James J. Braddock (Josip J. Knežević)

With Thanks

I would like to write the most beautiful words of thanks to a wonderful woman, but I know I won’t be able to. My dry and empty words written on these pages can’t express all my gratitude and love for her. That magnificent being, a woman to whom I owe so much, including this novel, which would not be without her.

Because of her, I love everything that I hadn’t until yesterday; because of her, all my springs will be filled with the scent of blooming gardens, all my summers will be illuminated with a sun shining like a big yellow sunflower, all my autumns will rain salty tears; because of her, all my winters will be warm and white, like a pearl…

She is my bird and my garden, my green tree and my white well, my morning and my evening, my blue sky and my bell, my hearth and my light, my window and my endless sea, MY LIFE…

But this is also my debt to all women, all the suffering and abused women in Bosnia, Croatia, and the world, this is my book for them… To you and to my love… to her, Mirna, to them… To you… my dedication to all women.

James J. Braddock

We all have something that links us to our parents, something within us from birth, a sign from God. We are marked with it for all time, not as punishment, but for direction, for testimony and truth… It’s all written in us, in that sign somewhere in the heavens, among the stars that paint a picture of us and uncover secrets…”


Then, suddenly, they heard the muffled cry of a young child, and it all became very clear to Milica. The stranger came in this weather precisely so they wouldn’t be seen! Behind one of the doors in a corner was a whicker basket covered with a blanket. Milica handed Samir her lamp and bent down to have a closer look. She pulled back the blanket and discovered a newborn that cried even louder when the light was shone on her. Poor child, thought Milica. Poor child, she must be hungry. She lifted the baby gently…


“I don’t know who will find this, but I hope it’s someone kind who will take good care of my little girl.

Please don’t judge me for leaving my baby, but I want you to know that they took her from me against my will. I may never know what happened to her, but I beg you, please watch over. She is such a dear, calm little baby. And please name her Mirna (calm).”
Milica nearly fell off her chair in astonishment.

There I secretly gave birth with the help of our family doctor. The worst part is that the father of my baby doesn’t even know of her existence, and I don’t know where he is. I hope this letter reaches sympathetic eyes.”
“Please be good to her. She was born in a good home, and, if the circumstances had been a little different, she would have had everything. I leave you this gold chain and locket as a memory of me, and I want my girl to have it in the future. I do this in the hopes that she’ll come into good hands, which I’ll pray for every night.”

I need to keep it safe so when the time comes, God willing, I can pass it on to Mirna. This is how God planned everything. If it had been any other way, I might have never found her. Luckily, though, I did, and I can give Mirna all the care she needs. I’ll keep the locket, the letter, and the money a secret, she thought, slightly ashamed. Their all Mirna’s, so it’s only fair she gets them.

“My heart is broken because of my lost child. I feel like they’ve torn a piece of me away. I hope she is well as you read this, and that you are a good person for my little girl to depend on. 

Also, in case you haven’t noticed, Mirna has a mole on her left thigh, same as I do. Other than blood, that birthmark is what ties us and symbolizes that she is mine forever. The day they took her from me will be buried in time, and there’s nothing I can do to change that, but I will carry bits of her soul with me for all my life. Maybe I’ll be able to let go of some one day, but I will never forget her. I’ll never be completely free of them. Let time do what it may.
Thank you once more and may God reward your goodness. May He protect both you and my daughter from all the evils in this world.

"An unhappy mother”


Sead thought about how the Bosnian climate was a wide spectrum of spirit and wisdom, open to the new, different, and foreign. That’s what Bosnia is, and that’s how it should stay! All the roads that lead to it were the paths of conquerors. But if this country has never given in to them, regardless of whether they came from the East or the West, he thought, it won’t now! It all began and ended there somehow.

The beauty of Bosnia had been noted by many writers, poets, and travelers. Down there, at the bottom of the vista, history ended and the future began. New people, new generations built and constructed the new, painstakingly slowly, for that was how great things were realized. How many times the past had been conquered and history overpowered!

Bosnia was the latest hostage of Yugoslavia, a Yugoslavia that now only existed in the minds of the twisted. And that was why the war had fallen on Bosnia, with the full force of wrath in its worst shape…

A part of this tragedy will stay embedded in our mind and tear wounds in our hearts! .
It’s all drowned in blood and tears, all of it. When all this passes in long lines of anguish and wretchedness, suffering and tears for lost home, for those who passed, only then will we know how much we’ve lost. And maybe we won’t, maybe it will be immeasurable…

Those poachers will all end up in hell, the center of all evil where God sends people for a lifetime full of sin and injustice for which there is no forgiveness or cure. Their souls will live in eternal pain, atoning for the horrid and unforgivable sins committed in their short time on Earth.

Where was that place, Hell? It must be somewhere in eternal flame, where condemned souls cried for death after everything they had done to people like Sead. Death would seem a relief from it, but there would be no death and no other escape for hell lasted for an eternity. There was no time, no yesterday, and no tomorrow, only the present, the horrific and merciless now that Sead and Mirna and their children were trapped in…


After the sudden blow to his face, after the treacherous thump to the back of his head, Sead’s eyes burned like smoldering coal. My heart has been trampled, but it turned into a rich plantation of wishes and dreams in a barren desert… I trust everyone… Nothing’s left but an empty façade, a lie, an illusion… Where is the open window fresh with morning air and sweet-smelling night to look at life through…? Desperation, darkness, and madness… Everything is turning to stone… my heart, my faith, my hope, my love! It all turns into a stony cry, a hit and a shot… What next? Sead laid in the bloody sleeping bag with flowing tears, unable to move or speak.


He might just be here to soften me up before the others come to decide my punishment, Sead thought. But what are my crimes? What? That I’m a Muslim? Because I’m against the war? Am I wrong for not wanting to kill, for not wanting to be a part of something that I don’t agree with? Is it a bigger crime that my wife is Croatian? Who decides why I’m guilty? Is it that they decided on some collective guilt a long time ago and are now carrying out punishments on individuals, on me? They won’t achieve anything with my death… I wonder where my brothers and my family are. All we are to them are statistics and tally marks jotted down somewhere as Muslims or Croatians.

Jesus, my hand hurts like hell. I can’t even move it anymore. What’s gonna happen to me? His mind was infested with thought.
We’ve done no wrong, none. Predrag left me with a hollow silence in this dark room full of the stench of death, dirty uniforms, and hospitals. It’s torture waiting till they call me to take to either the butcher or purgatory. With a smug smile, they’ll either rip off a part of me or just put a bullet in my head and end me.


Then there was a loud bang, and shattered glass rained down from a broken skylight. It fell on Mirna and the women near around her… She didn’t even move to shield herself. A small dove fell to the floor in front of her. It had smashed into the glass and was dying.

It landed beside Mirna’s head and their eyes met. A wounded bird and a wounded woman, together. It looked at Mirna with gentle eyes, lying there with broken wings and pieces of glass lodged in its weak frame. It blinked a few more times, like it was trying to relay a message to Mirna. She moved fro the first time and pulled the biggest piece of glass from the bird’s body. The clean, innocent blood of the little dove gushed from the wound…

She stared at the dove as it closed its eyes, found its peace, and left the earthly world for a better eternity. Are you sending me a message, God? I don’t know what it means. Does it have anything to do with my children, with Tanja? I can’t see what’s lying here right in front of my eyes!


But Tanja, that little thirteen-year-old girl, knew. She knew that her body was stained and disgraced and that she was losing strength. She knew that her thoughts were beginning to jumble and mix, like the fingers she had intertwined on her lap when her mother or father had lectured her. She fiddled with her fingers then as she did with her thoughts in that moment, trying to find meaning behind everything. She could feel them suffocating, wrapped in quiet and tried to keep them from wandering away and doing something irrational.

What’s rational and what’s irrational? she thought. Her thoughts floated around in front of her face, like two small birds she could practically touch. They were playing, chasing each other, two small doves in love. The flapping of their wings was the only sound she heard. She could feel their flight cool her face in waves.
She watched them in all their beauty, in their game of life and love intertwined in flight in that moment – that eternal moment. The only things Tanja moved were her eyes, two windows that reflected her life. She followed the birds’ flight, real and alive before her…

It wasn’t important anymore if she was dressed or naked. The glimmer in her eyes was attractive like a magnet and reflected some strange content. It showed a peaceful exit, like a quiet river flowing away, skipping on the rocky slope, taking bits of every place it passed with it… The joy of play, the dawn of childhood, the day of youth, the night of life… Taking the joyous blue sky of evening, the full moon in the valley of birth, the first buds of spring, and the autumn rain without the power to hold on to them… There was no one that could overpower her then, overpower that fragile body and silken soul, no one!

Pride streamed through the hollows of her eyes like a geyser, a volcanic eruption. It spilled over the dark room and seared everything in sight… The memories of a life, a youth, undreamt dreams and unfulfilled wishes burned… They stayed there floating in the air while the lava cooled into something unspoken, something understated, something… stayed…

Nothing could be seen anymore, not a blink of the pretty eye, nothing. There was only silence heavier than any load filling the room of horror and tragedy, witness to the crime against an innocent child…


To my dear and only wife,

To say now that I love you would not suffice. You already know that without having me write it on this all-absorbing paper. But I do love you and adore you, and it will always be that way. You’ll think that I’m leaving you and that I’ve betrayed you, but I’ve betrayed myself even more, trust me. I hope you’ll believe me one day. I don’t want our children to suffer because of the name they inherited from me, nor do I want you to suffer. It’s true that I’m leaving you, but not for something trivial like another woman. I’m leaving you proud of what I’m about to do, even though I might never know the extent of the consequences.
I thought I would be sad going my own way, too sad, but I’m now. Know that I’m leaving happy with myself because I’m saving a few lives, as I’d like someone to save you someday. My heart is filled with all of you, and I will frame the picture of our life and our kids in golden thread there. Life goes by, year by year, the days fly. I don’t want you to condemn me and kill every trace of what I was. Let me stay.

Should I turn my back and pretend nothing is happening here? I’ve already done that for too long. What I’m doing isn’t crazy; our time on Earth is short, but life with this burden would be much too long for me, and it wouldn’t be me, not the man you love. Remember me as everything I was and share my memory with our children without shame. I’m leaving for the rainy and stormy night with a smile on my lips and reflect on my golden day. Carefree times in endless fields await me with your kisses on my lips. Know, my beloved, that we are as deadly as we are alive. Is it wise now, my dear, to break your heart because of a departing mortal? Time is too short. I’ll enjoy sitting up on a cloud somewhere thinking about and watching you because you are my whole world. I’m going to Him, under His wing. I know He believes me and isn’t judging me, and I hope you won’t judge me either. Forgive me.

Look for a man who will love you and our children and be happy. I will know and see that you are and will give you my blessing.
I love you and our children immeasurably. Know that I’m wiping away tears of joy because your love will receive this letter. Now I’m going to the place from which there is no return, where there is eternal peace: your memories that can be forgotten.

Yours and yours alone, Ljuban


Why am I doing this? Why? He had often questioned himself when he first started preparing the escape, but the answer came to him easily now, on October 20th, 1992, very easily. I didn’t fall in love with her, no. I still love my wife after all this time. But I’ve never seen such a person, a woman, a fighter, who stood on her own despite all the abuse she’s faced. She stayed true to herself, her views, her thoughts, and stayed embarrassed about her naked body even though they stripped her down to the most hidden parts of her being. The Montenegrin marveled at that woman, her strength, her resolution, and the love she had for her children and husband.
He had been unable to turn a blind eye and deaf ear to her suffering, especially since he had known where she’d end up – either in the dump like countless others, or in a brothel, at best. He couldn’t allow it and leave the proud, upright, confident woman to her fate, but he hadn’t been able to express his intentions until the last moment because he hadn’t been fully aware of them himself.
I’m no longer that coldhearted man, and that’s why I love her. Thank you, Mirna! he said. He was happy, very happy. Just a little further…


Thanks to Mirna, I no longer walk in the darkness of crime, tangled in the corpses of faceless prisoners immune to their cries and outstretched hands. Thanks to Mirna, my name will not be stained and my children will be able to walk freely in a free country with their heads held high. They will not be judged because of their father. Thank you Mirna! This was the least I could in return for that, the least… What is one life compared to four or five?


“I gave Sead the picture you had hidden as proof that you were all still alive, and I helped him escape the same camp you were in. He’s on his way to the safe zone now, too. God willing, you’ll meet along the way. Don’t be afraid of the man that loves you, Mirna, and whom you love in return. Open you heart, and he will accept all your pain and share it with you. And you accept his. Be happy together for the rest of your lives.

Please, I ask you just one favor. Get this letter to my wife somehow. I wrote two just in case. I believe you will succeed, and this is the one thing I want you to do for me. I believe in your future life and your freedom.”


Ljuban pushed Jelena to the ground and started shooting. He hit Mountain, Brile, and Milorad before anyone started firing back. The Montenegrin was riddled with bullets. He managed to fire off one more shot before falling to the ground. Jelena threw herself on top of his dead body and cried while the others watched, stunned. She had loved him in her own way, and he had saved her life, even when he had known what she would do.

Though his body had been ripped apart, the Montenegrin had a smile on his lips as he went off to the lily fields, the wind tousling his hair. His children were running to him, their arms open wide. Under a stout tree stood Mirna with her family, waving to him with a bunch of flowers in her hand… and then she disappeared. The children disappeared and the lily field, too. For a split second he saw Jelena, and then he fell into darkness flooded with colorless blood.


“My dear Mirna,” he spoke in a soft voice that broke the silence of their feelings, “I lay on wet ground, and I woke up wet, hungry, thirsty, and wanting you. We were separated by so much, but it was our love that kept us together. I held your hand, walked beside you, and never left you. I hardly dared to hope for this moment, my love, and nothing can ruin it now. I know everything, and I know nothing, but I see. Whenever I close my eyes I see you, and when I open them I see you. Please don’t cry, my love. Everything will be alright. I’m with you now!” Sead told her.

Mirna listened to him nestled in his arms, in the embrace of a happy family with the shadow slowly lifting from her weathered face…