Denadora Izebtgovic used the advancing cloak of dusk to scavenge for firewood. Serb militiamen had been seen just east of the nearly deserted village earlier that afternoon, and with fingers bloodied from scraping through frozen soil, she clutched shards of empty ammunition boxes. In a different time, those meager slivers would be ignored. However, in March along the banks of Bosnia’s Sava River they were coveted; and lest they be taken at gunpoint, hidden beneath her sweater.
She furtively sifted through another pile of rubble that reeked of decaying flesh, likely animal, but possibly human, while some two kilometers away her son and daughter huddled alone in the cold darkness behind a false panel her husband, Branko, had cut in the fiberboard wall of their home. A coin-sized hole allowed the girl to scan the room from the secret place as she cradled her brother, Aliija. Four-year-old Marta’s eyes shone the same opal blue as her mother’s, though her auburn hair was clearly that of Branko’s side. Aliija had been born prematurely one rainy October. Though expected to die without medical attention, the infant not only survived, but through some beneficent twist of fate thrived and made it to his second birthday. Branko called him ‘his strong son.’ While away from her home, Denadora feared the day when he would cry out in hunger and Marta could do nothing for him, his wail a beacon to the roaming Serbs.
Killing children was simply amusement for the Serbs, often dulled by the reality that children did not exhibit the terror so quickly stirred in older victims. Only the ungodly whistle of a Croat mortar hurtling in from the foothills could deter a Serb from such butchery.
Branko Izebtgovic battled the Serbs in the hills just beyond the muddy plains. He and others of the small militia returned every few weeks to check on families; eat warm food; and, if lucky sleep beside wives or girlfriends. Such simple pleasures restored the souls eroded by the ethnic cleansing. Three and a half years of this horrific war had destroyed most marriages in the village. Yet, somehow the Izebtgovic’s survived.
Denadora pressed the wood to her chest as she followed the path along the riverbank to her home where an empty jerrycan still pungent with diesel fuel was her washtub and a cast iron pot served as everything from a soup kettle to a bucket for hauling water from the river. That battered pot was all that remained of her mother and father who were vaporized in a violent explosion that leveled the derelict apartment building in which they lay beneath blankets of insulation pulled from the ceiling.
From behind the rusted shell of a Russian tractor, Denadora spied four dim flashlights slicing the murky shadows. Crude voices telegraphed their identity: Serbs. She froze, her eyes narrowing in disgust. They may not be the ones who destroyed the village years earlier, or who leveled the building where her parents slept, but they were Serbs. That alone was reason to kill them had she a gun or grenade.
With neither, she retreated under the cover of low hanging tree limbs. Vile laughter said these Serbs were interested in more than just food and a place to sleep for the night. Denadora had heard those carnal chortles before. Back then, they were followed by screams that split the night, subsiding only when dawn lit the eastern horizon and cast early morning rays on the steaming corpses of women defiled and then bayonetted.
Knowing she must reach her children before the Serbs discovered them, Denadora moved like a stalking cat. The small box cutter tucked in her waistband might slit one throat, but was no match for the butt end of four or five rifles. The very thought recalled the morning she found her cousin Suzana after the Serbs had finished with her. Were it not for the jagged scar which Denadora accidentally inflicted on Suzana’s arm when they were children, she would not have recognized the pulpy, bloodied face, eyes swollen shut and purple; nose split open to reveal a gaping hole from which brain matter oozed. Denadora forced her mind to concentrate on the image of her children hidden at home just to erase the hellish memory that made her gag.
Three of the Serbs veered towards the road leading to a lone kafić where they would swill Rakia before spilling the night’s blood. The fourth begged off and headed north, towards her home. Having to cross the same pasture, Denadora waited until the Serb was some twenty meters away and then patterned her movements on his. When he stepped, she did. When he stopped, she stopped. Twice he turned, scanning the darkened landscape with the Kalashnikov slung from his shoulder. Each time, Denadora dropped low behind the bramble.
The trees thinned and the bank of a stream rose until it lapped at her feet. The putrid stench of death hung in the dank mist of the marsh where untold numbers had knelt in prayer as bullets exploded their skulls, propelling them face down into the oily waters of the bog. At least the mud softened her steps.
Carefully watching where she placed each foot, Denadora looked across the open field, but the lone Serb was gone. It was her chance to run ahead. But, the snap of a branch several meters away signaled he had neared the rivulet. The sound of him pissing into the frigid water broke the uneasy silence. Her every muscle locked as she waited until he again disappeared into the twilight. Unable to locate him, Denadora moved cautiously. Fearing he might now be trailing her, she circled away from her home beside the collapsed stone buttress of a bridge long ago bombed into the river.
She approached from the west and scanned the ground around the house. Though the sky had turned the color of blued steel, Denadora’s eyes knew every shadow, every glint of reflected moonlight around the building. Anything out of place or unfamiliar was a threat.
Denadora retreated to the opposite side so she could slip in through a rear window. A scream pierced her heart the instant she grasped the sill. As every mother knows her child’s cry, Denadora knew Marta’s. That box cutter now in hand, she stared through the window to see the same Serb from the field lift Marta off the dirt floor by her hair. Aliija squirmed beneath the intruder’s boot. The boy’s eyes were wide. Yet he made no sound, merely trembled from fright.
With his back to her, Denadora saw the Serb’s wide shoulders, thick waist and a belt heavy with ammunition. The automatic weapon swung under his arm as he pressed his face to the girl’s. If Denadora knew she could beat his speed, she would hoist herself through the window and slit his throat as Branko had taught her. Marta cried louder as the Serb breathed into her hair, slurring his abhorrent words. Standing in the black shadow, Denadora sickened at the thought of what awaited Marta before a bullet would mercifully end her ordeal. She covered her mouth, nearly retching on the bile bubbling in her throat.
The Serb kicked Aliija aside and turned his full attention to the girl. Intent on satisfying a perverted animal urge, he rested his weapon on the floor. Denadora prepared to mount the window frame. At that moment, the front door exploded. Shattered fragments of wood hurtled through the air; burying themselves in clothing, hair and skin. Using the girl as his shield, the unarmed Serb spun to face the muzzle of a rifle.
From where she crouched, Denadora could not see who stood in the darkened doorway. Was it a Croatian savior? Another Serb?
She heard, “Put the child down or die!” followed by Marta screaming, “Papa! Papa!”
It was Branko.
With the Kalashnikov out of reach, the Serb pulled a razor from his belt and held it to the girl’s neck. “Don’t,” the Serb yelled, “if your bullets don’t kill her, I will.”
The Serb’s box cutter was exactly like the one Denadora clutched. Even in this remote Bosnian village, these scalpel-sharp disposables had become the knife of choice. Virtually every woman in the valley secreted one in her undergarments. Misfortune had taught them that the blade might be their only salvation against an otherwise inevitable fate. In the midst of the most barbaric war in centuries, Croat women whispered the imported American phrase ‘Lurrainna Bobbiet’ to describe the dismembering of their rapists.
“Put the girl down!” Branko demanded, “Now!”
“No!” the Serb hollered back. “Drop your rifle.” The Serb edged toward the corner and his weapon.
“Stop!” Branko commanded.
Fearing any sudden movement might startle the Serb who would reflexively slit the girl’s throat, Denadora waited for Branko to move farther into the room where he could see her through the window.
The Serb tried to bargain. “Let me go and she lives.”
“I’m no fool!” Branko bellowed. “You’d kill your own mother to free yourself.”
“She’s your child. Dead or alive, no difference to me.”
Branko did not respond to the taunt, but edged closer. His eyes darted to the window and Denadora. All the while his weapon remained fixed on the Serb still holding Marta. “Do not move!” Branko shouted. “You are trapped.”
Following Branko’s eyes, the Serb spotted Denadora. He angled the razor, drawing blood that ran down Marta’s porcelain neck. “She dies unless I get out! Is that what you want, mama?”
Those ominous words, along with his gruff distorted features and those wild burning eyes, recreated an image Denadora had long tried to erase. This Serb had been here before. Denadora’s rage at what she remembered blinded her.
“I give you five seconds to let me go or she dies,” the Serb screamed.
“Hurt her,” Branko shouted, “and your blood will mix with hers.”
Denadora howled like a wounded animal, “My God, no.” The ferocity of her wail startled both men. “Branko do nothing. And, you,” she shrieked at the Serb, “do not harm my child.” Denadora climbed through the window and stood midway between her Croatian husband and the Serb who menaced their daughter. She bent and lifted the crying Aliija, burying the boy’s head against her chest.
“Convince your stupid husband to let me go or…” The Serb pressed the razor tight, leaving a sanguine line on the girl’s neck. Nearly faint, Marta’s eyes rolled white; the trickle of blood reached her shirt collar.
“Look at me!” Denadora screamed at the Serb as she shifted Aliija into the crook of her arm and put her own box cutter to the infant’s fleshy neck.
“What the hell are you doing?” Branko shouted at his wife.
“Serb!” Denadora yelled, “Harm her and I will kill him!”
“What do I care if you slit the boy’s throat,” the Serb sneered, his spittle catching the dim light as it flew through the air.
Branko wondered if the endless violence had finally driven his wife insane. The Serb saw Denadora’s instability as a possible diversion affording him escape.
A suffocating silence blanketed the house as the moon rose over the eastern hills. With a lethal projectile poised in the chamber, Branko’s gun trained on his enemy.
“Three years February, you and your Serb murderers came through this village; burning our church; killing our priest,” Denadora hissed. “You stole everything and raped the women of the village, including me. This…boy…is…your…son.”
Branko exploded, “You bastard!”
His finger tightened on the trigger as he drew a bead on the forehead of the cornered Serb, who peered into Aliija’s frightened eyes; and, in a millisecond of hesitation, lifted the blade from Marta’s skin.
The acrid smell of gunpowder filled the room. Mortally wounded, the Serb reeled back into the corner and slid down the pockmarked wall, a bloody smear marking his descent. Now freed of his grip, Marta bolted to her mother.
With the echo of the blast still reverberating in his ears, Branko wheeled around and pressed the hot muzzle of his rifle into his wife’s chest. “Is it true?” he screamed. “Is it?”
Her face flooding with tears, Denadora begged, “No! I only said that to distract him, so you could shoot. Aliija is your son…our son. I swear on his life.”
That night, not far from a house on the river west of Zupanja, Branko Izebtgovic dumped a body into a shallow grave, while Denadora prayed her secret would remain buried with the Serb.
Michael Anthony is an American writer and artist. He has published fiction, poetry, illustrations, and photographs in literary journals and commercial magazines. Most recently these include Lit-Tapes, Camas Magazine, and Gremlin Creative. The American Labor Museum exhibited Michael’s photojournalism essay, “Mill Ends,” on the waning textile industry. Selections of his work may be viewed at: MichaelAnthony.MyPortfolio