Vuk Vukmanovic was born in 1996 in Novi Sad, Serbia, where he completed his maturity diploma at “Isidor Bajic” high school for musical arts, with a major in music performance – classical guitar department. He currently resides in Geneva, Switzerland, where he’s following a BA degree program in cinematography at Geneva School of Art and Design.
…As I set foot in the city airport that morning, an unusual thing happened. I felt overwhelmed with guilt. Ever since I had returned home for good, I was sure that nothing could ever shake me up like that again. It’s been exactly 50 years now. I had my old military bag across my left shoulder and in my right hand I held an old war diary, which still contained some blank pages. Why hadn’t I done this earlier ? The thought tormented me.
I cannot forget the sunrise. The sky had the reddest colour I could imagine. That day was unlike anything I had ever seen before. We had been working the whole night through and by the time the first Sun rays came through the bullet holes in our tent, general Smith had already warned us of a potential new emergency. My colleague surgeon, Mark, and I were arguing after the first briefing. “Don’t overthink this, David ! You’re getting too attached. You’re taking this personally.” I was desperate. But how could I not feel attached ! Doesn’t anybody else see what I am seeing ? The things we are doing to these people ? How can I avoid overthinking in the moment their tortured eyes pierce my pupils as they lie in this bloody bed bellow me ? Their trembling bodies, their deformed faces and me patching them up while they scream in my face…“It’s us who brought the war to them”, I replied to Mark.
I remembered how it felt to be so far from home for the first time. Every day I spent in Vietnam, I just wanted to make up for the hell unleashed by this war. I wanted to save those innocent men from dying in vain. You know, it was a way of honouring their sacrifice. This was neither my war nor his… We both could have died that day…
Please, doctor, continue reading.
Yes, excuse me, I wandered off.
As the shooting stopped, the dust quickly settled on the battlefield. Exactly 15min after the last bullet was fired, we ran onto the field and began gathering our men. As we were bringing in the last 10 or 20, I started to realise it was useless to go across. There was no way anybody could have survived on the other side and we already had too many wounded on our part. After I brought in the last body to the tent, I made a decision. I snuck out and ran to the other side. All I could see was corpses. Nothing moved. The enemy base was completely destroyed by the airstrike and the body parts of their men laid scattered throughout the whole place… I started to run in circles mindlessly, I was in an absolute state of shock… Was it possible that none of them were still breathing, I kept asking myself.
Oh, God, it was a massacre.
Would you like something to drink, doctor ?
No, no, I’m good, thank you… Just give me a moment to catch my breath, I’m an old man ! …Actually, please, some water would be nice.
Right away doc. Here.
So, was this the moment you first met him ?
Oh yes, and what an encounter it was… Where was I… Ah, right.
…Somebody grabbed me by the leg. I could feel chills running from my toes to my brain. In a blink, I froze, thinking that death was upon me. Then, I slowly turned my head downwards and saw him looking at me, scared to death. He tried to say something but he couldn’t open his mouth. His whole body was literally covered in wounds, and his left arm was barely attached to his shoulder. I lifted him in my arms and ran towards the camp. I don’t think Mr Smith saw me. After I put him to bed, I cut his clothes open and realized that it was hopeless. I had to amputate his arm. I tried to communicate with him and explain what was about to happen, but his eyes wandered off and very soon he lost consciousness. I never saw him again after that. I was relocated to another camp by order of General Smith the following morning, while he stayed with the last company as they awaited a possible counterattack. Eventually, our boys fled too and he remained in that very bed, waiting for somebody to take him back home...
Excuse me, David, my telephone is ringing…
Doctor David, sir, I think we’ve found him. A man, allegedly his relative, just contacted our newspapers. He gave us an address. Would you like to go right away ?
Can we continue with the article later ?
Absolutely, let me call us a cab.
A week ago, I went to a travel agency and booked a flight to Hanoi, without the slightest hesitation. The bare thought of going back would have seemed unreal just a couple of days ago. Now, as we are nearing his home, I truly hope that the time has come for this war to compensate for all the enemies it created with at least one friendship…
He welcomes you, David, and asks how come you decided to find him now ?
Well, when I came back home from the war, I moved all the stuff I brought back with me to the basement. I didn’t want to remember anything. I wanted to think of it all as one big bad dream and try to enjoy the rest of my life in peace, watching my children and grandchildren grow up. You know, it was just too much. Then, last month, my older son decided to clean up the basement and he found all this old military stuff. Among all the mess, there was this very bag, which Mark gave me when we were separated. Your arm was in it. My son brought it upstairs and asked me what it was all about. I was absolutely stunned. I couldn’t believe I still had it. The only thing that was on my mind after that was you. I had to find you and return it. It seemed like the only right thing to do !
…It took some time to translate it all. It was amazing to observe his eyes while he was listening. He was truly one of those people whose soul you simply know is pure. Just by looking at them. It’s like you could see something supernatural in his…
He says that it is very kind of you. He is happy to have a part of his body back. When the time comes, he says he can be buried with it. Just like you, he says he is very surprised and pleased to meet you and wonders how his arm stayed in your possession for almost 50 years.
I am not exactly sure why I accepted your amputated arm as a gift from my friend Mark. After a big argument with our general, Mr Smith, he somehow managed to persuade the commander to give it to him. He then boiled the flesh, extracted the bones and thought he would give it to me as a souvenir… I am not sure if it was meant to be a token of our bravery during the war. Really, I never opened it. I had seen so many bad things during that whole…Uh… When I came back home, my brain… It just seemed disconnected from my senses. I just wanted to… Well, forget.
He was smiling all the time. He was so happy to hold his arm. What a spirit, I thought as I occasionally smiled back, looking around his house and at all the photographs of his family and friends who were there with us…I was so glad that he was able to make a life for himself after everything that had happened to him.
As I set foot in the city airport that morning, it felt so familiar. Knowing that we had come to a closure warmed my heart. I exited the airport and it was cold back home. In the evening, we had a big family dinner and I told my sons and grandsons about the man and his arm, his eyes and his pure soul. They seemed very interested in the story.
I am going to publish our article tomorrow so I thought I’d write you a short email. Also, I was wondering if there was something you would like to add before I send it to prepress ? Maybe a short summary of the whole experience and your feelings once you returned home ?
Dear Mr. Phan,
I have decided to send you this diary. Being back there after so long, seeing him again, sharing my story with him and meeting his family and friends... I will never forget it. It makes me immensely happy to know that, together, we defied what that war was designed for. A soul as pure as his will always overcome the rough aftermath of men’s greedy habits.
Dr. David Miller
Dr Sam Axelrad brought the skeletal keepsake home to Texas as a reminder that when a badly injured North Vietnamese soldier was brought to him, he did the right thing and fixed him up. The bones sat in a closet for decades, and when the Houston urologist finally pulled them out two years ago, he wondered about their true owner, Nguyen Quang Hung.