We saw them at dawn: a dozen men in ragged camouflage, lugging dull black weapons glinting like poised snakes. Their faces rugged like Arizona bluffs, dark brown or brick red, they moved without a sound, like the mist rolling out of the forest. Large and beefy, they stood around our campfire and smiled at us. A tall, lanky soldier looked at me and said, “Old man, what are you doing here, among all this rot, mud, and all these dead men, pretending they are still alive?”
His face, nut-brown and clean shaven, shone like the barrel of his M84. He leaned on his weapon and his eyes twinkled, blue, like two weirs. I must have smiled at him. After three days in the trenches, opposite Olovo, a Muslim town in Bosnia, my beard was a stubble, pepper-and-salt, and he had singled mc out as an outlander. Kula, Joker, and even Savo Tushevlyak he knew from before. Small and wizened under his Serbian officer’s cap, Savo Tushevlyak grinned at him, then at me, expecting my reply.
“And how old are you, yourself?” I asked the machine gunner, as he rolled a cigarette, slowly, like a man enjoying his leisure. His hands were large and gnarled, as he pulled at his buttermilk-colored, homemade woolen socks, to set them aright, before he looked at me again. Strong as an elk and shy as one, a true Romania Serb (i.e., a Serb from the old Roman province), he suddenly realized I was a guest. “I was born in 1948,” he said, somewhat sheepishly, and I told him I was only two years older than he, but a city boy, to boot. The soldiers and the bunker crew laughed, and the Romania men squatted, or sat down among us, quiet as they came. “This IS the time they usually make their try,” said the major. A six-footer, he seemed somewhat smaller than his men and his face—urbane and tired—betrayed him as a town Serb, on his way toward my condition.
The sun shone through the pines in parallel shafts of grace, and the sky was clear like a mountain brook—no clouds came upon us but the forest was a cloud in itself: dark, moldy, cold as the inside of one of our gun emplacements.
“What you’ve got to watch out for is their rifle grenades, and their rocket launchers,” said the major. He stepped close to me and sat upon the wooden bench by the fire, the plank groaning under him. A red-faced soldier, blue-eyed like the rest, never left his side, smiling all the while, like a neighbor. There must have been well over 200 raw-boned pounds of him, yet he looked as spare and tough as a warrior hewn out of oak or beech. “But then,” said the major, picking at our fire with a stick, “we got the .50 caliber on the hill, and a tank close by, to make the “lurks’ suffer, should they rush your position.”
That day the Muslims did not hit us, but on the next day they did: at Macak Hill they stormed our trenches, after a whole-day artillery barrage, but the Romanians of Sokolac held. Behind our backs, less than a mile as the crow flies, a battle raged while we kept watch over our section of the forest, forlorn, like hikers in a rainstorm. On Tomcat (Macak) Hill, the men of Hawktown (Sokolac) beat back the Muslims from Leadstone (Olovo), though some of our units to the left and to the right of them ran, panic-stricken at the thought of capture.
“This is for you,” Savo Tushevlyak had said to mc, the first day our squad came to the front. He gave me a black, ribbed hand grenade from his own stock, keeping the green, smooth one for himself. The grenade, of course, was not for me to throw at the “Turks” but to lie upon myself should the line break. We all have seen the corpses of our prisoners, either with our own eyes or on TV: eyes gouged out, lips, noses, and ears slit off, throats slashed, bellies cut open. Some of our men, Muslims and Croats tortured with blowtorches, while the lucky ones were axed or bludgeoned to death.
At Foca, they had roasted Kreza alive after impaling him on a spit, so that the Old Man had to shoot him himself, no one else having the guts—or the heart—to do it. Kreza’s eyes had popped out but he could still beg his buddies to kill him, and the Old Man had obliged. crying like a baby. The Old Man was a Chetnik from somewhere around Nish, in Serbia, while the rest of the company were either volunteers or regular soldiers, but no one said a word when he took two Muslim prisoners and treated them the same way their compatriots had treated Kreza. “I guess,” the Old Man said to me later, “the ‘Turks’ never did the same thing again, at least not to any of my men, or to any other Serbs near Foca, or anywhere else, for that matter.”
The men sitting around our campfire, above Krivajevici near Olovo in Bosnia, would have all done the same as the Old Man, a Chetnik major from east of the Drina River. The Old Man was himself a peasant and a laborer, like them; he was a bricklayer while they were lumberjacks, poachers, husbandmen, and carpenters, but each of them could butcher a pig like someone else could dress a cutlet, no blood and sweat beyond the necessary. The Muslims, of course, hated pigs, for their own butchery was much more human-oriented, a true gift of the Fast.
After the Romanians from Jahorina left—a squad of giants on their way down our line—Markan came, his beard soft and brown, like his eyes. Markan was also a Chetnik (and a butcher in civilian life), but for the time being he served as our company commander, and we thanked God for it. Only a six-footer and somewhat lanky, Markan was a Sarajevo boy, like Savo Tushevlyak, like him also chased out of his home by the “multicultural, multiethnic, multi-confessional” government of Alija Izetbegovic, but he was an old hand at combat, so he smiled, like a bashful young girl.
We were expecting an attack, while the Jahorina men and Markan’s attack platoon kept watch over us, ready to plug any breach in the hidden, deadly line of bunkers and trenches that we manned, the civilians and volunteers of Pale, and elsewhere. But, strictly speaking, no one was a civilian in Pale, the capital of Serb Bosnia. Just above Sarajevo, before the war a sleepy village. Pale was the place where the Serbs defeated some Germans at the beginning of World War II, and the furthest point reached by the Montenegrins, in their expedition against the Austro-Hungarians, at the start of World War I.
World War III was what was happening right now, but only the Palians and Markan and the Jahorina soldiers knew it: not even my friends in Belgrade were aware of it, let alone anyone in Austria, England, or the States. Confident that destiny could be either outwitted or finessed away, they all tended to their business, like ants in an anthill in the path of a grader. God was breathing hard down our necks in that dark, mossy, dug-up forest, and there was lead on our minds, in our hearts, in our magazines, and in the barrels of our rifles. Lead for our enemies and lead for our souls, lead to write some more history with—a narrative of That Which Does Not Change.
“History,” said Zharko Vidovitch, an aging Bosnian Serb friend of mine, “is the shape that God perceives us in, while change is what men (mostly fools) talk about, forgetting all about the molecular and subatomic to-and-fro in our own bodies!” Vidovitch, of course, had smiled when he said that, as he always smiled, a survivor of the Croat Jasenovac death camp in 1941. He had escaped from an SS work camp in Norway and made his way to Sweden, where he—a young, prewar communist—studied theology, but his beatific, gentle smile only underlined his knowledge that Yugoslavia, Bosnia, Leadstone were all outposts of the Devil, triumphant on his way toward his (and our) ruin. Vidovitch, I suppose, could not really believe in the futility—or the finality—of anything: after imprisonment in a communist jail (for having returned to Tito’s Yugoslavia from the West), he had become an Orthodox Christian theologian, contemplative of the pitfalls we have dug for ourselves, our own worst enemies.
Markan, the butcher, had buried his father after the Muslims had murdered him at the beginning of the war (when Christianne Ainanpour of CNN was pouring out her award-winning sob stories about the Serb bombardment and “strangling” of Sarajevo), but unlike Vidovitch, he was of military age and could fight back with more than mere words. For Markan’s wisdom lay in the way he bounded down the hillside, like a large, quiet cat, silent in his rubber opanci. With his Serbian peasant’s forage cap and the silver, doubleheaded Serb eagle on it, his peasant footgear (opanci—somewhat like moccasins) only emphasized his kinship with the soil. Markan sported no knives, bandoliers, or grenades, only a well-worn automatic rifle; he was a walking, breathing statement that the “Turks” could but die, for all the need he—or the woods, or even Leadstone itself—had of them.
Markan could have remained in Sarajevo and shared the fate of some of its remaining Serbs: spat upon, bullied, hounded, or murdered by their former friends, neighbors, and compatriots (no one was more “Yugoslav” before this war than Bosnian Muslims), Sarajevo Serbs served only as Izetbegovic’s token Christians, in a state sponsored by world Islam and underwritten by Western renegades, similar to the “Frankish” gunmakers who cast the cannon with which Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror had taken Constantinople.
Markan, however, knew no history, he only lived it, faithful to his forebears. For him, his father, and his father’s father, all the way back to the 15th century, despite all efforts by men who would disguise depravity as freedom of choice, there never was any way out of the obligations of his manhood and his identity: others could turn infidel out of fear or in search of profit, but the Markovitchi could but remain the same, a part of that personal history that Zharko Vidovitch talked about, when he smiled, remembering all his losses.
Vidovitch’s father was killed in World War II by Croat and Muslim Vstase—the fathers and grandfathers of today’s Croat and Muslim combatants—and his only son and three other nationally conscious Serb youths were killed in a suspicious automobile “accident” shortly before this war, yet Vidovitch knew that nothing had ever been different: his father, a large, corpulent hero of the Salonika Front during World War I, was butchered like a hog because he was a Serb and an official of the “Yugoslav” government, and that also was history, so far allowable only to the nations of the West in their might, glory, and vanity, but never to us, their Balkan ancestors.
For the Irish, among others, had come from “Greek Scythia,” the Celts in general had gone elsewhere from Bosnia after sacking Delphi, and the Goths had first crossed the Danube before lashing out over the Dnieper, or the Rhine. The men of Jahorina, Serbs of the Romania Mountain, citizens of the Pale, the first Lygians of Gibbon (that is, of Tacitus, Ptolemy, and others), had long ago abandoned their screaming night attacks, but during the day, dressed in camouflage uniforms and armed with fire-sticks, they kept the spark alive, the living measure of the European man’s power and valor, which both built and destroyed Rome, Berlin, and Byzantium, after having founded and sacked Troy and Mycenae.
Romania, of course, was a latter-day name, only two thousand years old. The Mountain was huge, like Durmitor (The Sleeping Tower) in Montenegro, home of gods and heroes whose name had become Serb, as had mine. Lygii, or Luzhani (the men of Lugh, or lug, the forest people, the Lusatians) were still maintaining their shape in the eyes of God, the same way their huge, sinewy, powerful limbs retained their savage (though bridled) fury, their blood and all its biological and other servomechanisms patching their hideous wounds, opened up by shrapnel, bullets, shells, rockets, NATO bombs, and—worst of all—by lies, heaped thick upon them, like a snowstorm before a Muslim attack.
The Romanians fired their rifle grenades from their shoulders, disdaining to dig the butts of their weapons into the ground or lash the straps around their upper arms to lessen the recoil. For all the screams of “Allah akbar!” around them, they kept silent, answering only with lead, like a singing palisade. The Pale was being threatened, and they, the frontiersmen, could but hold it—the country beyond the pale was good only for Latins, Turks, or Krauts, and they gave not a hoot for such a dominion, respecting the Almighty’s wish. Serb land was the reclaimed country of Lugh, the god of arts and promise, while Krautland, or Croatland, could groan under its people, like an overburdened raft, upon a mire.
The Muslims, I felt, were a disease, and claiming they were the same as us—or the same as Americans, for that matter—was an outrage, much the same as talking of the Koran as an equivalent of our Bible. If the Koran—a Classics Illustrated version of our creed—was the peer of the Old and the New Testament, then Romania Serbs were the same as Bushmen, or Hottentots, and their blue, green, or brown eyes held the same promise of doom and despair as the besotted, frantic eyes of Western burghers, whose only hope lay in their possessions. Of course, after the first four years of this war, Bosnian Serbs possessed nothing but their own selves, their families, kin, friends, and their history, always an awful shape upon God’s Earth, a tough, thrashing entity stretched through the Time of the Short Duration, recalling Troy, Athens, Singidunum (Celtic Belgrade), a Rome whose Coliseum remained a stony shell, only dimly reminiscent of its true shape and glory, like a rotten rib cage of a once mighty brave.
Wearing homespun and camouflage, Slavko Markovitch, Markan, smiled at us and disappeared into the forest, like a true Lusatian. Lug, the forest, took him in, his brown beard and mustache mingling with its moss and pine needles, while the .50 caliber on the hill opened up, like a rattling hailstorm upon a tin shack.
Behind our backs, Tomcat Hill shook and the Muslims lost: it took the Spaniards 700 years to drive them out, and thus reach their history, and greatness—we still had, if need be, a hundred s’ears to go, before succumbing to AIDS, to forced and fake compassion, to universal and phony equality, the murder of justice in favor of legality, the substitution of contract for oath or vow, to the eradication of family, kith, kin, and friendship in favor of the One Whose Name is Legion.
For Savo Tushevlyak, whose mother had died for want of drugs (she had Parkinson’s Disease, in controllable form, but that was before the embargo), there was nothing but a wild, aching expectation of a return to Sarajevo—his Sarajevo—from which he had escaped in the spring of 1992, after having been stopped by a Muslim patrol. Then, Savo’s mother was still alive, and he, dressed in suit and tie, was asked to show his papers by snickering men in shoddy clothes, armed with Kalashnikovs. “Savo,” a militiaman read out, and an obese man looked at him long and hard from the shadows of an apartment-house entrance. Pondering his fate, he waved him on with his fat index finger, saying nothing, and Tushevlyak continued on his way, feeling the oncoming bullet between his shoulder blades.
There was no bullet, however, but “a man lives as long as he wishes, while only a fool lives until he dies,” goes a Serb proverb. So Savo Tushevlyak sent his mother and father to Lukavica to stay with some family, while he ran through the Muslim lines, past the armed guards put there by Alija Izetbegovic to prevent anyone—Muslim, Croat, and Serb alike—from leaving his “multiconfessional, multiethnic, multicultural” paradise. Alija Izetbegovic, and Haris Silajdzic, and Ejup Canic, and Muhamed Sacirbey (once upon a time, a Sacirbegovic) could all wait until they died: after she fell off her toilet seat, Savo’s mother had stopped eating and just withered away, so Savo Tushevlyak—no hero, but a man of honor—hid his .357 magnum revolver in a milk carton, along with 300 bullets, and told the Muslim guard there was a Serb sniper lurking somewhere around, before walking on, uphill, to freedom, and the Pale.
Up in the high country opposite Leadstone (and the village of Musici, whose Muslim residents had killed off their Serb neighbors in 1941), Tushevlyak held his army-issue M72 and listened to the forest breathe, trying to set apart the sound of the coon, the stray dog, or the pack rat from the sound of murderers creeping toward us, as they did back m 1941, and 1914, and 1908, and all the way back to 1463, when 10,000 Bosnian Serb renegades converted to Islam under the walls of Jajce, having forgotten what being a man is all about.
The renegades (ancestors of Izetbegovic, Silajdzic, Ganic, and their ilk) had converted to save their lives and feudal privileges, under the watchful eyes of Sultan Mehmcd II, the Conqueror, the destroyer of Constantinople, the last (until then) in the long line of Huns, Avars, Bulgars, Pechenegs, Kumans, Seljuks, Mongols. Ottomans—’lurks all—who kept coming at us—the men of Lugh, Apollo, or Christ—like perpetual headsmen, skillful only in treachery, mayhem, and genocide.
Tushevlyak, like myself, could not stop wondering what had made the United States, NATO, and the West in general nurture the Turks—and our own, homegrown “Turks” as well—like a pack of pitbull terriers, bred to devour their owner.
And the chance will not be lacking: Tushevlyak knew that, as did his 75-year-old father, who manned our line down in Lukavica, the part of Sarajevo (along with Nedjarici, Ilidza, or Grbavica) no Western TV crew ever visited because it was suffering a worse fate than any Muslim quarter, and no Serbs could be blamed for it. A Confederate peering through the darkness toward the “internationally- held” Sarajevo airport (the Fort Sumter of a later age), like a legionary of Diocletian, or Constantine, armed with an automatic rifle, Savo Tushevlyak’s father defended the Pale, next to last in the long line of defenders of the honor and the dignity of human life, made holy only by his faith in Christ, the white man who had come down upon us from Cod, like a newsbearer of the coming Apocalypse.