A Life Owed (part 2)

By the third day, the uniforms had started to smell foul. They were out of food and their feet were battered with blisters. The unforgiving terrain of the Perućica Forest was taking its toll. The remaining soldiers knew that they had to keep moving if they wanted a chance to survive. The options weren’t optimistic either way. They would either be killed by the Germans, die of starvation, or freeze to death…in the end, the result would be the same. They had to reach Foča.

Only three soldiers remained out of what was a six-man patrol squad. Boško was the oldest of the three, despite being only 25 years old. Davor was 22, Hasan had just turned 20. The squad was tasked with guarding the first outpost on the only northbound road to Foča where the Yugoslav Partisan troops were awaiting reinforcements in preparation for an imminent German offensive. The Partisans believed that this offensive would be the last German push in the region, as many of their reinforcements were soon to be moved to the Russian front where things were getting desperate. But the Partisans didn’t know when the initial attack would commence. Boško’s patrol squad found out soon. A German platoon staged a surprise assault on their outpost in the middle of a freezing March night, killing half of their squad including their Sergeant. The three survivors were asleep in the rear at the time of the assault. By the time they realized what was happening, the other half of the squad was already dead. Their vehicle was immobilized, the radio was busted. They had no choice but to run into the darkness of the thick Perućica Forest.

The following morning, Davor and Hasan decided that Boško should become the temporary leader of the leftover squad. After all, he was the oldest, so they unofficially named him Squad Corporal by default. All Boško did to earn that rank was stay alive. Sometimes, staying alive is all that is required in order to climb up the army rank ladder. That sounds easier than it actually is. Boško had no ambitions to actually become a ranked officer. In fact, he despised most of his officers — especially their smugness and arrogance that is often confused with ‘leadership’. But the boys in the squad needed someone to take the lead. The boys…compared to Boško, they were still just boys.

Davor was a philosophy student at the Zagreb University. He joined the Partisans because he fell in love with a Slovakian co-student who became active in the underground Anti-Fascist Women’s Resistance movement at the university. To impress her and get her attention, he swapped Nietzsche for Marx and Lenin. Together they printed tiny resistance leaflets and placed them into the bibles and hymn books inside all the catholic churches in Zagreb. She got caught and was jailed. Davor decided to leave Zagreb and join the Partisan rebels in rural Croatia along with other student groups.

Hasan grew up as the only boy in a household with six sisters in a village near the central Bosnian town of Jajce. As a feisty kid, getting the necessary attention and recognition was always a struggle in the humble country house, where livelihood depended on a few cows, a dozen chickens, and a patch of arable land. Hasan only finished elementary school but the thing he learned best during those years was the sport of boxing. His former physical education instructor, who also taught four more subjects in the tiny village school, inspired him to become dedicated to the sport and coached Hasan every other day. He became quite a decent boxer, developing a wicked left hook and a fast right uppercut, becoming locally renowned in the area as an up-and-coming fighter. Hasan and his coach joined the Partisans together after hearing a speech by Josip Broz Tito being broadcast over the radio. Tito was in Jajce to proclaim the establishment of a new federal Yugoslavia and emphasized the need for every capable man to support the cause and take up arms against the German invaders and their domestic supporters. Hasan was convinced. His only concern was that he would join the war effort as a virgin. He expressed his concern to his coach and main confidant, who gave Hasan some money in case the opportunity to purchase sexual gratification presented itself on the way to joining the troops. It didn’t.

Boško was the only one who already had his own family. A baker by trade, he had massively strong hands that could break just about anything. Years of kneading dough every day bestowed him with herculean hands and he was known among the troops for being the arm wrestling champion. He even made a little bit of money because he’d accept challenges from other soldiers who bet that they could beat him. If someone needed a nut cracked or an apple ripped in half, they would casually throw it over to Boško and he would oblige. But not without taking a bite himself first — ‘nut cracker tax’ he called it. The other soldiers didn’t mind. They were entertained by the whole performance. He was just as entertained by Davor’s intellectual Croatian dialect and Hasan’s Bosnian peasant speech. They came from very different parts of Yugoslavia and now they were “stuck in the same shit” as Boško would eloquently observe.

…to be continued…