We picked Marasca cherries in the morning, the sun slowly rising behind the high boughs of maple trees, blurring their leaves. Her family accepted me as one of their own. And when her brother’s family went on a trip to Istria, he left the house to us as a responsibility and gift. We borrowed from his garden and stole from his cellar, selecting the wine by the thickness of dust on the bottle. The house was near the Buna River and we bathed there under a moon perched on a hill. On the terrace, which was overhung with grapevines, we danced drunk on another’s wine and our own love.

We were married in September of 1990, the ninth, and moved into an apartment on Rude Hrozničeka that the Yugoslav Army had given to my grandfather for his service in the second World War. After I graduated, I got a job in the food division of Velmus, a wholesale distributor on the outskirts of Mostar, where I eventually became manager of the warehouse. Your mother and I bought oil paintings from local artists and hung them on our walls. Copper plates of the Old Bridge and watercolors of pomegranates we put in the small room adjoining the bedroom, your nursery. We filled colorful bowls with colorful fruits, oranges everywhere, a habit of your mother’s that had turned into a pleasure. She had begun eating them when she was young only because their smell covered up the cigarette smoke in her room, on her skin, her fingertips. We drank coffee three times a day, together in the morning and evening. Your mother started teaching at my old high school as part of her praxis and I began working ambitious hours to justify my promotion. Then, one dawn in April, the war started, a slow dawn whose colors were not gentle. The year was 1992. Hopeful people, we blamed the violence on circumstance and history, ancient grievances and long memories, a bad economy, the fall of communism.

We went from basement to basement, ending with a relative of your mother in Bijeli Brijeg, not far from the stadium. It was a large house with a large basement, a view of mountains from the balcony. I drove to work each morning until the Serbs overran the warehouse. Your mother never denied me the normalcy of our former life. Survival is not complicated, my thoughts or your mother’s thoughts as we crouched under stairwells or hid ourselves in pantry closets with the sugar and potatoes. And when the Serbs left, there was nothing simpler than to return home and pick up the pieces. Our apartment had been plundered, each cabinet door in the kitchen flung open as if out of breath, but we had not lost anything that could not be replaced.

If it had not been for you, your mother would not have left when the war began again. You saved her life. Remember that. I cannot explain to you what happened next, because I do not understand it myself. They came for me one morning and I went.

Your father

28 June 1993

Dear Arabela,

You will never be lost to me. You are not near when I awake, but I embrace you in my dreams. You are far from my touch, but my arms stretch out patiently toward you. We are apart now, but I have never felt closer to the place where we will meet. I will wait and listen for you there. I will move in the direction of your voice, always. As long as you have memory and language, speak my name. Do not let it become a ghost between your lips. My heart beats within yours, Arabela.

I love you and always will,


29 June 1993

Dear Son,

I knew that another war would come, that the Catholics and Muslims were turning against each other. Everybody knew, though your mother and I tried to keep it a secret from each other and even from our own selves. And when the war did come, what else could I have done but wait until it was over? There was nothing to fight for because to fight for a city is to destroy it. There was nowhere to flee because there was no hope for me of life beyond my land, beyond the small patch of Mostar that was mine. Anywhere but here, the longing for what I had left would have exhausted me, the instinct to return disturbed my dreams. My heart is anchored here, and here it must be buried.

That is all, and yet it is not enough. I feel that I have failed to make myself understood. It was your fate, you will say. You must forgive me for leaving you with nothing but this letter, small glimpses of my past, cracks of light. You must forgive me for leaving you.

I think of words my father said to me, words I can pass on to you. Never turn your back on your country, your grandfather said. But you will only appreciate the unintended irony of that. Be good and you will be happy, he said. But he also said that I should be good even if it makes me unhappy. He said, Do not resent what you know is necessary. My son, do not hate those whom you should pity.

Forgive me for having the last word and leaving you the silence,

Your father

September 24 2011

Dear Father,

A response to your letters is not needed, but it feels natural to write one, more natural to have it in the form of another letter. Maybe response is the wrong word. We write to the dead what we did not remember or dare to say when they were alive. We write to the dead because there is always something more we want to say. My need to write to you is not much different.

Sometimes I’m angry with you, and sometimes I pity you, but most often words are useless to describe what I feel for you. Mom has kept you alive in my mind; there are pictures of you around the house, there’s one I particularly like. You two are standing on grass under the raw branches of a bare tree, a Bosnian maple, and there’s a river in the background, green and inert. The Neretva River, Mom said, and complained that nature always appears startled in photographs. You’re wearing a brown jacket and dark pants, your expression is stern and remote, your mouth doleful. The slight flutter of Mom’s skirt is evidence of a ghostly breeze.

The letter you wrote to your father and the letter you wrote to Mother but didn’t send, the one where you describe prison as a dry place, were found in a shoebox along with letters from Mom to you and a black-and-white picture of her. There was also a leather case for glasses in that shoebox, a wristwatch whose battery had given out at a quarter to nine, your passport, driver’s license and other documents proving your identity and existence. They were saved by Uncle Jadranko and given to Mom when she returned to Mostar, nine months pregnant, to bury you. She came back to Split only a week after your death because she could not stay in the place you had died for longer than that. My life is ruined there, she keeps saying. Whenever she talks of you she starts crying with an intensity that embarrasses me and makes me proud.

She added the letters she had received from you into the shoebox and stored it in her closet. The shoebox lay there for years, not exactly hidden and not exactly put there to be found. She’d show me the letters when the time came, and it came a few days before our trip to Mostar. I was twelve. I remember that first trip back as a series of cemeteries, destroyed buildings and unknown family members fawning over me with a delicate cheerfulness. Nothing is rebuilt, Mom said, pointing at what used to be a shopping mall. There was trash everywhere, and graffiti on the walls of ruins. There were buildings with only their façades standing, hollowed out with trees growing inside and branches shooting out of empty windows. It looked like an abandoned city, left to nature, but at night people came out into the cobbled streets of Old Town and cafés filled with music and laughter. But it’s a city divided in two, on one side the church, on the other the mosque. Even the dead are divided, though you, Father, are buried in the city cemetery, which is common ground and, ironically, just outside Mostar. We stayed on the eastern side, the Muslim side, with Mira and Izudin, even though this angered Mom’s family. She didn’t care. She rented a car and showed me the sights she wanted me to see: our old apartment, the houses of both of my grandparents, and the Old Bridge, so crowded in the summer, with divers walking the ledge and teasing to jump. On the last day of our trip, on our last visit to the cemetery, our last walk down the cement path to your headstone, we lit the candle we had bought you and placed fresh flowers on your grave. Then, for the first time, Mom kneeled in the dirt, put her palms together and improvised a prayer. As we walked back to the car, she spoke of the immense human silence of a place like this that made it possible to hear the wind rustling in the trees, the birds chirping on the branches. Like the silence of a silent crowd, she said.

After we returned from Mostar, I reread your letters. I began listening more closely to our songs, began learning the history of our country, from books, from my mother’s mouth. But still I felt no closer to home. After a year in Split, we had gotten a visa to the United States and came to Phoenix, where there weren’t many Bosnians, then to Tempe, where there were even fewer. The immigration agency had said Phoenix is your new home and Mom didn’t complain, because she didn’t care. We moved to Tempe because of her job. I grew up an American and Mom didn’t care about that either. And Mostar we visited only because she wanted to see your grave again. She will visit often, but she will never come back for good. Whenever I read about war in books or see documentaries about it on television, there’s always the feeling that those who had lost their homes or a loved one, even those who were wounded or raped, were somehow lucky. Maybe it’s an instinctual reaction by the onlooker, but it strikes me as the wrong one. He was wounded but at least he survived, they’d say, like survival will cure all pain. She was raped but lucky to be alive, they’d say, as though only the dead are unlucky.

I can’t explain to you how I could miss a place I never knew and that never was my home, but I began missing Mostar with an unexpected urgency and regret, the way I have always missed you. I told Mom I would go back after graduation, and she agreed. I took your letters with me and went for a month this year. I stayed with Mira and Izudin, in their downstairs apartment in Old Town, where Mom and I had stayed before. Every morning I went for a walk to the store (Mira refused money so I filled their refrigerator in compensation) and each walk would take me to stores farther and farther away. It is hard to describe the adrenaline I felt on those walks, how swift and tireless my legs felt, how the beating of my heart propelled me forward. The sky was a deep orange in the east, a pastel blue in the west, and the cobbles gleamed like they were wet. They amplified my footsteps. I heard the clutter of tables being set up outside the many cafés, the scrape of chairs and the whoomp of blossoming shade umbrellas. I heard the voices of young shopkeepers bargaining in English and German where Fejić becomes just an alley with souvenir stalls on either side. I heard the beating of wings as pigeons fought for breadcrumbs thrown by an old man on a bench. Walking on Fejić, I smelled spinach pita and burek from the bakeries and the milky batter street vendors swirled into crepes on their hot plates.

After lunch, Izudin would speak to me about local and international events, beating the newspaper with his forefingers, the toothpick in his mouth forcing a smirk on his large, good-natured face. He told me stories about being a soldier on the wrong side of the Neretva, hunting farm animals for food and stealing supplies from UNPROFOR, told me how some of the people responsible for his son’s death are still out on the street. The Hague is but a poor man’s Nuremberg, he said. He spoke like a comedian, but there was pain in his eyes. We are a funny, careless, and bitter people, he said. Every day he asked me to translate a peculiar and impossible Bosnian phrase into English and every day he laughed at my literal and nonsensical translation. At night, on the weekends, I hung out with Izudin’s nephew, Edo, who showed me the nightlife of Mostar, which spanned ethnic divides but was otherwise unspectacular, not any different than in America. Though before each night out at the club we’d go to a small and isolated clearing in a beechwood forest, where young men and women would come to drink bargain wines from gas stations, sitting on logs and rocks while music from their car stereos and the lilies of the forest overwhelmed the night. It was something Mom said she did when she was a teenager, something you probably did, too, and something now I have also done.

One day, I met Uncle Jadranko in a large café on the western side of town, not far from the rondo. The streets on the west side have all different names now and Mom’s directions were nearly useless. The architecture is modern and lifeless, but the cafés and shops are crowded. Jadranko looked much older than he did when I last saw him, his face wrinkled and nut-brown. He spoke passionately about his house on the Buna River and his dream of retiring there soon, smoking cigarette after cigarette as he spoke and flexing his brows with every exhalation. He still works for the city council. I asked him to tell me about the Heliodrom camp. This is what I learned: he worked nonstop to obtain your release and had you just given him more time, you would have been freed; he got you out of working at the front, digging trenches and building fortifications for the army that imprisoned you; it was through him that you were granted access to the doctor, who was another prisoner, and to the small but comfortable room within Heliodrom where patients were kept. There you lay on an army cot, writing letters and waiting for your back pain to subside, and there you hung yourself from a drainage pipe on the last day of June with a length of rope you used as a belt. I’d known all of this before. I also know that “human shield” is a beautiful combination of words, that freedom is the horrible feeling before you make a decision, and that there can’t be any redemption in keeping a man alive if he wants to die and no redemption in letting him die.

Jadranko and I argued about the check until he leaned back in his chair, giving up. When the waitress came, I paid her while he shook his head, playing with the cellophane wrapper of his Camel pack the way his sister does with her Marlboros. When I returned to Mira’s it was that bad time of the day in Mostar when temperatures hit triple-digits and it’s unbearable to be outside. I usually spent those hours listening to music or reading in the cool of the downstairs apartment, but that day I took out your first letter to Mom and started translating it, because that day it became impossible not to try.

Each day during those dead hours between noon and dusk, I worked on the translations, trying to make the letters as beautiful and affecting in a new language as they are to me in the original. Each day I tried to dig through to you. I failed because failure is the translator’s fate, because every note on translation is a somber one. I failed because there was too much earth and language between us. The more of myself I transferred into the letters, the more of you I lost. What’s left is only a ruin in translation.

On my first visit to Mostar, with Mom, they had just released the Srebrenica tapes, and footage of the massacre was shown frequently on television. It showed Bosnian Serbs drinking and joking while the prisoners they had rounded up squatted in the background, waiting to be shot. It showed Serbs firing into the mountaintop forest through which some of the men tried to flee to safety. It showed the terrible ambiguity of safe areas. It showed a man shouting his son’s name to the mountain, forced to tell his son to give himself up, that nothing would happen if he did. The son’s name was also Nermin, and hearing that name groaned by the father, like from the bottom of a ghostly well, made Mira hysterical for days.

The footage also showed the actual killings, the men being dragged from the back of trucks and made to kneel on the grass, their hands tied and heads down. It showed the events of Srebrenica with the most detail and clarity possible. It brought them closest to reality for the viewer. But what I wanted to know as I watched the footage was more than the camera could show, more than any anthropologists can tell. What I wanted to know was the men’s thoughts as their knees hit the ground, what each one was thinking the moment before death. That the camera cannot capture. The bones do not reveal.

I love you, Father, and can do nothing but love you,

Alen  end  

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