A reluctant warrior


Issue: "School shooting," Dec. 13, 1997

I am not a photographer given to ambush. So the pictures sometimes come as memories, circling the edges of my own discomfort in Bosnia, wandering the ruins of Dubrinja, the contested land along Sarajevo's airport where war raged for 44 months. It is easy to avoid the mines. Watch where the inhabitants walk. Follow their paths, their steps. Follow the little boys playing soccer, blasting a ball past one another against a goal etched with a stone on a battle-scared wall. Follow them through the play yard now overgrown with weeds and planted in graves. Follow the little one whose sister was killed by a sniper while fetching water last year. Or the grandmother threading the ruin marking what once was the front line with bags of groceries hanging from her wrists. Beyond the ruin is a field, and beyond it the runway. It is quite close; the roar of airplanes coming to a halt or catapulting into the air can be deafening. To one side the soil is turned, a patchwork of gardens. A narrow path marks their outer edge, separating them from an ominous middle ground where the soil is not turned and no paths cross. I walk the path to photograph sunflowers against the backdrop of ruin. A middle-aged man on a bicycle comes toward me shouting something and I step to the side, into the garden. "Hello," I say. "Ah, English!" he responds. "I am Bill," I reply. "I am Ibrahim," he says, "Abraham to you ... do not take my picture." He worked three years in Australia, returning to Sarajevo to marry and settle. For the first year of the war, he and his wife and their two sons had hidden in a basement. One morning on the other side of this field, he and his 14-year-old son had been caught out, foraging firewood, he said, by a Serbian patrol. For 15 days they were held and beaten. When released, they staggered home, barely able to stand, their torsos bruised, blue with welts the thickness of a thumb. "They hate me for my name," he says. "Such a stupid thing to hate a man for; the first thing I did when they released me was find a gun." For the next four years, he and his sons took their turn on the front line, firing into the night, risking passage across the airfield for ammunition and arms until tunnels were built beneath the runway. One evening he caught a Serbian soldier and, in one of the inexplicable incongruities of war, would not kill him. Nor would he turn him over to his own army. Instead, Ibrahim kept him, for days, then released him. "I knew if I gave him up," he says, "they would kill him. They would beat him like I was beaten. No man deserves to be treated that way." He turns the wheel back onto the path, settles into the seat, cocking his foot against the pedal. If I had one more day, is my thought, I would ask this man of my age, this unlikely candidate for a warrior, to show me where his family lived. I would ask him where they foraged for food, for firewood and water. I would ask where he fought, to take me through the trenches he traversed, into the tunnels where he hid. I would ask him if he knew the Serb he had saved, where he lived, and if he would take me to meet him. In the end, I ask only for a photograph, if I can take one for myself. First he agrees, then hesitates. "No," he says. "You must not. I have been a soldier. And this war is not yet over." Bill Bangham is director of presentation for the International Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention.

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