A Monument for a Horse Thief

A Monument for a Horse Thief

translated by Sam Garrett

 

Never in all of former Yugoslavia have I met a man more singular than Mihaljo ‘Mile’ Komasovic. A person prone to eloquent silences. And who, when he does open his mouth, comes up with statements like: “Just wars are something I don’t believe in.” Or: “A good person is an unselfish person.”

Mile grew up beside the “Highway of Brotherhood and Unity”, but no one calls it that anymore. These days, the ‘E70’ – with no further to-do - is the official name of that strip of asphalt between Zagreb and Belgrade. Dual carriageway, toll booths, rarely a curve. It is hard to imagine that a former Dutch defence minister once helped to build it; his youth brigade, singing as they shovelled, believed they were burying the primitive hatred between peoples.

I drive past bare willows along the flood plain of the Sava, on my way to Mile, with a mission. In my bag is a handwritten homage and a contribution in euros from a woman from Maasdam, “for your unconditional loyalty to the horses of Lipik’.  In addition, the former secretary-general of the International Lipizzaner Federation has asked me to tell Mile: ‘They should build a monument to you.’

It is doubtful whether any such monument will ever be built. His Croatian neighbours (sixty-two-year-old Mile is a Serb) see him as the biggest horse thief of our time, the man who – under cover of mist, on a December day in 1991 – took off with a chunk of Croatian patrimony: a herd of Lipizzaners from the state stud farm at Lipik, where he was the stableman.

Just past road marker one hundred I enter the hills of West-Slavonia, then take the ‘Lipik/Jasenovac’ exit. Particularly striking here are the stainless-steel signs beside the entrance to every forest path: a shiny new skull and crossbones, shouting to you to beware of mines! Kilometres of destruction go rolling by, almost every farm is a ruin with the crowns of trees poking up stubbornly between the rafters.

It was twenty years ago – in June of 1991 – that I visited this place for the first time. A war had broken out in Europe, right up against the Austrian border. I owned a blue Renault 5 and I wanted to be a journalist. A friend and I drove here together, to just past the border with what had – a few days earlier – been given the name ‘Slovenia’. How could a people that watered and cared for the geraniums on its windowsills, just as we did,  suddenly end up in the middle of a war?

I had run across a quote from Marshal Tito, from just before his death in May 1980: “Malicious tongues claim that Yugoslavia will one day disintegrate. But it will not; our people’s army, the army of all nations and nationalities, guarantees its survival.” My three-volume dictionary, however, defined “Balkanization” as follows: to divide (a country, territory, etc.) into small, quarrelsome states. My friend and I had read treatises on the nature of nationalism, but none of it helped;  I, at least, became helplessly confused. “Fighting spreads to East Slavonia”, the BBC radio reported. Slavonia? Didn’t they mean “Slovenia”?

In October 1992 I came back, this time without a car but with plans to settle in Belgrade as the correspondent for a leading Dutch newspaper. I ended up living in a sixteenth-floor flat along Ho Chi Minh Boulevard, a concrete borough close to where the Sava emptied into the Danube. The apartment I sublet from a refugee jazz reviewer who had wished to neither fight nor serve, and who had told me when we met in Holland: ‘If someone were to say to me now: “In ten years’ time you’ll be working on a kiwi plantation in New Zealand”, I would be perfectly willing to believe him.’ He also cited the opening line of a report from Rolling Stone, dealing with a battle in the trenches between paramilitaries and Bosnian- Herzegovinian regulars: ‘The undefinables are shooting the unpronouncables.’

I went in search of patterns and symbolism, and wrote about “Swallow”, a brokerage in ethnic removals. The proprietress mediated in house exchanges between Serbs in Croatia and Croatians in Serbia. She preferred to speak of ‘ethnic disentanglement’, rather than ethnic cleansing , and felt that it was ‘normal’ for people of the same stock to want to live together. Mixing, multiculturalism, the ideal of the melting pot: all unnatural. I could hear the cannons thundering in the background too, couldn’t I?

To me, it was the hatred between Catholic Croatia and Orthodox Serbia vented along the Balkan fault that seemed abnormal. A politician in Belgrade announced that the best way to kill a Croatian was with a rusty shoehorn. The president of Croatia, in turn, said that he was glad his wife was not Jewish, and that the annihilation of Serbs in 1941 – 44 at the Jasenovac death camp, the ‘Auschwitz of the Balkans’,  hadn’t really been all that bad, not like they wanted you to believe.

No wonder then that Mile Komasovic, as a Serb in Croatia, decided to flee when the War of Yugoslav Secession broke out in 1991. The only problem was: he took the white horses, the country’s living crown jewels, with him. There were eighty-eight of them. Mile  had driven up and back with the lorry , in the dark and through the fog, eight times. “He kidnapped the herd,” the Croatians claimed.

“That is a lie,” Mile Komasovic told me in June 2008, when I met him for the first time. “I saved my animals by removing them from the line of fire.” The mares and their foals, he said, had looked at him ‘imploringly’. Mile was wearing white Kappa sneakers and a pair of jeans that did nothing to conceal how out-and-out skinny he was. His eyes were sunken in his head. He also told me about the razzia carried out in his native village by pro-Nazi Croatians in February 1944, during the next-to-last  war. All Serb boys and men, 287 in total, were rounded up and taken away. To Jasenovac. His own father had hidden in the forest, and it was to that fact that Mile owed his presence on this earth.

‘I was a reservist in my day, but I never reported in,” he said. ‘My mother always insisted that it was better to flee than to fight.’ Horses were animals of flight as well, there was no way he could have left them behind.

 

A final hairpin curve and the secondary road leaves the woods and enters the flats. Between 1992 and 1995 there was a sentry post of white sandbags here, manned by U.N. soldiers from Nepal. NepBat. Their post looked out over the railroad that crosses the fields in a gentle arc: the battlefront, and ultimately the line of demarcation for the first accords in 1991, with no-man’s land on both sides. Amid the greenery, standing alone atop its low rise, is the old, red-brick “Habsburg” stud farm. From the surrounding hills, tanks and mortars, requisitioned from Tito’s Pan-Yugoslav People’s Army and wielded by Serbs, spent two full months shelling the Croatians in the town below. The stud farm was hit as well. The breeding stallions died of smoke inhalation in their stalls. The mares and foals in the surrounding pastures served as moving targets – a total of 17 horses were killed.

During that first meeting in 2008, Mile had showed me the rebuilt stables. The roof was new, the whole thing was outfitted neatly with gutters and drainpipes. He pointed to the fields along the railroad. “At first the horses bolted at every impact. But after that they became numb.” During our conversation, the stableman got into an argument with our interpreter Jadranka, the English teacher at the local primary school, who reminded him pointedly that those mortar shells had not appeared out of the blue but were fired from Serb positions. When she said that, Mile tugged at the hem of his t-shirt and sniffed loudly. He had done the best he could for his horses, “besides which, young lady, the horses don’t have a nationality, now do they?”

Mile admitted that he’d had access to an army truck for the evacuation. “So it was a military operation,” Jodranka translated between the lines. His stallions and mares were so weakened, the stableman said, that he was able to put them in the same truck together, it didn’t matter anymore. At first the herd took refuge in Bosnia, but two months later, in February 1992, war broke out there as well.

Travelling in convoy, Mile and the horses then moved to Tito’s former elite stables at Karadordevo, in Serbia. That went well for a while. Mile had taken the studbook and the branding iron along, and continued his breeding activities. But in 1997, when the army relinquished all responsibility for its “warhorses”, Mile had to look for a new refuge. He thought he had found that with a casino owner from Novi Sad, a Serb who bred horses – and dogs, for security companies. With his money and Mile’s expertise, they were going to set up a commercial breeding program.

“If you ask whether I regret that decision, I’ll tell you: ‘Yes, every waking moment.’” What the casino boss didn’t know was that the International Lipizzaner Federation had placed the horses on a blacklist: anyone buying one of the animals could be charged with receiving stolen goods. They turned out to be unmarketable. The casino owner decided not to spend another dinar on his Croatian herd, and left them to starve. That was in the late summer of 2003. When winter came and the grass was covered in a blanket of snow, Mile watched thirty horses die. “In the end, they were eating their own stalls. They chewed on anything made of wood.”

When spring came he went begging to the parks service in Novi Sad, asking to take the grass clippings home for his horses. But he was only a refugee on a bicycle, who no one listened to.

The casino owner fired Mile, and in 2006 banned him -  at the risk of a bullet through his head – from his yard.  Mile went back once,  armed with a camera.

The pictures he made showed walking skeletons wrapped in a tattered, white hide. Mares using their last ounce of strength to struggle to their feet in a pasture stripped of vegetation. Jawbones too, from the cadavers of Lipizzaners fed to the dogs. The stableman handed the pictures to the editors of the local newspaper, Gradanski List, then went into hiding.

Through the all-seeing eye of YouTube, the images of the neglected, re-found herd circled the globe. At first the casino boss demanded a 300,000-euro ransom, but finally gave in to the media pressure calling on him to release “these final prisoners of the war.” On the night of October 13, 2007, at two-twenty a.m., the convoy of horses re-entered Lipik, escorted by Croatians claxoning wildly and waving flags. Of the 45 Lipizzaners that came back, only eight had lived through the entire sixteen-year odyssey – the rest had been born in Serbia.

Mile Komasovic showed up again in Lipik as well. He had travelled with the convoy as a stowaway; it was too risky for him to stay in Serbia. In 2008, the mayor of Lipik had asked me not to write about the prodigal stableman. Most Croatians saw him as a traitor and a kidnapper; they would be upset to find out that Mile had been allotted an apartment at the taxpayers’ expense. Suspecting that there was also another motive behind that request (the return of the Lipizzaners was supposed to remain a purely Croatian victory), I wrote about Mile Komasovic anyway.

 

I have no appointment, no phone number, no street address. But Mile, photograph and all, was featured in a recent issue of the Croatian magazine Globus. As good guy. “I have grown accustomed to being hated,” he told the interviewer. The article also included a description of the building where he lived.

Arriving at the only set of traffic lights in Lipik, I turn right onto Empress Maria Theresa Street. The ‘Kursalon’ – Lipik’s pride from the glory days of the Habsburgs – was pounded to rubble during the war, and is now hidden behind scaffolding covered with white tarpaulins. Leaning against the front of ‘House No. 5’ is a bicycle. The building has a shared entrance; each room, as it turns out, is a separate dwelling. Komasovic opens the door. He pulls his cardigan tighter around him and offers his apologies: his son, who remained behind in Novi Sad after the war, has just arrived for a visit. But he won’t hear of me waiting outside; Mile invites me in and introduces me to his 32-year-old son. The boy is stocky and muscular, making his father look all the skinner by contrast.

“But I’ve put on a little weight in the meantime,” Mile says in his own defence, kneading the flesh around his waist with both hands.

“Papa, you only do that with horses…”

The apartment is furnished with a bed, a gently bleating TV and a sideboard bearing photographs of prize stallions. When I present him with the homage (“They should build a monument to you’) from the Lipizzaner Federation and the donation and card from the lady in Maasdam, tears come to Mile’s eyes. His son, sitting beside him on the bed, is overcome by emotion too: he jumps to his feet and comes back with two plastic bottles, one filled with rakia, the other with wine.

We raise a toast. I ask how things are going.

“Here in Lipik, everyone knows who I am,” Mile says. “They leave me alone and let me go on with my work.” The casino boss has called him on two occasions, but oh well, there are worse things than telephone threats.

A brief silence follows, then Mile says: “Life presents us all with challenges.” He prefers not to think about those last few years in Serbia. “I’ve always thought that I had no choice in the matter. On bad days, I sometimes ask myself: Why me? What’s the purpose of all this? When is it going to stop?”

I ask whether his experiences have taught him anything about the human race. “Yes,” he says. “That it is incorrigible.” The fact that people are after each other’s blood has nothing to do with ethnicity or creed: those are merely the flimsy excuses they use. “I was baptized and I had my son baptized, we are Serbian Orthodox, but that has nothing to do with this.”

So what is it all about? Mile replies with a comparison. “To deal with horses, you have to be their friend and their master. You are their leader, but at the same time also their best friend. That’s the way it should be. Always. Most people who have power over others forget about that last part.”

His son wields the plastic bottles and proposes another toast. “To the fact that I can freely visit my father now, even though we live on different sides of the border.”

The trains between Serbia and Croatia are running again, the highway has been reopened, and there is now even a ferry service between them, across the Danube.

Does that mean that everything is back to normal?

“The only thing is,” the son says, “if you come by car with the BG of ‘Belgrade’ on your number plates, for example, there’s a chance that they’ll yank the mirrors off it.”

I suddenly recall that that, too, is how  it started back in the summer of 1991: with deep gouges in the paint jobs of Serb cars parked on the Croatian coast. Now, two decades further on, the violence has apparently subsided to a state of vandalizing each other’s cars once again. Just a little more progress, one might think, and everything will be back to square one. With the prospect of an all’s-well-that-ends-well scenario in which Croatia and Serbia melt down their currencies and forge them into euros – the way Slovenia has done.

And then? I tell them about a cartoonist in Belgrade who recently transformed the term ex-yugo into n(ex)t-yugo. The Komasovics are sceptical: the fabric of society has been rent too roughly, the wounds can no longer be sewn closed. More than five thousand Serbs were chased from the hills around Lipik alone; Mile Komasovic is one of the few who came back.

“They only tolerate me here because of my knowledge of horses,” he says. “As long as they let me in, I’ll  keep coming to the stables. My fate is one with the fate of the horses.”

Komasovic Jr. shows me a picture made before the war. “Look, this is my father.” I see a folkloric music group:  dancers with puffed sleeves kneeling in the front row, then a row of men, a row of women, a team of Lipizzaners hitched to the coach and, in the background, an orchestra. “The bass player, that man with the moustache, that’s him.”

“Yes, that was me,” Mile Komasovic says. “Bozhe moi, my God, that was more than twenty-five years ago.” He gives his moustache a firm tweak between thumb and index finger, then fills our glasses again. “And now all I own is a bicycle. Cheers!”

 

Frank Westerman is a former correspondent for the Dutch daily newspaper De Volkskrant and author of  several non-fiction books including Engineers of the soul and Ararat The above article is based in part on his new book Brother Mendel’s Perfect Horse: a  journey through time, following the history of the Lipizzaner breed as it meshes with the great tragedies of the 20th century (Vintage, August 2013, translated from the Dutch by Sam Garrett).