“Safe” Spaces

by Natasha O'Brien

“Safe” Spaces

‘But Mummy…’ Lukas tugged at my sleeve, protesting. ‘It’s not bedtime, look!’ He pointed out the window at the sunlit peaks topping over the valley. ‘The sun’s still up!’

‘That’s because the sun stays up later in the summer.’ I guided Lukas towards his small bed in the corner of our living room. He usually slept in his own bedroom, but I felt safer if we all stayed together. Two nights ago we moved all of our beds into the most central room in the house so I could keep my family close to me.

‘Why does the sun get to stay up later but I don’t?’

‘Because the sun is much older than you are.’

Lukas sat resolute with his arms folded across his chest as I pulled the bedsheet up towards his shoulders. ‘It’s not fair,’ he sputtered. ‘Aurelia doesn’t have to go to bed yet.’

‘Aurelia is much older than you, too.’

Aurelia had been planned. She was the result of many months of dieting and counting the days between my cycles to pin down the best chance of falling pregnant. Lukas was a happy accident ten years later, a surprise gift to help me weather my mother's sudden passing.

‘It’s still not fair.’ Despite Lukas’s determination to argue this injustice, sleep soon overwhelmed him and he rubbed his eyes and asked softly if I would read him a story. Warmth bubbled up inside me as I reached for his favourite book. Reading to my five-year-old was about the only chance I had to escape to another world with him, to pretend for a moment that the one we were living in wasn’t falling apart, and that everything would be fine in the morning when we could tackle the day together after a good night’s sleep.

***

The vile taste of my cigarette was almost enough to make me quit, if only my brain didn’t crave the nicotine and, anyway, the simple act of holding a cigarette between my fingers was just about enough to keep my body from giving away the state of my nerves. I took another rancid drag and looked down the road again for any sign of my husband.

Three days ago the shaky reality we’d chosen to believe in burst as missiles rained down from the hills onto the town everyone thought was “safe”. We couldn’t see much of the bombing from our house, but we could hear it. We could feel the rumble of homes shattering beneath our feet, and it wasn’t long before news of the Serb offensive reached the front door of every family in Srebrenica.

After the first explosions I’d wanted to believe that my husband’s panicking was simply an overreaction to some kind of accident: a gas leak, maybe. But as our neighbour told us the news, I watched the black tendrils of fear and disappointment slither across my husband’s face. In that moment I was forced to accept that our hope of immunity from this war had finally eluded us. I held my heart and swallowed back my own fears as I watched a single tear slide down Bakir’s cheek. The bombing was no mistake.

Bakir’s military training made him a vital asset in the town’s defence, and from the day the bombing started Srebrenica had seen more of him than his own family did. Every morning he would leave before dawn, and I wouldn’t hear from him until he stumbled in long after dark. But this morning was different. It was already light when I awoke to find Bakir standing in front of the window gazing out at the awakening world before him. His eyes were glazed, and though he stood not two feet before me, I could see that his mind was lost in another world.

‘Bakir?’ I whispered. I didn’t want to wake the children. ‘Husband, share your thoughts with me. Your troubles are mine as well. Let me help you carry them.’

Bakir leaned gently towards me. I knew that I was beginning to reel him in from whatever world he was trapped in, so I wrapped my arms around him to tighten my grip.

‘I know a man…’ he said so softly that I wondered if he meant to say anything at all. ‘He’s not an honest man, but he owes me a favour, so I’ll have to trust him.’

I sensed that my husband was contemplating something desperate and begged him to share his secret with me, but he simply started towards the door and told me to stay in the house all day and not to leave until he came home.

‘And when will that be?’

Bakir shouted, ‘I don’t know!’ The colour in his face reddened and then turned to white. I could hear the rustling of sheets behind me.

‘I don’t know.’ He whispered. ‘But whenever it is, I need to know that you’ll be here. Ready.’

‘Ready for what?’

‘Just make sure you’re all here when I get home, Sara.’

The wife of a retired army colonel knows when she’s been given orders she cannot disobey.

***

‘He’s been gone too long, Mama,’ Aurelia said as she joined me in the watch for her father. I put my hand on her shoulder and felt the nervous shudder in her breath. ‘He should have been home by now.’ She was grappling with the possibility that her father had been injured, captured or even killed, and for every moment that Bakir was missing, her doubt consumed more and more of whatever hope she had been holding onto of his return.

‘Where is your faith?’ I asked as I took another repulsive drag of my cigarette. ‘He’ll be home soon. Now, go to sleep, Aurelia. When you wake up we’ll both know one way or another where he is.’

I knew that if I had to wonder whether I believed my own words then they were certainly no comfort to her. I watched in pain as Aurelia crossed her arms over her chest and pulled her body inward. She was trying to protect herself from the possibility that she might end the night a parent short.

In the quiet that settled after dusk, whispers began to gather in the recesses of my mind, moving like waves lapping against a shore. Where are you? I scanned the horizon again for any sign of Bakir, and when he still did not appear the whispers grew louder, more menacing. What if you never come home? The thought was too nauseating to consider, but my mind chewed on it anyway, turning it over like gritted leather in my mouth. How would we survive without him? Bakir was the love of my life, but, more practically, I didn’t have an income and we had little savings. How would I provide for my children without him? And then the darkest and most dangerous thought swelled up from beneath the waves. What if none of us survive? I stomped the embers out from the charred end of my cigarette and reasoned that such a fate would never become our reality.

The last few nights as darkness descended on the valley and the bombing slowed, many families fled their homes for the woods, hoping that the cover of nightfall would shield them from capture. I’d asked Bakir after the first night of bombings whether we should flee too, but he thought it seemed premature. He’d been so confident that the United Nations would send help to keep the Serbs out of the city. As I turned to go back inside, I could see a faint orange glow in the sky to the south, and I didn’t need the benefit of politics or a military mind to know that it was a signal to the people of Srebrenica that no help would come now. We were very much on our own.

‘Sara!’

I recognised Ahmed’s voice immediately. He was Bakir’s best friend and our neighbour. Even in the darkness I could see that his face was pale and covered in sweat. His hands were shaking. I wondered whether I should offer him a cigarette.

‘Sara, we’re leaving.’

I looked past Ahmed and saw his wife climbing into their car, her baby boy wrapped tightly in her arms.

‘There’s room for you to come with us.’

‘But Bakir isn’t back yet.’

Ahmed’s face tightened as though a great pain had shot through his body. ‘I know,’ he began. ‘I was with Bakir today during the bombing. Our building was hit. I got out, but I haven’t seen Bakir. No one knows where he is.’

A haunting vision slithered through my mind. Bakir was covered in blood and dirt. I watched as he limped into our house, expecting to find his wife and children asleep in their beds. Instead he found empty beds, freshly made. I heard him call our names. He rushed through the house, desperate to find us, checking every room, every cupboard, behind every door. Finally, his face fell into his hands and he began to sob. He wept because I had left him behind. I couldn’t do that to my husband.

‘Sara!’ Ahmed’s voice was strained and frustrated. ‘We need to leave now!’

‘I can’t!’

Ahmed’s wife stepped out of their car and pointed an accusatory finger at me. ‘Think about Aurelia!’ She hissed. ‘Think about what they’ll do to her!’

We’d heard sickening rumours about what both armies were doing to the women left behind in war-ridden towns and villages. Until now it had all seemed so far away from us, tucked away in our little valley. But with the distant orange glow burning in the back of my mind I began to feel unsteady, like a house built on stilts of ice on a summer’s day. But I couldn’t disobey my husband. I had to believe that he had a plan for us.

‘We can’t leave without Bakir!’

Ahmed’s wife could have pleaded with me. She could have tried to persuade me that they should take my children to safety and leave me to wait for Bakir, but she didn’t. She simply nodded, understanding that a woman in love with her husband sometimes has no choice but to trust him, even when logic tells her to do otherwise.

Ahmed and his wife climbed into their car and I listened to the grumble of diesel as the engine chugged into life. I reasoned that if Bakir had died in the bombing then I would have felt it. If he was dead, then leaving with our neighbour would have felt like the right thing to do, as though his spirit was willing me to do it. But I knew that he was still alive, and I took a deep breath to settle my nauseated stomach as Ahmed’s car rounded the corner and disappeared out of sight.

The air inside our house was tight and heavy, tasting of salt and dust. Aurelia had crawled into bed with her brother, and so I settled myself into her bed and clutched her pillow close to me, breathing deep the flowery scent of her shampoo. The house was dark, and after a day of thundering shells in the distance, I was relieved to hear nothing but the soft, willowy breath of my two children.

I remember the moment I first became a mother. What surprised me most wasn’t the excitement of finally holding my baby girl, but the curiosity I felt as I looked into her hungry eyes and wondered who this person was that the nurse had just handed to me. Who would she grow up to be? Would she be a good friend, a good daughter, a good Muslim? For hours my mind was lost in the possibility of her, and after a while I understood that it is more than just love that makes a mother so protective of her child, but also the fear of never seeing those possibilities come to pass. I turned over in the bed and gazed at Lukas and Aurelia. I watched their chests slowly rise and fall as a blush-white light illuminated their skin. I wondered about all that they might be, and all that might be taken from them if the Serb army reached our house before their father did.

Bakir had been convinced that if the city fell then the many Muslim families within its borders would face imprisonment, maybe even massacre. ‘When a group of people are full of hate towards another’, Bakir whispered one night, staring at the rim of his teacup, ‘and when that group of people gains dominion over the other, human nature will inevitably out.’ He drank the last of his tea and took a deep breath before finishing. ‘Such scenarios rarely end without bloodshed.’

I hadn’t noticed that the swirling thoughts in my mind had turned to dreams until I was torn from them by the chug of a burly diesel engine and voices shouting outside. I wiped sleep from my eyes as the front door burst open. I held my breath and waited to see how many soldiers had been sent to capture a defenceless mother and her children. But as I fell to my knees and prepared to beg for mercy, I noticed that the man in front of me wore familiar shoes and that the hem of his jeans had recently been mended with orange thread instead of blue, because that’s all I had at the time.

‘Bakir!’ I jumped up and wrapped my arms around his neck. I thought my heart might beat right out of my chest, and I breathed deep the scent of him, committing him once more to memory.

‘We don’t have much time.’ Bakir’s breath was heavy with exhaustion. ‘We’re leaving.’

‘Where will we go?’ I wrapped a shawl around my shoulders and began to ask another question, but Bakir stopped me by pressing a large bag into my chest.

‘Fill this with everything you can. Practical things: food, clothes, whatever’s useful.’

‘How long will we be gone?’

Bakir had a terrible habit of ignoring me whenever his mind was preoccupied with something he thought to be more important. As he started to wake Aurelia, I shouted, ‘Bakir! Stop!’ Sometimes he needed to be reminded that he wasn’t in the army anymore, shouting orders to his subordinates. ‘I am your wife, Bakir! You will answer me!’

Bakir softened. ‘I’m sorry,’ he said, and then the urgency crept back into his voice. ‘The valley has fallen.’

‘I know.’

‘We have to leave now or we may never get chance.’

‘I know. But how long for?’

He took a second to look around at the home we’d built together. ‘We may never come back.’

Bakir woke the children and started to get them dressed as I set about packing the bag he had given to me. I thought about the life we’d had here, not just in our house but in the city itself. I opened the first of my kitchen cupboards. It was bare, except for a couple of tins of tomatoes and a tin of tuna. I thought about the people we’d known all our lives, familiar faces which had, at one point, all been so friendly, but slowly, as the war eroded the masks we’d worn for each other and the brutality of human nature reared its ugly form, so many of those faces became distorted.

‘Shampoo?’ I asked out loud. Then I grabbed tampons from the cupboard in the bathroom. Essentials. I re-lived the shame I’d felt when a Serb butcher refused me service for the first time in a decade, simply because I was Bosniak Muslim. The wardrobes now. Track bottoms. Warm jumpers. Plenty of nickers. The red polka dot dress I wore when Lukas came like a freight train into this world, refusing to wait until I’d gotten to the safety of the hospital. My heart broke again at the memory of the bullying my little boy experienced when a few children acted out their parents’ prejudices on the playground. Mustn’t forget my mother’s pearl earrings.

I took a moment to sit down in the corner of my bedroom. So many memories poured through my mind: memories of peace and of war. I had no choice but to accept that the home I had always known had finally succumbed to the greedy grasp of hate. Hate: that which is nothing more than an idea, but when wielded by too many, becomes matter strong enough to tear nations and families apart.

‘We have to leave soon,’ Bakir said as I walked back into the lounge. ‘Are you finished packing?’

‘Who is taking us?’ I was aware of the Land Rover in our drive, but couldn’t think of anyone we knew who owned one.

Bakir told Lukas and Aurelia to use the toilet before we left.

‘I’ll help him.’ Aurelia marched Lukas back down the hallway. Once they were out of the room, Bakir walked over to me and put his hands on my shoulders.

‘I met Duran during my army days.’

‘But who is he?’

‘He’s a smuggler. He used to bring us cheap liquor and cigarettes.’

There was only one reason my husband would enlist a smuggler to help us escape the city. ‘And now he smuggles people, too?’

Bakir’s face squinted with shame and instantly I understood why he’d said that the man he was going to see wasn’t “honourable”. Duran was indeed a people smuggler, but rather than smuggling people out of bad situations, he usually smuggled people – likely women – into them. My stomach twisted and I had to sit down. I wondered whether I had made a mistake by not leaving with Ahmed and his wife after all.

‘He owes me his life, and I trust him,’ Bakir reasoned, but his assurances fell flat on me. I didn’t like the arrangement, especially with my teenage daughter in tow, but I took a deep breath and accepted that this was one of those moments in life where our success depended on us engaging in a necessary evil.

‘I hope you know what you’re doing.’ I rinsed my mouth out at the sink to rid myself of the foul taste that had built up on my tongue.

***

The ride up the valley through the forest was bumpy and I held onto my children tightly, using the extra weight their pregnancies had left me with to cushion them. We were stopped four times by the rough terrain, and each time Aurelia and I listened to the woods for shouting in a language we couldn’t quite recognise. Thankfully, we never heard anything more than the creeping of foxes searching for their next meal.

We finally reached a road at the edge of the valley at dawn. Though our journey up the mountainside had been tiring, I still felt uneasy about being back on a road. We carried on quietly for about an hour, but then we rounded a corner and I watched the colour drain from my husband’s face. A Serb checkpoint blocked the road in front of us, and there was nowhere else to go.

‘Don’t worry. I was expecting this. I have an arrangement with the men here.’ It was the first time I’d heard Duran speak, and I was surprised by the gentle, velvety tone of his voice, since it certainly didn’t match the rough, scarred exterior I had been studying all night.

I hated the thought of what this “arrangement” might have been, but Duran seemed confident enough as we pulled up to the checkpoint and a Serb solider approached him. They spoke for a moment in a dialect I couldn’t quite understand, and Duran offered the soldier a pack of expensive cigarettes to sweeten the deal. After a moment they both relaxed and the soldier signalled that his men could go back inside their tent to avoid the rain.

Bakir and I glanced at each other. So far everything was going smoothly, but I could sense that he shared my fear that it might all change very quickly. That feeling grew stronger, hotter, to the point where I felt as though I were boiling from within as the back windows rolled down and we were exposed to the soldier’s view. The soldier wanted to check there was no one else hiding with us in the back, but I knew he simply wanted a chance to intimidate us. I clutched Lukas and Aurelia close to me and stared at Bakir, willing him to do something to stop this terrifying show. The soldier looked through the open window at my son, then at me, and then his eyes rested on Aurelia. I put my arm in front of her, hoping that the soldier would understand that she was mine and not to be touched. He walked over to Aurelia’s side of the car and rested his arms on the window next to her and smiled. He took a moment to stare at her newly-formed chest before saying something to Duran which made him burst with anger. I didn’t need to speak their language to understand. I already knew what the soldiers’ price would be to let us pass.

Aurelia had also understood the soldier’s demands before Duran’s cautious translation, but she was not trembling with fear like me or seething with anger like her father.

‘It’s okay papa.’ Aurelia sat forward and placed her hand on her father’s shoulder and repeated herself. She understood that sacrificing her honour might be the only way to secure her family’s safe passage to freedom, and to her that was a sacrifice worth making.

‘No,’ I argued as I unbuckled my seat belt. ‘What about me? Have me instead!’ I ignored the wide-eyed anger that radiated towards me as my husband gasped and then ordered both Aurelia and me to sit still. I was determined to go in place of my daughter. I would heal. She would not.

‘He wants the girl…’ Duran mumbled, the weight of his own shame making it difficult for him to speak. For just a split-second, I stopped myself to wonder whether he’d felt like this before when he’d surrendered other helpless women to monsters.

‘Aurelia, you can’t!’ I was trembling and hardly able to speak over the wad of guilt that had built in my throat, but she was already getting out of the car. She fought to release herself from my grip and looked back at me as if to say it’s okay mama, I am strong enough for this. Every instinct I had begged me not to let go of her, but her will had always been stronger than mine and I felt empty and useless as her fingers slipped from my grasp.

Aurelia and the soldier spoke different languages, but she hoped that something would be conveyed in the firmness of her voice as she set her own terms. ‘One hour.’ She insisted.

Something was clearly understood between them. The soldier flicked his now spent cigarette into the wind and nodded at her before pointing towards the tent. I watched helpless as my little girl walked with him, her clenched fists tucked close to her sides as she was guided away from the car. Like the sudden pull of morning sickness my emotions rose from the depth of my stomach without warning and I screamed, ‘Bakir! Do something!’ But Bakir was already out of the car and had called for them to stop. I could see something black and metal-like protruding from his hand. I leant forward for a better look and watched in horror as he raised a hand gun and aimed for the soldier.

‘Bakir! No!’

The first thing I saw when the shot rang out was Bakir’s eyes wide with rage and terror. I looked out towards Aurelia and felt the ground fall from beneath me when I saw that the soldier was unharmed. He turned to face the man who meant to kill him. Bakir aimed again, but before he could fire the soldier had already raised his rifle and shot back. I knew that I had been widowed even before the warm spray of Bakir’s blood spattered across my face.

Aurelia’s shrill scream gave voice to my own anguish, and I felt disjointed as I watched her run towards her father’s body, only to be grabbed by the hair and dragged back towards the soldier’s tent, kicking, screaming, crying for all that she had just lost. The initial shock of Bakir’s death started to wear and my maternal instincts consumed me. I tried to climb out of the car to save my daughter, but before my foot touched the ground I felt the sudden jolt of acceleration and fell back into my seat. Lukas wrapped his tiny arms around me and held me tightly as the door flung about and our view of the Serb checkpoint disappeared.

‘Go back!’ I shouted to Duran. ‘We have to go back for her!’

‘We’ll all be killed if I do!’

Lukas sobbed and shouted for his papa and sister. I watched tears flow down his face and after a few seconds a sense of calm settled within me. Even in moments of insanity when you would never expect yourself to manage a single lucid thought, somehow the mind still finds a way to cope and lends reason to your madness. Duran was right. Saving Aurelia was impossible, and my son needed his mother more than ever.

I turned around in my seat and looked through the back window towards the checkpoint. I could see Bakir’s body lying on the ground, and Aurelia was lying near to him. I prayed that she had been shot too, since abandoning her dead body somehow seemed more palatable than abandoning my child, because she would never understand why her mother didn’t come back for her.

***

Time has little meaning in the hours following the death of someone you love. It moves more slowly and more quickly at once as you become painfully aware of the reality of a future without them. I have no idea how long or how far we drove. I couldn’t recall the scenery or any other detail about that morning. All I remember is holding Lukas on my lap, his broken heart beating next to mine as we both cried for Bakir and Aurelia. Neither of us knew how we would carry on with half of our family so suddenly and completely ripped from our lives, so we simply rested our heads on each other, if only just to reassure ourselves that the other was still breathing. In my mind I kept looking through the tinted glass at Aurelia, trying to remember whether I had seen any blood or another clue to confirm that she had indeed been killed. My heart broke again each time I saw her, but I comforted myself by reasoning that in death she would be spared the terror of rape and captivity.

Captivity. That word seems so much more poignant now. I had lived my whole life in Bosnia, but when the war came and everyone had to identify themselves as Serb or Bosniak, Croat or Muslim, the lines we all liked to pretend never existed suddenly had texture and colour, and drew themselves like steel bars around us as we were marginalized within our own communities. I realised for the first time that I had been a captive for so long that I had almost forgotten what freedom looked like. I had chosen to ignore the realities of war in some hope that they might not apply to me, and then even when they did, I held onto the notion that soon everyone would lose their passion for war and return to life as normal. But this was captivity of the worst sort: the kind that sees its victims assimilate and adapt, rather than scream and fight for the natural freedoms born to them.

And now, somehow, I was heading for a place where the war had already been won, where it would be safe to be who I was without shame or fear. And it was all because of Bakir. Captivity had never sat well with him, and that was why he tried to save Aurelia. He knew that the only way to fully escape Bosnia was to escape untainted by the war. If Aurelia was violated we would all live together with her pain for the rest of our days. Even in a place where we would be politically free we would forever be captives of this conflict, no matter how much effort was put into the forgetting of it.

After a while Duran pulled to the side of the road. He got out of the car and opened my door.

‘Come and see.’

Lukas was asleep and still draped across the front of my body as I reluctantly followed Duran across the road to a clifftop and looked down below at a sea of white and blue tents.

‘It’s a UN refugee camp,’ Duran said, relieved. ‘Your sister recently made it safely to England, and it was Bakir’s intention that you all followed her. Find someone down there who will help you get away from here.’

A small tear welled at the side of Duran’s eye as he looked down at the camp with longing, as though he wished he too could find some small place within it. But he was already too embroiled in the war, and he would have to see it out to its end.

‘Go to England and forget about Bosnia, because Bosnia has forgotten about you.’

He didn’t say goodbye. He didn’t have to. Enough had passed between us in the few short hours we’d known each other that we would be forever connected by what we’d witnessed at that checkpoint. He got back into his Land Rover and turned around to head back towards Srebrenica. As the dust his car kicked up settled on mine and Lukas’s hair, I kissed my little boy’s head and promised him that everything would be okay, and for the first time since the war began, I knew that it wasn’t being naïve in believing it.

About the Author

Natasha O'Brien

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I have been practising my writing skills since getting my BA in English Literature in 2012. After a six-year career in the legal sector, I decided to return to my first love and quit my job to focus on my family and on my ambition to become a published writer. I am now working as a freelance editor and writing my first novel.