A note from the author
While innocent people were killed summarily across Bosnia and Herzegovina during the war, the genocide in Srebrenica represented the pinnacle of the barbarity – not only because of the sheer number of victims and the short time-span in which they were murdered, but also because of the complicity of the UN peacekeepers who were supposed to prevent it.
I spent the entire war in Sarajevo, where I documented the suffering of Sarajevans under siege.
But no crime could compare to that which took place in Srebrenica.
In an attempt to exercise my constitutional and human right to move freely across the entire territory of Bosnia and Herzegovina, as guaranteed in the Dayton Peace Accords, I visited Srebrenica soon after the war ended.
Due to the fragile state of the peace, I chose to go in disguise, accompanied by a former soldier of the Republika Srpska army. I was the first Bosniak journalist to enter Srebrenica after the genocide.
I found myself returning again and again, eager to gain first-hand experience of this tragic place.
“Song of the Silver Birds” – a story about a mother who lost all her children to the genocide – is my tribute to the people of Srebrenica. By focusing on one individual’s pain, it attempts to convey the true scale of the terror that took place here.
For my writings on Srebrenica and Mostar, the most divided city in Bosnia, I was nominated, along with 1,000 other women of peace, for a Nobel peace prize in 2005.
She took the cigarettes out of the Drina pack and slowly pulled out the silvery foil. She shook bits of tobacco out into the ashtray on the sofa, and now she’s straightening the foil with her crooked fingers. Sitting on the prayer mat with images of peacocks and slim minarets, she’s been repeating this ritual for years – first she straightens the foil, stretches all its corners neatly, and then she folds it into a triangle, then she folds the triangle into a smaller triangle. As she does this, she recites verses from the Quran, and watches her watery eyes in the silvery reflection.
She patiently folds the cold foil and warms it up with her old woman’s hands, making it pliable. Every now and then she lights up one of the cigarettes from the pile next to her, blows out a little smoke and then looks at its translucent clouds for a long time.
Slowly, little pieces of foil turn into sparkling birds, and she takes time adjusting their wings.
She has already made hundreds of them in the past few years. There they are, on the windowsill, in the flower pots with the hydrangeas and violets, on the sofa, the embroidered cushions ….
A small sofa, barely two metres long, covered with blue velvet and embroidered towels has been her house, and garden, and Bosnia, and the whole world ever since she returned to Srebrenica.
Sitting on that small piece of furniture by the window of the only room in the small house, built in the place of the old, much bigger one, furnished only as much as it takes to stay out of the rain and cold, she does the only thing she believes she can still do – making enough birds to be sure that someday, at least one of them will bring her news about them.
There were six of them. Five sons and their father: Izet, Ismet, Mirzet, Orhan, Mehmed and Mustafa.
Izet’s chin was shaking like pavement under a jackhammer and his hands were treacherously losing strength as he hugged the tiny woman and the scared daughter, translucent like an olm, while the enemy soldier was pushing him aside with a rifle.
As they were taking him away, Izet remembered the unripe plum he had found in the ditch by the road. He painfully squeezed the smooth little ball into the pocket of his jacket, thinking about the scared little olm.
Ismet was taken away from the water fountain – the rusty pipe through which the reddish droplets of water from the Guber trickled lazily, and he spent hours patiently collecting them in a bucket. When two of them, angry like hungry beasts, grabbed him from behind, Ismet started shaking like a kitten, he trembled a bit, and then he went stiff.
He had no eyes. There were only two eyeballs protruding, locked on the bucket which was almost full. His wife was waiting at home with dry pumpkin rinds to cook in that water.
Mirzet was running after the dandy wearing a light blue helmet and waved at him with his sunglasses. Reflected in them was the sea and a beach party with friends from school. The glasses also reflected the spark of first love. How Mirzet loved these glasses, which his father had bought for him before he went on the school trip – like first love, like the homeland – beautiful and vulnerable like a lily flower.
“Soldier, do you want these glasses? I’ll give them to you for a can of fish…,” he ran after the foreigner, holding up the sunglasses.
The toothless soldier who was swaying on crooked legs came from behind and grabbed his arm. The shiny glasses were sitting sadly on the ugly face, sagging under the fur hat with the chetnik badge.
As the other soldier was pulling Mirzet towards the barbed wire fence, the glasses reflected his terrified face, the summer just gone, hair full of sparkly grains of salt and cypress needles.
Orhan was giving a drawing lesson in the moldy classroom, patched with nylon and sandbags. Skinny little children whose stomachs contained no happy bowels tiredly drew lines on bits of paper. After examining the drawings, Orhan wrote on the blackboard: “We don’t draw our mothers starting with head and hair, but starting with the heart.”
“The same applies for the homeland,” he said when shots rang out nearby.
They tied his hands behind his back with rusty wire and pushed him down the road. Every time he turned his head towards the hill where his mother and father stayed behind, the drunk soldier punched it back. This mad carousel lasted several minutes, until Orhan felt dizzy. He fell down on the dusty road and his nostrils filled with the stench of death.
Mehmed was hurrying down the washed out lane carrying a bundle of firewood. His mother was waiting for him in the house, behind the windows covered with plastic foil, wind whistling something sad through them.
Although he carried only tinder and splinters, Mehmed was bent down and he breathed heavily. In war, even the air rots and becomes heavy. Looking down from the hill he could see the factory where he used to work. It had been empty since the war started. But that day, it was different.
The yard was full of people. It reminded him of a lunch break, so he reached for his pocket to get a cigarette, and have a smoke after lunch. His hand was swallowed by the empty pocket, and his skull filled with crazy thoughts.
The tinder spilled on the lane, like thoughts spilling out of his skull.
“Come back, you scum. Down, down the road! Take him to the factory!” yelled the shabby soldier with belts filled with pointy bullets.
Mustafa heard the noise just as he was getting up from the prayer mat. He rushed to the doorstep in two leaps.
“Sons, were are our sons?” he yelled, and the fear in his voice fluttered through the air, shaking the nylon on the windows even more.
“There’s another one at the door. Get him, don’t let him escape!” somebody yelled.
Hata was running barefoot down the road as they were taking Mustafa away.
“We’ll be back, don’t worry!” he shouted weakly.
It was as if she knew – a few days earlier she had sown six photos into the lining of her jacket, and as she was trekking through forests and mountains, hunted by the enemy like an animal, she feared losing that jacket more than she feared the death itself.
She felt the thin cardboard through the fabric, and then stroked it and pressed it to her chest for a long time. She believed that the warmth of her soul would protect them from the cold in winters that came and passed … that, when she wore that coat, the force of her wounded heart’s beats would penetrate through clouds, thick forests and wild mountains, knock down the enemy and lift them up.
They didn’t come back – not five, not 10, not 15 years later.
She took a wooden frame and put the photos in it, one by one. She thought for a long time about where to place each photo. Should she put Mehmed first, because he’s the oldest, or her husband – after all he’s the father, or the youngest one.
She divided the frame into six imaginary little rooms and she imagined that they were real – freshly painted walls, with lace curtains on the windows and spring sun shining through them. Then she closed her eyes and placed the pictures in no particular order.
Before she put the glass in, she caressed them all once again, kissed them all, and then fixed the frame. She checked the wooden frame several times, making sure that all the bolts were in place and secure. Actually, she checks every day to make sure that the walls of that house made of glass and wood are strong enough, safe enough.
The other day, a pale boy carrying a bow and arrow came to her window. The bow was made of a willow, its ends tied together with a piece of clothesline string.
The boy stood, closed one eye, drew the string back and aimed the arrow at the clouds for a long time.
The boy was taken away from that place as a baby by his mother in a bundle. He doesn’t remember that, but he remembers the stories. He knows that his father was with them too, young and slim, he knows that there was a village, and another one, and that there were five brothers and their father, that there was an entire little town, and that, when she took him away in the bundle, 8,372 of them disappeared.
The boy squints and aims at the sky, but he doesn’t shoot the arrow.
Sometimes, it seems to him that he can see some of them in the fluffy clouds. He’s afraid that he might hit them, so he releases the string and lowers the bow.
Then he draws the string back again. He aims at the sky looking for the culprits. He searches for them slowly, calmly … as if that arrow is the only one he has, and he will shoot it only when he finds them and gathers them all in one place, and it will fly up, hit them all at once and turn them into nothing.
The old woman watches the boy for a long time. She strokes the wings of the sparkly birds and tells them in a tired, breathless voice: “Izet was like this. The same eyes, the same gaze.
But he also looks a bit like Ismet – that hair, the blond lock on his forehead … He has something of Mirzet too. Look bird, that dimple on his cheek, the left one … Look at it … Mirzet had the same one.
And the swift legs, just like Mehmed’s. Do you know how he used to kick a ball? When my Mehmed would run, all of Guber would shake.
And the hands, can you see those hands? Why are you silent, as if you can’t see? Even I, so old, can see that they are just like Orhan’s. Those fingers, thin and long. How well my Orhan could draw.
Once he drew me, when he was just about the same age as this child. I don’t have that drawing anymore, but I clearly remember it – a big red heart, but looking as if it was alive, as if it was beating.
You don’t speak, you are silent. It doesn’t matter, I know that you’re getting ready to bring me news. It’s not an easy job bringing news about my five sons and my Mustafa. It takes a whole flock, you need stronger wings, I know,” she says and gently touches the silent birds.
Ever since the boy came, she hasn’t been smoking. Instead of cigarettes, she buys chocolates, takes the silvery foils for herself and gives handfuls of sweet cubes to the boy.
The boy sits on the doorstep and eats slowly, taking time, looking up in the air, as if sharing the cubes with Izet, Ismet, Mirzet, Orhan, Mehmed.
Inside the little house, the old woman puts the silvery foils on the prayer mat and straightens them with her crooked fingers. Occasionally she presses them with the palms of her hands to warm them up, then she carefully stretches the corners. She folds the squares into triangles, the triangles into smaller triangles. Then she forms the wings, makes eyes, beaks ….
The windowsill, the flower pots, the garden and the sofa are full of birds.
The boy outside the window draws back the string of his bow.
As the shadow of a dark cloud covers the old woman and boy’s face, a flock of silver birds flies up to the sky.
Only the beating of their fragile wings can be heard above Srebrenica.
This story was first published by Al Jazeera Balkans and has been translated from Bosnian.