By Tara Isabella Burton
“I am not a liar,” Miodrag tells me.* He has done many things in his life, he says, but he has never lied. He removes his shirt to show me the scars. “A grenade here,” he says, pointing to his arm. “A bullet here.” The wounds are almost two decades old; the welts are still raw. “You must forgive me,” he says. “My English is from Cartoon Network.” He croaks out a laugh. “I am sorry. I am a little bit drunk.” He shows me the bottle he has been swigging from all day—“bad wine and juice”—and offers me a taste.
He is our host, after all. This eight-story branch of the Ljubljanska Bank, located on what was Mostar’s front line in the 1992-5 conflict, was once prime headquarters for Serbian and Croatian snipers, who shot down Bosniaks from the terrace. But today, the derelict floors of this abandoned tower belong to Miodrag—known locally as “the junkie”—who sleeps rough on the stairways and shows tourists around in exchange for a few marks with which to buy booze.
Two or three years ago—he is not sure—he came to Mostar; he has been at the tower ever since. “War is shit.”
Miodrag was a soldier in Sarajevo during the Bosnian War. But he can no longer remain there. “Every stone, every street hurts me,” he says. He lost everyone he cared about—“my family, my first love…in one moment.” Two or three years ago—he is not sure—he came to Mostar; he has been at the tower ever since. “War is shit.” He stops and looks up. “Forgive me, my sister. I use street language.”
I tell him I don’t mind.
His voice is almost calm. “Fuck war. Fuck my body. Fuck this shit. Fuck everything.”
He tells me to come inside. He shows me the graffiti artists have left behind in the years after the war—makeshift memorials in the concrete. There is a painting of Shiva the Destroyer on the floor by the entrance—“some Indian guy made it,” Miodrag shrugs. On the walls are recreations of Michelangelo’s Creation of Man—the face of God the Father recast in blue; of Bart Simpson. Messages for peace are scribbled in Croatian, German, English. Near the stairs, someone has written: DON’T WAIT FOR GOD. MAYBE HE IS WAITING FOR YOU TO HELP HIM TO HELP YOU.”
He shows me a drawing of a skull wearing a gas mask. “What do you see?” he asks me. I tell him I don’t know. “This is how the world will end,” he says.
We step over piles of broken glass, over scattered papers. He helps me up the stairs, making sure I keep to the side of a chalk-scrawled red line. There is no bannister here; there are no walls. A fall would send us both over the edge of the building. “If you go over the line, I cannot protect you,” he warns me. “I cannot catch you. We have no parachute.” And even if we did, he adds, it wouldn’t work—he begins to explain the aerodynamics of falling. As we climb each new floor, he points out more graffiti: walls covered in gargantuan letters: ART, FIND, TOR, LOVE.
He shows me a drawing of a skull wearing a gas mask. “What do you see?” he asks me.
I tell him I don’t know. “This is how the world will end,” he says. His simplicity chills me. He takes me to another: a horrific-looking monkey with a child in its mouth. The child, he says, is being born. “Evil knows there is a God,” he says. “There is light out of the dark.”
At last we come to the roof—the old sniper base. The sun is setting, raging and red, all around us. “My friends, they come see me, they say, what are you doing here?” he shrugs. He takes me to the edge of the roof: a sharp and unguarded drop to the earth eight stories below. His hand closes on my arm, and I try not to let him see my fear.
“I am waiting to die. Sometimes, I think I want to jump. It’s just an instant.” He moves forward—a mock-leap; he stops himself just in time. “But my Jesus doesn’t want that for me.” He shrugs and smiles, fingering the cross at his neck. “Why not, why not, why not?”
I have no answer for him.
“You have to choose,” he says. “Good or evil. You can go in the middle, but you will find a hole.” He falters. “I think I am a good guy. I smoke. I drink, but I am a good guy.” It is almost a question.
The sun casts scarlet welts of light across the rooftop. In the distance, the mountains are dark with shadows. The sight frightens him. It’s an evil sight, he says. “But it’s alive. Evil is alive. Good is alive. They’re natural.”
He leads me back down to the ground floor. He asks me for a small contribution – euros, marks, kuna, anything will do. “I cannot promise that I will buy food,” he says. But if he ever becomes rich, Miodrag tells me, he plans to open “a house for children with no parents”. If there is money left over, perhaps a Honda. “I am a soldier,” he explains. “I am a good soldier. I protected you, didn’t I?”
I pay him. We both know where the money will go. He will buy another beer and wait, he says, to die. He will organize his piles of broken glass, and keep watch on the rooftop, near the old sniper post. He will lead tourists upstairs, sometimes, and sometimes they will drink from his wine bottle, and sometimes he will tell them what he has seen.
We will–all of us–tell him that we understand. We never will.
*Subject’s name has been changed.
Tara Isabella Burton’s work has appeared or is forthcoming at The Atlantic, Los Angeles Review of Books, Salon, PANK, and more. She is the winner of The Spectator’s 2012 Shiva Naipaul Memorial Prize for travel writing and the author of the novel A Thief in the Night, currently on submission.