Walnuts in Srebrenica

I rounded a corner on the mountain road, temporarily blinded by the early morning sun that cut low over the sawtooth hill-line. I was making my laborious way through the Drina valley, in eastern Bosnia; it was barely morning, but I was already tired, eyeing a place to rest.

Trudging up the hill, I came across a small cottage, nestled half-hidden in the crook of the road. Its walls were freshly painted in white, and its gabled roof blazed with bright orange tiles. Raspberry plants, trussed in rows like grapevines, filled the field behind the cottage; next to it, cabbages and turnips poked up through the hoe-turned soil. It was a beautiful sight; a pocket of bucolic tranquility, insulated from the outside world.

The owner of the cottage spotted me and offered me the ubiquitous Bosnian coffee, a thick sludge served hot and punishingly strong. He was a tall, thickset man of about 50, the skin on his round face weatherworn into tough leather; as we talked, he fetched a hammer and some walnuts from the house. The cycle was swift: he would bring the hammer down with a sharp clunk; then, his stocky hands, practised and deceptively nimble, would swiftly dismantle the crushed shell, tossing the detritus into one bowl and the soft, fresh nut into another.

I wondered idly if the man was a returnee, one of the thousands of Muslims who, after having fled the region to escape the wartime ethnic cleansing of the 1990s, have in a slow but steady trickle returned to their prewar homes. I asked if he was local, skirting the issue out of cowardice, but he spoke frankly. "I fled from here in 1995," he began. "I left my home, my land, everything." The rhythm of the hammer slowed.

"The bodies lined the road for kilometres," he continued, hesitantly. Clunk; a nut went into the bowl. "I saw people from my village among them, people I had known for years… I joined the column that marched north, to try and escape to Tuzla." His face was distant, puzzled, as though recalling someone else's life. Clunk. "I never thought I would return here," he sighed, distractedly throwing another nut into the bowl. "But now my sons are grown up; the time was right…"

I couldn't comprehend it. How could he, after all he had seen, all he had been through, return here? His suffering was so alien, so indecipherable. He put the hammer down, and seemed suddenly to return from his daze. "So, do you like football? I like Paris Saint Germain," he said with a smile, and held out the bowl of nuts. He looked away as I took one, and I saw him wipe with those stocky hands his tearful eyes.

I said my goodbyes, and headed back to the road. As I climbed the hill, I heard again the sound of his hammer, echoing around the valley that was, once more and forever, his home.

R Miller

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