A soldier’s story for the millennium.
There is not one family that doesn’t have at least one skeleton in the closet. Ours relates to my father’s death. In seventy-nine, while he was taking a cement shipment to a nickel mine in Macedonia, he was shot in Kosovo, somewhere around Urosevac. We’ve never found out why or what for.
Two years later, mom married one of my dad’s former colleagues. I was three years old when this happened; my brother was two. I can’t say anything bad about the guy, as he never abused or beat us, but we still held a grudge against him. We were filled with hatred toward him. He was managing our lives with pride and authority, and we just couldn’t forgive him for that.
My brother acquired a handgun in ninety-five. He couldn’t find any bullets for the gun but he was still flashing it around with pride. By coincidence, in a series of unlucky circumstances, it happened that at this time, our stepdad smacked mom in the face because the potato noodles were cold. Like he was waiting for the occasion, my brother decided he would shoot the bastard. So he went out to get a bullet for his gun.
It wasn’t an easy achievement; the Yugoslav People’s Army had already gotten over Bosnia, and the arsenals that were left wide open for the irregular troops were locked up again. It was an era when one could ask the man making inquiries for bullets, what do you want with them? But the Balkan is still the Balkan: He finally got a bullet for fifteen German marks. At that time it was equal to his average monthly salary. Yet, in the meantime, mom made peace with stepdad and we were left with a frightfully expensive bullet.
In old times, people from the Vajdaság were taken to do military service to Slovenia, Bosnia, and even to Macedonia. And the Slovenes, the Croats, the Bosnians and the Macedonians were brought here to the endless wheat and cornfields. But where on earth are Slovenia, Macedonia and Dalmatia now?! I was drafted to Sabac, in northern Serbia, namely in the silent period between two storms, which has passed by because of the Dayton peace agreement and the NATO bombings. My brother visited me every week; he brought with him money, food and warm clothing; whatever I needed. Once, when he had found me in a particularly blue mood, he thrust the fifteen mark bullet into my hand. “If somebody’s annoying you, put this bullet into his head,“ he ordered me. I wasn’t in a mood to explain to him that I didn’t even have a gun. They were using me and two sanjak Muslim kids to clean toilets. Yet, the bullet was left with me.
I pulled twelve months in Sabac where, as I found out, they held Serbia’s biggest open market. In February of ninety-nine I was discharged with chronic arthritis. By that time, UCK waged a full-scale guerilla war in Kosovo, and furthermore, the Albanian propaganda campaign functioned better then the Serb’s, which is no wonder, considering the Serbs had lost credibility with the massacres in Croatia and Bosnia.
Bad news was waiting for me at home; my brother was drafted one week before my discharge. He was marched to Malisevo, about halfway between Kosovska, Mitrovica and Urosevac. He was in powder keg up to his neck. Again, I was looking at the bullet I had gotten from him, while I had to listen to mom’s whining. She was pleading with either me or my stepfather to find a way to get him home. The old man was humming, and shrugging his shoulders when I happened to say: “I’ll volunteer for service and I will find him!” Mom’s tears dried up immediately. “Go, my son, bring your brother home,” she whispered and practically shoved me out the door.
Men at the drafting board were looking at me with astonishment, why would I – being a Hungarian – want to go to Kosovo? However, they put my name on the list. On the same day, I was taken to Nis with an internal security corps unit, where we joined other voluntary groups from all over Serbia. Most of them had already smelled powder during the fight in Slovenia, some were even wounded. They were whispering rumors that NATO forces would attack soon, so we were sleeping in sheds and barns, in fear of our shitty lives, far away from all battle equipments and vehicles.
In Kosovo, deep valleys reach one another, the plains spread strangely, and bushes are wretched on the shiftless, arched mountains. Generally, a sole pitched road leads among them, surrounded by acacia poles, frequently missing electric wires. On other occasions, we made our way between labyrinth-like, man-sized stonewalls, where only a tank can make you break loose from. There were eternally gray skies, continuously drizzling rains, roaring and rumbling of unknown origins from behind the horizon.
The squadron waited for two weeks in a vacated school in Lipjlan for deployment. While there, I made friends with Pesics Dalibor, a radio mechanic, a maniac gun lover and sleepy head. He claimed he had a carbine rifle, a shotgun and a nine millimeter Beretta. I showed him the bullet I got from my brother. He just glanced at it and said at once: “Zastava ZCZ-99 ammo, better be careful with it, because it has a very sensitive igniter.” I was lost in astonishment. That night we found out that NATO planes had started to attack Yugoslavia.
After lengthy deliberation, our officers came to the conclusion that we should keep all the vehicle motors running since we could receive orders to get going at any minute. The T-75 tanks and the transportation vehicles were rumbling in the schoolyard all night long. From a few thousand meters above, the Americans could take pretty nice thermo pictures of them.
I was awakened at four; it was my time to guard. I went to the courtyard shivering from the cold and I decided to stand beside one of the trucks, hoping the running motor would heat me up a bit. That was the moment when I heard some strange murmuring. I turned around, and above the school building I saw two red, and one yellow spot, hanging from the sky, somewhere over the westerly hills. They were seemingly motionless, but I sensed they were approaching real fast.
I ran into the school building, and started to cry out loud: “The bombers are coming, everybody get the hell out!” I was kicking, beating, and shaking everyone to make sure they made every effort to get out. A good while back, we had dug a trench at the end of the schoolyard, and now we threw ourselves into it, peeping out to watch the growing spots of light. Then somebody cried out: “Dalibor was left inside!” I didn’t know who cried, and I didn’t care. I had a minute to drag my buddy out.
I ran across the schoolyard. About ten seconds passed. Up the stairs, another five seconds. All the way through the corridor; five more seconds. I ran to Dalibor, grabbing his shoulder. Another five seconds, and another five. The humming noise became a loud rumble outside. I was tugging Dalibor, pushing him in front of me. He felt the trouble, and didn’t resist but he was in a dreamy state bordering consciousness. He didn’t know where the exit was. I was hustling him toward the door but I felt weakness that comes with crying. “I’ll never find my brother, because I’ll die,” flashed in my thoughts, and then I didn’t even count the seconds anymore, I slung Dalibor to the schoolyard; he limped down the stairs and then stopped. I yelled at him: “Run! Run!” But he couldn’t hear anything, the tremor filled the air.
The sun was sinking on the horizon when I regained consciousness. My head, and my arms were bandaged; I felt a burning pain in my thigh. I was lying on a hospital bed in Pristina. Supposedly it took an hour and a half to pluck out all the splinters that penetrated me from the torn panel walls of the school’s corridor. Luckily, the blast knocked me into the building, but my pants caught on fire, and from the heat the Zastava ZCZ-99 ammo I got from my brother exploded in my pocket. The damn thing had a very sensitive igniter, as Dalibor said. I would never find out what was left of him. He slipped into that mysterious nothingness to which my father was lost back in seventy-nine.
After that, I was treated for weeks in different hospitals, and when they let me go home, they wrote into the wounded column of my soldier’s book: “Kosovo, bullet wound.”
Just like it was written in my father’s death certificate.
[Source: “Kosovo, Gunshot Wound. A Soldier’s Tale,” Translated by: Tim Wilkinson, The Hungarian Quarterly XLIV/169 (Spring 2003): 73-76. ]