Only the Nails Remain: Scenes from the Balkan Wars (2001)

An Excerpt

Just before noon a shell lands in the top floor apartment of the next building over, severing the leg of an old woman who lost her husband to a sniper’s bullet last month.

Ciki appears in the doorway, clutching a five-pound piece of shrapnel from the shell, which left a hole in the façade of his in-laws’ house. Ciki is a Serbian architect married to a Muslim; at the start of the siege they moved in with her parents, and when she fled Sarajevo he stayed with them, though they despise them. No one trusts Ciki. Rumor has it he is calling in coordinates for strikes in this neighborhood. He chalks the date on the shrapnel. Muha props it on the table next to the flowers.

“It looks like the devil’s tooth,” says John.

Now there are twelve of us in the basement-- humanitarians and engineers and soldiers; a housewife, an architect, a tennis coach; Australian and American, British and French, Bosnians of all stripes, Serb, Croat, and Muslim.

“How many years do you think living with this much adrenalin in your system takes off your life,” says Pat, who traded in twenty-five years of journalism to work in disaster relief.

“If it keeps up like this?” says Vic. “About fifty.”

With one hand he is curling a dumbbell, in the other he holds a Serbo-Croatian dictionary. Vic has a gift for languages, and he is careful to describe his course of study as Bosnian lessons.

Mirna is delighted with his progress. “Listen to his accent,’ she says. “Like a native.”

“Because we are all old in Bosnia,” says Slaven.

“What we do in Sarajevo is wait,” Vic says. “Wait for an order to be filled, for something to begin, for a missile to strike?“

“Civilians,” John interrupts.

“The Cetniks aren’t the only ones doing that,” says Vinnie.

“Izetbegovic is a sheep with no teeth,” Vic mutters, holding the dumbbell out at arm’s length. “He should just hand over control of the government to the military.”

“When the first shell struck here this morning what I saw in my mind’s eye was the Bread Line massacre,” Mirna snaps. “Who killed those people?”

Ciki edges toward the garage. Mirna gives him an icy look. Vic tells him to stay where he is.

“In war the goal is to win,” says Vinnie, “and you have to have the support of the people. It’s very easy to kill your own people to rev them up to fight. I’ve seen children killed by a sniper in a Bosnian position. There are no rules in war.”

“Is that why I stopped caring about the shelling last winter?” Mirna says sarcastically. “All I cared about was staying warm. I’d lie in bed as long as I could, then get up and cook as much as possible and put out the fire, because there wasn’t any fuel, except the trees we cut down.”

“Everyone was schlepping water,” John remembers, “and water weighs eight pounds a gallon. If it’s fifteen degrees, and you’re spilling it all over yourself, you’re in misery, especially if you’re old and have to climb ten flights of stairs to your apartment.”

“But standing in line for water when snipers were working--that was hell,” says Mirna.

“On days like this,” says John, “when the Serbs want to take someone out, they just open up the telephone book, lock his address into their coordinates, and fire. Boom: another mailbox gone.”

Ciki rubs his jaw. Muha offers him a chair. The architect stands still. “Here,” Muha insists. “Sit.” Ciki shakes his head.

“Mirna turns to me. “Muha has changed so much since the war began,” she whispers. “You have no idea.”

Vic puts down his dumbbell. “And now for a shower,” he says, spraying his armpit with antiperspirant.

“If a Bosnian fires a mortar,” Vinnie says, “the Serbs track his round, make an adjustment, and shoot right back. There are spies all over the city to confirm where the targets are.”

Mirna glares at Ciki. He lets out a nervous laugh.

But Vinnie does not believe the Serbs will storm Sarajevo. “The street to street fighting would cost them too many troops. What they’ll do is keep up the terror. Shelling. Sniping. Killing children. Two, three, ten a day: it wears people down.”

“But do you see how well-dressed everyone is?” says John. “Sarajevans still have pride.”

Mirna rolls her eyes. “That’s how we pretend things aren’t as bad as they are. Do you know what the contestants at the Miss Besieged Sarajevo contest said yesterday when they were asked what they hope for in the future? ‘What future? We have no future. We could be killed at any time.’”

“The way the momentum is going now the Bosnians will lose,” Vinnie says. “Arms are getting in, but the Serbs and Croats are getting most of them. I try not to be pessimistic about it.”

Mirna goes into the bedroom. “How dark it is,” she exclaims, and then there is another explosion.

Pat opens a books called The Destruction of Yugoslavia but immediately closes it. “What should you read during an artillery attack?” she asks. I brought my copy of St.John Perse’s Collected Poems into the basement. Vic has an anthology of erotica in his backpack. His is the better choice, everyone agrees, though in fact we are too scared to read anything at all. But Mirna has the best answer to Pat’s question: “Marx and Lenin,” she calls out from the bedroom. “They burn forever.”