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While I Wait: A Journey of Recovery

Memories of Life in a Besieged City

First December of the War began as all of its predecessors in Sarajevo’s past, with brutal cold descending upon the valley from mountains already gorged with snow, enveloping the city in a semi-permanent darkness. The smell of fresh snow mixed with the biting odors of gunpowder and burnt plastic as the dark, gluey soot coming from the rarely used apartment building chimney’s covered every surface and each of the city’s inhabitants. To keep ourselves warm we used anything that might burn, generating modest amounts of heat in our improvised wood burning stoves. Sure, there were some of those whose old family homes inherited antique stoves powered by wood and coal, stowed somewhere in the corners of damp basements, barely visible under wooden crates filled with potatoes and onions, resting next to the jars of homemade pickled peppers and cabbage. Those, a minority, were the lucky ones. For most of us living in apartment buildings the cold became a formidable opponent, one that required an extraordinary amount of ingenuity and imagination if the victory was to become a possibility.

We took on the challenge quickly, for the first winter days graced us with the kind of cold often referred to as being “heart shattering.” Within days, ordinary household objects morphed into haphazardly constructed stoves with improvised exhaust pipes, connected to the ill-built chimneys. Sadly, lacking any mechanical and engineering talents, Mama, Olja and I were not able to reproduce one of these magnificent heat generators. Instead, for ten packs of cigarettes and a cassette player, Mama purchased a tiny stove made out of an old water tank with a sloppily welded thin slab of metal on top. Someone poked several tiny holes on the bottom of this contraption, allowing for ash to fall into a tiny drawer attached to the metal barrel by two pieces of wire. This fine example of ingenuity used approximately two plastic Coca-Cola crates and a drawer from my writing table in order to warm-up a tiny amount of soup. Nonetheless, the stove generated enough heat to keep our bedroom, turned war room, warm for a few hours.

Our second floor neighbors had a large wood-burning stove with an oven and heat regulators, a 1954 edition in perfect condition. Generously, they shared their wealth with us, and each night   I would descend to their home to warm up the bean soup for dinner. This “stove sitting” duty became mine without any family discussion. There was a silent understanding that neighbors liked me partly because I seemed to possess an innate ability to talk about anything one might want to discuss and show a genuine concern for other people’s lives, Translated into Bosnian, I was a so-called Mahalusa, the point person for all events, seen and unseen in the neighborhood or Mahala.

On the eighth of December, I enjoyed one of these “stove sitting” sessions as my sister Olja and several of our friends celebrated her fifteenth birthday in the bomb shelter, a leftover atomic shelter from the old Yugoslavian days which gracefully occupied underground levels of our apartment building. As I spiritedly debated with Branko about the impending humanitarian aid convoy and the amount of oil that might be distributed per household, I was interrupted by a loud explosion followed by a barrage of shrapnel, jagged edged pieces of a searing hot metal flying with a speed of the bullet. As usual, we ran toward the windowless hallway that housed a strong supporting concrete wall. Breathing hard I locked my eyes with Azra, Branko’s wife. “We dodged another one,” I said, looking at her. “This was a close one,” Azra agreed, “it sounds like it came from the other side… your side Ana.”

At that moment we heard people galloping up the stairs, interrupted by screams and intelligible yelling. “Oh no, not again” I thought to myself recognizing Olja’s high pitched voice. “Mama, Mama…” she screamed repeatedly, just as she did the night prior, on Mama’s birthday when the force of the explosion from one of the grenades threw Mama against the opposite wall of the living room. Shaken and bruised Mama survived the incident, finding her efforts to quiet and calm shocked Olja to be more painful than the injury itself. Thinking that I was about to encounter another melodramatic incident, I ran upstairs towards my apartment, followed by a half a dozen of friends. I slowed down as I approached our door, seeing several of our neighbors entering and exiting our home, shaking their heads and crying. Out of nowhere, Olja pushed her way in, climbing over me and pushing everyone away.

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