by Jon Evans
I. Bosnia, April 2003
1. The Child
taxi arrived at exactly the wrong time. Ten seconds earlier and I wouldn't
have seen the child at all. Ten seconds later and it would have been
too late to help him. I would have moved on, uninvolved, and I cannot
even imagine how different the rest of my life might have been.
I encountered the little boy it was two in the morning and I was somewhere
in the back streets of Sarajevo, completely lost, muttering incoherent
fury at my absent girlfriend. My soon-to-be-ex-girlfriend. I was just
drunk enough to admit that to myself for the first time. We were finished,
Talena and I, our two-year relationship had frayed beyond repair. This
vacation, our last desperate throw of the dice, had come up snake eyes.
She would dump me as soon as we got back to California, and I couldn't
blame her. I would have dumped me a long time ago.
had been at a party, a reunion hosted by friends Talena had not seen
in eight years, held in a lushly decorated apartment, elegant furniture
and tasteful paintings and acid jazz on the turntables, American cigarettes
and French wine, lean and beautiful people, everyone but Talena and
I decked out in designer clothes. Only the groaning plumbing and low
cracked ceiling hinted that we were in a dazed and shambling nation
still trying to recover from the most vicious civil war in all the bloody
history of Europe. Talena's friends were very good at keeping up the
façade of urbane cosmopolitan high life. For some of them I think it
was all they had.
but me was Bosnian, though many spoke good English, and I knew no one
but Talena, who was absorbed with her long-distant friends. I felt excluded.
I drank too much slivovitz, Bosnia's lethal plum brandy. I told Talena
I was leaving. She accused me of avoiding her friends. It had escalated
into a bitter fight, as our disagreements so often did these days, and
I had turned and stormed into the night, fuelled by slivovitz and wounded
myself on the steep slopes of southern Sarajevo shouldn't have been
possible. All I needed to do was to go downhill until I reached the
Miljacka River and then follow it upstream. But in my drunken emotional
haze I found myself climbing as often as I descended, somehow the winding
streets never went in quite the right direction, and every time I caught
a glimpse of the few dim lights of downtown they seemed no nearer than
before. I was beginning to wonder if I should try to turn back when
I turned yet another a corner, saw the family in the pickup, and stopped
dead with surprise.
street was typical suburban Sarajevo. A pair of street lamps shed barely
enough light to navigate by, but bright light from an open doorway illuminated
the street. A pitted and crumbling road, no sidewalk, barely wide enough
for two cars, its edges slowly eaten away by a thousand ravenous generations
of grass. Little houses of five or six rooms were arrayed on either
side, their walls, like the street itself, still pockmarked with bullet
scars from the eight-years-ended war. The plots of land between houses
contained lawns and vegetable gardens, but no trees; the war had swallowed
almost all the trees within a mile of Sarajevo, cut down and burnt for
warmth. There was a pervasive air of neglect and decay – peeling paint,
a plank fallen from a wooden fence, a cracked window, gardens that were
mostly weed, little clumps of debris – that the few new or brightly
painted houses could not dispel.
beat-up white Mitsubishi pickup was parked in front of the lit doorway.
In the bed of the pickup a dark-skinned family sat atop a ragged collection
of bags and bundles and boxes. They were so out of place they startled
me out of my self-righteous reverie and nearly into sobriety. Other
than a few NATO troops they were the only nonwhite people I had seen
in Bosnia. Two adults and four children ranging in age from high single
digits to mid-teens. I guessed they were South Asian, probably Tamil,
judging by their features and the darkness of their skin.
young white men emerged from the house, all sporting the Menacing Gangsta
look, black clothes, shaved heads, tattoos, alpha-male attitude. They
approached the pickup, obviously intending to get in and drive away,
and the dark-skinned parents, alarmed, started objecting loudly in a
strange and sonorous language. The white men hesitated and looked at
one another. The driver replied in annoyed Serbo-Croatian. After a brief,
confused pause, both groups started speaking at once. It quickly became
apparent that neither side understood a word the other was saying.
didn't know either language, but I understood that the white men insisted
on driving off, while the Tamils passionately wanted to stay. The dispute
was serious, and exacerbated by the mutual miscommunication, and as
I watched the volume and emotion escalated rapidly until both sides
were shouting. Everyone was much too engrossed in their argument to
took only a minute for matters to come to a boil. One of the white men
withdrew keys from his pocket and started towards the driver's seat.
The adult Tamils leapt to their feet, howling with anger and dismay,
obviously about to step down from the pickup and take their children
another white man, short and thickly muscled, drew a gun, a big all-metal
handgun that gleamed dully in the light, and the cacophony of angry
voices went quiet like somebody had pulled a plug.
third white man, skinny and tall, followed his companion's lead and
drew another, smaller, gun. I thought from his body language that he
was only reluctantly following along. The hulking eager gunslinger aimed
his weapon at the Tamil father and barked an order, pointing to the
bed of the pickup with his free hand. The father looked at his wife
and children. A moment passed where I wasn't sure which way things would
go. Then, slowly, unwillingly, the father sank back down to a seated
position, and his wife did the same.
two armed men got into the back of the pickup as well, their guns still
out, and motioned and shouted at the Tamils until the family was lined
up against the front of the pickup, their backs to the cab, while the
two white men sat in the back corners. The engine wheezed and groaned
and started. The father started shaking uncontrollably. The mother began
to speak breathlessly to the white men, pleading with them desperately,
waving her hands weakly, tears leaking out of her eyes, her voice so
drained of strength that I could not hear it. Their children stared
dully at me. I think the eldest, a teenage girl, may have registered
woman's pleas met with no response. The light in the house went out.
After a moment the door shut, and a fourth figure left the house and
entered the passenger side of the cab. In the newly dim light I couldn't
tell if this new arrival was a man or a woman, black or white. The side
door closed and the pickup started forward. I could hear the father
weeping over the engine's growl as they moved away.
that the house light was out I saw that the street went straight downhill,
towards the Miljacka. I shook my head and slowly started to walk, beginning
to actually think about what I had seen. Until then I had reacted like
it was entertainment, unscheduled street theatre. I had felt no fear
when the guns came out. I suppose too much slivovitz had something to
do with that, but even sober I think I would have stayed calm. I was
so much and so obviously not a part of whatever happened on and around
that Mitsubishi pickup that I couldn't imagine actually being threatened.
The setting and the people involved were too foreign, too apart from
my life, to impinge on my existence in any way.
developed a vague idea of what had happened. I knew that Bosnia, still
a basically wild and lawless country beneath the rigid order imposed
by NATO's peacekeepers, was a nexus for people smuggling. That family
was trying to get themselves into Europe, make a better life for themselves
than what they had had in Sri Lanka or wherever. This house was a transfer
station on the way. And for some reason the Tamil family really, really
hadn't wanted to leave it yet. As I walked I vaguely wished them the
best, hoped they weren't being taken someplace unspeakably awful, and
idly wondered why they had so desperately wanted to stay. I was already
categorizing the incident as a minor anecdote, something to recount
to Talena tomorrow, nothing that had anything to do with me, when I
saw the little boy.
was maybe five years old, wearing ragged blue shorts and little sneakers
with holes in them and, oddly, a torn and too-big Tupac Shakur T-shirt.
His hair was dirty and unruly, his skin so dark he looked almost African
or Aboriginal. He looked around, up and down the street, and then at
me, very confused, his mouth open.
put it all together. The family's other child. He had wandered off or
gotten lost or decided to play hide-and-seek just as the Bosnian refugee-smuggling
gangsters had come to take them somewhere else. And now the family,
unable to make their loss understood, had been dragged off at gunpoint,
to who knows where, without their youngest son.
lights and sound of the pickup dwindled in the distance.
little boy and I stared at each other.
instinctive, overpowering, primal reaction was this:
don't get involved.
wasn't like this was the first time I had witnessed something awful,
or potentially awful. I had spent a good portion of my twenties travelling
to and through various exotic Third World destinations. I had seen countless
hordes of men, women, and children whose lives were measured in suffering.
AIDS babies in Zimbabwe, mutilated beggar children in China, whole villages
with malnutrition-distended bellies in Mali. I had seen scores of skin-and-bones
familes, their bodies pockmarked with scars and boils, somehow surviving
on the streets of Calcutta, staring at wealthy passersby with eyes too
dulled by pain and hunger to even be greedy any more, and I had walked
casually past without sparing them a rupee or even a thought. This planet
is full of terrible things, and if you want to travel and see its wonders,
you have to inure yourself to its anguish.
rationalized that the world's awful suffering was not my responsibility
and as long as I didn't actually do anything to increase it I was on
solid moral ground. I told myself that I did a little good each time
I travelled, bringing in much-needed hard currency, spending money on
hostels and taxis and street-stall vendors who in turn would spend it
on their family and neighbours, my own personal trickle-down effect.
That was good enough for me. I was a traveller, not a missionary, and
I wasn't willing to turn into Mother Teresa. I gave a little money each
year to Amnesty International and Doctors Without Borders, and that
gave me a licence, I thought, some kind of licence to watch terrible
things without ever getting involved.
enough to tell yourself. Hard to tell a little boy staring at you quietly
with big betrayed eyes as his family disappears into the darkness behind
flashed through my mind. Maybe the family would get to wherever they
were going and find someone who understood them, explain what had happened,
and the pickup would return and retrieve the boy. Maybe a neighbour
would discover him in a yard and he would be adopted, Bosnians like
all the denizens of the Balkans were famous for their hospitality, and
he would grow up here, learn Serbo-Croatian, only vaguely remember his
early childhood, and one day ten years from now one of his elder sisters,
by now a doctor in London, would track him down and there would be a
tearful and joyous reunion.
maybe the neighbour would ignore him and he would be turned over to
the rough shelters and violent tutors one finds on the streets of Sarajevo.
That seemed a lot more likely. Bosnians were also famous for their racism.
I could take him back to the hostel tonight and tomorrow turn him over
to the police. What would happen next was hard to imagine, the Bosnian
government was as minimal as possible and I doubted they had procedures
in place for alien children who showed up out of nowhere. But surely
some well-meaning NGO would take him in and try to find his family,
or put him in an orphanage here, wouldn't they? Though I couldn't imagine
who. Maybe the government would deport him back to Sri Lanka, a callous
move but the world is a callous place, and few countries more so than
Bosnia. Maybe he would spend his youth back in his homeland, some rat-infested
concrete orphanage with Dickensian headmasters, a place worse than jail.
happened, I reminded myself, it wouldn't be my fault. The boy was not
my responsibility. I couldn't take him under my wing, couldn't bring
him back to the hostel. The hassle, the confusion, the paperwork, would
all become incredibly oppressive, and most of all I would violate the
Prime Directive: don't get involved.
this raced through my head in a few seconds as the little boy and I
stared at each other. I half-expected him to start crying but he somehow
maintained a kind of solemn dignity. For a moment I wondered what his
I got hold of myself, looked away from him, and began to invent a reason
to walk away from this abandoned child. Surely his family would eventually
talk someone into bringing them back to find him. If I took him with
me I might actually destroy their only chance of reunion. So the best
thing to do was to leave the boy here. QED. A solution so plausible
that if I tried very hard I would eventually be able to convince myself
of its truth. Though maybe not tomorrow. And maybe I wouldn't tell Talena
about this. It might be hard to explain to somebody else, anybody else,
boy's face started to grow brighter, and I turned around to see the
lights of a car behind us. Two headlights beneath a trapezoidal call
light. A taxi. Almost as out of place as a Tamil family in this distant
neighbourhood. I still don't know what it was doing roving Sarajevo's
late-night backstreets instead of looking for passengers downtown.
looked back down the street. The lights of the pickup were still visible.
I had stopped to think about it, I probably wouldn't have done anything.
But there was no time to think. I waved violently and the taxi stopped
and I grabbed the little boy around his waist, he was heavier and much
warmer than I expected him to be, and then we were in the taxi and I
pointed desperately at the vanishing taillights of the pickup and ordered,
"Follow! Follow that car! Now!"