In 1908, the Austro-Hungarian Empire annexed Bosnia-Herzegovina. On June 28th 1914, in Sarajevo, a Serb nationalist youth killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne. This single event sparked the First World War and the eventual the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
It wasn't until I was a young adult that I learned how my Hungarian ancestors were a catalyst for WWI. I wondered: had the Austro-Hungarian Empire not annexed Bosnia-Herzegovina, in an attempt to civilize the 'savage Serbs', might we not have had a world war at all? Or was it inevitable, this war, given that diverse ethnic groups occupied the area and tensions were brewing from previous occupations, from centuries past?
The 'savage Serb' was a term I learned from my parents and relatives. They had nothing good to say about the race they once overtook. As a child I believed what I heard, albeit with confusion, because I instinctively felt I wasn't getting all the information. What made the Serbs savage? Were they born that way? Or were they simply evil people? My parents said the same about the Russians. For them it was a standard reaction for any race they disliked or didn't understand. I resisted their claims quietly but remembered the word 'Serb' and wondered where these people came from and if I would ever meet one.
For a time I ruined a Serbian woman's life. I had an affair with her British common-law partner. I felt justified in that their relationship had been stagnating for many years. For twelve months we kept the affair secret, while I shuttled from Canada to Europe meeting him in Barcelona and Istanbul, then later in Belgium. She remained behind in Amsterdam where she worked as a film editor. He worked in Antwerp.
When I first met him in Ottawa, he told me he lived with a Serb. This is was my first indirect contact with the race that had been a mystery to me since childhood. When I heard 'Serb' I heard the word 'saber'. He told me her name. V___. I was arrested by her name, exotic sounding. One that I envied right away, and repeated over and over in my head. He told me she was a sought-after film editor. She was well educated, I thought, dispelling any notions I'd learned from my parents that Serbs were uncivilized.
At the time of our fated meeting, I was consumed by my life as a professional dancer and became equally consumed by this new lover, oblivious to the tragic events unfolding in Sarajevo, in Bosnia, in the former Yugoslavia.
I had been thrilled to hear, many months earlier, that another Communist regime had fallen, this time in Yugoslavia. Based on my parents' years of confinement behind the iron curtain, such occasions were times for celebration for families of ex-Communist nations. Awash with anticipation of what this post-Communist world meant for a new Europe, I wasn't yet tuned into what was really happening in and around Sarajevo. Little did I know of the two wars developing; a personal one and a Balkan one.
So when the man, sitting across from me in a restaurant in Ottawa with whom I was painfully infatuated, revealed with tight lips, that he lived with a Serb, I didn't understand the implications. Something in his tone, the way he said 'Serb', left me with the impression that he was defending her; he was anticipating potential prejudice. His layered tone righteously inferred an obligation on my part to sympathize with her, while he himself was at odds with this sympathy. Sympathize I could because I was colluding in adultery and potentially destroying their relationship. But something in the way he said 'Serb', he was sending me a complex message, one whose complexities would only confuse me further in the coming months and years as I tried to understand the war in Bosnia.
We parted after our initial tryst and I returned to Vancouver. The rest of Canada and an ocean divided us. Our phone calls were scheduled while he was at his office in Antwerp. His letters arrived weekly. We intoxicated ourselves with love notes and phone sex, meanwhile horrific events occurred in Bosnia. The siege of Sarajevo became the top story of the nightly television news. Suddenly my lover's peculiar tone of voice over dinner made sense: from the reports, Serb militants surrounded the city, blockaded roads in and out of Sarajevo, cut off water, food, medical and electrical supplies, effectively starving and imprisoning hundreds of thousands of people. Atrocities were being committed, from ethnic cleansing to mass executions, rape and starvation. This was modern day Europe where this kind of violence had not been seen in Europe since WWII.
My lover, in one tightly articulated word—Serb—attempted to guard a reputation, to play down the evil impression, to convince me that not all Serbs are alike. I had never made mention of the beliefs I was raised with. Was it that he sensed my subconscious programming or was he now moved to defend V___ to everyone he knew? Did he mistake my wince at the mention of her name as judgment? Could he not recognize my jealously?
I felt cornered, betrayed, forced by my lover to accept a race that was committing despicable acts, while carrying the cross of Orthodox Christianity. Because he had been in a seven-year relationship with V___, he felt compelled to defend all Serbs. I felt belligerent. We discussed Bosnia on the phone, my lover and I, long distance. I turned into my mother, condemning the Serbs. He argued with me, saying everyone was at fault.
"Yes but the Serbs are the ones that started this bloodshed," I countered. "How can Muslim women and girls be at fault when they're subjected to daily rapes?"
But my lover held to his convictions and I to mine. I was doing research. "I'm reading Slavenka Drakulic's book, Balkan Express."
"She's Croatian." His tone subtly insinuated that her essays were tainted and biased. I was beginning to think he was biased.
"She's a well respected journalist." I defended Drakulic's book. I felt my one Croatian relative, a great-grandmother whispering through my genes, dividing me against my lover and his partner. In an unspoken agreement we decided to keep politics out of our relationship and stick to romantic missives.
In spite of the geographical and political distance our passion grew, our longing for each other distressed us. His secrecy ate away at him, his relationship with his Serb grew distant and strained. V___ watched as her country fell into unthinkable ruin.
After a year he confessed the affair to V___. He called me and said, "She knows."
"Oh my God," I answered, knowing I was now fully complicit in contributing to her suffering. I wondered what was happening to her family back in Bosnia, but felt too guilty to ask. I knew V___ was from Sarajevo. Wasn't the war more than she could already take? "What did she say?" I asked.
"She said … how could you? I'd put my right arm in the fire for you."
I'd put my right arm in the fire for you. I saw the image vividly: a woman with long, thick, black hair. She sits cross-legged, her one arm in a campfire, burning. Her face completely calm. Her act, barbaric self-savagery. I saw a woman of extremes.
"She's completely beside herself, she's a mess," he told me. "She's hates me."
I remembered what my mother said about Serbs and tried to push it out of my mind.
I was wracked with guilt as V___ had a nervous breakdown. My lover chose me over her. He moved out of their home, left Europe and moved back to Toronto.
"She's determined to get me back, she's not going to let go. Even though she hates me now." V___ phoned my lover daily. He gave me weekly reports. V___ was living her own solitary, silent war as the war raged on in her country. My lover grew distressed, divided and despondent. He was torn between two women and was pulling away from me. Isolated and paranoid, I waited for his phone calls, knowing I was in love with an embattled man.
Our relationship was deteriorating as fast as the Balkan Express raced through Bosnia decimating lives in a place once unified. We were three aching souls separated by passions that spiraled out of control. I continued to watch the nightly news, and cried for everyone.
The situation in Sarajevo worsened, grew more and more desperate, more unbelievable. I became obsessed with every latest development and followed every confusing detail about a war of ethnicity and religious divide. Who was fighting against who? Who was on whose side? I tried to comprehend the notion that people who were once neighbours, friends and lovers now saw the other as the enemy. People that had previously co-existed in an evolved, intellectual and cultural anomaly, were now embroiled in ancient tensions that had been originally sparked by those who had wanted to modernize them.
The Mostar Bridge was destroyed on Nov. 9, 1993, during the height of Bosnia's war. Built in 1558, a symbol of advanced technology in its time, it became representative of ethnic diversity in modern times connecting two diverse cultures. The destruction of the saber-shaped bridge signaled a complete breakdown of communication in Bosnia. Its structure lovingly contained a mortar of eggs and goat hair. This detail made me cry.
My lover called and said he needed time. "I can't see you for a while. I need to deal with V___. I'm confused. I'll be in touch." I was devastated. Our communication ceased. I felt like the Mostar bridge: broken.
I continued my daily penance watching, reading and absorbed in every detail of this war. I lived with it day in and day out. My nights were spent depressed. Wondering, waiting. Who would my lover ultimately choose? My passionate attempts to annex him to my life backfired. I lost weight intentionally, 'didn't feel like eating', as I watched images on television of babies born in blown out apartments, emaciated mothers and fathers whose children hadn't seen life outside of their apartments for months, for fear of being gunned down by sniper fire.
I tried to imagine what it would be like if this sort of thing happened in Vancouver. Sarajevo was a cosmopolitan centre. This was not a medieval village, and yet the extent of the brutality harkened back to the Middle Ages.
Then came the news that most devastated me: the story of a Bosnian Muslim woman, Admira Ismić and a Bosian Serb man, Boško Brkić. A couple, natives of the former Yugoslavia, both aged twenty-five. Like many couples of that time and age, they were of mixed ethnicity and religious background.
Because they had friends on either side of the conflict, the assumption was made that their passage through Sniper Alley could be a safe one. An agreement was made between all sides, that on May 19th, 1993 at exactly 5:00 pm, no one would shoot the approaching couple. But as they ran, a shot killed Boško instantaneously. Another shot struck Admira, who fell to the ground. She crawled towards her slain lover, cuddled him and hugged him and died fifteen minutes later. Their bodies lay there for nearly four days while both sides argued over who had killed them and who would ultimately take responsibility. The Serbian military later forced Bosnian POW's to retrieve the bodies.
I wanted to call my lover and weep. But he was now dead to me. V___ followed him to Toronto. He acquiesced. They tried to rebuild their tattered relationship. Alone in my apartment in Vancouver, I replayed the images in my mind, of two dead lovers stiffened on a bridge, in a desperate embrace. Victims of a barbaric modern war, with the poison of past centuries flowing through the arteries of a newly undefined country. Only I could no longer hold my lover.
My lover ended it with his Serb as the war in Bosnia also came to a heartbreaking end. He called me, still confused, as war tribunals were being put into place to convict those accused of war crimes. Slobodan Milosevic, the former Serbian president of Bosnia came to be known as the 'Butcher of the Balkans'. He was eventually detained in The Hague and put on trial. For the first time in history, "systematic rape" or "sexual enslavement" was declared a crime against humanity.
"I need to see you. I can't get you out of my mind. I miss your body." He breathed through the phone.
I agreed to meet, reluctantly and yet addictively. I wanted to forget all that had happened; the betrayal, the separation, the harsh words and begin anew. I thought we could go back in time, to rekindle the initial spark that had drawn us together in the first place. He was, after all, like no one I had ever experienced and I could never imagine feeling this way about anyone else ever again.
The past haunted us and the hurts only magnified our differences. We disagreed on how life should be lived. We accused each other of being closed-minded. Our philosophies clashed. Only our skin still held seduction. Our 'on again off again' love affair went on for many years, an emotional tug of war. We ultimately closed our borders and went our separate ways, wounded and damaged.
We ended all contact, except for the occasional short lunch date when I passed through Toronto to visit my parents. The meetings were strained yet cordial. We had a few raw, tearful sessions in bed. My ex-lover moved on to several more failed relationships. He told me that V___ moved on successfully, had a child with someone. They kept in touch. My guilt abated, I was happy for her.
I stopped hearing about Bosnia, but would from time to time find myself in front of the television watching a documentary on the Passionate Eye. Tears streamed down my face as a young Bosnian Muslim woman recounted the story of how her family was lined up again the white adobe wall of the family home, then slaughtered by Serb militants. She lay on top of the dead bodies of her family, herself pretending to be dead. The attackers were now living in Toronto, dodging investigative reporters as they climbed into their expensive vehicles, assuming new identities in the West. They had entered Canada as refugees.
Ten years passed since the day I met my lover. After many years of study, soul searching, diligent personal work, I made conscious changes in my behaviour. I learned that it takes self-esteem to face our conflicts, both internal and external. My internal war had extended itself outward towards others. I learned what creates conflict: when one fails to see the other side. When you see the other side there is no conflict. In conflict, each party thinks they have the only valid viewpoint, which is why it takes self-esteem to see the other side. In the end, that's what is called empathy.
Fortunately I fell in love again. I had found in myself a great measure of peace. I opened a private practice to help others do the same. My private practice began to thrive. One day I received an email from a woman, a referral from a regular client. Her name was V___, and she was Serbian. A ghost from the past. Never had I met anyone with the same name. I felt slightly nervous and yet excited to meet her.
She came to my door, black hair parted in the middle, a stunning smile and exuding graciousness. She was grateful that I would treat her and brought me gifts of chocolate. I had finally met a Serb, one who'd escaped from Bosnia during the war.
This V___ was passionate, complex and intelligent. And while she carried the dense weight of responsibility for family, sending half her earnings back to the homeland, she was not on speaking terms with her mother. It came out in sessions that her mother inflicted corporal punishment on her when V___ was a child. V___ imparted this information to me as if this is normal.
"Did your parents fight or argue?" I inquired.
"Whose doesn't?" She remarked.
As a single mother, V___ was intensely devoted to her son, giving him the bedroom of their small apartment while she slept on the couch. An affair on her part had ended her marriage. In her mannerisms, her body language, I sensed subservience.
I was honoured to have the chance to work with a Serb who had been traumatized by the war. It was an opportunity to support someone's healing. Someone with the same name, as the woman I had so long ago wounded. Perhaps destiny was providing me with an opportunity to give back and repair the damage I had done.
A good time after she stopped being a client, she emailed and asked if I would come for dinner at her new apartment. At first I was reluctant, but accepted. Her apartment had the purity of a shrine: pristine white walls, polished hardwood floors, sparse furnishings and glorious curtains with large, red and green vines on them. The energy in the place was indescribable: light, airy, magical and inviting. It was like being in another country. She transported me to Europe with her culinary offerings and her hospitality. She heaped second helpings on my plate and kept filling my glass with excellent wine. This was no savage Serb.
She showed me photographs of herself before the war. The similarity was evocative: the V___ of my past. My lover had shown me a photograph of her once. The universe was playing a mischievous game with me. I tried not to look too surprised, and focused on what I saw in these pictures.
"When were these pictures taken?" I asked V___.
"Ten years ago," she answered and smiled. Her eyes sparkled. You're still beautiful, I thought. But what I saw in the photos astounded me. V___ looked now as though she had aged twenty years in just ten. This is what the war did to you, I concluded.
When one culture subsumes another, as the Austro-Hungarian Empire did to Serbia, nationalism is an inevitable outcome of a gene's need to maintain it's unique individuality. The subsumed culture can't help but feel a resistance to this takeover, one that threatens the originality of its culture, language, values and expression. With the loss of autonomy that the Serbians experienced came the erosion of their esteem; a ripple effect that was felt down to the individual. The war within became a war without, amongst family members, amongst communities, amongst races. The internal war to regain self-esteem became an external war to reclaim national identity. Rebellion became an inevitable finale to reclaim self-esteem even, if this meant turning on a neighbour.
I think about what happened between V___, my lover and I. I wonder if something in the blueprint of my Hungarian genes had the need to occupy and overtake someone else's territory, someone else's husband?
Rita Bozi is fascinated by and interested in everything.
Thanks for an amazing read.
The acute reminder of the 'bullet that rang around the world', is how i learnt about the reason for WWI. To realize again the Serb connection and how it was a continuous history thread that of course finds us in Canada. Both sides, new borns, refugees and lovers united and confused suffer from the aftermath of wars.
The story teller speaks with the depth of authenticity you know and feel this must be a true telling. The weaving of ignorance and openness and the twisted way we often learn through our skin despite the naivety of our actions. Actions tainted by our immediate ancestors live long in us through their prejudices purposely taught or not and how much it takes to go beyond them. If we ever do. And how the perceived enemy teaches us more than we can ever appreciate. To meet in the space of therapy was so very north american.
Thanks, this is the second story i have read from this author. More MOre MOre please.
I am so very moved and impressed with the quality of the story and the author's writing style and content.
The author has captured periods in history, both past and more recent, and melded them with her personal experiences to bring this challenging time to life for the reader. So very compelling and important as a literary piece and also as a record of understanding. Thank you!
An incredibly powerful story that pulls many layers of emotion and self reflection to the surface.
I am left pondering not only the journey of the characters, but reflecting on the many conflicts that exist in our world today. Conflicts that exist at such a deeper level than the issues that they often claim to represent.
Kudos to the author for her ability to push so many buttons with so few words.
The Serbs didn't turn on their neighbours. For them, it wasn't a war to reclaim national identity, but to prevent a repetition of the WW2 genocide. Read, dig deeper and you'll find the facts about it.
Now, I'm not anymore interested in this topic - and I'm not a Serb - but recently I heard the "UN admits in its won reports that they knew that the Muslims and Croats in that long conflict [in Bosnia] killed double of what the Serbs did." That is so counter-intuitive, it should make you think.