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Helplessly Hoping

Exposing her sagging brown breast, she offered it to the fractious, hungry child on her knee, while at the same time, she rubbed her left hand across her grime encrusted face.

The undernourished equally unclean child latched onto the empty breast, but try as it might, it could not find the sustenance it craved so badly. Beside the woman on the litter strewn concrete steps, in front of the deserted park, sat a dirty, unkempt man, sucking on the stub of a cigarette. His clothes were so dirt caked they had long since lost their original colour. His feet were encased in worn out boots, wrapped crudely in sack. The soles had disintegrated. The woman’s feet were enveloped in filthy rags.

Even from across the street, the powerful body odour emanating from the two of them was objectionable and as the woman scratched her prematurely grey, straw-like hair in an attempt to ease the itching, her head came alive with crawling insects, also evident in the man’s matted, long hair and beard.

Yet, it was more than the unwashed appearance of the couple that attracted attention to them; it was their intense air of dejected despair, so discernible on their mud brown faces and in their miserable, poverty-stricken eyes.

Immediately before the war began in 1991, in a small village south of Sarajevo, Pasha, an only child, had married Jasmina. They were both nineteen and had known each other since they were children. They went to school together and also attended the same mosque.

Pasha had been a tall thin good-looking young man, despite his large beak-like nose. Jasmina too was attractive with long dark hair and compelling almond shaped eyes, under rather too dense black brows. On her wedding day, her face was so pale and unblemished it looked like polished marble.

After their wedding, the couple moved into a small room at the back of Pasha’s elderly parent’s house, on the small farm where Pasha helped his father Mahmoud, look after apple trees and a substantial vegetable garden. Beehives also produced a good quantity of honey from the bees feeding on pollen in the surrounding trees. Pasha’s mother Aaeesha, with her crooked spine, oversaw the road side stall, where they sold their produce. They were not a well-off family, but they got by with their thrifty ways.

In 1991, the family became aware that war had broken out in the neighbouring country of Croatia, only because they were avid listeners of the radio news. It was in 1992, when they heard that Serbian soldiers were moving south from their main army base in Belgrade. Pasha and Mahmoud discussed what precautions they should take to keep themselves safe if soldiers attacked their village. By now, only thirty kilometres away, in Sarajevo, fighting had already begun. Pasha wanted to leave and avoid confrontation, but his father twiddled nervously with his grey drooping moustache and insisted that he and his wife would stay, no matter what happened. The run-down old house where they lived, and the land surrounding it, had belonged to his grandfather, and there was no way anyone was going to drive him from it. It was the only life he had ever known, and nothing Pasha said to him could persuade him to change his mind. He was adamant.

‘Where would we go?’ he asked Pasha repeatedly.

‘To the city. Surely we could stay with your brother. You know we’re always welcome there,’ Pasha answered him time after time.

‘If they come for me, I’ll shoot them,’ replied Mahmoud pointing at his ancient hunting rifle hanging on the rack in the kitchen.

As it turned out, they were given no warning that the Serbian soldiers had reached the outskirts of their village. The first they knew of it was the soldiers bursting through their front door in the middle of the night. Mahmoud, who had begun sleeping with his gun beside the bed, rushed from the bedroom, as fast as his swollen ankle would allow him, brandishing his ancient weapon. But he was no match for the expert intruders. They shot him before he had advanced beyond the doorway. As soon as his wife appeared they shot her too.

Fortunately, Pasha had not been asleep when the soldiers crashed through the door. In fact, he was not even in bed, let alone undressed. A premonition had warned him that something was not right in the village, and as soon as he heard the first shot, he plucked his sleeping wife from her warm bed, clamped his hand over her mouth, and escaped silently through the back door.

Why the soldiers never came after them he didn’t know. From the shelter of the trees, they watched in despair as the interior of the stone house was set ablaze. Pasha desperately wanted to rescue his parents, but Jasmina knew that if he tried to, he would also die. If the invaders didn’t shoot him, then he would most likely be burnt to death trying to save them. Jasmina restrained him. There was nothing they could do. Helpless, they huddled close and clung to each other while they cried silent tears. For the rest of the night the sky was lit up with an unnatural glow. All the houses in the village were aflame. It was almost as bright as daylight.

The fire in their house continued to blaze until the early hours of the morning and as dawn broke Jasmina could no longer stop Pasha creeping to the edge of the wooded area at the rear of their property. However, he returned to Jasmina’s side very quickly.

‘The bastards are laying land mines. Now there’s no chance for us to go back. If we do, we’ll be killed for certain.’ Pasha was angry.

Not knowing what else to do, they ventured deeper into the forest. Jasmina foraged for berries while Pasha sat slumped on a fallen log and sobbed. He could not come to grips with these sinister nocturnal happenings. It was the worst shock he had ever experienced.

Sometime later, when he had managed to get himself a little more under control, shaking his head in disbelief, he spoke.

‘We must head for Sarajevo before entry to the city is cut off,’ Pasha’s voice was flat and dead. ‘The army is heading south, so it makes sense for us to head in the opposite direction. We’ll make for uncle’s place.’

Days later, exhausted and starving, they reached the city where they found Pasha’s uncle’s house had been destroyed. It was a burnt out stinking shell with no sign of life.

It was then that Pasha lost all heart. The zest in his eyes had been extinguished. Jasmina wrapped her arms around him tightly, but it was too late, he had turned to stone. Fear began welling up inside her, but their plight did not hit her with full force, until Pasha began repeating over and over,

‘They’ve taken my family, my house and my land so they might as well take me.’ She hoped with time he would recover, but it wasn’t meant to be.

During the siege of Sarajevo, they spent four years drifting from shelter to shelter, dependent on their ration coupons and hand-outs from people generous enough to share their meagre supplies of food and clothing. Twice during this time, Jasmina became pregnant, but on both occasions, she miscarried. These were the most harrowing episodes of ill fortune she had ever endured.

Jasmina and Pasha were unrecognisable as the two handsome young people who had once begun their married life in a quiet village just outside Sarajevo.

At the end of the war, Jasmina hoped life would return to normal. She did her best to support and inspire Pasha, but he either wouldn’t listen or perhaps he could not hear. His eyes remained dead.

The years drifted by slowly and painfully, and although Jasmina often thought about leaving Pasha, she knew she could not. She had fallen in love with him when she was fourteen, and she loved him still. They spent their days begging on the streets, scavenging in rubbish bins, sleeping in parks, under bridges or in derelict buildings. Just over a year ago, Jasmina had given birth to a baby girl, but because she was malnourished, her baby was too. Every day it was becoming more and more difficult to source food, and begging seldom yielded enough money to buy sufficient to satisfy the three of them.

Three days had passed since Pasha had left to go searching for food. He was particularly down now and sometimes he didn’t even hear her when she spoke to him. Jasmina had forced him to go. But, what would she do if he didn’t come back? Jasmina cuddled her child rocking backwards and forwards on the cold stone step while her eyes scanned the street hoping to catch sight of her husband. She had become convinced that Pasha would not be coming back. He had been gone for too long.

With a ragged sigh, she looked down at the child in her arms. She had stopped squirming, yet she was not asleep. Her huge brown eyes were fixed with an unblinking stare on something behind Jasmina. Curious as to what had caught the baby’s attention, Jasmina turned.

At last, Pasha was back. Jasmina gasped when she noted the change in his appearance. She blinked and her jaw dropped as he came closer and lowered his sack to the ground. His eyes were locked into his daughter’s and the upturned corners of his cracked lips showed the beginning of a smile.

‘I’ve arranged for us to move into a new refugee centre with our own room,’ he said, sitting down next to her. ‘They have plenty of bread and hot soup ready for us.’

When Jasmina looked at the smile struggling to shine through Pasha’s worried eyes, she felt a gentle warmth flow through her soul, as though it were the soup she was yet to taste. At last hope, had returned.  

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