The bedtime stories of my grandmother, Baba Jela, changed after the Bosnian civil war. Before the shooting began, her stories were ordinary, positive, life-affirming, with a clever hero or good-natured idiot overcoming challenges and a greedy foe soon reduced to pitiful scrub. But after a war of nearly 100,000 deaths, Baba turned her stories and lullabies dark and horrifying.
In May 1993, the small southeastern Herzegovinian town of Gacko became our new home. Baba Jela’s husband, my grandfather Lazar, was transferred to this cold and mountainous region after six months of torture in "Celovina" prison camp,where hundreds of Mostar Serbs, both men and women, had been held captive and beaten to a pulp. Along with two other Serb civilian prisoners, Bojan and Savo, my grandfather stumbled upon an empty house whose owner (a Bosnian Muslim) needed to flee Gacko, his home town, and find a place with suitable ethnic and religious homogeny.
Bojan, Savo and my grandfather converted two rooms of the abandoned house into a livable dwelling and took shelter there for an entire year, cooking grass and snacking on tree bark, before their families joined them. When the families of each of the men arrived (minus the ones who were unable to dodge grenades), there were twelve of us crammed into two small rooms. At first it was comforting: snores, burps, farts, sweat, and stickiness became cherished reminders that we were still breathing. Unfortunately, in such intimacy with other hungry and bone-weary people, one quickly sees the worst of humanity.
All but two members of our new household ate a plate of purified onion soup on the night of our arrival to Gacko. In addition to the soup, Bojan’s two teenage sons ate a slice of bread each, covered with a thin layer of chicken liver pate. To this day I have never wanted to taste anything more than that slimy mixture of chicken deliciousness. I even had a dream about it the following night, and woke up with a vinegary palate and the even sourer taste of disappointment, the following morning. Bojan’s wife Sanja noticed my salivating mouth and starved eyes, and she promptly informed us that she would have offered some pate to us if it hadn't been the last and only can of chicken pate in the house. My mother languidly shrugged her shoulders, I felt an awful urge to weep, and Baba Jela arched her hairless left eyebrow in suspicion, but no one said anything.
In the following months, all of our meals consisted of purified onion soup. In addition to hunger, our cramped living space became a big problem for the women of the house who were tired of wrapping blankets around their bodies every time they needed to put on clean clothes. Since there was another empty room on the same floor (it needed to be on the same floor because there was only one wood burning stove for all of us) we decided to make use of it. Armed with a broom, I joined my mother, Sanja, and Baba Jela as they swept the disintegrating plank floor and scrubbed the damaged walls of what would become Bojan’s family’s room. The only furniture left in the room was a dingy armchair and a dusty picture of former Yugoslavian socialist leader Josip Broz Tito.
After about an hour of scrubbing and sweeping, a moment of terrible misfortune occurred. As Baba Jela tried to move the armchair so that she could sweep under it, something hard hit the floor.
“Don’t move the chair!” Sanja shouted, but it was too late. Three cans of chicken liver pate had already slid from under the armchair cushion to land in front of Baba Jela’s feet.
The secret of why our family members were losing weight so much faster than Sanja’s family was finally revealed. Sanja quickly bent over, picked up a can and extended it toward Baba Jela while grabbing her wrist with the other hand.
“Take it,” she told the old woman who folded her arms and mercilessly whipped her with a sideways gaze that Clint Eastwood could learn plenty from. Baba Jela sighed and shook her head for a moment before walking out of the room. Later that day Baba told my mother that Sanja’s hand felt icy, like the hand of a dead woman.
Two days after the incident, just before bedtime, my sister and I heard Baba Jela crooning the following lullaby:
Five sisters lived in one house
All but one was meeker than a mouse
Together they worked, and together they played
And everything they had, four of them shared
One of them was selfish, she wasn’t nice
And for her greed she paid a price
Five chicken eggs on one occasion she found
Without telling her sisters all five she swiftly downed
So long as her belly was allayed and replete
She didn’t care that her sisters had nothing to eat
So listen up carefully and don’t be surprised
When you hear of the punishment that God for her devised
Not so long after her stomach started to ache
She realized that her selfishness was a mistake
Her prayers and her remorse will no longer avail
Because a hatching chick her liver will soon impale
Through the girl’s bellybutton the chick will appear
For the sister they’ll cry but for the meat they’ll cheer.
Blog post courtesy of Milan Djurasovic, a Bosnian American collage artist, blogger, and book author. He currently lives and works in St. Petersburg, Russia. His educational background is in psychology and history.