In Teocak, there are no Croats or Serbs, except the few who are married to local men. The village refused a Serbian ultimatum in July, 1992, asking the townsfolk to lay down their weapons (then only hunting rifles) and surrender, and soon shelling began. The first shell killed a mother and child, setting the pattern for the next year and a half. At the beginning, an average of 2,000 to 3,000 shells a day rained down on the area. Bombs, including a cluster-bomb that destroyed the school and killed five children, were also dropped from planes. During the most recent offensive last November, Teocak was shelled for 47 days, non-stop.
But the local brigades, with their hunting rifles, held off the attackers; now they have captured Serbian machine-guns and the Serbs are unable to advance. But they can shell.
Every family has a son, daughter or parent killed. As for the soldiers, many are dead and there’s little hope for those who are missing. Last year, 80 soldiers from Teocak were captured by the Serbs. The Bosnians exchanged some live prisoners for 40 of the soldiers but only received their corpses. Most showed signs of torture and mutilations, some beyond recognition. The other 40 were returned in a later exchange — also dead, their bodies mutilated.
Despite the pounding, people stay. They know that if they leave, they will likely never return. Naturally, many are afraid, especially when shells begin raining down. But they have become accustomed to the barrages. One man, about 50, told me about an odd Muslim folk-remedy that drives out fear, involving iron filings and water. He had to try the remedy 11 times before it took hold; now, he told me, he feels no fear.
Teocak is actually five different villages — Centre Teocak, Stari Teocak, Bilalice, Husejnovic, Jasicovac and Snjeznica — each with its own mayor and identity, making up one regional municipality, huddled on a series of hills and valleys near a tributary of the Jadar River.
We arrive at Cevko’s house in Snjeznica after midnight, after meeting his brother on the road. It’s close to the front line, and a couple of the upstairs rooms have been damaged by shelling and the outside walls are pocked by shrapnel, but the downstairs and two of the upstairs bedrooms are fine. The mosque across the street is completely destroyed and so is a neighboring house.
We eat by candlelight — electricity operates only a few hours a day — and Cevko catches up on news with a roomful of friends. Tomorrow, Cevko and his sister Hana will distribute mail from the outside world, and the municipality will begin food distributions. For now, the Serbs are quiet. But by tomorrow morning, the gunfire will begin. And later, so will mortars and the louder multiple thuds of anti-aircraft guns, their exploding bullets aimed not at aircraft but at people.
In the daylight, the destruction of Teocak is more visible. Virtually every house has been damaged in some way and about 40 percent of them are completely destroyed. Some roads are too exposed to sniper-fire to travel during the day; in other places, you run or walk quickly.
At a town council session in the back room of one of the food distribution stations, I meet the mayor, Halid Nakicavic. With windows blown out, covered with plastic and overlaid by logs, the room is dark. Coffee boils on a woodstove.
“We are very thankful on behalf of the Bosnian people, because we were very hungry and our nerves were getting on edge,” the mayor says, adding that he had earlier pleaded with UNHCR for food and got 30 tonnes, when 30 tonnes were needed. “We have shown that we do have the will to live and the right to live. Because of that strength we have existed here. We have defended ourselves from a very strong enemy.”
'We are very thankful on behalf of the Bosnian people, because we were very hungry and our nerves were getting on edge . . .'
Back in the daylight, the mayor and some cohorts take me on a tour of Teocak. They stroll casually along the streets, as if an enemy within easy firing range simply didn’t exist. We have coffee with the mayor of Stari Teocak (the oldest village in the area), who takes me out onto the bombed-out second floor balcony of his house, for a better view of Serbian positions only a few hundred metres away. Then it’s a ramble through the ruins of the town’s oldest mosque. And a visit to Jasikovac, where we find three people doing laundry beside their half-destroyed home, within clear view of Serbian snipers only 300 metres away.
I’m a bit uneasy as Hajrudin Hodzic invites me through the ruins of the house to take a closer look at the Serbian trenches, and even more uneasy as he ducks for cover when a mortar shell lands about 150 metres away.
But the mayor is almost disappointed that there’s not more shelling. “They seem to know when someone’s here,” he says, “and hold off.” (Sure enough, the day I leave, Teocak is bombarded with close to 50 shells. No one is injured.)
There’s a stop at the local clinic, where one young doctor labors tirelessly, helped by his brother who is still a year short of graduating from medical school. They do what they can, in the midst of a war zone, with no refrigeration for storing blood or blood products. Trauma patients are patched up as well as possible and sent into Tuzla. Dr. Haracic is a local hero, simply for staying and doing the best he can with what he as, even if means stitching wounds with common sewing thread or delivering babies in the midst of heavy shelling.
There’s food distribution too, with crowds of people lined up at the various municipal offices, waiting as patiently as possible for their rations. It will go on for two or three days in the larger villages. The Canadian food — flour, cooking oil, sugar and beans — arrived safely and is handed out, along with canned goods, soap and basic supplies provided by other agencies. It’s obviously badly needed and greatly appreciated. The supplies that came with this convoy won’t even last a month, so local trucks are already heading back to Split, where local organizers are looking for more donations.
I spend the night with my translator and his parents, who spent their working lives in Australia, returning to Teocak four years ago, retirement money in the bank, a big new house built and furnished. Now Australian dollars are difficult to exchange and the big house is badly damaged. “But,” says my translator Sulejman Brkic, who lives in Tuzla with his wife, two-year-old son and grandmother, “we’re all alive so far, and that’s the important thing.” For almost a year, Sulejman and his family lived with 25 refugees, in the garage of the big house — 30 people in all, jammed into a small but safe space.
People take on a different attitude under constant fire. “Today you live,” says Sulejman, “tomorrow, maybe.”
The next day, Cevko takes me through the town, into two cemeteries where the heavy brown clay from the fresh graves sticks to your boots like glue. Cevko breaks down in grief. Two of his brothers, Adil and Amir, 23 and 29, have been killed by Serbs. They were both tortured before being executed.
The most recent graves is only two days old, a young woman. That afternoon, another young man from Teocak will be killed by a sniper while planting one of his fields. Many work the more exposed fields at night, others no longer care.
Cevko himself has been imprisoned by the Serbs. He knows of the atrocities committed against the soldiers, the blatant targeting of civilians, the systematic rape of Muslim women, even abuse of livestock. “To them, (the Serbs) we’re at fault because we’re alive,” he says. Serbia’s war, in Teocak and elsewhere, has been a war of genocide; not a war to gain territory, but a war to eliminate a certain kind of people, Bosnian Muslims.
But still, says Cevko. “We will never take revenge on those people. Even though we’ve had this many killings we’re still willing to give their hand a shake and stop this war.”
Behind the name-calling, there’s an odd awareness that many Serbs may be ordinary peace-loving people too. Shelling and sniper-fire slows or stops, depending on who is behind the gun.
Regardless of the threats and hazards, though, Teocak’s people will prevail and survive. “Love of life wins everything,” Cevko tells me as we leave the cemetery. “Everyone can live if he loves life and has the will to live.”
Mike Milne is The Observer's senior writer.