Mother became a prisoner. Not solely because of the siege on Sarajevo, but because she had become tied to notorious Galal since my cheerful birth. The siege was another issue. A slow death sentence issued by our fellow Serbian neighbors. When the siege started, I was hardly two years old, walking clumsily around in Uncle Mujo’s spacious home. Listening to various words of Bosnian, Arabic, Serbian and naively mixing them together into utterly meaningless sentences. At night, I used to hear lots of stories about people murdered savagely and other atrocities. Since my mother and uncle were the only two adults sober in the house, they used to exchange these stories while Prince Galal lay drunk on the couch.
“They are killing us because we’re Muslim, sister Nihad!”
“But Sheikh Mujo, it’s a political conflict! The referendum…”
“Ah, bullshit! Don’t believe this European nonsense! They had this planned for a long time.”
Uncle had his beliefs that weren’t altering. He soon began to answer God’s call and recruited men to defend Islam. He had access to as many arms as he wanted and lacked neither the purpose nor the justifications to launch his own war. The house soon became an arsenal, with various men coming in and going out with loaded guns. Uncle Mujo generously bought guns and ammunition from the Bosnian black-market criminals who joined the army at the outset of the war. The guns were illegally smuggled into the city through Serb lines, enabling raids on Serb-held positions.
“She was kind enough to carry on reading me bedtime stories at night, though they were often interrupted by loud shrills of gunshots and heavy shells.”
Mother managed to remain calm throughout the process, deliberately looking away and forcing me to do the same. She was kind enough to carry on reading me bedtime stories at night, though they were often interrupted by loud shrills of gunshots and heavy shells. Questions of why and how were insignificant, as Uncle Mujo used to say; we had to survive the Serbian aggression and the long-planned extinction scheme, for if we died at the hands of the Serbs, we died dishonorably.
A happy birthday to me. I became three years old. Frail and lonely in a dying dream-city. When time freezes, people often experience existential states of mind. I believe that was the case with Mother, who was now in her early thirties, openly unhappily married with a three-year-old child in a doomed city. Eventually, she became only married on paper. Her relationship deteriorated with Prince Galal who joined the holy army and put on a uniform. True he was never seen fighting or even leaving Uncle’s house except to take a stroll in the yard or smoke outside, yet he clutched his machine gun like a silly tick on a dog’s fur. As time passed, Mother became more melancholic. She abandoned that frail hope of departure she had been holding onto and began to face reality and embrace it in a humanitarian way. She decided to kill time by serving at the local Bosnian hospital. A hospital that lacked even the most primitive tools to save a life. Still, she kept going nearly every day, bearing a new horrifying story for Uncle Mujo upon returning home. She told him tales of injured children, some of which died in her arms. Such dreadful sights began to affect her faith, and she began to accuse God openly of having abandoned the city. “They are merciless and so is he!” she burst out one night in a tear tantrum after losing a child who had been severely injured in Serbian-fired mortar shell.
“Hold fast to your faith dear! Tested are the beloved ones!”
“No, Sheikh Mujo!” she shouted back.
“These children are now in heaven, sister.”
“I’m not going to wait till I lose Nadia!”
“Our child is safe, sister,” Uncle Mujo repeated again and again. “I give you my word!”
Though Father was around the whole time, Uncle Mujo often referred to me as his child. He knew Mother was unhappy, stuck in a strange culture and ethnic conflict she did not relate to, as well as emotionally numb and neglected. He could only spoil me with gifts—stuffed dolls and toys—and preach about the necessity of mother having another baby boy with Prince Galal for the sake of religion and family. A plea that left Mother speechless, given the number of children that died every day. She had to accept reality once more, the fact of being trapped in a madhouse with an obsessed warlord and a drunk spoiled prince. There was no way out, no escape from the ongoing inferno.
The snow fell quietly. It had been snowing since early February. This year, Mama did not bake me a cake for my birthday. She did not sing me a birthday song or draw me a fairy butterfly. I could count her smiles; they were scattered few, fewer than her words. The previous nights, I slumbered alone. My toys seem to alter at night; their eyes would glitter with a wicked look, as though they knew Mama was not coming. I pushed them out of bed and concealed myself under the blanket. I shut my eyes as they laughed cruelly. At these times, I often cried. I couldn’t tell Uncle Mujo about their cruelty towards me though I was certain he would scare them away.
“I could count her smiles; they were scattered few, fewer than her words.”
“Why are you crying, Nadia?” he often asked me and I often fell silent, for in his presence the toys were just toys. Perhaps he scared them with his black cloth and thick beard. Perhaps they knew he was their master. I was never scared of him, not even when he shouted and yelled at his men. In the nights Mother was away, he would come and hush me to sleep, always falling to sleep, before I did. I would lay fidgeting in his arms, exploring his thick beard with my scrawny finger and recalling Mama’s tales of giants and titans. No one dared disturb his sleep, except one young man. When he first stepped into the room, I was swinging between vigilance and sleep. I opened my eyes and stared at him; he had wide hazel eyes, dark black hair and fair white skin. I watched as he approached the bed slowly, sneaking in his leather shoes.
“Brother Mujo!” he whispered as he gently patted Uncle’s shoulder. Strangely, he didn’t seem to heed me though I lay peacefully in Uncle’s arms.
“Brother Mujo!” he whispered again. Uncle opened his eyes and stared at him. I thought he would scream in his face but he did not.
“Sheikh Suljo! You’re here!” Uncle exclaimed eagerly. He rose from bed and hugged the stranger intimately. I stared at him closely. He was hardly 19 years old, slim and resembled none of the other sheikhs I was accustomed to.
“How did you come from Gornji Velešići? The Serbs have blocked all paths!”
“They can block a hundred paths, and god will open another!”
“Oh, Suljo! My precious boy!” Uncle soon kissed his forehead and hugged him tightly. I noticed that he forgot his revolver by the bedside table as he hurried to fetch the honey jar for the stranger. He dipped the spoon in it and fed him by his hand just like he fed me.
“Come! We have a lot to do, Suljo!”
Uncle soon departed the room, leaving me alone with the sheikh. I watched how he sealed the honey jar and wiped his mouth with a silky handkerchief. My toys were scattered underneath his feet on the floor. He passed by them calmly and sat by the bedside, staring at me with a broad smile. It was not long till he tucked his hand in his black coat and offered me bonbon. I peeked at him and concealed myself back under the blanket, hoping to hear him walk out of the room or magically vanish like the fairy tales Mama stopped telling.
Two days after the arrival of Sheikh Suljo, a major drama happened. A millimeter mortar shell landed in the centre of the crowded Markale Market, killing 68 people and injuring 75 others. It seemed as if death was approaching us slowly. Mother determined to leave, but, how could she? She had lost all connections with the world outside Sarajevo, and became utterly secluded. In these days, all I could recall Uncle Mujo talk about was revenge, how he will avenge the victims and make the Serbs pay for their crimes. He clamoured about it day and night restlessly. “God is on our side!” he often said, and Mother often stared at him doubtfully and fell silent. The more people killed, the sharper Uncle’s desire for vengeance grew, especially after the Serbs denied all responsibility and accused the Bosnian government of bombarding its own people to incite international outrage and NATO intervention. Nevertheless, Uncle had no faith whatsoever in peace nor did he trust the UN personnel. For him, they were all members of the crusade.
There is a star dwelling far away in space. Sometimes it glitters and shows a sudden increase in brightness and then slowly return to its original state over a few months. They call this star “Nova.” Mother read about it in one of her science-fiction comics and told me.
“Does this star die, Mama?”
“Yes.” She said it in a dim sad tone and went out to the balcony to smoke a cigarette. That year, Uncle Mujo brought me many illustrated books for my birthday. I noticed how he and Mother avoided eye contact and did not exchange a single word.
“I have another surprise for you, Nadia,” he whispered while tucking his hand in the gift sack. I turned and stared at Mother, but she looked the other way.
“Here you go!” Uncle handed it to me. I wondered what it was as I unwrapped its paper hastily. It was a boxed black item.
“What is it Uncle?”
“It’s a camera, my dear.”
I stared at him perplexedly. He simply smiled and caressed my cheeks.
“I will teach you how to take photos with it.”
Mother did not seem to care. She grabbed my hand and walked on her way out of the room. Abruptly, Uncle intervened, grabbing my other hand a bit harshly.
“Where to, sister Nihad?”
“I’m going to the hospital.”
“Very well. But Nadia should stay here.”
Confused, I froze in my place between the two. Mother glared at Uncle disdainfully and released my hand, walking out of the room. I didn’t see her till the afternoon and spent the rest of the day exploring my uncle’s gift. He showed me how to take photos with that camera and assigned me with the task of photographing his meetings. I did as he pleased and eventually fell asleep in his study. I woke up at a very late hour of night to Mother’s scream. I ascended the stairs only to find mother in tears before Daddy’s bed. He was lying naked with both the maid on his right side and the old cook on his left. Mother covered my eyes with her shivering hands and dragged me out of the room. On our way out, we ran into uncle who came jogging in his pajamas, screaming, “Are the Serbs in the house!” with his armed men. It wasn’t long before Uncle dragged Papa out of bed naked and began to whip him furiously with his belt. It was an utter disgrace for Uncle, who could no longer justify Prince Galal’s decadence. He could only ask Sheikh Suljo to purify him and beg Mother for forgiveness.
“I shouldn’t have sent him to France!” Uncle Mujo kept repeating wistfully, “Forgive him sister! These despicable Europeans messed with his mind!” This and nothing more.
Series One can be read here.
Written by Reham Emam
To be continued…