This post has nothing to do with editing or marketing or publishing. It has a little to do with writing and the process of writing. More than anything, it’s political.
I wrote this short story for a fiction assignment during my senior year at UNC. The assignment was to challenge traditional writing conventions. At the time, I was working on a historical fiction piece about the genocide at Srebrenica, Bosnia, and I was struggling to tell a story that wasn’t mine but I felt desperately needed a voice.
There are voices that need to be heard right now, too. In Aleppo, Syria. This post is for them.
Trigger Warning: This short story contains graphic written depictions of genocide (no photographs).
Words on a blank page don’t fill the void. Scratch that, a void doesn’t show. Words on a blank page don’t end the longing. What longing? Scratch that. Words on a blank page mean nothing. Better, but still not right. Why do I persist?
To tell the story, as aptly and truthfully, no, scratch that, “truth” is too big. To tell the story as I have pieced it together, through eye witness accounts, movies, audio recordings, photographs, endless statistics, and history. In short, pieced it together through obsession turned to madness. What story, then?
The story of a moment in history that has been forgotten. Scratch that, you can’t forget what you never learned. The story of a moment in history that was hidden. Yes, hidden. Maybe it should be left that way, but my pen keeps moving. It won’t stop until the story is finished.
The date is July 11, 1995. The place is Srebrenica, Bosnia. A UN soldier has just been shot by a deranged, scratch that, negative connotation. Frantic, better, it makes them seem more sympathetic, and the world knows Muslims can use some positive PR. A frantic Muslim refugee. The UN soldiers have abandoned their posts and moved to their base in Potočari, eight kilometers away.
A boy, Samir, age eight, holds onto the rough fabric of his mother’s skirt. He watches the streets clear with wide eyes. The panicked exodus is set to the cries of, “The Chetniks are coming!” Scratch that, Chetniks isn’t clear unless you’re a Balkan historian, which you, reader, most likely are not. Nor am I, of course, but like I said, I’m not mentally sound. Be quiet now, the Serbs are coming.
Samir is tall and thin for his age but vain. For the last two years, he has hated wearing clothes made out of parachutes from UN food drops. He misses the late-night trips to the kitchen. He would stand on a chair to fetch a spoon from the drawer with squeaky hinges, looking around to make sure no one woke. He misses standing on tiptoes to retrieve the Eurocream from the top shelf and sitting on the floor with the container he never stopped to savor the smell of—vanilla and hazelnut. He misses dipping the spoon in and eating until he threw up, which didn’t usually take long.
Samir hasn’t tasted Eurocream since his village was bombed in ’93. He hasn’t tasted anything except bread and potatoes, occasionally a little dried beef. Though they would be willing to risk the land mines around Srebrenica to hunt, the men are unable to do so. The UN took their guns away when Srebrenica was made a “safe zone.”
Samir knows this means the Serbs can shoot at them, but they can’t shoot back.
From the talk on the streets, he gathers that the UN is shocked when a Muslim shoots one of them. They didn’t think the “dirty Muslims” had it in them to smuggle weapons into the city. Put “dirty Muslims” in quotes, so the reader knows that’s what the UN troops actually called them. I’m not being biased here. It’s in the history books. I don’t have to try to make the UN look bad. They did it to themselves.
Samir wonders where his father and oldest brother are and why his mother is smearing mud onto his fourteen-year-old sister’s face. “A knife!” she screams to people running by, and someone hands her one. She grabs clumps of her daughter’s hair and rips through it with the hunting knife. Ajla, Samir’s sister, cries from the pain. Scratch that, cries out in pain. She’s not actually crying in my mind.
“You are not to speak, do you hear me? Make no noise.” His mother bends a little to look into his sister’s eyes. “Not a word, a scream, nothing.”
She drags the two children by the hand and guides them behind the wall of a place Samir assumes used to belong to an apartment complex. Looking up, he sees a bathroom, the bathtub half hanging out of the shelled building.
“Here, put these on.” She throws a pile of clothing at her daughter. With shaking hands, she glances behind, back into the crowd.
Ajla looks up. “Boy’s clothes?” But she puts them on. When she has dressed and thrown her headscarf on the ground, they move toward Potočari with the rest of the masses.
The people of Potočari scream. Is that too dramatic? But that’s how it was! How do I get you to understand the noise, the stink, the sweat, the fear? The Serbs stand there, separating men and women onto old white buses. The UN looks on, their blue helmets shining in the sun. Samir smells rotting flesh. He looks for the source of the smell and sees a boy his age who lies dead in the center square. The boy’s stomach is cut open. His mother sits next to him, swatting at the flies landing on his body.
Samir averts his eyes. Where does this story go from here? I have borrowed this one image from an eyewitness account, but there are more, so many more. It was hard to choose. I want to keep going, but I must stop. I must. This war—against myself or against history? is too much already.
For anyone who would like to stand with Aleppo, a friend of mine who is a Bosnian refugee and a doctor, has suggested donating here.