Jasmina uncovered her sagging brown breast and offered it to the crying hungry child on her knee. The tiny undernourished child latched onto the empty breast but try as it might it could not find the nourishment it craved. As a feeling of despair engulfed her Jasmina rubbed her eyes with a grime encrusted hand. Beside her, on the concrete steps, in front of the deserted park, sat a man smoking the stub of a cigarette. He too was dirty and unkempt. His clothes were so caked with dirt that they had long since lost their original colour. His feet were encased in boots wrapped crudely in sack. The soles had been worn away. His wife’s woman’s feet were wrapped roughly in filthy rags.
Even from across the street the smell of their unwashed bodies was offensive. As the woman scratched her dull straw-like hair to try to ease the itching, her head came alive with crawling insects which were also evident in the man’s long hair and beard.
Yet, it was more than the grimy appearance of the couple which attracted attention to them; it was their intense air of despair. It was visible on their mud-brown faces and in their miserable eyes.
Immediately before the war which began in 1991, Pasha, an only child had married Jasmina, in a small village south of Sarajevo. They were both nineteen and had known each other since childhood. They attended the same school and frequented the same mosque.
Then, Pasha had been a tall, good-looking young man despite his prominent hooked nose. Jasmina too was attractive with long dark hair and compelling almond-shaped eyes under heavy black brows. On her wedding day her face was so pale and unblemished that it looked like polished marble.
After their wedding the couple moved into a small room at the back of Ahmed Pasha’s parent’s house on the small farm where Pasha helped his father Ahmed look after an orchard of apple trees, a large vegetable garden and beehives that produced a plentiful quantity of dark treacle-like honey. Pasha’s mother Emina ran the road side stall where they sold their produce. They were not a well-off family, but they got by with their thrifty ways.
The entire family became aware that war had broken out in the neighbouring country of Croatia in 1991 when they listened to the radio news. It was the following year when they heard that Serbian soldiers were moving south from their main army base in Belgrade. Pasha and his father discussed what they needed do to make themselves safe if the soldiers decided to attack their village. By now fighting had already begun in Sarajevo which was only thirty kilometres away. Pasha wanted to leave and avoid confrontation, but Ahmed insisted that he and Emina would stay no matter what happened. He said there was no way anyone was going to drive him from his home or the land surrounding it which had been handed down to him through the generations of his family. It was the only life he had ever known and nothing that Pasha said to him could persuade him to change his mind.
‘Where would we go?’ Ahmed said to Pasha repeatedly.
‘To the city. We could stay with your brother. You know we’re always welcome there,’ Pasha said on more than one occasion.
‘If they come for me I’ll shoot them,’ said Ahmed pointing to his ancient hunting rifle hanging on the rack in the kitchen.
As it turned out they were given no warning that the Serbian soldiers had already reached the outskirts of their village. The first they knew of it was when the soldiers burst through their front door in the middle of the night. Pasha’s father, who had begun sleeping with his gun beside the bed, emerged quickly from the bedroom brandishing his ancient weapon, but he was no match for the expert intruders. They shot him instantly, and as soon as his wife appeared they shot her too.
Fortunately, Pasha had not been asleep when the soldiers broke in to the house. He was not in bed let alone undressed. He’d had a premonition that something was not right in the village and as soon as he heard the first shot he plucked his sleeping wife from her bed, clamped his hand over her mouth and escaped stealthily through the back door. Why the soldiers didn’t come after the two of them he never knew. From the shelter of the trees they watched as the interior of the stone house was set ablaze. Pasha wanted to go back and rescue his parents but Jasmina restrained him. She knew that if he did then he too would die. If he wasn’t shot then he would be burnt to death trying to retrieve the bodies of Ahmed and Emina. There was nothing they could do. They sat and held each other as they cried silent heart-breaking tears. For the rest of the night the sky was lit up with the unnatural glow from all the fires of the burning houses in the village. It was so bright that it was almost like daylight.
The fire in their house continued to blaze until the early hours of the morning and as dawn started to break Jasmina could no longer stop Pasha from creeping to the edge of the wooded area to look. He returned very quickly.
‘The bastards are laying land mines. Now there is no chance for us to go back. If we do, we’ll be killed for certain.’ Not knowing what else to do they ventured deeper into the forest. Jasmina foraged for berries while Pasha sat down on a fallen log and sobbed. He could not come to grips with what had happened. It was beyond his comprehension. Sometime later when he had run out of tears he spoke.
‘We must head for Sarajevo before entry to the city is cut off. The army is heading south so it makes sense for us to head in the opposite direction. We will go to my uncle’s place.’
By the time they reached the city after an arduous journey, they were hungry and exhausted, and the trip had been in vain. Pasha’s uncle’s house had been destroyed. It was a blackened burnt-out shell.
It was then when Pasha lost heart. Jasmina looked at him and saw that the light in his eyes had gone out. She held him, but it was too late, he had turned to stone. Fear was welling up inside her, but it did not hit her fully until Pasha began repeating over and over,
‘They have taken my family, my house and my land so they might as well take me.’ She hoped that in time he would recover, but he did not.
For the next four years during the siege of Sarajevo they drifted from shelter to shelter depending on their ration coupons and handouts from people with generous hearts who were willing to share their meagre supplies of food and clothing. Twice during this time Jasmina became pregnant, but both times she miscarried. By the time the war was over Jasmina and Pasha were unrecognisable as the two handsome young people who had once begun married life together in a small quiet village outside Sarajevo.
When peace came Jasmina tried to believe things would return to normal. She thought often about having a new happy life. On numerous occasions she talked to Pasha, trying to support and inspire him, but he wouldn’t listen or perhaps he could not hear. His eyes remained dead. He could not find hope.
As the years drifted by slowly and painfully, Jasmina thought about leaving Pasha. But she knew she could not. She had fallen in love with him when she was fourteen and despite his state of mind she still loved him. They spent their days begging on the streets, scavenging in rubbish bins, sleeping in parks and under bridges or in derelict buildings. Miraculously Jasmina had given birth to a baby girl just over a year ago. Although she was starving, this baby was alive. These days it was becoming more and more difficult to find food and begging seldom yielded enough to buy sufficient food to feed all three of them.
Three days had passed since Pasha had said he was going in search of food. Jasmina had had to force him to go. He was particularly down now and sometimes he didn’t seem to hear her when she spoke to him. On the fourth day she wondered what she’d do if he didn’t come back. She could not survive if Pasha didn’t find food for her and the baby. Jasmina rocked herself and her baby backwards and forwards on the cold stone step as her eyes searched the street endlessly hoping for sight of her husband. Now she was almost convinced that Pasha was not coming back. He had been gone for too long. She let out a ragged sigh as she looked down at the child in her arms. She had stopped wriggling, yet she was not asleep. Her huge eyes were fixed with an unblinking stare on something behind Jasmina. Puzzled as to what had caught the baby’s attention, Jasmina turned. Pasha was standing behind her with a sack over his shoulder. His eyes were locked into his daughter’s eyes and on his face was the beginning of a smile.
‘I’ve bought bread and soup and arranged for us to move into a refuge centre this afternoon,’ he said as he lowered his sack to the ground. Jasmina looked at the smile struggling to shine through Pasha’s troubled eyes and felt a gentle warmth flow through her soul — like the soup she was yet to taste. Hope had returned at last.
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