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. At the end, the world would turn out rosy and just, and taking part in it made sense. But after a war of nearly 100,000 deaths, millions of displaced bodies and souls, and decay peering out of every crevice, such propriety seemed unnatural. So Baba Jela decided to get rid of it. While other elderly men and women decided to end their own lives after realizing that nothing would ever again be the way it was before the war, Baba turned her stories and lullabies dark and horrifying, her own way of refusing to play along with uncontrollable circumstances.
The very first time I heard Baba Jela utter something that she wasn’t supposed to say was during the bus ride that took us away from mutilated Mostar, our native town in Bosnia that to this day remains mutilated. At the time I was only five years old, too young to realize that leaving one’s house, a jailed husband, a missing son, 63 years of conducting one’s life in a particular way, and a garden full of plants and flowers, especially her hybrid tea rose bushes which had started to bloom at the same time the foundation for the family house was laid out in 1961, could fill Baba’s heart with so much boiling spite. Her mind was so clouded with tormenting resentment that she deliberately chose to hand over bits of her gloom to everyone around her. Baba Jela didn’t spare anyone, not even her grandchildren.
The bus stopped in the sunny town of Stolac, famous for its speedy Bregava river and many kinds of songbirds. Unfortunately, none of us saw any of them because, together with about twenty other Serbs of different ages and vitalities, we were sitting in a grubby bus, waiting five hours to be exchanged for a handful of Croatian prisoners. After drawing a battlefield in a dusty window with my index finger brought on a sneezing fit, I decided to look for entertainment elsewhere. I walked over to where Baba Jela was sitting and asked her to tell me one of her innumerable poems. Baba reluctantly agreed and then warned me that I wasn’t going to like what I was about to hear. Dismissing her warning as a joke, I listlessly nodded my head and Baba began:
“Grandmother wants to sow flour
But her flour a dog devoured.
Where did the dog stray?
It disappeared in the hay.
Where is the hay now?
It’s in the belly of our biggest cow.
Where has the cow gone?
Our people ate it before the dawn.
Where do our people hide?
In their graves because they all have DIED!”
Baba’s thin lips jerked and tightened with every bitter word that came out of her mouth. The last word of Baba’s poem would have given heart tremors to Gautama Buddha. And the stomps of her feet made me run back to my mother’s lap.
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.
Image by Gaston Lisak