All the actual events in this book are only in the service of fiction, nothing more. Only the similarity between the actual hero and the book's Senad Kapo is not accidental. The strongest image to keep its place in memories from my schooling years in Alija Tabakovic Elementary School at Sarajevo's neighborhood of Vrbanjusa, where I had finished first four grades, is a semblance of a schoolmate of mine who was the strongest of us all, hard and by large dangerous fellow. He seemed being afraid of nothing - the teacher, older kids, mad dogs, stealing the neighbors' cherries in broad daylight, fighting two or three opponents at the same time, his own parents. Most of us thought of him as an idol, we all wanted to be like him.
Had he lived, this buddy of mine would for sure become a real, great Sarajevan hoodlum. But that was not his fate...
When we were in grade three he fell off the bike, hit the concrete with his head and died.
This book will describe his life, as it would probably look like had it taken place. Probably, because the fate of my generation, and the generation of my late friend, was damned predestined. I dedicate this book to my children, Erna and Emir, wishing them to always have some kind of a choice at their disposal; choice that the life wouldn't give to Senad Kapo and to many of his contemporaries
He opens his left eye. Black. Closes it again. Once again tries to open both eyes simultaneously. Nothing. Again opens just the left one and again and again there's just darkness.
Groaning coming in steadily from his left side, sharp screams in regular intervals incise into his right ear, each weaker than the previous one. Eventually the screams become just coarse cough, then rattle, then nothing. Silence. Screaming, coughing, rattling then dull nothing... All too well he knows that series of sounds, he had listened to it earlier.
There, somewhere near, to the right of him, someone has just died.
He hears someone's death. Meaning, he hears... Therefore he's alive. Maybe blind, but alive. Along with this evidence of being alive comes horrid, destructive pain. The worst it is in his chest, like a fire burning inside. The more he gets back to consciousness the more it scorches.
He can't stand it any more. Is there anyone there to get him some water.
He wants to scream.
Using all of his strength he tries to scream, but no voice comes out of his gaping jaws. The bullet ran through his throat and there are no more vocal cords there. Tremendous effort he had used in order to shriek totally exhausted him and he wished to sink back into darkness. Instead, for a moment, he thought he was able to see again. Something flashed in the darkness like a match.
A match, thrown down from the skies, couldn't fall on the ground. It would rather hit some of countless cars parked on Brus, a flatland on Trebevic, small mountain overlooking the city of Sarajevo. The vehicles are tightly clinched, almost attached, against one another. Someone who had not known the drivers who mastered their skills in the steep Sarajevo's streets would probably ask themselves in amazement how is it possible to assemble so many vehicles one against another. And how to pull them all out of the huge, neatly packed flock of four-wheelers afterwards, except for those parked on either end of the crowd, was a real mistery. Most of the cars have a TAXI sign on their roofs, almost half of them are of the NSU brand, a somewhat to tall and awkward car nicknamed by its designers as "Prince". Then, in 1974, NSU is unrivalled, most popular brand among Sarajevo's taxi-drivers. Owning that car was a kind of a status question within their guild.
A few taxi-drivers remained in the city these days as noticed by many city-dwellers who have vainly waved with one hand, holding a bag full of fresh groceries in the other.
It is late in April, the time when all Sarajevo gets a fine scent and surrounding hills turn green. The streets are full. People can't resist a blow of sudden happiness brought but the spring, they are hurrying out as if in desire to share with others the joy of surviving another ponderous Sarajevan winter. Houses and offices are empty, even the laborious tradesmen, always tapping at something with their little hammers, have gotten out to fresh air in front of their shops, to sit on their wooden benches, smoke cigarettes pushed into cigarette-holders, and slowly sip Turkish coffee from small pots. An additional reason for crowd is Wednesday, trading day, when farmers from Romanija mountain, from eastern and central Bosnia, come down to the city to sell their goods on the Markale market place or in the city indoors farmer's market. Fine home made fat, cheese, sour cream, milk, as well as meat and fresh eggs may be found much cheaper on the trading day and that's when the townsfolk would crowd for whole morning, bargaining with the farmers, buying and filling their shopping bags to the top. That is why many of those who lived farther away or at the slopes away from the downtown, would treat themselves with a taxi ride, not only to avoid carrying heavy shopping bags but also to avoid pushing and sweating in always, but on Wednesdays more than ever, crowded Sarajevo streetcars and buses.
Today, however most of the cabbies decided not to make use of this customary lucrative opportunity.
They took the folks to Trebevic, parked there and waited for the beginning of the fight between the two notorious Belgrade hoodlums, Milja and Savo Govedarica, whose fate decided Sarajevo to be the place of their final showdown. This was one of those great events, which were supposed to be retold for the years to come, from mouth to mouth, over and over again, until they evolve into a legend. Everyone who cares about themselves at all, wants to be at the scene, which would give them a significant advantage in future café discusions, since they'll always be able to say:
- I was watching with my own eyes Milja and Savo Govedarica, beating each other on Trebevic.
Each cabby brought a full carload; almost all that arrived by their own cars brought their buddies with them and many came by Trebevic cable car. The crowd was like at a national league basketball game. The audience flocked on a meadow around imagined area for which they instinctively decided would leave enough room for the two adversaries to move during the fight. In the centre of that, almost perfect green circle, are Milja and Savo holding arms en guard, looking at each other straight into the eye, over clenched fists, as if the each one was waiting for the other to start – which is often, though not always, a sign of nervousness, weakness, or even fear. They have agreed on a fair fight, which allowed blows with fists, head and feet, but not usage of any kind of a weapon. The fight won’t be considered as over until one of the two asks the other one to stop admitting the defeat, unless one of the fighters faints or dies. The victory entails not only considerable fame and awe in entire Yugoslavia and in émigré circles throughout Europe, but also a significant percentage of the bets, which is good money, a small fortune.
Neither Milja nor Savo are suckers to allow the crowd to watch them bleeding waithout paying for that.
* * *
The bets give enormous advantage to Milja, almost two by one. He is a guy of undeterminable age, thanks to his very dark complexion. Could be twenty or forty just as well. It seems that he has some Gypsy blood in his veins. Long and dense black hair with thick whiskers and huge, almost joined eyebrows are the first thing one notices on his face, but when one gets close enough he must be fascinated with these brown, always a bit bloody eyes and fleshy lips, always distorted in a mocking smile that reveals yellow, tobacco stained teeth, the remaining ones. Milja has already lost quite a few teeth in both jaws, but he apparently doesn’t care about it, neither it occurs to him to go and see a dentist.
In spite of that many women find him charming. The black holes, showing where the missing teeth once had been, are making his smile sinister. There is some unconcealed boldness and sarcasm in the way Milja shows his toothless jaws. Men are frightened by that smile, women like it, both instinctively recognizing Milja's strength in it.
And his readiness to use it.
By his entire figure Milja mostly looks like some of the stars from the Hong Kong kung-fu movies that in those times, in early seventies used to fill theatres in Yugoslavia the way the westerns did the same thing in the pre-television era.
Not only that he is tightly tailored from top to bottom as some sport pro, without a gram of fat, with muscles that tremble with every movement, making him even more a look alike of oriental actors and martial arts masters; Milja also knows some of their tricks and knows how to use them.
It is not clear what Milja makes his living of. Some say he works as a bouncer in the expensive restaurants along the Adriatic coast, others see him as an incredibly skillful burglar who operates abroad, mostly in Italy from where he had brought back his nickname because of which no one really remembered his real name, while yet others swear that he is a professional hitman. Whatever the truth, one is for sure: Milja always wears smartest clothes, sporting gold, accompanied by pretty girls whom he changes in the same rhytm as modern cars.
Milja has the money and likes to show it.
Now showing his crumbled teeth, grinning them into that well known despising smile, and fixating at Savo the sharpest way he can, from his clutched fists and chest behind the shirt glitter golden rings and chains. Underneath modern bell-shaped pants there are flawlessly shined Italian leather shoes that cost like two average workers' monthly wages.
Day before yesterday, in the Iskra casino, Milja promised Savo that he would put one of these expensive shoes right in his mouth.
* * *
Savo is a body-built bear of a man over six feet tall, weighing at least 250 pounds. He is generally much better known than Milja.
At least the crowd believe so...
Being as a little boy already strong enough to pull out the tail of an ox, his destiny was predetermined. Street fights, robberies, juvenile detention, then emigration, bodyguard jobs with big shots, gigolo in employment of wealthy German and Dutch ladies, and eventually robberies, more and more ambitious… A career usually to be crowned in prison, more often by death in a showdown with the police or with a competing gang. However Savo was lucky enough to land on a, comparatively, legitimate job – he joined the film industry.
Savo, namely, was so good in providing his virile services to some rich broad in Hamburg that she desired to keep him awhile in her bed. The forty-five-year old, by the name of Ingrid, was a successful businesswoman who occasionally put her money in the commercial German-produced westerns made after the works of German western-writer Karl May. Due to cheap manpower and technical servicing, these movies were often shot in the homeland of this Balkan bull, who was exactly what Ingrid needed: young, healthy, with above average dimensions of all the parts of his body, including the most important one; with a strength that matched the one of three average men put together and with just as much stamina in bed. Ingrid quickly realized that her new toy wasn't at all naïve, that he was rotten as much as handsome, interested only in money. What else would he be interested in after all? The money she supplied him with was enough for more than a decent living, but his ambitions weren't satisfied with just that. He wanted much more. So he, and Ingrid knew that, continued with robberies and went into debt collection business in which he would sometimes beat some poor bastards so badly that they would be happy to end in a nearby hospital's ICU instead of in the morgue. He carried gun at all times, without license, of course... Ingrid wasn't afraid that her stud might be taken over by some other woman, she didn't care when he went for some younger flesh along his way – there was more than enough energy in him for that. But there was real danger that Savo might be drawn away from her bed by the police, permanently.
That's why Ingrid found him a niche in the movies, a business much like crime itself, but at least within the limits of legality. At twenty-five Savo thus became a stuntman, above average in the profession. Here and there a director would offer to him some small support role, mostly of a half naked Indian warrior, a role that would enable him to show his abundant muscles. Once in some cheap co-production western he was even starring. The moive was a flop on the market as the star was stiff like he had swallowed a broom and no one, anywhere, wanted to watch that, except in Yugoslavia, where a familiar star's name on the poster was enough to provoke curiosity.
That's what the folks say about Savo.
It's been more than nine years between his first encounter with Ingrid and this moment when we see him in boxing pose at the mount of Trebevic. By this time Savo had already taken much of life, but many an unfulfilled desire was still there. He's only thirty-four, and this battle, in which he could lose much more than Milja, is something he doesn't need at all. If there was any chance of avoidance, he would have taken it, but there wasn't...
That's what one can could see on Savo's face.
Savo can't withdraw in front of Milja. He would lose his prestige and people would cease to fear him. And without these two things he would become a nobody again. In the world of Savo Govedarica there is no midpoint. You are either somebody or nobody. For him, only the first variant was acceptable.
That's why Savo gets ready to hit as strongly as he can.
* * *
Both Milja and Savo like to visit Sarajevo, a city a third in size of Belgrade, Yugoslavian capital, where they both live. The stars of Belgrade underworld like to spend their money in Sarajevo and show themselves in Sarajevan restaurants, casinos, night clubs and discotheques, where the crowds like to keep up with trends, and where these Belgrade criminals feel somehow better about themselves than in their own city.
For them, Sarajevo is a unique blend of a metropolis and a remote thorp. In the same neighbourhood of the city you may enjoy a nightlife, brighter and more plentiful than that of Belgrade, and at the same time come upon provincial low self respect of many Sarajevans. Measure of their admiration for everything that comes from Belgrade and even from Zagreb is comparable only to despise and snub for everything local.
Everything, except criminals, gangsters and thieves, who are so good in their trade that they are feared and respected even by other Sarajevans, including politicians and the police. These would rather make deals with main Sarajevan scoundrels than confront them.
A certain non-attack pact is in effect between Sarajevo and Belgrade gangs, and from the end of the sixties it would sometimes occur that Sarajevans and Belgraders plan and execute some operations abroad together.
Belgraders are more numerous, more efficient, much better organized while Sarajevans are unsurpassed in the expertise itself. Sarajevan burglars, valarosi, as the local slang calls them, are among top professionals, comparable to any masters of the trade in the world. Their ability to sneak in a rich house, regardless of sophisticated alarm systems and trained dogs that may guard it, results in respect and envy at the same time. The same goes for their skill in street fighting and use of fire arms, but especially famous are Sarajevan drivers who often acted as a last resort when a bank robbery or a house burglary took a wrong turn. Several drivers from Sarajevo became legends after managing to run away in front of the police in Belgium, Switzerland, Italy...
Because of all that and above all because in Sarajevo everybody knew everything about everybody, these Belgrade gangsters felt in Sarajevo like home, cocking in their expensive clothes and cars, feeling recognized and watched, admired and feared at the same time.
Worshiped, in a word.
Milja and Savo have one more reason to come to Sarajevo. Both are of Bosnian origin.
* * *
Savo arrived on Sunday evening and on the following day he already showed up in the Iskra casino in Logavina street, a bar in immediate vicinity of a police precinct. The only thing the police in that part of the city bother about are bar fighting and petty robberies, done mostly by underage amateurs and other smalltime muggers. Big crime, major robbery and murder are non-existent since the pros honour the principle saying you shouldn't work at home. This part of the city was thus one of the quietest and most secure ones.
The police have what they are paid for – public law and order, but at a price. Gangsters too want their peace and the police gives them that.
Service for service.
So it was quite possible to find this joint on the bottom of Logavina, a steep street that leads from Old Town to the surrounding hills, right in between Razija Omanovic Elementary School and the police precinct, where people played rummy and poker for money in public and unobtrusive by anyone.
As usual, Savo was losing a lot on that Monday and he enjoyed it. All his assets, and he was loaded, were in hard Western currencies. Here one played for worthless Yugoslav dinars and Savo could easily afford to lose a bag full of those, without any serious effect on his wallet. Also, there was his utmost pleasure, amid sycophants and flatterers who enjoyed lending him some money when he was left without cash. Though he could easily buy anyone of those small businessmen and tradesmen, café owners, jewelers and bakers he would allow them sometimes to "lend" him some cash, just for his and their pleasure. Their self-esteem would rise a little, as they got a chance to offer a service to their idol, and he would show them his despise as he would never even try to return the money neither would they dare ask him to.
The thing Savo likes the best, so they say, is to straightly show to people how much he despises them.
When someone saw Milja approaching Iskra, the bar buzzing abruptly stopped. It was clear that two so famous and dangerous guys wouldn't appear at the same place in the same time just like that. Everyone in the bar sensed trouble.
Indexi, famous Sarajevo rock band, played their big hit from the juke-box, that being the only sound to be heard when Milja entered Iskra.
Surrender, my heart, she's not here any more,
Surrender, my heart, we've lost everything...
Briskly pacing, without hesitating, Milja approached Savo's table, called him a motherfucker, and said it was time that the two of them settled their old business.
A brief facial seizure betrayed Savo – it was clear that he would much rather continue gambling and listening the flatterers.
But Milja decided for them both.
Only one was left to Savo. He moved away from the table, fixating Milja, and proposed the conditions and place of the fight. Milja promptly agreed, mocked at him with that smile of his, and slackly turned around noding his head sideways like he was moving the long hair away from his forehead – a motion patented by the most famous soccer player in the world, George Best.
Before leaving the bar Milja showed to Savo his new Italian shoes.
* * *
There is no rational reason why would the bets give such overwhelming advantage to Milja. Both contestants are deservedly reputed as tough guys, one would never want to be on of their way, each one's chances to win. Savo is taller by his entire head and weighs at least 60 pounds more, that should give him initial advantage, but movies, books, comics, stories and myths always reiterate the same old cliché: smaller but skillful fighter always beats up that big muscled bear. Heroes are always the people of medium height and weight to whom those big ones only serve as boxing pouches.
That's how it goes in movies and stories.
These two, facing each other on the Trebevic plateau, are exactly looking as if they've just come down from some popular action movie screen. People bet on the one who looks more like a star.
And everything really begins like in a movie...
Savo waved his fist first – and missed. Milja is faster and more precise. His direct blows off Savo's eye brow bone, and after Savo's fist swims again into thin air, Milja's foot precisely hits his balls. Roaring as a mountain bear, Savo grabs his stomach and bends down. Second Milja's foot blow lands on his face, between nose and upper lip, where the moustache grows, and crumbles his jaw.
Half-fainted in agony Savo tries two more wide swings but again he only disturbs the flies in the air. Avoiding those in elegant and elastic movements Milja jumps directly toward Savo, gets into clinch and pours a tremendous series of hard blows directly on his head. They are so rapid no one can count them, each one of them chops off a part of Savo Govedarica's face who after few seconds transforms into a monster.
All of a sudden something happened to Milja, as he felt sorry for his adversary. He does something incomprehensible, something that a scoundrel and a tough guy like himself, should never allow himself.
Savo was swaying, about to crash down under the ferocity of sustained blows, when Milja stopped. Was he thinking that Savo had already fainted and was about to fall down, or he didn't have enough stength to continue knocking this huge, inhumanly strong gorilla, we will never know. We only know that Milja finished the job too early. He stopped the series of blows, only for a moment before his foe, beaten up and unconscious, would stretch down on earth.
In this short pause, a break as long as a couple of eye blinks, which Milja recklessly presents to him, Savo stretches his hand out. Huge fist glues itself to Milja's face and he first backed under fierceness of Savo's blow, then started to fall down.
The left Savo's hand however grabbed his hair and kept him up.
Milja tries to lift his hands and protect himself. No use. While holding his hair in left hand he hits him with his right one methodically, with no rush, in even intervals. He blows from his shoulder, his fist starts from the height of his ear and lands on Milja's face turning it into unrecognizable mash of blood, skin, hair and flesh.
Just like this, as a little boy, Savo used to punch bags in amusement park – always winning a strongest blow prize.
Only God knows about the power of those blows, coming from this wounded, furious beast. Milja does not as after the second one he is completely unconscious.
The fingers of Savo's left fist loosen and Milja's body splashes down on the grass. He is hardly giving any signs of life and all the dilemmas about the winner of this fight are resolved.
Savo turns around making two paces toward his parked car, the car he came in together with two close friends who served as some sort of seconds in the duel. One of them has already started to help him to the car, the other collects the betting money. At that moment Savo touches the spot which causes him most pain, realizing his jaw is smashed, upper lip shattered, practically nonexistent, making him a disgusting freak for the rest of his life.
Then he turns back, kneels on Milja's chest, starts kicking his helpless opponent's head, neck, stomach and chest, a hundred-fold strength outpouring from his body with this sudden tide of rage and hatred. All the bystanders fell silent, no one daring to step in.
For the last few moments Savo kicks a corpse.
Only after Savo himself realized Milja was dead, the storm inside him calmed down, he got up and limped to the car, his two seconds and servants waiting for him, starting the car and roaring down the Trebevic.
There is no time to collect the bets.
Savo Govedarica has just killed a man in front of hundreds of witnesses and from this day on no one will ever hear about him.
* * *
Sendo is one of the most concentrated observers of the event, supposed to be a fierce fight between two dangerous guys, but turned into a brutal murder. He is watching, absorbing every detail. He is fourteen and he came here to learn.
This was the third and most important lesson he mastered so far.
People must fear you and you must be strong so they have a good reason to fear you.
That is something he has already known.
Now he knows that strength itself is not enough.
The strength is okay when you are dealing with the weak.
Savo is strong, and when someone is strong he should not venture into unnecessary risks.
Why did Milja stop? Perhaps he ran out of strength? That's why he should have kept somewhere some concealed weapon, a knife, a gun, brass knuckles... You've got to have something at all times, something to compensate the lack of skill, strength, or luck.
* * *
Only few days later on Milja's funeral, paid for with the betting money, he learned that his real name was Hasan Jasarevic, that he was twenty-nine years old and was born in eastern Bosnian town of Foca.
While priest chants, praying Allah to accept Milja with all his sins into the True World, Sendo keeps his hand in his pocket, clutching the handle of the spring-coil knife. He had been keeping it on him at all times for three years now. He always will.
Sendo swears to himself that he will always be strong enough to be feared of, cautious enough to avoid any unnecessary risk, and while he lives that some weapon will always be in his pocket.
Only that way he will avoid Milja's fate.
The fate cruelly mocked Musan Kapo.
He was born in a full house, he remembered wide fields and meadows full of cattle, whitened by a bunch of sheep, all owned by his late father, bey Kapo from Orahovo in eastern Bosnia. Bey Kapo had so much that he could afford to slaughter two sheep after each Ramadan and give the meat away to the poor. His family ate white bread, everyone in it, male and female, knew how to read and write, everyone had two dresses one for every day, other for holy days or to go to the market.
The moment they were stripped of all that, Musan was ten years old - enough to remember the full house and stable, the plenty and happiness he will never meet again. For all his life he remembered his proud father, the bey Kapo, standing upright as an arrow, axe in his hand, at the doorstep, in the gendarmes' way. The gendarmes who, enforcing the Agrarian Reform Act made by King of Yugoslavia, came to take away everything: the land, the crops, the stable...
The bey knew the gendarmes would kill him and this desperate attempt to oppose an unjust and dishonest state was actually his deliberate decision to choose death rather than misery and humiliation that would inevitably face him and his family, had he moved away of the door on that day.
Gendarme fired a bullet into bey Kapo's forehead and in that sole instant, instead of a rich family kid, Musan became a plain nobody. He remained that for the rest of his life, always remembering those short early childhood years of happiness. On and on, he searched for causes and tried to understand why did everything go exactly like that.
He never managed to think of anything that would make any sense.
All that he knew was that it was given to him to live only his first ten years as a human. Like someone woken up from a sweet dream, he seemed to see the things around him only with a part of consciousness.
The scent of freshly cut grass on wide, green fields of his Orahovo home, remembrance of the dream he was driven away from, will torment Musan's soul for the rest of his life.
A lousy life he felt as an undeserved punishment.
* * *