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Fata and Begajeta

From 'Death is the Master from Serbia'

by Marko Vesovic

There are two girls as well, the Professor tells me, fighting in our battalion. The older one's called Fata, she's blonde and not blonde and about thirty. The younger one's a little dark-haired twenty-year-old, and her name's Begajeta.

There are seven or eight women altogether on Igman, and I wish there were more, since it's good to have women in a unit, especially when they're first-class soldiers, like these two.

Yes, they're true soldiers, they carry automatic weapons and they've never missed a battle. They come from somewhere near Tarcin. Or perhaps Hadzic? Or is it Pazaric? I don't know exactly, but it's not important, because you could plump them down on the Tuzla or the Bihac front and they'd be every bit as good soldiers as they are here on Igman. Just show them where the Chetniks are - and you need have no more worry about them.

When I warn them they should take a rest, they get really mad. They haven't come here for that, they tell me. The gentlemen can keep right on taking rests on Igman, but they're here on more urgent business. They haven't ever taken a day off, and no one in their unit knows any longer when to send them home on leave, in line with the rota that applies to everybody.

In the morning, they're the first to get up. They're first for PT too. And when the flag's being raised, they're first again. And you'll never hear them complain about the food. When we set off for Igman, they say, we knew we weren't going on a picnic.

It happens - and not just once either - that when there's no electricity the soldiers get only a hunk of bread for supper. In our mess, you know, we've got all kinds of fancy dishes painted on the walls: over here escargots, over there tournedos, and so on. And we gaze at these dishes, painted who knows when before the war, as we push forward in the queue to collect our porridge.

So one day I got the idea of paying closer attention and listening to what my soldiers say and how they bear up, when they get nothing but dry bread for supper. You expect, of course, to get a whole earful of effing and blinding. So I wait to hear which one of us officers will be the first to have his mother's virtue impugned.

Each soldier takes his hunk of bread, Fata and Begajeta take theirs, and they sit down at the table to eat their supper. The two women eat slowly, and when they're half way through, they kind of pause a little. No wonder: the dry bread simply refuses to slide down their throats. But after a little rest, they finish off their meal in silence. And not one of the soldiers round them says a word. I'm dumbfounded: if I were in their shoes, I'd be the first to rain down curses on the commanding officer's head. But as for them - they don't, not a whisper. Watch out, by God, I say to myself: every one of my soldiers thinks more decently than I do. But perhaps there's no thinking involved? What's there to think about, while you're eating a crust of dry bread? That's how things are, let's get this over with too - and all will be quiet on the western front!* All of them, the whole lot, are better at enduring things of every kind than I am. Yet I lead them. All two hundred and seventy of them.

A little later I realise there's actually something else involved. It's quite simply a good and excellent thing to have women in every unit, especially if they're like Fata and Begajeta. Because they're the whip to drive the men with. A whip which sometimes squeezes twice what you'd hoped for from your battalion, since every man would rather die than prove unable to do or endure what a woman can. This is why men, you know, don't like to see women turning up in their unit! Because who knows what kind of ordeal the women will put them through.

But God forbid you should tell Fata and Begajeta to keep out of this or that battle. God forbid! Or that you should try and spare them this or that task. Yet you mustn't think that the soldier has swallowed up the woman in them! Not at all. Each has her own steady boyfriend in the battalion. That's how the men put it. Fata's boyfriend! As if they were in the first year of high school, and not on Igman. And when you happen to call round to sit and talk with them, you can see plainly from their faces they're not really listening to you, but are thinking about what they can offer you. You may be treated to all kinds of things, even sour milk, dear God...

But don't try to order them to miss a battle. That's one thing you mustn't do. Because Fata and Begajeta are fighting not just as Bosnian women. But also as sisters. The Chetniks cut their brothers' throats, you see. Don't jump to the conclusion, though, that they're fighting merely to avenge their brothers. I don't mean to deny that they're fighting for that too. But in this case it's not so simple. That's why I'm telling you the story of these two girls.

The patience with which they bear all the hardships of war reminds me of the patience with which sisters look after their younger brothers. Their self-sacrifice reminds me of sisterly self-sacrifice in favour of brothers. And so, when they rush forward to attack the Chetniks, their courage is the courage of sisters ready to go through fire and water for their brothers! As if all that they do on Igman can somehow prolong their brohers' lives. They are kept going not so much by hatred of the butchers, as by sisterly love for their victims.

* '... i mirna vojska' echoes the popular phrase 'i mirna Bosna', meaning roughly 'and that's that'.

Translated by Quintin Hoare from Marko Vesovic, Smrt je majstor iz Srbije ('Death is the Master from Serbia'), Sarajevo 1994, joint winner of the Avdo Medjedovic Prize for 1995.

About the author. Marko Vesovic is a well-known Bosnian poet and writer of Montenegrin origin, born in Pape, Montenegro, in 1945. He is the author of the following volumes of poetry: Nedjelja ('Sunday'), Sarajevo 1971); Osmatracnica ('Observation Post'), Sarajevo 1976); Jermini sinovi ('Jermina's sons'), Sarajevo 1976; the novel Rodonacelnik ('The Family Founder'), Sarajevo 1992; and the collection of polemical essays Cetvrti genije ('The Fourth Genius') Sarajevo 1989. Together with Jasna Levinger he has translated Emily Dickinson (Sarajevo 1986).

Marko Vesovic, although a Montenegrin, is a member of the Serb Civic Council of Bosnia-Herzegovina.