Only fools die for ideals.
(Bora Djordjevic, RIBLJA CORBA)
The Bosnian boy spoke reluctantly – either because he didn’t trust me, or because he was shy. Or both. He was reluctant to give me his full name, too. He was one year my junior.
When I was growing up in the Soviet Union, those of us who had a chance to visit his country, Yugoslavia, were considered lucky. It was almost like going to the West. Those lucky ones returned wearing absolutely enviable shoes. Even Italians used to buy Yugoslav-made footwear, cheap and of superb quality. The 1984 Winter Olympics in Sarajevo, broadcast on our black-and-white TV, was such a wonderful childhood memory, too.
I’ve never been to Yugoslavia. I met the Bosnian boy in Iowa, briefly, in 1998.
He went to war when he was 15. Four years later, in 1994, a landmine blew off his leg.
He started out with the Bosnian government troops. Then, he switched sides and joined the rebel forces of Fikret Abdic, a Bosnian businessman and politician. “The leader of the mosque would tell us: ‘You have to go there and fight, and you have to die, today. And you’ll be born again: in three months, you’ll be the same person.’ Stupid. In five years, I didn’t see anyone who woke up.”
After the landmine accident, he migrated from one refugee camp in Croatia to the next, and then all the way to the Midwest. In the refugee camps, he said, “seven years are like 100 years, and one night is like one year. Every day is the same. Every day is the same. You just think it’s your life.”
The war is about friends: “I am Muslim, but we fought each other because we wanted to be nice with Christian people. I fought for my city, home, friends. Not for religion or politics. For freedom. I couldn’t watch my friends leaving the city. When the war started, I still had friends who were Christian, but they had to leave because it was dangerous to stay in the city. Someone made them leave.”
War friends are different from peace friends: “You have a friend in the war and you share with him. Maybe he saved your life, maybe you saved his life – you know what I mean?”
Refugee camp friends are like war friends: “We helped each other. We had to say four times a day, ‘Take your pills. Take your pills.’”
One of his refugee camp friends, a tent-mate, had had a brain injury, and they all tried never to contradict him: “Whatever he said, we had to say, ‘Yes, that’s right.’ Like, ‘This is a chair,’ and it had to be a chair, not a sofa.”
Many people in the camp thought the Bosnian boy and his friends were the happiest among the refugees – because they always had something to laugh about: “We were so strong because we made jokes all the time. One year we spent in a joke. We didn’t even think of anything, just lived for today and tomorrow. We made jokes about politics. We made jokes about people without a leg, like myself. We made fun of each other because we could understand each other. We made jokes because refugee camp was hard.”
Once, the Bosnian boy’s mother made an attempt to leave the camp and return to their house – she found nothing there but holes in the walls. His friends made similar attempts, too, and some got killed: “It’s kind of like a gang. If you fought for my side and you went back, and if some people knew, they’d kill you or hurt you.”
But, if he ever did return, he said, he’d try not to miss the performance of his favorite Serbian band, Riblja Corba (Fish Stew). They played political songs, he said, and their lead singer always got arrested.
I have no idea whether the Bosnian boy has risked taking a trip to his homeland – but Riblja Corba made it to Waterloo, Iowa, this past Saturday!