Sunday 7 July 2019

Left Field: CHAPTER 25 - Dogs of War

One memory of the rapid US departure from Vietnam in 1973 is of helicopters being tipped over the edge of aircraft carriers in the Bay of Tonkin after depositing on board the last evacuees from the roof of the Saigon embassy, a rearguard of US marines pushing back men, women and children who had remained loyal to their American allies. This superpower cynicism, cruelty and wastage did not only extend to humans. 

What happened to the most loyal of all animals, the dogs?
I recently watched a TV documentary about dogs brought out to Vietnam from the US to sniff out mines and locate Vietcong guerrillas in their tunnels. They, too, were abandoned to their enemies and their fate. Some of these dogs were killed by their owners and others left to fend for themselves in the streets of Saigon and Da Nang.

One of the first things you noticed in Mostar after the sad evidence of physical destruction were the stray dogs, the war’s canine orphans. By day, they scavenged and lay by the roadside or slept in the dark shadows of shell-gutted buildings, nibbling at their mangy sores and looking sorry for themselves. By night, they formed packs and hunted. They would attack lone walkers and to find yourself in the centre of town at 3am being chased and nipped at by animals, whose memory was longer than we might care to admit, was an unpleasant experience. 

Mostar’s desolation was bad enough with its dark streets, crushed buildings and demoralised citizens, without having to deal with dogs who once had a sheltered, comfortable life.

When war broke out, many owners were unable to care for their animals and they ended up in the street. Other owners were killed or had fled the country, and their dogs, cats and other pets were abandoned. Those that survived best were the mongrels. In the aftermath of war, you never saw pedigree dogs: the French Poodles, Chihuahuas and Lhasa Apsos. They were war’s early victims, too far away from their ancestral stock to live alone for very long, too slow and small to gain advantage in the race for scraps of food.

During and after the war, the police organised hunts to cull the survivors, but, many years later, the crafty and the hardy still roamed the streets of the towns and cities. Some of them were heroes. One of these in Mostar, Heki, was a footsore mongrel who hung about in the old town begging food from cafés and passers-by. He had four separate pieces of shrapnel in his body, one of them lodged in his brain. He limped around and somehow survived. His home was the Ruža, the shelled ruins of a tourist hotel constructed in the 1970s, across a tributary that falls into the Neretva River, close to the Old Bridge. It was completely destroyed, but you could still read the fading signs to the ‘Terrace Bar’, the ‘Sauna’ and ‘Hairdresser’. Heki was its longest-standing guest and when you didn’t see him there, you could hear him padding around in the rubble. Whether from brain damage, resignation or because he’d had his fill of war, Heki was a passive dog with neither bark nor bite.

Buildings don’t need their ghosts. They are ghosts. I often peered inside this hotel and the many other shelled homes, offices and shops and felt a tangible memory, a feeling that if you touched the bullet holes and plaster-shattered walls, you would discover the truth of the building, its happinesses and sadnesses. The Second World War spy warning – ‘walls have ears’ – could have had added to it that ‘walls have memories’. If that is true of buildings, how much more is it true of dogs.

Nina was no different to other young people in Mostar and, for that matter, other young people anywhere else in Europe, in appearance, dress, attitudes and interests. Except she had a special animal, Torni. He was a large black and white mountain dog from the Tornjak breed. They were used for herding sheep. Torni comes from torn – a sheep pen. Nina’s father was on the east side of Mostar fighting in the Bosnian army and she, her mother, sister and Torni, remained at home in their apartment in the west.

Life was difficult because families were being driven out of their homes, the men killed or taken off to prison camps. Nina’s mother couldn’t decide whether to stay on the west side of town or join her husband in the east. Despite the dangers of life on the west, the permanent barrage of the east side didn’t make it an attractive solution.

The first sign of trouble happened early one morning when two HVO soldiers forced their way into the house. Torni barked at them and one of them aimed his gun at the dog. Nina stood between them and said they would have to kill her first. Faced with having to murder a 12-year-old, they left, but a few days later the Croat militia returned and arrested the family.

They were told to walk across to the east side. She, her younger sister and mother set off across the front line, picking their way over rotting corpses which had been left where they lay. The soldiers started firing and the three of them ran forward in panic. They threw themselves into the Bosnian trenches, but there was no dog. They thought that he had been shot. A week later Torni found them in their new home, a room shared with another family. Nina heard him howling in the street outside. He rushed around the family, tail wagging, licking and jumping up with his forepaws on their shoulders.

He had arrived to share a truly terrible time with them. Shells were landing on the east side ghetto; there was little food and they were hungry. The soldiers were better fed than their families and her father would bring home leftovers from the soldier’s meals.

They noticed that a few moments before the arrival of incoming shells, Torni would go to the door and cry in distress, looking at them to see if they were taking any notice. When they opened the door, he ran down the street. He was always right. Soon after his warning, shells landed nearby. Torni had become their air raid siren.

Nina’s father started to take the dog with him to the front line. He and his comrades would watch Torni. When he moved, they moved. Torni saved lives. He was rewarded with military rations along with the other front-line fighters.

Nina’s father wanted to get his family out of Mostar to the relative safety of Zenica in central Bosnia. Their grandmother lived there and it was far from the front lines and relatively free from bombardment.
They had to walk over the mountains to Jablanica, a mountainous journey which takes 45 minutes by car, but which took them 48 hours on foot. It was November and cold. None of them had winter clothing because the Croats had forced them from their home without allowing them to take any of their possessions. The only food they had for the journey was a small piece of lamb which their mother cooked before leaving Mostar. They set off, cold, frightened and in misery.
They could only walk at night because of the snipers. They had to travel through a narrow corridor, Serbs on one side and Croats on the other, the gap was no more than 50 metres. They were not allowed to talk and the adults couldn’t smoke. The slightest noise would attract the attention of those waiting to kill them.

Torni seemed to know he mustn’t bark and was treading forward carefully, watching back every few paces to make sure everyone was all right. He never stopped wagging his tail. This breed of mountain dog thrive in the cold. His owners followed him carefully. He seemed to know where the mines were.

This was the ‘road’ to Sarajevo and central Bosnia and the family passed soldiers, pack mules, old and young people on the move to or from greater safety.

No vehicles could use these tracks and animals were used to carry humans and their cargoes. A few weeks before Nina and her family made the journey, a horse had become so wearied by his load that it was said that he deliberately jumped over the side of a cliff to his death a 100 metres below.

After 20 hours, they reached a mounain pass where there was a large tent for refugees escaping from Mostar. On arrival they were hungry, but so tired that they decided to sleep before eating. Nina woke up to the sound of crunching. Torni had found the lamb. All they had left was a small piece of bread and some sugar. They were angry with him and he knew it. Once again he led the way, but this time, with his tail firmly between his legs, looking guiltily back at the family.
At Jablanica they waited for a helicopter to take them to Zenica. 

When it arrived, it was full of wounded people and the pilot refused to let Torni aboard. Nina and her sister were so distressed that the pilot relented and agreed he could travel with them if he was put in a bag. Using their father’s military kit bag, they persuaded Torni to get inside, but he did not take kindly to such restrictions and, as the helicopter was about to take off, he broke lose.

Once again, they had to persuade the pilot to let him back on board and he said that was okay with him, but only if the other passengers agreed. They did. Nina remembers the noise of the engine and its blades, the cries and moaning of the wounded and Torni moving from one stretcher to the other, wagging his tail and licking faces.
On arrival at their grandmother’s, her father had to return to Mostar. Torni would spend every day in the field where the helicopter had landed in expectation of its return.

Six months later, they returned to Mostar after the permanent bombardment of the city had been lifted. One day, Adi, a friend of their father’s, came to visit and when he went out into the street to go home, Torni followed him, barking and jumping up with his legs on the man’s shoulders. Adi couldn’t move and returned to their apartment with Torni. A shell landed in the street. Three people were killed, but Adi survived. For many years, Adi visited the family every week. He always had a present for the dog.

One day Torni disappeared. Someone told them he thought there was a wounded dog on the front line. They all knew it must be Torni. Maybe he had been trying to go back to their old home. Their father and two friends rescued him at night. The bullet was still in his body when he died 15 years later.

After a few days of war
the Sarajevo streets were a catwalk for dogs: perfumed dogs, well-groomed dogs, dogs with cut-glass collars
and not a flea between them. Their owners had left them as they left
the burning city.

The trash-heaps became
a battlefield where the lapdogs lost
to an army of strays, lean-limbed
and mangy with hate.
Cowering and cleansed, the back-alley refugees retreated to the doorways
of locked apartments, barking an answer
to each unearthly whistle
as the morning shells came in.

Excerpt from ‘Dogs and Bones’ by Goran Simic (Sarajevo poet) 

Now go to CHAPTER 26 

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