Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Yellow

Yellow. Their skin was yellow. They had dirt under their fingernails and their feet were dirty. There were six of them, all women, under the tarpaulin. Some of them lived long enough to have their wounds bandaged before they died. Some died more or less instantly as shrapnel or 7.62-mm rounds entered their bodies. They had been dead for about 24 hours. We came to witness their funeral, to witness and to stand a type of guard. If we were present, the Serb snipers would not shoot at the family members as they buried their dead.

     It was the first time I had ever seen war dead. I remember being surprised that their skin was yellow. My experiences with death before that day were limited to a few funerals: a friend's older brother, my grandmother. None of them had been yellow. So I was surprised at the color. It was the first time I ever saw dead people without embalming, without make-up and a nice suit of clothes. They laid in a tangle of limbs under a blue tarp in a trailer that, only weeks before probably carried peppers and corn to the market in Malisevo.

      I could only see parts of their bodies under the tarp. I couldn't see all of their faces. One had an arm resting across her brow. One had a bandage covering most of her head. One of the dead, an 18-month-old child, was missing. We had seen some dogs on the way up the trail.
The British UN officer who led me to the scene said what all of us thought, "The dogs probably got the body." She was right, of course, but nobody wanted to say it. The child's mother rested in a house in the village a couple kilometers away with a bullet lodged in her upper arm. The bullet had passed through her baby, then through her breast before lodging in her arm. The father said the baby had been killed instantly. "The bullet tore the child in half," he said. He had dragged the mother away to safety. A doctor from the Red Cross treated her wounds in a small house in the village. Eleven women and a 72-year-old man, all wounded from the attack, all patiently waiting for the doctor, sat on the floor leaning against the walls in same room.

     In Kosovo, my teammates and I were supposed to provide a sense of security to the Serbian and Albanian civilians and to keep the two military forces from shooting at each other as much as possible. Unsaid in our brief was the implied mission to stop the killing.

     I was seven people too late in Senik. Standing in that house on the day after the attack, with the sticky smell of sweat and blood and wounds mingling with the cotton-mouthed smell of fear in the air, I knew I was in the middle of something I didn't—and maybe couldn't—understand, and that people's lives depended on my doing the right thing. But I had no idea what that was. I knew little of the regional history, spoke none of the languages, and at that moment found myself standing in small house surrounded by wounded civilians and with Serbian infantry a couple kilometers away.

     I looked at the wounded 72-year-old man. His eyes filled with something between hate and incomprehension: hatred for the Serbs and incomprehension that an American and a Brit were standing in his living room doing nothing about the Serbian infantry who killed six women and an infant, and wounded him and all these others.

     Senik was a village of 500 or so people. Not more than a few houses at a three-way intersection on a dirt road, really. With only one small store, everyone shopped at the big market in Malisevo. The elementary school sat at the base of the hill a couple kilometers away; the kids could walk that far, even in the winter. The famers used to grow grapes, but the vines were bare from the drought and a fire. The gravel road was dusty and rutted from the daily flow of tractors up and down the hill, out to the paved road and the fields and markets beyond the isolated clutch of houses.

     The trouble with Senik, in the eyes of the Serbian police, was that it was on the edge of Berisha Mountain, a Kosovo Liberation Army stronghold. Serbian policy was to attack villages that supported the KLA. We never really knew if the villagers supported the KLA before the attack, but afterwards they certainly did, after they buried six of their women and watched Red Cross doctors treat eleven more.

     We stood at the edge of a trail a couple kilometers up the road from the house where the doctors tended the wounded. Fifteen or so men and women from the village walked slowly behind a tractor pulling the bodies on a trailer into the valley. As the tractor reached the floor of the valley, we could still see Serbian snipers atop the ridgeline. We glanced at each other; nervously on my part.

     The dead women had lived and died in this valley. They had spent their lives raising crops in its fields and giving birth to their children in the small houses that made up the spare little town. Their families wanted to bury them at the center of the valley, in plain sight of the ridgeline.

     We parked our vehicles in full view of the ridgeline as a deterrent to further shooting. Certainly, we believed, the Serbs wouldn't shoot at EU and U.S. observers or the white and blue UN vehicle. The ground was hard and it took some time to bury the dead. The men worked with shovels and picks for about an hour to dig the graves. We stood around watching, glancing back and forth between the ridgeline and the grave diggers.

     Finally, the graves were finished. One by one the dead women were wrapped in cloth and gently lowered into the ground. Someone said a few words over each of them and the men began covering their bodies with the rocky soil. Once the shoveling stopped, the valley was quiet. There was no wind to speak of. No cars or planes off in the distance. We stood there for a moment unsure of what to do. The men decided for us. The clatter of their picks and shovels dropping onto the trailer broke the silence and we said our goodbyes.

     Afterwards, we stopped on the way out of the draw and used our satellite telephone to call Washington and tell the State Department's Operations Center what we had seen. They seemed very far away from that hillside.

     My side of the conversation went like this: "Eleven wounded: ten women and one 72-year-old man. Seven dead: six women and one child. Yes, I counted myself. Yes, we're sure they were dead. I verified it personally." I left out the part about the dogs and the missing child. No histrionics, no personal opinion. Nothing about the smell or the dust or the look on the old man's face. Nothing about being scared to stand about at the base of the draw. Nothing about the color of their skin or how their families tenderly wrapped their bodies, the women crying as they slowly and gently lowered the dead women to the dirt.

     We made one more stop on the way off of the hill. An old man flagged us down as we were leaving the draw for the village. He told our interpreter he wanted to show us something the Serbs had done. I glanced through the window of the house and saw seven or eight women sitting on the floor and rocking slowly, comforting each other. They surrounded the body of another woman. She was laid out on her back and wrapped in a blanket. Her face and most of her head were missing. The man said a mortar round had exploded within a foot of her head. He held his hands out in front of his body to demonstrate the distance. He was the dead woman's father and he looked, justifiably, like part of him had died. As he spoke, the women wailed, their voices a declaration of mourning and exhausted resignation.

     Amid the crying and the smell and the flies, we listened to the story. Her father said she had wanted to take food to her friends, to talk with them, to drink coffee with them. She reached the small valley just as the attack had started.

     The mortar shells probably came in groups of three. Poonk, poonk, poonk as they left the tubes, then the breathless, agonizing five- or six-second wait while they flew, and finally then the brittle kuhrump, kuhrump, kuhrump barking and echoing off of the walls of the canyon as they exploded. The gunners probably set the fuses to go off about one and a half or two meters above the ground—about head high.

     It was an awful story. I couldn't wait to get out of there, away from the smell and the crying and the death. I felt outraged and horrified that soldiers would fire mortars at women and children. I couldn't make myself look at her. I looked at the other women slowly rocking, their bright headscarves a stark and awful reminder that their sister or daughter or friend's head was blown off as she tried to bring some succor to others. I made notes about what her father said as my partner photographed her corpse. I learned the smell and the sound. Eight dead.

     We drove down to the intersection marking Senik proper, where a small crowd swarmed our vehicle. I pushed open the door and stood, pinned against the side of my truck by the crowd, as my translator echoed staccato pleas for help at me.

     "She wants you to take her child out of here so the Serbs won't kill him," Mimi said. I looked at the woman, she held her infant son out to me in entreaty. I said to Mimi: "Tell her that we are observers, we can't relocate her or the government in Belgrade will order us out of the country," I felt impotent and feckless as the words spilled out, thinking of the sheer folly of being in this war zone only to observe, a tourist among these victims.

     It was hot and, with the sun bearing down on me, I felt cowardly, yellow, hiding behind my sunglasses. I waved my notebook at the Red Cross panel truck and said that was the vehicle that would take them away, hoping they would swarm that vehicle and leave me alone. I thought the Red Cross would probably say no, but I was unable to marshal the strength to tell the woman that there was little hope that she would get out that day with an International. I learned later that I had been wrong. Several UN officers came to Senik late in the day, and one of them took it upon herself to evacuate some of the children to a safer village.

     "We're observers," our bosses told us. "We can't take sides or the whole team will be thrown out of the country; we are no good then," they said. I said it, too. I said it a lot. Every morning I went to the field, and most days I came home with reports of houses burned, or police stations attacked, or people killed. Every afternoon I wrote reports about what we saw. I wrote crisp, dry accounts of messy, horrible acts of cruelty.

     That day, fighting the urge to flee, the smells and the sounds became part of my memory. But I have lost the faces of the grieving father, of the 72-year-old man, of the woman pushing her child at me. I wonder today if, having pushed away so much of what I felt back then—confusion, fear, revulsion, anger—I cannot remember the faces because I have subconsciously suppressed the images.

     Or maybe they have become spectral, symbols representing events that are, in my mind, larger than life. Like actors in a play seen but only remembered in fits and starts, they come back to remind me of my failures and of my weakness and of my cowardice. They are the central characters in these acts of war.

(This essay was published in the Fall edition of the journal JMWW: http://jmww.150m.com/Capps.html )

1 comment:

soph said...

I heard about you from an NPR program and just wanted to say I love what you are doing with the veterans. I teach high school English - my AP class just read Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried. Tomorrow I will add your name and work to our discussion. The idea of putting something in words to "get control" of the event really strikes a chord with me.
I have not been able to look closely at "Yellow" yet (it's late here!) but I look forward to doing so. Good luck.