The International Writers Magazine
:In the War zone

Letters from the Dead
Joseph Grant

The 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 weren’t 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. That’s the Army for you.

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 hasn’t 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. It’s always a constant reminder that this thing isn’t over yet, even though they’ve said so numerous times in the papers.

This war’s 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 there’s anything that will decide this war, it’s 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 weren’t conscripted by gunpoint to fight their own people were either put into camps or simply vanished into the black woods that surround these provinces.

We’ve heard of stories of atrocities, too inhuman to imagine, yet these are true, the townspeople say. Whole families wiped out, rapes and mass graves. We’ve 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 doesn’t bother me like I know it should.

That is, when we get to fight. We’re 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. There’s 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 hasn’t stopped since.

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. It’s eerie. Sometimes you can see spot their locations by the curling white smoke of their morning fires. But there isn’t 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 don’t 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 we’ve put down for the night as in this one, we’ve 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 we’ve marched, we’re 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 it’s 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 woman’s 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 we’re 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. It’s 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 line.

The though of the young woman’s 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 doesn’t last long enough. It is clear to us that we’ll 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 doesn’t 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 hours.
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 bodies.
The first body we encounter is the female’s. 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 male’s 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 deduces.

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

Wedding Knot
Joseph Grant

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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