Janine di Giovanni reported from Sarajevo during the siege of the early 1990s. She returned last year to look for Nusrat, an orphan she befriended during the war – and wrote ‘The Book of the Dead,’ which is printed in Granta 111: Going Back. She did not find him on that trip, but returned a few weeks ago, and they were finally reunited. She recounts their meeting here.
We found Nusrat at the beginning of the long Bosnian summer, in Sarajevo. Someone at the orphanage, where he passed occasionally to eat and shower, gave him my fixer Velma’s telephone number. ‘There’s a foreigner looking for you,’ they said.
Nusrat phoned Velma out of curiosity. He said he was living on the street. He moved every night to a different location, but most nights he could be found near the monument of the Eternal Flame. He told her, before hanging up the phone, that his brother Mohammed had died a few months before, and more mysteriously, ‘my baby’ was also dead.
Velma and I were in the Parliament when we got his number, and we called him. He answered on the first ring. He said he was across the bridge, on the other side of the river, and he would meet me within fifteen minutes.
I saw Nusrat again, for the first time in seventeen years at a small corner cafe near the Holiday Inn. During the war it had been bombed, and I remember passing it every day and stepping over cinder blocks and exposed wires. Now it was shiny and restored with banquettes and silver chairs and tables.
I arrived first, and watched the door for Nusrat, looking for a small boy with large ears and dark eyes: a bigger version of the tiny, frightened child I had known. It was a hot day, humid, with heavy air. Velma and I ordered cranberry juice and waited. Velma smoked nervously. ‘He will have changed’ she said, ‘Years have passed.’
Several people entered the cafe in the next few minutes and at first I searched all of their faces, then gave up and stared into my muddy juice. Then, without warning, Nusrat was at our table. He had the same dark hair, matted, and olive skin. He was carrying a plastic sack with holes in it. When he opened his mouth, I could see he had lost his front teeth. And there were fresh wounds on his face – it looked as though he had gotten into a fight – and bruises on his arms. He was dressed in dirty clothes, and more sneakers without laces.
He seemed embarrassed by his ragged appearance but stood with a kind of dignity, as if to say: I may look like this, but I am something else. We told him to sit, and he gingerly took a seat and politely ordered juice from the waiter. He did not want to eat. He said he had slept outside the night before, but because it was summer, it was not too bad. ‘In winter, the cold, it gets into your bones,’ he said. ‘But in summer, you just need a blanket.’
Then he told me what had happened to him in sketchy sentences, between sips of juice. He had stayed in the orphanage until his late teens, along with his brother Mohammed. Then he met a woman, married her, and had a child a few years back. The child was one of the babies who died in the orphanage fire in Sarajevo. The one the director was allegedly involved in. Which was why, I supposed, the director had been so shifty when he met me, and when I began asking questions about Nusrat.
‘Then, a few months ago, Mohammed died,’ he said. He looked away, towards a window, and further, towards the river. ‘I lost them both, my brother and my baby.’ Quietly, he drummed his fingers on the table. ‘I think about them all the time.’
There was so much I wanted to know, but I did not want to frighten him. Where did he go after the war? What did he remember from those days? How did he live in the wintertime? Was he taking drugs?
He shook his head. He was not taking drugs, and I looked at the inside of his arms: no tracks. He lived hand to mouth, he said, searching trashcans for food. He slept where he could, alone. ‘I’m always alone,’ he said. ‘And I like it like that – I don’t have all the voices, all the noise.’ As for the war, he seemed to visibly shudder. ‘It was a terrible time.’ Pause, sip of juice. ‘And I was just a kid.’ He searched my face, as if trying to remember me. He said he remembered, far back, a foreigner who had been kind to him.
He talked for a while, about his baby, about the woman he married – he no longer saw her – and about how he had no identity card. He did not receive any help from the state, or social services. Without his older brother, he said, he felt unprotected.
We sat for sometime, and I found after a while that there was little I could say. Eventually, he had to go. When he stood, I gave him everything I had in my wallet, which was not much, and I was aware, as I opened my bag, how shameful it was – as if to try to erase the guilt of what had happened to him. Paying him off. But really, I just wanted him to have a place to stay, at least for a few months.
He did not want it, not really. He did not come for money, but he took it, and seemed grateful. He sat again, and thanked me. He said he could get a small hotel for a few weeks. Then he might be able to get his identity card, put together his life, get his baby’s birth certificate. He thanked me profusely, asked when we could meet again, then got up to go. He picked up his plastic bag, and walked towards the door, and I noticed then his limp. He was no longer a child, but he looked so vulnerable, so small. This little boy.
As he walked away, and I followed his silhouette as he crossed the street, and then got lost across the river, I could not think, how much I could have done and had not. And how much we – all of us, from the European Community to the United Nations, and on a small small level, and most especially, me – failed Bosnia, and failed everything.
Photograph © Marco Fieber