Part I: Bosnia, April 2003

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The taxi arrived at exactly the wrong time. Ten seconds earlier and I wouldn't have seen the child at all. Ten seconds later and it would have been too late to help him. I would have moved on, uninvolved, and I cannot even imagine how different the rest of my life might have been.

When I encountered the little boy it was two in the morning and I was somewhere in the back streets of Sarajevo, completely lost, muttering incoherent fury at my absent girlfriend. My soon-to-be-ex-girlfriend. I was just drunk enough to admit that to myself for the first time. We were finished, Talena and I, our two-year relationship had frayed beyond repair. This vacation, our last desperate throw of the dice, had come up snake eyes. She would dump me as soon as we got back to California, and I couldn't blame her. I would have dumped me a long time ago.

We had been at a party, a reunion hosted by friends Talena had not seen in eight years, held in a lushly decorated apartment, elegant furniture and tasteful paintings and acid jazz on the turntables, American cigarettes and French wine, lean and beautiful people, everyone but Talena and I decked out in designer clothes. Only the groaning plumbing and low cracked ceiling hinted that we were in a dazed and shambling nation still trying to recover from the most vicious civil war in all the bloody history of Europe. Talena's friends were very good at keeping up the façade of urbane cosmopolitan high life. For some of them I think it was all they had.

Everyone but me was Bosnian, though many spoke good English, and I knew no one but Talena, who was absorbed with her long-distant friends. I felt excluded. I drank too much slivovitz, Bosnia's lethal plum brandy. I told Talena I was leaving. She accused me of avoiding her friends. It had escalated into a bitter fight, as our disagreements so often did these days, and I had turned and stormed into the night, fuelled by slivovitz and wounded rage.

Losing myself on the steep slopes of southern Sarajevo shouldn't have been possible. All I needed to do was to go downhill until I reached the Miljacka River and then follow it upstream. But in my drunken emotional haze I found myself climbing as often as I descended, somehow the winding streets never went in quite the right direction, and every time I caught a glimpse of the few dim lights of downtown they seemed no nearer than before. I was beginning to wonder if I should try to turn back when I turned yet another a corner, saw the family in the pickup, and stopped dead with surprise.

The street was typical suburban Sarajevo. A pair of street lamps shed barely enough light to navigate by, but bright light from an open doorway illuminated the street. A pitted and crumbling road, no sidewalk, barely wide enough for two cars, its edges slowly eaten away by a thousand ravenous generations of grass. Little houses of five or six rooms were arrayed on either side, their walls, like the street itself, still pockmarked with bullet scars from the eight-years-ended war. The plots of land between houses contained lawns and vegetable gardens, but no trees; the war had swallowed almost all the trees within a mile of Sarajevo, cut down and burnt for warmth. There was a pervasive air of neglect and decay – peeling paint, a plank fallen from a wooden fence, a cracked window, gardens that were mostly weed, little clumps of debris – that the few new or brightly painted houses could not dispel.

A beat-up white Mitsubishi pickup was parked in front of the lit doorway. In the bed of the pickup a dark-skinned family sat atop a ragged collection of bags and bundles. They were so out of place they startled me out of my self-righteous reverie and nearly into sobriety. Other than a few NATO troops they were the only nonwhite people I had seen in Bosnia. Two adults, and four children ranging in age from high single digits to mid-teens. I guessed they were South Asian, probably Tamil, judging by their features and the darkness of their skin.

Three young white men emerged from the house, all sporting the Menacing Gangsta look, black clothes, shaved heads, tattoos, alpha-male attitude. They approached the pickup, obviously intending to get in and drive away, and the dark-skinned parents, alarmed, started objecting loudly in a strange and sonorous language. The white men hesitated and looked at one another. The driver replied in annoyed Serbo-Croatian. After a brief, confused pause, both groups started speaking at once. It quickly became apparent that neither side understood a word the other was saying.

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