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While I Wait: A Journey of Recovery

Memories of Life in a Besieged City

Copyright W.C.Turck 2009


I place words on a blank page timidly, as if not to disturb the thought that is slowly pushing through my memory. I hear a train pass by in the distance, and the sound of a loud base coming from a car parked outside creates vibrations in my body. My fingers are kissing the letter keys, quickly touching them and then surely pulling away, preserving a strange sense of calmness; a feeling that always catches me by surprise. I keep thinking of my first full day of war and how the chaos and fear mixed with the excitement. Radio and TV were continuously transmitting the destruction of the city. Sitting on our pink Persian living room rug, inherited after one of Grandma’s numerous redecorating adventures, Olja and I watched silently as Yugoslav Army tanks rolled through the city on the way to the surrounding mountains. There were detonations and sounds of a barrage somewhere near, as the low flying military jets broke the sound barrier every few minutes.

Our building was brimming with people too nervous to settle down and too afraid to venture outside for the fear of being killed by a stray bullet or something worse. Throughout the city the Serbian sympathizers, dubbed the Fifth Column, used snipers from either their own apartments or the building rooftops, holding civilians as hostages and preventing them from organizing. We spent most of the morning and the early afternoon sitting on the floor as Mama ordered us not to stand-up for the fear of being hit by a stray bullet. Later on we would laugh at the naiveté with which we entered the war and Mama’s insistence that we crawl on our stomachs to get to the bathroom was evoked for entertainment on a weekly basis. As jets flew over our rooftop, we were herded into the windowless, square hallway. Sitting mostly in silence on the cold, tiled floor, Mama, Olja and I tried, unsuccessfully, to gage by the sounds where the battle was happening. Each detonation seemed immediate and deadly.

In the early evening, the phone rang as there was a commotion outside of our apartment door. Crawling into the living room, Olja reached for the phone that sat on the book shelf and dragged it to the hallway. After a few short sentences, she slammed the receiver down and began to get up as she reached for the door handle.

 “Quickly, that was Jasmin. He wants us to go next door to Chima’s so we can see the airplanes dropping bombs on Hum,” She barked out as she hastily jumped into her slippers, already half-way to the neighbor’s door.

 My heartbeat sped- up, creating a suffocating pressure in my forehead and making me feel lightheaded. Hum was the hill that housed numerous neighborhoods and a TV relay, and was intricately woven into our childhood memories. While in most geographically flat areas its height would be perceived as a mountain, for us living in a valley surrounded by steep peaks of five to seven thousand feet, Hum was a promise, a taste of what could be found in depths of those gargantuan mountains surrounding the city.  We climbed its steep residential streets in order to get to the pristine woods sitting right under the relay. Both, the familiar and the wilderness, this hill helped us get A’s in our Biology class due to its abundant flora. Our herbariums, white pages marked with Latin and common names of plants, were filled with specimens carefully pressed after many explorations to Hum’s muddy brooks and grassy meadows.

This hill was instrumental in our understanding of WWII since several German tanks, rusted and corroded over the fifty years, sat on its top, overlooking the city. Every year, on the week preceding the anniversary of victory over Fascism and the liberation of the city from the Nazis, our History department would organize a school trip to the tanks. There, we would meet WWII veterans who, rightfully proud of their service wove long, seemingly never- ending stories of heroism that came so naturally to the mountain-hardened Sarajevans. We loved these trips, mainly for the opportunity to use the tanks as creepy, semi-dangerous monkey bars, escaping the daily grind of school and our jaded Chemistry teacher. Despite our appearance of disinterest in their stories, somehow we still retained some of the information shared so enthusiastically by the elders.

Hum was the witness to my first public humiliation when I, at seven years old, decided to cross the railroad tracks and explore that looming mountain ahead of me. After being lost for several hours, unsuccessfully navigating its ad-hoc streets and old narrow stairs I peed in my pants and collapsed on the sidewalk, crying the tears of fear. A friend and a foe, this hill morphed into a personality, a living creature with an intelligence and emotions of its own.

“I can’t believe it,” I yelled out as I raced Mama to the door. “That’s our hill! What are those poor people to do now?”


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