I thought at first it was a bomb, but when I got up to the wreck I realised that the man had been speaking German, and it had been a ‘baum’ that had done for the car. It made more sense that it was a tree, as this road had been out of the fighting for days as far as I knew. (It also turned out that the dead guys were German, but I don’t suppose the Croat who told me changed the nationality of the tree on purpose.) Anyway, by the time I got there, they were just two pairs of feet sticking out from under a blanket and the tree was being cut up for logs. It must have happened about twenty minutes ago, because the people in the short traffic jam were already arguing. There was room to get a car round the wreck but not a lorry, and the drivers of the former were trying to get those of the latter to get out of the way. Someone in a blue serge uniform was shouting at everybody, including the dead Germans, and nobody was paying him any attention at all. He looked pretty old, and had no belt or epaulettes.
It was the guys from the village chopping up the tree who gave me the idea, because some of them began to turn their attention to the mangled car. They were the only ones there who seemed happy, and practical, and alive, and I like people like that. The thing to do was obviously to shunt the car off the road, where the rest of the useful bits of it could be best pirated and where it wouldn’t be blocking irate people with guns in their glove compartments.
It’s simple sign language to convey ‘move car from road into ditch’, and it was truly pleasing to see how easily an angry crowd can be transformed into a cooperative workforce when presented with a mission. It took less than a minute for ten of us to pick it up and manoeuvre it to the side, and without being asked several others kicked the debris after it. God knows who had pulled the Germans out and covered them up, but I’d lay money on the fact that no wallets or mobile phones will have been found on the bodies.
It was all smiles and laughter now, and someone even produced a bottle of slivovic. The man in uniform was still shouting occasionally, but as far as I could tell it was aimed even less specifically than before. I briefly wished I had my camera with me, because the sun had reappeared and was reflecting off the shards of the windscreen. It was shatterproof and had come off in one piece but in many pieces, stuck together by whatever they coat it with. Blood had filled all the little cracks, and the mid-afternoon sun danced and sparkled off the whole bits of glass, the tessera of the most beautiful mosaic I had ever seen.
But I realised that that sunny afternoon, that sudden comradeship, that tragedy for two families I had never met, that peculiar beauty – that is something a camera can never catch. Furthermore, the small new side to one’s character that such experiences create is young and impressionable, and readily lied to by photographs. I find most things are best left to memory, because even if you think you’ve forgotten something it’s usually in there somewhere, a problem of access not storage, sculpting the insides in subtle ways.