The Reluctant Hunter
Praise for Joel Levinson's
THE RELUCTANT HUNTER
"In a fair world, The Reluctant Hunter would become a classic of wartime literature. It's not a battlefield saga so much as it is a story about how war—in this case, the fairly recent Bosnian conflicttears asunder communities, pitting friend against friend and neighbor against neighbor. This is an intimate story with a sweeping historical background. Its power to move lies in the intimate and finely sketched details of struggling to survive hunger and cold…There's hatred here and evil and ignorance and compassion and tenderness and hard won redemption—plenty of suspense and more than a few surprises, too. The Reluctant Hunter is beautifully written without being self-consciously literary or poetic. …Given the enormity of their suffering, I had to keep reminding myself that Jusuf and Azra, the focus of the novel, are just kids, nineteen or twenty. Theirs is one of the sweetest love stories of any novel I've ever read. Following The Reluctant Hunter, I'm reading a novel by a well-regarded literary writer and it's dull and flat and almost amateurish compared to Mr. Levinson's achievement."
–STEVE PURCELL, Author
(Amazon review excerpt)
"I find it hard to believe that Mr. Levinson is a first-time author. The quality of his work far exceeds the writing in many of the novels I've read in recent years. This is an involving and heartbreaking tale and would make a great film."
(Amazon review excerpt)
"Joel Levinson's recent novel touched me deeply and it greatly exceeded my expectations. As a US-educated Bosnian who lived through the times of "war and peace" in the Balkans, I approached the book carefully and hesitantly, as if expecting it to "fail." I believed at that time, possibly unconsciously, that the author took upon himself a very ambitious, almost unachievable task of capturing and explaining the complicated fabric of a horrific war that shaped my coming of age. The book, however, achieved the "unachievable."
The power of this work lies in its ability to show the author's openness to the "other" and his respect for the "other," … It is this genuine urge to understand, unpack and not to assume or judge, that is the author's (and thus the book's) main strength. …Levinson had to extensively study the events of the war, its history and geography, and to descend into the messy lives of his characters, while resisting the urge to simplify, or ever fully capture/ explain their lives. The book excels because it remains this careful balance throughout the story. As a result, the author offers to the reader a powerful, respectful, empathetic and moving story of intimate lives which continue despite the war and which escape any easy classification or relation."
–AZRA HROMADZIC, Associate Professor,
Syracuse University, Cultural Anthropology
Author: Citizens of an Empty State
(Amazon review excerpt)
"In The Reluctant Hunter, Joel Levinson narrates a gripping novel about the suffering and horror of ethnicity gone mad. It is also a moving love story told with great sensitivity and touching remembrances of life as it had been and what it had become. A fascinating, fast paced, beautifully crafted story, The Reluctant Hunter is an emotional roller coaster that will keep the pages turning."
–ROY VOLLMER, Architect and Professor
(Amazon review excerpt)
"I am one of those people considered lucky for surviving the most horrific violence that Europe has seen since Holocaust. Reading this book brought me back....though I thought for years that no author, unless they lived it, could ever master the complexities of Bosnia's war. I have had a pleasure of reading everything that is out there on Bosnia and nothing can compare to this book. If you are up for an exquisitely written story that unveils how we think and feel when faced with a tragedy that we never thought would happen to us, this is the book for you. Levinson will take you to a place where most authors won't or can't... Thank you for writing this book! Though an emotional read for me personally, there is a healing process that came with it. With every page I read, I felt more understood. Lucky to be here and lucky to have read this book!"
–LUCKY, Survivor of the Bosnian War
(Amazon review excerpt)
"Joel Levinson's magnificent The Reluctant Hunter is a book I can't stop raving about. Despite what I thought I knew about it, from early reviews, it continued to surprise and fully engage me till the very end. In fact, I could literally not put the book down–reading the last half in a straight seven hours. I've never read with so much stamina and enthusiasm before–a tribute to Mr. Levinson's characters, plot lines and poetry of language. Despite some heavy themes, Levinson brings levity and light in the form of his memorable character, Dado, who is a natural charmer. …The Reluctant Hunter is an important work that ranks, in my opinion, with other long-acknowledged masterpieces. Don't miss out on reading this startlingly impressive first book by author Joel Levinson.
–Merrill Furman, Author
(Amazon review excerpt)
"I just finished reading The Reluctant Hunter and enjoyed it cover-to cover. Enjoyed is perhaps not the perfect word because it is filled with so much pain and suffering. Still, I was gripped from beginning to end and was utterly impressed by Levinson's ability to paint such a vivid and poetic picture of a terrible time in world history. His sensitivities know no bounds. Kudos to the author for creating a work of great depth and compassion."
–MICHAEL SIMON (Amazon review excerpt)
"I bought this novel in preparation for making a trip to the Balkans. I'm glad I did. Though other books, like Balkan Ghosts and other histories, detail the long history of religious and ethnic violence of the region, The Reluctant Hunter puts faces on the conflicts that have raged in this part of the world for ages. It is very clear that the author put a lot of time and love into this work. This is gratifying for the reader.
Ernest Becker in "The Denial of Death" talks about how individuals and groups can undertake "immortality projects." Something deep within a peoples' unconscious reaches up and causes them to do heartbreakingly violent things to each other. This novel brings this sort of thing to life. Man's inhumanity to other men is forcefully illustrated. The reader is confronted with hard and heartbreaking realities.
I personally loved how the book ended with a powerful metaphor of hope and an illustration of the power of love and the resiliency of the human spirit. Whether you plan a trip to the Balkans or not, I highly recommend this good read."
–BILL KERLEY, Spiritual Teacher
(Amazon review excerpt)
"What do you expect of a good novel? Believable characters. Believable situations. Believable actions. A story that propels you forward. A few unexpected twists and turns. At least a few touches of humor. Perhaps a love affair. Insight into the human condition. Levinson's excellent novel has all of these. It is a moving story set in the Bosnian war of the 1990shard to read in a few places, also hard to put down. And the reader is reminded, if reminding is needed, of the horror and insanity of war."
–KENNETH FORD Ph.D., Physicist, Educator, Author
(Amazon review excerpt)
"…Five Stars. Well done. Very well done."
–TOM GARVEY, Author
(Amazon review excerpt)
"The Reluctant Hunter"… is a novel to be cherished for its cry against the inhumanity and devastation of war and its inherent confidence in the power of love and belief. Descriptions that draw the reader in by sights, smells, textures, cold and heat of the moment, create a reality lived side-by-side with the characters of this devastatingly wrenching and tender promise that love will prevail, good will overcome evil. Nothing is rushed; everything is felt;…eloquent imagery and metaphor.…Thank you, Joel Levinson, for a moving, authentic telling of the survival of love against the greatest odds. I can't wait to read Joel's next novel!
–ROBIN WILSON (Amazon review excerpt) "The book captures the insanity of war on the most personal and poignant level. While set in Bosnia in the 90's, The Reluctant Hunter reminds us of the universal and lasting toll of the current wars ripping apart nations, families, and the souls of all those caught in the senseless and brutal conflicts around the world today. We've become numb and see only the headlines."
–PRLawler, Activist, Founder of Philabundance
(Amazon review excerpt)
"Although The Reluctant Hunter is Joel Levinson's first published work of fiction, it doesn't read like a typical first novel because of its complexity and depth of characterization. The story is a gripping historical account of atrocities in a conflict that set Serbs against Muslims, and friends and neighbors against each other during the ethnic cleansing wars in the former Yugoslavia, a conflict which started in the early nineteen nineties.
Levinson did extensive research for the book including email exchanges with a NATO peacekeeper and war survivors on both sides of the conflict. He used the names of his Bosnian friends for some of the fictional characters, but all else is in the story is invented with striking effect. Jusuf Pasalic is one of many memorable characters encountered throughout the novel. He is something of a quiet loner, skilled with a rifle, loves to play soccer, and is planning to go to college to study architecture. He is by nature a caretaker, even when he has to live by the charity of the people who take him in, including the lovely Azra, an aspiring doctor, with whom he falls in love shortly after she provides refuge in her home. Although there is nothing autobiographical in this novel, the fact that Joel Levinson is an architect-turned-author is evident in his descriptions of buildings both beautiful and repellent. "Dreary concrete apartment slabs constructed during the Communist era sat elbow to elbow with buildings from the Medieval, Ottoman, and Austro-Hungarian periods."
The narrative is told from a third person, limited point of view. This perspective is almost always Jusuf's but for dramatic effect and variety, scenes are sometimes presented through the eyes of other characters such as the hilarious, Dado, (who oftentimes is encountered wearing his pajama bottoms no matter the circumstance). In one chapter, Dado must travel through enemy territory to exchange bread for yeast. This comical, psychologically revealing, and ultimately frightening episode provides light-hearted relief amid an otherwise never-ending onslaught of deprivations brought on by the war.
The narrative follows a simple structure with very few flashbacks. It is full of original images and sensual details such as when a gun shot is heard and ravens fly away "their wings beating like leather gloves clapped in frenzied applause." The descriptions are rich and elaborate and they alternate nicely with dialog full of simple expressive language. The action, full of suspense, develops toward a horrific crescendo when Jusuf [and a friend are reunited in] a ravine on the front lines. I don't want to spoil the story but suffice it to say that, Jusuf, the son of a hunter of extraordinary skill, is compelled to raise his weapon when unimaginable circumstances demand he does the unthinkable. The unrelenting violence and escalating horror of the final chapters are hard to read but, at the same time, it is impossible to put down this exciting and engaging novel."
–CONCHA ALBORG, was a professor of contemporary Spanish literature
at Saint Joseph's University, Philadelphia and is, herself, an author.
"The writing is fast-paced and full of energy. There's something refreshing about Jusuf's character that takes the edge off of reading about such a dark and disturbing chapter in history. The Reluctant Hunter took me on a dark, disturbing, and powerful journey and when I finished, I felt like I was leaving a part of myself behind the now-worn manuscript pages. The fact that Levinson's writing could reach me this deeply says a lot about his ability as a writer. I absolutely LOVE Dado. His character is so interesting and colorful. Dado may very well be my favorite character in the book."
–ALEXIS BARAD-CUTLER, Author, Editorial Consultant,
Former Associate Publisher at PlayBac Publishing, USA.
"The use of poetic devices in Joel Levinson's novel is reminiscent of Hemingway and Remarque, while the content and style are comparable to works by James Jones, Norman Mailer and Jerzy Kosinski. Levinson's approach (unusually modern) and language (bold and personal) are fresh and original. The stark images, abundant but perfectly justified, evoke the black-and-white World War II films made in the 1950s by the directors of the Polish School, Andrzej Wajda in particular. The Reluctant Hunter should be read by high school students (preferably as required reading), in order to destroy the false and over-romanticized preconceptions of war created by a plethora of action movies and computer games."
–HENRYK HOFFMANN, Author; Chair of the World Languages Department,
Perkiomen Preparatory School, Pennsburg, PA; MA in English Philology
"The Balkan wars ended one of the longest periods of peace in European history. My company, Bavarian TV, reported extensively from the Bosnian War about unimaginable atrocities and victims of unspeakable violence. This war had an uneraseable impact on the collective consciousness of Europeans and others around the world. Joel Levinson's debut novel, THE RELUCTANT HUNTER, demonstrates a deep understanding of that conflict. But his novel is much more than a brilliant account of historical facts. It transcends the limits of time and place to convey the truth about human nature at it best and at its worst. Jusuf Pasalic is an unforgettable character. His coming of age unfolds in the chaos of war among 'brothers' and reaches its culminating point in the most crucial decision a human being could possibly face...and the unfathomable guilt it carries with it. And yet THE RELUCTANT HUNTER, is not only about despair and darkness, but also about survival, hope, friendship, and the healing power of love. Levinson's symbols are beautiful and his writing style is very much his own. I hope THE RELUCTANT HUNTER finds the large audience it deserves."
–CLAUDIA MATHE, News-Editor at BR, The Public Broadcasting Authority in Bavaria, Germany; MA in American Literature
This excerpt deals with a period during the Bosnian War (1992-1996), in a city in the northwest corner of Bosnia referred to as a safe zone. An attorney and refugee (Suljo) leaves the place where he and his son have been given refuge and goes outside for some fresh air. He ends up in a coffee house (Kafana Paviljon) overlooking the River Una. Suljo is a Muslim and the bartender Igor is a Serb; the two ethnicities are at war. The two men did not know each other before the war, but the on-going conflict resulted in their friendship.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
For several days, Bihac was no longer a city under siege. The Serbs had suspended their shelling, and electricity was restored. Suljo and Ahmet had been cooped up for weeks, during which time Suljo came down with a persistent cough. He decided to take a stroll and breathe some fresh air. "To hell with the risk," he muttered to himself. As he walked through the city, he coughed a little less and began to feel somewhat energized. He passed battered buildings, circled around street craters, and waved to a few acquaintances as they ferried jugs of water and bundles of firewood back to their homes. He strolled through the park and over toward Blue Bridge with an inexplicable urge to see the vibrant waters of the River Una. When he got to the Kafana Paviljon, he leaned against the plaza railing and looked out toward the rapids. He circled around behind the coffee house to the slower moving waters of the canal, fixated momentarily on the lengthening chalk line of a jet's vapor trail.
On the far side of the canal was an abandoned hydroelectric plant. During the Communist era, the plant fell into disuse and a skin of rust grew on every part made of steel, rendering the mechanisms permanently impotent. For those with eyes like Suljo's that could see past the obvious, the old plant had become a piece of industrial sculpture. He wished he had a piece of paper and a pencil to write a short poem about the transformation of this structure from one that had radiated power to one that now lay mute and fallow.
His head snapped up as a sniper's bullet hit the wall of the canal, spraying fragments of concrete and stone into the water. He dashed back around the side of the coffee shop and peered anxiously through the round window that faced Blue Bridge. Igor was standing in a pool of copper light, hunched over his ledger, a cigar stub dangling between two fingers, his glasses near the end of his nose. A thin vine of smoke rose from the ash in a long, open spiral that collected in a languidly rotating galaxy of haze just below the ceiling.
Suljo tapped the windowpane with his square fingernail. Startled, Igor looked up to see Suljo open his huge palms to the sky and then shape one hand into a pistol. Igor's broad smile drew the corners of his mouth close to his ears, almost erasing any indication of a chin. He waved for Suljo to come around to the front door. Head bobbing in delight, Igor slippered stickily across the stone floor, fingers twitching in readiness to turn the latch. "Hello, hello, hello," Igor chanted as Suljo walked into the bar, the overhead bell tinkling behind him.
"I did hear a shot out there, I think. Come sit down. You must be more careful, my friend. Hold on one minute, Suljo, while I finish these last few entries. I hate keeping records! Never was good in arithmetic and no longer have the patience in my old age to deal with this shit. Want to take over for me?"
Without looking up, Igor asked, "Something to drink, Suljo? There's still a bit of warm coffee left. A reporter from the Washington Post gave me a bag of beans the other day and this cigar. Isn't it wonderful? I told him everything that I knew about local goings-on. But it wasn't much more than rumor. Should have dramatized it a bit to make a better story. Here, take a puff." Suljo took a long drag and handed it back.
"Coffee would be perfect, Igor."
Igor held his palm over the small cup to feel for heat, brought the cup to his nose to savor the aroma, and then set it in front of Suljo, who sipped the thick coffee and listened to the clock near the TV tick away the seconds as Igor scribbled in a few more entries.
Although it was getting dark outside, Suljo noticed a few refugees from who-knew-where crossing the bridge. As they neared the Paviljon, a lone, white UN armored vehicle roared past them in the opposite direction.
"What a nightmare," Suljo mumbled.
A few minutes passed. Igor looked up and asked, "You say something?"
"Not really. I was just watching those people dragging their tired asses across the bridge. They just keep coming, don't they? Trickling in, day after day. And to what? A safe zone? What a joke!"
The room was silent except for the loud ticking of the clock echoing against the window glass. Suljo coughed.
"Ethnic cleansing? Horseshit! This is fucking genocide. Nazi Germany all over again—but without the gas chambers. Just pistols and knives and mortars and bombs."
"A half-century ago," Igor said, "most of my family was wiped out by the Croatian Ustashe and the Germans." He stroked the stubble of his beard and picked at little raised spots of skin on the top of his head. "Four hundred thousand of us Serbs slaughtered in Croatia and right here in Bosnia also."
"Yes, I've read those statistics somewhere. Tragic. Fighting and more fighting…one century after another. Will it ever end?"
"I don't know the politics like you, Suljo. I'm not a school-learned person. I simply follow my heart—not some asshole in Belgrade or that bastard Karadzic and his bully henchman, Mladic. Why so many Serbs believe the shit these guys toss around is beyond me. I can tell you one thing for sure. This particular Serb sitting across from you is never going to take up arms against his friends, no matter what religion they follow or what 'tribe' they belong to." Igor wiped the counter with determination as if he were trying to wipe away the madness of the last few years.
"This room will be my tomb, I'm sure. It will read 'Igor Miloradovic died here serving coffee and cevapcici. He never killed a friend, never killed a neighbor.' I guess this place is as good as any to die in. I'm sure many Serbs will call me traitor. Let them, goddamn it! I know what's right. Right isn't slitting the throats of your friends." Igor stared out the round window. In the growing darkness, he saw a reflection of his own long face overlapping with what he could still make out of Blue Bridge.
Suljo remained silent and drifted off into a world of his own thoughts. He stared at the clock and listened to the room fill with the sound of time passing in discrete clicks. The red second hand, oddly wide and long like the minute hand, was the result of an imperfect repair when the war had just begun. It moved from one thin second mark to the next with a spasmodic jerk and seemed to mark time with an attitude of restrained anger. Suljo stared as the red bar beat its way from one second to the next, impatiently, but inexorably. Tick! Tick! Tick! The metronomic beat continually magnified in volume as poignant memories overwrote his thoughts. The poet in him, and the lawyer searching for a half-hidden clue, caused him to scrutinize the motion of the red bar. He noticed that although the jerking from one second to the next appeared almost violent, Suljo's eye for detail observed that the stroke ended gently, as if a boxer, at the last fraction of a second, felt a pang of sympathy for his opponent and pulled his punch, sparing his challenger what might have been a nose-busting blow.
Agitated by something stirring at the back of his brain, Suljo fiddled with his cuticles and clenched his teeth. He rotated the coffee cup in its saucer counterclockwise as if he were turning back a timepiece. He aligned the finger grip with a chip in the saucer, wondering whether a precise alignment would unlock whatever it was pressing at the back of his skull in some dark chamber of buried memories. Again, he listened intently to the clock as if he were being drawn toward something as yet unrevealed. His eyes closed. He felt himself sliding backward to an earlier time.
He saw sticks on a raw and misty morning slicing through the heavy air. He watched men and boys marched down a road in groups of two. He saw boys forced to hit men, men forced to hit boys. He heard guards yelling, harder, you fuckers, hit him harder. From fathers who were forced to hit their sons with rough-hewn clubs and steel bars came muffled cries and whispered apologies. From sons who received the blows, there were cries of pain held hushed in the throat, or cries to the father pleading not to stop the attack in order to avoid the punishment that was certain to ensue.
Suljo's eyes welled with tears as he continued to rotate the cup, the curved finger grip circling counterclockwise, backward in time. Suljo saw the sticks and bars in the hands of his Muslim comrades crash on the bodies of fathers, sons, brothers, and uncles. He knew from the blows he was receiving from his oldest son, Zarif, that each blow was being pulled at the last instant, the wrist angled upward to cushion the full power of the strike, to spare his father's flesh and bones.
Suljo heard his son Zarif behind him, weeping and apologizing for the beating. Blood, near black in the weak light of morning, covered the heads and shoulders of his friends in front of him. Some collapsed in the muddy road, the agony too great to endure. He heard Zarif crying his love for his father in a tortured voice. Then he felt the blows stop. "I can't do it anymore, Papa. You're bleeding like crazy. I love you too much. They can't make me do it anymore, Papa."
Suljo stopped turning the cup and rubbed his hands together, twisting them in anguish and then tightening them into fists.
"Do it, Zarif!" Suljo whispered down into the road behind him. "Do you hear me, Zarif? You must do it. I don't feel the steel. I only feel your love." Suljo turned to see if his son was still there. "You must hit me, Zarif. For God's sake, do it now. It will all be forgotten in a day. I promise. I love you."
"I can't do it anymore, Papa. It's too much—"
A covey of quail flapped out of a nearby bush as the bullet ripped through Zarif's skull. Suljo still screamed in frustrated urgency. "Do it, Zarif! For God's sake, hit me!" Ahmet, allowed to sit on an earthen bank because of a badly twisted ankle, covered his eyes and ears after seeing Zarif's hand slide down his father's back. Suljo turned to see Zarif collapse into the shallow pool of mud Suljo had just walked through.
Overcome by rage, Suljo railed hopelessly at the clock, at its relentless second hand. He bellowed toward the smoke-filled ceiling above Igor's bar, "Do it, Zarif!"
Igor's head flew up, his eyes wide. Suljo's fingers fanned out, looking for a neck to wring, looking for a way to turn back time, to bring his firstborn son back to life. He raised the coffee cup over his head and slammed it down on the countertop. Fragments ripped into his palm. Coffee streaked his shirt and Igor's. This was not the first time Igor had witnessed an explosion of grief and anger firing from the other side of the counter. Fearing he might have said something that triggered Suljo's memories, Igor asked, "Did I babble something I shouldn't? I'm sorry. When I get buried in these goddamn numbers or have one too many beers, I can say anything. What did I say to hurt you, my friend?"
Suljo whispered, "No, Igor, you said nothing. I was suddenly back in the camp. It's still alive in me as if I never left the place."
"You never spoke of it before, Suljo. It must have been horrible."
"It was ghastly beyond belief. The cruelty, the filth."
"I'm afraid to ask what happened that caused such pain and anger."
"They killed my son, Zarif—I guess Jusuf didn't tell you that I had two boys. Zarif, my other son, refused their commands to beat me, so they shot him. Fucking animals those guards." Suljo slumped and cried unabashedly. Igor came around from behind the bar, tears welling in his old eyes, and patted Suljo's shoulders.
"It's a story from Hell, believe me. It's been eating at me—eating my guts, burning my heart." He paused and shook his head. "I'm sorry, Igor. I really don't want to burden you with all this. Those Serbs are not your Serbs; they're not your people. You're cut from different cloth. That I know. These guys were downright sadistic bastards."
Igor patted Suljo's hands, offered him his cigar stub, and then went to fill the coffee pot with water. When Igor brought his lighted match to the hissing jet of gas, the burner exploded like a bomb. "Whoa!" He returned to his friend. "You don't have to speak, Suljo. Just sit. Fresh coffee will be up soon."
Suljo sat with his chin in his hands, staring at the plastic countertop whose geometric pattern was worn away in ovals to a lower level of just one dull gray-brown color. He fiddled with his butchered cuticles again. When he started feeling the sting, he extracted several jagged chips of pottery from his wide palms then walked to the sink for a rinse under cold water.
"Where did all this happen?"
"I'm not really sure. They trucked the boys and me and half of Kljuc somewhere up near Omarska. Jusuf and I were in the same truck. Jusuf was able to get away, but I just now realize I never asked him how he did it. At one point, I looked over after we stopped to pee, and he wasn't across the aisle from me. I was sure they had shot him. There had been a couple of murders on the ride up, and I assumed he must have been killed until I saw him here in Bihac."
"Was it a prison where they took you?"
"The place looked like it might have been an old mine. I never saw the whole place. I thought they'd finally feed us when we got up there, but they gave us nothing for three days. Not a fucking crumb. Just water. My boys cried every day. Even many men cried for something to eat. Two older guys collapsed and died."
"We slept on the floor of…I guess it was a garage. After a bit, I found some oil-soaked cardboard, and the boys slept on that. We smelled like a gas station, our nostrils always stinging." Suljo swept his hand across the bar top as if he were sweeping away a film of old dust. "I thought they were trying to starve us to death, but finally they said to line up for food. All four or five hundred of us hobbled to the door like fucking, half-dead wolves."
"What'd they give you?"
"First, they screamed at us to divide into groups of twenty or so. The boys and I were lucky. Our group got a few crusts. But the food ran out, and some guys got nothing. They threw plastic jugs with water into the midst of us. Most of it spilled on the floor during the fights to get a sip. I couldn't bring myself to look at the guys who got nothing. I had this horrible feeling of guilt. Eventually, though, they gave us something to eat once a day. Maybe the US or the UN or the Red Crescent pressured them. Who knows?"
"All they gave you was crusts? That's it?"
"Sometimes it was a few stinking beans, a leaf of cabbage, or a piece of bread as dry as a pancake of day-old vomit. But just a meal a day! On the floor. We had to gobble it down in three or four minutes. Guards lined the route, and if you made one move they didn't like, whamo, they'd beat you with electrical cables or clubs studded with nail heads."
"You know any of them?"
"I recognized a few."
"That reporter from the Washington Post—who gave me the coffee. He told me he heard some prisoners were tortured."
"Tortured? Ha! Torture was everywhere, every day. Brass knuckles, ax handles, broom sticks up your ass, electrical prods. Anything to get some information. In the shack next to mine, they forced a guy to bite off the balls of another prisoner. And for what?"
Suljo made a fist and punched his open palm.
"They said they were looking for snipers, thieves, arms-runners, anything they could use as an excuse to break your will or your body or both. They wouldn't hesitate to cut off your cock or pluck out your eyes or force another prisoner to slit your throat. And if he was a son, a father—all the better. If I read it in a newspaper, I'd never believe it. But it happened sure as I'm sitting here."
"Suljo, you have no idea how it pains me to hear this, to know that my people did this to you."
"Do you think I hold you responsible, Igor, because you're a Serb? What do you take me for?"
"I don't know, Suljo. It wouldn't surprise me if you drew a knife right this minute and—"
"Don't be a fool."
"But why not? It was my people. It could have been me. Saints become sinners. Ordinary people can turn evil." Igor turned and looked out the window toward the few remaining twinkling post lights of Blue Bridge.
"I'm sure Muslims did the same to your people in some other war and probably in this one as well. Madmen motivate ordinary men. Add in some booze, threats, bribes, and…look, they'll pay for it someday, one way or another. Jail, a firing squad, or a conscience they can't live with."
"How'd you ever get out of there? We saw pictures of the camps on CNN. The chain-link fences, the razor wire. I can't picture anyone escaping. Did you know somebody?"
"Yes, but not the way you might think. It would have been easier if I had never known him. It still haunts me, what I had to do."
"I don't have to know…"
"Better I tell someone since it's all coming back to me. Better I get it out."
"It was about two months after they killed Zarif. Ahmet and I were in the yard alone. It was evening, and everyone else was too weak to move. They were all huddled in a chicken coop where they had taken us after the garage. I noticed that the guard on duty was an old acquaintance of mine from Kljuc."
"Yeah, he had worked with me in the courts. A rather likable guy, actually. He was a clerk and had a scrawny neck like a chicken. When he was younger, he was the lead singer in a rock group that had become quite popular. We had spoken at the fence a few times before. He seemed genuinely apologetic. Occasionally slipped me a few nuts or a bar of chocolate, little things like that, in a way that no one could see. He had to be careful, had to do it when none of the other guards were around."
"So, there was still some good in him. We don't lose our good in bad times. It just gets buried."
"For sure. On one of my previous walks around the perimeter of the yard, I had noticed there was a hinged section of the fence roughly at eye level. It was maybe six inches by ten inches. Outside that part of the fence, there was an abandoned piece of machinery. A good size pipe or something must have gone through this part of the fence. So, night after night when it got dark, I pretended I was holding onto the wires in this area to support myself, but in fact I worked the wires back and forth that held this little door in place until they were worn almost through, but not broken.
"The guard, Goran, saw me that evening and gave me a wink as I walked past him in the opposite direction. That was his way of signaling to me. He stopped and put a boot up on the rusting machinery and looked out toward the woods. Then he lit a cigarette. I wandered around to where he was standing, paused, and whispered hello. He didn't turn, kept looking out toward the forest and said, 'What's up?'
"Where is everybody tonight?" I asked. "The place is empty. This is the first time I've ever been out here with just one guy on duty."
"He told me there was a big party up at the house, naked dancers, lots of beer, endless porn. He said it was just his luck to have to be down here. He reached into his jacket pocket and without turning, slipped me a big chocolate bar. I ripped it open and ate it immediately. Normally I would have eaten half and given the other half to Ahmet, but I kind of knew what I was about to do. I knew where that chocolate had to go."
Igor struck a match and relit his cigar.
"The sky was beginning to darken, and I could tell he was feeling relaxed. To make him feel like he could drop his defenses even further, I periodically walked away and then returned, telling him I didn't want to get him in trouble in case someone came down from the house. He said forget it, they had to force him to go stand guard. He lit another cigarette. I got Ahmet's attention and shook my left hand like I was trying to get feeling back into it. Ahmet knew it was a signal to be alert and stick with me. The chocolate soon gave me a kick of energy. After a while, I began to whistle loudly, and as I did, I quietly worked the wires that held shut the little access flap in the fence. Goran was halfway through his cigarette. He was looking off at the rising moon and probably listening to the music and raucous laughter drifting down somewhat louder now from the big house."
Igor took another puff on his cigar and passed it to Suljo.
"He asked me how I came to practice law. I made up a dramatic story to hold his attention, and after his first nod, my hand was through the fence and around his scrawny neck. Although my hand is fairly large, it didn't reach all the way around his throat but far enough for my fingertips to just reach the sides of his Adam's apple. With my other hand, I quickly stuck two fingers through the fence and then through his belt so he couldn't turn or pull away. I willed his gift of chocolate directly into the muscles that tightly locked the fingers and forearm of my right arm. His cigarette fell from his lips and bounced off his boot. I was worried for a moment that I wouldn't be able to sustain my hold, but he finally went limp. I finally had to shake him loose from my frozen grip."
Igor took a deep breath, filling his lungs until his shirt stretched tight around his chest. Suljo wondered whether Igor was wondering whether that that could have been his neck, his bar of chocolate, his cigarette falling to his boot.
"I felt terrible, Igor. More horrible than you could ever imagine. It still haunts me. But there was no way in hell I would let them take Ahmet away from me also. One son was already too many. It was us, or him. An odd thing for a lawyer to say, but in war, justice becomes an abstract notion that gets twisted to suit the moment. Survival governs."
Igor cleared his throat and Suljo coughed again.
"Anyway, I was able to reach his keys. I waved for Ahmet to come over. We raced to the gate. It seemed like it took way too many minutes to find the right key, but it must have been only a few seconds. The lock popped. A beautiful sound; just a beautiful sounding snap. I dream of it still. In a second, we were out."
Suljo stopped speaking. "This next part was difficult, Igor, impossibly difficult. I relocked the gate so that it would take longer before the guards discovered our absence. I cried as I dragged Goran's body into the woods, all the time looking back at the coop with the other guys still in there sleeping or too weak to stand."
Igor breathed heavy. "Wow."
"I said nothing to caution Ahmet as we fled, but I was constantly terrified one of us would step on a mine. We raced into the woods and kept running until we dropped. Lady luck was with us."
The two men looked at each other almost blankly in the pool of copper light from the overhead fixture. As the smoke from Igor's cigar spiraled up to its resting place amid the paint curls on the ceiling, the thoughts of the two men ascended in benign isolation into worlds that were, one might say, worlds apart. They both listened to the steady ticking of the clock. Suljo's gaze returned to the red second hand as it clubbed its way, blow by blow, from one instant to the next.
In 1992, countless individuals around the world watched a war unfold on TV that was at once horrific to observe and impossible to understand. It occurred in a part of the world that I had not yet visited, and which involved ethnicities and religions that were unfamiliar to me. It was near impossible to understand a conflict that involved a country, the former Yugoslavia, that had just disintegrated into the five countries that Marshall Tito had previously corralled into a new, quasi-communist entity, aligned both with the Soviet Union and with the West. While people around the world felt sympathy for those caught up in the conflict, they also experienced exasperation trying to understand the political, ethnic, and religious forces…and the centuries-old prejudices and superstitions that were at work behind the scenes.
In the Dedication of this book, I briefly mention how I came to start writing a short story whose backdrop was the Bosnian War of 1992-1996. My goal in expanding the short story into a novel was not to write a tale that addressed the mind-boggling array of political realities that were operational at the time; doing that would sacrifice the human story. So, I opted to concentrate on what was experienced on the ground, not in chambers of government and not where the plans for war and its implementation were conceived. I spoke with and emailed individuals on all sides of the conflict to get their perspective. An exchange with a UN peacekeeper shined light on how he dealt with the impossible challenges of what he saw and was near powerless to manage.