Small Perfect War
(two excerpts translated from the Italian by CLARISSA BOTSFORD)
From: Sixteenth Day
Rea joins the bread line on the sidewalk, smiling broadly at the Serbian woman in front of her. In her early sixties, she looks reassuring.
It’s Friday, the ninth of April, Rea has slept well. Tiredness got the better of them, and the three women collapsed, Nita first, without even saying goodnight.
She’ll get bread. There’s no way she’s going back home without. Once she’s eaten, she’ll go to Besa’s house with Nita and Hana to speak to the outside world on the phone. It’s like going to meet a lover: crossing the bombed out city in order to hold a heavy, black, plastic telephone close. On the way there it’s important never to look around you, not even straight ahead, only down at your feet, watching your step. It’s basic knowledge. When you get there, the first thing you see is Besa’s family staring at you from the frame on the wall, the whole lot assembled in the corridor without uttering a word while the world is insulting you and kicking the shit out of you.
But this is a perfect war. So far, not one American soldier has died, because this war is being fought from the skies. It’s that simple. A new strategy, a change in direction, otherwise after a while even wars begin to look alike and it’s not worth putting them into history books: describe one and you’ve got them all down pat. But this war will have its story, and how! A perfect war, with no body bags. Civilians die in their thousands, a country is emptied in order to fill it with Serbs only. Whoever decided on the plan in Belgrade must have been thinking in terms of a swimming pool, not a nation. It’s a matter of hygiene, that’s why they call it ethnic cleansing. Empty the dirty water out of the pool and fill it with clean.
Today Rea Kelmendi feels very clean, it would be a good day to bump into Art. If today were a normal day she would take a picture of herself. But today is not a normal day, although she has to admit it’s starting in a promising way. You go out to buy bread with enough money on you to buy a luxury car. With that money you count on buying your life. If you’re stopped and have to show your ID, you take out the money and you hand it over. Maybe they let you go, or maybe they take the money and shoot you anyway. And you die. You die, on the ground. But the America that counts has promised the Americans who don’t count that this time no soldier will come home in a coffin. It’s a perfectly fair promise. Everything seems perfect today. Rea has decided to see things this way, or she risks a heart attack waiting in the bread line.
Later they should really take Hana out as she hasn’t left her house for fifteen days. Klea Borova, Rea’s friend in New York, is planning to call Blesa’s number at one o’clock sharp, Pristina time. Rea checks out the others in line. The store is tiny, the Serbian woman in front of her does not join in the prattling, which is a good thing because it means the conversation keeps its distance from Rea and she doesn’t need to get involved.
Rea checks the shoulder pads of her jacket. There are more banknotes sewn into the lining on the side. The bread money is in her right outer pocket. The key to the house is hidden in her bra. It’s a rule: anyone in the family that leaves the house takes the key with them even if all the others stay home. If the Serbs come and take everyone away while you’re out at least you can let yourself back in with your key. It doesn’t make much sense, but that’s the way it is.
Two women come out of the bakery, with bread tucked under their arms. They move up a little bit closer. At that moment, a military jeep pulls up at the sidewalk. Rea has already spotted a possible get-away, but it’s too late. She stays as cool as she can. A soldier jumps out of the jeep and marches into the store. Two more climb out, cigarettes in hand, and stare at the people in line one by one.
“No way,” the younger, very tall one says to the others. “You’re all ours here, aren’t you?” he calls out. The customers nod. There are only Serbs here, you can see. No dirt-faced Albanian would dare… The woman turns round and looks at Rea, smiles, and lifts a hand to stroke her hair.
“Pretend to speak to me,” she whispers. “You’re my daughter. Say something! In a minute it’s all over. You were pretty brave to come out here.”
She brushes off a strand of hair on Rea’s jacket, asking under her breath how old she is.
“Mom and Dad?”
“My daughter is pregnant, she’s due any day now. She’s your age.” Rea’s eyes are welling up.
“Don’t!”, the woman orders, smiling as hard as she can. “My name’s Vivica.”
The soldier comes out of the bakery with at least ten loaves of white bread in his arms. The others droop around aimlessly.
“Dole Nato! Dole Amerika!”, they shout, climbing back into their jeep. One of them directs a wolf-whistle at Rea. Vivica holds her smile with the last dregs of courage left in her veins. The jeep takes off with a screech of tires and disappears round the corner. Rea realizes she has been holding her breath. Vivica goes into the store, and comes out a few minutes later with enough loaves for both of them. They have no choice but to set off together, Rea linking arms with Vivica. When they are at a safe distance from prying eyes, Rea hands over the money and takes the bread. A Serbian State TV van drives past slowly, a cameraman shooting film from an open window. They shoot the same scene every day: down town where absolutely nothing is going on. The evening newscasts call it normality.
“When we get to the corner, at the Post Office, I’ll turn right,” Vivica announces, grabbing Rea’s bunched fist and tightening her grip. “They’re all crazy, the whole lot of them,” she confides as she turns away without looking back. Rea muffles her sobs and hurries home.
A river with no name
They come with a torch. Three militiamen and a woman. They shine the torch onto the faces.
“This one here,” the Serbian woman says. “She’s twenty, blonde and has a good rack on her.”
“Blonde where? I can’t see a thing.”
“It’s dark, right? Trust me.”
Blerime has hunkered down into the straw, with Aunty Dardana. They grab a girl to Blerime’s right, and while they’re at it, one of the Serbian fighters drags the poor girl’s brother away too. He lost an arm two days ago during an air-raid and he is still alive, though he’s lost an ocean of blood. The sister kissed the stump and whispered to him the whole night. I’ll get rid of your fever, Alban, don’t die, it’s only an arm, what do you care? Shpirt I motrës? It’s just an arm. And he had stayed alive. In his delirium he sang out loud. Then cried. The others begged him not to make a sound.
One-armed Alban’s sister is called Bukurije. Now they are taking them both away, Bukurije and Alban. A few minutes later you can hear the girl’s screams from the courtyard, screams that split the world open. Don’t men understand that if a girl screams like that they should leave her alone? If you really listened to that scream, Blerime thinks, maybe you would have an answer by the end of the night, by the end of all the nights. And you would stop. You’d dump your weapons in the middle of the road and go home to do something else, like watch a film, or eat a hot meal, or sit on your doorstep and listen to the silence, in peace with yourself. But these Serbs don’t have a feeling for these things, and now she’s angry with them. And even though she thinks there’s something missing in their hearts, she doesn’t feel any sympathy for them.
She’s confused. Confused and clear at the same time. Aunty Nita would say “sharp” instead of “clear”. Aunty Nita, Rea, and her teacher, Besa Ajeti, all speak so well. Their bearing, their faces, are so knowledgeable. These days, as a refugee, Blerime has never stopped making plans. In the old days she knew she wanted to be like Aunty Nita: teaching and living on her own. But that’s not enough any more. You need to do more with words. She’ll be a writer. She’ll tell everyone what’s happening to them all in this cowshed. […] She must use words. But not speak them. Talking makes no sense. Everyone talks, and none of it makes any sense. She’ll write it all down and hide it somewhere so that after she’s dead someone will find it and read what she has written.
Because she will die, there’s no doubt about it. These thoughts going through her mind as she hides under the straw so as not to hear Bukurije’s screams outside were already inside her head. What the war has done is let them out. She moves a wisp of straw away from her nostril. There must be some kind of purpose to war. It helps you understand things. Or it makes you go completely crazy. She’s shaping her thoughts while Fatmir is going crazy, even though he’s not saying a thing and pretending to be asleep. He’s got blood-soaked straw stuck all over his head and face.
“Why has Allah abandoned us like this?”, Aunty Dardana sighs, not talking to anyone in particular. “What have we done to our merciful God?”
Blerime strokes her brother’s hair, but he still acts dead. Fatmir’s always like this: when he doesn’t like something he pretends he’s asleep. He clams up in his shell and puts a lock on the outside and there’s no way you can get him to come out. His Mom, Hana, just rolls her eyes. Blerime, on the other hand, sometimes manages to get him out of his shell. She’s the only one, and she’s proud of it.
Apart from soccer, Fatmir likes Math, and he’s top of his class. He wants to be a scientist, which in Fatmirian means: I’m going to a top university.
“There’s one called MIT, in Boston, America, and that’s where I want to study. Get it, Sis?”
“Numbers? They’re so difficult!”, she sighs.
“You can only play soccer up to a certain point in your life,” he would go on, “but when you’re older you can’t do it any more. It’s a law of nature, you see? So, I love two things in my life, not just one! I’ve decided I love soccer and Math. Apart from you, of course, but you’re not a thing, you’re a person.”
Poor Bukurije is still alive out there, crying and begging, but she’s not strong enough to scream. The men moan and groan and let fly with filthy words. Fatmir looks at Blerime and says:
“I won’t let them take you away, Bler.”
The first one to get to Uncle Arlind’s place tells him how the other one died, deal?”
“You’re not going to die, Bro.”
Blerime grins. Only girls says these things usually, not guys.
“You’re not going to die, Shpirt I motrës, and I promise I’ll tell the whole story, even in a thousand year’s time.”
Sis has always talked weird, so Fatmir nods: in a thousand years they’ll all meet up, Bler and Fatmir and Mom and Dad. Not on this earth, not in this Kosovo, but somewhere else.
“You’re not dying,” Blerime concludes, “and you’d better believe it.”
At that moment the Serbs come back into the cowshed.
“This one here,” the Serbian woman, who seems to be the leader, says. “Take this one away.”
Aunt Dardana screams, struggles, begs, they hit her across the head with the but of a rifle and drag her like a sack of potatoes, cursing and swearing, and while they are dragging her one of them rips open her blouse with his bayonet, taking away bits of flesh with the shreds of cotton. Then gunfire breaks out. Somewhere out there outside the village bombs are being thrown and shots are being fired. They hear voices in Albanian.
“It’s our lot,” one of them says, “we’re safe. It’s our side.”
A couple of men who still have a bit of strength try to get out of the shed but the door is bolted from the outside. The windows are too high up and too small: only someone very small could get through.
“Go,” Blerime begs her brother, “you’re thin enough. Try!”
“I’m not going anywhere without you.”
“Please, I beg you.”
Fatmir slaps her across her face and gives her a shake. He’s the guy in the family: he makes the decisions and she has to shut up. One girl tries to get away, but as soon as she reaches the windows she’s hit by a spray of bullets and falls back onto the man who was giving her a hand up. In the brief moment it takes her to fall she finds the time to die. The others soon forget her and search desperately for another way to get out. No luck there. Outside the battle rages for another ten minutes, or maybe longer.
Blerime piles bodies on top of one another, attempting to line them up against the wall. There are only about twenty of them still alive, and there must be at least three times that number of dead. The fighting outside is fading. The Serbs are winning, and someone says in Albanian: “Burra sot u pa, kthehena nesër prapë!”
There’s a moment of relative quiet, then a two-way radio in Serbian crackles. It’s probably an order, and the militiamen run to and fro collecting weapons and other stuff, switch on the engines of their trucks and, before setting off, throw something into the shed that explodes in a ball of fire. The trucks take off and the people in the firetrap find the strength to scream and Blerime shouts at Fatmir:
“Jump out of the window! You’re going now, I promised Mom I would take care of you!”
An old man who had seen Blerime pile up the dead bodies carries on the young girl’s task, building a kind of step ladder up to the window. The only ones left are two girls of Blerime’s age, Fatmir, the old man, and two pregnant women, one of whom is giving birth on the spot, but nobody takes any notice of her screams because she’s done for whatever happens. The kids help the old man, Fatmir measures the distance and reaches the high window. One of the corpses isn’t a corpse because it’s moaning but they can’t take it out of the pile because it’s somewhere in the middle and there’s no time.
“Go on, Granddad,” Fatmir says to the old man. You can do it.”
“It’s your turn,” the man answers. “I’ll stay with my old lady who’s been dead since yesterday. Take these young ones away, get them out of here.”
He may be crazy, but Blerime tugs at her brother’s sleeve. With no time to thank the old man, Fatmir pushes Blerime up onto the heap of corpses, the flames are only a couple of yards away, they jump out of the window one by one.
Outside they see Aunt Dardana riddled with bullets, but they don’t see her expression because she quite rightly shut her eyes while she was dying, otherwise it would be a terrible memory, Blerime thinks. A terrible memory.
They burst into tears when they see smoke billowing from the shed, and they start running towards the woods. They run and they cry, and they can hear the woman who was giving birth in the shed screaming louder than all of them put together, the dead and the living, and for a while her shrieks follow them into the woods.
The five or six kids left only stop running when they reach a river. A whole river blocking their path. They don’t know what river it is and they don’t care.
Electrified by the sight of it, they throw themselves on the ground. It’s water, in all its dazzling beauty, and it’s the last thing Blerime remembers about that day.