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While I Wait: A Journey of Recovery

Memories of Life in a Besieged City

Tag Archives: Childhood

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Copyright W.C.Turck 1993

I sat on the cold floor of our hallway, my back against the wall, soaking up the amalgam of fear and love, feeling alive and not wanting to give up. Door opened with a thud, and Mama, winded from the sprint up the four flights of stairs, stood at the doorway.

“What the hell is going in in here?” she muttered still trying to catch her breath and make sense of the situation. “Olja and I are coming up with the most painless way of committing a suicide in case that we are imprisoned,” I informed her calmly. As I spoke, Mama’s gaze fell on top of Olja’s head and slowly drifted towards hands that feverishly pounded a plastic bag filled with pills. Her face, bathed in the slow glow of the candles, softened and she slowly folded herself towards the floor. Crouching in-front of Olja she stroked her hair with one hand as she stopped her hand from making another motion.

“There will not be need for that, I promise,” she began in a same soothing voice that comforted our panic and stopped our fears when we were younger. With hands entwined over a meat cleaver, still hovering in mid-air, Olja and Mama locked eyes. Wordlessly, Olja examined Mama’s face as if trying to confirm the certainty of her words and slowly lowered her arm, loosening the cleaver a bit, but not completely letting go.

“Can we stay here for the night?” I asked. “We really don’t want to go back to basement. We would rather stay here, just us, instead of being surrounded by fear of others.”Image

Not letting go of Olja, Mama shifted towards me. “It’s not safe, but I understand” she added, as she scooted against the wall, pulling Olja towards her side. Flanked by us, Mama pulled Olja and I deeper into a hug. We sat quietly for a while, listening to grenades whistling over the roof. Floor shook with each explosion and a rain of tiny shrapnel showered the buildings and houses around us every so often. We could hear individual gunfire, shuffling of running feet and yelling beneath our windows.  Outside, the world was in chaos. Our hallway,however, seemed to retain the peace and calmness of the days before the War. Three of us clung to each other drawing strength and comfort in silence. “

“I am still keeping this cleaver,” I heard Olja say as I drifted in and out of nap, “…And the knives too!”

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Hungry! That’s what we were. Three years of starvation etched a deep scar in my soul, one that still hurts and burns occasionally. I try not to think of those days often, for the sake of my sanity. Those memories of hopelessness make me shudder with pain. As the assault on the city intensified, so the siege began to deliver on its promise. The city was cut off completely, surrounded by powerful artillery, snipers and land mines on the surrounding hills and mountains. The Yugoslav Army cut off all electricity which was not to be turned on for years to come. The Sarajevo valley,known for its rich supplies of fresh mountain water, was now dry. Lacking electricity, the pumping stations could not deliver water into homes, and we were left to scramble however we could to find daily sources of this life-sustaining liquid.

Within the few months the city ran out of food. Grocery stores were robbed of the last supplies of goods, and people’s personal supplies were not enough to sustain regular meal patterns. People began to empty out their fridges and  freezers because all the food began to rot. The smell of roasted meat briefly permeated the air as Sarajevan’s were forced to use up all of the previously stored food. Neighbors shared copious amounts of meat, milk and eggs so that they would not be wasted. Olja,Adisa, Vedran and I , friends from kindergarten, sat and shared our knowledge of starvation picked up in numerous WWII movies.

“Well, we have two bottles of oil,” Olja said, “that should be enough to keep us for a while.”

“You know there will be potatoes, Vedran said. Somehow in all the Partizan movies, people ate potatoes during the war.”

Relieved,  I proclaimed victory as potatoes were my favorite food, and laughed, “In fact, I could eat potatoes for breakfast, lunch, dinner and a dessert. I am all set, guys.”

One word was avoided in all households, a word that made almost everyone uneasy with fear and concern. Winter.  Long, brutally cold and generous in snow and ice, as only winters in the mountains can be, the first winter of war was fast approaching. Anxious and fearful, we seemed to run frantically around the city,  appearing to be in control of the chaos. However, deep inside us, in that secret place hidden from all including ourselves, the place that we seldom acknowledge for we know that the truth is spoken there, we knew that our situation was hopeless. Trapped in a box without holes poked for air or dishes left out with food and water, we were expected to die.

But we did not! The city provided each household with a specific ration of bread made from small amounts of flour and large proportion of chaff.  Each member of the household was allowed to buy a one-third of the loaf. For the three of us at home that worked out to less than a very small loaf per day, or roughly three small slices per person. As the war dragged on this would seem like a feast.

People pressed into long lines often stretching for blocks to receive this ration, hugging the walls of the buildings nervously hoping that snipers wouldn’t detect the activity. If detected we knew to expect sniper fire quickly followed by artillery rounds.

In the late fall we began to receive humanitarian aid  shipped into the city via UN convoys. At first excited that we might eat a potato or a piece of fruit, we soon realized that this aid was not enough to ward off hunger pains and certainly was not nutritional by any means. The first distribution of humanitarian aid ranks as one of the most exciting and disappointing events of my life. Eagerly standing in line we waited for the basement door of the building next to ours to open, signaling the begining of the food distribution.

The line was moving slowly so neighbors began to speculate what kind of food we were  going to receive. Every once in a while Olja and I would chime in with our hopes of receiving potatoes or sugar. Older women  shared recipes and memories of traditional Bosnian food, heavy on stews ,vegetables and meat.  As the first recipients passed with small bags we all enquired about the rations.

“Are they generous? Do they include eggs and milk? Are there any cigarettes?” we would ask.

As the line reduced, we entered the musty, concrete basement. Among bicycles, tools and old furniture there was a long table and a couple of crates with seating pillows. An old Fifties metal scale graced the table, while sacks of flour and beans rested gently against its legs.

The presidents of the two building’s board as well as a local official were in charge of distribution. Ismet, our family friend and neighbor, was one of the men in charge. Tall and gregarious, always ready with a witty remark or a hilarious joke, he filled our childhood memories with great fun.

“Oooo..The sisters are here!” he said pointing to Olja and I, “And they are not fighting! Quickly, distribute this food to folks before an unforeseen storm comes upon us and blows us all away!”

“With all respect Ismet, shut up and distribute the food,” Olja stood her ground, keeping in their tradition of teasing with each other.

Grinning widely, Ismet proceeded to call out the types of food and the amounts that each household was to receive. We learned that each block had earlier received a list of households and the appropriated rations of several food categories. We were to receive following, which was to last the three of us a month:

1/2 a liter of oil

½ kg of rice or macaroni pasta

½ kg of lentil or beans

1/3 kg of flour (if there was any)

1kg of chaff

1 can of Mackerel

1 can of unidentified, ground meat-like substance

1 package of Feta cheese

1 bar of smelly brown soap for laundry

1 American military Lunch packet (every once in a while)

“Bon Appetite,” said Ismet, “and see you in 30-some days!”

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Copyright W.C.Turck 1994

      The exact order of the events that followed my sister’s frantic attempts to reach Mama is obscured by the intensity of my emotion. As I approached the door to our apartment I briefly stopped, holding onto the memory of the night prior as if it were a life preserver. “This is just like last night when Mama was roughed up a bit by explosion. She‘ll be fine,” I kept repeating to myself as I timidly entered the living room. Olja was already there, standing by the dining table, her screams piercing my brain and my soul. I felt my gut drop and bile rise in my stomach as I watched her pacing back and forth; disoriented and yelling “She’s dead! She’s dead!”

 Quickly, one of the neighbors brought a chair and we sat Olja down, unsuccessful in our attempts to quell her screams. Somehow, the only thing replaying in my mind was the thought of those ubiquitous scenes from many war movies where a hysterical person is brought back to calmness with a good slap on the face. So I did it! I slapped her once, twice, perhaps even few times more. She stopped for a moment and then continued where she had left of, only until someone else followed my example. Over the years, this story would morph into a neighborhood legend, where Olja, always tough and ready for a fist-fight, was on a receiving edge of a revengeful slapping by a mob of children whom she terrified with her dangerous presence. However, the truth was that in the overall chaos we needed to calm her quickly so that we could attend to Mama without panic, and this seemed to work.

   I left Olja to the comforting hands of my friends and, taking a deep breath, I entered the room filled with dust. The walls were scarred by shrapnel holes, all varied in size from deeply grooved, dinner- plate sized holes, to tiny nicks sprayed almost in a liquid fashion. The glass from the windows mixed with Mamas fine porcelain covered the floor and the furniture. As I looked around, each movement became excruciatingly slow, and sounds seemed to diffuse through the room, as if I were under the water, hearing but not understanding. It seemed as if my eyes and my brain absorbed an extraordinary amount of visual and very specific information. I looked at the shapes of shrapnel holes and thought of objects they resembled; a one looked like a fat man, whose belly protruded over his pants while another resembled an apple tree with a really wide trunk.

 Absorbing all of this within a few seconds, I looked down to the floor by the dining table and there was Mama, laying on her stomach, her legs folded at a weird angle as if she were a marionette doll, waiting for her puppeteer to pull the strings and bring her back to life. The wood floor was soaked in a large pool of blood that seemed to increase in size as the time passed. “Mama!” I cried soundless, my dry lips becoming sealed. I knelt in the puddle next to her, gingerly touching her head not knowing if I should try to move her. At first there was no movement and then, after what seemed to be an eternity, she moved her head to me and said, “Tell them to get a fucking car so I can go to the Hospital.”

Being a true Sarajevan, whose pragmatism took precedence over all other guiding forces, Mama directed what needed to be done; all the while squeezing my knee assuring me that everything was going to be just fine. Later on, we would all fondly remember my friend Tarik and his insistence on tying Mama’s leg to “stop the bleeding,” not knowing that she was wounded in the back; Olja and her hysteria; the masses of neighbors that kept coming in and out of our home, clueless as to what needed to be done, and the bumpy ride to the hospital where Mama stated that “if grenade did not kill her, this car ride would definitely finish the job!” 

To be continued…

Copyright Ana Turck

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Copyright W.C.Turck 2009

Sarajevo Parliament

It is strange how some faces seem to become etched in our memories, serving as a reminder, a visual representation of the events that have passed. For me, the face of protests in Sarajevo  that ushered the war in 1992 belongs permanently to the man for whom the intensity of his emotions became more than he could bear. Being only sixteen years old I did not fully understand the nature of these emotions, but in his face I saw pain, sadness, anger and devastation. As we marched with our arms interlocked, a middle-aged man began to yell at the military barracks. “You will not shoot at us…You will not kill us like cowards…Get out so that we can see your faces,” he shouted. “Here, I am unarmed,” the man yelled as he tore off his shirt, ripping the sleeves and grabbing at the buttons. Purple faced with sweat pouring down his body, he fought the protestors who tried to calm him down. Agitated and scared by the strength of his raw feelings I edged closer to Mom. What could have caused such a pain that this kind of a public display seemed a natural progression, I wondered?

As we passed military barracks I saw soldiers of JNA (Yugoslavian Army) in windows and on the roof. Most of them were peaking from the corners of the windows and all that I could think was how magnificent this moment was and how great it would be if they joined us in solidarity with the anti-war protest. At that moment I still believed that the shootings of civilian protesters a few nights prior were just accidental, individual actions of the few, made in the overall confusion of the events. I was young and naïve enough to believe the official military statements to be true.

We walked towards the Parliament building where Sarajevans from other side of the city were to meet us and continue our demands for peace and governmental accountability. The events of the few weeks earlier have left Bosnia and Hercegovina in a state of complete anarchy since three major political parties that made the government broke apart in, what seemed to be a permanent state of animosity.

At the Parliament, the masses of people descended onto a small square in front of the long, Soviet-style building. Kids climbed trees surrounding the building to witness unfolding history. Protesters overtook walls and the windows of the nearby apartment complex. Sarajevans, tired of the government’s contempt for its people and eager to break down militia-run ad hoc barricades and restore their city, demanded accountability and subservience of public officials.“We want peace!” some chanted; “Down with the government!” others cried; “We want pot!” some youths chuckled.

Enveloped in excitement and singing, I felt a myriad of emotions with an intensity I never felt before. Pride, excitement, love and resistance filled me, bringing tears to my eyes. I could see that Mom, Olja and my friends whom we met there, were all unified in these feelings. Looking back, I realize that this was the exact moment of my liberation. Here, I became an integral part of something bigger than myself. I tapped into the power of humanity.

  There was a sudden surge of energy as everyone shouted in unison, “Here they come, here they come.” Several trucks arrived with men in blue uniforms, white helmets and blackened faces, carrying signs reading “Brotherhood and Unity.” Through tears Mom said that things would be okay now that the miners had arrived. She said “Miners don’t have anything to lose and when they join the fight it’s all or nothing.” I felt relief at their arrival. We were not alone now.

Most of us stood in front of the Parliament, chanting and singing, unsure of what supposed to happen next. Some people succeeded in entering the building, reclaiming it as their own. Suddenly, I heard an unfamiliar sound, gentle almost as the sound of a bee’s wing brushing against the hair…with heat! As soon as this thought entered my consciousness, I realized that it was the hissing of the bullets as they passed by my head.

Someone screamed “They are shooting from the Holiday Inn!”  There was panic everywhere. Mom screamed trying to keep us from being separated by stampede of frightened and confused people. People crouched behind a wall and we joined them there. Mom covered us with her body to shield us from bullets, waiting for a moment when we could escape. During a brief lull, gripping each other’s hands, we sprinted up the street pushing through people fleeing for cover. Later, we learned that right after we left the military opened fire from the barracks, killing among others, a fifteen year old. Further events of the day became a part of our family lore. We had to get to our car which was parked by the military barracks. Mom’s Peugot Diana, with its bad muffler, scared neighborhood militiamen. Thinking that a tank was approaching, they hid behind a wall of our neighborhood grocery store. Jets roared overhead, shattering windows and giving us a preview of what was yet to come.

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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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Copyright W.C.Turck 1994

Sarajevo Library 1994

There are moments in my life when I regret not keeping a journal; the kind whose pages are filled with mundane details, only seldom interrupted by fragments of insightful thought. At the beginning of the war, in my early teens, I tried this exercise in self-awareness. Quickly, I faltered after realizing that the journal turned into lists of meals, obsessive ramblings about unrequited love and frustrations over schoolwork. Realizing the ordinary nature of my teen angst, I stopped writing and turned to reading instead.

During the war I refused to write; partly due to my inability to focus on anything more than survival, but also as a form of resistance to the conditions of my life. I refused to be just another person writing a war journal and creating an iconography of a horrific existence. Committing the words to a journal would sharpen the picture of the events in progress, eliminating the safety offered by the foggy, unfocused immediate experiences of war.

After the war I wanted to escape and forget. I wanted to distance myself from anything that reminded me of those terrible days and years. Keeping a journal was not an option since words would keep me alive and all I wanted to do was to disappear.

Whatever the reasons, the fact remains that I do not posses a primary document, other than my memory and the memories of others close to me that help me recount the Bosnian war. There is a part of me that regrets not having this first account of the events past, filtered through the soul of a sixteen year old, whose sensitivity created a fertile ground for drama. As I am trying to piece together the emotionally charged anti-war protests and the quickly unfolding events of the first attacks on the city, I am reminded  that there is more to history than factual accounts of events. There is the emotional memory, colored by one’s soul and the promise of healing.

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…. Mama opened the front door and disappeared in the crowd of neighbors that were streaming into Chima’s

Copyright W.C.Turck 1993

Sarajevo 1993

apartment. There, the kitchen and living room picture windows offered the perfect panoramic view of the city and Hum. Several neighbors elbowed each other as they battled for a perfect place, kneeling on the back rest of an oversized sofa covered in brown and beige flowers. The air in the room was still, charged with an unspoken worry and fear that we all  shared.

Someone’s hand grabbed my elbow. Jasmin, my neighbor and a close family friend motioned for me to join him and a group of neighbors standing near the window.  Though his apartment was next to Chima’s and he could have seen the same events from his window, he chose to join the crowd of spectators. Somehow, chaos and confusion seemed to bring us closer together. We all began to gravitate toward each other, either for the sake of orientation in an unknown situation or for the comfort and assurance of shared experience.

Standing next to each other, Jasmin, Olja and I watched as the Yugoslav army jets circled around Hum, dropping large bombs from their bellies. Hum’s woods were on fire and several houses crumbled as the bombs reached them, leaving large craters filled with the debris. Because of their size and the destruction they left, we called these airborne bombs “Krmace” or “Pigs.” While our building complex sat on a hill opposite to Hum offering us a safe distance from the events that were happening just a mile away, we still felt the earth shake. At the bottom of the hill, just to the left of the TV relay now engulfed in flames, stood the Sarajevo Tobacco Factory. With its entrance hugging the railroad tracks, this hundred and some year old building represented one of the essential pieces of infrastructure, employing hundreds of workers and generating a significant income for the city and the state. Now, the building bore a brunt of a fire assault.

 We watched as incendiary rounds traced a straight line across the city towards the factory. One red bullet at the time, in a row of twelve or so slammed into the building, causing fire where they landed.

Suddenly, the same kind of  bullet rows intersected the one aiming at the factory, and followed a downward  trajectory towards the Presidential Building, the Electrical Distribution Building and the towers housing the Unis insurance company. Within a few minutes the city was on fire. We watched in awe, mesmerized by the beautiful symmetry of deadly bullets darting towards the heart of the city. I felt as if we had stepped into some war video game, overloaded with visual and sound effects. My city was burning and all I could do is stand and watch as it slowly disappeared in the fast approaching night. Pressing my face to the window to  escape the glare of my reflection I continued to watch the dance of bullets, now creating a surreal road map on the landscape of air, feeling the cold spring breeze on my forehead through the glass. Every so often, the picture blurred as my silent, unsolicited tears accumulated after the choking grip of the heavy sadness that washed through my body, ebbing and flowing in the rhythm of the fire.

I am not sure how long we stood there, silent and stunned. The sound of sirens brought us back to reality, signaling that we had to turn the lights off for the mandatory blackout of the city. We left a few remaining neighbors at Chima’s and returned to our hallway in silence. After a brief negotiation with Mama, Olja and I retrieved to our bedroom where we pushed our beds together in hopes of falling asleep quickly. Soon Mama joined us and in hushed voices we recounted the events of the day until late into the night. Comforted by each others’ presence and giggles, we slowly drifted into sleep as we created a list of all possible ways to do everyday chores without standing up. Mama was the captain of the ship and we were to move only on her orders.

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