The worried stares of people in dim doorways, in upward winding white walls, made Andy whisper: “Move!”
Crow wings expanded above hanging talons, the bird rocking down Terra cotta, claws scratching, black bird stopping dead.
Dogs cowered in shadows. Window-framed irises glinted suspiciously, the silence sapped of sedation.
Abnormality had snapped decency’s flimsy spine, courtesy flown on wings of fright.
Terra cotta radiated light, the narrow street in shadow, fluttering ravens squawking, people staring, talons hanging, wings pulled in, black birds rocking down tiles, stopping dead.
A loudspeaker cracked out speech. Hands and throats clattered up the hill.
“Albanian?” Woulther asked.
“No way,” Andy replied.
The walls became yellow; applause cracked above.
Seated chess players around a bend, their jackets and white shirts capturing Cézanne, focussing on their drama, hinted that peace might exist.
The street opened at a troop carrier in a cobblestone square. A Serbian flag covered a thirty-metre-long wall. Placards cried: Let the Russians in. We’re not criminals. I want my father back. We need doctors.
Packed people faced a man who was shouting, heads brown, black, and blonde–genetically diverse–but united in hope, the crowd facing the flag.
Wonderment swished with trepidation's hisses inside Andy’s head, friendly faces adding confusion to uncertainty.
A woman studied Andy from a rooftop, beauty's voyeurism emphasising normalcy's about-face, change's scattered parts still seeking places of permanent fall.
Soldiers, fleeing through the square in a Jeep, caused crows to sail from the thirty-metre-long wall, the birds like dark thoughts rising from a cause, their screeching complementing the wildness in their eyes.
The crowd’s cheering resembled jeering. Or am I paranoid? Andy wondered.
A teenager insisted that Andy photograph a sign listing atrocities committed against Serbs. The teenager’s eyes exuded amiable ebullience. He directed Andy to a sign held by a boy that said: My father isn’t a criminal. The boy's father had been arrested by NATO. The teenager’s warmth eliminated trepidation, strengthening the wonderment that concern had previously curtailed.
Andy’s shutter clicked. The teenager patted him on the back, confident amiability contrasting with the gloom of a dark-eyed man who said: “They massacred sixty people in a church.”
The dark-eyed man’s glazed-eyed, long-term-unemployed look indicated premature ageing, time’s grey dust tinting his black head. His resigned shoulders rose and dropped. Caterpillar eyebrows magnified the depth of his crater-eye sockets.
“People just disappeared,” he said. “Never seen again……”
The skin around his eyes looked bruised. His eyebrows and shoulders rose again with melancholic frippery. Only the Serbs were murderers. So the world said.
A woman wearing big, round glasses, like transparent wheels, remarked: “They find bodies. Some don’t know who are.”
She hit the air, indicating mutilation. Outrage flared in her moon eyes.
“Oo Chi Car,” (UCK) she said. (Kosovo Liberation Army). “Why are Western governments supporting terrorism?”
She is, Woulther thought, innocently ignorant, conflicts fuelled by blindness to big pictures. Denial exceeds our ability to learn.
A tunnel of curiosity, formed by people’s faces, faced him, the bespectacled woman at its head.
“I wish I knew,” he lied.
A lunar-skinned woman in black faced a photographer’s lens. Conflict had turned that wrinkled statue into an unlikely celebrity. A helicopter’s lawnmower rumbling made hands sway over heads in a mass hello.
“Russians,” a teenager, with a warm, disarming face, said, pointing upwards.
Curiosity radiated from the teenager's sea-blue slithers of radiance, his cheek-fires emphasising his hair's whiteness, Serbian tricolour from the neck up.
“I had Albanian friends before the war,” he said. “I’d like to know where they are. But it’s impossible for me to see them. They live in the valley.”
He smiled tearfully, his sincerity graceful like gratitude.
“Maybe,” Andy offered, “you’ll be able to see them sooner than you think.”
“That would be nice,” he replied, “but that’s impossible; it’ll be impossible for years–probably forever.”
He stared at where the mountains above the village met the sky.
“I just want to finish school,” he continued, “and get a job and make money and have a great life, just like you. But….”
A rush came up Andy’s throat.
“No teachers here?” he asked.
“No books, papers or pens. Everything is below,” he said, “in the valley. I won’t be going to school for years.”
A woman ran into the square. Delirium twisted her face, her hands waving, her shrieking making a crow fly off the wall.
“Oo Chi Car,” the dark-eyed man said, hissing out resignation.
His eyebrows rose then dropped. The grey in his black hair looked unnatural, as if a make-up artist had produced an impression of rapid ageing, that appropriate, for everyone there had been forced into early retirement–including the teenagers.
Soldiers in a Jeep drove up the road. People followed. The unpaved thoroughfare they negotiated passed by white, curving walls that fused behind a house where the Jeep stopped, women's heads touching, huddled like frightened ducklings, dress fabrics shimmering in strong light against white, as if reverberating from blows.
German soldiers got the kidnapped man’s ID. The victim’s mother’s blue eyes pictured malign visions as she slid down a wall, her throat expanding and contracting. She slumped against the wall, panting, her chest heaving like a rough sea.
Andy saw her son’s face on the ID: Black hair. Broad face. Flat cheeks. Another statistic in a millennium of hate.
The Germans asked questions dispassionately, like public servants performing perfunctory tasks. A woman wearing a floral apron–a strangely happy garment of repression–was responding calmly. She pointed at the mountains. The Albanians had descended from there.
The soldiers boarded their Jeep to look for the corpse. They climbed into where violent righteousness existed in misleading quietitude, where the world ended for the minority in the town below, the mother´s high-pitched whining making the wind howl more intensely and the sunlight gleam more bitterly upon the walls.
Andy had never heard anyone making that sound before: a shriek like a bird being harassed by a cat.
No photography, Andy thought, this already slashed enough with voyeurism’s steel, the scene etched, everlasting, by mind cameras, onto memory.
They left the women to their pain. A new story would inevitably begin elsewhere, tragedies recognised and forgotten, heightened and diminished by our need for distraction.
Woulther and Andy were invited to where stone balustrades topped two-foot high classical columns that surrounded red-and-white tablecloths on plastic tables. People were playing cards. Column shadows stretched across the floor like mental scars. People, ascending winding stairs to reach the rooftop terrace, flopped on chairs, Andy and Woulther the only two able to buy drinks.
The Serbs stared down at a world no longer theirs. Horses on green fields were kissing the earth. Orange rooftops half hid plummeting land. Peaks hazed into purple. Glinting vehicles, like shiny beetles, were crawling below, beauty masking danger, as beauty does.
Andy thought: An unsatisfied lust for visual stimuli–claustrophobic imprisonment because of politics–creates fantasies of killing; therefore these prisons must be dismantled.
A man arched his back, running his hands through his hair and wiping his face, habits born from inaction. He wandered to the balustrade at the rooftop's edge and stared, observing a lost past.
The Albanians had blocked the village to stop the Russians from entering. No way in or out for the Serbs, except in coffins, NATO using the blockade as an excuse to stop the Russians from protecting the Serbs. NATO wanted the Serbs out of Kosovo.
The man at the balustrade turned and flopped back down onto a plastic chair, his mouth tight under intense eyes, another lap in a pool of repeated time.
Cloud shadows crept over the slopes behind the town, slipping over purple-tinted rocks that shone under vapours that were puffed up like illusions against blue.
“Before the war,” the blue-eyed teenager said, “we would go up there with our girls, take wine and have fun.”
Uprising nature fights gravity, opposing forces like the warring tribes of curiosity and fear.
“But for the last two years,” Sasha continued, “no one goes out at night. People disappear. Two years in prison.”
The mountains, once symbolising freedom, were now barriers highlighting clouds’ shadows, sliding darkness drifting across a salient past.
A sleeping cat on a chicken coop’s roof across the road was surrounded by crows, the cat’s paws splayed out, the birds calm.
“It’ll be different,” Sasha said, “when the cat wakes.”
A fire's gaseous columns dissipated into blue. Featureless mountains disappeared into mauve, like events consumed by purple-history haze.
“They burn Serbian houses every day,” Sasha said.
The Serbs who used to live below had concentrated themselves under NATO protection in their relatives’ houses at the top of the hill.
The smoke that merged so tranquilly with the sky seemed dreamlike, as if it couldn’t be coming from destruction, the heat so intense, and the world so languid, that it seemed impossible that anyone could have had the enthusiasm necessary to burn down a house.
“Down there,” Sasha said, “is my house. We’re now living up here with relatives.”
His family’s house’s burnt rafters stuck through cracked tiles, a giant's fist seemingly having thumped the roof. Blackness, above missing windows, was seared onto white walls. Crows danced upon the chimney, everything gone within, a visible, wrecked past.
Woulther and Andy wanted to see the burning houses. Their appreciation unfolded in handshakes, promises of return made. The most depressed had returned to the balustrade; he waved unenthusiastically, no smile, drained of niceties.
Down the hill, Andy and Woulther encountered German soldiers who stared at them as if they were wild animals, the soldiers' heads swollen by khaki helmets, leather straps tight under their chins.
“Was machen Sie hier?” one asked.
The soldiers glared like the people below. But those German irises were lighter, their pupils black moons in azure skies. And they weren’t worried about dying.
“Visiting friends,” Andy replied.
The soldiers stared as if they were facing escapees from an asylum. They’re having the Olympic-gold-medal experience of surprise, Andy thought. These people, a soldier thought, have chosen to come here!? Hierrrrr!!
One of the soldiers rang the UN to see if Andy and Woulther’s organisation had been given permission to be in Kosovo. The soldier clutched Andy and Woulther's ID cards. He walked away to make the call. Uncertainty again shimmered inside Andy’s head. His future again seemed in doubt. The soldier talked into a satellite phone.
“Yes,” the soldier was told by the UN, “but they shouldn’t be where you are.”
The UN had banned NGO’s from helping Serbs, claiming this would put NGO workers under threat from Albanians.
The soldier spun and asked: “Was wollen Sie hier?”
Andy thought he was going to be arrested, tinsel emotion inside his head flashing again with metallic brilliance.
“I just told you,” he replied. “Are we being arrested?”
Facing, unflinching eyes stared…….The soldier had the same leering unsociability that Andy and Woulther had seen down the hill, except that the soldier was fearless.
“Are we?” Andy reiterated.
The soldier handed back their ID’s and said: “Go!”
“A Dutchman and an Englishman,” Andy said, as they fled down the hill, “harassed by Germans in the Serb section of an Albanian town in a province under UN administration called Kosovo in a country called Yugoslavia.”
“These Serbs,” Woulther said, “are in a minimum security prison, minimum from the wrong direction–getting in!–and that is a joke!”
They slipped past the descending hill's dim doorways, noisy birds bouncing above the glinting eyes of frightened watchers. The curving road limited vision to ten metres. Later, they would discover how many people were dying where they had just been and the revelation would make Andy think: Bravery is ignorance, smothered by curiosity. Ignorance, lacquered with curiosity, makes cowards act, life a war between fear and fascination; we alternate between them, like a psychological draft system.
They passed a tank that was stationed where the precipice-Sunday road began. Empty eyes stared down from the tank’s mount, Andy and Woulther appearing to be mere insects that had gone up and down a steep nest. No inquisitiveness sat in those dulled, Dutch irises that so-called peace had sapped of hawk-eyed gusto.
At least, Andy thought, the Germans had been astounded!
Back where their presence wasn’t considered to be suspicious, the tension disappeared, rising smoke luring them on. They were still too inexperienced to understand that Andy looked Albanian and that Woulther’s black clothes made him look like an ex-member of the KLA whose members wore black. Their inexperience had been so complete that obvious, pertinent details weren’t conveying deeper meanings–yet. But they didn’t have doubts about their ignorance. They weren’t clinging to cherished perceptions of Big Pictures; nor were they facing blame’s challenges, so they were open-minded.
The smoke, coiling from a house’s roof, fled from the smashed windows of architectural death. Caution halted Andy at the house’s driveway. The people in the backyard of that house may have been displeased about foreigners observing “ethnic cleansing”. And why wasn’t KFOR stopping these arsonists? Andy thought.
Five boys emerged from the house's back garden. The eldest announced: “Criminals lived here.” Sheepish defiance left muted sheens on the boys’ faces.
Andy hadn’t been expecting children. Experience obliterated a preconception.
Because the arsonists were only children, they headed for the burning house’s back garden. Propaganda had made Andy and Woulther assume that Official Burning existed, as though houses were being torched by the KLA as part of a program of Serb elimination. Propaganda reduces motives down to the political, allowing victims to believe that an organised force, epitomising the enemy’s genetic malignity, is using the victim for nefarious pleasure–and nothing else.
Vines covered a patio, smashed tiles and burnt timber littering the ground. Sunlight mottled the rumble carpet. A butterfly danced before flowers amid broken bricks.
Woulther observed shattered building materials on the floor of an annexe. Rusting, twisted metal, in smashed plaster, lay under jagged wall tops, a faucet protruding from a wall. Fractured plaster revealed cracked bricks. Burnt timber covered the floor. Fantastic shapes abounded, a picturesque sculpture of destruction.
Woulther observed the rafters under the main roof, furious orange dancing upon blackened timber. Rubble is aesthetic, he thought. At dusk in Gjakovar, you see chimney silhouettes above the varying heights of remaining walls, like elegant, Jacobean-style destruction. I wonder if rubble is an artistic reflection of the aeons of violence that constitute our history, as if our minds, adaptable for reasons of survival, need to beautify our ugly acts. There’s an exotic sense of rubble having come from another world–perhaps from the accumulated unconscious–as though its appeal is part of that process that drives us to want to see the difficult to see, that makes us want to experience the morally distinct. And I know I want to see it, because I’m in rebellion against my mother’s overprotection. And this, I believe, is why I’m here.
The house's front door hung off its hinges, skew-with, like our perceptions. Andy would have loved to have ventured inside, but the heat was furious. Fire crackled in the roof. The arsonists justified their behaviour via conveniently-created political views, their real motives covered by the glamorous sheath of magnanimous outrage.
The boys hurled tiles into the blaze. They wanted to smash a rafter to bring the roof down. Seeing that roof fall, Woulther thought, would satisfy a need to see amoral sublimity. Unconsciously, these kids, he contemplated, are playing their part in our unconscious wishes.
The boys’ laughter was healthy even if their thoughts were warped.
Woulther started speaking to a man who was resting his elbows on a concrete fence that bordered off the rubble garden from the man’s backyard. Excessive calculation coloured the man’s immobility. He had a sleek nose and brown hair, eyes searing in a steadfast glare, the apple tree behind him loaded with red-apple grenades–tasty morsels in camouflage boughs. The tree had been planted years before by a Serb. Occasionally, the Albanian would pluck fruit from the tree and eat it while lying down and contemplating the sky.
“Was he a paramilitary?” Woulther asked, referring to the owner of the burning house.
Fiery-red dots shone in greenery behind the man’s head.
“No, a thief,” the man replied.
The Albanian remained strangely calm. He seemed to have become a part of the concrete supporting him. Even his eyes were unusually stable, devoid of flickering lids.
“He took my things,” he said. “I found them in his house.”
The question of goods stolen in return was ignored.
The children cackled as the roof fell, destruction accompanied by a noise that sounded like a tree collapsing: slicing infrastructure; then the awakening of a slumbering, awkward, teeth-gritting weight that rose to a creaking crescendo, like breaking bones.
On the hill, the restless Serb’s mouth sprung open, his eyes stuck onto binoculars. The last positive thing in this turgid absurdity was going, going, gone!! in the world’s indifference as he watched the collapsing roof. Violent emptiness shook his heart. His temples squeezed as he pictured her face: She had left that house and had never returned. Those apple cheeks that had blended into mango-gold on her face, and those blue eyes, that had been electrified by her mind, were now gooooonnnneee!! Never to return! Never!
The Albanian said: “I rang him the other day.”
“How?!” Woulther asked.
“I rang his relatives. They live on the hill. He’s with them.”
“What did you say?”
“I asked him why he took my TV. He said he had been looking after it until I returned.”
The person who had picked up the telephone was looking on, his right hand covering his face. He forced his lips together to stop the whine building up in his throat from escaping. Displaying pain was self-indulgent. Everyone was suffering. No exceptions. Showing real pain was out. His head moved from side to side. His left hand made a fist that he shoved against his face. Three lines emerged from the corners of his eyes. He placed the palm of his left hand against his forehead. He remained quiet, shock fought from second to second. His uncle and the Albanian neighbour had screamed, accusing each other of murder. Marco continued forcing his lips together while staring down from the balustrade into the valley. He squeezed his eyes tight.
His uncle’s ex-neighbour said: “I tried escaping when the Serb army arrived, but my neighbour tipped the police off. He saw me climbing those mountains. I was tortured by Russians and Serbs. The Russians aren’t going to get in here.”The Russians were supposed to be protecting the Serbs under a NATO agreement. But NATO had its underhand reasons for not breaking the town's Albanian blockade.
Mystifyingly dispassionate, the Albanian’s body didn’t move. He's too tranquil for someone who should have been outraged, Woulther thought. And why did they pick him for torture? Was it that indiscriminate? And how does he know the neighbour tipped the Serbian police off?The Albanian pointed at his ex-neighbour’s house and said: “They found weapons, a bomb strapped to his door. Is that the behaviour of a normal citizen?”
Yes, Woulther thought, it is. Normal citizens prefer revenge to justice, righteousness to remorse, accusation to awareness, simplification to consideration–especially in war. And they definitely do anything to protect their self-perception. He declined to say: “Yes, it is.”
Marco continued looking down. How easy, Marco thought, it would be to just float into a world where everyone knows everyone else is innocent, just floating………The lie of free will, he pondered, eradicates consideration of unconscious motives, reinforcing pretences of rationality, permitting the casting of blame. Bekim, Bekim, Bekim, he thought. You had to pick the person whose death would cause the maximum pain to the greatest number of people. And I should have stopped her! I should have demanded she stay! I should have grabbed her and tied her down! Stupid!! You had to kill an innocent individual because of work done by others. You just had to! I feel sorry for you–and for her–and for everyone. There isn’t any intelligent control on this planet!
You’re just too obsessed for me, she had told Bekim. No one can disagree with you. You can’t listen! You’re too obsessed with your own fixed ideas about people who you’ve never even met! Don’t you know there are Serbs here who don’t like Milosevic either?
You all loved him when he took over!
We were scared! And we still are! Even more now!
Crows, landing on roofs, were oblivious of the irony that they–supposedly unintelligent creatures–could treat every house as theirs, the smart ones trapped.
Marco stared at where he would never be able to go again. You knew how everyone loved her, Bekim, he thought. I know. Her beauty crystallised inadequacies into sharp, fractured, gleaming glass, leading a man, with frustrations, in an abnormal situation, to kill. And don’t I know it.
A hissing breeze accompanied birdsong, butterflies hovering before petals, bird music in green choirs, flowers offering fruits to butterflies and bees. While humanity bickers, nature harmonisers, parallel worlds equally unconscious.
“Would you like us,” Woulther asked the Albanian, “to bring a Serb down here to speak to you?”
Bongo-drum, thumping certainty.
Bekim didn’t “want to speak to another Serb again.” The solution: “Remove every Serb from Kosovo.”
Guilt’s elimination is freedom’s privilege–the privilege of the victorious.
“I,” Bekim said, “have freedom for the first time.”
A change had created a sensation, an illusion, of liberation.
“You,” Andy asked, “will never speak to another Serb?”
“Never,” Bekim replied.
“An apology?” Woulther suggested.
“Never,” Bekim reiterated.
Another rafter crashed, the boys destroying something that symbolised contrary things to different people, their cackles cackling like the flames that crackled and writhed upon a disappearing past. Emptiness swirled, like a homeless spirit, in the marrow of Marco’s bones. It felt as if Marco’s soul was swirling upwards, out from his bone marrow, like that black smoke swirling out of her house, his mind rising and swirling away like those ugly fumes that he could see dissipating into the blue impartiality that covered the valley, swirling away into invisibility, as if those spiralling gases had never existed.
Bekim’s gaze was unwavering. His punishment, he believed, had been much greater than any sin he had committed. His sins were justified due to the extreme conditions that he claimed he had been subjected to–and how could you blame him for thinking that? Woulther thought.
“Well,” Woulther said, “thanks for talking. Enjoy freedom.”
Mango vapours were now decorating dark blue, Kosovo’s rubble silhouettes again becoming wondrous monuments to our dark history.
“Thanks,” Bekim replied.
Up the road, Andy said: “There’s no chance of the Russians getting in here.”
“He wasn’t,” Woulther replied, “as hysterical as he should’ve been.”
Marco continued staring, the others filing down the spiral staircase, Marco’s bent head silhouetted against crimson. The others knew that trying to comfort him would have been useless. The tears that despair had liberated were running down Marco’s face, pouring out of a vat of vast loss that could never be removed, regret howling within.
The woman, whose son had been “kidnapped,” was being restrained. The knife she had tried to grab, with the intention of stabbing a NATO soldier, was being kicked away by army boots as she shrieked: “Bastards! You let those terrorists loose! And you did it to get our country! Bastards!!”
Bekim re-entered his house, believing that next door’s flames were justified, many Serbs also having believed that flames had been justified.
Marco’s winter-tree hands covered his face, her lost voice booming into empty choirs that the world’s physical objects couldn’t fill, his views stripped of abstractions, race, and politics, filed down to an individual, to a specific incident, both of which he understood. She hadn’t liked Bekim; but this had had nothing to do with Bekim being Albanian. By concentrating his hatred upon her, Bekim had intentionally amplified collective hurt.
Up the road, Andy said: “The more I learn, the more ignorant I become.”
“You don’t have pretensions about understanding big pictures,” Woulther replied. “These people do.”
Slices in our vast imaginations often have the gravity of complete pies.
“Because of the Germans,” Woulther added, “we’re going to get it when we get back.”
“Probably,” Andy replied. “And now I know why.”
“The UN,” Woulther said, “is supporting this old hatred to get its hands on this place?”
“Absolutely,” Andy said. “So the violence goes on.”
BIO: Kim has worked for NGO's in Greece, Kosovo, Iraq, Palestine and Macedonia. He likes to take risks to get the experience required for writing. He likes painting, art, bull-fighting, photography and architecture, which might explain why this Australian lives in Madrid. Although he wouldn’t say no to living in a Swiss ski resort or a French chateau. 165 of his stories have been accepted by 98 different magazines.