To mark Croatian Statehood Day, I am posting an excerpt (the Prologue) from my book Fragments of War. I hope it is a pleasant respite from my customary analysis.
I waited until the ancient bell stopped tolling before I joined the other mourners in the church. I didn’t want to be there and I didn’t want to think about Risto. He had always put the living ahead of the dead, and now that he was dead I understood why. I didn’t care if I was in denial or guilty of avoiding the subject as he had once been. I would do my duty and no more. The manifestations of grief were a self-indulgence I could do without.
In the cool shade of the entrance, I dipped my fingers in the holy water, wishing it was a flowing river instead of a stagnant stoop. Making the sign of the cross, I sighed as the luscious droplets of water touched my forehead, then ran my eyes over the anonymous heads in the crowded church. Shelby, whom I was used to seeing in cream or khaki slacks with a light coloured shirt, materialised at my elbow in an unfamiliar haze of dark blue and took my arm gently.
“It’s time,” he said, nodding at the priest in black vestments who had just arrived at the outer door, preceded by three acolytes with a cross and candles.
“Not up the front,” I pleaded in a whisper as he led me up the aisle.
“You must. Second row. You were his boss,” Shelby answered in my ear. “If I can cope with all this popery, you can cope with sitting up front.”
I stifled a smile. Shelby, a Southern Baptist by upbringing, enjoyed ribbing his Catholic friends, me included, and the papist-puritan exchanges had become somewhat of a joke. I paused as we reached the second pew and turned to where our UN liaison officer, Major Douglas Lytton, was sitting with his head bowed respectfully, fingering his blue beret. He looked up and scrunched his forehead compassionately as he caught my glance, and I struggled to keep my composure. It was the first time I’d seen him since he’d broken the news of Risto’s death, and it felt like a wound upon a wound. I turned away and genuflected slowly, pausing with my knee on the cream stone floor, letting the cool discomfort of the coarse marble seep through the thin fabric of my skirt, and gazed up at the crucifix praying wordlessly for strength.
“This should be in Sarajevo,” I reminded Shelby in a whisper once we were in our pew, not expecting an answer. “He belongs there, not here.”
“Impossible,” he replied. “Even if his mother agreed….”
“I know, I know,” I cut him off. “The logistics are impossible. They have enough dead of their own to bury, and food is more important. It just feels so wrong….”
The remainder of the Requiem Mass passed in a blur. I let the old priest’s incantations carry me through the ritual of death, a numbing cascade of words culminating in a golden chalice held aloft, a chalice of blood from which I felt unable to drink. At the end, in the wake of the priest’s robes as he glided solemnly out of the church, Shelby turned to me in confusion.
“Is that it?” he asked in an undertone. “Shouldn’t there be a eulogy or something? Shouldn’t someone say something?”
“Not here, not now. A church isn’t the place for speeches…. At the wake perhaps,” I added gently.
A few minutes later, Douglas Lytton asked me solicitously if I would be attending the burial.
“No,” I replied with a discreet shake of my head. “I don’t think I can. I’ll go to his grave another time… alone.”
“I understand,” he assured me, more with his earnest baby blue eyes than his words, “but promise me you’ll check with me first, that you’ll take an escort if I advise it.”
“Of course,” I smiled, wanting to placate him, and paused as I caught the distant call of a muezzin on the wind.
“A memento of Sarajevo,” Douglas murmured, and I restrained the impulse to correct his British pronunciation of the Bosnian capital, to say Sarajevo the way Risto said it.
“He would have felt at home,” Shelby added superfluously, not wanting to be upstaged in sensitivity by a soldier.
I nodded and stood aside as the casket was brought out of the church and began its journey up the canyon to the hillside graveyard. Shelby and the other internationals clustered together, speaking in undertones, looking uncharacteristically vulnerable, as if the sniper’s bullet that had pierced Risto’s armoured vehicle and flak jacket had also killed their adrenaline-fuelled bravado. We were a drab and awkward group in a motley assortment of dark colours, unlike the locals who wore unadulterated black.
As I leant on the wall of the ancient church, I heard snatches of conversation.
“I told them this would happen…” Douglas muttered to his adjutant. “…Frogs don’t return fire….”
Matt Garvey, a lieutenant from the same regiment, frowned in response and said something about “kids” and “our mandate” while Douglas snorted in frustration.
I’d heard it all before. The pitiful UN mandate meant UNPROFOR was a spectator more than anything else. The French, mostly teenagers on national service, stuck to the letter of the law. If one shot was fired at them, they’d fire one shot back, if that. The British, experienced soldiers who’d toured in volatile places like Northern Ireland, brushed aside the mandate and returned as much fire as they deemed necessary. Consequently, only a couple of British soldiers had been killed, whereas scores of French had become casualties in someone else’s war. Risto had been in a French zone when he was shot. While no one seriously blamed the French – we all held the Serb sniper fully responsible – it was difficult not to speculate that Risto might still be alive if they had been more rigorous in their duty. None of us could see the point of sending in the troops if they couldn’t stop the aggressors by force of arms. Even for the pacifists among us, the idea of shooting one bullet here and there seemed a pitifully inadequate response to concentration camps and ethnic cleansing.
Watching the hundreds of black figures swirl back and forth, I felt as if I was suffocating. The polished ebony casket set off, accompanied by black banners and a pair of buglers, and a strange indistinct wail began to echo through the valley, half-prayer half-lament, as the bereaved gave voice to their grief. It was a mediæval-looking scene, and I felt giddy as I watched the procession crawl slowly up the stark rocky canyon like a giant snake. My colleagues had been swallowed into the black horde, and I was mesmerised, overwhelmed by a sense of timelessness and the disturbing thought that this was what my funeral would look like if I died here.
I began to gasp for breath and felt sobs rising in my chest, and I fell to my knees, my long aubergine-coloured skirt billowing gracefully to rest in the cream dust. But still I couldn’t take my eyes off the procession. Even the manly figure of Douglas Lytton striding purposefully towards me couldn’t break the spell. I was bewitched. I couldn’t distinguish one person in black from the next as they stumbled up the hill of dull cream rock, but the grief was more real to me half a mile away than had I been in the middle of the heaving crowd.
Douglas took me gently by the shoulders and began undoing the heavy black shirt that, out of decorum, I’d layered over a sleeveless top.
“You’re suffering from heat exhaustion,” he stated in his crisp upper-class accent.
I nodded in acquiescence. I trusted him implicitly. It had never occurred to me not to, for he had an air of authority and displayed such competence that it would have been almost insulting to doubt him. Casting aside my shirt with a hint of a grunt, he took out a canteen seemingly from nowhere and poured some water into his hands, whereupon he patted my cheeks and forehead, then wet the back of my neck. Then he forced me to drink.
“Better?” Douglas looked at me keenly, the usual twinkle in his eyes replaced by a searching gaze.
“Yes,” I stammered with an involuntary shiver. It was only then that I realised how hot it was. “I have the oddest feeling. I feel like I’ve been transported to the Middle Ages. I feel like I don’t exist yet.”
Douglas smiled indulgently and poked a stray tendril of my hair back into one of my braids.
“I’m not sure it’s exactly what Risto would have wanted, but I’ve done everything he specified, apart from the Sarajevo bit. I remember he once said funerals were for the living, not the dead. I know we never knew him as a soldier, but there was something of the soldier that I recognised in him. He lived life the way I think it’s best to fight, like he didn’t have a life to lose.”
“I think part of him died in Sarajevo with Ariela,” I replied, beginning to feel in control again.
“He was an odd one, though,” Douglas noted with a half-smile. “Do you have any idea why he’d want to be buried with his eyes open? I had a devil of a time arranging it. Even his mother and sister couldn’t enlighten me.”
“Kad’ umrem, nemoj mi zaklopiti oči da bi barem jednom vidjeo kako tuguješ za mnom,” I murmured, reciting the unforgettable words that Risto had quoted to me on a moonlit night on the shores of the Adriatic. When I die, don’t close my eyes so that if only once I might see how you mourn for me.
“I beg your pardon?”
“I have no idea,” I lied.