Jennifer Brinkley — “Tendrils”

There are three ways to travel to Potacari from Sarajevo.  The bus is the cheapest route. It costs about eight marks, but it is the longest trip.  Three and a half hours. You could take a taxi, which is shorter, only about two and a half hours, but too expensive.  At least 50 marks. I don’t drive so the third option of a car is unavailable to me. I make very little money each month selling my scarves in the Bascarsija.  The scarves move gently in the breeze as I sit, their bright colors beckoning, waiting for tourists to finger through them. On good days I can sell one for 15 marks.  Good days are rare. Tourists, especially the Americans, haggle with me. We settle for 7 marks. Then I watch them throw marks to the street children, pleading for change.  These children are richer than I am, in many ways. A little boy sits near my booth, day in and day out, playing his wooden flute in front of his beat up cardboard box. He has recently started bringing his sister.  She walks through the narrow streets, dirty and smudged, begging. A cat, its black and white coat matted and dirty, follows her, weaving in and out of the shops. Hoping to scamper upon scraps of pita or cevapi to fill its distended belly.

When I moved to Sarajevo in 1996, it was a difficult change.  Bells chiming in the minarets, people walking everywhere you turned.  The trams barreling through the center of the city, an unstoppable force.  Bodies crammed too tight, the stench of sweat and poverty. You know the smell.  Cigarettes and longing. I found a room to rent from a Muslim family. They eyed me with suspicion, knowing where I come from.  Somehow everyone knows where I come from. Maybe they needed the money. Maybe their loss was less than others. However they rationalized it, they allowed me to stay.  

Why did I come here?  The ghosts became too much for me.  They clung to me, blankets too heavy to throw off.  A past I didn’t ask for, but one I didn’t try to improve, either.  All those boys, walking for days, the ones who could escape. Not much younger than my own son.  Carrying each other, feet bleeding and torn, spirits not ready to give up. See, I was on the other side of the fence that summer.  The fence looking into the refugee center, safe on the outside. I still remember the sweltering July nights, the sobs and screams that became a soundtrack to 1995.  The hums of gunfire, of shovels hitting dirt. Metal scraping rock, over and over again. Bulldozers moving land here and there. An unwanted rhythm, a relentless undercurrent in my mind.  I never asked for Serbian blood. I cannot escape my own skin. What fault is it of mine to have been born Orthodox? Nationalism never interested me. Until it became a mode of survival, that is.

Life wasn’t always divided by blood, by religion.  There was a time when neighbors helped neighbors. I would bring the Sabic family strawberries from my garden.  They would share milk from their cows. Our boys played together, mine named Aleksandar, theirs Kenan. Brothers by choice, running through our backyards, destructive tornadoes we adored, laughter flying on the wind behind them.  They were closer than blood relatives. Until Aleksandar joined the Army. You live life thinking you can see disaster coming. You imagine ways in which you would be the lucky one, the one to avert adversity due to wit and ability.  The fact is, some tragedy is gradual. Slowly it rises, like wild grape vines up a tree, invasive and over powering.

Was I proud of my son?  What mother isn’t? He was a sight in his uniform.  Took the breath from my gut. The change in his manners, his posture.  Aleksandar would come home on leave to make sure I was eating, doing okay with the garden on my own.  I would grab him and check him over, making my own assessment of how he was growing. Memories of bathing him, chasing after him, feeding him, replaced with the reality of the man standing before me.  I remember the nights when he was small.  Together in the darkness, my arms wrapped around him, a happy sigh would escape his lips and he would say, “Mommy, I love you with all of my heart, every last piece.”  The words dancing pirouettes around me. I was so thankful. So proud.

I have decided to return.  Just for a day. A round trip bus ticket.  A couple of scarves worth of work. Luckily, the bus is not as crowded as the tram in the city center.  I’m on the aisle but I know what is outside the window. I don’t need to see. Stunning mountains, the tallest you can imagine.  A river, parallel to the highway, made of water that is clear yet also a striking shade of cerulean. But then there are the houses.  You can tell which ones belonged to Muslim families. They are burned, battered, open wide to the elements. Most families, or what was left of the family, did not return.  Some did to discover the jagged, gaping wounds of these structures. With no money to fix them, and it being too dangerous to sleep in their hometown, they did not stay. Others discovered Serbian families squatting in their homes.  I heard a story of a man who returned to Foca, only to find a family living in the house he built. They invited him in for coffee, a stranger in his own residence. He knew the internal joints of this place, its dents and cracks. He did not stay long and never returned.  Some skeletons are better left buried, he said.

The highway is quite improved from my past travels.  I imagine having my fruit stand on the side of this paved artery instead of the previous pot holed road.  Tourists passing through, buses stopping to purchase my plums and raspberries. The juice trickling down satisfied faces.  On the way to a destination that would soon change their expressions. You hear of Auschwitz, Dachau, Buchenwald. People, today, have religious experiences when visiting these former camps.  They stand shocked, speechless, confused. Terror and panic resonates, inviting them to bear witness. What did the people looking into those places think back then? The ones on the outside of the fence, doing their own gardening, raising their own children, keeping them fed and upright?  I can tell you exactly how they survived, what they thought as days turned into years. Thank God that’s not me.

The bus slows outside of the Potacari Memorial.  A few hundred feet from the entrance, we disembark from its doors.  The chatter now a muted silence. Women must be covered, scarves are pulled on, some of good quality like the ones I make.  Others are cheap, manufactured, sure to be tossed aside after this visit. We walk through the gates, a group soon to splinter and fracture.  I have been looking at my feet, shuffling along with the crowd. Now I look up and I see. I see a valley nestled at the bottom of a mountain, occupied with white gravestones.  6,504 gravestones to be exact. These are the bodies that have been recovered of the 8,372 killed in Srebenica. My hometown. I walk to the walls of names. My fingers glide over the engraved grooves.  It would take days to read them all. Brothers, fathers, sons, they perished together. Some killed along the mountain side, attempting to flee to freedom. Others in mass killings, packed into buildings with grenades tossed in.  Others shot as they stood at the mouth of a mass grave, drawing their final breaths. Some holding hands. Their last human touch.

I remember sitting on the hillside in Srebenica, watching the chaos unfold below.  The valley was the so-called “safe area” for the Muslims. They fled here because it was supposed to be off limits.  The UN was supposed to protect them here. The war had been raging for years. Tragedy had been customary. But this…I had never seen the likes of this.  Troops in matching shades of green, loading trucks and buses. Women and children directed one way, men and boys over 12 directed the other. “You go left, you go right.”  General Ratko Mladic had rolled into town, telling the refugees, numbering over 20,000, they would be safe. They knew better. We all knew better. I saw boys being ripped from the arms of their mothers.  Bodies shaking with grief. Others frozen still, in disbelief. I saw a soldier slice the head right off of a child. He danced around with it. The mother clawed at him to give it back, like they were playing a twisted game of keep away.  She dropped to the ground and held her son’s body, rocking, screaming. We all heard her. But no one intervened. We heard the rapes, the “no’s” that punctuated the thickness in the air. It was all so strangling. So dreamlike. Still I sat, tearing at the grass, having nowhere else to go.  My blood, my deity, made me immune from the horror below. I was left only to witness, to observe, with no avenue to stop it. How do you stop a rolling army? I could not hold off the tanks, I could not take the place of these women, these mothers, grasping and reaching for the hands of their sons and husbands.  I could do nothing. Instead, I watched.

Where was my son?  He was one of the men in green.  I could not make him out in the sea of bodies.  I hoped to God I raised him better than to rape and torture.  I prayed the little boy I held, who saved earth worms from the rain, would show up.  Would put a stop to this vicious abuse, would not look the other way, would help instead of hurt.  I prayed he had more strength than I did. I would never find out for sure. He was killed after the massacre.  The violent images were all over the news. When the Americans saw what happened to all of those men and boys, they had to get involved.  Jets flew in, bombs dropped, documents were signed, land was divided. Then what? We were all supposed to forgive and forget? To move on together?  The days of brotherhood and unity, the messages of Tito, were lessons long past. Every day felt more like a powder keg, waiting for a spark to ignite.

Walking through the gravestones, I stumble upon a woman and her son, he must be three or four.  I ask her who she is visiting. “My brother,” she says. “He was seventeen when he was killed.” Her child hugs the gravestone, the only way he knows his uncle is through stories and this cold white stone.  I take a picture of them with her phone. The boy looks directly into the camera, uncertain whether to smile. He decides against it. The mother holds his hand and looks to the ground. Her shoulders bent, weighted with sorrow.  I compliment her scarf, she smiles. Her mother made it. I ask if her mother visits the memorial. Her eyes cloud over. “She doesn’t have the strength to visit. My dad is still missing. She says she will not come until his body is found and she can visit both.  I’m not sure that will ever happen.” I nod and let her pass, the young child clutching the hand of his mother.

There is a museum across the street.  It is in the warehouse where people piled in that summer, trying to obtain some type of sanctuary, some type of reprieve from going left or right outside the doors.  I cannot go in. Instead, I sit among the stones. Am I happy I came? That’s an odd question. Strange to think of happiness in this place.

I pull myself up and go back to the ridged names on the wall.  There is one to whom I need to pay my respect. I am an old woman now and believe this will be the last time I walk across this soil.  I search out Kenan’s name. The stone is chilling to my fingertips, or maybe that is my imagination. I have no idea which gravestone is his so I linger over his name.  Tracing it with my crooked forefinger. My mind wanders to days spent weeding, cultivating the garden while attempting to also tame Aleksandar and Kenan. Or at least keep them from trampling my produce.  

When they were small, I would take them to the river behind our homes, making them hold hands as we negotiated the rocky terrain.  Fearful they could fall if not holding on to each other, if not supporting the other as we walked. “You must look out for one another,” I would tell them.  They would swing from the grape vine growing around the branches of the large silver fir, then fall from it, splashing into the water below. Giggling and slapping each other on the back for particularly large splashes raining over me on the shore.  They would do this again and again until I dragged them home, one in each of my hands. It was not until years later I finally understood how those tendrils of vines, the foundation of such delightful memories, would grow to smother the tree, digging its own roots into the earth, and spreading like a sickness.  Destroying the beauty underneath.

Jennifer L. Brinkley is a lawyer, professor, and writer in Bowling Green, Kentucky.  Her poetry has previously been published in Handful of Dust Magazine, The Blue Pen Literary Magazine, Still Here:  VLP Magazine, Route 7 Review, The Notebook, Pink Panther, Survivor’s Review, and issue.Zero Literary Magazine in Paris, France.  She has also had nonfiction works published in newspapers in Lexington and Bowling Green, Kentucky.