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'Objekt BD' is a short story written by Kerry Barner. The story was first published in 2015 by Platform for Prose who have kindly given their permission for the story to be republished here.
Kerry wrote the story after being inspired by a visit to Sarajevo. It's a great example of that classic old writing tip - 'write what you know' - a quote attributed to Mark Twain.
Having experienced something directly meant Kerry could draw on those experiences while writing to give the story more atmosphere, depth and believability. I invited her to write about her experiences and she kindly accepted.
If you have been published through a short story competition or magazine and would like to write about your experiences for my website , please visit my submission guidelines page.
Today, Goran is to put the tunnel to the test.
The load is heavy. More than his own weight. It’s full of cigarettes and meat. Meat! The first taste of flesh his family would have in almost a year. Goran puts out his cigarette, readjusts the straps around his shoulders and steps onto the first rung. He hears the words, “Good luck,” behind him. It’s the cigarette-scarred voice of Rufad, his digging buddy. It’s impossible to turn round, but he doesn’t need to. He’s spent the last four months with this man. He knows what he looks like, every inch of that face. Each line grained with the earth of Sarajevo. For four months they scraped and shovelled together, back-breaking, slavish work. And now the tunnel is ready. 800 metres in total.
They’d drawn matches to see who would go first. To see who would make the journey from Butmir to occupied Dobrinja. Every man outwardly wanting to be the first. Goran secretly hoping it would be someone else. When Goran drew the short match, Rufad held him in his strong arms like a baby. He could feel Rufad’s body tremble against his. He could smell the mixture of sweat, smoke and dirt on their bodies. To Goran, they’d become earth, wind, fire and water. Rufad was the first to pull away. He kissed Goran on both cheeks and said, “You’ve been chosen.” It sounded like a death sentence.
Goran raises his right hand in salute. He will need luck and God’s protection, if he’s to survive.
The wooden steps groan under the sheer bulk of the pack on his back. Before him, there’s light, but it’s weak. A dirty wind washes over his face. The fragile bulbs swing, creating ghostly patterns on the walls. Goran thinks he sees a demon ready to pounce. He closes his eyes in silent prayer, steps off the final stair and feels the soft, muddy ground beneath his feet.
He’s on his way.
Goran starts to count his steps. He thinks it will help the journey if he can measure it. Each step brings him closer to home. Each step brings him closer to danger. What if he’s discovered? When the tunnel began its life, Goran was screened and made to swear allegiance with the utmost secrecy. They gave it the codename: Objekt BD. Butmir to Dobrinja. He looks up at the packed earth. Under the sickly light, it’s hard to know a man’s heart surrounded by so much dirt. It’s been four months since the digging began, four months without proper food or shelter or safety. With a gun at his head, would Goran talk to protect his loved ones?
Goran thinks of his wife, Sonya. Her once plump cheeks now pinched, the piano fingers bony and aged. He thinks of Rufad. Who does he love more? He would rather die than have to make that choice.
Above Goran’s head is the runway. The ground shakes as a plane lands on the tarmac. Earth falls into his face. He is blinded for a moment. He bumps against the wall and rubs his eyes until the tears wash away the dirt. Water drips down on him. Will the ceiling stand the weight of the planes landing above his head?
He loses count of his steps.
The tunnel narrows. Goran feels his chest tighten as though the walls are pressing him in. He gulps at the air like a dying goldfish. He pictures his heart being squeezed dry. It hammers inside him. The army instructors warned him of this. He knows he’s panicking, he knows it will pass, but he can’t stop himself. He leans against the wall and takes a deep breath. He takes another. He counts to ten and his heartbeat slows down.
“Jebe ga,” Goran curses. Fuck it. The load on his back is too bulky to fit through. His chest pounds again. He doesn’t want to lose a single piece of his cargo. The weight of expectation is heavier than anything he can carry. Each item has been promised a home.
Goran starts to rearrange the goods. He pulls and tugs, pressing the packed meat even closer together. With a final wrench the bag is freed. There’s a casualty. The bag is caught on a piece of splintered wood, tearing some of the fabric. “JEBE GA,” Goran shouts again and immediately puts his hand over his mouth. He’s broken one of the golden rules: don’t make a sound.
He must patch up the bag or the goods will fall into the mud. Untying his shoe laces, he pierces the edges of the torn fabric. He notices his hands as he sews the pieces together. His nails are broken, the fingers calloused, the lifeline on his palm engrained with filth. It does not look long. These scarred hands which only ever used to hold a piece of chalk have now become workers’ hands. The schools are all closed now, too easy a target for the snipers and mortar shells. Instead of teaching, he’s now a packhorse.
He pats his handiwork. What would Sonya think? She’d probably take the lace in her own hands and create a tapestry out of it. She’d never really cared about needlework before, but it’s amazing how resourceful she’s become throughout the siege. Clothes that would have been thrown away in happier days she now restitches and restyles. She’d probably make an evening dress fit for the theatre out of the cloth on his back.
There’s a performance of Waiting for Godot due to show in one of the basements in his neighbourhood. Sonya’s helping out with the props. Anything to keep her busy. She’s been making a tree out of broken car parts for the past five weeks. He’d never really got that play before. Now it seems to make perfect sense. Waiting for something that might never come.
Goran gives the bag a second pat. It will have to do until he gets to the other side.
The tunnel deepens. Water, which has been steadily creeping over his shoes, is now at knee height. He must keep the load dry or the cigarettes will be ruined. It makes for slow, careful walking.
Goran takes a step forward and sinks up to his thigh. Quickly he pulls back onto higher ground. There’s nothing else for it. He must carry the load on his head. He thinks of his schooling, years ago, when he learnt of African women carrying bundles of kindling to their village. They often had to walk several miles, under the burning heat of the day, to reach their homes. He’s only travelling 800 metres. Less than a kilometre. He feels a sense of shame that a bit of water could impede his progress. He lifts the bag onto his head, readjusts it to make sure it is not likely to slip off and wades in.
It’s ice cold. He thanks God he is not making this journey in the winter when the river is frozen solid.
At its peak, the water reaches his waist. He cannot use his hands to grip onto the walls for fear of dropping the load. He pads the wet ground with the base of his boot until sure of a firm footing. Inch by inch he slides forward. He imagines his legs are made of metal. He’s a robot, immune to the freezing waters. Nothing can touch him. Not the cold, not gunshots, not bombs. His legs will carry him to the end.
Inch by inch the water levels start to recede.
The water is back round his ankles. Numb with cold, his legs start to shake. He gently lifts the load from his head and straps it round his shoulders once more. His hands are now free, but his fingers feel dead. He blows on them to bring them back to life. He sees his breath momentarily. It evaporates before him, quickly, snuffed out. He blows on his hands once more. He thinks of candles on a birthday cake. Five of them in a circle. It’s his son’s cake. Sonya made it. She stands behind Evsem with her hands on his shoulders, just in case he needs help. He doesn’t. He blows them out in one go. Their son, who doesn’t reach the age of six.
The tunnel twists and bends. He knows he is halfway now. The bend is a signal of the unexpected bunker that blocked their progress when the digging first began. It baffled everyone for days. Each end was supposed to meet in the middle but they’d come unstuck when they hit the intractable metal walls. There was no option but to dig round it. It added several metres to the tunnel and several more days of trenchwork. Rufad and Goran had volunteered to do extra shifts to keep Objekt BD on track.
The tunnel now rises. Goran must be getting close. The air is fresher on his face. He can almost smell freedom. The load is beginning to weigh heavily on him, when bam! His head hits a low metal beam and suddenly the pale lightbulb dims. All goes dark. He can feel his body falling, falling, falling. He puts his hands out just in time to cushion the landing. His face lies in several inches of water, enough to drown in. The water envelops him. He feels himself sinking, sinking, sinking. Into the mud where he is safe and warm and protected. If he could just lie here a while to rest...the goldfish swims across his eyes. Its mouth is open, ready to swallow him whole. Goran looks at the puckered mouth and laughs to himself. “Grandma, your teeth. They’ve all gone,” he says. The goldfish opens even wider and Goran sees right into its belly. Evsem is waving at him. Goran swims through the throat and the stomach walls close in.
There’s a gunshot from above. Goran lifts his head from the water. He thinks he’s being shot at. He starts to splutter. There are more gunshots. Goran turns on his side and spits out the gritty water from his mouth, water that was slowly choking him to death. He touches his forehead and looks down at his hands. They are covered in mud and blood. He kneels in the prayer position and offers up thanks that he didn’t end his days in a pool of wet earth. A couple of minutes longer and his own bones would have started to mingle with the clay of Sarajevo.
He gets to his feet, the blood rushing to his head. He steadies himself against the wall. Are the gunshots meant for him? Should he turn back to the safety of Butmir?
Goran thinks of Sonya. He pictures her mixing grass and rice with a little salt, for their daily meal. Can he come home empty handed? Can he face her disappointment? She would try to hide it, but it would be hard. They’ve both been dreaming of meat for weeks. “Goran,” she would say and hand him a plate. “This is for you.” He would take the steaming stew and sniff it. It would smell heavenly. As he took his first bite it would burn his tongue a little. It would taste delicious.
He cannot turn back.
It feels like a hundred buffaloes are pressing him into the earth. He lifts his legs as though the load he is carrying were attached to each foot. He turns to check the needlework. Wet, muddy, but still intact.
One step. Then another. There is a light. There is a face.
Something looms in front. A light points straight at him, right between the eyes. A cigarette. A hand strikes a match. He takes the cigarette in his blood-stained fingers, inhales deeply and breathes out.
Slowly, he mounts the stairs.
Kerry Barner was born in Yorkshire, but has lived in London for over 20 years. She is a senior editor for an international academic publisher. In 2009 she was shortlisted for Wasafiri’s New Writer Prize, in 2014 she was longlisted for the Bath Short Story Award and in 2015 she was longlisted for the Fish Short Story prize. In November 2015 she received Highly Commended for the London Short Story award 2015. Getting ever closer to a full-on win! Her work has appeared in Brand literary magazine, Notes From The Underground, Anthropology and Humanism, Spilling Ink Review, The Bicycle Review, the Momaya Annual Review 2012, To Hull and Back Short Story Anthology 2014 and Red Savina Review in which she received honourable mention in the Albert Camus Short Story competition. In 2011 she co-founded The Short Story competition and now runs it solo.
Be inspired by and draw on your experiences to write in an authentic, convincing style
Back in June 2012, my husband and I embarked on a train trip through Europe. Our final destination: Sarajevo. I’d been fascinated by this part of the world for years and I wanted to see it for myself. The journey began on a high-speed, swanky train in Paris, complete with showers, couchettes, flushable toilets, a café on board and air conditioning. By the time we reached the borders of Bosnia several countries later, the train experience was somewhat different. There were kids from Croatia throwing rocks at our passing train, the café was a man carrying a basket of warm beer and drinks and the toilet…well, let’s put it this way, you could see the tracks whizzing by when you gazed down at your handiwork. As for air conditioning? You could open the windows, if you wanted to, but maybe not if the kids were still gunning rocks at you.
For our first full day in Sarajevo, we joined the 4-hour free walking tour of the city, hosted by a bright, enthusiastic politics student called Neno, who had lived through the siege as a child. He ran these excellent tours because he didn’t want the world to forget what happened in the 1990s when the city was held hostage by the Serbian tanks lining the hills and the population was target practice for snipers. To this day, there are still a few bullet holes in the walls and shell-bombed craters in the pavements are filled with red paint where blood was shed. It might seem a small symbol but those paint-splattered holes are a powerful reminder of the lives lost in this enchanting city.
As the city starved and froze to death, the people of Sarajevo decided that something had to be done. There was no way in and no way out. The tanks made sure of that. In 1993 the idea of digging a tunnel underground was born and the code name for this project was Objekt BD. B stood for free Butmir, D stood for occupied Dobrinja, a neighbourhood in the city. The tunnel was fraught with danger, and has come to symbolise resistance and survival. A small part of it still stands to this day and is one of the most visited memorials in Sarajevo.
Having now seen the city first-hand myself, with its hilltop cemeteries littered with white gravestones, more often than not dated between 1992-1995, I too wanted to remind the world of what had happened such a short time ago. This was the inspiration for my story and I dedicate it to Neno and those who survived the siege.
I have long been interested in organising principles in my story writing and there was an obvious structure here: the 800 metres of the tunnel. Although less than a kilometre in length this underground tunnel was the source of many life-threatening problems both in its construction and in its use. And yet it saved many, many lives. There was also another, more subtle, organising principle, that is, the elements of earth, wind, fire and water. Earth is represented in the digging and the muddy floor of the tunnel. Water was a major issue as the tunnel was prone to flooding. In parts it reached waist height, hence our hero almost drowned in it. Air quality was also a concern. There was no air conditioning and people who passed through the tunnel had to wear a mask. Finally, fire; the tunnel was always under threat of being shelled as it sat underneath the air strip. Furthermore, one of the first things transported into the occupied territories were cigarettes. Money was scarce, so the people who volunteered to dig the tunnel were paid in cigarettes, a precious commodity at the time. Our hero lights a cigarette at the beginning and the story concludes with someone extending a match to light another at the end of his journey. Is it friend or foe? Only the reader can decide.
Using these two organising principles, I wanted to demonstrate the contrast between the short distance travelled and the life and death situations that people faced when they passed through the tunnel each day.
I wrote the story in September 2012, just over 20 years since the start of the Bosnian war. I sent it to several competitions and literary outlets, and didn’t get very far. I then got a chance to read it out loud at an open mic event organised by Ambit at The Betsy Trotwood in Clerkenwell. Apart from the fact that I’m no public speaker, barely pausing for breath as I rattled through the reading, when I reached the end I realised that there was something missing about this story. Organising principles are all well and good but I hadn’t developed the character well enough for people to feel much sympathy for his journey. It lacked an arc for one thing, but it also seemed too clinical. I added more back story, further details about his wife and lost child and some additional touches on what life must have been like for the people under siege. My aim was to give it more heart.
I should add though that submitting stories is a bit of a numbers game for me. I get plenty of rejections before a story is accepted. To give you an example, I sent Objekt BD to 8 places before it started to get recognition. Sometimes I get feedback on my work and, if I agree with an editor’s or judge’s comments, I will edit a story, but sometimes I just move on to the next outlet. But I do have a writing buddy. Someone who has read just about everything I’ve ever written. His name is Ed Dadswell and as well as being a beautiful writer himself, he’s got a great critical eye, so much so that I almost always follow his suggestions. Everyone should have an Ed Dadswell in their writing lives.
So, after a bit of editing, something worked because in 2014 Objekt BD was longlisted in the Bath Short Story competition and in 2015 it was finally accepted by Platform for Prose. I’m always keen to support new short story ventures and their website looked like a really good outlet. They were also very responsive to my emails and I didn’t have to wait too long before a decision was made on my story. Some outlets can take months and months for a response and some never respond at all, so it felt nice to deal with the friendly editors of Platform for Prose.
They have kindly allowed its full publication here and I want to thank them for selecting it on their excellent website. I also want to thank Chris Fielden for giving me the opportunity to write about the history behind this story and for all he does to support the short story genre. He’s a hero too.
Just a final note on the photograph that accompanies my biography. This was also taken in Sarajevo and I’m sitting by a memorial to the children who died there, over 1,500 of them. There is a large piece of glass sheltering a smaller one, symbolising a mother trying to protect her child from the shelling. The metal, circular structure around the glass is made of molten mortar shells that littered the city, and is imprinted with children’s hand and footprints. It’s a poignant and moving memorial, which is also covered by Neno’s walking tour.
Kerry Barner, January 2016
I'd like to say a big thank you to Kerry for taking the time to write this fabulous post for my site.
If you have had one of your short stories published through a competition or magazine and would like to share your experiences with other writers, please read my submission guidelines.