My fingers are hesitant as they glide over the keyboard. I am not documenting the witness statement of a war gone by, I am not writing to state endless moral dictums and preach compassion to a crowd I do not think even exists. I don’t write these words with pride or with humility, I write them with a resignation to the cruelty of life, the bitterness in its truth and this displacement of grief that I cannot bury, even if this grief wasn’t mine. In Europe’s backyard, years ago, there was once a war. My countrymen know nothing of it, and if they did, dismissed it in light of our own wars that seemed not to end. The wars of my country were not the thundering crash of tanks exploding in alleys, nor were they boastful declaration of machine gun fire, my country’s wars were a buzz in the air, like the background static that plagues old records of old songs. This war that Marija breathed in was nothing to her then, because she didn’t remember, she remembered what happened years later, through the stories of grief and loss repeated themselves with a numbed repetition.
I was sitting in her apartment, her books strewn over every conceivable surface. My eyes caught “The Aerodrome” by Rex Warner, a rare gem that is forgotten now, and regrettably so. I waited for her to speak, silently hoping that there was some redemption since our first meeting. The spark in her eyes is returning, and I can see that there is a forlorn, almost melancholic determination behind her pupils. I wait.
“I saw the village again”. Her voice is soft, her lips form these words as if she kisses them in the continuum of Space and Time. “I heard the voices and smelt the stench of the mass graves”, she said, her resignation sounded like a bar on a piano that we seldom notice.
Her slim shoulders were turned towards me and in the moment she lit a cigarette, I could see the glistening tears that welled in her eyes. I could trace her collar bones, jutted out in her slim frame, with my eyes and I saw that there was a vitality in her that reminded me of a sapling forcing itself through the cracks in the cement of a building. There was a resilience in her that I began to admire, a quiet stoicism that did not announce her bravery with a clarion but with the clarity of a stringed instrument.
“What did you see?”
I am not a counselor or a therapist, I am a medical student who is an Ear now, and if I was a Greek God, there would be a metaphorical litany dedicated to my presence in Marija’s apartment on a Summer evening. I am not, however a Greek God, metaphorically or otherwise.
What was “everything”? Was it the culmination of growing up in the soil where blood had flown with such recklessness that nothing wounded the innocence of her spirit? What did Marija, who was ten at the time when the mass graves were discovered, see in the presence of men and women in contamination masks? The anthropologists who came with the pathologists and the observers of the UN didn’t have any words of consolation to give to the villagers of whom Marija was a helpless part. There was a stench in the air, and it wasn’t the stench of death. The bodies didn’t smell, but there was a stench of grief that permeated the air like the ether of a disease. The women and children of the village, having spent a few years in refugee centers, returned to this ruined shadow of their simple lives. The men were dead or were missing. Only the old and infirm answered the questions of the visiting forensics team.
One by one, the mortal remains of the lost were exhumed. They were lifted from their undignified resting place, twelve bodies that were counted and matched. There were three children, and nine adults, all males. Of the sixteen missing people, twelve were accounted for. In some record book, in some filing cabinet somewhere in the world, there would be a clerk, changing the statuses of these people. No longer would there be a question mark alongside the names of twelve missing persons. There would now be a black cross, and these names would be filed into a different folder. In my mind’s eye, I could picture the clerk filing away these names, making the appropriate changes and closing the filing cabinet. What was the clerk thinking as he received the directives from the Observation team? Would he be relieved? Would he just make the changes, lock the filing cabinet and go home, unfeeling? Would he weep when he was outside a grey building with the UN’s flag on it?
A funeral procession was held, pierced by the wailing of the womenfolk. The old men who had lost their youth and now had lost their sons and nephews carried the caskets draped with the flags of their identity. The children’s bodies had to wait because the Observer team accompanying the forensics team could not get them on time. The remains of the children were laid in the bombed out courtyard of a broken house. There was no room where they could leave the children and there was one man among the Forensics team who said that he couldn’t bear to leave the children out in the cold. The women brought out some blankets and covered the bodies of the children. Mementos were laid next to them. Candles were scarce, so there was no candle-light vigil for them. The courtyard was washed with the pale moonlight of a European night. Marija remembered the burnt blankets that were wrapped around the bodies. She could still feel its texture as she handed it to her mother who didn’t speak a word that day.
I wonder why I am writing this. It is an ungodly hour and my head is tired, my eyes want the soothing embrace of sleep. My head is light from the cigarettes I smoke, my throat is comfortably warm, there is a comforting bewilderment in my sleep-deprived state. I wish there was something consequential I could say to Marija, but I found that my voice was, suddenly, absent. For a few moments the two of us sat in silence. She remembers the funeral for the three children, their burial in graves that were more dignified than a hole covered by mud stamped in by military boots. As I sit now, fatigue weighing on my eyes, I find that there is nothing that I can say. There is a numbness to my verbosity. I took Marija out for dinner that night, after which I dropped her off at her apartment. Pale moonlight washes over the streets as I return home. There is a comforting silence in my apartment, a solitude that reminds me of something I cannot quite put into words. I too can hear the mourners and for a brief second, I think I too can smell the stench of grief, but it disappears in the clouds of cigarette smoke.