Selections from PTSD Scrapbook


“This is totally amazing, Mr. Bursać. So amazing,” said the girl, glancing first at me and then at the book, as if she were a customs official checking my identity against my passport picture.

Preparations were well underway in 1987 for the Zagreb University Games. I know this, because my key ring is a rubber Zagi mascot left over from the Games.

I went into the Bosanski Petrovac town library one morning that year to sign up for a library card. I was a jumpy kid. For no reason at all pointless things frustrated me. With sweaty hands I filled out the form, showed my elementary school ID, and joined the town library, leaving my school library behind. The small woman, whose last name was Bursać like mine, asked which of the “grown-up” books I would like to borrow. So as I wouldn’t look like a greenhorn in the empire of paper, so as not to choose a children’s book by mistake, I turned to look around. Four long rows with the smell of books. All the knowledge of the world. Somehow I knew that at the end of the triumphal arch of a billion sentences would be the serious, heavy mythical reading material I was looking for.

Pretending I knew what I was doing, I set off down the first row to the very last shelf. At the level of my twelve-year-old eyes I spotted Aristotle’s Metaphysics. I took it down and, full of self-confidence, brought it to the librarian. She removed the slip from the pocket in the back. Blank. No one had ever borrowed this book. On the left side she printed my first and last name, and the date I was borrowing the book, and I signed the slip. For the first time in my life I was signing something that had nothing to do with school.

I kept the Aristotle for exactly fifteen days, leafed through the pages that had stuck together from lack of use, and I was certain that either the author was crazy, or the translator was crazy. There was no sense to be made of it. I returned the book on time.

I am standing in front of a girl who works at the Bosanski Petrovac town library. The library has moved to a different place now. The books are here. Some of them were burned during the war, but most of them are here. The girl explains to me how they moved them, saved the books, how “lucky” it is that our people don’t read, so books were mainly used as kindling instead of wood or mildew ate away at them in the cellars.

I stopped listening to her. Everywhere there’s this tiresome thing about the Balkans having to do with books and war. They’re untouched because we never open them. Maybe that’s why we’re so often at war.

“There is still a slip in the back of each book, though now they’re all digitized,” the girl brought me back from my musings.

“Sorry?” I almost barked.

“We do have the slips, what do you want?” asked the girl, puzzled.

“Aristotle’s Metaphysics?” my voice shook.

The girl went off and came back with the book. Out of it poked the slip. I stared at it. Yellowed and blank.

The only letters printed on it, at the top: Dragan Bursać, 11 April 1987 to 26 April 1987, and something resembling a signature.

Thirty years!

The date is like a little gravestone. A time capsule. Metaphysics is just as unread as before, a metaphor for me, my job, my life, my signature, the world and this book in it. A metaphor of metaphor!

“Wow, that’s you!” exclaimed the girl.

“Still is!”

“This is totally amazing, Mr. Bursać. So amazing!”

“And yet, somehow predictable,” I went on.

The girl, as if with a conspiratorial wink, said she’d let me have the book. “Let it go forth into life.”

I laughed and suggested that Metaphysics ought to stay in the library. In a safe place. The safest place in the world, and thirty years from now, God willing, I’ll stop by again and sign my name on the borrowing slip. For the last time.




Unraveling the mystery of my father’s murder.

When I probed the case two decades ago, in which my father, in September 1992, was ambushed and his death was used to fuel the eruption of inter-ethnic slaughter in our villages, which were resisting the more “spontaneous” engagement all decent-minded people were expected to embrace at the time, there was one thing I could never make sense of. How in God’s name had he been persuaded to board that truck? Did they hold a gun to his head? Compel him by force? He would never have gone along with such a thing. There’s no record of a military order. And then just a few days ago someone offered a logical answer.

K. looked at me, smiled, and said:

“You see it’s all about human nature. All they had to do was drive up with the truck and say, ‘Hop in, we’ll give you a ride home’.”

No one likes going on foot. Especially not home. They all climbed in under the tarp.

My father never put us over his knee. He didn’t have the time. He was one of those self-possessed people who sing when it’s time to sing, he’d raise his voice when needed and drop it down in two shakes. He was, you know, an electrical engineer who painted. I never grasped either. Maybe that’s why I look up to him. I remember how before the war he designed plastic fuses for high-voltage utility poles to replace the porcelain kind. This would save billions, he said. He waited for better times to patent his invention. Later a man moved to America and struck it rich, and all from plastic fuses. The man stole the patent. Water under the bridge.

My father had to die—he was a sacrificial lamb in the local fear-mongering jigsaw puzzle, so the vermin could crank up the war, the same as happened in every little town.

Three years after his death, on the day of his birthday, I almost died some fifty times. In childish terror I stared up into the sky and kept thinking I saw my father’s face. An adrenaline-driven rationalization? Well, I did survive.

Maybe I don’t know how to paint and I don’t know much about super-conductors, but my old man would be proud of me, I think. I know.

Milorad Bursać would have been 67 years old today, he’d be retired, and celebrating his birthday with his grandchildren, teaching them how to paint.




“Do you smoke?”

“Not me, Dad, I swear!”

“Are you lending a hand to your brother and mother?”

“I am, but my brother always gives me shit!”

“Look, everything will be fine. I’ll be home after September 20th and we’ll go out for a beer and have a heart-to-heart talk, like men. You need to be on your toes these days, the times are bad. Time to get as far away as possible. We’ll talk, and see.”

My-last-conversation-with-my-father. Over the phone. It might have been on or about 15 September 1992. He, in Bosanski Petrovac, in Bosnia, me in Sremska Mitrovica, in Serbia. Four days later, the Serbian army picked him up from work like a sack of potatoes, in civilian clothing, from the place where he’d been assigned to fulfill his wartime work obligation, he was loaded onto a truck, and at a pre-arranged ambush he was liquidated. Murdered. Sent to his death because he saw things differently, he was different and his wife’s family was Croatian.

I wasn’t lying. I’d never lit up a cigarette until then, nor had I ever reached for a beer.

I remember buying a pack of HBs and a liter of some Subotica vodka hooch two days after he was killed. With them I poisoned myself in a Mitrovica park. I don’t smoke and I don’t guzzle the hard stuff.

But I’m sorry that I never had the chance to share the beer my dad and I talked about or the heart-to-heart conversation the way men do.

There are nights following life’s tempests when a mug of beer with my father would hit the spot, along with his reassuring “Look, everything will be fine.” I thought that with time this might ease, but no. As I age, he gets younger while I get older, and the bad times, fuck them all, never seem to end.

It would be good to have a beer in this heat, what do you say, Dad, eh?




The war ended twenty years ago. Ended. As if it had been some sort of act of God and not the work of human hands. Twenty years ago I sat in a barracks, played with an M75 hand grenade, and paid no attention whatsoever to the euphoric grunts, who ran around the sleeping quarters screaming: “War’s over!”

The war’s over? Who gives a fuck? I’ve lost my father, close friends, houses, youth, the great kids I grew up with who fled, or were displaced, or wounded. The war’s over? Who gives a fuck . . .

V. comes over to my cot, leans over, and starts speaking slowly:

“Screw this, Bursać, come on, party with us, drink something. And put that bomb away, enough’s enough. The end. Now’s your chance to go to America, travel the Route 66 you talk about from the movies. Hey, come on, screw this.”

V. enrolled in electrical engineering, student of the year. Until his junior year. Then he started medicating his PTSD with heroin, and his heroin with PTSD. By the turn of the 21st century he was permanently hospitalized in a psychiatric ward. F-33, F-43, F-62, as his days were called in the coded diagnosis. I visited him only once.

He was rocking on the cot, when he saw me he sat up straight and said, just as slowly:

“It’s been ten years since the war and you still haven’t gone to your fucking America. When will you go? Planning to wait another ten years? Look at me! Without the therapy I’m crazy, with the therapy I’m a zombie. And I’m aware of it. There are times when my mind clears. So, seriously, get out of here. This is the only place in the world where the peace is more dangerous than the war. I mean look at me!”

And then, with the same alacrity with which he’d sat up straight, he curled into a fetal position and began mumbling. I looked at his cot. Just like mine at the barracks. There I’d sat with the hand grenade . . .

Twenty years have passed since the war ended. It’s time for me to take that trip from Austin to Oklahoma City, and then turn left for Santa Fe and Albuquerque. Or right for Tulsa. Route 66.

In my country, far to the east, people curled up in fetal positions like my V. talk about how the war ended. Twenty years ago.


Dragan Bursać

Dragan Bursać is a Bosnian columnist. He has been professionally engaged in journalism since 1999. He started his career as a journalist at Radio Banja Luka. From 2010 to the end of 2016, he worked as a journalist/columnist at Buka, one of the most prominent independent media portals in Bosnia and Herzegovina. In 2014, he started writing as a columnist for Al Jazeera Balkans. He is currently a permanent columnist for both Al Jazeera Balkans and Buka. He received the Srđan Aleksić award for the development of socially responsible journalism and an award from UNICEF for journalism promoting children's rights. In 2018, he won the European Press Prize Opinion Award.

Ellen Elias-Bursać

Ellen Elias-Bursać translates fiction and nonfiction from Bosnian, Croatian, and Serbian. Her translation of David Albahari's novel Götz and Meyer earned the 2006 ALTA National Translation Award. Her book Translating Evidence and Interpreting Testimony at a War Crimes Tribunal: Working in a Tug-of-War was awarded the Mary Zirin Prize in 2015. She is the president of the American Literary Translators Association.

PTSP Spomenar. Copyright (c) Dragan Bursać, 2018. English translation copyright (c) Ellen Elias-Bursać, 2020.