SerbsTurbe was the door to the second half of the war. A battered snake of houses at the foot of Mount Vlasic, it would usually only open one way, inwards, to disgorge refugees from the Krajina. Crossing the Muslim-Croat front lines was one matter for foreigners: if they were quiet it was manageable. Crossing the Muslim-Serb lines was something else: impossible, except in a very few Checkpoint Charlie-type areas including a road to Sarajevo. Sometimes the scene of fierce fighting, Turbe was also the trade point for body exchanges, black marketeering, and a waste-chute the Serbs used to dispose of those they continued to purge from their territory: Muslims and Croats. It was a no-go crossing point for journalists.
So when Beba asked if I would like to go across to the Serb side with him, I thought he was joking. He was a liaison officer in the government army, a Muslim. We were standing together on a crest of ground overlooking the Serb lines. A ceasefire had been organized so that the Serbs could collect some of their dead from a failed attack of the previous week. Under the terms of this deal, Beba and four of his men, wearing purple sashes over their smocks, tuned in to the Serb net on their motorolas, and stood up above the trenches at the foot of Mount Vlasic. The Serbs came out of their lines and began searching through the scrub for their dead, responding to the shouts of Beba and his men.
"No, left a bit, left a bit, are you blind? Yeah, there, see him?" they would call out. There looked to be about a dozen corpses, but the Serbs only managed to retrieve four. The rest lay in a minefield, and were abandoned to the earth.
"Now I'm going to meet them," Beba said to me," do you want to come?"
I was stunned for a minute. Muslim soldiers talking to the Serbs on radios or across trenchlines happened all the time, but to actually cross into their zone was something I had not heard of. Of course I agreed. We crammed together, a six-pack of unarmed men in a dented civilian car, and began the drive out through Turbe, past the war's scabby detritus of rubble and shredded metal to the point where the film seemed to reverse, and we crossed the "line." Driving on for a mile or two, past Serb soldiers who stood sullenly by the roadside, we reached a lone building outside which sat a group of Serb officers and men.
"Stay in the car, don't look around, and don't say or do anything until we call you over," said Beba as he and his boys disentangled themselves from the vehicle. Two minutes later he reappeared and invited me out. It was not a moment to ask questions that may have stilted the scene, more a time to be as invisible as possible and watch what unfolded. I quickly said hello to the Serbs, sat slightly to the rear of the group, and listened.
"We are still missing nine from that attack," the Serb officer said. "We can see six in the gully among the mines, are you sure you haven't got the other three?"
"There are seven in the gully, one is almost hidden behind a rock. We definitely don't have anybody prisoner from that night. You know what happened, the guys never even made it as far as our lines."
"Yeah, I know." The Serb sounded tired. He and Beba talked like two friends discussing an issue at work; there was neither malice nor coldness. It appeared that nearly all of the fighters knew one another from before the war, having either been to school together, served in the same JNA unit, or got drunk together.
"What about the five of our guys missing from last Thursday?" Beba said. "We heard some were taken alive."
"No. We've got the three from the previous week you know about, no-one else. You know how the line is there. If I hear anything I'll let you know."
"Same channel same time?"
"Same channel same time. Fuck it, let's have a drink." The conversation changed, and the men began to talk about mutual friends. How was Huso? Huso was wounded. Shit. Mladen? He left Bosnia last month, yeah, with his family, got out to Novi Sad. Lucky bastard. Beba's brother had been badly wounded a few days before, shot in the head by a Serb sniper at Turbe. The news of it seemed genuinely to upset the Serb officer.
"I am so sorry," he said, shaking his head.
"I mene" --- and me --- replied Beba.
What defined these two groups? Race? They were the same race. Culture? They were all Tito-era children. Religion? No man present had the first clue about the tenets of his own faith, be it Orthodox or Islam. They were southern Slav brothers, pitted in conflict by the rising phoenix of long-dead banners raised by men whose only wish was power, vlast, and in so doing had created a self-perpetuating cycle of fear and death that grew in Bosnia, feeding off its own evil like a malignant tumour. Rendezvous such as these were not avenues in which to see division and hatred. The war was about polarity and separation.
I was silent for the journey back. It was often easier to understand a world of Cetniks, Turks and Ustaga than this.--- From My War Gone By, I Miss It So
By Anthony Loyd
© 2000 Penguin Books