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.
No one had any toys after the war. This was how almost all boys and girls in the small rural Herzegovinian town of Gacko became able to juggle four or more of whatever fruit or vegetable they had stolen from the townsfolk’s orchards and vegetable gardens that particular day. Handling two plumbs in one hand was a piece of cake for most of us, and it was much harder to digest three raw bell peppers than to juggle them while blindfolded. Tarzan would have blushed with embarrassment if he had witnessed the speed and adroitness with which Gacko’s boys and girls climbed trees and jumped from the balcony of one abandoned house to the forsaken front yard of another.
We captured frogs and different insects and made them race inside a racetrack made out of empty milk cartons and around obstacles made out of empty cans of chicken liver pate. Once we even opened and successfully ran a zoo for over a week: there was a two-tailed lizard, a dozen frogs, a water snake, an wall-eyed kitten, and a three-legged dog. There weren’t any toys to play with in early 1990’s Bosnia, but there was plenty to do and think about.
My first friend in Gacko was another immigrant boy. His name was Dejan. Just like me, Dejan had lost his father in the war, but unlike mine, his father was a brave soldier who died in combat. My father didn’t have a uniform or a gun, not even an army knife. When the five men in ski masks came to get him from our apartment he was so scared that he peed himself. I, of course, hid this fact from my new friend. What I told him was that my father, whose biceps and martial arts expertise were bigger and better than Jean-Claude Van Damme’s, and who was also a heavyweight boxing champion and a racecar driver before the war, had been captured by ten Croatian soldiers, seven of which he was able to eliminate with a variety of kicks and karate chops before the eighth snuck up behind him.
Dejan and I had many disputes over whose dad was braver and stronger, but our very first quarrel was not about the heroism of our fathers. It was about a potato beetle that we had found during one of our looting expeditions in a neighbor’s vegetable garden. One day we found a potato beetle in the front yard of our house. We made it fight against ants and race against a ladybug in the racetrack that was constructed out of an empty milk carton. When it was time for us to go home, we weren’t able to decide which one of us was the rightful owner of the slimy creature.
Baba Jela called for us as soon as our bickering reached her ears and asked us to explain what the fuss was about. We irresolutely handed the beetle to my grandmother and for a moment she observed it as it walked across her palm. Then she said, in a hoarse voice:
Boys, you have three choices
But the solution must be found without raising your voices
The first option is for one of you to withdraw
But it must be done without tears and a shivering jaw
The second option is to set it free
But with this decision the two of you will not agree
The third option also doesn’t lead to bliss
But to teach you a lesson about priorities I must do this.
As soon as she uttered the last word of her poem, Baba Jela extended her palm to us and showed us the potato beetle one last time before she slammed her other hand on top of it, flattening the little creature and staining her fingers with its insides. “Now go outside and think about whether you have something smarter to quibble about,” Baba Jela commanded and gave us an angry look.
Blog post courtesy of Milan Djurasovic, a Bosnian-American collage artist, blogger, and a book author. He currently lives and works in St. Petersburg, Russia. His educational background is in psychology and history.