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While I Wait: A Journey of Recovery

Memories of Life in a Besieged City


Copyright W.C.Turck 2004Months and weeks leading into the war were tense. Venomous nationalist discourse overtook public and private spheres with fervor. I was an Art Student in Sarajevo, trying to make a sense of my sixteen year old existence, navigating the treacherous landscape of puberty and hoping that the bigotry and hate would end soon. However, my hopes for a peaceful agony of a teenage life were crushed. Our national dysfunction permeated every aspect of society and life.

I often found myself listening to arguments about fundamentalist ideologies advocating superiority of one religion and nationality over another, in odd moments such as still-life drawing classes. At “Dedo’s,” our art café, I overheard converging discussions about the atrocities from the centuries past. Here, I drank long sips of luscious, unfiltered Turkish coffee, surrounded by images of Ottoman Turcks impaling Serb severed heads on sticks, and Muslims being bludgeoned by the Chetniks, a group of fundamentalist Serbs, during the WWII. These kinds of discussions were unavoidable.

To be clear, those fomenting the ethnic and nationalist rhetoric were a very small minority, but their constant message filtered through skewed historical perspectives, chaotic politics and a struggling economy tore at “Brotherhood and Unity” fostered by Yugoslavia’s long dead leader Josip Broz Tito. Growing up in the fifties and sixties, my parents believed in the message of “Unity.”  Not unlike many Sarajevans of their generation, they denounced the practices of segregation based on one’s religious background, and entered into a mixed marriage, a type of institution hailed as a perfect model of nation –building  in Tito’s socialist Yugoslavia. This is not to say that my parents’ marriage was a form of political activism. I still prefer to believe that there was some love involved in their first union. However, the political and social environment they grew up in allowed for opportunities and gave social acceptance to the mixing of religions. So my father’s Orthodox Christian background joined my mother’s Catholic/atheist heritage (my grandfather was a Communist.) In Yugoslavia, religion and nationality were often used interchangeably, but my parents always insisted on a separation of the two since, after all, they lived in a multiethnic society. They asserted that it was their full right to declare themselves as Bosnians.

Growing up with these sensibilities, I found myself unprepared for the rise of ultra Nationalism and the progression of public discourse towards ethnic homogeneity, and calls for ethnic cleansing during the late eighties and early nineties. First time I became aware of the problematic nature of my multi-ethnic background, was in 1991. I was listening to a radio talk-show following the start of war in Croatia. Many of the  calls received called for the isolation or destruction of “unclean and polluted” members of the society, since they were seen as the traitors of their various ethnic groups. While most callers were guarded and somewhat diplomatic in how they expressed these views, there were a few who outright called for violence and murder. I distinctly remember a woman who stated that the unborn children of mixed marriages should be “cut out of their mothers’ wombs.” What I did not fully understand at that time was that I was witnessing an evolution of my society towards war and genocide.

The constant humming of divisionism fractured Sarajevo at every level, boiling to a poisoned national election that culminated in barricades with armed men all around the city. Sarajevo was at a breaking point.


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