Blood Price

by Jon Evans 

 

I. Bosnia, April 2003 

1. The Child 

The 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.

When 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.

We 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.

Everyone 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 rage.

Losing 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.

The 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.

A 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.

Three 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.

I 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 notice me.

It 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 with them.

Then 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.

The 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.

The 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 my presence.

The 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.

Now 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.

I 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.

He 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.

I 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.

The lights and sound of the pickup dwindled in the distance.

The little boy and I stared at each other.

My instinctive, overpowering, primal reaction was this: don't get involved. 

It 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.

I 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.

Easy 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 him.

Possibilities 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.

Or 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.

Maybe 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.

Whatever 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.

All 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 name was.

Then 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, even her.

The 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.

I looked back down the street. The lights of the pickup were still visible.

If 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!"