Love Thy Neighbor
by Joseph Cusumano
Drago knew the lieutenant would be angry, but what could he do after stumbling upon the five Bosnians? With his squadron of Skorpions—Serbian militants—he had been ordered to scout the hills at the western edge of the town which used to be his home. The lieutenant had ordered him to find the best locations for artillery emplacements. The attack on Muslim sectors of Cazunak would begin with a barrage from the big guns.
Late in the afternoon, the Skorpions had rounded a bend in the road on the way back to their encampment and abruptly come face to face with the five “Turks”, as they were derisively called.
The Bosnians, all of whom carried various tools, stopped and silently stared at the gun barrels levelled at them. Drago ordered them onto their knees and told his men to tie the captives’ wrists behind their backs. Then each man’s licna carta—the state issued ID—was confiscated. Drago told his soldiers that the scouting mission was over for the day and that they could keep any money they found in the prisoners’ wallets.
After a one hour hike, the combined group of men approached the edge of the Skorpion encampment, and the Bosnians were again forced onto the ground. After issuing orders regarding the captives, Drago went to his tent to make himself slightly more presentable after a day in the woods and brush. He had to face the lieutenant and tell him what had happened during the scouting mission, and he wasn’t looking forward to it.
Several minutes later Drago stood at attention inside the command tent, impaled by a stare from Lieutenant Vladimir Bradic.
“I’m sorry, sir, but there was nothing else to do. We rounded a curve on the road and there they were. Once they saw us, I couldn’t just let them go.” Drago managed to keep his voice even. The slightest hint of pleading would have made Bradic even angrier.
“By tonight, their families will be wondering where they are!”
“Yes, sir,” Drago replied, again keeping his voice neutral.
“Everybody in Cazunak is going to know in a couple of days.”
The lieutenant was right. Ethnic cleansing in Srebrenica, a mining town forty-five miles to the east, had begun recently and the people of Cazunak were getting the grisly details from refugees fleeing westward. After a thorough shelling by artillery, the Skorpions and other Serb forces would enter the town, shoot the men and rape the women who had not already fled. It was the core strategy in the plan to create a “Greater Serbia,” and other than some scattered resistance from small Bosnian guerrilla groups, it was working pretty well.
“Sergeant, you found them, you take care of them.” the lieutenant said.
“Tonight, sir?” Drago asked.
“Yes, fucking tonight! And Sergeant…”
“Don’t delegate the job. Do it yourself. And take off those stupid sunglasses when you do it. In case you haven’t noticed, the sun is going down.” Drago saluted and left the tent, well aware that Vlad the Impaler, as the men called him, never repeated an order.
In the valley, building and street lights were beginning to appear, and Drago zipped his jacket a little higher. Though dirty, hungry and tired, he had been tasked. From his tent, he retrieved his Vz 61, an excellent weapon other than the design of the safety lever. It tended to dig into his index finger when firing on full automatic.
The five captives were seated on the ground in a circle facing each other, their wrists tied and anchored to metal tent pegs behind them. Two of the men sat with their legs stretched out in front, the others with their legs folded. To Drago’s surprise, they were speaking softly among themselves. Why had the guards permitted this? Then he realized they were praying.
After sending the guards off, Drago walked around the outside of the circle and tried to put the Bosnians at ease by offering each a swallow of water. Four of them appeared to be about his age, in their early to mid-twenties. The fifth was much younger, just entering his teens. When the kid looked up at him, Drago caught a flicker of recognition in the youngster’s face and thought Yeah kid, I think I know you too. But from where?
He cut their wrist ties and told them to stand, informing them they were going to be released. He then stepped away and dropped the water bottle. The men were rubbing their wrists when Drago pulled his machine pistol from its holster and began firing.
* * *
Amra Hodzic, a physician, and Mirzad, her 13 year old son, loved their spacious two story brick home in Cazunak. By stepping through a gabled second floor doorway leading onto the flat roof of their porch, they could sunbathe during summer days and stargaze on clear nights. Her late husband had built most of their home with the hope that he and Amra would have a large family. Although it hadn’t work out that way, the extra bedrooms were now occasionally used to shelter fellow Muslims fleeing Serb militias. Their current guest, Namir, had graduated from high school with Amra and eventually moved to Srebrenica to work as a miner. Mirzad used the smallest extra bedroom as a workshop for his hobby, the design and construction of paper and cardboard airplanes. Largely by trial and error, he had created a plethora of innovative designs, each with its own flight characteristics. Some were modified for launching via slingshot and could cover long distances at considerable speed.
“Never be the third one to cross an open area,” Namir cautioned Amra and Mirzad. The three of them were seated around the breakfast table. Mirzad dampened a piece of bread with a little water and then sprinkled sugar on it. “The first one across is reasonably safe. The second may or may not make it. The third one gets picked off by a Serbian sniper.” Namir paused to sip the strong Turkish coffee Amra had prepared. “Sometimes people ask me if a small group could cross an open area together. I tell them that if the route is wide enough so that they can run abreast of each other, and all of them are not just fast, but also equal in speed, and the gap they cross is short enough, it can work. Otherwise, don’t even consider it.”
Amra was slightly annoyed when Namir lit his last cigarette. Her husband had died of lung cancer at an early age and Mirzad had been exposed to a lot of his second-hand smoke. To Amra, it seemed like everyone in Bosnia smoked. All of Yugoslavia, for that matter. After taking several deep drags, Namir began again.
“Less than a year ago, I was at our Islamic Community Center on a Friday evening for a meeting about what should be done if and when the entire country comes apart. Multiple simultaneous civil wars, shortages of food, total collapse of the currency and so on. This was before the snipers arrived in Srebrenica. The treasurer of the Islamic Center was explaining why he had just converted all the center’s money to German Deutschmarks when we heard a scream. At first, I thought it was human, but as it continued, it sounded like an animal. It was horrible! Some of the men opened the front door of the center to find out what was happening and encountered Serbian soldiers who wouldn’t let anyone leave. Finally, the awful wailing ended, but it was another ten minutes before the soldiers withdrew. When we ventured out, a pig’s head was mounted on a post so that it faced everyone as they exited, and its bloody carcass was lying in the middle of the square.”
Amra recoiled on hearing this and wrapped a protective arm around her son’s shoulder. She wished that Namir hadn’t told the story in front of Mirzad, but she balked at the thought of abandoning the home which her husband had built with his own two hands.
“The Serbs are telling the outside world that we’re trying to set up a fundamentalist Islamic state in Eastern Europe,” Namir said. “They claim that Bosnia will become another Iran if we Muslims are allowed to wage a holy war.”
“Us? Fundamentalists?” Amra said. “That’s ridiculous! We drink alcohol. Some of us eat pork. We’re part of the Slavic race, just like the rest of Yugoslavia.”
“And we’ve lived peacefully side by side as neighbors since World War II,” Namir added and sighed.
Although the people of Cazunak wondered why the United Nations Security Council and NATO hadn’t already intervened, most of them still believed that military and humanitarian aid would arrive before their own town came under fire. Namir disagreed and tried to dissuade Amra from accepting the prevailing attitude. “Things are going to get a lot worse before they get better,” he told her. “Even if you don’t believe me, at least make preparations so you can get out at a moment’s notice.”
Later that morning, Namir thanked Amra repeatedly for her hospitality and said his goodbyes. He gave her his brother’s phone number and address in Hamburg, Germany. “I’ll be staying there for at least a few months. If you’re forced out of Cazunak, let me know.” Amra was grateful but couldn’t imagine herself living that far north where the winters were so long, cold, and dark.
A few days after Namir left, Mirzad was invited to join his older cousin Jakob and three of Jakob’s friends to earn a little money on the weekends. The men had recently begun to rehabilitate a large country home in the hills above Cazunak, and Mirzad was delighted by the offer to work with and learn from an older group. In spite of his own wholehearted efforts and Amra’s tutoring, Mirzad had always struggled in school, and it was becoming apparent to both of them that he would probably become a craftsman like his father. Although only 13 years old, he was strong for his size and enjoyed outdoor labor.
Mirzad began work the following Saturday. Jakob picked him up early, and they covered the first 20 miles to the project site by truck. This was followed by a walk over a deteriorating bridge that had been closed to all but the lightest vehicles, and the remaining mile to the worksite was made on foot. Jakob’s friends arrived ten minutes later. The heavy equipment and supplies had been trucked in over a long circuitous route which approached the country home from the opposite direction. Mirzad and Jakob began the day removing old windows while the others started taking up water-damaged flooring. The roof had already been repaired and was now watertight.
Four hours and several splinters later, Mirzad was told to take a lunch break, and he got a pleasant surprise on opening the lunch his mother had prepared for him. Because the war was beginning to create shortages of basic foodstuffs, the type of bread that was available had changed. It was now dark and coarse because all parts of the grain were needed to meet the demand for bread. Mirzad preferred the soft white variety he had grown up with, and somehow his mother had found some for his lunch. There was a generous serving of kriska hljeba with sir, cottage cheese on sliced bread plus a few dried plums for dessert.
The rest of the afternoon’s work proceeded uneventfully, the temperature rising enough to permit the men to work without their jackets. Mirzad and Jakob continued to remove the old windows while the other three men installed replacements.
Finally, the setting sun started to paint the sky orange and pink, and work was halted for the day. After the equipment and supplies were covered with tarpaulins, all of them began the hike back to their trucks. Mirzad was tired but felt good that he had been able to maintain the same work pace as the others. He was about to ask his cousin Jakob about tomorrow’s schedule when the five of them rounded a bend in the road and were confronted by a group of armed men in uniform. They wore red berets, and Mirzad saw that one of them sported a scorpion tattoo on his neck.
* * *
“What do you mean there’s only four?”
“Sergeant, we were almost finished digging the pit when I noticed that there were only four bodies. You said there would be five,” Corporal Jasic replied. It took Drago several moments to believe what he had just heard. Then he was off and running to the area immediately outside the encampment where he had gunned down the “Turks.” The Serbs used this pejorative for Bosnians whose distant ancestors had converted to Islam.
When the corporal caught up with Drago at the grave site, he saw his sergeant rolling the bodies face up.
“It’s that fucking kid!” Drago said.
“Sir?” the Corporal Jasic asked.
“The missing Turk. One of them was a young teenager.”
“He fell over and played dead? And later ran off?” Jasic asked.
Drago knew the procedure but simply hadn’t followed it. Anyone assigned to an execution was supposed to put a bullet through the head of any victim who wasn’t obviously dead from the first round of shooting. Not only had he allowed an eyewitness to escape, the teenager had recognized his would-be executioner and might even know his name.
“Uh, Sergeant…what do you want me to do?” the corporal asked.
Drago was silent for a moment, then said, “The men you assigned to dig the pit…do they know that one of the captives escaped?”
“I don’t know, sir. I sent them back to the camp as soon as I realized there were only four bodies.” Drago cursed, then took several moments to think. Soon, he began removing various items of clothing from several of the bodies. Before taking off, he instructed the corporal to drag the bodies into the pit and fill the grave without calling for assistance.
Forty-five minutes later, Drago made it to the bend in the road where he and his squad had first encountered the Bosnians less than twelve hours ago. He took a moment to catch his breath and look down into the valley at the town of Cazunak. Then he resumed a quick pace toward the old bridge. It shouldn’t be too far ahead if I remember correctly.
Drago had no delusions about being a skilled tracker, but he might still catch the kid before the youth could make it back to his home. Since his quarry probably had hours of lead time, this was feasible only if the kid was wounded and moving slowly. Barring that, Drago would be forced to enter the town wearing the clothes he had taken from his victims and try to pass as a Bosnian Muslim. Posing as a refugee from the attack on Srebrenica should provide him with a believable cover. But all this assumes Cazunak actually is the kid’s home and that he’s heading there.
As Drago continued his descent into the valley, he tried to remember where he had previously seen the kid. Nothing came to mind, but one thing was certain. He couldn’t face Lieutenant Bradic until the problem was fixed.
* * *
Standing between the Serbian gunman and his young cousin after their wrists were freed, Jakob jerked repeatedly as 9 mm slugs tore into his thorax and abdomen. Mirzad instinctively dropped to the ground, but not before a bullet struck his left thigh. It felt like the kick of a mule, but he clenched his teeth and remained immobile in the dirt, not daring even to breathe. Finally the savage bark of the gun ended and its echoes faded.
He drew his first desperate breath only after hearing the receding footsteps of the executioner, someone whom he recognized and remembered. How had it come to this? A man who had taught and encouraged him, however briefly, had taken him prisoner and tried to kill him.
With only moonlight for illumination, Mirzad used his pocketknife to diagonally cut a long strip of cloth from the bottom of his left pant leg. It wasn’t particularly clean, but he tied the strip snugly around the wound. The bullet had gone clean through the outer part of his thigh, and although it was terribly painful, the bleeding did not appear to be life-threatening once the bandage was applied.
Mirzad saw the bottle of water that Drago had left. It was less than half full, but every drop would be needed. After taking several moments to pray over his fallen cousin and new friends, he began heading down the sloping path that would eventually lead him home. It wasn’t right to leave the bodies this way, but he had neither the time nor the energy to give each a proper burial.
When he reached the house they had been rehabbing, he was exhausted and beset by a desperate thirst. Although home was still a long way off, Mirzad finished what little water remained and let the bottle fall from his hand. He limped the final thirty meters to the house, entered the foyer, and eased himself onto the floor. As long as they don’t have dogs, I… Then he was asleep.
Several hours later, throbbing pain in his thigh forced him back into an unwelcomed wakefulness, and his thirst returned with a vengeance. But there was nothing to drink or eat, and he was hardly rested. Fortunately, his jacket and the late morning sunlight combined to keep him reasonably warm. He knew the Serbs must be hunting him by now, but walking back to Cazunak was out of the question. It was much too far for the condition he was in.
Mirzad also realized that his mother would be frantic. Last night when he didn’t show up, she probably called Jakob’s wife. Then the wives or families of the other men would have been contacted. But does anybody know the location of this house? A race was on and he was the finish line. Actually, it was more like a board game he remembered from his childhood in which two groups of pirates searched for the same buried treasure, winner take all. Either he would be helped by someone from town, or the Skorpions would find him first.
In the hope that Jakob or one of the others had brought a first aid kit to the house, Mirzad began searching through the equipment and supplies. He remembered his physician mother telling him that a long time ago dangerous wounds were sterilized and cauterized with a red hot iron, especially if an amputation had to be performed. He would be rescued or killed well before that became necessary but still hoped to find a liquid antiseptic and some clean bandages.
After nearly 20 minutes of fruitless searching, he gave up and sat on a stack of wooden planks covered with a tarpaulin. A bungee cord held the tarp in place, and he idly began to lift the cord a few inches and let it snap back down. This went on for a while until a new fear crept over him. What if no one comes? What will it be like to die of hunger, thirst and infection? Then he angrily pushed that thought aside and forced himself to think about what could be done. Anything was better than sitting idly for hours, passively waiting for fate to take its course. He still had full use of his arms, and could limp for a moderate distance. Although there were no medical supplies, food, or water, he was surrounded by stuff. All kinds of stuff. He gingerly got onto his feet and began to gather a few items, starting with a handful of very large nails.
Mirzad had been working inside for almost two hours when a noise came from the front porch. Believing the sound to be creaking from the old wooden steps, he quickly exited the house through the back door and peered inside through the edge of one of the newly replaced windows at the rear. After a few moments, his heart pounding in his ears, he caught sight of a man walking past the large stone fireplace in the great room. When Mirzad saw that the intruder was not wearing a uniform or a red beret, relief swept over him. It was someone from town, someone dressed just like he was, in workman’s clothes. Mirzad had taken hold of the handle on the back door when he got a glimpse of the man’s face and stopped breathing. It was the executioner.
* * *
Drago bent over to pick up the empty water bottle from the winding path that led to the front porch, examined it for a moment, and then tossed it aside. He moved the safety on his submachine gun into the firing position and continued his approach to the country house. Although he couldn’t be sure that his quarry was still on the grounds, there was little doubt that the kid had passed this way. And it didn’t really matter to Drago whether the kid was wounded or not. In either case, he would force the youth back into the woods, complete the task he had botched, and rejoin his unit as quickly as possible.
The porch steps creaked loudly under his weight, but the front door was unlocked and he stepped into the foyer. Drago first noted that the old ground level flooring had been replaced with new hardwood parquet and remembered that the Bosnians had been carrying a variety of tools when they were captured. It made perfect sense that the kid would stop here to rest. The question was, is he still here?
Drago inspected all the rooms on the ground floor but found no sign of his quarry. He was about to head to the upper level when he heard an approaching vehicle. If it was the lieutenant, Drago was going to have a tough job explaining why his little expedition was not an act of desertion. But the vehicle turned out to be an old rusting Zastava, a small civilian car. Two women got out and started calling Mirzad! Jakob! The first name jogged his memory a little, but he didn’t have time to think about it because the women were rapidly approaching the house.
Still suspecting that his quarry was close by, Drago made a snap decision. These two women will be dead in a week anyway. He took up a position in the foyer, opening the front door only a few centimeters. With his gun barrel barely protruding through the opening, he let the women come a little closer. There was no need to confirm the position of the gun’s safety. It was already rubbing against his index finger. Then something grazed his head and struck the inside surface of the front door. He pivoted toward it and saw a long narrow airplane—essentially a huge nail dart with cardboard wings—buried in the wood at eye level. In the moment it took Drago to locate his assailant, another projectile was flying toward him at a tremendous velocity. He never heard the low pitched recoil of the bungee cord, but exhaled forcefully as something ripped into his belly and penetrated deeply. A second cardboard airplane was embedded just above his navel and he instinctively raised his free hand to pull it out. Just as he realized that might be a mistake, a third plane skewered his breast bone. Then his legs collapsed underneath him, and blood ran freely onto the gleaming parquet floor.
Flat on his back, Drago became aware of three figures surrounding him. His gun felt like it weighed 30 kilograms; he couldn’t lift it and didn’t care. The kid, now kneeling beside him, took the gun away and gently cradled his head. The savage pain in his torso was diminishing, but it was harder to breathe and his legs were getting cold. He tried to remember why he had wanted to kill the youngster who seemed so familiar.
It’s not a good thing to die alone, but he wouldn’t have to. A big crowd of people cheered wildly as one of his most unlikely little players approached the last defender. There were only seconds left in the second half, and Drago knew that shouting more instructions to his team from the sidelines was pointless. The children had paid little attention to him for the entire game, so he simply stood and watched in amazement as Mirzad faked left and drove the ball right. But the defending fullback caught up quickly and again positioned himself between his small opponent and the goal. Now they were only eight meters from the net, and the goalie came charging out to grab the ball as Mirzad and the fullback darted and maneuvered for position. Just as the fullback momentarily blocked the goalie’s line-of-sight to the oncoming threat, Mirzad took the shot with the toe of his foot. It was exactly what Drago had trained him not to do, but the ball flew straight and true.
Drago’s team had won a crucial victory, and everybody around him was screaming with joy. Then some idiot began turning off the field lights.
* * *
“Why Germany?” Mirzad asked his mother. They were upstairs, packing his clothes into a suitcase.
“It’s one of the few countries that will let us in,” Amra said. “Besides, we’ll have a place to stay for a while. You remember Namir.”
“Yeah, the guy you went to high school with.” He thought for a moment and then asked, “Mom, you don’t speak German, do you?”
“Not since I was in school. But it’ll come back. We’ll learn together. And Namir’s brother, who has been there for a few years…he’ll be there to help us.”
“Will you be a doctor in Germany?”
“Not at first. But I’ll do whatever it takes to get a license. We’re going to be okay.”
Mirzad was about to ask if their house would still be standing when they returned to Cazunak, but then held back. His mother had enough to cope with. Any way that he could, he would try to make things easier for her. She was all he had, and he was all she had.
◊ ◊ ◊
Joseph Cusumano is a physician living in St. Louis. His major hobby, other than writing, is the design and construction of radio controlled airplanes. His piloting skills need a lot of work. His writing in 2016 has been accepted by Crimson Streets, Pseudopod, Mystery Weekly, Disturbed Digest, Flash Fiction Press and Heater.
5 thoughts on “Love Thy Neighbor”
Instructive story, very well written. By the end, I really cared about the main character of Mirzad.
Thanks JoAnna. We have a significant Bosnian community here in St. Louis that provided me with a lot of information about the war.
A tough, dense and gritty story. There seem to be good guys and bad guys, but one wonders if all the actors aren’t caught in the maw of hate. For me, the authentic feel falters a bit in the ending. Still, a big impact. AGB
An addendum to interested parties: two relevant readings–Today’s NYT magazine article on Aleppo and Michael Ignatieff’s book “Blood and Belonging.” AGB
An interesting piece describing a grim and brutal period in Europe’s recent history. I think the story could have ended with the idiot turning off the field lights. I don’t feel as though what came after added anything.