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All That We Burned, All That We Loved by Laura Haugen

 

Laura Haugen is a graduate of Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism and Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service. She has worked as a journalist at various publications and served as a diplomat in Washington D.C., Oman, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Tunisia, and Jordan. She is a freelance writer and lives in the Washington D.C. area with her husband and daughter.

 

Editor's Choice (Suzanne) - 2015 Raymond Carver Contest

 

I.

We started with the little things: scraps of junk, things of no import or stuff we could do without. But soon, we had to burn the things we needed, the things we loved. By the end, we let go of just about everything around us we held dear. We tossed it into the flames and watched it smolder.

In my beloved city under siege, we lit small fires to keep warm and cook what we could find to eat. While our politicians squabbled and the men in the hills cut off access to electricity, water, gas, food, and medicine, we invented ways to get by. This is what we Sarajlije do best. It was April 1992, and the green valleys dotted with white and pastel houses gleamed in anticipation of summer. Our city’s cafes still bustled, and the markets still opened for business, and we went about our days.

No one here thought it would be longer than a few days, weeks at most, and Sarajevo would return to normal. But the men in the hills that surrounded us had other plans, and the siege stretched across summer into fall, then through a wretched winter, and then—beyond our wildest and most despairing of guesses—it bore on for nearly four years. Each day we thought, surely this will end; no doubt the world out there watching will bring this all to a close. But each day, we snuffed out a small ember of our illusions.

When it began, we heard of friends and neighbors asking relatives on the outside to help them escape. People started talking about who was Serb, Croat, or Muslim, and what that meant for their safety. Though I’m a Serb and my wife comes from a prominent Muslim Bosniak family, it never occurred to us to leave or to think that our ethnic identity mattered. Sarajevo was and would forever be our home.

Under the siege, we learned quickly what would ignite with ease and what would produce a slow and steady burn. Newspapers, twigs, bark, and odds and ends would often be enough to cook ourselves something to eat. But as the nights grew colder, we had to get more creative in scavenging for kindling and spent more of our time tending fire. Before long, we burned through all the refuse we could find; piles of papers, cartons, and boxes went up in flames. We cleared deadwood and brush and chopped off branches and, piece by piece, set them alight.

Meanwhile, the city’s treasures blazed too. The Serb army set fire to Vijećnica, our national library, burning hundreds of thousands of texts and rare manuscripts. Government buildings, cultural centers, mosques, hospitals, and sports complexes—even the famed 1984 Olympics venues—crumbled and fell under mortar fire. Hundreds of shells rained down upon us daily. Snipers took aim at us. In the worst areas, the dead lay in the streets.

All across the besieged city, people ran for their lives in search of things to burn. When we found a house abandoned, we’d loot it for anything valuable, anything flammable. We’d strip the door frames and floorboards and break down the furniture. We’d dismantle cupboards and staircases and cart away all the wreckage until there was nothing left inside to add to our fires.

The trees were next to go. The lines of plane trees along the boulevards from the Austro-Hungarian era came down in swift blows, turned to ash and smoke by the end of the first winter. In bitter cold, people were so desperate they returned under sniper fire to cut away chips of wood from exposed stumps in the ground. The green canopies that once adorned our city parks, every last twig, even the park benches, vanished.

When nearly all the trees from the city’s roadsides and parks and hillsides were gone, we took stock of what we had left to burn.

Our own apartment not far from the heart of the old Ottoman section had a small yard with a few bushes and trees; most of them we divvied up early on with our neighbors. One frigid morning, I had brought a saw out and just about had the teeth wedged in the trunk of the last tree standing—an old plum tree—when I heard my wife’s pleading.

“Oh, Oggie, don’t do it,” she said. 

I can picture her now, standing in the doorway shivering, how she pulled her woolen scarf, a deep shade of violet, around her shoulders, the way her blue-grey eyes shone. Our two-year-old boy peered out from behind her legs.

“Please,” she said, “Mak needs something to climb on, and we can eat the plums in summertime, and … well. We don’t have anything beautiful to look at anymore. We need to keep a patch of sky above us, don’t we?”

It was typical of my Esma to quote Proust in the bleakest of times. We had met and fallen in love at the philosophy faculty of Sarajevo University, and though we disagreed on the order of the Russian greats—I preferred Tolstoy to her Dostoevsky—we shared a love of literature and, in particular, Proust’s masterpiece, In Search of Lost Time. So our plum tree stayed, and every time we looked out at it or sat under it, looking up through its knotted boughs, we felt it existed just for us—a touch of beauty for our artistic souls, a little patch of sky unspoiled by war.

We resorted then to whatever we could find inside to burn. Our clothes and shoes crackled and smoked in our fires, sending off toxic fumes and sparks. Armoires, bookcases, bed frames: all but the essential furniture we incinerated. We pulled out sections of floorboards and door frames and the walls of our homes and offered them up for a few moments of heat to get us through the coldest nights.

People began burning their books. For all of us who lived and dreamed the stuff of literature and poetry, this was the unthinkable, until we had to choose between our books and our survival. Esma and I developed our own ritual in the winter nights, of choosing a book and reading softly to each other by candlelight, then feeding the pages into the fire.  We’d ask: Will it be more Joyce tonight? Or one of our Russians? And the words seemed to float up around us as we cuddled in the warmth of their glowing embers.

There was an old lady down the street, Mrs. Petrušić, who began wandering the neighborhood, shaking her head and muttering over and over, nema ništa—there is nothing. The war was hardest for those who lived alone. People would try to help her, but she kept staggering about, dazed, uttering the same wretched words without end. I’d hear her sometimes and reflect on what we had left inside our bullet-blasted walls: some food and water to get us through the day, an emergency stash of cigarettes and marks, some spare blankets and clothes, a few pieces of furniture, the books we couldn’t bear to burn, and little else.

 

II.

Let it be known that we Sarajlije never let war get in the way of our good humor. Since there was no safe place to be in the city, we gathered in cafés and traded news, toasted to better times. Might as well continue to live, is how we looked at it. My friends from the university and I would meet up at Café Dizdar, a hangout for poets and artists. When my mind conjures wartime memories, I try not to go back to the most painful ones. Instead I revisit those moments spent at the café laughing among friends. I can close my eyes and see it now…

“What’s the difference between Auschwitz and Sarajevo?”

It’s a cool mid-autumn evening in the first year of the siege, and we’re sitting at our usual table near the bar and sharing sections of the daily paper, Oslobođenje. There’s Damir, who recently joined the defense forces and has deep dark circles etched beneath his eyes; and skinny Haris, who dropped out of university and is working as a driver and translator for international journalists and aid workers, shuttling them through sniper fire to tour the city’s wreckage. My friend Toma, a Croat, is here too; he and I have kept our lecturing gigs at the university, though we get paid each month with just a kilo of flour now.

I know the punchline to Damir’s joke and answer through puffs on my cigarette.

“At Auschwitz they had a steady supply of gas, asshole.”

This is how we try to make light of our dire predicament, the death and destruction we witness and the indignities we endure every day. I’m not sure anyone outside Sarajevo would understand our humor, but sometimes we can’t help but point out the absurdity, the insanity of it all.

Toma inquires about my family. Neither Esma nor I have seen our families in months now, though we manage to get calls through when the telephone lines are working. My parents have been living outside Sarajevo and are okay, but Esma’s family lives north of us close to the front line, in a part of the city that’s too dangerous to approach. I’ve been trying to reassure Esma that at least her parents and little sister are together, but her worry is growing.

Across the table from me, Damir is pointing a camera at us, filming for a documentary he’s working on for the defense forces. He directed a couple films before the siege. This one, he says, will rally international support for us, send U.S. warplanes to the rescue.

“Look charming. This is our love letter to the world.”

“More like our last will and testament,” says Haris, scowling at the camera. “Could you put that thing down?”

Toma leans over the table and points the lens at himself.

“Ladies and gentlemen, a little trivia question,” he smirks, then turns serious. “How long is the bread line today?” 

We all look up from the paper, trying to figure out the answer, but Toma delivers it, his grin returning.

“Depends on how accurate the sniper is.”

He’s right. A good part of our diet these days consists of canned beef and mackerel the European aid agencies are handing out in ubiquitous bright blue tins, as well as stale bread. But we usually have to dodge bullets to get to one of the distribution centers, and there’s never enough food to go around.

It’s getting dark, and my friends are joining another table to sing along to the radio and raise glasses of old, tepid beer. I get up to tend to some business with the café owner, Nedim. He’s been giving us powdered milk for Mak in exchange for cigarettes. This time I’ve brought an extra carton to help him pay for his wife Suada’s upcoming surgery. They’ll need basic first aid items: saline solution, bandages, and painkillers, available only on the black market. Even if they manage to find everything they need, there’s no telling if a doctor will be available or even if the hospital will remain standing under the constant barrage of mortars from the nearby hills.

“Hvala puno,” Nedim says, kissing me on both cheeks, and I feel his gratitude. “I’ll let Suada know. Say hello to Esma and the little fellow!”

I wave goodbye to my friends, who have now broken out into a U2 song, singing off-key with gusto.

I wanna tear down the walls that hold me inside….

When I run back to our place, the pounding noise of mortar shells intersperses with gunfire. I expect to find Mak asleep when I get there, but Esma greets me at the door with him squirming in her arms.

“They made it,” she says, her wide eyes wet with tears. “My parents got here just a half-hour ago.”

I look toward the darkened corner of the room and see the ghostly figures of Fahrudin and Zehra. They sit huddled at the table in our last two chairs, their faces ashen, aged, and sunken from hunger.

 

III.

There is a kind of despair I know that is unspeakable, but everyone around it can feel it. Over the next few weeks, it hovered around Fahrudin like a shadow. It wafted out through Zehra’s sighs. It drifted among us and settled in the tense quiet of the apartment as we tried to tend to our guests.

Fahrudin’s leg was swelling, and he was becoming too weak to walk. Zehra kept checking his wounds—shrapnel in two places in his thigh, and a long gash in his side—and re-dressing them with the cleanest strips of cloth we could find. She worked nervously and spoke softly, as if the Serbs in the hills might hear her. The old man didn’t speak at all for days. Esma kept prodding at first, but soon we learned which questions not to ask, for the pain in their faces was unbearable.

Over time we learned, from emotional bursts of words from Zehra, that they did not know where Esma’s sister Amina was. She had gone to find food and never returned. We learned that from their home they could see the movement of Serb tanks and snipers in the hills, they were so close. And we learned that while Zehra and Fahrudin were waiting in anguish for their daughter, they witnessed horrors no one should ever see.

One warm day a couple months earlier, a neighboring family had sat down for a picnic in their yard. Their house was adjacent to Fahrudin and Zehra’s, and they could see the family spreading out a blanket and setting out food. Children were running about and some began to climb a cherry tree in the orchard. Suddenly a mortar shell struck where they gathered, killing seven family members, including three children. Zehra shook as she recounted that horrific day, still haunted by the ghastly remains she saw draped from branches and scattered over the yard.

What happened with Fahrudin, though, the way Zehra told it, started with the noises coming from the zoo across the street. They had long been accustomed to the sound of the animals being fed morning and night, and Fahrudin had often hung out with the staff there. But after the siege began, the noises changed, and he became fixated on the state of the animals. After Amina disappeared, he began to disappear himself, leaving Zehra alone while he worked for long stretches at the zoo. What was crazy about this, Zehra explained, is that the zoo abutted the Serbs’ most heavily fortified front line and was under relentless fire.

She said she went to look for him and found him in the staff station, collapsed and bleeding, groaning through labored breaths. He had run out of water and had nothing but a heel of moldy bread left to eat. The zookeeper lay dead beside him. Zehra had to persuade Fahrudin to get up and let her bandage his wounds. As soon as dusk fell, they ran as fast as they could away from the hills and across the city to find us.

 

IV.

I sometimes drift into reveries, an old wartime habit that has stayed with me. The dreams I began to dream even in waking hours gave me a measure of solace to endure days of more death and destruction. They remain a balm to the nightmares I still have and the only way I know to quell the horrors of memory.

In my dreams, the great poets and writers rise. Their ghosts ascend from the ashes of their books at Vijećnica and wander the city. I see Montaigne leading the French contingent, flanked by Flaubert and our Proust, appearing from shadows and flickering light. I see a young Keats offering a hand to Shelley as they step amidst crumbling ruins. I see the Russian greats, from Dostoevsky to Nabokov to Gogol, shaking off mantles of ash and marching ahead through the rubble. I see them all join up with their Slavic brothers, who maneuver over smoldering texts, emerging arm in arm with the ancient Turkish and Arabic and Persian scholars of centuries past.

Together they sweep through clouds of dust and smoke and rise from the fires of the fallen library. Wordlessly—for their words have already burned and vanished—they roam the streets of Sarajevo, past gutted buildings and abandoned tramcars. They pick up the bodies of those struck down by sniper fire. They place roses where mortar shells have rained down. They pluck the debris and bloated corpses out of the Miljacka River. They clear away the blood and the shrapnel and the wreckage of the city. 

Moving house to house, they touch their hands upon those writhing in fitful sleep and take alms to those with nothing left. They hush the cries of babies, cradle orphans shivering in the night. They kneel at the feet of grieving mothers and ease their anguish. They cry for a generation of youth whose dreams are dashed, give courage to men taking up arms to defend the city. They offer silent prayers to the girls and women gone missing. They lift away sorrows, give comfort to the cold and the hungry. 

In my dreams, the battalion of writers and poets makes its nightly rounds through the city, stopping in the old Ottoman section, sending fortitude to its weary residents to make it through another day. They stand vigil on our street and shelter our battered building. They soothe Esma’s worry and lighten the burdens of Zehra and Fahrudin, heal their wounds. They guard over the softly slumbering Mak. They have mercy on old Mrs. Petrušić, letting her lose her mind, then her footing on the staircase one night, so that she would suffer no longer. 

Around Sarajevo they roam, weeping for the living and the dead. They trudge through parks and soccer fields and open spaces that have transformed into graveyards. They lay armloads of flowers across the graves and scatter seeds of life wherever their feet tread. They collect the remains of a family and a cherry tree, breathe new life into them, and set them free as pink blossoms fluttering out across the city. As they make their way back to Vijećnica, a trail of tears trickles out behind them, flowing in soft rivulets, gathering force. When the literary ghosts return to their darkened corners of the library, great streams of tears are pouring forth, rushing through the valley and cleansing the city with life. 

 

V.

It’s three in the morning and the lights flicker on. Within minutes, appliances are abuzz and the sounds of rushed activity throughout the neighborhood rouse us.

The electricity has been coming back in spurts at unpredictable times, so we do what we can when we have it. Esma jumps up and loads the washer, then starts vacuuming furiously through the apartment while I keep an eye on Mak, who somehow is sleeping through all the commotion. Zehra gets our little electric oven going, and soon the place smells like spiced apples and walnut bread baking.

I turn on the television and watch updates on the war. I think of Damir, who stopped by earlier today after a long stretch working with the defense forces. He brought us surprise gifts of eggs and cheese and lingered over coffee. He talked about how the Serbs were pounding them and how they lacked adequate weapons, though he seemed hopeful about a new American president who was vowing to lift the blockade and send help to Sarajevo. The news program now is showing a map of the country highlighting the more than seventy percent of the land that Serb fighters have taken over. Meanwhile, there’s more fighting going on elsewhere in Bosnia, this time between Bosniaks and Croats, and I watch the scenes before me with growing dismay and irritation.

Fahrudin hasn’t risen in a couple days. Zehra has been tending to him, trying to get him to eat and to bundle him in layers, but he keeps swatting her away and talking nonsense through feverish fits. When Zehra asks for my help in the kitchen, she pulls me aside and asks me if I could try to speak with him, to get him to talk. Before I can answer, Esma comes up behind us and whispers that his wounds are getting worse, that there’s a sour smell emanating from him now and we have no disinfectant or sterile bandages.

“We need to take him to a doctor, Oggie,” she says. “Or bring one here.”

“I’ll see what I can do,” I say, though I can’t think how I’ll manage.

And right then, just as quickly as the power came on, everything blinks off, shrouding us in darkness again. We clean up the kitchen, saving Zehra’s bread and apples for breakfast, and head back to bed. All is quiet but the sounds of artillery echoing throughout the valley and Fahrudin’s mumbling as he tosses about.

 

VI.

“What could we do? We couldn’t let them die in their cages,” he says, his low voice shaking and his face beaded with sweat. “We couldn’t watch and do nothing to help.”

I listen and nod. Though Fahrudin’s fever continues unabated and his leg has worsened, he has refused to see a doctor. After days of thrashing around, he is now lying still by the coals of our fire. Snow is falling in the early morning light, the valley is unusually hushed, and I listen to Fahrudin’s intermittent speech.

“The lions stopped roaring. The bears were emaciated, and the tigers barely moved. We had to do something, but what can you do? Emil couldn’t do it alone… So we tried to take shifts—one of us would watch the front line from the station, the other would race around to check on the animals. The damn snipers had us running like hell. And the canons would blow up around us. We lost so many animals from shrapnel alone.

“They killed six ponies, blasted them to pieces. Every time we checked there were more dead … four deer, an antelope, a donkey, three peacocks, two mountain goats, several pheasants, a swan. When the gunfire and shelling let up, we butchered the carcasses and fed them to the hungry animals, the ones we could reach… We slaughtered the oldest donkey too and ate it; there was no way he would survive, and we were hungry. Some nights, people would come to us starving and desperate. Ten elks and ten deer were eaten. There was nothing else to do.”

I pat Fahrudin’s face and neck again with a cloth and help prop his head up higher on a pillow. He looks even more fatigued. When I ask him if he wants to sleep, he shakes his head and then a wistful smile begins to spread across his face.

“Emil’s boy came and helped us… A quick little fellow, fearless. You should have seen him running around tossing meat into the cages. He even made it to the bears and tigers. Those četniks,” he said, growing agitated. “Do you know what they did?”

“No,” I say. I’m not sure he’s heard me, so I offer again: “No, Fahroo, what did they do?”

“Killed him!” he says through clenched teeth. “The snipers got him, shot him in the back. By the time we reached him, the boy was dead.”

Fahrudin stares at the fire, breathing heavily, as the tears stream down.

“What could we do? The eagles? They are surely gone. We watched the snipers taking aim, using the nest for target practice… At least the remaining horses, two mares, we could set free. We opened their gate and let them go. When Zehra and I were running across town, we saw them. They had made it over the bridge to the graveyard and were feeding on the grass there.”

I get up and bring him a glass of water, which he sips slowly from my hands. Then he turns and shifts away from the fire and moves onto his side.

“We couldn’t save the lions,” he says softly. “If they haven’t starved yet, I am afraid the četniks will set them loose to feast on us.”

After a while, Fahrudin is quiet, and though I can see he’s shaking, he seems to be drifting off to sleep. I adjust the covers around him and stir the embers of the fire to keep the warmth coming. I return to a book of Dylan Thomas poems, opening it up to a familiar one. I’ve read it a thousand times but never have I wept over it as I do now reading and re-reading the last line:

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Flames lick the edges of the pages, curling and smoldering in the fire. I listen to the steady breaths of Esma and Zehra sleeping soundly across the room, for the first time after days of near-constant tending to Fahrudin. Mak is curled between them and snores. I realize I can’t hear anything from the old man now. I crouch over him, leaning close to his face, when he stirs and reaches his arm up toward me.

“I wish to know,” he says, then falls silent. He’s clutching my collar, looking up at me with beseeching and weary eyes.

“Yes, Fahroo? What is it?” I ask, clearing my throat and wiping the tears from my face.

After a long pause, he releases his grasp and puts his hand across his chest, tapping the place of his heart.

“I wish to know if our fate is worse than the animals’.”

 

VII.

I am walking, as if in a trance, clutching a bundle of fresh lilacs and squinting up at the sun. Eliot is right: April is the cruelest month, and April of 1994 seems especially so. Purple and blue lilacs are blooming in unlikely corners of Sarajevo amidst the rubble and debris. It’s Esma’s birthday and we’re making a visit. Mak has been running ahead, racing around stone markers, crouching down low, then jumping out at the last moment to try to startle us as we approach. Now he’s surveying the rows and rows around him for a familiar sight.

“Here?” Mak says, pointing toward the left. I nod, and we follow a well-worn dirt path up a hill and stop in front of the stone marker, “Fahrudin Mehmedović, January 1939 ~ January 1993.” Mak lies down in the sparse grass, straddling his grandfather’s grave and the one next to it, looking up at the sky and pretending to shoot the clouds with his fingers. I imagine the bones beneath him reaching up in an embrace as he plays.

Zehra is sitting near him now, speaking softly. I stand a few meters back, the scene before me blurring. My hands are shaking, the lilacs quiver. The tutt-tutt-tutt of gunfire sounds like it’s getting closer, but it’s hard to tell if it’s just an echo on this side of the valley. Zehra turns to me with a look of concern.

“Let’s go back now, okay, Mak?” she says. “Time to go back, my Mak.”

“Let’s go back now,” she repeats to Mak, who is still shooting imaginary guns into the sky. She gives his arms a gentle tug and pulls him up. She points back down the dirt path and tells him she sees some birds that way. Let’s go, she’s saying, but he’s protesting. 

Must we? 

Must we go back? 

I feel a tap on my arm but I can’t move. Zehra takes the lilacs. Next thing I remember we’re walking back toward home. My heart aches and I can hardly see through the intense sunlight shining down on us. But Zehra navigates the way through the vast graveyard, with Mak trailing behind, still resisting. 

Must we go back now?

We must.

 

VIII.

I remember the morning as a busy one, a happy one…

It’s February, the middle of our second winter of the siege, more than a year after Fahrudin died. We now laugh bitterly at the actual patch of sky we acquired after a mortar hit the unit upstairs and damaged two of our walls and the ceiling. We’ve got plastic tarps and some sheets draped across the holes.

Despite the continued destruction, we are getting by. Just making it through the first winter rendered us fearless and smarter about survival. With Zehra helping out, daily life has become more manageable; we’re used to the sporadic spurts of electricity and the daily foraging under sniper fire. We planted a little garden in the yard last summer—with chard, beans, carrots, potatoes, and onions—and made plum brandy, and we still have leftover stashes to barter for necessities. I’m now working with the defense forces, which is growing more organized, and we’re pushing back the front line near the airport. 

Damir has finished his love letter to Madeleine Albright and the Americans, and the film is premiering today. After mingling with VIPs and friends at the premiere, the plan is to return here for Zehra’s sirnica, cheese pie, and coffee. Our sparse apartment has been scrubbed as thoroughly as possible and the food smells enticing. The women are fussing over preparations for our little party as I get dressed for the premiere. Esma looks up from chopping vegetables, flashing those ever-placid eyes, her face aglow and framed with cinnamon-colored curls. Zehra is tending the fire, keeping an arm outstretched to hold Mak back from the hot pan.

Toma arrives and swoons at the aromas from the kitchen. The two of us run to the university and find seats just as the showing starts.

As it turns out, the documentary is moving and poetic, by far Damir’s best work. It evokes Dante’s circles of hell to depict the bleak realities of Sarajlije under the siege. Judging by the crowd’s response, it is well-received, if not well-attended. A few journalists and aid workers come, but not many diplomat types, certainly not the U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Still, viewers are inspired and there’s talk of how it will focus worldwide attention on our plight. We’re hopeful and ready to celebrate the day.

My friends and I are exiting the building when we feel the concussive jolt of a mortar’s impact nearby. It’s early afternoon and chaos erupts in the streets. We run toward the sounds of screams. Sirens start blaring; people are directing traffic around the frenzied scene. It’s the city’s largest open market, the markale, and body parts are strewn everywhere. People are walking dazed through the carnage. Others start to triage and transport the living. Toma and I help load vehicles with some badly wounded, and when Haris retrieves his car nearby, we load up his car again and drive to the hospital.

Most are beyond hope, parts of limbs or heads or torsos blown off. Many are already dead when we unload them. The hospital staff complain that supplies are long gone, the electricity is out again, and they don’t have room in the morgue. People are just stacking corpses in hallways. We realize there is little left for us to do, so we go back to my place to help receive our guests and let everyone know what happened.

When we get home, Suada, Nedim’s wife from the café, is there in our doorway, and I can’t figure out why she’s there or what she’s saying, but she’s pressing her hands against my chest to stop me from entering. I know something’s wrong from the way Zehra is holding Mak on the floor, rocking and sobbing. A few friends and neighbors are standing around inside, staring at their feet. Haris and Toma are near me, holding my arms now. They’re telling me to listen, stay calm.

It’s Esma.

“She was on her way to the market,” Suada is saying. “She passed right by us just a few minutes before the bombing.”

Zehra begins to scream.

“We looked and couldn’t find her. Bodies everywhere. Ognjen, can you go to the hospital? Nedim’s there looking.”

“I was just there.”

“Maybe she’s—”

“I was just there. She’s not there.”

“But maybe she—”

“Esma!”

I bolt out and sprint back to the market, then back over the hospital. To the café, to the ruins of Vijećnica, to the university, back home again, to all the places I can think that Esma might go. I tear breathlessly through the city, asking people if they’ve seen her. As night falls, I stand shaking with rage beneath the tattered tarps and bent scaffolding of the markale stalls. The air is thick with gunpowder and smoke and all the debris kicked up from the mortar explosion. I can hear more gunfire crackling and more shells falling across the city. My fellow Sarajlije are still working to sweep away the crimson pools and sort through the rubble. 

Where are you?

Where are you?

Oh God, where are you?

I am spinning around when I glimpse something on the ground, a glistening piece of clothing. I stagger and crouch down to look. My eyes seem to be failing me in the dim light, but slowly the blood-soaked threads betray a dark purple hue I start to recognize. A wool scarf, the color of plums. I kneel on the cold, wet pavement and hear the screaming before I realize the tortured sound is coming from deep within me. It’s an eerie, animal-like howl that echoes through the markale and across city, my beloved city, city of my Beloved. I clutch the ragged scarf and shake my fists above my head toward the hills in the distance. Dust and debris swirl above me, and there’s not a single patch of sky for as far as I can see.