An Indelible Lesson In Self Defense
“What’s ethnic cleansing?” I asked my father.
“It means every fifty years a new politico turns us against each other,” he said.
At eleven, I knew the Croatians were mad at the Serbians. But who was against us? And why? Dad explained that it was a land grab, where Serbia wanted to expand their territory and rule a bigger country filled with only Orthodox Christians like them. So the Serb president Milošević ordered his troops to get rid of Bosnian Muslims like us. My brother said this was the way Hitler purged Germany of Jews in World War II, envisioning a pure race.
“But how can the Serbians get away with it?” I was outraged.
“They have the most cops, generals and ammunition factories,” my brother Eldin said.
According to him, politicians and military big-wigs centered in Belgrade, the capital of Serbia, controlled school curriculums, history books, museums, and the media, with the biggest TV station in Yugoslavia based there.
Coming home from school one October day, my classmates Velibor and Dalibor were cheering in delight, “Long Live Serbia! Arkan is our hero.”
Arkan was a crook who’d led a big Belgrade soccer riot. Eldin said he was a murderer who’d escaped from jail, “a Serbian Mafioso.”
“Those stupid Croats are being slaughtered,” Velibor roared, saluting a passing car that waved a Serbian flag.
“Don’t worry, Arkan will come here too,” Dalibor said, turning to me menacingly.
That fall, vans passed through town covered with pictures of Milošević’s face, blasting turbo folk music. Swarms of radical Serbs from the villages were bussed in, rallying support for the upcoming primary elections for new party leaders. It was more intense than I’d ever seen. Billboards and posters sprouted up everywhere. On street corners men shouted speeches from megaphones, arguing in parks, cafes, public squares. Serbs waved three-finger salutes. Eldin said everyone had to pick sides. I didn’t totally get what our three main political factions stood for. But I noted the Bosniak’s color was green. Milošević’s Serb party, the most nationalistic and dangerous for us, showed a blue stripe. On it was an emblem with the Serbian cross and four S’s in their Cyrillic script.
“What do those letters mean?” I asked my brother.
“Only Unity Saves the Serbs,” he told me.
My parents liked our Muslim majority group, the SDA-Party of Democratic Action. But Mom said, “Rough times are coming. Let’s not be aligned to any side now.” To be safe, they agreed not to vote. It didn’t matter. Overnight we were all divided by background anyway: Orthodox Serb, Catholic Croat or Bosnian Muslim. My pals Igor and his boys—with Serb backgrounds—stopped talking to me. They snickered and called me “Bosniak” behind my back. My teammates picked me last, though we still played soccer together every day after school. I felt ostracized, left out, ignored.
One chilly November recess while were eating salty ćevapi outside, Igor and I looked over the fence. Soldiers from the Yugoslavian People’s Army military base, right next to our school, were cleaning their rifles. I was intrigued to see the weapons up close.
“The other day while I was stealing my bike, I saw them taking equipment out of the warehouse,” Igor told me.
“What’s in there?” I asked.
“They got uniforms, gas masks, helmets and duffle bags. I want some,” Igor said, his bugged-out blue eyes hungry for looting. “I figured out a way in. We should check it out tonight. Meet me outside the building at nine. Bring plastic bags.”
Robbery was a serious crime but I felt flattered he still wanted me in his gang. Maybe my pals had stopped listening to the stupid slurs their parents were spreading. I was so glad they liked me again.
That night Igor, Velibor, Dalibor and two other guys from school waited for me, holding shopping bags to cart away our booty. Igor led the five minute walk to the edge of the school grounds. My heart was jumping fast as we sneaked to a hole in the fence. One at a time we each squeezed in, slithering sideways to fit through. Igor pointed at the young recruits with guns patrolling the base. We crouched on our hands and knees before a window in the warehouse and then lifted each other inside. It was too dark, so Igor turned on the lights. The whole place was over-stuffed with military equipment in mounds taller than we were; you couldn’t even see the floor. I wanted to wear a soldier uniform like my father. The crisp new merchandise smelled raw and woodsy.
“Grab what you can,” Igor commanded.
I quickly took bandages, a canteen, a portable shovel for digging trenches and a green flashlight. I made sure to collect four gas masks for my family, in case—as I’d overheard Eldin and my parents’ friends predicting—the war spilled to us. Velibor and Dalibor grabbed shovels, combat sweaters, socks, holsters. Igor seized a green helmet, camouflage pants, a shovel and some shirts. We all found backpacks—and stuffed our stolen goods inside. We took turns as lookout. They were treating me as their equal. I was one of the guys, like old times. Nobody saw any guns or ammunition or we would have swiped that too.
“Hide!” Velibor sounded a warning. “A soldier is coming.”
We hid under piles of blankets. I was so scared I thought I was going to pee my pants. The soldier looked through the window but didn’t see us.
“Let’s get out of here.” I was shaking, freaking out that if we got caught, my mom would kill me. I didn’t know who I feared more—the armed militia or my mother.
“Let’s come back and get more tomorrow,” Igor said.
Unlike me, he wasn’t the least fazed; he’d been looting his whole life.
We ran to the park, the weight of the stuffed pack heavy on my back. We used our new shovels to dig ditches where we stashed everything. It was raining so the ground was softer. When I came home at 10:30, I went straight to bed, pretending I’d just been out to play soccer with the guys.
The next day at school, during math lesson, the principal came in and took Igor and me out of class, into his office. Inside there were two military policemen waiting.
“Where were you last night, Kenan?” the tall one asked me.
“We were playing hide and seek.” Igor took the lead, lying with ease.
The principal walked out and returned with Aleks, our short classmate who had braces on his buck teeth.
“I overheard them talking about breaking into the base last night,” Aleks said boldly.
I knew my dad used to be ski buddies with Aleks’s father, a doctor who was now president of the Serb Democratic Party. Dad said he’d become a “Milošević fanatic” who’d show off his Serbian accent any chance he got.
“When this is over, I’m gonna kill you,” Igor hissed at the tattletale, then spat at him.
The principal pulled Igor by his ears and slammed him into the chair.
“You boys have ten minutes to bring everything back,” the officer ordered.
I was trembling. If my parents found out, they would ground me for life. I would not be allowed to practice karate again. I had never been in this much trouble before. Running to get the stuff to return, Igor followed me.
“They don’t know what we stole,” he said in my ear. “Just give a few things back.”
He had a point. And if I returned everything and Igor didn’t, they might know he kept more of the loot. I didn’t want him to see me as a wimp or goody-two-shoes. Then he’d never include me in another feat of bravery again. So I retrieved the shovel, flashlight and backpack, leaving the bandages and gas masks behind. This way, if somebody threw a poison bomb like bank robbers on TV did, my family wouldn’t breathe in the toxins and black smoke. We were then escorted to a military jeep by two uniformed men with arm bands. The officer told us to get in back. Rows of my classmates’ eyes gaped at us from the windows. I was shaking, scared to my bones.
“We are so screwed,” I told Igor, sure they were taking us to jail.
We were separated in two different rooms. The man in charge of the base came to interrogate me. He was really tall with a goofy mustache that draped around his chin. I recognized him as Milisav, a Serb friend of my father Keka’s. They served together in the Army Reserves one month every year since I was born.
“Oh, it’s little Keka,” he said, sternly, not happy to see me. “I know his father.”
I went to give him a handshake as I always did, but he refused. He kept his hands behind his back, standing very erect, scowling at me. “Sit down,” he yelled.
I obeyed, sitting on a leather chair as two other men hovered above me.
“Did your dad put you up to this?” Milisav asked.
“No. No,” I stuttered. “We just thought it would be a cool game to see if we could sneak into the base.”
“Wait until I tell your father.”
I started crying.
“Are you a Bosnian, Yugoslavian or a Muslim?” his younger comrade barked at me.
What was I? Was it a trick question? I was baffled how to answer. I thought I was all three. “I’m from Yugoslavia,” I sniffled. “I’m a Bosnian. And my religion is Muslim.”
I was being honest but from his scowl I’d obviously flunked his test.
“You can’t be all of them!” Milisav snapped. “What are you first?”
I heard the echo of a Serb politician I’d seen on TV who’d warned “If Bosnians want independence from Yugoslavia, the Muslims will be extinguished.”
“I’m a Bosnian,” I responded. “Then a Muslim.”
He shook his head disdainfully.
“Take him back to school,” he ordered the younger guy.
“What did you do?” my homeroom teacher snarled at me in class. I’d always been a good student. He used to tell me, “I expect a lot from you because I respect your Dad so much.” He’d never scolded me before. “You’re in big trouble now,” he warned.
As Igor and I shuffled home together, I was embarrassed, my eyes to the ground.
“At least your dad isn’t around to kick your ass, like mine will,” I told him.
Turning into our building’s courtyard, I looked up and saw my mother glaring down at me. “Zadavi ću te,” she shouted. That meant “My hands will be around your throat.”
I never saw her this mad before. I took a breath, bolting upstairs to get it over with.
“I was at work and the radio news was on,” she yelled. “I heard your name mentioned as the leader of a Yugoslavian People’s Army theft!”
I was on the radio? Jeez. No wonder she was so upset. I had humiliated her in public, smearing my family’s good name. I was deeply ashamed. Now none of Dad’s friends would shake my hand anymore. The owners of the candy store wouldn’t trust me; they’d monitor my movements closely so I wouldn’t rip them off, like Igor.
But Igor was the leader, not me,” I tried to tell her. “I took bandages and a gas mask for us, in case anything happened. And I returned the stuff anyway.”
“Go to your room. You are grounded,” she fumed, swatting at me. I ducked, racing to the bedroom I shared with Eldin who wasn’t home yet. I’d never been grounded. I dreaded losing my freedom to play outside.
When my father returned from work, he marched in without knocking. I was sitting on the bed. He’d never hit me before, but I was sure this time I was in for it. He stood above me, hands on his hips. “Why did you do this?” he hollered.
“Everyone’s saying the war’s coming,” I told him. “I took four gas masks, a shovel, a canteen, a flashlight and bandages. I’m scared. I want us to be ready.”
He didn’t speak for a second. Then his eyes changed from rage to worry. “That’s not your job,” he finally said quietly, patting my head. “Don’t go out of your room or make any noise or your mother will kill you.”
I felt vindicated, but still nervous about Mom’s wrath.
“Wow, that was wild. You were on the radio. How did ya sneak in?” Eldin asked when he came home, quite impressed with my newfound bad rep.
“Like Sylvester Stallone in Rambo III infiltrating the Russian base in the dark,” I said. “It was like that, but there were no German shepherds.”
I was not allowed to have dinner with my family. But hearing my Mom’s brother’s voice down the hall, I called, “Can I please see Uncle Ahmet?” I hoped he’d protect me.
“No, you stay in your room, you thief!” Mom screamed.
“Get out here right now, Kenan!” Ahmet overrode her. My mom’s macho older sibling was always bossy. Knowing she wouldn’t dare argue with him, I slunk to the kitchen where they were eating without me. Ahmet was in the middle of a plate of okra and rice.
“What did you do?” he demanded.
“I stole from the Yugoslavian People’s Army,” I confessed, head down, afraid he might slap me. “My classmate Aleks told on us.”
“You know who Aleks’ father is?” Dad said. “Head of the Serb Democratic party.”
“That’s what you’re punishing him for? You’re not grounded anymore.” Ahmet declared, magically granting me clemency. “Let him steal from those bastards who attack us with our own weapons.” He lit a cigarette and gestured for Mom to make me food.
She pushed a plate of okra at me scowling, “Here, pig out, you animal.”
I downed it all fast, wondering if stealing from bastards still counted as bad.
The next day at school, every period I was called to the principal. None of the other boys were. I missed all five classes. “Why am I the only one here?” I asked.
“Did your father get you to do this?” He kept pushing.
“No.” I was mortified to think I got Dad in trouble. “It was just a prank with friends.”
When they ordered my father to come get me, he barged into the principal’s office. “Why do you keep interrogating my son?” he yelled. “He is not a criminal.”
The principal looked embarrassed. “It’s just a standard procedure.”
“They keep asking if you talked me into it,” I told Dad. “At the base yesterday, your friend Milisav wanted to know if I was a Yugoslavian, Bosnian or Muslim.”
“What did you tell them?” my father asked.
“I said I’m from Yugoslavia. I am a Bosnian and then a Muslim.”
“Good for you,” he said. “Is that why he’s the only kid here? Because he’s Muslim?” My father peered at him. He was a Serb, I now figured out. “If you call him into your office one more time, you’ll lose your job,” Dad threatened. Then we marched out.
At our apartment, Dad grabbed his army beret, belt and captain uniform from the drawer. After his mandatory year-long army service at 18, he volunteered to stay in the reserves, leaving home one month each year. Every spring when it was over, I’d wait downstairs for him to return, looking spiffy and powerful in his green shirt and pants tucked carefully into his boots. I’d run into his arms; he’d put his cap on my head, carrying me home.
“You’re coming with me to the military base,” he told me now.
At the gate he announced, “Tell Milisav that Keka is here.”
“Keka, we need to talk,” Milisav said as he approached. “This is not good for you.”
“No, this is not good for you.” My father pointed his finger at Milisav’s face. “You asked my son if he’s Muslim? How long have we been friends? How long have I volunteered to serve in this army?” My father ripped the red star from his beret and handed it to Milisav. Then he gave him the rest of his uniform. “I don’t believe in this. I resign.”
“I thought I could count on you,” Milisav said.
“It’s not my army anymore,” my father told him before we left.
I was proud he stood up for me, but troubled by what it meant. We used to look up to the Yugoslavian soldiers marching around the base. We’d wave and bring them candy.
“Why didn’t he ask Igor what religion he was?” I asked Dad.
“Listen, that kid didn’t call Milisav,” he said. “It was his father’s dirty work.”
At school that week, I was suddenly a dangerous celebrity. The guys wanted to know if we found any guns. The girls questioned how we managed to sneak by the armed soldiers. My teachers seemed fascinated that such a good, obedient kid had gone rotten, asking “When did you become a robber?” and “How upset are your parents?”
I relished my newfound bad boy status. Yet I kept hearing Dad and Uncle Ahmet’s words. If the army didn’t like Muslims or attacked unarmed, innocent civilians, I debated whether that justified my misbehavior.
“You’re not going to need your braces anymore. I’ll straighten those teeth for you,” Igor hissed at Aleks the rat, right before we jumped him on the school’s soccer court.
We got in trouble for that too, when Milutin told the principal who phoned my father. But he never called me into his office again.
“We beat up Aleks for snitching,” I admitted.
“Good,” my dad said.
This piece is excerpted from The Bosnia List, published by Penguin Books, 2014.