This story begins: "When there were no more dolls to play with, we began playing with shrapnel instead." "The Sarajevo Game" is a devastating glimpse of war told from the point of view of its youngest victim — a young girl who must grow up too quickly. This story is even more poignant and powerful in light of the current war in Ukraine. Does nothing ever change?
— Maud Carol Markson
'The Sarajevo Game'
By Sofia Lucas
When there were no more dolls to play with, we began playing with shrapnel instead. It was kind of like a game — one point for regular-sized pieces, two points if they were bigger than your fist, and five points for a set of three bullets (double if they weren't crushed). When there was shelling, everyone in my apartment would gather in the basement, and all the kids would compare their collections. Anto always got the most points — he was the most daring of all the kids in our building (he even had a nick in his left thumb from a bullet to prove it). Dasa had an eye for small bits lying shimmering in the snow — sometimes we gave her extra points for finding pieces smaller than her pinkie. And then there was Emir, who always brought in random bits and bobs that weren't technically in the game, but we awarded points for anyway. He brought things like humanitarian aid labels from Italy, and once an entire brick from the ruins of the stadium that had hosted the 1984 Olympics. I usually added to my collection while out with my best friend Dasa when my mother sent me to get water — being small meant we were small targets.
I liked getting to go to the basement to play with them — at home the only other people were my little brother, who was too small to understand the rules of the games I played with the other kids, and my mother, who didn't like to play either. She never smiled, and always yelled at me for the smallest things, like asking when she would get chocolate again or letting go of her hand whenever we left the house together. I vaguely remembered a time when she was happy, when days were short and warm and there was food enough for her to make a king's feast every night if she wanted to and there were new toys all the time and the fourth chair at our table was filled. It was only a blurred memory, almost like a dream, so much so that I wasn't sure if it was entirely real. In my almost-seven years of life, the (so far) two-year siege was all I knew. That's why I was so surprised when one day my mother announced a game of her own. She said we would play it when it got dark. All day I furrowed my brow, trying to guess at what the game was and why she suddenly seemed so eager to play. When I pestered her about it, tugging at her long skirt while she collected all the food in the house into a bag, she didn't snap or even get annoyed, just told me to wait. When the sun set I began to wonder whether she'd forgotten or whether there was no game at all and she'd just made it up.
In my room after dinner I began carving into one of the logs for the fire with a piece of shrapnel I'd traded from Anto for a few bullets that had been flattened into coin-like things. I drew a few lines and a circle that I thought resembled me, then another circle for a ball. I imagined I was a footballer in a real stadium, not just the empty basement, like the one just a few minutes away that everyone whispered that the Olympics had once taken place in. But it was bombed out now. The Olympics! they'd whisper. And look at it now.
Slowly, the door creaked open, and my mother crouched down in front of me, gently taking the wood and metal out of my hand.
"Okay, Ajla, here's the game," she said. "Here's how you play. The first step is to wear as many clothes as you can. Do it now."
I did as she said, layering on two pairs of pants, a shirt, a sweater, two coats, a pair of gloves, and three hats.
"Great." I watched her layer clothes on my little brother as well, then turn back to me. "Okay, here are the rules: Don't say anything. Don't make a sound. When we go outside, don't let go of my hand. Follow my every move. Got it?"
"What about Ibro?" I asked, eyeing his layers. I almost laughed at how puffed out he looked with all those clothes on — it was funny how they could make a plump baby out of one that was little more than a wire frame of bone. "Will he play too?"
"He'll be on my team. Don't worry about him. Do you understand the rules?" I nodded.
"Good." She took my hand in hers and squeezed until it hurt. "Let's go. Remember all the rules." She paused for a moment. "Or you'll lose points."
We left the house, and for a few steps I stumbled, my movement constricted by all the layers. But I got used to it as we tiptoed down the stairs and then made our way through the dark streets of the city, careful to avoid potholes in the long roads cratered by grenades. Some of them were half-filled with snow. We passed a wall with drawn-out graffiti letters that spelled, "Pazi snajper." Look out for snipers. I'd learned to read earlier that year from an old woman in our building who used to be a teacher, and felt proud that I could decipher meaning out of a jumble of lines and curves. Our feet crunched lightly in the snow, but soon the steady rhythm of our in-sync steps was complicated by another pair of feet ploughing heavily nearby.
"New rule," my mother whispered into my ear. "Fall into the snow and don't move." "You can't just make up rules as you go along," I told her. I was an expert on games from all the ones we made up in the basement, and this was the golden rule. You couldn't just walk in and say that bullets were now worth four points instead of five.
"Do it or you'll lose points," she hissed, pulling me into the snow with her. I still didn't think she should be allowed to add a rule whenever she wanted, but I figured I could debate her later and for now just focus on keeping all my points. I felt my back go wet and cold, even through my many layers, as she shovelled snow over me.
Though my ears swelled with snow that melted as it touched my warm skin, I could make out more footsteps, getting closer. Ibro beginning to sputter. My mother whispering a prayer next to me. Men shouting to each other and then footsteps fading. Just when the numbness in my fingers and toes was beginning to spread to the rest of my arms and legs, my mother dug around for my hand and pulled me up.
I took a deep breath, but the respite didn't last long as my mother continued walking, this time fast enough that it was almost like she was dragging me. Ibro's sputtering turned into short wails that were as loud as the air raid sirens in the tranquil night, and I saw my mother's eyes bulge and face harden.
"Shhh, shhh," she whispered, keeping her eyes ahead but bringing Ibro up to her face. "You have to be quiet now, okay? We're almost there, we're so close ..." She rocked him and cuddled him but when he didn't stop, my mother shuddered and carefully pinched his lips shut. At first he struggled against her, but then gave up and quieted until she felt it was finally safe to let go.
I wanted to point out that Ibro and her were losing points, but then I would lose points, so I kept my mouth zipped tight.
We came to a house in a part of the city I'd never seen before, farther away from our apartment than I'd ever been, at least that I could remember — my mother sometimes told me stories of a summer we all went down to the coast, before the war started. I couldn't remember it.
At the door my mother knocked and we were quickly let in, the door being shut again quickly but quietly after us. There were a few dozen other people in the room; no one spoke to us. After about a half hour — after a few more people came — we were led down into the cellar by an unknown guide and began our trek.
We walked for two long hours. Some places were so low that the adults had to crouch, so narrow that we could only walk two at a time. Everyone was silent, scared to breathe almost. Some people had kids, but I didn't recognise any of them and they shied away from me when I got close. A young couple held hands. A lot of people were on their own.
When we emerged from the other side of the tunnel, tears streamed down my mother's face and glistened in the moonlight even though it was clouded by smoke. "What's wrong?" I asked her. "Did we lose the game?" I thought back on all the time we'd played, wondering where it could've possibly gone wrong.
She just shook her head and cried, offering no answer.
She didn't mention the game at all after that, so I had no way of knowing whether we'd won or lost or if it was still going and when I asked her about it she just told me to forget it, and that it didn't matter anymore. Still, I waited for her to announce the end of the game and for us to go back home; I couldn't wait to tell my friends how well I'd followed the rules, boast to them how I did even better than my own mother.
Eventually I realised that there was no game, that there had never been a game, and that we wouldn't be going home and I wouldn't be able to tell my friends — maybe it was after the tenth hour on the bus, or when I saw the sign marking the Austrian border up ahead, just as the sun was poking up from the horizon, painting the sky a hazy pink.
Or maybe it wasn't until after we'd gotten to my aunt's house — who had left at the very beginning of the war — and began sleeping on thin mattresses in her living room. Instead of playing with bullets and debris, my aunt bought me a Barbie that I didn't know what to do with. My mother looked me sharply in the eye and told me to thank my aunt for the gift, but I didn't like it. It wasn't imaginative — it had rules already, and a purpose that you didn't get to decide.
And worst of all, I had no friends to figure it out with. She bought my brother a red rubber ball, which I sometimes played with with him, trying to teach him football since the Olimpijski stadion Kosevo had been destroyed before he was old enough to play. But it didn't really work with just the two of us. So instead of trying to figure it all out, I just kept hoping that we would finally tally up our points and just leave, as nice as Austria was with its running water and smooth streets and its quiet nights, uninterrupted by gunfire.
Maybe not even till my seventh birthday, my aunt bought me a giant cake with seven candles, did I truly believe that the game never existed, or that even if it did it would never end and we would be stuck in Austria forever. I couldn't remember having cake before, though my mother told me we had it for my fourth birthday. Once I took the first bite, I couldn't stop. In the end I had a stomach ache, and I felt badly, but not because of that; I wished I could share this cake with my friends back home — Anto, Dasa, Emir, and all the rest. We had over half of it left over, and I knew that they had none. My aunt took a picture of us all in front of the cake, and when she said "Pticiiiiica" to get us to smile, my mother actually did it. I was sad that I wasn't spending my birthday with my friends, but I liked that my mother smiled — actually, I think that was the best part of it all.
It surprised me when my mother, the printed photo in her hands after we got it developed a week later, muttered softly that this was the first family photo we had taken since the war began. The first family photo without Babo, who used to walk around our house and crack jokes and pick me up and swing me around. I couldn't remember ever taking a photo with him at all, but we'd had some at home as proof. I found myself hoping that my mother had put them in her bag at the start of the game, before we left. Those seemed like they should've been worth all the points.
A lot was different about Austria, and I tallied it up to see if maybe it was better here after all. There were no mosques here: one point for home. I could go on walks whenever I felt like it: one point for Austria. They spoke German here, a hard, intimidating language I couldn't understand: one point for home.
I didn't have to wait in line for water with the heavy buckets, because my aunt had it right in her home: one point for Austria. There was no basement with games and all my friends: one point for home. I couldn't make new friends, because I couldn't talk to them: one point for home. There was chocolate: one point for Austria. At school, when I started a few months later, I couldn't understand anything: one point for home. There was school here: one point for Austria. My mother seemed happy for the first time since Babo was killed: one point for Austria.
I tried to think of all the wonderful things that got Austria points, but all I could think of was everything I left behind. Then when I thought of what it would be like to go back home, I got scared — the longer I spent in Austria and saw the faces the people here made at the photos of my country in their newspapers, the more I realized that what we had left was not normal.
Eventually, maybe a half year after we left, I asked my mother about the game again. We hadn't talked about it since the day we played it, and since then I had been living with an uneasy question mark hanging above my head. I wanted answers.
"What game?" she said. Maybe it wasn't till then that I finally, truly realised. But even though there had been no game, I tried to believe that we had still won.
This story contains 2784 words.
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