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While I Wait: A Journey of Recovery

Memories of Life in a Besieged City

 

Copyright W.C.Turck 2009

Our Balcony

Stunned by the events of the first few weeks of the war, disoriented and scared, the neighborhoods all across the city began to look inward for some guidance. Drawing on their rusty military skills, acquired during the old Yugoslav mandatory military service at the age of eighteen, neighbors began to set-up check points at intersections in residential areas. Relying on scarce information, collected from various formal and informal channels, they attempted to take some control over the situation that was rapidly turning into a complete chaos. Nonetheless, there they were, our middle-aged teachers, grocery store clerks, librarians, doctors, fathers of our friends, providing a tragic comic relief deep into the sleepless nights.

The city was on a mandatory blackout after 6pm, and this continued for a month or so until the Yugoslav Army cut off electricity, plunging the entire city into the darkness for the next three years. Many of us sat on the floors of our square balconies, listening for the gun fire and trying to collect information from anyone we could. Sarajevans have always loved their terraces, gardens and balconies. For us, they were not just a source of relaxation or a convenient way to stay in touch with the nature. No. Our gardens or avlijas, balconies for those of us who lived in Soviet-style apartment blocks, were places of social life and intrigue.

 Since the neighborhoods were small, private conversations were heard by many and they provided an abundant source of information. We observed and catalogued every happening, such as Keka kissing her boyfriend in the entrance of the building for quite a long time, just prior to them breaking up, or neighbor’s son being picked up by police for an interrogation. We saw comings and goings and wove stories around them. Meira, one of my favorite elderly neighbors whose wisdom I always marveled at, took it upon herself to teach me the “Mahala” ways by sharing her secret code of a proper neighborhood conduct.

 “You see dear, she began, “all of these women are watching what you are carrying in your hands when you are coming home from the market. The amount of bags you carry, in their mind, is equivalent to the amount of money you have. So I make a point to carry more bags, even if I have to fake the content. They will never know.”

Fast forward a few years and we were crouching on the icy cold floors of our balconies, listening at the fragments of conversations and carrying our own in hushed tones. Our apartment building was situated near a busy four-way intersection, with a grammar school to one side. Deep vegetation and plentiful trees that occupied our attention during school days, now offered a natural opportunity for an ambush. Since the entire city was plunged into a thorough darkness, it was nearly impossible to recognize anyone who happened to move on the street. Cleverly, or so it seemed at the time, the neighbors devised a system of passwords that would allow them to recognize the enemy.

One night we heard a commotion at the corner. Peering over the red, metal railings that framed our balcony we saw a quick, flickering flashlight in the bushes.

“Stop!” A deep voice commanded followed by the clicking sound of a cocking gun. “What’s the password?”

After a painfully long pause, a quivering male voice answered “Shit. I can’t remember the password. It’s me dammit, let me pass.”

“Who’s me?” the deep voice insisted.

“Fuck you, Mladen, it’s me, Emir. Will you let me pass or do I have to tell you about the day I slept with your sister?”

Chuckles and a few “whoop-whoops” sounded off through the buildings, as the neighbors followed this exchange with a feeling of relief. Olja and I looked at each other, still winded from an outburst of laughter and said to each other, almost simultaneously “May God help us. We are alone!” We all stumbled through the war and the pieces of us that understood what was happening coexisted with the reality of ignorance and almost childish helplessness. Unwillingly, we were all about to begin our journey on a long road of pain and fortitude.

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