It was the incongruity of course – driving through that beautiful landscape, Grace Jones seducing the summer holiday soundscape with her version of La Vie en Rose, you so placid as your eyes glided across the evidence of war all around us. The war you knew so well, you the reluctant soldier trapped by time and fate into something you did not want but could not escape. We sat in your tiny flat later that night, drinking, sharing stories, flirting lazily with no intention of doing anything. You told me of your island, off the coast of Split. Your family had lived there on and off for centuries, your blood was in that soil and those waters. Your passion for the place corrupted now by all that you had seen and done, by all that had been done to you. We sat on your sofa and smoked and drank and laughed about the bar we had been in earlier where suddenly a couple in full formal gear had begun ballroom dancing. It was a thing here you told me.
We listened to the Clash and talked about music and your love of London and of killing and what bullets and shrapnel do to the human body. Your words ground to a halt suddenly as you placed it in my hands – that piece of shrapnel you kept with you now to remind you off what could have been and what was. It had found your friend and not you. It was your fate, narrowly escaped, and now kept close as if to ward off the next bullet, the next bomb. It wasn’t large, about the size of my fist. But as its cold jagged edges touched my skin, and my hand adjusted to its unexpected weight, saliva began to gather in my mouth and tears in my eyes. I thought I would vomit. It was so heavy, so relentlessly sharp. I could not bear the weight of its horror and almost dropped it. You watched me, and your placid reconciled eyes took in my horror. You were past that now but maybe you needed to see it in my eyes again?
Early the next morning, as I lay in my room in the villa the aid organisation I was working for had rented as a base while we picked our way through the byzantine bureaucracies of UN and Croatian authorities, a drunken passing solider back from the front would let off a round of machine gun fire. And I would learn that my fear reaction was to run towards gunfire not away from it. I knew in that moment that were this my war I would not survive. I didn’t have your instincts. Later, freshly back in Edinburgh, I would walk along Princes Street and jump as the one o’clock gun was fired. I would look into the eyes of the passing locals and tourists and wonder if they knew how easy it was to be swept into a torrent of horror. Wonder if they would run away or run to the gunfire. Wonder if they would be the killer or the killed.
Perhaps my immeasurable hatred of authorities and bureaucracies and paperwork comes from that time; endlessly prostrating myself to grey little men who whether on the ‘good’ or ‘bad’ side were united in their insistence on making you wait and wait and wait while people suffered and died as they stymied our efforts to get aid to the people of northern Bosnia. I left my patience in that place. Certainly my naive belief in the basic goodness of people was left there, in my encounters with those grey men, and with other more colourful men happily exploiting that horror for gain financial or ideological. I know my fear of bigotry, nationalism, xenophobia, already there of course, was forged into a steel as hard as that shrapnel in that time, Most dreadfully of all, it is where the seeds of a learning that would take a few years yet to “flower” were planted, the learning that good people sometimes really do stand by. Over and over again people there talked of their certainty that something terrible would happen in Srebrenica, a town near our Bosnia centre of operations. A couple years after my time there I was to turn on my radio and hear exactly that – the massacre in Srebrenica had come to pass. Today my radio is filled with memories of that terrible time, 15 years ago.
It’s a place I now see so often on my Facebook feed as friends holidaying there marvel at its beauty. Jolted back, the combination of sickness and sadness and excitement grips my stomach. What was it Yeats said – a terrible beauty is born? I have never been back, I have no desire to see that place again. But when I see those photographs of happy smiling holidaymakers, that beautiful sea behind them, I remember you. We sat by that water once and you told me of a Croatian saying – if you put a finger in the sea you are connected with the whole world. I think of you and that piece of shrapnel and your reconciled eyes as your heart accepted what your head could not. That this was inevitable and inescapable. Like the sea.