Narrative Magazine's Friday Feature: Aggie Zivaljevic's 'Where Is My Boy?'
Narrative Magazine: In spring 1992, in response to Bosnia and Herzegovina's declaration of independence from Yugoslavia, the Yugoslav National Army besieged the city of Sarajevo, the capital of the new country. Soon a full-blown war broke out, and the city remained besieged for four years. In her story "Where is My Boy?" Aggie Zivaljevic recounts these events from the point of view of Boyan, a teenager growing up in Sarajevo.
Boyan, Deutschemark, Mosquito, and Jumbo, four boys from the gang Vucko, couldn't wait for the war to begin so that they wouldn't have to go to middle school. They had named their gang after the little wolf mascot of the 1984 Winter Olympics in Sarajevo. The boys lived next to the airport, in the Dobrinja suburb, built to house foreign athletes and journalists during the Games. Afterward, the city converted the buildings into luxury apartments.
In the early spring of 1992, melting snow revealed plastic bags and shreds of paper stuck in the barren bushes. The wind blew across the back alleys, and old garbage emerged all over the former Olympic Village. Boyan, the leader, had just gotten a new pair of Nike tennis shoes and was kicking up dust on Mitsubishi Avenue on his way to Vucko's meeting. Mosquito and Jumbo lounged next to a newspaper kiosk, looking at the centerfold of a voluptuous blonde wearing an American-flag bikini. On a stretch of no-man's-land behind the kiosk, two small boys played marbles. Deutschemark showed up last and sneered at his younger brother, Kreko, who was kneeling on the ground. "Why are you bathing in the dirt like a pig? You want a beating, is that it? Wait till you get home! Scram!" Kreko grabbed his shooter and ran away.
The four boys marched toward the airport. The night before, they had heard plane engines low above the houses, and by the way the windows shook during the landing, they knew it must have been something huge. Something out of this world, even. The sharp smell of fuel and tar tickled their nostrils. The war was about to begin, and they were in charge. Every day on their way to school the boys passed through the barricades monitored by United Nations peacekeepers, whose white transporters patrolled the city. Lines of people in front of stores waited for provisions. Boyan's mother already had a well-stocked basement with sacks of flour, sugar, jars of pickled vegetables, fruit compotes, milk powder, and bottles of cooking oil. Her pantry was filled with coffee, chocolate bars, prunes, raisins, beans, canned sardines, candles, matches, batteries, soap, and detergent. Boyan often sneaked snacks to share with Vucko's boys.
"My father was up all night," Mosquito said. "He took the cargo plane's engine for thunder. He kept walking back and forth from one window to another, mumbling, 'Not a single drop of rain. Thunder after thunder, but not a single drop of rain.' "
"My mom keeps asking if the war is really coming, and Kreko looks at the door waiting for it. The ninny cried yesterday because War didn't show up. He thinks it's like Santa Claus," Deutschemark said.
"With all the cooking, it does remind me of holidays," Jumbo said, sucking on a candy. "Sort of."
"My mother talks about the Olympics all the time," Boyan said. "Remember how snow fell that winter for one hundred hours without stopping?"
"I watched a rerun of an old World War II movie last evening," Mosquito said. "Tito's partisans scared the daylights out of the Germans! My father shook his head and said, 'They have died in vain. Just look at us now,' and my mother shushed him. 'Don't say blasphemies.' My brother was called up in the army, you know."
The boys crossed the highway at the airport's entrance. The wind rattled a rusted Welcome to Sarajevo sign. A winding line of cars, abandoned by people who'd flown out of the city, stretched beyond the parking lot. Deutschemark whistled through his teeth. "Look how many rats left the sinking ship. Let's go shopping for bargains." Mosquito spat on the window of a black BMW and wrote Wash Me. The car alarm sounded. A flock of sparrows scattered out of forsythia shrubs and settled on the phone lines above.
"Asshole," Deutschemark shouted above the noise. "Let's find something better; every smuggler drives one of these." He kicked the BMW's tire, and the alarm went off and on like a circus trumpet, until it died.
Boyan found a small car protected with a canvas. "Let's get this one."
"Yeah, pretty little package," Deutschemark said. "Let's unwrap it."
Jumbo cut the ropes with his pocketknife. "If I left the city, I'd leave the keys in the car so the plunderers wouldn't have to break in. Then when I returned after the war, I'd find my car safe."
"Hey, it's a Yugo 45. And look, guys, the keys are in the ignition. What a deal!" Mosquito said.
Deutschemark opened the doors. "Hey Jumbo, make sure you write a thank-you note to the owner!"
They drove to the central market, four and a half miles from the airport.
"It reeks of gasoline in here," Boyan said.
Deutschemark pushed the gas pedal to the floor, and the car lurched forward.
The market stalls had cigarette packs and bottles of whiskey, but no vegetables or fruit. A few children sold violets picked from the mountain slopes. A dealer, wearing earrings with condoms hanging from them, yelled, "You know what, for you know what! Cheap!"
"How much?" Deutschemark asked.
"For you, three for one German mark," the dealer said.
"Four," Deutschemark said.
On the way back they ran out of gas. The fuel tank was leaking. The boys pushed the Yugo into a ditch.
"The first disposable car," Mosquito announced. They walked back home.
The following day the airport shut down. Yugoslav National Army tanks, heavy artillery, and troops moved in around the airport. The schools closed.
In late summer, the boys could see the battle from Deutschemark's apartment on the sixth floor of the concrete skyscraper. The tanks moved slowly over the Mojmilo hill, where the water reservoir stood.
"Drop dead, assholes!" Deutschemark yelled. The boys knew about the hidden bunkers around the reservoir. The hill was their favorite place for sledding and snowball fights.
They saw one soldier fall, trapped in the clearing between snipers and a tank's cannons. The boys cheered. Forgetting his abscessed tooth, Mosquito cried out and grabbed the swollen left side of his face.
Boyan passed his binoculars around the room.
"It looks like a clump of dirt," Jumbo said.
"No, it's him. He must be dead. I saw his helmet fly off," Boyan said.
"Look! The tanks are retreating!" Deutschemark shouted. "They are leaving him there."
The soldier was there on the hill the next day and the day after. The boys watched after him. They gave each other reports every day. After a couple of weeks they realized he was there to stay. On warm summer nights the breeze on the hill blew the stench into the room. Sometimes they tried to guess his age or hair color. They wondered how he fell, on his back or facedown? Deutschemark voted for facedown in case he wasn't killed instantly because that would eliminate the possibility of him gazing at the sky or stars.
It was a winter without snow. Packs of hungry cats rummaged through empty trash cans looking for leftovers. Stray dogs were almost all gone because they served as moving practice targets for snipers. The boys were bored most of the time. They gathered in the garage, its entrance camouflaged with sandbags and planks of wood. Deutschemark lifted weights. Boyan and Mosquito played Ping-Pong on an old blackboard. They took chairs from the abandoned apartments. An empty crate served as a table, its centerpiece a can saved from food rations now holding condoms in colorful packages. In one corner Boyan established a makeshift headquarters with a map of the city on the wall, old issues of electronics magazines, a biography of the greatest inventor, Nikola Tesla, and a Larousse encyclopedia opened to transistors. Boyan studied the transferring of electrical signals and assembled his own circuit boards. Since the electricity was out, the boys took turns pedaling a bicycle for the purpose of listening to music. Boyan had an old automobile alternator and a belt placed over the bicycle wheel to generate electricity for a car radio. The number one hit was a Phil Collins song about living in paradise. Jumbo entered the garage, singing along with the radio.
Mosquito said, "Jumbo, you're far better than Phil Collins!"
The boys were slender, thin, or skinny depending on their weight before the siege. They had acquired a slowness to their movements, a certain languor due to the hunger and inactivity. Even Jumbo, who used to be wide as a bear, was transformed into a tall, slim teenager. After Jumbo finished singing, he ceremoniously bowed and was bending over to catch his breath when Kreko screamed in his direction, "Hey, Jumbo, War knocked out the electricity!"
Deutschemark threw his weights on the ground and grabbed his little brother. "You meathead! I've had enough! The electricity has been out for weeks, everybody knows it, all right? So shut up!" Kreko started crying.
The boys turned to Jumbo. "What's up?"
"My favorite teacher, Mr. Perich went mad," said Jumbo. "They saw him walking around talking to himself about how he fought Lucifer last night and, after two hours of fierce fighting, managed to send Lucifer, the Devil, to paradise. He claims thanks to him there's no more hell in Bosnia."
"Life is boring without school," Boyan said. He busily filled condoms with air and gave them to Kreko. "Here, don't cry."
"I have something better," Jumbo said. He unzipped his jacket and took out something that looked like a fuzzy egg. He looked around, making sure that he got everybody's attention, "I traded today with my friend--an UNPROFOR soldier. I swapped that mini-cassette recorder I took from the CNN crew for this kiwi. Imagine, kiwi in the middle of the war!"
One night Boyan, Mosquito, and Jumbo decided to have dinner at the airport hangar. They had heard about the pallets of food from Mosquito's older brother, who was in the Bosnian army: six tons of feta cheese, among other goodies from Iran, and forty cases of wine for the French soldiers came with the latest relief convoy. Each boy carried an empty backpack and two plastic canisters to siphon gasoline.
The night was cold. Thick fog blurred the outline of the warehouse behind the front line. They walked through the mist-covered grass. When they got close to the wired fence they heard the guard's loud, hoarse voice like a foghorn on a ship, "Stop or I will shoot!" All three boys fell to the grass. They lay on the cold earth for half an hour. The boys remembered the old days when they played hide-and-seek in the dark in their backyard gardens, sprawled on the mossy grass between the jasmine growing on the fences and the ticklish foliage of ferns underneath. They remembered how the fragrance of the late-summer gardens intensified at dusk. They thought of martial arts games, their black ninja uniforms ordered in the mail by their mothers. They remembered how they thought they would never die, the way only young children believe in being immortal, invincible. Their mothers smiled and kissed their heads after the boys confided to them about their supernatural power. They remembered going home after playing, their favorite supper on the table, and their mothers' voices, "Did you wash your hands, darling?"
Jumbo whispered, "Hey, who is hungry? Are we ordering yet? How about some stuffed bell peppers?"
Mosquito whispered back, "I could kill for some hot pudding. Vanilla . . . no, wait, make it chocolate."
The ground was icy. The chill moved in between their skin and clothes, and the boys began to tremble. Soon their shivering grew uncontrollable.
Mosquito sighed. "I changed my mind."
"Now what?" Boyan asked. "You chickened out?"
"No, about the pudding. I think I will go for vanilla after all."
"Pass the menu when you're finished," Jumbo said.
The guard's voice said, again in English, "I can see you!"
"What is he saying? Sta kaze?" Jumbo and Mosquito asked. They had taken French in school.
"He's looking at us with night-vision goggles," Boyan whispered to his friends.
"Aren't you cold? It's a bloody nippy night!" the voice continued.
"What?" Boyan shouted out, trying his English.
"You must be freezing out there!" the voice said.
Boyan really needed to piss. He'd become Vucko's leader because of his reserved manner that was actually skillfully hidden shyness. He rarely spoke at length. Now he shuddered at the thought of losing face because of his bad English.
The voice asked, "What's your name? How old are you?"
"Boyan! Thirteen!" Boyan yelled. "You?" His voice came out croaking. He could only hope that his friends would find it rough.
"My name is Walter. I'm from England. I have a boy like you back home," the guard said.
The boys relaxed. Walter was the name of the famous World War II national hero who saved Sarajevo. It was a good name.
"We're hungry. Is there any food in the hangar?" Boyan asked.
"Go left. There's a hole in the fence. I'll pretend I didn't see you. Watch for the searchlights."
When the boys got up, the cold was dreadful. Their legs were almost paralyzed. They moved slowly to the opening in the barbed wire. Boyan's black woolen cap got stuck on it. He retrieved it, shaking his head: a sermon from his mother was the last thing he needed. He didn't want her to worry.
In the hangar they noticed the good smell of the place. Like soap and fresh bread. It was warm, dim lights were on. The boys looked at each other in triumph for picking such a cozy place for dinner. Long rows of pallets lined the walls. The boys separated. They tore packages open and filled their rucksacks with tins of fish from the Netherlands, cans of Bulgarian tomatoes, chocolate cookies from Germany. The hangar was quiet except for the sound of plastic wrap and cardboard being ripped and the humming of the generator. Then the boys, hidden from each other by the stacks of boxes, started fooling around, making farting and burping noises. Boyan sat between some wooden platforms and the wall and closed his eyes. He felt weary after wolfing down two cans of Spam and a bar of chocolate. Then he heard a forklift moving the pallets at the other end of the warehouse. Random bullets hit the hangar's roof now and then. Nearby, Mosquito barked, "Let's go!"
Outside, next to the trenches, they found an earthmover, and they put a rubber hose into its tank and siphoned fuel into canisters. It took about three hours to get eight gallons. Each gallon would bring them twenty German marks. Their mouths were full of the taste of diesel fuel. As they were finishing up, an armored personnel carrier headed in their direction. They took off in separate directions. Boyan noticed that one of his canisters was leaking. He slid into a trench and hid his loot there. He waited for the sound of the engine to fade.
Heavy clouds moved across the dark sky. After a while he climbed out of the trenches to relieve himself, and when he climbed back in to retrieve his loot, the canisters were gone. Boyan shuddered. The fog had rolled in. He was trapped in a labyrinth of trenches. Alone. He heard stirring behind him. "I'm freaking out," he thought. He turned and saw Mosquito writhing in laughter on the ground. "Upisacu se, jarane! I hid your canisters!"
"Go fuck yourself," Boyan snickered.
The control tower illuminated the night. An armored personnel carrier showed up out of nowhere. Jumbo waved and blew a kiss at it. Two French peacekeepers in blue helmets jumped out yelling, "Allez, allez, vite!" They threw the three boys down on the ground and searched their pockets and rucksacks. They seized all their stolen goods and also took Boyan's Nikes to teach them a lesson.
"That's just great. How I'm supposed to make my pudding now?" Mosquito mumbled.
The Blue Helmets had them seated on two benches facing inward along the walls in a French armored personnel carrier. The guard, escorting them to the Bosnian front line, smoked and looked at them behind half-closed lids.
"Bonjour," Jumbo chirped. The smoke was thick. Under the dim lights the guard looked as if he were asleep.
"Voulez-vous coucher avec moi?" Jumbo tried again. The guard grinned and offered the boys cigarettes.
"Vive la France!" Jumbo said, puffing on a Gauloise.
At the Bosnian front line the boys spent the night in an empty dumpster, waiting for dawn, elbowing each other. "Messieurs, that was better than getting a cab!"
In the morning the boys were arrested as a formality and immediately released. The commanding officer looked at their wet feet and dirty socks. "Here are my military logisticians! I could smell them before I could see them! Diesel again, ah boys?"
Boyan slid into his house and carefully took off his black woolen cap. On top of his head was a half-pound bag of coffee beans for his mother.
The next spring the boys noticed that the new grass on the reservoir hill grew much taller in one place. They sat next to the window, killing time.
"That must be our stinkbug, right there," Jumbo said.
"That soldier makes good manure, that's for sure," Mosquito said.
The boys shared a round tin of biscuits. "Man, these are good!" Jumbo said.
Boyan read the bottom of the can, "Made in America, War Reserves, 1947."
"Imagine what they were like fifty years ago, when they were fresh," Mosquito said.
"Shut up, Mosquito."
"No, I'm serious!"
Boyan took the binoculars out of their leather case and looked toward the hill.
Mosquito turned to Boyan. "Didn't your father use these to watch his pigeons? What happened to them?"
"When we ran out of food, my mother made pigeon stew. I had to pretend I was eating chicken to keep it down. Dad was pissed. 'Finish your pigeon! I'm not going to force you to eat in the war, damn it! We are starving! Us! Not some children in Africa! Eat or die!"
"That's sick, man. I became a vegetarian after our food ran out."
In late summer, Mosquito's older brother was killed in action. He had been wearing two bulletproof vests when he was shot in the armpit by an automatic rifle and killed instantly.
One afternoon, the boys managed to sneak up the reservoir hill. The sign Welcome to Hell loomed in front of them. They found the dead soldier easily in the luxuriant tall grass of an unusually bright green shade. Thick, long blades of grass grew through his corpse.
The boys stepped back, repulsed by the filth and stench. "Jebo te! He turned into mud!" Deutschemark screamed. Boyan recovered first and came closer. He stood above the soldier and looked again. The grass rippled in the wind and he saw the soldier's skull and ribs protruding through his decaying uniform. The flesh was gone except for a few putrid patches crawling with maggots and flies.
Deutschemark kicked the soldier's rotten head. It dislodged and rolled down the hill.
"Holy fucking shit!" they screamed in unison.
"Let's search him," Boyan suggested. Without its head the body looked harmless. Boyan poked the remains with a stick. The soldier's wallet fell out the front pocket of his uniform. Mosquito, trying not to breathe, wiped it with the handkerchief. He took out the soldier's military identity card and showed it around. In the picture, the soldier's face had mostly faded away. They could make out only his forehead and short dark hair. His name was illegible too, but they read his year of birth and quickly calculated his age. He was nineteen. Mosquito cursed the dead soldier for his brother's recent death, as if the soldier's corpse were responsible for it. Mosquito shouted, "So, fellow, you ended up here!" He cried out again, this time looking down the hill in the direction where the head had rolled, "Hey, I'm talking to you! If only your poor mother could see her warrior stuck in the mud! You hear me, pretty boy?" He threw the ID on the ground.
Deutschemark lifted the soldier's Kalashnikov. "This, my friends, will bring us five hundred German marks, my favorite currency." The boys agreed that Mosquito should keep the soldier's wallet. They would split the Kalashnikov money.
They went down the slope searching for the head. It was getting dark, and they couldn't find it.
Deutschemark started dancing around, his silhouette black against the glowing sunset on the hill, chanting, "Whoopla, the head is gonna get ya!"
"Playing hide-and-seek," Mosquito yelled to the invisible head. He and Deutsche-mark joined hands, jumping around in circles.
"Fucking morons," Boyan mumbled.
They went home between the blackened rows of houses, their shattered windows covered with plastic sheeting, and felt their way along the walls punctured with bullets and shells. Mosquito stopped. "I wonder what that soldier's name was?"
"Beats me," Jumbo sighed.
"Who cares," Deutschemark said.
"Go to hell," Boyan said.
Boyan found nobody home. The apartment was dark, ghastly quiet. He lit a candle and went into the bathroom to wash his hands. The water was out, but his mother carried some every day from the river nearby. His own giant shadow loomed on the wall while he maneuvered the pitcher and the canister with water. He whimpered in fear at the sight of his white face in the mirror, dark circles around his eyes.
He went out again. The sky sparkled with mortars raining on the old downtown. He heard his mother's pleading voice talking to a neighbor, "Alma, have you seen my boy? What is he up to now? Oh, that boy will break my heart one day."
"Here," the boy said, "I'm here."
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