The following is an excerpt from a story called “Lost and Found”. It started as a writing prompt during the MA in Writing program at Johns Hopkins University and is still a work in progress.
The story follows Jusuf Ahmetovic, a survivor of the Srebrenica genocides who has returned to his family’s home and spends his days scouring the forest in search of the remains of friends an family.
Lost and Found
Old wasn’t the right word to describe Jusuf Ahmetovic. The man, seated at a battered wooden table in the yard, wasn’t old. By the calendar, he was just forty-one, a far cry from being elderly. Weathered was a better description. The man, finishing his morning coffee and contemplating the long-stemmed pot and battered, copper serving tray, on which rested a spoon and a spare lump of white sugar, was weathered.
He was a tall, slender, narrow-shouldered man who was otherwise unremarkable except for his head. The face atop his thin neck was slim, creased and tanned from years of wandering, contemplation, and sorrow. The hair, unruly and unkempt, was fighting a losing battle to retain its original black luxuriance. Gray had seeped in everywhere, including into the stubble that crept up his chin and cheeks, and more than a few white hairs were now making their incursion, testing the waters, discovering a place for themselves in the man’s life. The nose and the ears, both of which were a little too big for the face, were wholly unremarkable, pre-determined in size, shape, and placement by a genetic soup which had simmered for centuries to produce this one human being.
The eyes were different. Set deep in their sockets, underneath a pair of bushy brows that arced away and down in a permanent question, the eyes were dark, a rich walnut color that communicated a mixture of intelligence, courage, and sadness, with an extra helping of the latter. Those eyes bore into the extra lump of sugar, concentrating on it as his mind sketched out a plan for this beautiful October day.
After checking on his flock, he would go to the woods. He went into the woods every single day, had been doing so for almost twenty years now. Jusuf lifted his head, hearing the bleating complaints of a dozen fat sheep, and looked around at his farm. The house, a combination of stone and rough-hewn wood, stood nestled in the crook of two ridgelines which pushed east towards Srebrenica, a small town in Bosnia and Herzegovina with a population just under three thousand.
An old mining town that could trace its roots back to the Roman Empire, Srebrenica had been the ancient home for trade, the name derived from the local word for silver. It’s importance as a trading center, especially for precious metals and minerals, made Srebrenica and the surrounding areas a point of contention through the centuries. Possessed in turns by the Serbian, Bosnian, and Ottoman Empires, Srebrenica and its residents had become used to strife and conflict. It was a way of life.
Jusuf noted smoke from a wood-burning fireplace trailed lazily from the home’s lone chimney, evidence that his wife, Marija, was up and moving, working at all of the tasks necessary to keep a small farmhouse operating in the twenty-first century. Watching the smoke, he felt pangs of guilt.
I should help her more.
Jusuf watched the smoke drift and swirl, prone to the whims of a slight breeze that brought cool air down into the valley, swishing through the leaves of the forest and carrying voice-like sounds to his door.
The voices. The voices are why I don’t help my wife, why she’s doing so much and I do so little. She never complains. Never. Not once in twenty years. She lets me chase the past and she remains here, feet firmly in the present, doing the work of the farm, keeping us in meat and vegetables, wool and firewood.
The man smiled at the house, watching the small window in the kitchen where Marija was standing, preparing food for him to take on his daily trek through the forest. He watched her through the window as she finished her preparations. She was still beautiful, her strong face unlined and un-creased, her dark, chestnut hair untouched by grey. Her eyes, the same walnut color as his, always flashed with a fire that Jusuf knew his own eyes lacked. She looked up, caught his gaze, smiled at him. Jusuf forced a smile and lowered his gaze to the worn wooden planks of the table, tracking an ant as it wandered, as drawn to the remaining lump of sugar as he was to the forest.
She’s so strong. Stronger than me. She has let go of the past, has confronted the ghosts, has laid the voices to rest. She has found a way to deal with it. It’s been more than twenty years and she is here, thriving even, in the land of the living. I’m not. I’m stuck in the land of the dead, chasing voices and memories through the woods in hope of…what? What exactly am I doing? Would they do this for me? Would they? Or would they just move on with life, thinking about my voice and my memory?
He hoped they would do as he did. He hoped he had mattered enough that he would be searched for. He hoped he would not be forgotten.
Srebrenica, Bosnia and Herzegovina, July 1995
Jusuf sat in the candlelit loft of the farmhouse, early morning chores long since finished, and watched his younger sister sitting among piles of worn books, their pages yellowed and dog-eared. He listened attentively as she talked about the book they were currently reading.
“How could he?” she asked, her question dripping with incredulity.
“He’s going to let Valentine die! The Count knows she’s being poisoned. He knows who is doing it! What is he doing about it? Nothing. He’s doing nothing!”
Lejla Ahmetovic was roughly the same age as Valentine de Villefort and was completely despondent about her impending death. Jusuf smiled gently at his sister.
Of the Ahmetovic children, the two of them were the closest in age and they had been inseparable since Lejla could walk. They did everything together, always with the goal of returning to their little hoard of books. A love of reading was something that the rest of the family did not quite share with the two teenagers. Neither parent could read or write, although both indulged the youngest of their children. The elder Ahmetovic children, Mirza and Demir, could read and write, having been educated briefly, but both considered such things a waste of time, focusing instead on the day-to-day toils of running a small, family farm.
Formal education had always been a difficult prospect for rural Bosnians, even more so since the outbreak of hostilities just three years before. That didn’t stop Jusuf and Lejla from becoming voracious readers. Each of the two teenagers was largely self-taught and their humble library of books had been collected over years of family trips into Srebrenica. The Ahmetovic family traveled regularly to the city’s markets to sell or trade the products of their farm, a trip that usually ended with Mehmed Ahmetovic providing a small amount of money which Jusuf immediately used to purchase second and third-hand books.
“Does it matter?” Jusuf inquired. He’d read a little further and was deliberately was baiting Lejla.
“Does it matter? How can it not matter? What did she ever do to Edmond? She’s being poisoned because of what her father did. How is that fair?” Lejla was getting angry.
“Do you really think the Count will let her die?”
“He’s not doing anything to stop Madame de Villefort. He knows she’s the poisoner. He’s just going to let it happen.”
“Maybe?” Her voice got louder. “What about Maximillian? What about him? Edmond loved Monsieur Morrel and he’s going to just let Valentine die.”
“Probably.” Jusuf saw her cheeks flush. She was going to explode.
“How can you say that? If Valentine dies, Maximillian will die too. He’ll kill himself. I know it. How can the Count let this happen? Maximillian is going to kill himself and he is almost the only family the Count has left. That’s the whole point. What would you do for family? What would you give up? The Count isn’t willing to give up his hate to protect what little family he has left.”
“Probably.” Jusuf could no longer control his face. A smirk escaped briefly and his sister caught the look. She punched him in the chest.
“Why would you do that?”
“Do what?” replied Jusuf, feigning innocence.
“You read ahead. You did. Didn’t you? You read ahead and you know what happens next and you…you…you let me think…” She trailed off, crossing her arms and pouting.
“I didn’t do that. Dumas did. He wrote the book.”
“But you let me think Valentine would die.” She threw part of a roll at Jusuf, which he was not agile enough to avoid. He started laughing.
Lejla shoved Jusuf over and stormed off to the ladder, descending into the main room of the Ahmetovic home. When Jusuf finally stopped laughing, he descended the ladder, cut through the kitchen, and headed through the door to the yard, ducking two more doughy missiles as he headed for the picnic table to join his father and brothers.
Jusuf took his last sip of coffee and placed the cup back in its copper holder. Brushing his hands off, he reached through the neck of his sweater, an old, torn one his mother had made for him more than two decades ago, and pulled a small notebook from the breast pocket of his shirt. He opened it to the first page and looked at the names written there. Mama. Tata. Mirza and Demir. Lejla. Five entries on this page. Mom. Dad. Brothers. Sister.
He began flipping through the rest of the pages. There were other names throughout the book, penciled in in Jusuf’s own hand, the precise block lettering of a trained engineer. Names of those who had been found, by him, during his wanderings through the Kamenicko Brdo woods surrounding his home. Whole families of people were listed there, remains of people he had found, bringing them back to the living, helping others to achieve closure that he had yet to experience, but there was a difference in the names. The people listed on pages two to two-hundred and three were names that were written into the book after they had been found, their identities confirmed and families notified.
The names on page one, the names of his own family, had been scribed onto the page the same morning that he had started this search. He had expected to have crossed them off by now, to have found them, to have been able to say goodbye. But they weren’t crossed off. Jusuf had not found them. He still hadn’t said goodbye. They weren’t here now, and there hadn’t been time then.
Srebrenica, Bosnia and Herzegovina, July 1995
Seventeen-year old Jusuf Ahmetovic sat awkwardly at the picnic table just meters from the kitchen window of his family’s home in Srebrenica, trying to fold his tall, lanky frame onto the bench seat built by his late grandfather. An innocent and toothy grin spread across his thin and childish face as he lifted a cup of early-morning coffee from the pressed copper plate. He had stirred in two lumps of crystalline-white sugar, leaving the third on the tray, just like his father did. Jusuf did not know why there were always three lumps of sugar waiting on the tray. Tradition maybe? Maybe it was the way coffee was always served.
He’d never asked and he’d never tried his coffee with all three lumps. Jusuf merely imitated his father, stirring in two lumps of sugar to cut the acidic bitterness of the early-morning coffee.
At the table with him were his father, Mehmed, and his two older brothers, Mirza and Demir, the four of them partaking in a new family ritual; drinking morning coffee while they discussed the violence which had engulfed their homeland.
Jusuf remembered how his country, just three years earlier, had secured international recognition of their existence as an independent republic. He’d heard his father speak of this, praising the Muslim majority which had made freedom possible. It seemed like a lifetime ago.
Now, the conversation in the mornings mainly concerned how the Serbs, the largest minority group in the area, had been against the move, and had mobilized forces within Bosnia and Herzegovina to suppress Bosnian independence. His father and brothers spoke of Radovan Karadzic and Slobodan Milosevic, whose troops had quickly engaged the Bosnian military and forced the newly founded nation into a bitter war which had been characterized by the indiscriminate shelling of military and civilian targets.
“They’re murderers. Nothing more. Allah will deal with them when their time comes.” Jusuf’s father pronounced with conviction.
“But they’re rounding us up. I’ve heard rumors that people are disappearing. Even worse. That people are being executed by the hundreds. Surely Allah wouldn’t permit that.” Mirza was concerned and had, more than once, proposed fleeing the country.
“Where would you have us go Mirza? We cannot afford to leave. We do not have the money to travel that far, even if we sold the entire flock.” Demir replied, ever the realist.
“I don’t know where we could go. I don’t know how we could pay. I just know that it is dangerous to stay here. The stories have to be true. Each week, the market grows smaller. Each week, there is one less stand. Maybe we only need to get to the nearest army post. I don’t know.”
“And leave all of our belongings here? What then Mirza? What then? What happens when we reach the post with nothing but the clothes we wear and a parcel of food? You and I would be able to serve in the army. We would be useful to them. What of Mama and Tata, Jusuf and Lejla? What happens to them? Our parents are too old for such nonsense. Lejla cannot fight. Jusuf is too young. Are we to expect charity from the army?”
“I don’t know Demir. I don’t know. I just know that Karadzic and his Srpska men are killing Muslims. Its called genocide. Fifty years ago, it happened to the Jews. Today, it is our turn. We will die if we don’t leave. Our lack of money will be irrelevant then. We have to do something.”
Jusuf had not spoken. He’d just listened to the argument and sipped his coffee, waiting for his father to weigh in on the debate.
“You are both correct. We are in danger here and, yet, we cannot afford to flee. Allah has protected us. He will continue to protect us. We must have faith. We must trust in His will.”
The pronouncement was met with nods. The family would remain in place for now, wary of the danger of doing so. The conversation turned to the war itself, the actual fighting of battles between armed foes, relegating impending dangers to the subconscious for the time being.
To the left of the house, near the chimney, the family’s small herd of sheep started, bleated loudly, and moved with deceptive quickness to steer well clear of some perceived danger, heading instinctively for their well-known grazing lands in the hills and woods behind the Ahmetovic home. In a way, the sheep were wiser than the family that tended them. Neither evolution, nor Providence had seen fit to supply sheep with weapons. To them had only been given the ability to sense danger and run, an instinct which would have served Jusuf and his family well. Knowing the area as intimately as they knew each other, had the family followed the lead of the frightened livestock, they would have stood a fair chance at survival. But they didn’t run. They simply sat, looking around, wondering what had spooked the flock.
Less than a minute after the abrupt and noisy departure of the sheep, the men seated around the table heard the sounds of automatic weapons fire, a cease-less chattering that was both easily identifiable and decidedly foreign. The sound coming from the wooded area to the rear of the house, about where the sheep had disappeared, was accompanied by the high-pitched screeching of a mortally wounded animal, a noise which ceased abruptly following another round of gunfire. The Ahmetovic men began to get up from the table, an icy lead weight forming in the gut of each, fear growing exponentially.
As Jusuf worked to disengage his gangly legs from the table, his eldest brother and father were already off, disappearing around the same side of the house as the sheep with Mirza yelling.
“Demir! Jusuf! In the house. Now!”
Jusuf and his brother broke for the kitchen door, reaching it and stopping to listen to a pair of new noises. From behind the home, angry unintelligible yelling. From down by the single road which crawled up from Srebrenica, the barely audible sound of engines. Jusuf and his brother stopped, trying to think. The shouting from the rear of the house was louder now, angrier. The approaching trucks were close, only one winding turn on the dirt road away from being visible by the occupants of the ancient farm house. The boys, unused to violence and lacking the instincts of trained soldiers, froze. The engine noises to the west increased while the voices to the east, impeded by the bulk of the home, grew quiet.
A crash inside the house. A pair of screams. Mama. Lejla. Jusuf reached for the door, heard another crash and more screams. Jusuf pushed against the door, realized that something blocked it from opening, listened to the sounds of a struggle, a fight within the close confines of the home’s spartan kitchen. He heard dishes crashing to the floor, an unmistakable cacophony of shattering ceramics. Jusuf pushed harder, felt the door move, felt whatever lay against the door scrape backwards across the wooden floor of the kitchen. He pushed harder, setting his nearly two-meter tall frame against the door, his feet searching the ground for purchase. Another scream from the interior, decipherable now as an insult, delivered loudly in his mother’s voice. Jusuf pushed with everything he had, straining at the door, willing it to open as the sound of more gunfire reached his ears. Another scream, his baby sister this time. More gunshots. Then silence, the only sound still reaching Jusuf’s ears now was the low, growling rumble of diesel engines belonging to trucks which were just becoming visible, driving towards the house in a cloud of dust.
The trucks approached the Ahmetovic home as Jusuf continued to struggle with the door, halfheartedly believing that his mother and sister would still be alive and well just beyond the barrier. As the futility of what he was doing settled on him, Jusuf turned from the door to face the trucks, watched them travel the last fifty meters and turn into the yard.
Each truck, covered from tires to roof in mud and dust, was painted in the same manner, a flat, splotchy combination of dark and light green paint, interspersed with patches of medium brown. Troops already climbing from the back, the trucks drove through the Ahmetovic’s yard, turning away from Jusuf and his brother before coming to a stop near the picnic table where the morning coffee still sat, not yet cold. Jusuf and his brother, confronted by more than a dozen armed men, held their hands up, palms toward the Srpska soldiers, a supplication for mercy from the men now pointing loaded rifles at them.
Jusuf and his brother were pushed roughly to their knees by four of the soldiers, kept at gunpoint the entire time. Jusuf watched them, noting that most of them were his age. He had heard of this group. The Army of Republika Srpska, it was said, was the force responsible for unheard of atrocities, raping and pillaging their way across Bosnia and Herzegovina to exact vengeance on the civilian Muslim population as recompense for the embarrassing defeats handed to them by the fledgling Bosniak and Croat armies. They were bullies who had been unable to enforce their will against armed foes and had resorted to attacking the civilian population. And they were here. They had him at gunpoint. They had his brother, Demir, at gunpoint. They had, he suspected, murdered his mother and sister and, probably, his father and eldest brother. Knowing he was going to die, Jusuf began to pray.
The kitchen door behind Jusuf opened and he heard the footsteps of two people behind him. They walked by, heading to picnic table where a Srpska officer stood drinking Jusuf’s own coffee, having thrown the extra lump of sugar in. One of the soldiers, Jusuf saw, was bleeding a good deal from fresh scratches across his face. This one, Jusuf noted, wore a rumpled uniform, his tunic disheveled and ripped from the struggle within the house. Jusuf stared at him, cataloging the features in his memory, hoping that he might get a chance to tell Allah about this man, a man who murdered unarmed women. Jusuf noticed a detail about the man’s uniform that made his blood boil. His pants were undone, the fly unbuttoned and the belt hanging loose in the loops around the man’s waist. Rage filled Jusuf. This man, this monster, had assaulted either his mother or, more likely, his sister. He had attempted to rape one or both of them. Jusuf forgot about begging for Allah to give him justice and began to rise from his knees. He never made it.
A barked command from behind, the angry voice of a soldier that Jusuf had not seen or heard, was accompanied by pain. The uniformed man emphasized his point by delivering a crushing blow with the butt of his rifle to the back of Jusuf’s head. Jusuf collapsed into the dirt as thousands of tiny points of light exploded into his consciousness. Instinctively curling into a ball, he drew his knees up to his chest and moved his arms to cover his wounded head as two more men piled on top of him, using their full weight to flatten him out and wrench his arms behind his back. One soldier perched on his back, working to secure his arms with a length of rope while the other crouched near his head, a single knee pressing forcefully across his neck, driving the right side of his face into the loose dirt and gravel of a footpath. While Jusuf blinked in the dirt, trying to breathe, he felt a third man tie his ankles and heard more scuffling around him.
Jusuf paused at the entrance to the forest, taking in the smells and sounds. Birds chirped merrily away, twittering gaily while they flitted here and there, preparing for the winter. A few wild rabbits and squirrels did the same, darting quickly from spot to spot, the latter checking on their caches of food and screeching in rage each time a rival came into view. The leaves, a vibrant mixture of scarlet, tangerine, lemon, and lime, were getting sparse, falling from the thin branches to form a mosaic carpet on the forest floor. Sunlight filtered through the canopy as Jusuf stood there, subdividing the brilliant whole into individual rays of clear, cold light that reached down to touch the ground, pillars of pale gold interspersed between the damp, gray, moss-covered trunks of ancient trees.
Jusuf pulled the notebook from his pocket again, did not open it. He simply held it in his hands, entreating Allah to help him find his family, praying once more that this would be the day. His simple prayer complete, he kissed the cover of the small, tattered book, placed it back in his pocket and stepped, once more, into the woods.