The Daily WORD is COLLATERAL DAMAGE
(written ten years ago, but it still haunts me — particularly in the Easter Season)
This is not a good story. No happy ending, no epiphanies such as, “At he died in his sleep” or “At least she didn’t get pregnant” It is a story impossible to comprehend unless you shoot your neighbor and his wife tonight because yesterday he raped your daughter.
I went to Croatia on a “happy ending” writing assignment for an international charity. The war between Serbia and Croatia had been over for three years. Now Serbia was attacking Kosovo, NATO was retaliating, and CNN was cramming a thousand-year history of Balkan hatreds into sound bytes. The charity thought an upbeat healing-of-the-war-wounds story from Croatia would add a dollop of hope to the Balkans’ current carnage. In the small, local office of the charity, Serbs and Croats — recent foes, worked in the same room for a common, humanitarian cause. Surely they would share inspiring stories of forgiveness and tell me how brotherhood was healing their pain.
A fellow American, Liam, had worked in Croatia since the Dayton Accords were signed. Tight-lipped, but kind, he met me at the train station in Osijek.” They won’t want to talk about it,” he said. “I told your boss this was a bad idea, but he said that people trust you, open up to you.”
I nodded. I had managed sticky situations before. My method was to establish trust, then listen. But Liam did not have much to say, just that he was taking me to Vukovar, site of the worst carnage. During the short drive through the country, he told me about Nikola, the director of the local charity. “He was head of the hospital here during the war,” Liam said. “He had to evacuate patients. He could put them on neutral-country boats going down the Danube or on busses to Croatia’s interior. He thought busses would be safer because there was a lot of shelling along the river.” Liam braked so a cow could meander across the road. “Serbs attacked the busses. Killed every patient — children, old people, a woman in labor.”
Vukovar had been Nikola’s hometown, and Liam said I needed to see it before we met him in Osijek for dinner. He stopped beside a city park and helped me out of the car. The air was fresh and sweet with flowers, like a pristine European village with no belching industrial smokestacks. Liam told me to follow him closely. Even after three years, hidden shells were still exploding; ruined homes were mined. We walked on dusty vegetation frothing through sidewalk cracks. Weeds shaded twisted metal and scorched, fallen timbers in the shelled-out city center. Vines dangled from windows and trailed on broken pavements where people once strolled to cafes and shops.
The lone pedestrian was a one-legged man pulling his body down the street with hand hewn crutches, making awkward detours around holes from ordinance that beat his once graceful town to rubble. We followed him around a corner to a market of wooden stalls where survivors bought food and clothing or begged with trembling hands and need mapped on their faces. The market was built on a new stretch of asphalt that covered one of the mass burials. To buy groceries, townsfolk walked on unmarked graves of murdered friends. Voices were muted. There were no hearty greetings, no smiles or laughter. No church bells tolled. The steeples had fallen along with homes and hospitals, along with soldiers and innocents, along with trade and tradition. Vukovar was war’s last snapshot, a silenced scene muggy with tears falling on flowers strewn around the new marble monument.
A NATO plane roared overhead, delivering bombs to Belgrade, too high to see the monument, the one-legged man, and windows framing shattered glass.
Liam asked if I had any questions.
Tears stung my eyes. I shook my head and followed Liam, careful to walk beside him.
He pointed out a bombed out bridge between Croatia and Serbia, skeletal steel fingers jutting out of broken concrete and curling into the Danube. A wide piazza was littered with fallen statues. I forgot to be careful, walked across shot-up granite and around empty pedestals for a closer look at the statue still standing. The bronze hero from an ancient war had lost both arms to a more recent battle. He had a grenade hole through the heart.
Nikola limped into the restaurant while we were on our second glass of wine. He looked tired, wary, but his handshake was firm and he greeted me graciously. During dinner, his manners were exquisite, but he did not camouflage his concern that I would rip scabs off wounds of everyone I met. “They don’t talk about the war,” he said. “They don’t say who is a Serb and who is a Croat and who did what to whom. They focus on the work.”
He told me that he and his family had lived in the hospital basement for two years while Vukovar was shelled, invaded, destroyed. “I could not leave my patients,” he said.
I did not ask him what he did after the hospital was evacuated. I did not ask him why he was no longer in the medical profession or how he injured his leg. He seemed embarrassed about his limp. After dinner we walked through a weed-choked park. He made sure I stayed on his uninjured side.
The next morning, Liam took the long way to the office so I could get a closer look at Osijek. Buildings were pocked with machine-gun fire from sidewalk to roof. Cornices and chimneys were broken. At an outdoor cafe, a waiter with hollow eyes served us steaming cups of latte. The coffee smelled rich and strong. My hand cupped around the coffee. I shut my eyes. I was drinking coffee at Starbucks. Shells exploded along the Miracle Mile. A CTA bus filled with refugees ignited. The air shook with ghostly screams.
Outside town, bright patches of new, orange roofs quilted the valley, but did not cover holes where houses once stood. Rusting tanks were junked along country roads, guns pointed toward farmhouses, barns, and the skeleton of a greenhouse. Skull and crossbones signs marked mined meadows, all the lush acres of grass and spring flowers. Did girls too young to read have picnics here, sitting their dolls on mossy rocks? The shelling of the heart went on. No matter where I looked, it went on.
“It takes time,” Liam said, “to plaster over bullet holes and build new homes and grieve dismembered children.”
“It takes time,” he said,” to unearth the grace to go on.”
While shattered bones were still mending and mounds of raw earth covered graves, Liam had invited Serbs and Croats to form a board of directors and hire an ethnically mixed staff to serve the poor of Osijek. The miracle happened. No one slammed a colleague against a wall and screamed, “Are you the one who shot my brother?” “Are you the one who raped my sister?” One man beat his fist on the metal desk Liam was standing beside, then raised his fist to Liam’s face, opened lips quivering too hard for him to shape a word. He turned and shuffled out of the room. Several people followed him. The others bound their hatreds long enough to listen to what Liam had to say.
Back in town, the office staff greeted me politely, but their faces were strained. I knew questions still lurked among them and would forever. “Are you the one who. . .?Was it your father . . .? Your brother . . .?” Did they fear that my questions would dredge up questions of their own?
“Bring back a story,” my boss had directed, “so people will know that what we’re doing in Croatia we can do in Kosovo just as soon as the war is over.”
But “we” did not bridge the hate. Six Croats and four Serbs left the questions unanswered so they could work together to help their country recover. I did not open my notebook to the questions I had prepared. I asked them about the people they were helping, not the people they were grieving. I asked them about their work today and not their war experiences. I did not try to ferret out who were the Serbs and who were the Croats. They all had pain in their eyes and a hesitation in their voices as if the room were bugged and they feared a later interrogation.
Fear was their daily portion, not just a hangover from the war. The week before, the financial police had given them an hour to shut down, go home, or face arrest for the crime of helping poor Serbian families. They sat at their desks, continued to work. The police came back, drew guns, made threats. The staff continued to work. An hour later, the police left, perhaps confounded by their audacity. Liam said that if the Ambassador did not intervene soon, the Croatian police would be back with their rage unleashed.
Those brave young men and women hugged me goodbye, invited me to return. I knew I would not be back. I did not get the story I was assigned to write. I am not the type to jerk a mike toward bloody jowls and demand, “How did you feel just now when they pulled your family out of the wreck?” — even when my job was on the line. I saw myself bagging groceries, pushing carts to sport utility vans in a suburban mall. The asphalt was smooth, store windows were paned with miles of clean, unbroken glass. I wore a bright, orange safety vest. Customers of all races smiled and wished me a good day. Jets flying overhead landed at O’Hare, bellies full of suitcases and overnight mail, not bombs. Gangs came out at night, hiding under cars and slashing ankles with long knives. I would not have to work at night.
On the way to the train station, Liam stopped at an old brick cathedral. Inside, light shone through stained glass, spreading a kaleidoscope of colors across the polished pews. Painted stars sparkled in a wash of blue between the arches soaring five stories overhead. A priest in red vestments straightened the altar cloth, preparing to celebrate Mass alone. This silent, empty, sacred space was walled with frescos: the annunciation, the nativity, the loaves and fishes, the last supper. The church was consecrated to the God both sides summoned for courage, victory, and healing. I knelt at a pew, buried my face in my hands and prayed for peace in the Balkans. Liam sat beside me and whispered a prayer of his own. When I looked up, he motioned for me to follow him. He pointed to a fresco I had not seen, one that faced the altar. It was the only damaged fresco in the cathedral.
Christ rose in faded splendor from the cross — with a machine gun round through his heart.
I took a photograph of the fresco. I wrote my four-word article on the back of it, “This is the story.”