Memoir

Friend for all times

IT WAS THE summer of 1969. I had just scraped through my first year at the University of Belgrade. I felt like a complete failure. Instead of studying for the final exams, I had discovered the charms of Belgrade's bohemian life and the thrill of poker games. No wonder I only passed three out of ten subjects, holding on to the slim hope I could do the impossible in September – get enough credits for third semester.

I returned to my family home in a small provincial town in southern Herzegovina with a bag loaded with textbooks and the accoutrements of a new habit – smoking. Tucked into my shirt pocket was a piece of paper that would change my life for good.

One evening in June, my room-mate Zoltan, a student of mathematics, came from the university and handed me a pamphlet – one paragraph printed in bold letters on a cheap printing machine. It read that some self-proclaimed committee representing the students of Belgrade University was urging professors and fellow students to show solidarity with the ‘hungry miners' of Bosnia and to support their demands for better wages and a decent standard of living. At the time, I did not care much for politics but I knew my father would listen to my comments about life in Belgrade and the mood in the capital of Tito's Yugoslavia.

Hungry miners? For the Yugoslav ruling elite out of touch with ordinary people, the concept was science fiction. It was a situation only possible in the Soviet Union or Poland, and certainly not in Yugoslavia where the workers were the driving force of society – at least on paper – in Communist Party program speeches and declarations. The pamphlet would be proof for my father that the rosy picture portrayed by official media did not correspond to reality – or so I thought. Let me remind you that this was the first summer after the ‘revolutions of 1968' in Europe, and the echoes of unrest were still in the air in Belgrade.

Back home, I met my closest friend Milos, a student of law at the University of Sarajevo, as well as three other colleagues from high school. Over a beer we talked about life at the university, the café society in Belgrade and Sarajevo, movies, music and sports. And, of course, girls. At some point I put the pamphlet on the table just to make the point that my school was the most liberal among Yugoslav universities. No heated discussion followed because we had just enjoyed the first positive changes Yugoslavia's leadership had made after the students' protest in the summer of ‘68.

Later that day, I showed the pamphlet to my father, who got so angry he threw it into the bin, warning me to stay away from troublemakers at university. My father, who fought the Nazis with Tito's partisan army during World War II, was a loyal member of the Communist Party. He believed that the pamphlet was a useless attempt by young, spoiled kids to stir public opinion.

 

THE WEEKEND ARRIVED and I didn't think much more of it, enjoying swimming and basking in the sun on the beaches of Dubrovnik just twenty miles away. On Monday, back home, dark clouds started to build on the horizon of my holidays. I was summoned to the police station. The agent knew my name, my family background, my friends, my school record, my love for music and basketball. He had no time for niceties.

‘Where is the pamphlet you smuggled from Belgrade?' he demanded to know. ‘To whom did you show it? What were you talking about yesterday at the pub? Why did you bring the pamphlet? Are you a member of a student committee? Who are your comrades in Belgrade?'

The questions were engulfing my brain, my heart was pounding, my mouth got dry, my voice froze, and my hands were shaking and sweaty. I couldn't hide that I was terrified. Somehow, I explained that I did not have any revolutionary agenda and I did not care for politics at all. I said the pamphlet had ended up in the garbage bin in my father's shop.

Having had what seemed like a long career in the police force, my tormentor was not the kind of man to give up easily. He kept repeating the questions while altering their order or adding new ones. After a while, when he realised that I would not change my statement, he handed me a pen and a paper.

‘Write down every single word you remember ... the heading, the date, the signature ... every comma, every dot, every letter. I want everything, do you understand? Everything.'

I can't say whether I spent an hour or less undertaking this task, but I remember how horrified I was while desperately trying to visualise in my mind the damned piece of paper that could have ended up kicking me out of university and destroying my dream of becoming a journalist.

It was a hot and dry early afternoon by the time I left the police building. The lengthy interrogation had left me breathless and nauseous. Who had told the police about the pamphlet? The waitress at the cafe? An informer among my friends? Was it Milos, my most trusted friend, the most intelligent and lucid of all of us? I knew he has just secured a scholarship from the Ministry of Interior. Had he become one of them already? Questions buzzed in my head. I locked myself in my room and lit a cigarette. I wanted everything to be just an awful dream, a chapter of a novel written by a Soviet dissident whose name, as well as the plot of his book, I would soon forget.

 

TWO DAYS PASSED without a call from the police. I started to feel better. Then my father suggested an evening walk along the river. The cobalt blue of the night sky was punctured with stars; the frog orchestra was at its best. I wondered why my father had invited me for a stroll instead of heading off for his usual game of dominos with friends.

‘Do you remember where I placed the pamphlet you gave me?' he asked abruptly, in a voice that could not hide his uneasiness.

‘You threw it in the bin', I replied.

‘Are you sure?'

‘I am absolutely sure,' I said.

‘You know,' he continued, ‘I was summoned to the police for an interrogation. They are paranoid, but I obeyed the law.'

I told him about my encounter with the police inspector.

‘Do not worry,' he said with a faint smile. ‘They know who we are ... all this is just a misunderstanding.'

That evening he showed me the spots on the river where his older brother used to fish. One night in June 1942, my uncle did not return home. He was taken by Italian fascists and sent to a concentration camp where he died of illness or starvation. Or perhaps he was executed. Our family never knew for sure. I was named after my father's older brother, who did not care much for politics.

That summer, and for many summers after, I did not mention to Milos the reason for my visit to police headquarters. I was hoping that during our conversations, or after a bottle or two of wine, he would say something, give me some clue to help me with the puzzle. I never summoned the courage to ask. As he climbed higher in the police ranks, I inched closer to the conclusion that he must have been the one who had tipped off the cops. But the dark shadow of this episode did not spoil our friendship.

In April 1992, the war started in Bosnia. I continued my job in Sarajevo as a television journalist. Milos was recruited as an intelligence officer for the Bosnian Serb army in the small southern town of our youth. One could say we found ourselves on opposite sides – I among Bosnian Muslims fighting for the newly declared independent state, and Milos with the Bosnian Serbs battling for their place within greater Serbia.

 

I RAN INTO Milos three summers after the cannons fell silent, in a tavern owned by a mutual friend. It was ten in the morning and Milos had his third vodka on the table and his first client sitting on the opposite side. I learned that he'd started a private practice as a lawyer, and that he was quite busy representing refugees and displaced persons trying to repossess their property in a bitterly divided country.

His smile signalled that he had noticed me. I waited patiently for him to finish the deal and then I approached his table, ordering a new round of vodka. We shared a bear hug and a strong handshake as if we were meeting after a month of holidays, not after more than six years and a terrible war in between.

Milos had gained a few kilos and his hair was grey. I summarised my three years as an Italian refugee and my new life in Australia in the manner of a three-minute television report. That gave him time to tell me his stories of the war and his experience in the Yugoslav intelligence community. He did not say much, but he did mention how a colleague had saved his life by telling him in a coded language to avoid an ambush on the way back from some negotiations.

Milos intentionally omitted that he had previously saved the life of his counterpart. I learned later about Milos's bravery and the assistance he gave to many Muslims imprisoned and tortured by Bosnian Serbs.

As our table in the small tavern became crowded with empty vodka glasses, I knew there was one question I had to ask. Lowering my voice and moving my chair closer, I said, ‘Milos, I know that you know where Karadzic and Mladic (the notorious war criminals) are hiding. Let's denounce them and share the bounty money offered by the US government.'

There was a brief, icy silence. Then he said, ‘You son of a bitch. I knew you were working for the agency.' An eruption of laughter followed. We both knew no such war would ever challenge our friendship. Milos was referring to my job with the US Congress sponsored by Radio Free Europe, which in some parts of the Balkans has been considered a government propaganda tool directed by the CIA.

Last March I visited Belgrade for the first time after more than a decade. The memories, dating back to the late 1960s, overwhelmed me. Perhaps it was the simple human tendency to keep the places of the heart as they once were; at their best, so I did not see the scars of neglect the poverty, the results of the NATO bombing. While sipping my cappuccino at the hotel's ‘Moscow' café, the memory of my freshman year at the university filled me with a mixture of regret and bitterness.

Milos had died six years previously of a heart attack [Karadzic was captured on July 21, 2008 after twelve years on the run; Mladic was still at large.] For a couple of years, he resisted pressure from the nationalists because Milos dared to represent local Muslims in their quest for justice. I wish he had been there so I could have told him how much I admired his courage in times of war. I still miss his friendship when my days in Brisbane are grey.

 

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