Yesterday I visited Emete, he was paralyzed, seated in a wheel chair accompanied by his wife who brought him to my office. I have known this man since the early days of my practice: he is a refugee from Bosnia, one of the Bosnian Muslims.
Over 100,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys were systematically massacred by Serbian army and paramilitary who are predominantly Christians in the heart of Europe in the mid 90s as part of a brutal campaign for ethno-religious cleansing and elimination of a people from the heart of Europe.
I was in my fellowship training in those dreadful days as we watched and read the news with horror with graphic images as the Serb forces day after day slaughtered tens and hundreds of Bosnian Muslims. But that was hardly the end of the story- women had to absorb the most brutal part of this violence.
Thousands of them were raped and made pregnant by their Serbian captors and were held as hostages. They were used as the ultimate tool of message of domination over the Muslims. There are reports that when raped women were let go, they were held until the pregnancy was at an advanced stage to ensure that they could not abort the fetus. This child, born of Serbian rape, was supposed to serve as the ultimate symbol of Serbian domination over Muslims who are really no different than them ethnically but only differed in religious belief.
After finishing my gastroenterology fellowship training in Detroit I started my practice in Houston Texas. I was surprised to have Emete as one of my first patients! I have always been an avid news consumer and a history junky, characteristics of my atavistic origin, passed down from my parents and families who had the same passion. I felt an immediate connection with him. I was not only interested in him as patient, but I was more interested in him as a human- to me he was the symbol of human survival against all odds, he was standing tall as a surviving member of a people who experienced genocide in our times.
His personal history of survival was not surprising at all: to survive he lived in the forests of Bosnia with family members for several months drinking only from snowmelt water and foraging on wild plants and tree barks. His own Serbian neighbors who were once his friends and he had social interaction with, now turned into enemies. They are the ones who pointed out the Muslims to be hunted down living among them to the Serbian Army and Paramilitaries. Sometimes even the civilian neighbors turned into brutal persecutors, butchers of innocent Muslims. And exactly this is the fate met by Emete’s family.
Emete and his family were already on high alert knowing that the killing, raping and looting had began targeting the Muslim communities all over in Bosnia.
Majority of the grown up men and boys of his village were already in hiding. They knew that one of the belief the Serbians had was that if they could eliminate all the Muslim men, there will be no one left among Muslims to procreate and support the family. The helpless women will now be only low hanging fruits for the Serbians. Thus elimination of Muslims will be attained while at the same time it will be swell of a time in enjoying and using Muslim women as womb machines to produce more Serbians.
Believing that women and little children were relatively safer at home than living in the forests exposed to the elements without any amenities of living were too much of a hardship for them, Emete and other male members of his village left the infants and their mothers at home while they escaped in the deep forests, only occasionally visiting them in the midst of nights or small hours of the mornings so they could evade the enemies.
Even before the war broke out, Serbian Christians organized regular patrol and recruited paramilitary forces from all over the territory. It was a routine for them to be driving around the neighborhoods and villages with Muslim population in open backed trucks with gun-toting and hurling insults at the Muslims.
One morning such a Serbian paramilitary patrol truck stopped right in front of Emete’s house. Eight or ten armed people jumped out of the back of the truck and entered the house simply kicking and breaking the door without any knock. They looted the house and stripped it of anything of value and loaded up the loot in their truck.
Emette’s wife, the only adult left at home with two children was kind of expecting it. She heard rumors from other villages that this is taking place regularly, she thought to herself it was a matter of time but still she was hopeful for the impossible, that perhaps she and her family might luck out and escape the worst fate.
Once her house was looted and everything was loaded in the green truck, feeling a strange sad relief she though her nightmare was over, at least no bodily harm had befallen upon them.
Before even she could take a deep breath of relief from the horror, she heard the Serbian men coming back. But she sensed right away, this time they turned more sinister. The pleasureful glee the Serbian men had during looting demonstrating that they had enjoyed the act as entertainment just few minutes ago had this time seemed to have evaporated. She sensed something more fearful than ever before in the wind.
With her fearful glance, Emete’s wife could see the young men’s stern face with deep furrows on their foreheads, their eyes seemed exuding fire, they looked more like pack of wolves in pursuit of hunt, not humans. They walked through the house, pulling down and then throwing her head cover on the floor and grabbing her by her long hair. Then they pushed the mortified little girl standing by the side of the mother on one side. Now they turned around, their gaze focused on her lap, her two shaking hands, holding her six month old boy baby on her lap tightly. Their target was clear now, even the baby seemed to have recognized it and started screaming.
They all stood for a moment and spoke among themselves in Serbian language. Then one of them, seemed to be the youngest among the Serbs wearing a camouflaged baseball hat took a step or two forward and grabbed the left arm of the baby. The other of the Serb man, who pulled out her head covering kept firm hold on the mother’s head from behind by the root of her brown hair, and grip seemed to get tighter like a self-clasping vice with passage of every second. She could not move her head and neck, not even a single inch.
Amidst of panic and screams, the two men seemed to have accomplished their job of snatching the baby in seconds. The men took the boy in the front yard where rest of the Serbian men with guns were waiting. By the time the mother freed herself with struggle and the man holding her let go of her hair, she found her child on the grassy yard, in a halo of blood stain. Before she realized and could pick him up from the ground she heard the baby gasp, a gasping the mother only heard in the past from animals slaughtered in the festivities of the village. Once she picked the baby up, he was totally limp with his slit throat stained in blood and dirt.
In her worst mourning as she held the soft body, she heard the Serbian men laughing and giggling as they re-boarded their green Zastava truck with a canvass covering the backside. But before even she could finish screaming, one of the Serb man came back and in a stern voice screamed at her, “If you don’t stop crying, we are right coming back for the girl”.
The mother, Emete’s wife had no option, but to suspend her most tragic and difficult moments to save her girl, another child of 5 years. Such is the cruelty, such is the control in ethnic cleansing and genocide. It is the tormenter’s total unquestionable control over the victim- control of life: control of tragedy, control over right to mourn, control of the total narrative.
After I heard the story the first time from Emete, all I could remember was William Faulkner whispering in my ears, “The past is never dead. It’s not even even past.” And yes, it has to be Europe, in the heart of Europe, again.