Back in the USSR (Day 7)

Wednesday, July 2, 2008.

Vahidin drove a few of us to the orphanage at Vrhpolje to play with the kids there. They ranged in age from six to 15 and are quite possibly the coolest kids in the world.

We sit in a circle and with Aiden as our translator, introduce ourselves and say something we like. The Bosnian kids demanded we sing a song, the one they pick is Jingle Bells. They are too shy to sing to us.

We broke the ice a little by playing a game of Earthquake: two people make a house and one person lives in it; when “earthquake” is yelled, everyone runs crazy and regroups in new houses. None of us speaks Bosnian and only one of them, a 15 year-old girl called Amela, speaks broken English. We all get along great though.

After Earthquake, we play Frisbee and football (soccer), picking teams by jedan i va (one and two). After a touch fight, the va’s won out. Amela stole my notebook and wrote “I love you Whittny”. We’re best friends instantly. She tells me she likes my sister tattoo and she says she has three sisters and a brother. We draw pictures for each other and exchange email addresses. These kids are amazing.

Amela tries to read my notebook but after a few pages, she says “Ah, I do not understand.” (She probably just can’t read my writing.)

We do a four-way language lesson, one child to a mother in Bosnian, the mother to York in German, York to Michelle in English, then Michelle to the kids in French. Then it goes in reverse. We’re butchering all these languages. A kid named Miki asks me for Spanish lessons. I write down some common phrases with their Bosnian equivalents next to them and Miki writes each phrase out phonetically using the entirely, or rather, exclusively phonetic Bosnian alphabet.

We teach them the game Quack Diddly Oh So (similar to Down By the Banks) and they insist on playing it for the full hour before Vahidin comes back to get us, screaming Again! Again! in Bosnian each time the round is over.

At 2:00, Vahidin picks us up to go to the exhumation site at the International Center for Missing Persons. The stark warehouse is a bleak contrast to the joyful children at Vrhpolje. Through the windows, we can see garbage bags on shelves with assorted effects in them. The air inside is chilled and highly conditioned.

Two huge concrete rooms are filled wall to wall with plastic body bags. On top of each of these bags is a full or partial skeleton. Against each wall are dozens of shelves with more bones. There are 907 “cases” at this location. Of these, 360 have been identified, 547 have not. This is one of five locations. Do the math.

Death smells quite differently than I expected. It was chalk, dust, and earth, rather than decay and rot that I smelled. Some skeletons were dark, having been buried in thick, heavy dirt; some are pale as the white bags they rest upon. There is an eerie sense of macabre in the whole experience: as if this is something that should not be seen in the light of mid-afternoon, but should be stumbled upon by happenstance in the dark.

Vahidin sucks his breath in sharply at body Number 1. Already identified, Vahidin recognizes the name as one of the boys he went to high school with. If I needed a reminder that these bones once had faces, that was it.

I feel like I am invading the sanctity of a crypt. But there is nothing sacred about a skull that has been shot to shit by shrapnel or a forehead emblazoned forever with a perfectly aimed pistol shot. Some of the jaws had teeth broken or missing, with evidence of a non-natural source of the loss. Backs of skulls and foreheads are cracked, literally shattered, by a well-placed jab of a gun butt. Noses, eye sockets, jaw bones are almost all visibly broken.

At the feet of one skeleton is a sweater, full of holes and with the faintest pink stains. A rusted bullet still rests, lodged permanently, in this man’s pelvic bone.

Scores of frontal vertebrae have thin nicks from where the knife that slit their owner’s throat bounced off the bone. One skeleton has at least three visible chinks in one vertebrae.

The worst comes when I reach the northeast corner of the main room: two skeletons lay side-by-side, neither has any personal belongings that would have been found when their bodies were exhumed from the mass grave in which they were buried. These bones belong to a mother and her child, though perhaps toddler would be a more appropriate way to describe the little skeleton.

The ICMP forensic scientist explains that the unidentified child may have been as old as three, or as young as 18 months. The ribs are shattered, the leg and arm bones are missing, and the skull has two perfectly neat bullet holes through it: one on the forehead, one at the crown. The skull plates rest lightly against each other; this child’s bones hadn’t even fused together yet.

There was no nausea, like I expected. And I only cried for a minute until the shock of what I saw in that room wore off. But I’m almost certain that I’ll dream of empty skulls tonight, with caved in faces and heads. And I know now, because it seems like maybe I didn’t understand before, that death is permanent.

On our walk to dinner, we took a short cut through the park. Now known as a nice place to kiss your girlfriend at midnight, just 13 years ago, it was known for your neighbors hanging from the tree branches, strung there with no explanation by your other neighbors. Maybe that’s the reason crows sit on top of the radio tower across the street all day long.

Sanski Most is beautiful, if battered. Already I’m on familiar terms with the girl who runs a shop down the street. Omer sits next to me at dinner and says, I will miss you. I will miss him, too.

At the hotel, the bartender serves me chilled merlot, which is surprisingly delicious in the humidity. It doesn’t, however, ease the tightness in my throat.


2 Responses to “Back in the USSR (Day 7)”

  1. 1 katrina

    What a truly fascinating experience you are having right now. I don’t know what I would do in your position. I’m living vicariously through your blog, and I definitely think you should extend your trip. Take the opportunities afforded to you- but I will certainly be looking forward to your return! I miss you! And I’m with your mom on this one, you need to make this a book. I’ll pre-order enough copies to ensure you can buy some delightfully eurotrashy german high heels in neon green.

    still your abffae,

  2. 2 Mom


    This blog really touched me. I can’t even imagine what your day was like today. It is truly a shame what these people have had to live through…some of them in such a short period of time.

    You are taking in so much during your brief visit to Bosnia. Approach it, process it and accept the fact that you are doing your best at this particular time to help these people.

    I am so glad that you have been able to keep us informed of your travels and inspiration to others through your blog. Keep them coming!

    Love you and I REALLY miss you,


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