In 1992, Savo Heleta was a young Serbian boy enjoying an idyllic, peaceful childhood in Gorazde, a primarily Muslim city in Bosnia. At the age of just thirteen, Savo’s life was turned upside down as civil war broke out. When Bosnian Serbs attacked the city, Savo and his family became objects of suspicion overnight.
Through the next two years, they endured treatment that no human being should ever be subjected to. Their lives were threatened, they were shot at, terrorized, put in a detention camp, starved, and eventually stripped of everything they owned. But after two long years, Savo and his family managed to escape. And then the real transformation took place.
From his childhood before the war to his internment and eventual freedom, we follow Savo’s emotional journey from a young teenager seeking retribution to a person seeking healing, reconciliation, and peace. Through it all, we begin to understand this young man’s arduous struggle to forgive the very people he could no longer trust.
At once powerful and elegiac, Not My Turn to Die offers a unique look at a conflict that continues to fascinate and enlighten us.
Literary representation: Maryann Karinch, The Rudy Agency
Publisher: AMACOM Books, New York, 2008
Don’t fool with us. We know you’ve stayed in the city to spy for the chetniks!”
Smelling of homemade plum brandy, a man named Rasim weaved back and forth in his chair as he accused my parents of vicious crimes. “You are all the same to us! Some of you kill us with artillery shells and snipers, and some of you kill us by sending information to your friends. We know you radio the chetniks with our military positions. And your neighbors told us they saw you sending flashlight signals to the hills.”
It was June 17, 1992. We’d heard from our Muslim neighbors that Rasim had burned down a number of Serbian houses in the area since the fighting started. A drunkard with a scarred face and a penchant for picking fights, he was someone my father would never have let into our home before the war. No rational person would trust him. Yet, the Muslim police had recruited him once the war began.
My parents didn’t want to let him in. His machine gun changed their minds.
He interrogated my parents for more than four hours; my sister Sanja and I remained silent and still between our mom and dad on the couch. Dressed in a green camouflage uniform, Rasim sat on a chair, smoking one cigarette after another. His machine gun rested near him on the dining room table, the gun barrel pointed toward us. I watched his hand move toward the AK-47 whenever an answer didn’t satisfy him. Fondling the barrel, sliding his finger toward the trigger.
The spy and flashlight stories weren’t new to us. My teacher, our friend Todor, and many others were accused of being spies and killed without a trial. The killers could never find evidence, and in our case the flashlight accusation defied logic. Buildings surrounded us.
“The police were here once and they searched the whole apartment,” my father said. “They didn’t find anything illegal. I had a gun procured with a permit and some bullets. They confiscated them and gave me a certificate.”
My mother almost shouted, “The police can come again and search our home if they suspect we are still hiding something.”
Rasim ignored them, “Better you admit guilt now, rather than later. I know people who are ready to take you to the river. A bullet in the head, they roll you into the Drina, and then you float all the way to Serbia.”
My parents looked at each other, then at my sister and me. I could see they were frightened. They said nothing.
Rasim sat for a moment waiting. Abruptly he brandished his gun and said, “If you don’t cooperate, the river will be your grave.” Then he got up and left, slamming the door behind him.
We sat frozen. Terror seized me; bloodcurdling thoughts spun around my mind. We could only wait for death! Our only hope was for a quick death without much pain.
The next morning at about six, the sound of someone breaking the building’s entrance door downstairs awakened me. Sanja and I slept in one bedroom, our parents in the room next to ours.
I shut my eyes tightly and decided I was having a bad dream. Thuds on the door downstairs and yelling from the people breaking in proved me wrong.
They broke the main building door downstairs and ran up the stairs, shouting obscenities. Within seconds, they kicked at our door with their heavy boots and bashed it with their shoulders.
“Open the door, you bloody Serbs. This is your last day!”
My little sister cried my name in fright. She jumped from her bed and started dressing. I jumped from my bed too and rushed through my stuff on a chair, looking for pants and a shirt.
“Open the door! We know you are in there!”
Our room door was open. I saw my mother, frantically trying to dress in the hallway. She asked them to wait, not to break down the door.
“Open right now or I’ll blast it open with my machine gun. We don’t have time for games. Too many of you chetniks live around here. This will be a busy day for us!”
I heard them cock their guns.
“Whatever happens, please don’t leave your room,” Mom pleaded with tears in her eyes. She hugged Sanja and me before closing our bedroom door.
“No!” I flung the door open. “We want to be together.” I looked at my parents and sister, thinking that it could be the last moment we would see one another alive.
There was no time for discussion. My mother opened the main door and asked what was going on. No answers, just yelling. Four men with guns in their hands and long knives and hand grenades hanging on their belts cursed and took aim at my mother: “You dirty chetnik, this is your last day.”
Four monsters with haggard faces, hatred pouring from their bloodshot eyes, and reeking of brandy, screamed, “Bastards! Chetniks! Animals!” They made one promise: They would exterminate us once and for all.
“We’re going to kill you like dogs!” one of them yelled over and over and over again.
My mother knew him very well. A man named Suljo. She and he had been neighbors in their youth and had grown up together. A short, bald man in his late thirties, he had worked for the municipal government before the war. The faces of the other two men, in their early twenties, looked familiar to me. I’d seen them many times in the yard before the war. They had friends living in our building. I remembered the nickname of one of them. Celo. The fourth man didn’t look familiar.
One of them grabbed my dad by the collar and dragged him out to the stairway. Another one did the same to my mom. She held out my father’s leather jacket, trying to give it to him.
“Drop it or I’ll kill you! She has a grenade in the jacket!”
“It is only a jacket. . . .” Her voice was trembling. “See, nothing in the pockets.”
One man snatched the jacket from my mother and searched it. “Your husband won’t need the jacket. After today, he won’t be able to wear it again.” Checking the size of the jacket, he said, “Look, guys, nice leather. It’s my size.”
Then he looked at Sanja and me. He seemed confused to see children.
“Kids, get out of the apartment and follow your parents,” he finally yelled. When Sanja and I started to slowly walk outside, he shoved me with his gun barrel, almost knocking me on the floor.
“Please don’t hurt the children,” my mother pleaded with them. “Do whatever you want to us. Just don’t take the children.”
“Shut up. You won’t tell us what to do. You Serbs, you are no good! You are nothing!” one of the intruders said, laughing madly in my mother’s face.
In the stairway, our Muslim neighbors Adem and Amra, parents of my best friend Mirza, appeared at their doorway. They’d awakened after hearing the racket coming from our apartment. They wanted to find out what was going on and where the four men were taking my family.
“Go back to your apartment and don’t ask any more questions, or else you could get hurt too,” one of the intruders said.
Adem and Amra didn’t retreat. “Please, at least don’t take the kids with you. Leave them here with us,” Amra begged.
The four men stopped. The intruder named Suljo took another man aside, talking to him for several seconds.
“Okay, the kids can stay with you for a while. That will make our job easier,” Suljo said.
“When we are done with their parents and the other Serbs from the neighborhood, we will come back for them. They’d better be here,” another man added.
My sister and I didn’t want to stay with our neighbors. We cried until our throats were raw; we wanted to stay with our parents. If we had to die, we wanted to die together. Our neighbors pulled and pushed until the two of us were safely inside their apartment.