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While I Wait: A Journey of Recovery

Memories of Life in a Besieged City

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Copyright W.C.Turck 1994I’ve been silent for a while now, the fact not of my choosing but rather the one of a necessity. Writing about the War is a process rather than an event and as such the rhythm of the written word varies, stops and starts, gushes and restrains. And so my mind and my heart, overwhelmed and in a need of a reprieve, stopped for a while waiting for the healing process to begin.

I weighed the need to tell my story for a long time and I have finally decided to tell it in a form of a book. Not because I feel that it bares more importance and gives a solemn quality to my experience. Rather, I feel that the book is the most natural form to my writing voice and as such it  will truly immerse me in the process of authentication.

Today, my introduction was finalized and I will share it with you, my readers, so that my connection with each one of you serves as a reminder of humanity that we all share. So here it is:

While I wait for the pain of lost time to subside, life is quietly slipping through my fingers, just like a handful of water on my palm disappears, first soaked up by the pores of my skin and then the earth itself. Each time I look over the landscape of my memories I become overwhelmed with the sheer size and depth of emotions they bring along, and unable to let myself feel and possibly drown, I retreat. I choose to run away and not look back, nor forward either. Somehow, I fashion myself in a world in which I exist suspended in between moments, not committing to any of them for the possibility of the pain they bring is too great of a burden for me to bear. Instead, I choose to wait until I cannot wait any longer; until the silence offering the seductive solace and protection begins to suffocate and slowly destroy any trace of my soul.

 I feel myself a coward, unwilling to confront the war and fear in order to heal myself.
During the random attempts to capture the truths of my past, I begin to wonder if those of us, survivors of Wars, are forever connected with a strong and malleable thread woven out of avoidance of all that might define us as alive. Is it possible that while our stories differ, the complete loss of oneself in fear and pain is an outcome that we all share?

For almost a decade I believed myself to be one of those rare people for whom the war left no traces other than handful of survival stories chosen at random and recycled at family gatherings. I convinced myself that I moved beyond the status of “just functioning” to the one of “successfully healed” war survivor. I cloaked myself in detachment from all that surrounds me in hopes of creating an ideal hiding place, a new universe so deep and uncharted that not even I would dare to enter.

I hope that collecting the displaced pieces of my life into a narrative of war experiences will allow me to reconcile with the destruction of “Me” and begin anew, building on blocks of the past now revealed and demystified. Perhaps I am overreaching and this process of stripping myself pass the skin, muscles and bones all the way to the core of who I am, may leave me broken beyond the repair. No matter what comes out of this process, it is the path that I must take in order to prevent my certain death. This book is my journey towards the truth of my experience, one which I worked so hard on forgetting.Copyright W.C.Turck 1994

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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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Olja and I, Sarajevo 1993

Sweaty and breathless, nineteen-year old Sanin, my teenage crush and my first neighbor, was speaking fast. He folded over his basketball player tall frame, and rested his hands on his knees as he tried to catch his breath and steady his thoughts.

“We saw them, they passed the Zetra and the Stadium and they are coming this way,” he informed us, “The Sarajevo police joined by the few local gangs and volunteers are trying to push them back, but they are outnumbered.”

Olja and I looked at each other, knowing the streets leading to the Stadium all too well. We made that same trip on a weekly basis, many times in a group with our friends. In the summer we would play on the running tracks and the soccer fields behind the Stadium and in the winter we ice-skated each weekend- night at the Zetra, the indoor and outdoor skating ring built for the 1984 Olympic games.

“Fifteen minutes tops,” Olja and I said in unison, expertly estimating the time it would take for someone to make the trip at a leisurely pace. Already hearing reports and first- hand accounts of atrocities that included rape and murder in the fallen territories, the new information created a chaos and overall panic within the building. Fear became visceral, a physical manifestation of desperation and hoplesness that could be touched, smelled and tasted.

For some, screaming and crying came naturally, others stood silently, their faces pale and sweaty under the flickering of the candlelight. I stood by the doorway looking at Mama and Olja. The air became thick, almost solid and pressure rose making breathing difficult. My head felt heavy and I began to swim inside my body. I tugged at my arms and legs from the inside, trying to get them to move, to do something. The noise stopped, replaced by the humming sound of  blood pumping in my ears and in my forehead. I stood motionless for a moment, my gaze locking in on my sister. I watched but I saw nothing. I disappeared.

Suddenly, I was jolted from this state of silent panic by Olja who grabbed my hand and was pulling me towards the stairway.

“Fuck this shit,” she yelled dragging me behind her as she began to climb towards our apartment .Following her lead I began to run up-stairs. We ran together, skipping three stairs at the time, a ritual we never gave up on since we were little girls.

“Let go of me, I can run by myself” I said, finally escaping my temporary paralysis. ”Where are we going? We shouldn’t be here! Don’t you hear the grenades?” I frantically yelled after  Olja, who waived me off as she stormed in the house.

“I am not going to sit in the basement like a fucking lamb right before a slaughter. Fuck the war and fuck them. I’lll not let them decide how to kill me. I will do that myself before they can get to me.”

She was screaming now. Red faced and hurried she violently opened the medicine cabinet in the kitchen, shaking out each bottle of pills that she found in a large plastic bag. Her actions spoke of her plan wordlessly. My fourteen year old, tough-as-nails sister was planning for us to kill ourselves.

She pilfered through drawers collecting all of the steak knives, a meat cleaver and a meat tenderizer. “Here, hold this,” she showed the pill bag in my hands,  ”collect what you can find. I think that there is some stuff in the bathroom too.”

Slowly, I took the bag and turned towards the cabinet. I looked at the bottles that she already emptied. There was a bottle of aspirin, some antibiotics, few small bottles of homeopathic calming medicine and a vial of ear-drops. “There is no way this will kills us,” I yelled as I turned around, only to find that she was gone.

I followed the sound of banging and crashing into the bathroom, where Olja stood on the toilet trying to reach for nail-polish remover and a bottle of swabbing alcohol.

“Where is Dad when we need him,” I said, thinking wistfully of his medicine chest that would ensure our quick death.

“Yeah, no shit,” Olja responded. “His blood pressure medicine, the immune-suppressants and god knows what other kidney disease crap he has in there would be so good right now,” she said.

“Alright, let’s see what we can do,” Olja mumbled as she ran towards the hallway with armful of “weapons.” We sat on the cold tiled floor lighted by the flashlight and began to sort through our bounty. We collected all the pills in one bag and began to crush them with the meat tenderizer.

“These pills will just make us ill, but they won’t kill us,” I repeated  to Olja as I watched her crush the pills with short and stubborn jerks of her hand. “That’s fine, we’ll mix the nail-polish remover and alcohol and drink them with that,” she responded.Image

I began to laugh in panic, realizing that everything was out of our control, even the ability to control our own death. As I laughed and cried, she still spoke of her plan to defend us with knives if dying was a bit slower than anticipated. I watched her, this bony, small framed girl, whose feistiness was legendary in the neighborhood. She was so focused on the task in front of her that she failed to understand the futility and comedy of her endeavor.  I loved her so much in that moment that even the possibility of a gruesome torture and death could not spoil the pristine honesty  of love and devotion, illuminated by her protectiveness.

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Copyright W.C.Turck 1994Our first night in the bomb shelter was one of the most emotionally charged ones. The stories of confusion and disbelief were written on most of the faces. While many of the neighbors retreated deeper into the bunker, Mama, Olja and I along with several of our closest neighbors sat in a windowless, tiny office that led into the shelter. Save for a make shift bed of a mattress propped on several beer crates, and a few dilapidated, wooden chairs, most of us sat on the stairs or on the floor.

Every so often, the ground shook from powerful detonations near by. Electricity was cut off a few days before, and a few taper candles,dug up  in neighbors’  forgotten, “emergency ” kitchen drawers, provided soft light, which  under any other circumstances might have been interpreted as romantic and sentimental.

Mr. Halil’s, battery-powered mini transistor provided our only connection with the outside. There was only one channel and the newscaster  updated the  listeners continuously. Each minute we learned of another monument, historic building, a museum, a building block,  all in flames. Hand to hand battle on the streets of Sarajevo played out in real time, neighborhood by neighborhood falling to Yugoslav Army Forces and Serbian Paramilitary.

The lucky ones were allowed to pick up their belongings in plastic grocery bags and sent out on a deadly march, under sniper and bomb fire towards the Center of the city that still held its ground. Many were murdered or taken away to unknown destinations, including women and girls. Refugees in their own city, people trudged through debris, trying to get to homes of family and friends ,often living  just a several blocks away.

Around seven pm, a loud rattle of our  barricaded building door invaded the complete silence, overpowering the radio, jolting us from our thoughts. A couple of my friends and some older male neighbors armed with steel rods and one gun slowly approached the door. A muffled exchange occurred followed by a loud women’s voice. She was sobbing.

Within a few minutes the woman returned up with her husband and two children asking for our neighbor who lived on the second floor. disheveled, sweaty and exhausted  they told us they had escaped Grbavica, one of the first neighborhoods to fall. Savka, a Serb and her husband Sakib, a muslim, ran as the neighborhood was falling, knowing that if they’d stayed that their safety could not be guaranteed.

Savka’s sister, our neighbor, cried as she approached them. “Come in here and rest. We’ll figure it out,” she said as she hugged the children, steering them towards the interior of the shelter.

Solemn and quiet, we all hunched around the transistor radio, as if additional information would ensure our safety. Within an hour, the main building door rattled again, and men’s panicked voice reverberated through the building. Yet again, the army of neighbors armed with basically nothing, gingerly approached the door which was locked and barricaded with heavy furniture and a large steel rod.

“They are coming, they are coming…open the damn door,” deep voice was yelling, trying to speak over the background noise of an artillery barrage, detonations, rain of  shrapnels and individual fire that seemed to come closer and closer.

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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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Once upon a time there was a neighborhood in Sarajevo, the capitol of Bosnia, where most of its inhabitants lived in apartment buildings. While drab, soviet-style apartment blocks occupied a majority of the newer part of the city, this little enclave was a bit special (or so many thought.)  Nested on the slope of a hill, surrounded by lush vegetation and the abandoned gardens of long gone privately owned houses, this community cherished the outdoors. The children swarmed among overgrown patches of plum trees, climbed on apple trees and chanced on dares to jump from the highest branches. In summer, girls and boys raced their bikes, exploring the dark and mysterious woods on a neighboring hill. The girls had an especially dangerous game of dare, charging downhill on their beloved bikes, jumping high in the air over a deep ditch to land upon the narrow flat roof of an abandoned garage. In the winter, kids would race their sleds down a treacherously steep hill stopping short of an uncovered concrete hole that seemed as old as the surrounding mountains. Everything it seemed was done on a dare, like the “The Trail of Death” as they dubbed the toughest challenges, becoming regular afterschool rituals, each of children defending their records on daily basis, either physically or verbally.

“Haustorchad” or building dwellers is what the kids growing up in houses called them. And though the Haustorchad fought often, many formed bonds as deep as any blood relative. Their households became extended families and parents could rely that their children were safe no matter where they were.  During the school year, the best students tutored those who struggled in exchange for a yummy lunch or a piece of some delicious homemade cake. Winter and summer vacations were spent skiing in the mountains surrounding the city or traveling to the Adriatic coast to swim and lounge in sun upon some pebbled stretch of beach. Invariably they could hardly wait to come home and swap stories and show off well-earned sunburns. Life was great and carefree in this little area, or the kids thought.

And then suddenly, or so it seemed, war came to the neighborhood and the city. Many people from the neighborhood left. Others came from far away, chased out of their homes, running to save their lives. In the beginning the, “haustorchad” could not leave their buildings at all. Buildings often shared a single bomb shelter. Trapped by the fighting outside, the kids turned a small area into their play room. They painted murals on the uneven, concrete walls, and played music on a portable, battery-powered radio. They brought books and board games, but once the electricity was shut off they and everyone else were plunged into darkness.

In the darkness children reminisced of their past. They shared memories of food and events. They sang favorite songs together, teased each other and gossiped about kids in other buildings. Soon, they grew tired and stopped talking much. They sat together in the dark with the grown-ups, waiting for the war to stop.

But the War did not stop and starvation, thirst and defiance drew people out of the shelters. Kids began using their bikes and sleigh to lug water and scraps of wood for heat. As always, they foraged in groups. In winter they waited in long lines for water and bread, forcing each other to move and prevent serious frostbite. In summer, they collected rainwater, helping each other carry 50 gallon barrels up-stairs to their flats. They shared information and the last bits of food, looking out for each other while quarrelling all along. Some kids traded their bikes for guns, while others suffered the ultimate fate at the hands of snipers and guns surrounding the city.

Eventually, the War stopped. The kids grew up and many left the neighborhood, and the country altogether. And while many chose not to look back, some decided to reflect and understand just how much of the place where they grew up still remained in their heart. What they found was not just a memory of childhood bond, but a deep connection to the spirits of their culture and ancestry. They, at long last, found love.

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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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