There were songs from Bosnia whose words Javier understood, despite the fact that he was Argentine. The songs were not in Bosnian, the Slavic and blunt-edged language that he associated with gaunt faces, cheekbones protruding like elbows, but in Spanish. It was a crazy Spanish with antiquated forms, Italian additions, and pronunciations that made him smile. He had heard these songs before. When he was a teenager, a group of Ladino singers had come through Buenos Aires on a South American tour, singing at the Jewish Community Center. They had been from Bosnia, Greece, and Turkey. From North Africa and Israel. And from Italy, like his own grandparents, who had reached Buenos Aires by ship in the 1930s. It was an epic journey, his grandmother had told Javier jovially on more than one occasion, resulting in claustrophobia, seasickness, and his father.
By the time Javier reached Sarajevo in 1996, most of the Ladinos had disappeared. Their community had been decimated in the Second World War, and most of those who had survived were evacuated at the beginning of the siege, to Israel and to points east and west. Their music remained behind, however, like a soft wind that blew in and out of Sarajevo's mutilated architecture and through her makeshift graveyards.
That summer, Javier was working on forensic excavations in a small town some distance from Sarajevo. He visited the capital on a rare day off. He had agreed to meet two friends who were journalists, but under the condition that they refrain from asking questions about his work, and that they steer him to a place where he could have a decent meal. He had spent days in the field subsisting on thick, dry crackers from UN Meals-Ready-to-Eat, regarding with skepticism and distaste the powdered contents of envelopes that promised to convert themselves into PASTA AND SAUCE or BEEF STEW upon addition of water. One of the friends, a Spaniard, had told him of a restaurant whose steaks were the best in the entire region, and Javier planned to join them there for dinner.
He arrived in Sarajevo earlier than expected and walked leisurely around Bascarsija, the old market section of the city, looking at the outdoor stands and merchandise that hung in front of the shops. The war had been over for a year, and pedestrians were able once again to stroll unhindered by shelling or sniper fire. He watched the couples walking together, some with small children in strollers. Old men in dusty black suits congregated in the street. From their gesticulations and disgusted expressions, he knew they were talking about politics, and he smiled inwardly at the universal language of their waving hands.
He wandered into one dark shop where piles of copper pots and silk scarves covered every surface. A dirty glass case contained filigree jewelry, and his eyes were drawn to a pair of intricate earrings. He was tempted to buy them for his girlfriend Alba, a lawyer in Buenos Aires.
Javier was summoning the storekeeper, a young man with a shock of black hair and white skin who was smoking behind the counter, when his gaze fell upon a pile of cassettes stacked haphazardly on top of the glass. He was struck for a moment by the incongruity of Spanish words.
Selecting one cassette, he turned it over and read ADIYO, KERIDO.
"Adiós, querido." He stiffened, realizing that he had spoken aloud.
"I play for you?" the young man asked in English, stepping from behind the counter. Not waiting for Javier to respond, he took the cassette, opened the unsealed cover, and slipped the tape into a dusty black radio behind the counter.
A woman's voice began, warbling slightly. Kwando tu madre te pariyo, i te kito al mundo, korazon eya no te dio para amar segunda.
The storekeeper looked at him expectantly. "It's Ladino. A song from Sarajevo's Jewish community."
Javier nodded absentmindedly, listening to the words. When your mother bore you and brought you into the world, she gave you no heart to love another.
He bought the cassette and the earrings. The music played on in his head as he thanked the man, tucking the purchases into his jacket pocket. It continued throughout the fine meal when the details of his work were temporarily forgotten as he and his companions discussed more general themes. Though he had spoken English fluently for years, his mother tongue was still a refuge into which he happily fled. But his friends began to tease him when, for the third time, he missed what they were saying.
"Love songs," he said cryptically and with a slight smile.
He listened to the cassette on the drive from the city back to the apartment he had rented on a hill above a town whose face was as scarred as that of every other town he had just passed through. When he got out of the car, the saline light of the Milky Way curved through the black night above his head, no streetlamps to pollute the darkness.
He had chosen forensic anthropology over other subjects, and his parents had not approved.
"For God's sake," his father had said, "of all things."
He could have been a businessman or a lawyer, or a doctor like his father. But there was something about bones that interested him. And there were the memories of Argentina's dirty war, when thousands of people, including his mother's younger brother Simón, had disappeared. Los desaparecidos. As if the air had eaten them whole.
Simón had been a lawyer and his favorite uncle. On a summer day in 1980, when Javier was sixteen years old, Simón failed to return home for dinner. His wife, Lucia, had telephoned in a panic, asking if they had seen him. His office was locked up neatly behind him, a man from the neighboring office had seen him leave, but they could not find anyone on the street who had witnessed his passage, somewhere between work and home, from being into nothing.
"Maybe he emigrated, señora," the police suggested, smiling.
Javier's family knew that he had been detained. He had secretly done pro bono work for unions, although he was hardly an activist.
"Your uncle was a thinker, a dreamer," Javier's mother had told him in tears. "And the world is filled with bastards who hate him for it."
With luck, Simón would be released after a few days or weeks, or maybe even months of incarceration. He would return gaunt and beaten, calling out in the middle of the night but reticent about his absence. That did happen in some cases, Javier's mother reminded everyone.
Simón never returned, though, and the family had inherited his absence like a disease. It tainted all the years that followed. There were constant reminders that he was gone: birthday parties, graduations, and other family celebrations. Every time the family crowded together for a photograph, Simón's face was missing. The absence tore through album after album, hovering in the blank space over their heads, throwing its phantom arms around their shoulders so that their smiles were something less than smiles. And the eyes turned toward the camera all contained the same question.
Javier knew the answer to it. Since the late 1980s, excavation had started on sites around the city and he had involved himself in the slow process of identification. He knew when he examined the bones in the forensic labs. He knew when he visited the burial sites—haphazard piles in garbage dumps, in fields outside the city.
"If you ever find your tío Simón," Lucia had told him, "you must tell me."
He had looked at his aunt in discomfort. "I will, tía."
"You mustn't keep it from me, you know. You must tell me right away."
He nodded. In all the years of performing the identifications, he had kept it in the back of his mind. He determined age and sex from the bones, approximated heights. He examined dentition, looking for the familiar gap in the front two teeth.
After graduating from university, he took a job with a forensic team that traveled around the world. They worked in Southeast Asia and Africa. He returned to Argentina and worked there, moving on to Guatemala and Chile. He had even helped identify victims from an airplane crash in the gray Atlantic waters off the Canadian coast.
He thought of himself as a solver of puzzles. The bones were pieces that, together, made a picture. From the picture, he was capable of divining answers.
Bosnia was different from what he had expected. In Europe, he had continued his education at a university and attended conferences in various capitals, but he had never actually worked there, and certainly not on mass graves.
The team had come to Bosnia after several months in Rwanda. The work had been exhausting and the African climate had drained them almost completely. Half of the team was sent home to recuperate.
Javier had already promised Alba he would be coming home for two weeks, and she had arranged to take time off from work.
"It's a lot to ask, we know," his office had told him over the phone, "but we really need you in the field by next week."
By the time he arrived, excavations had been under way for several weeks. They were working in a town still under Serb control inside Republika Sprska, and would then move on to sites in Federation Territory.
There had been considerable tampering at the first grave site, and they were afraid that their arrival would provide the impetus for more. Before hiring guards from abroad, they took turns watching the site. Javier had spent several uncomfortable nights in the bed of a truck parked on the road above the grave. Once excavated, the bodies were stacked floor to ceiling in a container and transported out of Republika Sprska to Federation Territory, where they were deposited outside a makeshift morgue and laboratory.
They hired locals to wash the clothing from the corpses. A group of sturdy youths and a man who looked around thirty, they were largely silent and watched the delivery of the first container from a careful distance. They spent the days over the wash buckets speaking among themselves. The older one, a man with opaque black eyes, spoke a little English, and it was to him that the international anthropologists and pathologists gave instructions.
When they had gone through the first container, a second was delivered on the bed of a huge truck. Javier stood outside, watching as they lowered it onto the concrete in front of the morgue.
He turned and saw that the worker with black eyes had come to stand behind him. The man was watching them unhook cables from around the container and set up the refrigeration system.
"Sorry?" Javier asked.
"Shame," said the man. "Those people wanted get out"—he held up a hand with splayed fingers—"four years ago. They could not. Only now." He looked at the container and Javier looked as well. "And now is too late."
The man turned on his heel, walking back into the morgue. Javier continued to watch them inspecting all the machinery and gauges used to prevent further decomposition. It was as if the container were an incubator, sustaining the dead.
Sometimes he slipped the cassette into his radio and sat at the table drinking coffee in the morning. At night he slept, largely untroubled by the work he did during the day. The truth was that he was fascinated by the science of it, the intricacies of the puzzle.
It was the women who stood at the fence that disturbed him. They had started coming a month into the investigations. The team was trying to operate secretly, but word spread quickly and the region was filled with people who had been displaced from areas still under occupation.
Initially they came singly or in small groups and looked into the yard where the washed clothing of the dead was hung to dry in the sun. They stood there wordlessly, scanning the sweaters and pants and shirts.
When one woman passed out from the heat, having walked, they learned, thirteen kilometers to see if there was any article of clothing that she could recognize, their team leader put her foot down.
"We can't have this. Pretty soon the entire town is going to be out there standing at the fence."
They attached plastic blue tarps to the fence, lashing them through with white cord. When the wind blew, they looked like the sails of a strange, snaking ship.
But the women continued to come to the fence. They took turns peeking between the gaps in the tarps, trying to make out something familiar. Javier could see them watching him when he smoked in the shade of the wall outside the morgue. Eventually he would throw the cigarette down and turn back inside, feeling their eyes on his back.
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