MISSING (© Words and music by Paul F. Cowlan )

Apart from a name change, this story is almost exactly as I heard it from the young man’s father. We were sitting at a café table under shady summer trees, in a small village close to the Croatian border. The surroundings could hardly have been more idyllic.

Zeljko’s guitar was like moonlight on water.
He could play all night long, cross-legged on the floor.
There were stars in his eyes, good friends, and laughter.
He was only nineteen when they sent him to war.

His first letters home were followed by silence.
‘Missing in action. Condition unknown.’
But foreign T.V. crews were filming the violence,
and his family watched every report that was shown.

But the days became weeks, and still nobody knew;
no-one could tell them for sure.
Perhaps he was dead or he could have been captured.
No way to know till the end of the war.

Then one of the film crews crossed over the border,
and spoke to some prisoners, their heads shaven raw.
From the mouthings of masks the small tape recorder
caught the sound of one voice. It was Zeljko they saw.

But neither mother, nor father nor friends recognized him.
They had to look twice to be sure
that the stark, hungry eyes and the prisoner’s clothing
belonged to the boy they had known months before.

He said not a word about beating and torture;
with the listening guards always lounging nearby.
Eating half-rotten food and drinking foul water,
it was easy to see that he’d barely survived.

Zeljko came home when the fighting was over.
His wounds were soon healed, and his body grew strong.
But the stars in his eyes have burned out for ever.
The laughter is dead, and the nights are too long.

Zeljko’s guitar was like moonlight on water.