Short Fiction by Amra Pajalic

Srebrenica, July 1992

I threw open the front door and bolted out of the house when my mother’s guttural scream of terror stopped me dead in my tracks.

I turned and went back inside. “What’s wrong?” 

Mama clutched the wall, her face white with terror. “Stupid girl!” She shook me by my shoulders. “You can’t run out like that! Snipers will get you.”

Like a long thin finger, my hometown of Srebrenica stretched in the valley between steep hills, clustered along the main road leading in and out of town. The green canopy of the birch-tree forest looked like green fairy floss dotted with the burgundy terracotta-tile roofs of white rendered houses. The nearby hills were a perfect vantage point for snipers. In the time it took them to shoot once, miss, and correct their target, an innocent bystander would have time to take just one step.

“She’ll be fine out the door; it’s halfway down the street that they can sight you,” my brother Emir said.

I smiled at him. I was excited to leave the house. In the three months since the war started I hadn’t been allowed out. My brother and father went to the black market together to buy us what food they could, while I remained home to keep me safe. My parents kept telling me that soon the war would be over and then I’d be able to go where I wanted. Now they had finally accepted that there was no end in sight and I couldn’t remain a prisoner in my own house 24 hours a day. I was allowed to accompany Mama and my brother to town to make a phone call. 

Mama took my hand and stepped out of the house, her eyes fearfully scanning the hills around us as if she could spot the sniper with her naked eye. Her hand clenched mine tightly. We walked down the streets of Srebrenica and it was like I was seeing a new world. There were plastic sheets covering holes in roofs and windows, and parts of houses missing sections. I turned to look at our house as we walked away. My father had been repairing our house between shellings, determined not to let the enemy win in their campaign to wear us down. Even though two of our windows were covered with plastic sheets after the glass had shattered from a blast, and my bedroom window was boarded up as it faced the mountains, it still looked better than most of the houses on our street.

As we walked closer to town, the buildings were more damaged. There were large craters on the sidewalk krmače—the homemade bombs filled with metal and nails that were dropped from aeroplanes—had left behind. There were large holes in buildings and some were almost reduced to rubble. My excitement at being out of the house was fading and terror filled me. The streets I used to skip down were now filled with craters.

“The Četniks purposely target the centre of town so we can ‘admire’ their might.” Emir held out his hand to encompass the destruction around us, using the slur we used against the Serbs. “They’re bullies and we won’t let them win.”

I nodded and straightened my shoulders. Fuck the Četniks. I wasn’t going to let them make me afraid. Before the war most faces on the street would be familiar and I would see neighbours. Now I was mostly seeing strangers. Since the villages around town had been cleared by Četniks, refugees had flooded the town. They were living in school buildings, and former houses and flats that belonged to Serbs that had escaped. You could tell the refugees as they were mostly peasants from the villages; the women were in dimije—harem-type pants worn mostly by women in villages—and the men wore French berets. Those of us from Srebrenica who had access to our own wardrobes wore our best finery when we dared leave our homes. I was wearing my pink and white polka dot summer dress. I had grown and it was feeling tight around the chest and was above my knees, but Mama declared it still decent. 

We walked to the small yellow building in the centre of the town; its huge aerial sticking out on the roof made it the only source of communication with the outside world. The long queue stretched down the street. Mama was calling my uncle who lived in Australia. She would wait for up to three hours to only spend five minutes allocated by the man who operated the rickety army-green radio set–a ham radio–a relic in the time of telephones. A saviour in war.

“We’re going to the playground,” I lied to Mama. 

“No, wait here with me.” Mama’s voice was sharp. She looked at the mountains that girded our small town with suspicion. I followed her gaze and felt goose pimples rise on my skin. I could almost feel the malevolence of the Četniks spying on us from the hills, ready to shoot mothers and children.

“It’s okay, I’ll be with her,” Emir said.

I drew strength from his calm demeanour. “Please, Mama, we just want to play. We’ll be around the corner.”

Mama bit her lip. “All right.” She exhaled. “But only for half an hour and then I want you back.”

“Thank you, Mama.” I hugged her. Her arms grasped me tightly, like she wouldn’t let me go. I pulled away and her grasp loosened. Emir stayed out of range. He considered himself too old for our mother’s embrace.

We ran down the street. 

“Look here.” Emir pointed at the concrete school playground where the hopscotch chalk marks now framed a crater. “A woman and child were hit by bombs dropped from two Yugoslav fighter aeroplanes. They had to scrape what was left of them with a shovel.” He peered closer. Was he trying to see fragments of flesh and bone?

“That’s gross,” I said, and sped up.

“Why? It’s what happens during war.”

I turned to see Emir’s face. He was matter-of-fact, untouched by emotion as he spoke about the woman. I sped away, veering right only to abruptly stop, my eyes taking in the destroyed school. The day before a ‘mosquito’ had flown into the city and dropped its destructive load. The mosquito had circled the town for half an hour, looking for blood. Usually the improvised bombs, or boilers as we called them, fell onto the slopes, causing a tremendous crash and leaving a crater behind. But yesterday the bomb had landed onto the school and split it in two. The two-storey school was now a mess of rubble. All the windows were shattered and the gaping holes reminded me of a screaming monster in a horror movie. 

“Were they trying to hit the school?” I asked.

“They were probably hoping there were students inside.”

I didn’t want to believe that people could be so evil and want to kill children. “Maybe the pilot was trying to hit the town and miscalculated?” 

“Don’t be naive. They don’t care if their targets are children or not. The only good Balija is a dead Balija,” he said, using the slur that our enemy called us. To them we were descendants of the Turkish Ottoman Empire, infidels that they had to clear out.

Now as we wrestled with our courage to enter the school, I kept peering up at the sky fearfully. I hated the mosquitos the most – even more than the jet planes that broke the sound barrier, wreaking their destruction before they disappeared. The high-pitched sound of mosquitoes had imprinted into my brain. At times like this when the sky was bright blue and clear of any aeroplanes, the whine echoed in my head so I couldn’t be sure if the noise was a figment of my imagination or a warning of real danger.

“We’d better get this done,” Emir said.

I nodded. 

Since we had repelled the attacks, life had become a series of monotonous segments of starvation and boredom, broken only by shelling from the Četniks on the hills surrounding us. They controlled the borders and there was no food aid coming in or out. I had become used to the cramps in my stomach, but my mind hungered for a respite from my life. My only escape were the pages of a book, and the only books were from the school library.

Before the bombing Emir and his friends regularly raided the library and exchanged books and I was the recipient of his largesse, but I was bored reading his books. It was time for me to find my own; however, now that I was standing in front of my former school all I could think about was my life before the war. I wanted to scream at the stupid girl I used to be who had spent hours counting down the minutes until the end of the school day.

I carefully pulled myself through the broken window and stepped over shards of glass, all the time listening to the sky, barely breathing at every rustle. I crept through the broken corridors and passed by the classroom that I’d started grade four in, before the war, before the darkness invaded my world. My best friend Zora and I sat in the back row together on a desk that was now scarred from shelling. Sometimes we’d whisper under our breath, but we had to be careful or our teacher Mrs Tanović would punish us. Most of the time we would pass notes to each other, starting with a sheet of paper that we would fill by the end of the day. I’d kept some of the sheets and sometimes I’d read over them, remembering the days when my life was full of mundane details like complaints about Teacher’s Pet Tereza, the boredom of reciting the times table, and rolling my eyes as my peers butchered Anne of Green Gables with their stilted reading.

Emir stopped beside me. “Bad memories?”

“I wonder where Zora is and what she’s thinking,” I said, my eyes burning.

“She’s on the other side. Probably wants us dead.”

“She’s my friend. I don’t believe that.”

Emir opened his mouth like he wanted to say something, but he paused. “She was your friend,” he finally said. 

I rubbed my chest, feeling a throbbing. I had imagined that one day things would be normal again. Zora would come back to live next door and we would play in the forest behind our houses like we’d done our whole lives. But this was my new normal. 

We reached the library. Part of the wall had collapsed, and the ceiling had caved in. Some of the books had been exposed to the elements and were pulpy from the dew and useless, but there was a corner where they had been protected. I crept to the corner, collecting books as I went. We peered up at the sky through a crack in the ceiling, hearing the whine of the mosquito plane approaching.

“Come back!” Emir demanded.

But I wasn’t going to be deterred. Who knew when I could come back, or if there would be anything to come back to? Emir grabbed my arm, and we ran to the window. As we stepped over the window-sill I dropped my books and bent to pick them. “Leave them,” Emir shouted and tugged my arm, making me run as the engine whine got closer.

I paused, gasping for breath near the playground, above the red stain on the concrete. I peered closer, seeing a bone fragment on the ground that the shovel had missed.

Amra Pajalic
Amra Pajalic is is an Australian-based award winning author of Bosnian background, an editor and teacher. Her memoir Things Nobody Knows But Me is published by Transit Lounge (2019.) Memoir extracts have been published in Meet Me at the Intersection (Fremantle Press, 2018) and Rebellious Daughters (Venture Press, 2016). Her debut novel The Good Daughter (Text Publishing, 2009) won the 2009 Melbourne Prize for Literature’s Civic Choice Award and she is co-editor of the anthology Growing up Muslim in Australia (Allen and Unwin, 2019) that was shortlisted for the 2015 Children’s Book Council of the year awards. She works as a high school teacher and is completing a PhD in Creative Writing at La Trobe University.