When Aleksandar Hemon and Velibor Božovic became friends as teenagers in Sarajevo, it was, in Hemon's words, "pretty clear that our friendship was for life, even if we could have no notion of what lay ahead of us."
In the coming years, it became clear that their future was going to be entirely unlike anything they might have imagined. Their beloved city was ripped to shreds by ethnic violence, its citizens suffering the longest siege in the history of modern warfare. Hemon was trapped abroad, in Chicago, when the siege began, and unable to return home, he watched in despair, alone and helpless, as the war unfolded in headlines and TV dispatches. Božovic, meanwhile, was trapped in Sarajevo with his family. As the conflict accelerated, he was conscripted into the Bosnian Army-even as his father, who had served in the Yugoslav People's Army since long before their country split apart, was being held in a Bosnian POW camp.
In his essay "My Prisoner," Hemon tells Božovic's story of life in Sarajevo during the siege. His account revolves around one particular incident in the middle of the war when Božovic was offered the chance to visit his father in the POW camp-though not, of course, without an onerous quid pro quo.
Almost twenty years later, in 2012, Hemon and Božovic are still friends for life. Hemon is now a writer in Chicago; Božovic is a photographer in Montreal. Hemon has traveled to Canada with his daughter to see his friend's art installation, My Prisoner, about that wartime reunion with his father. In this special ebook edition, both versions of "My Prisoner" are presented together. The result is a unique and extraordinary literary and artistic experience.
Note: Hemon's essay appears in the Picador paperback and ebook editions of The Book of My Lives. Božovic's My Prisoner appears only in this enhanced ebook.
|Publisher:||Farrar, Straus and Giroux|
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About the Author
Aleksandar Hemon is the author of the novel The Lazarus Project, which was a finalist for the 2008 National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award in fiction-and which includes photographs by Velibor Božovic; a book of essays, The Book of My Lives, which was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in Autobiography; a novel, The Making of Zombie Wars; and books of short stories: The Question of Bruno; Nowhere Man, also a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in fiction; and Love and Obstacles. He was the recipient of a 2003 Guggenheim Fellowship and a "genius grant" from the MacArthur Foundation. Hemon lives in Chicago.
Velibor Božovic was in his twenties when his hometown of Sarajevo became a war zone and was under siege for more than a thousand days. In 1999, he moved to Montreal where he worked for eight years as an engineer in the aerospace industry before abandoning that career to devote himself to art. Božovic holds a Master of Fine Arts in Studio Arts (Photography) (2015) and a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Photography (2011) from Concordia University. He has received numerous awards for his work, including the2015 Claudine and Stephen Bronfman Fellowships in Contemporary Art, the 2014 Concordia International Mobility Award, the 2012 Bourse de Maîtrise en Recherche from the Fonds de recherche société et culture (FQRSC), and the 2011 Roloff Beny Foundation Fellowship in Photography. His work has been exhibited in Canada, the United States, Cuba, and Bosnia-Herzegovina, and his photographs have appeared in various international media, including The Paris Review, The New York Times, Descant, International Herald Tribune, Granta and the Chicago Tribune.
Aleksandar Hemon is the author of The Lazarus Project, which was a finalist for the 2008 National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award, and three books of short stories: The Question of Bruno; Nowhere Man, which was also a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award; and Love and Obstacles. He was the recipient of a 2003 Guggenheim Fellowship and a “genius grant” from the MacArthur Foundation. He lives in Chicago.
Read an Excerpt
By Aleksandar Hemon
Farrar, Straus and GirouxCopyright © 2015 Aleksandar Hemon
All rights reserved.
All of my life I'd been dreaming of going to a World Cup soccer game. But the day before the opening game (Germany vs. Bolivia) of the 1994 World Cup was to be played in Chicago, where I lived, I boarded a plan to London. My friend Zrinka paid for my ticket to England, as I was employed by Greenpeace at the time and was thus dead broke. For the same reason, I couldn't begin to afford a World Cup ticket, let alone a TV. Besides, none of my closest friends were anywhere near Chicago—many of them, in fact, were busy being in Sarajevo under siege—and watching the World Cup by myself was as depressing as eating alone.
I hadn't seen Zrinka since before the war. She'd left the siege in September 1993, and ended up in the UK, having followed a Brownian refugee trajectory by way of Croatia, Italy, Switzerland, and Turkey. Now she split her time between London and Birmingham. I stayed with our friends Gua and Duka, who lived in a damp basement off Portobello Road. It was not a homey place: it vaguely smelled of rotten potato; the uneven ceiling sagged in one corner, where Gua and I had to slouch lest we scrape off the top of our heads; the only window was at the street level and it was never opened. Gua worked as a bartender at a London club and came back home late, so I'd wait up for him to watch the late live broadcast of World Cup games, never really switching to the local clock. While Duka slept, we'd get excited about the game we were watching, screaming in whisper, muffling our high fives, smoking all along as if possessed. After the game, we'd stay up to drink, talk, and suck on cigarettes some more, until the room was so full of smoke we could barely see Duka, unflappably asleep on the bed. We'd go to sleep at the crack of dawn, our mouths scorched with talking and nicotine.
Zrinka often joined us to listen to Let Love In, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds' most recent album, and talk incessantly about the war in Bosnia, which was at its bloodiest. Those nights and days were stretched between despair and euphoria, between hysterical laughter and random outbursts of fury. We often talked about our friend Veba—his friendship was one of the many things we shared—who was still in Sarajevo, under siege. We missed him, felt guilty, wondered if he had any chance to watch the World Cup or listen to Let Love In. We recalled our common past, our parties and projects, our demolished previous life, unimaginable without Veba. The desperate, angry elephant in the befogged London basement was Veba's absence and the distinct possibility that it might never end.
My oldest memory of Veba—Velibor Bozovic—dates from the winter of 1985. My sister, Kristina, sixteen at the time, had a crush on him and invited him to a party, as our parents unwisely left us to our own devices for the weekend. My memory of our first encounter is purely visual: he and I stand in a small circle of friends, all of us convulsing to loud music.
Veba had just moved to the fifteenth floor of the high-rise right across the street from us. I'd recently returned, bitter and distraught, from serving a year—every minute of which I'd hated—as a conscript of the Yugoslav People's Army (YPA). He and I became friends as quickly as my sister started dating him. When, in the fall of that year, he went to waste fourteen months of his life doing his turn as a YPA conscript, my sister missed him, and so did I. I wrote to him often and sent cassette tapes with what I was listening to at the time—say, Echo and the Bunnymen's Heaven Up Here. We were inseparable upon his return: we listened to music together, eventually starting a band. It was pretty clear that our friendship was for life, even if we could have no notion of what was ahead of us.
My sister was angry at Veba after they broke up, but that had little impact on our friendship and she eventually got over it. Veba moved on as well. One summer evening in 1988, he confessed to me how much in love he was with Sanja, whom he'd just met. Just going to the supermarket and carrying a basket for her, he said, was exhilarating.
When I left Sarajevo for the United States in the winter of 1992, Veba stayed behind. He was now living with Sanja, in a neighborhood called Velesici, not far from our old one. Veba's father, whom I always respectfully addressed as Cika-Vlado, was a warrant officer—zastavnik—in the YPA, in charge of a warehouse in Krupa, a small place near the town of Pazaric, just outside Sarajevo. A meek, kind man, Cika-Vlado had served all over Yugoslavia (Veba was born in Slovenj Gradec, in today's Slovenia), and was still loyal to the idea of the federal, multinational country, presently death-rattling.
By the spring, war had arrived to the outskirts of Sarajevo and the surrounding hills, slowly making its way down to the valley. The YPA had reached the malignant point of being largely controlled by the Serbs, who unleashed the abundant weaponry against the underarmed Bosnian police and volunteer units, the Bosnian Army yet to be formed. Cika-Vlado was no longer coming home from the warehouse, so Veba and Sanja moved back in with his mother and younger brother. Veba took turns with his neighbors in night-watching at the high-rise. It was unclear what could've been done in case of attack. Cika-Vlado had left a handgun at home, but Veba had had to deliver it to the police, who were collecting weapons from citizens. One day in April, Cika-Vlado suddenly showed up with two of his soldiers. At home, he had a quick coffee (always a sacred ritual among Bosnians), the first one in a long while, asking Veba to fetch their neighbor Sedad. He gave Sedad a machine gun and ammo "for the building." As far as the YPA would've been concerned, he was a traitor; as far as he was concerned, he was helping his neighbors. Coffee consumed, he went back to the warehouse.
Already in Chicago, I followed the news on Bosnia with heartbreaking concern. My sister and parents had left the city, starting their long journey to Hamilton, Canada. My hometown was settling in on the front pages, while I was deferring my decision whether to return. If I talked on the phone to my friends at that time, I remember none of the conversations—as war accelerates, one starts turning inside, concerned with one's own survival, at which exact point the slow condensation of guilt begins in one's mind, until, drop by drop, it becomes a vast sea. And once war starts, all the individual lives commence their own, ruthlessly unique trajectories and the segregation between those inside it and those outside it is firmly established. War, I learned, besieges.
Some time after the Serb Army besieged Sarajevo, a few Bosnian policemen came and knocked on the door of the Bozovic family. As they were taking them away, all of their neighbors came out to see what was happening. No one else from the building was being taken away. What everyone figured was that Veba and his family were being apprehended because of their presumed ethnicity—Bozovic sounded conspicuously Montenegrin at the time when many Montenegrins identified themselves as Serbs and fought in Bosnia and Croatia. The few people who dared say something were quickly silenced by the policemen.
One of the neighbors was Agim. He and his brother Besim had been professional soccer players and Veba had known them well, but they were not close. Agim, patriotic enough to have joined the Bosnian forces as soon as the fighting started, was outraged that the police were arbitrarily taking away his neighbors and had to be restrained. "Don't worry about it," Veba tried to calm him down. "Everything will be okay."
Veba and his family were taken to the Koevo soccer stadium, where they discovered nearly a thousand people who had been collected from all over the city, to stand in quiet, scared rows, while snot-nosed young men bullied and threatened them with slitting their throats. The word was that the family of a Bosnian Special Police unit commander was detained in Ilidza, a suburb of Sarajevo now under Serb control. The Bosnian commander (who happened to be an ethnic Serb himself) was pissed and was either going to exchange the hostages for his family or, possibly, kill them if his family were harmed. The Bosnian government representatives came to the stadium to plead and negotiate for the release, only to be dissed and dismissed.
Meanwhile, Agim followed in the wake of Veba's family. He went to the local headquarters, where he tore his Army ID to pieces and threw it into the face of the officer in charge, declaring his refusal to fight for the Bosnia in which his neighbors could be arbitrarily abused and detained. Such was the time, he was told.
Indeed, that was the time when life was cheap, death even cheaper; in the chaos of war people disappeared and got killed with no sense or reason. The only hope for the hostages in the stadium seemed to be the kindness of their friends and neighbors. Seeing people arrive to beg and vouchsafe for their friends and neighbors, pulling them out of the line despite the guards' threats, Veba was overwhelmed by the thought: "If nobody comes to get me, I don't know what I am doing in this city." It was then that Agim showed up and walked straight to the lineup, pushing aside the snot-noses as they tried to stop him. Veba's family returned home. Soon the rest of the hostages were freed as well. The moment he saw Agim at the stadium would be the happiest one of Veba's war.
Meanwhile, in Chicago, my accent constantly exposed me to the question: "Where are you from?" followed by, "So what is going on in Bosnia?" Early on, I exerted effort to explain: after Croatia and Slovenia in 1991 declared independence from the federal Yugoslavia they'd been part of for nearly fifty years, Bosnia and Herzegovina (in which the majority of population is of Muslim background) found itself in an untenable position of becoming part of the so-called rump Yugoslavia, fully dominated by the virulent Serbian nationalists under the leadership of Slobodan Miloevic. In the February 1992 referendum, the majority of people in Bosnia and Herzegovina voted for independence, but the majority did not include most of the ethnic Serbs, who preferred to be part of the Serbian fatherland, as promised by Miloevic. Once Bosnia and Herzegovina declared independence, the Serbs attacked. They took over large swaths of territory, besieged Sarajevo, and started a campaign of incredible brutality intended to drive such a bloody wedge between the peoples of Bosnia and Herzegovina that no reconciliation nor forgiveness nor common life would ever again be possible. As things stand now, they've largely succeeded.
Many Americans I talked to had a hard time processing what for Bosnians was basic information. I had little patience for getting into all the human intricacies of the situation for the benefit of a routinely curious American. Often I could not bear explaining that in Bosnia there were people of complicated backgrounds or that there were Serbs and Montenegrins who were fully committed to their neighbors, loyal to the idea of multiethnic Bosnia, which put them in a position of being seen as traitors by the Serbs and as suspect by other Bosnians. Eventually, I stopped enlightening the curious Americans, not so much because it was hard as because the explanation would always be inevitably reductive.
For I couldn't explain what seeing Agim in the stadium might have meant to Veba, or how invaluable it was for me to receive a letter from my friend, posted from Switzerland or Florida by a journalist leaving the siege for a vacation. I couldn't tell them about the books and music I sent to Veba with a vacated journalist on his way back to the siege. I saved money to buy a pair of shoes for Veba, feeling guilty because they were so cheap and flimsy and inconsequential within the absoluteness of war. Once, after the cinema magazine Sight & Sound came up with a list of the best films of all time, I decided to watch as many as possible, then record my thoughts on a tape and mail it to Veba along with the magazine. By the time I reached The Searchers, I realized how hopeless it all was—no movie could ever improve your survival chances—and forsook the whole project. Eventually, when asked about my country of origin by a lazily inquisitive American, I'd say "Luxembourg," safe in the assumption that no one would ever ask: "So what's going on in Luxembourg?" and safe in the fact that in that peaceful land I had no friends.
In May 1992, the Bosnian radio reported that Krupa was liberated. Someone told Veba's mother that her husband had been arrested by the Bosnian forces, but that was difficult to confirm, as the warehouse he was manning with several frightened conscripts was remote and isolated. It is quite possible that Cika-Vlado and his soldiers had been deliberately left behind by the Serbs to be liquidated by the Bosnians and thus martyred for the Serb cause. Instead of ascending to martyrdom, however, Cika-Vlado was taken to a Bosnian POW camp. The Bozovics managed to trace him to the camp, the notorious Silos, but they were not able to communicate with him.
As his father was imprisoned by the Bosnian Army, Veba was conscripted into it, joining in June 1992 a brigade that fought at Zuc, a hill where the hardest and longest battle of the siege of Sarajevo took place. In defending Zuc (which incidentally means gall), the Bosnians were preventing a complete encirclement of the city. It was trench warfare, complete with apocalyptic shelling, which would prevent anything from growing on the hilltop for many years to come. Veba, however, was deployed at the brigade fuel depot, a relatively safe situation in which he did not bear arms. No one actually said anything, but Veba figured that his suspicious name, in combination with his father's POW status, precluded his being trusted enough to bear arms in the trenches. It was also possible that his superiors were protecting him from the soldiers thirsting for revenge. A rumor had it that a Bosnian Army soldier of Serb background had been deliberately lead into a minefield by his revengeful comrades.
In the fall, during a lull in fighting, Veba went to Zuc for guard watch. On his guard duty he had to be just as watchful of his fellow Bosnians as he was of the Serbs on the other side. When he was off duty, a kind soldier he barely knew (but whose name, Miralem, he'd always remember) watched over him so he could sleep.
Obviously, Veba preferred to be at the fuel depot, not least because he could go home after his shift. Occasionally, a truck full of corpses coming from the front would stop at the depot. Once, a vehicle stopped for gas on its way to the morgue; it was carrying a woman who'd been killed by a lightning bolt—a strange way to die in a combat zone. Her corpse looked nothing like the torn-up bodies of shot or shelled soldiers: just a faint mark, like a gas burn, along her left side, from her temple to her groin.
Veba and Sanja got married in the summer of 1993. They signed the papers at the municipal government building—Zrinka was the maid of honor—and ran under sniper fire to a taxi, which drove them down Sniper Alley at incredible speed to the Holiday Inn, where they had a drink (Zrinka's treat) in lieu of a wedding reception. A passing French journalist was so astonished at Sarajevans still getting married that he gave them a bottle of wine. "Have a good life!" he wrote on it.
Around that time, with Zrinka's help, Sanja landed a job as an interpreter to a journalist, and then at the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) office in Sarajevo. Her bosses knew that her father-in-law was in the Silos, to which the ICRC had limited access, so in the winter of 1994 they sent her there, even if she was not part of the so-called "detention group," the staff that dealt with POWs. As Sanja entered the area where the prisoners were held, she spotted Cika-Vlado through the bars. The eyes on his starved face widened as he stood up to call her name. If the guards figured out they knew each other, neither she nor anyone from the ICRC would ever be allowed to see him again; indeed he was likely to be severely beaten, possibly even killed. She had to think quickly. "Look at that poor man. He lost his mind," she told the guards. "Let me explain to him I'm not who he thinks I am." She approached Cika-Vlado and managed to signal that he should back off and pretend not to know her. He sat back down without a word.
One day in London, Zrinka showed Gua and me the letter she'd just received from Veba. "You have to read it," she said, and as the smoke and despair filled the room, we did.
At the beginning, the letter is dated 15. 5. 1994, but Veba points out that the date only pertains to the first sentence—it would have to take time for what he needs to tell.
On March 29, he writes, he was summoned to the brigade headquarters and given orders to report at the Bosnian Army base in Pazaric. He was to go alone and had only an hour to get ready. He was given neither the details nor the purpose of his deployment, an unsettling situation even in war, when there is never any reason to believe that a future would be coming. He guessed the journey was somehow related to his father, but that was far from comforting. Equipped with a permit to leave the besieged city, Veba slouched through the damp, dark tunnel under the tarmac of the Sarajevo airport and reached the town of Hrasnica, where he was to contact a Bosnian intelligence officer. "This is where my madness begins," Veba writes. "Uncertainty and fear are killing me." Perhaps his father was dead and now they were allowing him to collect the body for a decent burial. There could also be a prisoners' exchange in the works, and they wished to see if his father would go to the Serbs or back to Sarajevo with Veba. Or—who knows?—it could be that the Army honchos found enough kindness in their hearts to let a loyal Bosnian soldier see his father.
Excerpted from My Prisoner by Aleksandar Hemon. Copyright © 2015 Aleksandar Hemon. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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Table of Contents
My Prisoner – Essay by Aleksandar Hemon,
My Prisoner (2012) – Video, Text, and Photos by Velibor Bozovic,
The Book of My Lives by Aleksandar Hemon,