We’re in the killing fields because Kali said I ought to go back – to face my demons. I tell her I have none, never did; but she doesn’t listen. So like her, with her gentle, impenetrable resistance. Today I’m indulging her. She’s easy to indulge.
It was so long ago you see, over two decades now and I, like the others, have blocked it out of my consciousness. We have had to, to survive. If I analyze what happened, what we had to do, then I might doubt myself; begin to question whether we were right or wrong… and then I would be at war with myself… conflicted… and I do not want to end my days in a sanatorium. No. I must look to the future, always.
And my future is Kali, with her thick, black hair and serious eyes; Kali, my little saviour, who has brought me here to exorcise demons that don’t exist. Not even when I gave the order for the women to hold the children to their breasts so we could kill them with one bullet - to save ammunition. It was expedient - that is all - you must understand. There were so many of them, spilling out of the barn like so much pig swill from the trough. It disgusted me, seeing them trample over one another, some wailing and screaming; some mute with terror, their eyes full of something… I don’t know… fear I suppose, pleading. I could never look at them. When I killed them, I made them turn their backs. I did not want to see their faces, their trembling limbs; it nauseated me. What did they have to be afraid of? Weren’t they going to meet their Allah?
It was just something we had to do, see? It was us or them. It was a shame about the children, I think - a real pity - but sometimes sacrifices must be made for the good of the all. That’s the way it has always been. Triage.
‘Over here, Andrej.’ Kali’s husky voice laps at the shores of my awareness. She is a beautiful woman my Kali, and even now after eight years, I cannot deny her her whims.
‘Andrej?’ She barely turns her head but the graceful sweep of her neck makes me catch my breath, even here where the bleached bones of traitors can still be kicked up in the dust.
We didn’t bury them; it wasn’t our job. At night the locals dragged them into shallow ditches and rolled them in, covering them over with the blood-soaked soil. Sometimes the wild dogs would come, excited by the smell of the kill, and paw at the graves until they unearthed a limb to feed on. If we went back to check the next morning we’d find the remains of the nocturnal feast scattered about the field, an oreo accident, white bones against black soil. But mostly we didn’t go back. What did it matter whether the infidels were properly buried? They too were animals, were they not?
‘You should come here, Andrej.’
But I do not move. I do not want to come closer, despite Kali’s wide eyed, questioning gaze. Despite her innocent desire to heal me. I have held it at bay for twenty-five years, this connection with my shadow… it does not have to be real. It is what it is. It was what it was. I would do it all again… us against them.
‘Come closer, Andrej.’
We should not have come back. I know now we should not have come. They were just filthy Muslims. That is what I said to Kali that first day, when her eyes raked my uniform without expression, a cool, appraising look that bespoke suffering and… yes, understanding. I knew there were those who disapproved, whose eyes held unspoken accusations. You are a murderer. You are the devil. But Kali did not flinch; she held my gaze for a long, pure moment.
‘They were just filthy Muslims.’
‘Yes’, she said. ‘They were.’ And that was all. She did not judge me; did not think of me as a monster; did not want to put me on the stand to try me for war crimes. She had suffered. It was plain in the eyes that did not find me wanting, in the reluctant smile that came too slowly to the lips of one so young.
Kali. The little girl orphaned by a bloody war. Was it religious? Was it political? It didn’t matter to a little girl alone, with no roots, no home, no mother or father. I wanted to make it better for her, to show her that ‘normal’ did exist, that she had someone to love and look out for her. And she came to me without hesitation, telling me it was fate.
Later, on our honeymoon, I learned she’d lost both her parents and a brother in the conflict. She opened up at last, on the Riviera…when she felt safe, wrapped in my arms as I drank in the honey of her hair, the ancient spice of her breath. They clubbed her father and brother to death, she said, and shot her mother. Raped her probably, though she couldn’t remember for sure. Her mother had come screaming from the farm house, holding her ripped bodice and blood dripping down her legs onto bare, bruised feet. Kali would never forget it though she must have been only five or six – but she remembered how her mother smelled when she scooped her up and held her tightly to her breast, clutching and rocking. She smelled of hog sweat and musk, of leather and rust. And after that, she remembers little. I have heard stories like hers, of little children who survive the carnage, whose mothers have thrust them aside at the last moment to lie stricken and shocked in the dust. They are discovered by peasants later, lying there, weeping quietly beneath the bodies of their protectors. It was much later, after the war, that she learned of her father and brother - from records released from the War Office.
Poor Kali, her thick black hair caught up in a knot – she does it one-handed somehow; a quick flick of the wrist with her arm behind her head, and a knot appears at the nape of her neck; slick and feminine. She is in every breath I take. I would not know how to live without her; without her body pressed to mine, her singing in the kitchen, her passionate arguments, the gentle feather of her fingers as she strokes my tired shoulders, soothes my battered soul. She is my life.
I am looking at the long, brown filament of her now, wondering what she is doing with me, a burnt out soldier twenty years her senior. Did she need to replace her father? Recreate the safety of her lost family? It does not matter. I can forgive her that – many marriages have been based on less.
‘I’ve seen this
before. Things like this.’ Not looking at me, she thrusts her arms out in front
of her. The movement is jerky, angry, bringing me back to the now.
I know she
witnessed the bullet her mother took in the back of the head. It would have
been just like this. Somewhere in a field just like this, the insurgents would
have slaughtered innocents, just like
this; over shallow ditches in open fields, under the washed-out Serbian sky.
‘Majka lay on
top of me.’
Stop it. I cannot look at her.
‘It seemed like
days.’ Still she doesn’t face me.
‘All I remember
is the taste of dirt in my mouth. It caked my nostrils, burned my throat. Majka’s chest crushed my face into the
ground… I could barely breathe. With every breath I sucked in more dirt... I
thought I was buried alive.’
My poor Kali.
Please do not tell me more. I cannot bear it. I thought she’d forgotten…
blocked out the horror… like me.
‘I can never
forgive them, Andrej. No child should ever go through what I went through.’
No, no. I know
it is true. Don’t tell me more, Kali. No child should ever…
But how does she feel? What does it feel like to
see the blood pouring down your mother’s legs? To witness the blank stare on the
face of someone you love as the spirit leaves her body? It is too much for my
Kali. Too much for anyone.
Here, where she
has brought me to exorcise my demons, she has found her own. Here, we
slaughtered useless Muslims; there,
in Kali’s world, the Muslims must have staged a massacre of their own. In her
mind, here is there.
‘I swore, you know, Andrej? I swore… that if I could
get back at just one of them… I would.
To make them feel what I felt. To take away their reason for living.’
Who could blame her? She turns to face me at last, her
silhouette slightly rounded with the evidence of the child within; my child. My heart quickens, like it
always does when I am reminded of the incredible miracle she carries. My
seed. My legacy to this world; a world of sorrow and pain – and yet a world of
renewal and…hope. My reason for living, this tiny, swollen space, filled with
infinite possibility. My son.
Kali is looking at me now…calmly. She is always calm.
Behind her the background begins to fade, the hollow ditch hazy, humming in
some primitive rhythm, milky figures pulsing in and out of focus. Some are
missing arms and legs. All of them are bowed in prayer. And they come… slowly…
deliberately… without fear. They come for Kali, bearing her slowly, speechlessly,
closer to the threshold of the shallow grave she stands upon. She is weeping.
My head begins to prickle with sweat, great rivers of it
rolling down my sides to puddle beneath my leather belt. Around me the world is
breaking up – a distant hologram dissolving as I strain to hear its message.
‘Have you ever felt like that, Andrej?’ comes to me
across the barren ground.
‘Like a shard of glass has pierced your ribs and is
being pushed, slowly, inch by inch, into your heart? Until you just want it to
end? To grab it with both hands and thrust it so deep to end the pain? Have you
ever felt like begging for death, Andrej?’
‘Kali…what are you…?’
It is only now I see the glint of steel.
‘Ka…lee!’ I wait only a moment – in disbelief. And
then my legs are running, shaking, stumbling forward.
The bile seeps up to bite at the back of my
throat. She is looking right at me now,
her mouth a dusky question mark. I see she has no fear. She is going to meet
her Allah. I know now it must be
I am almost there.
‘Kali! No! Please…’ I am begging. The glass shard
twists my heart, spiralling slowly to lacerate the flesh, turning it to a bloody crucible of pain.
I reach out to wrestle the gun from her hand but all I
see is her eyes as they hold mine. All I hear is her husky, beautiful voice as she frames her truth, ‘I am a filthy Muslim.’
Kali… my exquisite Kali… lying in the dust… vacant
eyes lifted to Allah. Under the pale Sarajevo sun.