Love Thy Neighbor by Peter Maass

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Excerpt One: The Journey Begins

(This is the opening section of the book.)

When you grow up in America, you don’t really learn how foul humans can smell, just as you don’t learn about the smell of death. Taking a crowded bus in the summer exposes you to unpleasant odors, but that is a transitory experience. If you turn your head or move a few steps away from an offending commuter, the smell is gone.

No amount of journeys on buses, however, can prepare you for the stink of refugees. When you enter a sports hall filled with women and children who have not washed for a month, or when you enter a cowshed filled with male prisoners who have not washed for two or three months, you smell something new, and it is terrible. You think that somebody has wrapped a discarded dishrag around your face, and that you must inhale air through it. Of course the smell is disgusting. It is the smell of filth, the smell of animals. We have an easy time thinking of animals as animals in part because they smell like animals. That’s a difference between us and them. But what are you supposed to think when you find a group of humans who smell no better than cows, even worse? It reminds you that humans are animals, with the ability to stink like pigs, and kill like wolves.

The sports hall in Split reeked of sweat, not from athletes but from refugees. The basketball floor was jammed full of Bosnians, mostly women and children who had just straggled into town. They slept on blankets, one family per. The court was too small for all of them, so a few hundred refugees were living on the bleacher seats. It was May 1992. Many of the Bosnians had not showered since the war began a month earlier, having been trapped in basements all the time or scrambling through forests. The wait for the gym showers was so long that, days after arriving in Croatia, most had not begun the first step of cleansing their bodies. Just six weeks before, some of them had been well-groomed doctors and lawyers, but now they smelled like livestock. It was only the smallest insult the war had bestowed on them.

Split is a city along the Adriatic Sea, the main port of Croatia’s Dalmatia region and the only place in Europe that makes me feel like I am in California. It is a land of abundant food, great wines and bronzed women who look like goddesses. The people are relaxed in Dalmatia, tinged more by the carefree attitude of the Italians who face them on the other side of the Adriatic, and who ruled them intermittently in the past centuries, than the dark passions of the Balkans. Even when Croatia declared independence from Yugoslavia in 1991 and fought a six-month war, Split was left virtually untouched—just a few protest marches, a small amount of bloodshed, and then it was over, leaving no physical scars. It suited my needs perfectly, a comfortable classroom where I could learn about Bosnia before making the journey inland, over the mountains and into the real world of war.

I sat down on the gym floor with Munevera, who had just arrived with her two children, a daughter of seven, a son of five. She had come on foot from Foca, a Bosnian town that’s about a six-hour drive from Split, in normal times. She had to leave Foca in the middle of the night, when attacks by bands of Serb paramilitary soldiers became too frightening, and then she had to sneak from one safe village to the next, never in a direct line, avoiding roads, walking through forests and mountains, sneaking past Serb villages, occasionally being shot at. She was on Bosnia’s underground railroad, and it was a rough ride. She could rest for no more than a day at safe villages, because other refugees were arriving and food was running out. I asked how long it took to get from Foca to Split.

“Forty-five days,” she said.

“Excuse me?”

“Forty-five days.”

“You have been walking for forty-five days?”

“Yes. But only at night. It was too dangerous to walk during the day.”

I wrote it down in my notebook but I didn’t believe it. How could she have been on the run with two children for forty-five days? During World War II people wandered for that long, even longer, but Bosnia’s war was a small-time affair, a few people killed, a few thousand refugees, it would be over in a couple of months, when the politicians would come to their senses again. She wasn’t marching from Russia to Poland. The year was 1992, not 1942, and Bosnia had smooth roads and fast cars with antilock braking systems and double-overhead cam engines. What was going on? I looked at Munevera’s feet for an answer. She was wearing a pair of blue snow boots. They had been the best thing to put over her feet when she fled into mountains still covered with snow. She had run for so long that by the time she arrived in Split, in late May, the seasons had changed. It was 72 degrees outside. I was wearing a T-shirt. And she was wearing snow boots, her only shoes.

Munevera had been “cleansed.” That word, cleansed, had not yet entered the American vocabulary. It was a learning process, and I was at the start of it. Like an infant trying to speak, you had to learn the building blocks of cleansing before you could understand its meaning. First the syllables, then the word; articles of speech, then grammar. So you had to learn about mass arrests, torture, rapes and expulsions, and you needed to understand that it was a system rather than a series of random incidents. Then you could understand what cleansing meant. It took time. You digested the patterns reluctantly rather than intuitively, because it made no sense that Europe was falling into madness again at the end of the twentieth century. When I met Munevera, I was struggling with the ABCs of atrocities.

During the interview Munevera said Muslim and Croat men were rounded up in Foca and put into a “concentration camp” on the town’s outskirts (her words, not mine). I wrote down the words and forgot about them. Concentration camps were a Nazi invention, and in 1945 we buried the machine that created them. Munevera was being hysterical. Munevera spoke of a girl who lived next door, seventeen years old, who was dragged off by Serb soldiers one day and dumped back at home a few days later, bleeding from her groin. She had been raped an unimaginable number of times, Munevera said, and she died at home. I jotted it down. Munevera was being hysterical. Attack helicopters of the Yugoslav National Army floated in the air over Foca, directing artillery shots and strafing houses below with machine-gun fire, she said. I jotted it down. Munevera was being hysterical.

“I tried to call a friend in Foca today,” Munevera said. “She stayed behind. I told her not to. When I called, a strange man answered the phone. I asked for my friend, and he said, `This is a Serb apartment now.’ “

I felt a tug at my sleeve.

“Hey, mister, come here, this man, my cousin, he had seven brothers killed.”

My visit was turning into a freak show. I couldn’t refuse to see the next exhibit, free of charge, satisfaction guaranteed. The guy with seven dead brothers. I said good-bye to Munevera and her sorrows and moved over to the next blanket. A farmer named Adem sat in the corner, hunched over, face toward the ground. His cousin, the one who lured me over, coaxed Adem to life, barely. Adem extended one of his hands, a big, muscle-bound paw of a man of the earth. I shook the hand, and it was limp. It had gone limp, like his spirit, on the night when thirty-five men from his village were rounded up by Serbs from a neighboring village and had their throats slit. He told the story in a whispered mumble. They were killed by Serbs who had been their friends, people who had helped harvest their fields the previous autumn, people with whom they shared adolescent adventures and secrets, skinny-dipping in the Drina River on hot summer days, groping with the naughty girls of the village at night. All of a sudden, seemingly without reason, they had turned into killers.

“Mister,” the cousin said. “Do you want to hear more? I know another man who ...”

I didn’t really listen to the rest. What could be done with more stories of death and thuggery, none of it reliable, most of it beyond the realm of credibility? From the sound of it, Bosnia was alight with atrocities. But who knows? The Serbs said it wasn’t. Which side do you believe? A teenage girl explained to me how one of the Muslim men in her village had been nailed to the front door of the mosque, his arms spread out, so that he was like Christ on the cross, and he was still alive at the time. “Excuse me,” I said. “He was nailed to the door?” Yes, she replied, she saw it herself, as the women of her village were marched past the mosque, being herded toward buses that would take them to train stations where they were loaded into cattle cars, yes, cattle cars, and expunged from their homeland, because it was no longer their homeland.

I needed a breath of fresh air. The stories, the smells, it was enough for one day. I stepped outside and was blinded by a bright sun that repudiated everything I heard in the dim bowels of the sports hall. When you are in pleasant Split, the wretchedness of Bosnia seems impossible, as unlikely as nighttime enveloping your neighbor’s home while your house is soaked in sunshine. If you wanted to find the truth, to find out whether men would act like animals as well as smell like them, you had to leave the sunshine and head for the darkness. There, you would learn that the refugees you felt such pity for in Split were among the luckiest Bosnians of all, because they had escaped the darkness.

Love Thy Neighbor by Peter Maass

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