By Sumeja Tulic
July 24, 2020
It came to her suddenly, in the morning, before she made breakfast and dressed her children. That brief portion of the morning, shorter than half an hour, was the only time she had for herself since she married. She would notice the furniture in the bedroom, look at her hands, touch her hair. She’d press her fingers against her closed eyelids, then open her eyes, and gaze outside of the window, peering from behind the curtain. She would listen to the noises from the house and beyond, her husband’s body moving from room to room, the distant hum of the fridge, the cow in the byre, and the village life set into motion by the rumble of a tractor’s engine. And yet, all of it was minor compared to her own breathing. The breath, warm and hollow, circulating air back and forth between her lungs, nostrils, and mouth, was the only recognizable feature, on the last morning of her life, of what she left behind. Her bed in this refugee camp was empty of her husband. Her children still by her side. The room bare of furniture. The window curtainless. No fridge. No cow. No tractor in sight. “This must end,” Ferida said with the confidence of a will undisputed by reason. “It has to end.” She killed herself that night, leaving no letter. The only documentation of her suicide was a single, chance photograph.
She didn’t turn around to look back as she walked to the nearby forest. To look back, she needed to be either afraid of what was to come or mournful of what she left behind, and Ferida felt neither. Whatever lay ahead was as equally foreign as the circumstances she was leaving behind. She just arrived by bus in this city built on salt deposits, its roads encroached by landmines. “Is this really Tuzla?” she thought when the bus passed a beaten yellow sign by the road. “Welcome,” it said. “To what?” she wondered. Her children were asleep and safe tonight. Tonight was the last time of her life, and she did what good mothers do: she fed them, kissed them, put them to bed, and made sure they were comfortable under their thin, linen bed covers.
“That road yesterday, this road tonight, no roads tomorrow.” She heard these words in the cacophony of crickets, a faraway gunshot, the moon strumming the tree line, and the drum of an August cold coming from below, through the veins and bones, to strike the heart. Ferida’s last smile—brief and unrecognizable in the dark—was at her heart, which drove her hands closer to her chest. It didn’t ask to be spared. It requested to be warm.
The morgue report will tell you that Ferida hanged herself with a noose made from her shawl and belt. Ferida herself would tell you that it wasn’t the shawl or the belt. The knot was all anger—anger at them who wanted it to happen, anger at her now cold heart that let it be as they wanted. So needy, so little, so filthy, pulsating with selfish supplications, was the heart to her.
That heart stopped her husband Selman from fleeing their town with the other men and walking the hills to Tuzla. The 40-mile trail carves through forested hills and valleys swallowed everyday by morning fog, regardless of the season. “The Chetniks won’t harm us in front of all these cameras and the UN.” She pointed to fenced barracks, blue helmets, and the camera-toting men in bulletproof vests. “Don’t go, Selman.” Ferida said no to escaping through the mountains and wooded valleys, a route that became known as the “Trail of Tears” or the “Marathon of Death.” Selman acquiesced to her wishes, and stayed with Ferida at the UN base.
Together with their children, a boy and a girl, and a sack containing nothing much of value, they waited in the UN base for evacuation. The day was sizzling—unbearably hot—and his last. Nothing compares to that final push of fear that comes as sweat and prevents the eyes from blinking. Nothing is like fear intensified by light and prolonged by waiting that has no precedent in previous experiences.
When the evacuation buses were parked in front of the base, Ferida and her family were amongst the first to march towards them, each parent holding the hand of one of their children. On the way to the bus, a Serb soldier stopped Selman. He handed the soldier their sack of possessions, but the soldier said, “No. Not that. You!” He ordered him to join the other men. “Where?” Selman asked. The soldier remembered the Kalashnikov hanging on his shoulder, and pointed with its barrel towards a growing group of men by the road. Standing behind him, Ferida could not see Selman’s face. She didn’t have time to shield her eyes from the sun, and even if she wanted to, her arms and hands were no better than fallen timber. The last time she saw his face was earlier in the day, but her eyes were stranded between the road and the base’s entrance, unable to look and memorize the man beside her. All she saw now was the rifle, her husband’s back stained with dirt and sweat, and his arms removing the sack from his back and leaving it by their son. The boy wouldn’t let go of him. Ferida jumped off the bus and ran to her son and husband. Selman turned to Ferida, said something about having to go and not to worry, and ushered their son toward her. She found herself on the bus. Along the road, she didn’t see the burnt houses or dead bodies. “My husband is coming, my husband is coming,” she told the people she met at the entrance of the refugee camp.
During that concise moment before death, the one said to be a projection of one’s life, Ferida saw nothing and no one. The last bits of air and life were the words of an unuttered sentence that struck her like a headache. “I knew one of us would die in the woods, my love.”
Out of all theories about barefoot suicides, here’s the one that makes the most sense for Ferida: people who commit suicide take their shoes off so as not to carry the dirt from this world to the other.
Written in the memory of those who died on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the Srebrenica genocide.
Sumeja Tulic is Libyan-born Bosnian writer and photographer currently based in New York City.