The Irish Setter That Helped My Family Survive the Bosnian War

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Feb. 17 2012 7:45 AM

War Dogs

How an Irish setter helped my family get through the Bosnian War.

An Irish setter.
An Irish setter.

iStockphoto/Thinkstock.

The following essay is excerpted from the latest issue of Grantathe quarterly magazine of new writing. It is available online only in Slate. To read the complete version, click here to subscribe to Granta in print. For a limited time, Slate readers get a 25 percent discount.

My family’s first and only dog arrived in the spring of 1991. That April, my sister drove with her new boyfriend to Novi Sad, a town in northern Serbia hundreds of miles from Sarajevo, where there was an Irish-setter breeder she’d somehow tracked down. In her early 20s, my sister was still living with our parents, but she’d long asserted her unimpeachable right to do whatever she felt like. Thus, without even consulting Mama and Tata, with the money she’d saved from her modelling gigs, she bought a gorgeous, blazingly auburn Irish-setter puppy. When she brought him home, Tata was shocked—city dogs were self-evidently useless, a resplendent Irish setter even more so—and unconvincingly demanded that she return him immediately. Mama offered some predictable rhetorical resistance to yet another creature (after a couple of cats she’d had to mourn) she would worry about excessively, but it was clear she fell in love with the dog on the spot. Within a day or two he chewed up someone’s shoe and was instantly forgiven. We named him Mek.

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In a small city like Sarajevo, where people are tightly interconnected and no one can live in isolation, all experiences end up shared. Just as Mek joined our family, my best friend Veba, who lived across the street from us, acquired a dog himself, a German shepherd named Don. Čika-Vlado, Veba’s father, a low-ranking officer of the Yugoslav People’s Army, was working at a military warehouse near Sarajevo where a guard dog gave birth to a litter of puppies. Veba drove over to his father’s workplace and picked the slowest, clumsiest puppy, as he knew that, if they were to be destroyed, that one would be the first one to go. Veba had been my sister’s first boyfriend and the only one I’d ever really liked. We were often inseparable, particularly after we’d started making music and playing in a band together. After my sister managed to get over their break-up, they renewed their friendship.

Soon after the puppies arrived, they’d take them out for a walk at the same time. I was no longer living with my parents, but often came home for food and family time, particularly after Mek’s arrival—I loved to take him out, my childhood dream of owning a pet fulfilled by my indomitable sister. Veba and I would walk with Mek and Don by the river, or sit on a bench and watch them roll in the grass, smoking and talking about music and books, girls and movies, while our dogs gnawed playfully at each other’s throats. I don’t know how dogs really become friends, but Mek and Don were as close friends as Veba and I were.

Much of the summer of 1991 I spent in Kiev, Ukraine, managing to be present for the demise of the Soviet Union and Ukraine’s declaration of independence. That same summer, the war in Croatia progressed rapidly from incidents to massacres, from skirmishes to the Yugoslav People’s Army’s completely destroying the town called Vukovar. When I returned from Ukraine at the end of August, there was not fighting yet in Sarajevo—the siege would commence the following spring—but the war had already settled in people’s minds: fear, confusion and drugs reigned. I had no money, so a friend of mine offered me hack work on a porn magazine (he thought that people would want distraction from the oncoming disaster), but I declined, because I didn’t want bad sex writing (as though there were any other kind) to be the last thing I’d done if I were to be killed in the war. I packed a carful of books and moved up to our cabin on a mountain called Jahorina to read as many thick classical novels as possible (and write a slim volume of muddled stories) before the war consigned everything and all to death and oblivion. If I was going down, I was going down reading (and writing).

I stayed in the mountains from September to December. I read the fat classics (War and Peace, The Magic Mountain) and Kafka’s letters; I wrote stuff full of madness, death, and wordplay; I listened to music while staring at the embers in our fireplace; I chopped wood. At night, I could hear the tree branches over our cabin scratching the roof in the wind; the wooden frame creaked and, occasionally, the bell of a lost cow echoed through the dense night. Years later, I would struggle to perform exercises that were supposed to help me with managing my frequent outbursts of anger. On the advice of my therapist, I’d try to control my breathing while envisioning in detail a place I associated with peace and safety. I’d invariably invoke our cabin in the mountains: the smooth surface of the wooden table my father built without using a single nail; a cluster of old ski passes hanging under the mute cuckoo clock; the ancient fridge whose brand name—Obod Cetinje—were the first words I read by myself. The peace and safety belonged to the time I’d spent in the cabin, when reading in solitude cleared my mind and my hurt was healed by the crisp mountain air and ubiquitous pine smell.

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