Pale Sun Over Sarajevo

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 Allah.


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.





OneVoice   OneVoice wrote
on 2/24/2011 9:00:44 PM
Mel, your story carried us to a 'not so unexpected conclusion.' Anticipating how it would end kept me on the edge of my seat. Every word had meaning, every subtlety - what an exacting description. I'd imagine the names were changed to protect the guilty. Ethnic cleansing was the instrument of hatred and indifference implemented by those without souls justifying themselves so they can continue to pillage, plunder, murder, steal, kill and sleep at night and tell their children how righteous they think themselves to be. Your story is real though some might believe using words appropriate to the character’s station in life breath a truer depiction into your body of work - I respectfully disagree. Good piece

AnnaK   AnnaK wrote
on 8/1/2009 8:10:52 AM
I don't quite know what to say as I have family who are refugees from Bosnia. It's touched me deeply, from the way the soldier makes them turn their backs when killing to the vivid illustration of rape. Brilliant.

Sojourner   Sojourner wrote
on 4/23/2009 7:55:01 PM
Amazing as always shakatoa. I missed your writing, I would appreciate your comments on some of my late writing.

sfstorylady   sfstorylady wrote
on 2/25/2009 12:24:27 AM
Wow, this is a wonderful story, I raced through it, holding my attention, desperate to know if she was a Muslim. I cannot imagine the horror of such a war, but you made it real for me. Thank you. You also made it so clear how we are all united, such love he had for someone he thought he must hate. So beautifully done. Thank you.

Michele   Michele wrote
on 2/24/2009 4:56:41 PM
So excellent, as usual--good to see you back. Aside--I don't think anyone, even soldiers, 'thinks' in 4-letter profanities, especially if they are not American---it would ruin your eloquence if you stooped to that level. Such damage, such waste, eh? I do so admire your talent for expression--and hope to see more from you soon(I've been looking for new work from you!).=]

Short Story
writing shakatoah
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Rating: 10.0/10

This piece was inspired by a documentary I saw some years ago. It held me spellbound; horrified; and I couldn't sleep before I'd churned out this story of war and religious conflict. The sentiments expressed by the soldier, who is the main character in the story, were expressed in similar fashion by those soldiers interviewed for the documentary. They were barely holding it together psychologically and emotionally; using all sorts of justifications and rationalizations for what they felt they had to do in order to protect their own.