A harrowing poem about rape and murder in the Balkans.

Published March 9, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

Here is a piece of required reading

at the end of our century

the end of a millennium that began with the crusades

The transcript of an interview

between a Red Cross doctor

and a Muslim girl in Bosnia

twelve years old

who described her rape by men

calling themselves soldiers

different men every night one after the other

six seven eight of them

for a week

while she was chained by the neck

to a bed in her former schoolhouse

where she saw her parents and her brothers

have their throats slit and tongues cut out

where her sister-in-law

nineteen years old and nursing her baby

was also raped night after night

until she dared to beg for water

because her milk had run dry

at which point one of the men

tore the child from her arms

and as if he were "cutting an ear of corn"

(the girl's words)

lopped off the child's head

with a hunting knife

tossed it into the mother's lap

and raped the girl again

slapping her face

smearing it with her nephew's blood

and then shot the mother

who had begun to shriek

with the head wide-eyed in her lap

shoving his gun into her mouth

and firing twice

All of this recounted to the doctor

in a monotone

a near whisper in a tent

beside an icy river

where the girl had turned up frostbitten

wearing only a soiled slip

her hair yanked out

her teeth broken

All the history you've ever read

tells you this is what men do

this is only a sliver of the reflection

of the beast

who is a fixture of human history

and the places you heard of as a boy

that were his latest stalking grounds

Auschwitz Dachau Treblinka

and the names of their dead

and their numberless dead whose names have vanished

each day now find their rolls swelled

with kindred souls

new names new numbers

from towns and villages

that have been scorched from the map

1993 may as well be 1943

and it should be clear now

that the beast in his many guises

the flags and vestments

in which he wraps himself

and the elaborate titles he assumed

can never be outrun


As that girl with the broken teeth

loaded into an ambulance

strapped down on a stretcher

so she wouldn't claw her own face

will never outrun him

no matter where she goes

solitary or lost in a crowd

the line she follows

however straight or crooked

will always lead her back to that room

like the chamber at the bottom

of Hell in the Koran

where the Zaqqum tree grows

watered by scalding rains

"bearing fruit like devils' heads"

In not giving her name

someone has noted at the end

of the transcript that the girl herself

could not or would not recall it

and then describes her as a survivor

Which of course is from the Latin

meaning to live on

to outlive others

I would not have used that word.

from "5 Degrees and Other Poems"
(Penguin Books 1995)

By Nicholas Christopher

Nicholas Christopher is a poet. This selection is from "5 Degrees and Other Poems" (Penguin 1995).

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