The Summer Battle
I was going to write a war report, but all that remained in my mind was the dead and the wounded.
The truck drivers at the third roadblock between Maribor and Šentilj, mustached and sweaty with waiting, already trapped a whole day between the two sides of a war they couldn’t figure out. The Bulgarian had a ring, an enormous gold ring shaped like an eagle,and wondered what good the ring was to him now that he was going to die. It’s all gonna work out just fine, I told him. Ten minutes later he was dead. The chipper Turk who tried to mask his fear talked on and on about how this truck was hauling washing powder and that was alright, but those other two carried meat and that wasn’t alright because it would soon start to smell, and how it would be great if they were finally allowed to go home. Soon he was lying amid the other bodies, his white teeth still flashing through his bloody face. And then there was the young Turk with light eyes who just stood there, not saying a word. Gone. And the unfortunate man from Maribor, the only Slovenian among the lot, who was so angry. I’m not gonna say anything, don’t take any pictures, as he squatted down by his truck. Don’t walk here, they’ll shoot, I got nothing to do with politics. After we’d stayed with the others long enough, facing the tanks with their engines running, and when they still didn’t shoot, he joined us at last. Dead.
And Frenk. Forgive me, Frenk, for not coming in the ambulance with you. Sturdy Frenk, clean-shaven and cool. I first met him when the tanks reached the second roadblock, the train on the track at Ranca. While a couple of reporters and locals hung around the last tank, making this or that remark to goad their confusion into courage, Frenk remained silent, his lips pressed into a smile. His truck had stayed three kilometers back, before Pesnica, at the first roadblock, which the tanks had just finished blasting away and squashing into a pulp. A mound of burning iron, rubber, and beef, blending the molten metal and the asphalt underneath. But Frenk’s not a whiner, he’s the kind of man who simply starts over from scratch. So he just smiled and watched the tanks as they left the road and plowed their way through the fields to bypass the freight train put in their path. They’re gonna have trouble, was all he said. Then he showed us dirt roads in the hills which could be used to avoid the barricades, and we followed the tanks in a Renault 4. There was such indecision in their halting progress along the muddy snail-trail by the edge of the woods that we walked about around them quite at our ease and took photos. Meanwhile, Frenk sketched the scene. He used to be on a tank crew himself and he knew about things. How the engine of this one sounded like it was on its last leg, and about the exhaust fumes of that one, choked ventilators, they wouldn’t last long. It was more than twenty-four hours now that the tanks had been on their barge-through-any-obstacle way, and they’d used up a lot of fuel, too much. Sentilj was going to be tough. The last border crossing. The most important one. The little valley of access was becoming increasingly narrow for tanks, and it led straight to the third and final pre-frontier roadblock at Strihovec.
FIRST FIGHT. When the tanks came to a halt in front of the roadblock, Diego and I were already on this side of it. It was Friday, only nine goddamn a.m., and despite the forecast to the contrary, the day was turning sunny and fair. At Frangez’s house, this side of the track and the roadblock, there was a pell-mell of territorial defense troops, reporters, and local inhabitants. We looked about for a vantage point and decided on the roof of the house. We found a ladder somewhere, put it up against the lean-to, climbed up, pulled up the ladder behind us, and leaned it against the roof. It was too damn high, we had to scale half of it on all fours before we were able to straddle the ridge. But the view from above was well worth the effort. Yonder, some ten tanks were waiting, opposite them, seven large trucks were lined up in one lane, behind the trucks there was the track with the long freight train, and nearest the house three additional pairs of trucks. From the wooded slopes left and right of the house an occasional broken sentence floated up on the breeze, from where the territorial defense was stationed. Down below us was still all commotion, people asking us anxiously what was going on. One tank’s coming, Diego yelled back.
It came down the slope on the left side, behind the brook and the bush, slowly rolling in reconnaissance. The people below us darted from corner to corner to catch a glimpse of it, and behind a stack of firewood close to the house a territorial defender waited, clutching the bazooka slung over his shoulder. We’re not letting them through this roadblock without a fight, we’d been told earlier. One heart beat. So simple and simultaneous. A discharge, Diego takes a picture, the tank shudders, smoke. And nothing else, just the silence of the engine cut off. The turret hatch opened and below us people emerged. Confusion, real confusion was the thing which surprised us most. They’re giving up, don’t shoot, don’t shoot, we yelled from the roof. We took that last part for granted, but were somewhat apprehensive nevertheless. Hold fire, one of our officers tried to be decisive. They’ve got weapons, came another voice. Kill ‘em, kill the bastards, someone below us hollered, a civilian who spoke Serbo-Croatian all the time, we didn’t know why. It felt as though everyone’s fuse was about to blow any second, and the sun made the fabric stick to our feverish skin.
Don’ shoot! - - - A reedy, breaking, very desperate voice. The first of the tank crew to surrender was a youth from Ljubljana. Are you totally nuts, he kept sobbing as he stumbled toward us. Are you all out of your minds? Two more surrendered, and we decided we’d better climb down, then another two surrendered, two were wounded, a heat shell causes burns, one of the wounded, a Macedonian, had lost an eye, the other one was from Zadar. There was no first aid, we have something ready in Sentilj, someone said, but the soldiers had a first aid kit with some gauze, and Ma Frangez tried to wash and bandage the wounded. Neighbors in sandals rode over on scooters to help, TV cameras hummed, there was an awful lot of talk going on, questions were fired at the captured, nobody knew what was going on, nobody thought of offering them a cigarette. I gave them a Marlboro each, then I went in search of the man who seemed to be the highest ranking territorial defense officer in the group. The tanks on the other side were perfectly still and I was filled with misgivings.
Excuse me, are you in charge of this operation? - No, the regional headquarters is. - But you have the highest rank here. - Yes. - Why don’t you pull these civilians away, then, before someone gets hurt? - We’ll let you know if it gets dangerous, he was so embarrassed he failed to realize his own agitation and absurdity. Diego and I were fed up with it all and we cautiously crawled to the peace and quiet on the other side of the train.
SECOND FIGHT. You somehow figure that as long as you leave them alone they won’t shoot at you, or at least, if they do, you won’t get hit right away; that way you can get by. But the tanks were motionless, absolutely, totally motionless. In the shade beneath the trucks, there by the ditch, people sat on their haunches. Truck drivers from Turkey, Greece and Bulgaria, whose vehicles had been placed there a day earlier by our people, without the truckers having any say in the matter. Or possibility of retreat. They weren’t happy about it, they told us. As none of us could think of anything to put matters right, we squatted next to them and kept them company. Until Diego grew restless and said he wanted to get back and we said goodbye and left. When we’d gotten to the other side of the train, the planes came.
The first round was a warning. A few truckers sprinted to safety. Everybody was running somewhere. Two planes came, then another two, Migs I think. In moments like that you have to keep your wits about you, but I didn’t know how to just yet. When the second couple of planes were approaching, Diego and I had already reached the house, and then they did indeed open fire. A spray of bullets raced past us along the courtyard. The hallway. In the kitchen the grandma was wringing her hands. Another volley. All the windows were open because of the heat. Diego shouted that the bullets were ricocheting. On an old Grundig radio set on the fridge, President Kucan was making a speech. When they flew in the opposite direction it was safe to peek outside. The third onslaught. Diego is ready and takes photos. Then he hurls himself inside after me. Now we have a photo, now we’re not budging any more. Explosions. They’re firing missiles. Does it kill you if it hits the house? Depends. We breathe.
AFTERWARDS. When it was over it seemed there wasn’t a soul anywhere. No moaning. Something had to be done. What about the people by the trucks. We run around the far side of the garden, to be safer. Now the tanks might come. Smoke from behind the train, and a woman shouting in English for somebody to get the fucking stretchers over there, that they are mortally wounded. We slither under the cars. Another world. The trucks are demolished, glass, mud. Right up front a woman is dragging a body, the tanks beyond her are as yet motionless. We run. Watch out, the truck’s gonna blow, she shouts. Right, it’s on fire, dangerously so. The ground’s slippery, I fall. To keep away from the blast we cross a meadow. Water everywhere. In the ditch near the first truck lie the dead and the injured, who are terribly wounded, and what can we do. Back at the train two medics appear in white. We have serious casualties here, I call out to them. Watch out, the truck might explode. Come way around there. They can’t make it. They turn around and run back. Diego and the woman, who must also be a photographer, are dragging bodies out of the ditch. I try to hold the upper body but it’s heavy and it’s difficult to get a grip. They’re all out now. Some of them are dead, one’s sitting up and groaning. There are at least three others alive. We need to call for help. The two of them stay there, I run back. It’s so far. There’s no time for the detour. Behind the wheels of a truck there’s another one dead. The head. On the other side of the train there’s no-one. Near the house a territorial comes running toward me, alone. Yes, I’m a medic. I tell him where to go. He seems OK. He starts off. He tells me to bring the stretchers, which are supposed to be over there somewhere. I can’t find them. Time’s flying. I must find something, anything. I search around the buildings. The ladder, it’ll do. It’s hard to run with a ladder. I push it over the link between two boxcars. Two ambulances drive up. Quick, we need three stretchers over there. No way. It’s too far. We’ll have to drive around, over the hills. OK. We’ll wait. Back again. Over the train. Past the trucks. The medic has attended to them in the meantime, given them shots. Just one more wounded to go. Frenk.
Later, during a lull in the fighting, we went over the whole story a hundred times. Searching for reasons. Frenk had already left, but he had come back before the attack with the American photographer. Jana Schneider. They went to the Turks right after we’d left and she took pictures. After the air-raid she was the only one left unscathed. But Jana had just arrived from Ethiopia and this was her thirteenth war, while for Frenk it was his first one. He lay there with his legs shot through and I don’t know what in his chest and he was conscious. Jana was holding his hand, my poor baby, and he was brave. I wanna see my legs. It’s OK, believe me. Diego held the lower leg, I held the thigh, the medic bandaged the area in-between which was missing. I forgot his name, the medic’s. He was good, calm. Ever done this before? No. We needed to keep them all in the shade. They’re gonna be here any minute now. One of the wounded died.
Then we just waited. And photographed every fucking detail to preserve it at least in the photos. And waited. The tanks were still there. With measured strides Mustachio approached. That’s what I had named him in my mind before, when I first saw him. When the tanks had trundled over the meadows, he had walked in front. Solitary and tall, with a tank commander’s cap, a full mustache on his tragically serious face, his back ramrod straight as if at permanent attention. A man who doesn’t need a tank. Captain Zekic, I was told that evening by the soldiers. He was not in command of the unit, some moron with twigs on his helmet was, who kept prattling on about a CIA conspiracy. But Mustachio was the spirit of the unit. He never said a word, not even now. He stood there in the sun, gazing straight ahead and soaking up responsibility. Now I should write how I felt that moment as though there were nobody else in the whole world but us. Mustachio, who never bows his head, Jana, who lives in perpetual warfare and doesn’t want to die, the medic with the forgotten name who came out of the woods and did his duty, Frenk, with bullet wounds in his legs and the nightmare that he might be dying that very minute, and the reality that he possibly was, and Diego and I, who as yet hadn’t gotten caught up in the fear. But back then the symbolic or whatever didn’t occur to any of us, we just remained silent, and Diego and Jana clicked their shutters a couple of times, force of habit.
Then finally the ambulances arrived screaming, toiled their way past the tanks, and the medics picked up the ones who looked rescuable to them. Two photographers dashed up from somewhere, clicking away, then they ran back. In the woods two wounded guys from the territorial defense force were loaded into the ambulances. We dragged the dead into the shade and covered them. We put the clean bandages that were left lying on the ground in our pockets, in case we needed them later. End of scene.
THIRD FIGHT. It was very noisy by the house. Everybody was still in shock and discussing the air-raid. Most of the people didn’t have the faintest idea what had actually happened up front where the Turks were. Diego and I didn’t feel like shedding any light, we just wanted to wash the blood away. We were all so damn happy we’d stayed alive. Proud we’d stayed alive. It was important that we’d stayed alive. One of the neighbors told everyone who’d listen how only one roof-tile was damaged, everything else had remained intact. The only one who understood was the grandma. She knew about wars. She scolded her daughter and son-in-law for leaving their children elsewhere. When a thing like this happens, you gotta stay together, all four of you, she told them, so that if it gets you, you all go together.
What then was the result of all this? The only thing that stood in the tanks’ way was the train. And the train was the one thing the planes had missed. The line of trucks wasn’t in the way at all, but they blew it to bits, as they did to the bushes on the other side of the road. When the planes came the second time it wasn’t that bad. They somehow didn’t feel like shooting any more, and they aimed the missiles better. They hit the train, but only the boxcars, not the frame. Thus they failed to move the train out of the way and the tanks eventually tried to go around it on both sides. During this, one tank got stuck in the mud, another one was stranded in the brook, and the entire operation was regressing into a farce.
The remaining six tanks now had a clear path all the way to the border except for the last dozen trucks at the intersection at Sentilj, and Diego and I retreated to that last patch. We set up camp behind the duty-free shop past the check-point gate, saved our last two cigarettes and stared at the wilkommen sign for foreign tourists at the Habakuk Hotel. The Austrians behind our backs were on the lookout with binoculars, our policemen in front of us were wearing bullet-proof vests and unhappy faces and getting psyched up for the final combat. Beside that, there were still army snipers in the blockhouse on the hill, and everyone was looking for cover. We were tired and we fell asleep on the blacktop.
When we awoke, we were still hopelessly cut off from everything. So we crossed over into Austria. We must have been a sight, me in shorts I hadn’t changed, Diego with his sleep-deprived Argentine face. We explained we wanted to stay there awhile, and they let us in even though I didn’t have my passport on me. Phone connections with Ljubljana were down, behind the border various displaced Balkanites were eating cevapcici all over the place, and all we could get in those dumb stores selling cheap coffee was bananas and juice. Then Jana also came to mail her rolls of film from there. Diego was making plans how he’d sneak his photos past the army and into Ljubljana. And then as though we’d summoned him, Krainer, the governor of Steiermark, pulled up in a limo, and Diego and Jana explained what had happened. He listened kindly, with a smile pasted on his face, and then with a handshake drove off. We left in the opposite direction, to get the end of the story.
THE END. Somehow, there was no end. First, talk of a cease-fire started, the tanks stood there in the road a kilometer from the border crossing, the soldiers had climbed out and they were young and they wanted to go home and one of them shot himself in the foot. We went over to Belna’s for some cucumber soup on the house, Belna opened his restaurant especially for us, music played in the background, and all we really wanted was to unwind. It had been one long day.
Too long to relax. Waiting in the car the whole night and watching the woods on the other side where commando paratroopers had dug in, and behind them the territorial defense. The journey back, Ormoz, crossing the Drava over a dam, sentries on a hill, speeding in Ljubljana, head ducked low. Making a choice. Two worlds. One with the question of when this was all going to end. And the other. Wrong question. Wrong thinking. Be ready. Think about what is important. One world with the press conference about a political solution to the problems. The other with the army in Sredisce ob Dravi, where they made us turn back in our car, destroyed ten fortunately empty rolls of film, and let us by only because we shouted back at them. A world with the bridge of brotherhood and unity in Ormoz burned down. With the boy in the near-by bush sweating at the thought of shooting at another boy in a tank. Thinking the nonsense away. One world with the fear they’d start shelling. The other with Jana laughing that if a community isn’t ready to sacrifice lives it ain’t worth it. Both worlds so alive. Both so understandable. Both so unjust. We’re going out again tomorrow, to look for closure.