Tea and the Enemy at a Bosnian Cafe

We went to a different cafe this time. Normally, we went to the one with the shaded garden and delicious soup, secreted away on a side street and just up a couple of blocks from the local newspaper, where I was working as a consultant. But on this day, it was just me and Alma, my interpreter, so we decided to go someplace I hadn't been before.

I'm sure Alma was drinking fruit tea, I'm sure I was drinking a Coke, I'm sure it was a little cold inside this Bosnian cafe, a little underlit and very smoky. And I'm sure that I've never seen a body so physically overcome with hatred as was Alma's when she recognized the only other two people in the place, two men sitting a few tables away from us, drinking espresso, smoking cigarettes and cracking jokes. Two happy, relaxed men.

Alma sat in her chair and shook. Do you see those men over there, she asked me, not waiting for an answer. They've done horrible things. Horrible, horrible things, she kept repeating, her tremors addressing the scope and depth of horror endured.

I listened. Alma told me that these men had committed some of the worst war crimes in Bosnia. She spoke of how they made fathers rape daughters in front of a village forced at gunpoint to watch. Fathers, who surely would have rather been shot 100 times in the head and heart rather than rape their own child, did so, with guns held to their lovely daughters' heads. If you don't rape your child right now, they were told, we will shoot her.

Alma spoke of brothers forced to molest brothers, and mothers forced to watch. Alma's words tumbled out, the hell of Bosnia tipped on her tongue.

Meanwhile, back at the other table, the two men sipped their coffee with steady hands.

This is the final tragedy that is Bosnia, to have to dine and commune and work with the very same people who dragged your brother's naked body through the streets of town, tied with rope to the back of a pickup truck; or who starved you down to sixty pounds in a concentration camp; or who tried to blow you up with a car bomb, taking your legs from you.

But the forced family rapes, starvations and bomb attacks are merely footnotes for the widows of Srebrenica, who lost 8,000 husbands and sons in a matter of hours, while Dutch peacekeeping authorities sat idly by. And as we now see from film footage released last week (Abu Ghraib soldiers aren't the only ones who like to record the torture they induce), the 8,000 men and boys were deeply psychologically tortured before they were killed. And masterminds of the Srebrenica massacre, Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic--the Hague's most wanted war criminals--are still on the run, nearly 10 years after the end of the Bosnian war. Reports say both are in hiding, but my colleagues, who live in Karadzic's hometown of Nicsic, Montenegro, laugh at this notion, saying he has, from time to time, dropped in at local cafes.

Alma and another journalist from the newspaper were once talking to me about what it was like when the war started in April 1992, when snipers opened fire on civilians in the streets of Sarajevo. They said it was only in looking back did they see something was amiss. People were leaving town, going on unplanned "vacations". Alma's best friend since she was a toddler--a woman who lived just across the hall--left 10 days before without saying goodbye to her. Apparently, these people had been tipped off to the war's impending onset, allegedly because they had Serbian last names. So these people fled, knowing the loved ones they left behind were in grave danger, but not warning them.

Nearly a year later, Alma got a letter from the friend, who was writing from Belgrade. She cradled her four-month-old, screaming son as she climbed into the bathtub--bracing against a mortar attack that had already begun--and settled in to read the letter. The friend said that things were really hard in Belgrade because she missed her friends in Bosnia, that the prices were higher, and that she was sorry she didn't say goodbye to Alma, but that she hoped she understood. Alma said she was shaking uncontrollably then, too. From the shells raining down on her building, from the betrayal, or from the blinders her former friend wore, she knew not which.

Up until the Srebrenica footage was released, many in the Balkans donned blinders, too, and claimed the massacre didn't happen, or that it was blown out of proportion, or that it was war and, therefore, justified. Tell that now to the pregnant friends who were not warned of imminent and severe danger; and tell it to the widows of Srebrenica who heard 8,000 shots fired, claiming their beloved men and boys one by one. And please tell it to Mr. Karadzic and Mr. Mladic, the next time they are spotted at the local cafe.

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