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While I Wait: A Journey of Recovery

Memories of Life in a Besieged City

Copyright W.C.Turck 1993

Sarajevo 1993

I have been doing a sort of archeology of war in order to piece myself together and heal. Frequently, I come back to defining points in my war experience where I truly felt the impossibility of my existence and the fear and panic they caused. For the most part, my life under the siege followed the ebb and flow of everyday chores, people I had to see, homework that needed to be done and daily scavenging trips for food, water and firewood. We created a routine partially due to the necessity, but mostly because it gave us a sense of normalcy. If we stuck to our regimented life we could claim some control over our lives, avoiding the full impact of the impossibility of our existence.

My reading habits changed. I read and reread only two books through the entire war. I came back to The Gulag Archipelago every so often, but I became obsessed with a book detailing life during the siege of Leningrad during World War Two. I absorbed the horrifying living conditions of Leningrad and was amazed to see how the struggle of its residents to survive mirrored mine. Despite the familiarity, every time I finished the book, I closed it with a sigh, saying “Poor people, horrible things they had to go through.” Mom would look at me in disbelief, shake her head and say “Those poor people are you.”

This inability to experience the full tragedy of my condition was something I shared with my friends. We stood in lines for bread, in muddy trenches to fill canisters with trickling water from a contaminated well, or rummaging through bombed out factories and houses for wood and anything we could burn for heat. We undertook these tasks without the feelings of degradation and entrapment often associated with fighting for survival.

One autumn evening, during the first year of war, my best friend stormed into our house terribly excited. She discovered that following the previous night’s shelling there was an abundance of plastic crates at the destroyed Coca Cola Factory. I dressed in the obligatory five layer outfit, and stuffed hand-me-down boots with paper, since it was muddy and cold and I had overgrown my own.

We ran several miles down the windy streets, through narrow passages between apartment buildings and steep stairs that separated neighborhoods. Across the train tracks stood the blackened factory’s skeletal frame. Inside I could see old women, men and children tearing through debris. Some adventurous kids climbed on what used to be a roof and were trying to pry off semi-charred wooden beams of the steel frame. My friend dragged me inside towards a small pile of crates. “Stack them up” she said, “They’re easier to carry this way.” It felt like stealing someone else’s property. I kept waiting for someone of authority to come in and chase us away.

As I knelt on the ground to lift the crates I glanced at my friend. Our eyes met and in that moment I saw myself. I stood up and looked around. As if from some apocalyptic movie, the scene around me was surreal. The scent of gun powder was layered with a suffocating smell of charred plastic that someone burned in a barrel nearby. People were frantically pilfering everything that they could carry. I looked at my friend dressed in mismatched, oversized clothes, with scuffed, mud-filled shoes. Her face was smudged, covered with the filmy soot rising from the fire, and her nails and hands were black from mud and ash. I felt bile rising in my throat and tears blurred my vision. She was me! As if pushed over the edge into a black hole without anything to anchor and orient myself, I felt insignificant and powerless. Unable to speak, I dropped the crates and left for home, weeping.

We often go through life settled in our routines devoid of any reflection, and only in rare moments of clarity are we allowed glimpses of our true existence. What we feel in those instances of recognition may vary, but the surge of raw emotions is so overpowering, almost impossible to bear. So much so, that we quickly wrap ourselves in a security blanket woven of everyday chores and automatic responses.

Wars follow these same rules of unseeing and recognition, with the difference that pivotal moments of clarity are far more frequent and that pain is amplified with the understanding that there is no escape, not now and certainly not in future.

First Published in Imagine2050

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