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While I Wait: A Journey of Recovery

Memories of Life in a Besieged City

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It’s a warm and snowless Christmas morning in Chicago. Outside my bedroom window the humming of steady city traffic is strangely comforting. I imagine people hurrying to spend time with loved ones. I see those who are driving frantically to find that one grocery store that’s still open in hopes of salvaging the Christmas meal with that last necessary ingredient they forgot to purchase a few days prior. Lazily, I reach for my coffee, smiling as my thoughts begin to revisit the most significant Christmas in my life, the one whose memories always fill me with hope.

Christmas Eve was always the big event in my family as I was growing up. The fish dinner and the candle lighting ritual always carried significance for me as Mama would recite the prayer that was passed on through generations.

“God, light up the Love in our hearts,” she would recite as she lit three candles. At the end of the meal she would turn the candles off with a piece of bread soaked in red wine, concluding with, “God, extinguish hatred in our hearts.”

We would then exchange gifts; always something simple such as a journal, a book or even a pair of earrings. It was the anticipation and shared energy of giving that we looked forward to the most, rather than the gift itself. Or at least, that’s how my older self rewrites her personal history. Nevertheless, Christmas always offered a possibility of love and renewal, and this promise became a salvation to us as we were drowning in the war.

The morning of our first War Christmas Eve began filled with usual chores. Olja and I trudged through snow, weighted down by numerous layers of clothes necessary for protection while standing in water lines for long hours. By some miracle, the snipers kept quiet for most of the morning and the line moved quickly. Three hours later, loaded with canisters filled with icy water we set off on our sprint home. Within an hour or so we arrived home, decorated with a new set of frostbite and excited to decorate our Christmas Tree.

And what a tree that was. Small and plastic, it was bought by my parents on credit, as most of the luxury items were in the old Yugoslavia. Olja and I firmly believed that the tree predated my birth, making it, we often stated, a family heirloom. A bit shaggy in spots, held up by electric tape on the bottom, and barely a foot tall, this tree was the most festive and cherished family member. It was a magical tree, imbued with emotions of love and happiness, and somehow just seeing it in our living room again gave us a sense of normalcy and life outside the constraints of war.

Chatty and in a good mood, we helped set the table later that evening. The best china was pulled out, and the hand-embroidered, pristine white tablecloth enveloped the dining table. A couple of evergreen twigs that we have taken off a tree near sniper alley cradled the three taper candles, a small dish with water (before war that would’ve been red wine,) and a tiny piece of bread.

The table was set for the Christmas feast, but this was the War and starvation was our reality. Earlier that week Mama had stashed two cans of Mackerel, a potato and an onion that we received in a UN “Holiday Humanitarian Ration.” Six fillets, a bit larger than tiny sardines were frying in the pan on the makeshift wood-burning stove, and the warm (single potato) salad was ready for plating. Candlelight illuminated the tree which looked festive despite the lack of lights. We were ready for Christmas.

Just as we sat down, a short and familiar knocking on the door signaled the unannounced arrival of my best friend Nina and her brother Dado. I jumped and ran to the door, thrilled to see them as they were my war family.

“Merry Christmas” they yelled in unison, laughing and joking as they entered the hallway.

From the door I could see Mama’s panicked eyes as she surveyed the miniscule amounts of food on the table, barely enough to feed the three of us. She quickly added two more chairs and Olja brought two extra plates to the table. We were all going to be hungry even after our meal but we didn’t care.

“Oh, I got a gift for you guys,” Nina proclaimed, as she fumbled with her coat pocket.  “This is for you,” she said giving me a small package, wrapped in a red paper.

Giddy with the excitement at the unexpected gift, I carefully unwrapped this precious packaged.

“What is this,” I wondered out loud as I caught a glimpse of something green and tubular in shape. My brain, unaccustomed to seeing vegetables for almost a year, slowly registered the familiar shape of a cucumber.

“IT’S A CUCUMBER!!!” I yelled out, holding the vegetable as if it were the eternal flame during the Sarajevo Olympics eight years earlier.

We were all laughing. Still holding a cucumber in one hand and hugging Nina with other, I was crying. Their gift was a sacrifice. Receiving a piece of fruit or a vegetable was akin to winning millions in a lottery. In fact, one would have a higher probability of winning the Mega Millions than having access to nutritious food in Sarajevo during the war. Instead of keeping this valuable commodity for themselves, Nina and Dado decided to share it with us, their friends.

Giggling, we all dug into our feast of potatoes, fish and a cucumber. A few detonations here and there reminded us of the War, but in our living room was a peaceful world, charged with love, laughter and true happiness.


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