The techno digs straight and regular holes into the heavy midday heat. Just like every noon, stoic tourists sprawl in the bar’s padded sun loungers, consuming foreign faces and bodies with curious, bored gazes like cheap commercials that glide past their eyes in the middle of a film. On the coastal road, heavy, low-loader trailers painted a beautiful, dazzling white transport their white armoured vehicles past the bronzed bodies that the sea deposited there; in soaking wet swimming costumes, a cold beer right under their noses, they don’t even notice them, as they scan the other side of the road looking for any free loungers under the enormous black speaker. A mute military convoy painted in white silently crosses the techno beats. According to an article on page three that Ònytjungur has before him, UN units are no longer allowed to go into the centre of the country. Once again this evening, they will have to wait in their low-loader trailers.
Ònytjungur’s head feels as though it has been split in two with an axe. He stares at the people, his beer, the people, his hand, the beer, the bodies, and senses his thoughts trying to stitch the two disjointed halves back together.
Far above, the valley sits in its deathly silence, with remnants of walls blackened by smoke, charred and mutilated beams. You can still smell the inhabitants, the sweat from their work, the spices from their lunch, but they were no longer there. A landscape of silent ruins, house after house, as if a deadly lava flow had come down the valley ripping, burning, burying and carrying with it everything in its path. But the green and yellow meadows, thick bushes and lush negligence was still there, the charred ruins were as fresh as if just one night had passed and changed everything. Deathly silence. The smell of fire Roofless farms, one after the other and at the next bend, the next ruin. A valley of death. And still you start at seeing through the trees a corner of a house that is intact. In fact on drawing closer, it too is charred, without a roof, some walls riddled with bullet fragments, on others no traces of fighting, simply burned, one house after the other, and again one after the other, in the middle of all that, a farmer in front of his curtained windows, in front of his intact courtyard, lovingly grows his vegetables in his garden. A Croat.
Ònytjungur would like to go up to him and shout, ‘Where is your neighbour, Croat?’ but he doesn’t approach him and he doesn’t ask. It’s because that house is intact, totally peaceful, right in the middle of all the ruins, that it was already there when they burned the farms, killed the families and sprayed the words ‘HOS’ on the remains of the charred walls, like someone proudly writing their name on the bottom of the death sentence. It was a sign of the times, as the historians are wont to say. This farmer growing his vegetables in his garden. He was his neighbour. Maybe he hid in his house, saying that it’s not his business, but it is much more likely that he was also one of those who stood outside his neighbour’s house as it burned down, and perhaps he too had a torch in his hand. This same hand that pulled the weeds from the garden soil. Because the vegetables are Croats. His neighbour? He was a Chetnik. They use Chetnik and not Serb, to talk about Serbs. They use the term from the past, used by a group of Serb butchers to enable them slaughter human beings. The neighbour is therefore Chetnik and not Serb. It makes things much easier.
The pump attendant breaks out into a broad smile when Ònytjungur asks about the Plitvice road. The signs that used to indicate the road to Plitvice had disappeared, as if Plitvice no longer existed. The pump attendant in Josipdol smiles knowingly and opens his hand as if he is holding a gun before pulling back his index finger several times. ‘Chetnik’, he says, smiling, as if they are still around today.
Bundles of cables lie on the road to Josipdol. Communication lines for the Croatian army, who hang around in the cafés and bars, laughing and relaxed. They have the eyes of victors; they laugh, relaxed in their camouflaged battle stations along the road behind the farmyards and the bars. A giant sign on the side of the road orders foreigners not to leave the villages, not to stop, only to get out of their cars in protected villages. But there are no more foreigners. They crowd together in the tourist vacuum, on the coastal road, close to the docks and port areas that have since been liberated.
He had been there too, thought Ònytjungur, as he watched the farmer carefully plant a row of perennials along the side of his vegetable patch. He had also been there, for sure, and he had not hidden behind his curtains, since they were all part of a conspiracy, winking at each other and calling to one another. They exchange smiles and talk in the streets of the town close to Otocac, a town of victors, ‘We got rid of them, those Chetniks’. There where they lived, the smart estate of family houses is decorated with a blackened ruin, a clearing in the middle of flowered gardens. They know each other, they talk to each other. Far from the sterility and isolation of German Europe, they keep busy and go proudly about their conquests, here the clocks run much slower, and we talk above the street level from one balcony to the next, people know each other, even by name, faces still have names, especially once you go outside, in the farmyards, in the valley. And over and above all these acquaintances, you can feel and see what goes deeper, the connection that links everyone: he’s a Croat, a Catholic, he belongs to the family. Now more than ever, because we cleansed the Serbs together, we no longer have any Orthodox Christians as neighbours. Croatian flags decorate house after house, and everywhere soldiers in uniform carry out road checks. Between the military vehicles, the green fatigue jackets and private cars without number plates, two or three men in black vests heading towards the enemy, nameless vehicles, nameless men. But for the first time, we are all the same, soldier, civilian and black vest. We are all the same, a circumstance that has never been possible over the last decades, when we did business together. Serb, Croatian, Catholic and Orthodox, we would all meet in a café for a bit of conversation. Now the Serb shops are empty, closed. There are no more Serbs, not here, not any more. Now there are cars without number plates and people in black vests.
Ònytjungur observes the profile of the female Croatian soldier amidst the tourists. Her face in the shade, hidden by matt black sunglasses, her short haircut, the coarse fatigue jacket, her combat trousers, the wide belt on her thin waist, the beer can, a thin, silver cross hanging from her earlobe like a body hanging from a branch. The tourists glance at her amid the relaxed atmosphere. Not her, she is staring at a concrete pole. A motionless monument, until her superior whistles and gathers his troop together. In half an hour, she has not seen a single person in this illustrious gathering, nothing but this concrete post under the speakers. ‘This solider is a fighter’, thinks Ònytjungur, ‘she doesn’t need to see anything else but this concrete surface and her face is relaxed. She doesn’t even need her comrades, on the other side who are spying on the bikinis and sniggering over their beer cans, until the whistle sounds. Get up, pick up your things, on we go. People with a purpose. At the end, another nation cleansed and purified. One member of the community of nations cleansed, one partner cleansed and ready for business. Tomorrow we will clear away the charred houses, and with them will go the last revealing traces. It should never have existed; it hasn’t been there for a long time. The papers are already saying on full-page spreads that the beaches are clean, cleaner than they have been for a long time, because it’s a while since they have been used. Important news in Croatia. Onytjungur walks through the town riddled with bullets. Man dies first, then the truth, history will take care of the rest.
A block of flats, one floor after another, one balcony after another, the last balcony, on the fifth floor is destroyed. A black curtain covers the walls above the burnt out casings, the flat is riddled with bullet holes behind the balcony on the fifth floor, war over ten square metres of partition, everything else is intact. Here people were driven away by weapons and smoke, killed in the fire, the flats below have been able to remain flats, the one at the top was in enemy territory, now once again it is lived in, washing dries on the balcony railing. It’s Croatian washing now. Did the previous tenant barricade himself in? Perhaps he even fired back at the shots? Is this why, out of the twenty others under the same roof, this flat was singled out, separated and subjected to such a concentration of fire? What could have been going through this man’s mind? Or perhaps it was a woman? A family? What could have been going through their heads for them to turn their lounge into a fortress? How far ahead could they see? Until the next shot? The next minute? A tiny flat on the fifth floor of a block of flats, surrounded by enemies who just yesterday were their neighbours, and who now carry arms. Why didn’t he or his family go downstairs? What could have pushed him, pushed her to turn their comfortable little flat, with family photos on the chests of drawers, into a military position, a battle station, with enemies above, below, next door, outside and inside, gunfire bursting on the sitting room wall, setting the room alight under their impact. Around the world, warlords have always turned their towns into strongholds, but a living room on the fifth floor? Or perhaps, no one wanted them to go downstairs? Maybe the same fate was awaiting them in front of their house as in their lounge under a hail of bullets?
Not far away, men greet each other with a tap on the shoulder, ordering a coffee, a beer, hanging out, talking, time passes slowly and thoughtfully, the day turns peacefully and informally into the freshness of the evening. Some chap sticks a Croatian flag as tall as a man through the sunroof of his little car and heads off somewhere, wherever this flag has to go. Old boys are sitting on the park benches in front of the shattered façades of the market place. This town is cleansed of its Serbs and the anti-tank obstacles at the gates of the town mark the end of the Plitvice road. Behind the anti-tank barriers, you can see the next ruins in the middle of intact farms; the rest of the valley has been cleansed of its Croats. Overall the valley appears identical. It’s an image, a reality; these two parts separated by anti-tank obstacles could not be more alike. Only the head, the birthplace of ideas, knows that there is a Croat side that is not for Serbs, and the other side is Orthodox and not for Catholics. Each side is now cleansed of its Serbs, its Croats and casts envious glances at the other side. A man in a blue beret keeps close to his white Jeep, as if it was a border post. It marks the cease-fire line, a nail planted in the flesh of heads. In front of him, in the town, the Croatian army regroups, vehicles pass the post in front of the headquarters one after the other, the Croatian army takes up its positions facing Plitvice.
The man laughs from the open hood of his Munich registered BMW. ‘It’s just a ceasefire’, he laughs, it can kick off again at any time, my house is just in front of the anti-tank barrier, and here I am back home’ He has a pretty maisonette, the garden is beautifully manicured, the neighbours plot is a blackened ruin, an ex-maisonette, an ex-neighbour, a solitary ruin in the middle of the gardens of manicured flowers. ‘Where’s your neighbour Croat?’ Ònytjungur wanted to shout at him. But the man laughs in his open convertible and his BMW shines with very German trifles.
Ònytjungur has to bellow to break through the techno sound and talk to the questioning face of the stylish waitress: “Do you have Cevapcici?” The girl wearily shakes her head. Then she smiles like a mother whose child has once again asked a silly question, and tells him with an air of amusement: “Serbian dish!”
Just like every noon, stoic tourists sprawl in the bar’s padded sun loungers, consuming foreign faces and bodies with curious, bored gazes like cheap commercials that glide past their eyes in the middle of a film. The techno beat reduces brains to that indifference on which nations flourish. Until the first bullet explodes next to you. But then it’s too late. The CD will survive, somewhere, in an archive, for future generations, as a digital witness of an era. Because the truth changes from the very first bullet.
(A recollection to mark the 20th anniversary of Operation ‘Oluja’.)
Translation: Jackie Dobble