The International Writers Magazine:In the War zone
from the Dead
barrage lasted throughout the night. They had gotten what was
left of the old church. In the courtyard where we lay, a few shells
had fallen short of their mark, concussing close to us, sending
the night up in white deafening blindness. The, by daybreak, all
fell strangely quiet. The Serbs were finally taking a break.
We were sent as
envoys to keep the peace while all hell was breaking around us. The
conflict had been going on like this long before we got here and would
eventually continue without any foreseeable end. We all knew that.
War is full of hellish absurdity. We were handed blue helmets in case
we ever came in contact with the Serbian Army. This was supposed to
tell them not to shoot. They always shoot at us anyway. They see us
as rabbits in the field, darting but not allowed to fire unless fired
upon. They got three of our guys this week alone. We can never see them.
They hide in the hills and fire out of the shadows.
We werent supposed to be here. We had pulled out this peacekeeping
mission and had been sent to some other hotspot in the world, but then
it was deemed that we were to come back here. Thats the Army for
Just like the graduate they sent as our replacement lieutenant. He told
us to paint everything military around here blue several weeks ago.
His first great decision. Our first lieutenant got it by pissing on
a mine. It sets them off in the winter, they say. The next guy went
Section 8 and they shipped his crazy ass back to some cushy military
nuthouse. So, here we are, painting everything that hasnt been
shot up lately. The officers made a great show of it for the world press
and news outlets, saying how the great peacemakers had finally arrived.
Tell that to the 1,600 Belgians and Russians that got here before us.
As we lay in the church courtyard, only a few reports of artillery remain.
Its always a constant reminder that this thing isnt over
yet, even though theyve said so numerous times in the papers.
This wars been going on long before we ever set muddied boot here
and it will continue for a long while after we pull out. It all goes
much deeper than the sound bites on the evening news. Hatreds that run
as deep and as cold as the muck in which we sleep. The rains never stop.
And if theres anything that will decide this war, its got
to be the weather.
It was raining last week when we were bivouacked into the tiny village
of Crasja, just south of the Serbian stronghold and it pours still.
The homes and businesses that once existed here, have been looted and
burned repeatedly by government soldiers. Only a few locals stayed behind
and those werent conscripted by gunpoint to fight their own people
were either put into camps or simply vanished into the black woods that
surround these provinces.
Weve heard of stories of atrocities, too inhuman to imagine, yet
these are true, the townspeople say. Whole families wiped out, rapes
and mass graves. Weve seen the POW camps, but are powerless by
international diplomacy to anything about them. And they say, war is
hell. The war no longer matters here. The atrocities have taken center
stage. War and the actual fighting doesnt bother me like I know
That is, when we get to fight. Were supposed to be building a
bridge across the Salva River, 45 miles north of Tuzla. A bridge that
has been blown up more times than any bridge in history. Theres
a story that it was built hand-in-hand by the warring factions, the
Croats and the Serbians in the 15th century. A time of peace in medieval
Bosnia. 1465. The very next year they went to war and it hasnt
Only the soldiers change. One generation abides with an uneasy peace
and yet another passes into battle. It is the only way people know how
to live anymore. The bridge remains, or rather, remnants of it. The
Army Corp of Engineers have built and rebuilt it. The ridge is silent
now. The Serbs are probably scouting for breakfast or sleeping. Its
eerie. Sometimes you can see spot their locations by the curling white
smoke of their morning fires. But there isnt any smoke this morning.
The rains are too heavy.
As a fighting outfit, the Serbs are very independent when it comes to
the rules of fighting men. Their lines are always changing. They dont
follow the usual tactics of war. Not to mention the splinter paramilitary
groups out of Belgrade or the notoriously barbaric units from the northwest
in nearby Zagreb.
In the towns weve put down for the night as in this one, weve
seen fresh earth purported to be the mass graves of the innocents. When
one sees raised earth in the middle of nowhere, there is always a great
silence. You wonder with the rest of your platoon if there are whole
villages buried beneath your steps. Sometimes when the fighting lulls
and the rains stop, village kids flood out of their cellars and run
around the freshly dug fields, playing soccer with a piece of debris.
It is a surreal scene. These children are aware of what is happening
around them, but have grown up learning not to care.
On the roads weve marched, were passed daily by war weary
Croat soldiers on their way to Sector East in Upper Slovenia where it
is said the fighting is the fiercest. They look at us with lifeless
eyes, aware that they are not coming this way again. They have taken
custom to the writing of letters to loved ones with implicit instructions
when the inevitable happens. These are called: Letters from the
Dead. The only hope is that there will be enough left of them
to mail when the time comes. And it always does. No one is excluded.
Night falls and the mortar fire begins anew. We do not know why the
Serbs wait until darkness to war. Perhaps it is the element of surprise.
Perhaps it is psychological. Whatever the reason, the attack lasts late
into the after noon of the next day. We get a report that a body has
been found on the Croat side of the bridge. It chills us. We wonder
if its one of ours, bucking for a Duke Wayne, trying to get that
Purple Heart. We rest a little easier when we hear this is not the case.
A non-com with a night scope has positively identified the body as that
of a young woman. A civilian. It seems she has been shot trying to get
across the bridge. We cannot discern what the hell she was doing trying
to gain access to the other side. It is a no-brainer that snipers picked
her off; they pick off anything that moves.
The womans body lay there throughout last evening during the barrage.
It was illuminated with every muffled mortar overpass. The lieutenant
hopes we can get a few men out there during a lull. Meanwhile, the earsplitting
guns pound the valley lower.
Miraculously, the bridge is not the target. They seem to know were
here and for some reason avoid us. Their aim is more towards the town
of Brcko, again a Croat stronghold. The town is just southeast of us.
Its obvious they want to take out the rail lines that snake through
the encircling woods. Somehow, the Croats are still in commission all
the way up into the East Sector. This could turn out to be a critical
blunder for the Serbs, with the Croats having a remaining open supply
The though of the young womans body lying bothers me. It is a
solitary and pitiful reminder of the war. It lays there vulnerable and
unclaimed. Many of us begin to feel protective over the corpse. Some
of us even come close to insubordination over reclaiming the body. The
salvo is briefly interrupted by a period of calm but it doesnt
last long enough. It is clear to us that well have to recover
the body when the Serbs are again on the march.
A lot of us wonder what the girl, if indeed she is a girl and not a
woman, looks like. We have seen many beautiful women here, Croats, Muslim
and Serbs. They all have that exotic beauty with long, flowing thick
brunette hair, quick inquisitive eyes and sly, ready, if sad, smiles.
We know it to be a macabre game to think about the girl and wonder what
she looks like. It doesnt really matter for she is dead. She is
as dead as all the hopes and dreams that went along with whomever she
was and as dead as our hopes of getting out of here alive. No, it no
longer matters what she looked like because by the time we get to her,
her face, if it is still intact and picked clean by the ravens, will
show no trace of the beauty which it might have once bore. She is dead
and we are dead too, but only we are filled with a different kind of
death. If we are lucky, it will consume us too, but if we survive this
war, we will carry out pockets of death among the living.
The bombardment continues long into the night and subsides in the early
On the next morning, there is report of another body on the bridge along
the Serbian side. In the light of dawn it appears to be that of a young
male. Ostensibly, picked off by the same sniper.
It is not until the Serbs draw back and a momentarily peace descends
warily once more over the valley and riverside that we can get some
men down there. It has been two and a half days since the report of
the first body. Now there are two. We hear and see the Serbs far back
in the hills. We can see their fires in the early light. Again they
have changed their position. The lieutenant deems it safe to retrieve
The first body we encounter is the females. She is young, younger
than expected. The white dress she is wearing is now caked with ruddy
brown blood. The lieutenant points out that she was hit in the chest
and probably never knew what hit her. He shows us the entry wound but
none of us are interested. She has only one form of identification on
her. She is wearing a bracelet with the name Jasna in gold inlay. She
appears about sixteen.
Her body lay there, with her hand over her head, as if reaching for
something. Her face seems to register shock, disbelief. Her eyes are
frozen in terror, looking at the body of the young man in front of her.
Grasped in her hand is a piece of paper, rumored to be counterintelligence
of some sort.
The lieutenant spelled it out for us. The Croats shot the man first,
it is believed so that he could not transport the message back the other
side. Word in the valley is that the Croats are denouncing the dead
girl as a traitor, we hear. The Serbs shot the girl in retaliation,
it is said.
We come across the male. He is young, as well. Looks to be about twenty.
His hand is outstretched to her, the tips of his fingers bent, slightly
touching hers. There is an entry wound to his forehead with most of
the back of his head blown off. Still, one can define a certain contentment
in his expression; almost that of serenity.
Upon further examination of the males person effects, it is determined
he was a Serb by the name of Muris. In his pocket is found a piece of
paper. It is similar to the one the girl who lay dead in front of him
gripped. These papers are taken to HQ with great haste. Obviously one
or both of them were guilty of some form of stratagem, the lieutenant
What the papers tell us is that war is absurdity. The two pages were
deciphered and found to be personal letters. Love letters.
The Army Corps of Engineers saw to it that both lovers were buried together.
We as a unit attended the service held high on a ravine, far from the
fighting that always separated them. The Army Corps finished the bridge
and to my knowledge, the structure still stands. It waits the day when
all of Bosnia will know peace again. During the brief ceremony that
was held to commemorate the completion of the viaduct, the bridge was
dedicated to those who lost their loved ones during the armed conflict
that touched and ruined so many lives during the war and was named for
the two lovers.
© Joseph Grant Feb 2006
Joseph Grant comes to us from New York City and
his short stories have been published in over 30 literary reviews and
ezines and has written articles for various newspaper, such
as The Pasadena Star. He has published a work of verse, Indigo,
with Alpha Beat Press and is working on his first novel. Joseph
t resides in Los Angeles, CA.
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