Chapter I

Kerepnik has never been much of a place, just a straggle of stone-built houses running alongside the Usora River. In the 17th century, the Turkish warrior Muradif-pasha slept in a wooden house that was erected in the same place where now stood the modern bus station. Muradif-pasha was long gone to an unmarked grave and for no particular reason the town has survived.

Apart from the bus station, one of the largest and the most important buildings was a post office which was the only connection of the 40 citizens of Kerepnik with the outer world. The restaurant right next to the post office made most of its money from the infrequent bus passengers stopping over long enough to grab a meal. If someone wanted to sleep over in Kerepnik, he could rent a room in one of a dozen small, family houses built in the mountain style, with tall slanting roofs and heavy wooden doors.

In one of such house, Nedim Asanovich opened his store, offering to the citizens of Kerepnik food, drinks, tools, and sometimes cloth and shoes. For all other supplies they had to travel to Trnovo, about 40km to the north, or to Suho Polye, about 50 km to the south. The same thing was true if they wanted to educate their children or needed medical help.

Kerepnik had no police station but Nedim Asanovich, an important and respected citizen who was once a member of Communist Party while living in Derventa, was suspected of informing police authorities in Trnovo about any relevant events in Kerepnik.

So, the humble and unambitious inhabitants of this tiny town had a pretty quiet existence before the war from Croatia rolled into Bosnia. In the beginning it caused a lot of worry among them, but they sincerely hoped that they were not of any importance to either the Serbian or Yugoslav armies. Being all Muslims, they were not afraid of any internal quarrels or clashes of a national or religious basis. Actually there was only one thing that kept them uneasy. At the end of World War II, they had chased their town khoja away and burnt the town mosque in order to curry favor with the winning Communists. Recently, events showed them that they might get another chance to improve their faith in Allah: the Bosnian Army, which consisted mostly of Muslims, fought to establish an independent state in which, no doubt, religion could play a very important role.

Hidden and protected by its surrounding mountains, Kerepnik stayed far from all of the devastating political and military crushes that hit first Sarajevo, and then the whole of Bosnia. Its citizens were only interested in a quiet and slow life that had changed very little for the last few centuries.

And it would probably have stayed so if the Stoyanovich gang of Serbian paramilitary cutthroats hadn't hit Kerepnik.

They drove in a grey van out of a gusting norther that pushed snow like pricking darts, seven tall, bearded men huddled in military camouflage overcoats with their hands never staying far from the cloth-wrapped Kalashnikovs on their knees. Kerepnik was shuttered down against the wind when they arrived, and so no one saw them coming.

They parked the van in front of the post office and one of them shot the clerk down as he stood up to see who had come in. The shots were drowned out by the howling wind. The rest then got out of the van and spread out in front of the post office. Using long bursts from their weapons, they blew away the switchboard and other installations in the post office. Then they ran across the street toward the Asanovich's store.

It held, at that moment, the bulk of Kerepnik's population, mostly men sitting or standing and drinking beer while their weather-bitten wives checked over the latest shipment of supplies from Trnovo. Milutin Stoyanovich ended it all with his Kalashnikov. Bullets spread through the store like infernal deadly rays, bloodying the bolts of cloth and splattering the glasses and bottles. Three women and one man were killed instantly, four more wounded and the six remaining women were reduced to screaming panic. Behind Milutin, his brothers Zoran, Dragan, and Slobodan joined him in spreading fire through the store. Yovan Martinovich, Milisav Pavlovich and Zarko Vuyich backed up the brothers with semi-automatic PAP rifles, pumping their magazines empty.

It was all finished within seconds, the placid security of the warm, sheltered room reduced to a reeking cloud of cordite, tainted with the pungent odour of blood sizzling on the potbellied stove. Fourteen people lay dead as Milutin laughed, helping himself to slivovitz 1 from the vacated bar. The others systematically stripped the bodies of valuables, hauling corpses off to one side of the smoke-filled store.

Above the store, in his flat, Nedim Asanovich heard the sound of the gunfire over the shrieking of the norther. Reluctantly he got up from the table, murmuring a vague reassurance to his pinch-faced wife, and pulled on a heavy, sheep-skin overcoat. He smiled again to his wife and, cursing whichever drunken fool was shooting up the place, he shuffled out into the snow.

The wind hit his face like a whip, clouding his eyes with icy particles that made him blink and watering his vision, so that he descended down the stairs mostly by instinct. He paused outside the closed doors of his store, cursing again, this time for his negligence in forgetting to take a pistol, as he opened the doors.

Slobodan Stoyanovich saw the doors open and his eyes sparkled as he lifted his Kalashnikov. He enjoyed watching Asanovich come in, shivering and changing expressions on his face as he peered vaguely round the store. When Asanovich opened his mouth to say something, Slobodan squeezed the trigger.

The first bullet punched out the centre of Asanovich' s button on the sheep-skin overcoat, breaking two ribs as it smashed into his left lung. He coughed blood and staggered back as the second shot ploughed into his chest. The third opened up his stomach and hurled him backwards through the doors. Asanovich pumped blood over the snow as he sprawled full length across the road. He felt snow crystals frosting over his eyes, the knife-edged air cutting his throat, and he died wishing he had never left Derventa.

Inside the store Milutin Stoyanovich lifted a shot glass in a toast to his brother, grinning like a wolf.

"Come on!" he downed the home-brewed slivovitz in one swallow. "Let's get out!"

Without waiting to see if the others followed, he pushed outside, tying a dark grey scarf around his ears. Out in the open the wind increased, piling drifts of snow against walls and sidewalks, pure white mostly, but tinged dark blood brown where it shrouded Asanovich's body. They ignored the deceased store-keeper while they walked toward the empty bus station. Milutin turned his back to the wind and then, after studying his wrist watch, motioned for the others to gather around him.

"She should be here within the hour, unless the snow holds the bus," he barked like a dog. "Go and silence any fucking mouth in this God-forgotten place!"

He watched them for the second as they dispersed through the town and then yelled, heading back to the store:

"I'll be waiting for you in the store!"

He was standing by the window, patiently waiting for his killerdogs to return, smoking and slowly drinking slivovitz 1. From time to time, he could hear shots through the blizzard, and then his eyes would sparkle in savage amusement.

Half an hour passed before he could see six huddled figures approaching the store through the raging wind and snow. He stepped back and turned toward the stove, holding his hands above it. They swarmed inside, hurrying to the stove and breathing heavily.

"We did it!" A cloud of vapor rose from Zoran's mouth. "We cleaned this damned place. "

"Are you pure certain she will be on that bus?" Slobodan asked, trying to hide his concern.

"Must be," Milutin grinned. "Dragan saw her in Trnovo, didn't you?"

"Sure did," Dragan called from around the neck of slivovitz bottle. "There's no other way for her to get home or to her aunt in Vitez."

"Better be," Slobodan rasped. "It's one hell of a drive through balia 2 territory for nothing, if she's not in it."

"Let's suppose she's snow bound," Pavlovich grumbled. "What do we do then? We can't stay here and wait forever."

"Why the hell not?" Milutin smiled. "Who's going to stop us?"

"Milutin's right," Martinovich spoke for the first time and took the bottle from Dragan. "I don't see anyone around anymore. This is a dead place."

Nedim Asanovich's wife corrected him by appearing suddenly in the doorway. Hunched under a man's coat, she clutched a shawl around her shrewish face, sniffing loudly as she entered the store. Irritably she peered around, watery blue eyes scanning the seven men around the stove. She missed the bodies piled up against the far wall and settled her gaze on Milutin.

"You're reservists, I suppose."

Disdain hung like icicles from her words. Occasionally the reservists used to drop in Kerepnik before the war.

"Nedim asked you to be quiet, did he?" she asked raising her nose up high.

"Ma'am?" Dragan Stoyanovich smiled bowing deeply down in mock courtesy.

"Nedim Asanovich, my husband!" she said curtly. "The store-keeper! This is our store."

She took a deep breath.

"He came around to see what is happening and to quiet you down. Where is he now?"

"Oh, I see what you mean," Dragan beamed, crossing the plank floor to place a genteel hand on Mrs. Asanovich's elbow. "I believe he's outside, ma'am, now that he calmed us down."

The woman let him steer her back to the door, simmering at the unexpected attention. Dragan smiled down at her, exposing a neat row of dazzling teeth, as he affected his most charmingly boyish look.

"Well, thank you," Mrs. Asanovich stepped through the door he opened for her. "If only everyone was so polite as you, young man."

"It' s nothing, ma'am," Dragan led her to the edge of the snow-covered sidewalk. He smiled again, pointing across the street to the humped pile over there.

"I do believe your husband is there, ma' am."

"Where?" Mrs. Asanovich shaded her eyes against the wind and snow as she studied the street. "I don' t see him."

"Right there, ma'am."

Dragan indicated the hump, gently pushing the unaware widow toward the corpse of her husband. She followed the swing of his arm, saw the blood-stained sheep-skin overcoat protruding from under the snow and began to scream.

"I guess you would be kind of lonely on your own," Dragan murmured raising his Kalashnikov. "It' s much better for married folks to stick together."

Mrs. Asanovich turned wondering what on earth this man was talking about and then she noticed his rifle pointed at her. She was filling her lungs with the air in preparation for another scream when the bullet from Dragan's Kalashnikov shut her mouth forever. It blew away her lower jaw, exiting through the back of her neck so that she fell backwards over the body of her late husband in a welter of flouncing petticoats and white flannel underwear.

Dragan chuckled, watching the woman try to suck the air through the blood clogging her throat and triggered his Kalashnikov for the second time. The bullet hit Mrs. Asanovich clean between her spare breasts, killing her instantly, so that she snapped back to embrace her husband closer than she had in the last seven years of their marriage.

Dragan spat in the snow and then returned to the store merrily whistling. He simply nodded to Milutin.

Kerepnik settled down to its former quiet, a miserable little hamlet, stuck in the middle of nowhere. The modern age that only slightly touched it before the war definitively sealed its fate.

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