Dedicated to the 20th anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre in Bosnia, and to peace and human dignity.
On a warm, sunny June day, Zoran sat, playing chess for keeps at an outdoor café at the edge of Central Park. He was winning pennies from the keen-eyed old men who had come to spend their Saturday outdoors. He was a psychology student at NYU, and he was among the best basketball players for the Violets.
The year was 1995, summer term was just starting, and the war in Bosnia and Hercegovina was roiling. Zoran was Serbian and convinced that the Americans had started everything in Yugoslavia by supporting the Muslims.
Birds lighted on the trash cans and backs of benches, and children threw them candies and crumbs of bread. The whole park glowed in the sunlight. A gentle breeze came, and the leaves rolled a little to show everyone their brightness.
On the lawn, towering above the sunbathers, stood Schiller’s bust, as if to remind them of his words: “Beauty will save the world.”
A man in a gray suit, with expensive platinum glasses over unflinching steel-gray eyes, approached Zoran’s table with dignity. He looked about fifty. “Mr. Zoran Ristich?”
Zoran held his rook aloft, trying to look nonchalant. Had someone died back home? He thought of his brother, Branko, who had enlisted. “Flesh and blood. What can I do for you?” He set the rook down decisively. “Check.”
His opponent, a kind man in a grey felt hat, gave him a quick nod and stood up, pushing his coins to Zoran’s side of the table. The stranger moved in, taking the vacant seat.
“My name is Militarevich.” He put out his hand, and Zoran extended his own. “I am from Belgrade, just like you. A Colonel.”
“I see.” So he was here to recruit him. “I don’t know how much good I’d be to the Serbian National Army. I’m just a student.”
Militarevich waved his hand as though chasing an impertinent fly. “Zoran, I would like to acquaint you with my proposal.” He paused, then bored into Zoran’s face with his metallic grey eyes. “I am sure you are a patriot.”
“Of course.” He kept a big Serbian flag tacked to his wall over his bed, and wore a hat with the patch of the Republika Srpska coat of arms while he played Frisbee in the park. Fighting was for older guys. Like Branko. Tougher, he amended, remembering that he was only two years younger.
“You know we fight the Muslims. And you know America is supporting them. It’s our duty to the motherland.”
Zoran flicked at his knight with his thumbnail. “I have to think about it.” That was what he said when someone stopped him in the street, asking for money or a signature on a petition. “My brother is in the Army,” he offered, so that Militarevich would know his family wasn’t a bunch of slackers.
He nodded, curtly. “We know. He must be your hero.”
“He is.” Branko had always been the brave one, the one who backed up his words with action.
“Keep in mind, the motherland is calling. If we lose Serbia, we lose everything. If we lose our dignity, we lose our souls. And all shame will be upon us.” Colonel Militarevich opened his briefcase and pulled out a heavy volume, titled in English: Serbia: The Superior Nation of the Balkans. “Read this.” It was easy to see how he had risen to the rank of colonel. There was no mistaking his authority.
Zoran nodded, half lifting his hand to salute. “I will, Colonel.”
“Call me Dusan.” The Colonel smiled, just another middle-aged man now, someone you’d see at the kafana or pass on the street. “My card is in this book. Call me when you’re ready.”
Branko hadn’t needed a book, or time to think. “I will, Colonel,” Zoran repeated, meeting his eyes.
The Colonel snapped his briefcase shut and stood up. “Today is Vidovdan. Five centuries ago King Lazar led our soldiers against the Turks in the Battle of Kosovo. The dark powers creep over our fatherland again, supported by these bastards here.” He made a gesture that included all of the bastards in the café and in the park. “If we betray our land, King Lazar will curse us from heaven.” He pushed in his chair. “Don’t wait too long.”
Zoran survived in his dorm thanks to the frequent parties he threw. The loneliness of the city could not be overcome by studying or watching TV, or by eating the discount pork chops he cooked in his small kitchen. The usual company always met at his place: the two Bulgarian sisters; Takoshi from Japan, who lived downstairs; Peter the anthropologist; Michael from the Upper West Side; Roman the Latvian Jew; Misha Shestakov the Russian; Steve the Republican; Katherine the artist from Manchester—the original, not the one in Missouri, or in Georgia, not even the one in New Hampshire—Kyle the polisci major; two or three other random guys who were always up for a beer; and, of course, Joe the Commando. But his two best friends in America were Takoshi and Michael.
The enormous moon pushed in through the window. Inside, the company was gathered over drinks, indulging their nostalgia for the ‘80s with old AC/DC songs. Zoran was imitating the late Bon Scott, and the girls were laughing.
“Where’s Takoshi?” somebody asked.
Zoran looked around. “I’ll call him.”
But he didn’t answer his phone.
“He’s got nowhere to go. Maybe he’s asleep, dreaming of samurais,” Roman said.
“Could he be with his girlfriend? Or just some girl?” Katherine asked, impish.
“Maybe in virtual reality,” Steve the Republican quipped.
Somebody turned the stereo on, blasting the Grateful Dead. Zoran looked around. There was plenty of vodka and beer. Misha Shestakov had dragged over a gallon jar of pickled cucumbers and was arguing with Peter the anthropologist about the origin of the recipe: Russian, Indian, or Jewish.
Roman burst in, pale and sweating and disheveled.
“Dude, you need a beer,” Steve said, mocking as usual.
“Let me get a cigarette.” Roman passed his hand over his eyes, rubbing them hard.
The CD ended. In the silence, everyone examined Roman.
Roman exhaled the cigarette smoke and began to cough. “Look out the window.”
They looked out. An ambulance and four police cars had piled up, blocking the street. Bursts of red and blue light revolved in the windowpane. They watched, wordless, as a stretcher with a covered body was carried out and shoved into the ambulance.
“It’s Takoshi,” Roman said tonelessly. “He jumped out the window.”
“But why?” everyone kept asking.
“It’s just that Takoshi…” Zoran trailed off. “He didn’t feel comfortable here.” They had discussed it often. Zoran understood.
Everyone was confused and talking over each other. Only Joe the Commando sat in a corner, motionless and quiet. He radiated a quiet, almost mercenary, wisdom.
Zoran needed to get away. He perceived the evening not just as one awful night, but as an endless succession of brutal currents in a deep, narrow stream. To fight the current, to run away, would be salvation. But how?
He glanced at the book from Colonel Militarevich. In the dim light, he opened to a random page blazoned with King Lazar’s curse, in lurid italics:
Whoever is a Serb and of Serb birth,
And of Serb blood and heritage,
And comes not to the Battle of Kosovo,
May he never have the progeny his heart desires,
Neither son nor daughter!
May nothing grow that his hand sows,
Neither dark wine nor white wheat!
And let him be cursed from all ages to all ages!
The back of his neck prickled, and he turned to see that Joe the Commando had followed him.
“Joe? You were in the military, right?”
“Special forces. The Green Berets.”
“El Salvador. And my father is Mexican. How’s that for irony?”
“What were you doing? Cutting off communists’ heads?”
“Pretty much. Until I almost became one of them. When you go somewhere and kill people, at some point you start sympathizing with them. That’s what violence does to you.”
Zoran nodded. “They’re calling me up now. For Serbia.”
“Free advice from a Green Beret: Don’t go. It’s all lies.”
“I feel like I want to. If I stay, I’ll be a betrayer.” He decided not to mention King Lazar’s curse. Joe would think that was a lie, too.
“That’s ridiculous.” Joe’s sneer made him look ominous, like a gargoyle, in the low lamplight. “You go and serve some bastard politicians who will disappear after awhile. Only you might disappear first. What for? Don’t put patriotism before your own life.”
“I got a letter from my mom. My brother is in a military hospital. She says fighting the Muslims drove him crazy. Who’s going to pay them back?”
Joe laughed—a low, joyless bark “You can never pay them back. You’ll just lose the life you have.” He gestured around the room, at the computer on Zoran’s desk, the textbooks haphazardly stacked on the dresser, the narrow unmade bed.
“If this is so great, why do people commit suicide?” Embarrassed by his volume, Zoran cleared his throat.
Joe smiled bitterly. “I don’t know. But if you kill someone, you’ll never get your dignity back. You’ll be ruined.” He walked towards the window, his back to Zoran. “I should know. I’ve lost count of how many I killed.”
Zoran watched him silently.
Joe jerked the cord, and the blinds clattered onto the sill. “Remember what I told you, when you go off and serve the devil.”
Zoran called the number tucked away inside the book. “Mr. Militarevich? I mean, Colonel?”
“Good. I’ll send your ticket today. I am proud of you. May God’s will be with us. Fight for heavenly Serbia, part of God's New Promised Land! We are the people of Heaven!”
Zoran listened as the Colonel went on, writing down his instructions and making agreeable noises as he tried to put Joe’s words out of his mind: Ridiculous. Dignity. Serve the devil.
Zoran argued passionately with Michael, who had come to see him off at JFK, until the last minute. “I have to defend my motherland. Those American bastards are occupying my country!”
“Man, I’m an American bastard and I’m telling you: this is a waste.”
But Zoran wasn’t listening anymore. He raised the book so that Michael could see the title and gave him a mock salute. “Take care, man.” I am following the destiny of a true patriot, he told himself as he entered the gate.
Zoran arrived at Belgrade Airport in July. His first impression was that everything was very small and grey. After his years in America, he had forgotten almost everything: how people looked, how the streets looked. The memory of his favorite places was thin and pale. He saw so many Yugo cars at the airport lot; now they looked to him like children’s toys.
He visited his mother and father. His sister, Militsa, hugged him and cried: “Zoran, what are you doing? This is a terrible waste of your wonderful life in America!” His mother cried; his father stood silent and depressed.
“Father,” said Zoran, “I am doing the right thing. For the Motherland! For the sacred national cause! For Christianity!”
“No, son. This has nothing to do with what I believe in. I thought all nations in Yugoslavia would live together in peace. What happens now is the dirty work of the politicians and the superpowers behind them.”
Zoran and Militsa visited the Military Hospital in Belgrade to see Branko. It was surrounded by iron fencing and barbed wire. Inside was total misery: at least twelve soldiers packed in each room, dirty bathrooms, lousy food, and chaos.
One soldier wept on the floor against a wall. Another marched in the corridor, saluting unseen officers and calling, “Yes, sir! Aye aye, sir! Enemy approaching! Boom! Tra-ta-ta-ta-ta!” Yet another soldier was hiding from a nuclear blast only he could see. In the corridor, a soldier was running and crying out, “Let me out of here! Let me fight! Let me serve!” A doctor with a full syringe ran after him. A group of soldiers in the corner sang a military tune in falsetto while one beat an imaginary drum in accompaniment.
Suddenly, the steel door swung open, and four orderlies carried a stretcher holding a tall, strong soldier who thrashed and struggled. As he contorted his face and gnashed his teeth, Zoran had a flash of recognition. He turned to Militsa.
“Branko,” she whispered, almost soundlessly.
They watched as the orderlies overturned the stretcher and dumped him onto an empty bed. They started slapping him in the face, screaming at him to calm down. The pillow turned red.
Attendants brought a straitjacket and managed to wrestle it onto Branko. A doctor ran in, pushing a cart holding a square metered box and two long cords. They forced a rubber stick between Branko’s gnashing teeth and turned the dial all the way up. Branko screamed like hell. All of the patients joined in his howls. Soldiers cried, jumped on their beds, and smashed their few belongings.
Zoran and Militsa stood on the sidelines, silent and shocked. Zoran thought of Militarevich, cool and sane and composed. He must be your hero. Across the room, Branko’s back arched sharply, propelled by a surge.
After a few more tense days at home, Zoran hitchhiked to Srebrenica by night. He got on the road and saw a sign that read: “Srebrenica: 120 kilometers.” About 75 miles, thought Zoran. He walked along. Vehicles passed him, mainly trucks. He stuck out his thumb when the headlights flicked over his solitary figure, but nobody stopped.
Suddenly, a figure popped out from the bushes. Zoran jumped.
It was an older soldier, uniform almost torn apart. “Relax. I am a fugitive,” he reassured Zoran. “I am running away from hell.”
“Who are you?” asked Zoran.
“I am not going to tell you my name. I am escaping from a military penitentiary, from a Punishment Company. Where are you going?”
“Are you from there?”
“No. I am from Belgrade. But yesterday I came from New York.”
The older man started laughing. “Oh, yeah? And I came from Mars.” He stopped abrupty and looked around. “Enough talking. Time is not our friend. Let’s keep walking and try to stop a truck. I need to get to Srebrenica, too.”
As they walked on the side of the starlit road, forest enclosing them on each side, the soldier said: “It is not possible that only good exists in this world. Evil is an equal opposing force. Evil is real. Actually, it is stronger. Rules the world. Sometimes I think there can’t be so much evil in the world. But bad won’t go away just because you turn a blind eye. You, my unexpected companion, are still young and should remember this.”
Zoran barely had time to reflect on this speech before a truck approached. They waved their hands, and the truck driver slowed, then stopped. They got in.
Zoran had an uneasy feeling. He saw himself as if from outside. Something told him that he would remember the whole scene for the rest of his life. He gazed out at the now-empty, dark, and narrow road, overhung with century-old beeches. The beam of the truck’s headlights bored through the thick, horrifying darkness, an artificial light in a world without sun.
In Srebrenica, Zoran saw tanks, cannons, army squads, and the heavy military trucks that transported the bodies of dead Muslims. Serbian soldiers shoveled dirt onto them from the edges of a mass grave. Zoran swallowed hard, thinking of his last conversation with Joe: You can never pay them back. Or maybe you could, but it cost you something, too.
“Zoran!” someone called.
Zoran turned around and recognized an old classmate from Belgrade. He was taller now, of course, and leaner, with a sharp face that could have been engineered for the military. There was little sign of the boy who was always last to catch on, last to laugh at a joke, last even at physical culture. “Dragan? What are you doing here?”
“Protecting the Fatherland,” Dragan replied with enthusiasm. “We’re cleansing the whole area—no Muslims, no enemies, just us Serbs!”
Zoran peered at Dragan, trying to reconcile the dull boy he had alternately teased and pitied with the charged, wiry soldier in front of him.
“We used mortars to destroy the villages. We are amateurs, though—we didn’t know how to figure the range, so we just fired them, checked where the blast was, and moved backward or forward. We were running up and down the hill like crazy: total clowns!” Dragan laughed at the memory, then squared his shoulders again. “Still, we managed to kick some ass. Now we’re burying eight thousand Bosnians in a single grave.
Zoran looked back at the row of soldiers, still hunkered down over their shovels. A fine silt rose over them like fog.
“Well, we kind of killed them.” Dragan’s old matter-of-factness hadn’t entirely abandoned him. “What else? Now it’s time to celebrate.”
The old schoolmates wandered around Srebrenica and went into a tavern called The Powder Keg. A live band played wild, brutal tchalga. The singer’s bleating seemed to comment on the mass madness around her. Zoran and Dragan took seats at a long table amid a crowd of soldiers from the Serb National Army, para-military gangs, mobsters, and women determined to sell to the highest bidder. Covering the walls were lithographs from the old kingdom, war totems, military flags, coats of arms and logos for the Republika, for the Army—Serbian and Yugoslav—and portraits of General Mladic, Radovan Karadzic, and Slobodan Milosevic.
“We are the powder keg of Europe!” people from the crowd were shouting.
“Down with England!”
“Down with NATO!”
“Down with USA!” A colonel drew out his pistol and fired into the ceiling.
“Down with Moslems!”
“Viva Radovan Karadzic!”
“Viva General Mladic!”
“Long live Milosevic!” A trio of military gangsters fired their Kalashnikovs into the turf in front of the pub.
“King Lazar, pray to God for us! King Lazar, curse our enemies! Curse us if we ever betray you!”
Zoran wondered if he was at the wrong place, in the wrong era. Everyone and everything around him looked ruthless, narrow, and ignorant. All of his late-night debates with Takoshi and Michael about ideas, ethics, what people had a right to expect from life, what they owed each other—what did they matter, now that he’d been thrown in hell? Why hadn’t he stayed in New York? Nothing here had any connection with rightness or justice—anything he and Takoshi had, over beers and instant noodles, declared was worth dying for. It didn’t even feel like the motherland, as Colonel Militarevich had said. This fiery, howling pit didn’t belong to the Serbia of his childhood: the Serbia of the village, with its pecking chickens and pushy babas.
“Feeling out of place?” Drunk already, Dragan was shouting in Zoran’s ear. “Don’t worry! Tomorrow you’ll become a real Serb when you shoot your first Muslim trash!”
Zoran smiled wanly and looked away quickly, worrying the label on his bottle of Niska. “Unless America changed you! You’re not in New York anymore—this is the powder keg of Europe!” He gestured slackly at the sign and tossed back the astringent dregs of his rakia.
Zoran felt all this Balkan bacchanalia surrounding him. As a child, he hadn’t understood the Balkan madness, Balkan pain, Balkan, Balkan tragedy, Balkan deadlock, and Balkan doom. He wasn’t tough enough to be a man here, in this harsh, savage, place; America had softened him. He expected comfort. Order. Peace. He expected education, talent, hard work, and honesty to pay off. Not here, in this kingdom of aggression and brutality.
Did I just throw away every opportunity I ever had? Zoran thought of his abandoned dorm room, the textbooks he had left out on the street with the trash. Even his secondhand futon looked, in hindsight, like a luxury. He pictured himself, happy and oblivious in his room, surrounded by Serbian kitsch. Involuntarily, he thought of Branko, gagging and convulsing as the doctor dialed up the current. Of his parents, and poor Militsa, unarmed and defenseless in the village.
Every young person thinks that his own tragedy is unique, and uniquely impossible to solve: it is a variety of youthful arrogance. It is also how the young fall victim to fanaticism. It is inevitable to be changed by living somewhere else. And in Zoran’s case, the change was for good.
The next morning, Zoran reported to the camp, dirty and cotton-mouthed and still in his street clothes. In the midst of the crush, he could see that the other soldiers were dressed in new uniforms. The official emblem of the Army of Republika Srpska stood in stark relief against the dark fabric: a white, two-headed eagle crowned with gold.
The soldiers lined up. In the back, Zoran did his best to line up his toes with theirs so that his dusty, unwashed self wouldn’t stand out. A stout, grey major with fanatical eyes—a lunkhead, his clumsy, self-satisfied bearing nothing like Colonel Militarevich’s straight-spined dignity—mounted the stage and settled himself behind the podium, next to the Socialist Party Secretary.
The soldiers around Zoran quieted down as if they had been snuffed.
The major looked out at the ranks, and thundered: “He who does not have anything here—” he pointed at his head, “has to have a lot here.” He pointed at his biceps, and Zoran thought guiltily of Branko, his considerable muscles directed now by an empty shell of a mind.
“She who does not have much here,” the major continued, pointing at his chest and puffing it out to comical effect, “has to compensate with this here.” He pointed at his crotch. “This is the whole philosophy of life. Understand?”
The soldiers laughed. Zoran pushed air out through his own mouth, too.
The major frowned. “I know why you are laughing! You think the military is a joke. In fact, it is a factory for making knights. Our factory, which will make us the winners of all of the battles against the imperialist NATO armies!”
The soldiers wiped away their remaining smirks.
“Are you scared?”
They straightened up, squaring their shoulders a little more, puffing out their chests behind their insignias.
“Chickens? What do I see here? Only chickens! Ha!” His eyes traveled up and down the rows. The soldiers shifted uncomfortably, each sure the major was looking at him. “From this point forward, the weak will be cast out. Only the strong survive!”
The men cheered. Zoran did his best to look as if he were joining in.
The major began barking, almost joyful now. “Company, attention! Lieutenant, close the ranks! Forward march! Toward victory!” He turned to a tall, morose-looking man. “Sergeant, call the tune! Give the pitch!”
The sergeant began an old Serbian military anthem in a fine, metallic baritone. Soldiers joined him, tentative at first, then roaring as they marched out of the compound and toward the front line.
Zoran stood aside, next to an old Soviet tank, and watched them leave. He couldn’t just march out behind them in his NYU t-shirt and jeans. His sneakers were too clean, his clothes too visibly new, even in their unwashed state.
“Zoran Ristich!” An officer loped up to him smartly, checking his roll. “You are the volunteer from New York?”
“Yes, sir.” Zoran tried to look enthusiastic, ready to fight, like the young men around him. Like Dragan. Or Branko, when he had first joined up.
“Barrack Eleven. You’ll find your uniform and your weapon. Back here in two hours sharp.”
“Yes, sir.” Zoran saluted, clumsily, and waited for the officer to take his leave before he started toward the barracks. They were a mile back in the direction he had come from, near Srebrenica.
The officer hadn’t warned him that that mile was called Snipers’ Alley. Neither had Dragan. No one had.
Zoran was walking in the middle of the road, in plain sight, when a single, silent, faraway shot struck his heart. His body fell on the dusty ground. Because of his baseball cap, his new sneakers, his NYU t-shirt with its purple-colored mascot, the Serbian snipers had thought they were aiming at the American enemy.