Student or Learner
This is the fifth part of my short story, "The captain." Please would you correct my mistakes.
I was listening to his rambling monologue with patience, but I was not interested in the past. I had already heard hundreds of similar stories from the Second World War because the Communist Party had been feeding us with them since our childhood. Instead, I would rather hear from him why he was saving the burn-out light bulbs, which my aunt had been ordered to keep neatly lined up in their packs in a cupboard. But I did not dare to ask him more questions for fear of what might happen to my aunt when I returned home.
In the next days, I visited Azemina when the captain was not at home. I stood beside her behind the trestle table as she was selling her goods and haggling over prices. I admired her fighting spirit and ingenuity. She was selling her goods for higher prices than she was told by her husband and pocketed the difference. Every time we met, she shoved some money into my pocket, and the last time we met, she gave me a whole wad. I protested, telling her she needed money more than I did, but she said, “You’re young, go and have some fun.” I tried to convince her one last time to leave the captain and follow me home, but she answered, “I don’t want to be a burden on anyone. I don’t lack anything. Soon I’m going to be rich and free like a bird.”
Before I had an opportunity to visit my aunt again, a new war broke out on the Balkans. The old hatred flamed out again. Sarajevo became a symbol of the bloody conflict. Once a city where different cultures and religions thrived suddenly turned into a cauldron of death and destruction. Watching on TV Serbian shells and sniper shots killing people in their hundreds every day, I secretly hoped that one of the victims was going to be the captain. This was the first and last time in my life I wished someone killed.
Telephone lines and the mail were completely cut off between Sarajevo and the other parts of our country. The only means of communication between us and our relatives were the Red Cross messages written on a sheet of paper. They were clear and concise. Azemina was well and her husband was still alive. The Grim Reaper and the captain must have been great friends when he decided to take life of small children, pregnant women, newly married couples, beautiful women and handsome men, but spared the stingy man, who smoked more than 40 cigarettes daily and still was in a perfect health.
The situation in my hometown became unbearable. We Bosniaks had become sheep doomed to slaughter. You could be killed just for a heck of it. My father advised me to leave the country immediately. He told me he was old and did not care what was going to happen to him, but I was young and deserved to live.
I found shelter in peaceful Sweden where people had not experienced war for generations and could not understand how neighbours could kill each other and commit such horrible crimes. I was surrounded by beautiful nature and attractive women, but I did not see them. My mind was thousands of kilometres away in my homeland and with my family, who loved me and who I loved more than anything. I watched TV and my eyes filled with tears seeing suffering of the innocent people who had been left on their own.
My telephone was ringing and when I lifted the receiver to my ear, I could hear the trembling voice of my aunt Fatima over a bad line. “Your father is dead,” she said and started howling. When she somehow composed herself, she told me that my father had had a heart attack and died on the sofa in front of her. Everything went so fast. He complained about the pain in the chest earlier in the afternoon, and in the evening lying on the sofa he let out a whimper, pressed his hands on his heart, and before she could do anything, he had stopped breathing. The next day a Serbian family forced their way into the house and threw out my aunt. She undertook a dangerous journey through the front lines and managed to reach a town under the control of the Bosnian government, but she knew nobody there, and she was left with nothing but the clothes on her body.
The devastating news had a profound effect on my life. Something had died inside me on that morning. Life had lost any meaning. The pillar of our family had disappeared, and with him a part of myself. I lost my mother as a child, and now I lost my father and my home. I was in a country where immigrants were looked at with mistrust and suspicion, even if they worked hard and sacrificed themselves. I was completely alone and could not draw comfort from anyone. To remain sane I become benumbed. My tears dried up, and I felt neither sorrow nor pain. I was like a zombie, my body warm and alive but my soul dead. When a few months later I received the Red Cross message with the news that the captain had finally died, I was almost indifferent. The old stingy man had ended up under the ground where he would not have any use of his burnt-out lamps and other trinkets, I thought.
Sarajevo looked bleak and sombre when I arrived by plane from Stockholm. The city was snowbound, and at every junction, the piles of grimy snow reached almost up to the traffic lights. Old battered trams clattered by, cars of all models and ages whizzed past as if their drivers were still afraid of snipers. Frozen passersby trudged along, their heads hanging, as if they were walking to their execution. Now and then, a pensioner slipped and thumped on the ice swearing at the government and the leading political party. Beggars without limbs, red with the cold, their hands stretched out, made their way through the snow, pleading to their fellow citizens for a small contribution to buy a loaf of bread. Could they have been the former soldiers who had bravely defended the city and now lived on handouts? A few children dressed in camouflage uniforms were pestering people who were waiting for the trams. “Please, give us some money, we are hungry,” they were pleading, but people ignored them and did not want to see their small outstretched hands. A police officer appeared and angrily waved his truncheon. He shouted at them to clear off. There was something strange in the eyes of the passersby, a mixture of loss and desperation. I did not hear any laughs or marry voices, and I did not know if it was because of the past war or the cold. The world was preparing itself for the new millennia, and Sarajevo was licking its wounds, many of which were never going to heal. Some of the buildings still bore the marks of direct hits. The holes were huge and ugly – the symbols of the destroyed society.
To be continued
I like the way you compare those stories to food.
Thank you Tarheel. Your help means a lot to me. I wish I could write more positive stories, but I have been in such bad mood for years that I wonder how I have managed to survive and stay sane. Just now the only thing what matters to me is English. It is my wife and these stories are my children. You see, in Sweden people keep their feelings inside, and by me it is opposite. I like my feelings to be free, and come out, even if they are negative. I think that if one keeps feelings inside, sooner or later that person becomes ill. So now I am trying to convey these feelings in a language which is not my mother tongue, and that is a challenge. But I think a human being should always take on the challenge and fight even if he is losing a battle.
I think it is a worthy project, and I think you are doing quite well. You have been doing a good job of conveying emotions with words. (Not always easy.) To do that as well as you do it and to do it in a language that is not your native language is quite commendable. You have been giving me and others insight into what it is like to live in a war zone. (Your stories are about other things too, of course.) Nobody should have to go through that sort of thing.
I think maybe the bigger question is how do we deal with the past, and how do we avoid reliving it.
I think the biggest problem are the masses. The ancient Greek philosophers used to say that the masses do not think rationally. I have always avoided to be in the mass of people, and on the occasions when I was forced to be with the others I have tried to take a distance and see the world with other eyes, from different perspective. Unfortunately, the majority of the people do not have energy or time to ask themselves what is really happening around them. If you try to tell them the truth, they will not want to listen to you. I have seen the same phenomenon in my homeland as well here in Sweden. So I am trying to concentrate on myself. I have created my own world around me and do not care what my neighbors think about me. And language is great medium to use it to create new worlds and ideas, and you can never be angry at it or disappointed with it.
Well, thinking is work. And it is not easy work. (If it were easy anybody could do it.) The only thing we can do with the past is learn from it. And make the future different and better.
Now I have to go finish a poem.