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While I Wait: A Journey of Recovery

Memories of Life in a Besieged City

Tag Archives: peace

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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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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 2009

Sarajevo

The city rose up at once. Huge masses collected at both of its ends, the word going out from neighbor to neighbor. Progressive radio announcers gave regular updates to meeting places and the projected numbers of protestors. DJs on the “Omladinski Radio,” the youth radio station, played continuous music interrupted regularly to allow for eyewitnesses to call in their reports. Sounds of  the U2 and Nirvana mixed with the anti-fascist messages of the WWII Partisans’ songs.

All TV stations switched to news coverage. Excited and restless, with radio and TV running simultaneously, the three of us stood in the middle of our living room. ‘We should go,” Mama said. “Yes, let’s go,” Olja and I yelled out in unison, already imagining the heroic stories we would share with our friends in school next week. “I don’t know. It might be dangerous, “Mama replied under her breath, as if trying to discourage herself from the decision that she had already made. Taking the last drag from her cigarette, she turned her head away from the TV and locked her eyes with ours. “Get your shoes on and meet me by the car in five minutes,” she barked out moving towards the hallway. “YES!” Olja and I screamed ecstatically, racing towards the shoe closet, almost trampling each other in the process.

We ran downstairs, skipping four and five steps at the time, giggling and pushing each other. “We are going to protest,” we announced eagerly to our neighbor Brana, who terrified by our display of eagerness and determination hugged the wall of the staircase in hopes of keeping her balance. Outside, we already saw crowds of people going towards the presidential Palace. “We are going too,” Olja yelled out and met the approving cheers from the crowd.  Mama began the ritual of starting the engine of our old Citroen which we lovingly dubbed Dica, short of Diana. This was a daunting task, since the car was almost thirty years old, with a convertible roof that was not functional any longer and the engine that required a steady diet of magic, love and patience in order to show its glory. Sluggishly, Dica’s engine began to work, and Mama, lighting a cigarette, set the ground rules. “We stay together and you never leave my sight. Is that understood?”  Ready to go, Olja and I quickly nodded in agreement. “ Alright,” Mama muttered as she backed out on the street from the parking space. We were on our way to witness the amazing show of civic power and responsibility.

We arrived to one of the meeting spots within ten minutes. The air was brisk and invigorating as the early spring was almost there. Crowds, by some estimate more than a hundred thousand, nearly a third of the population, marched on the city-center determined to end the nationalist rabble once and for all. Swept into this awe-inspiring assertion of freedom and decency, Mama, Olja and I merged into the stream of people. I felt the prickling of the electrical charge on my skin as the raw emotions became exposed and shared by many. There was singing, women, children and elderly. Banners proclaimed unity against war and red, blue and white Yugoslav flags waved. This was my Sarajevo. We were marching toward the military barracks where someone had fired on a smaller group of protesters a few nights before. Looking around, comforted by our numbers and determination I joined in the song written by the composer and singer Kemal Monteno.  Each Sarajevan knew it by heart, and Olja and I would sing to our  city as we left and came back from vacations.“We grew together, my city you and I …the same blue sky gifted us with poetry…. Anywhere I go I dream about you, Sarajevo my love.”  We marched and sang and I believed that surely, no one would dare provoke us now.

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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 1996Fact One: Bomb Shelters are Scary

“Walking through shit and not caring at all,” Olja sung into my ear to a tune of some old-fashioned folk song, making me laugh out-loud and earning me a scolding from the lady living on the first floor.

We watched as Mama and Radovan tried to break through the door that led to the shelter unsuccessfully. A few minutes later Djole, the architect whose apartment was on the ground floor, appeared with the key. After a long shower of very descriptive swear words and heavy grunting, three of them together pushed open the sticky door. Leading with a flash light Djole entered a tiny administration room that led to the shelter door made of heavy steel. Since the area was underground, it was safe to turn the lights on and so we did.  

The room was tiny, with just enough space to house a couple of chairs and a bed. A tattered, decades old gray and blue carpet covered the floor and a strong smell of mildew permeated each corner. Straight ahead, was a massive steel door that led to the bomb shelter.

“It looks like an entrance to a submarine,” Olja said. Indeed, the door opened by a large turn-wheel, similar to those seen in the movie Hunt for the Red October. It took the power of several men to open the heavy contraption, and we hesitantly entered a tiny hallway that led to another narrow space before it opened into a large square room. To the left of the hallway there was a row of six fully equipped bathroom stalls, which we were relieved to see.

“Thank God! I was already envisioning myself crapping in a bucket surrounded by people, all of whom stared at me. You know, just like in those movies about prisons,” Olja proclaimed loudly.

Chuckling nervously, most neighbors enthusiastically agreed as we proceeded deeper into the shelter. I felt as if we were in a bad horror movie and a deranged, half-human creature was about to descend upon us with a chain-saw or something alike. Thankfully, Olja’s constant silly remarks helped lighten the mood and reduce the fear and anxiety we all shared as we moved forward.

The large and windowless room, adjacent to the bathroom was made of concrete. Dust and cobwebs covered all surfaces, and I began to gag from the smell of dust, mildew and something old and rotted. I was relieved to see that the rotting smell belonged to a dead rat sprawled near door. In the left corner there was a large, cumbersome looking machine with an electric motor, a handle bar intended for manual use and several pipes leading into the wall.

“So there is the air-filtration system,” I heard Djole say. A marvel of Yugoslav technology, this generator was designed to pump clean air into the shelter. In case that there was a power outage, the crank-handle would ensure that the motor was running. Unfortunately, a couple of unruly and bored children would break the handle within next few days, making the generator useless. Until then, we gladly accepted this small assurance that we would not suffocate, all crowded in a couple of  tiny, concrete cells without any contact with the outside world save for the small, battery powered transistor radio cradled gently in Mr. Halil’s arthritic hands.

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Copyright W.C.Turck

“Get out of the bed…NOW!” Mama’s screaming woke me up, and still dazed I jumped out of the bed only to collide with Olja whose face mirrored my confusion.

 “To the hallway, quick…leave the socks just grab your shoes damn it,” Mama yelled.

Suddenly, my mind registered and processed the sounds coming from outside, and there it was a chaos. Sounds of artillery mixed in with the vibrations of powerful explosions and the sprinkling showers of searing metal pieces, the flesh destroying fragments of grenades. Balancing on one leg I tried, unsuccessfully, to put my foot into a tennis shoe, my hands and whole body shaking uncontrollably. Unable to breathe and feeling that I was about to vomit all over myself, I gave up and with shoes in my arms I quickly ran outside the entrance door, to the common building hallway.

       The building was alive, neighbors stood in pajamas, some with drowsy children in their arms, others holding plastic bags filled with the precious mementoes of a once peaceful life. “What’s going on?” “Where are we going to hide?” “Did anyone get the keys to the fucking bomb shelter?” “I have to pee!!!!!” Neighbors all spoke at the same time. Suddenly, a bullet came crashing through the narrow windows on the side of the exterior wall, lodging itself above Mr. Halil’s head. Realizing that we all stood in the least safe place in the building, Mama charged downstairs yelling at our neighbor, Radovan, to come with her and help open the door of the underground bomb shelter, previously used by a restaurant for storage.

       A mass of people started moving downward, some running in panic and some taking careful, unsure steps in the dark, clutching the rails tightly. Olja appeared next to me, and holding hands we descended down to the basement. The area was filthy, filled with grime, rat droppings, garbage and human excrement all littering the floor.

“Walking through shit and not caring at all,” Olja sung into my ear to a tune of some old-fashioned folk song, making me laugh out-loud and earning me a scolding from the lady living on the first floor.

We watched as Mama and Radovan tried to break through the door that led to the shelter unsuccessfully. A few minutes later, Djole, the architect whose apartment was on the ground floor appeared with the key. It still took some effort to push open the door, but it finally opened. Leading with a flash light Djole entered a tiny administration room that led to the heavy steel shelter door. Since the area was underground, it was safe to turn the lights on and so we did…

to be continued…

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Copyright W.C.Turck 1994

The hospital was overflowing with wounded, civilians and the soldiers alike. Doctors, deprived of sleep, medicine and food did their best to treat as many people as they could, taking on the worst cases first. After a short wait, a middle aged woman, whose round, kind face betrayed exhaustion and sadness, introduced herself as a doctor and examined Mama in the hallway. Motioning at me to follow her, the doctor wheeled Mama to the examination room. I watched as they took X rays and saw two, inch sized pieces of shrapnel, lodged next to Mama’s spine, one nesting in the center of her body, as if it ran out of steam before severing her spinal cord.

“So, your birthday was yesterday, right?” the doctor asked her. 

Mama nodded hesitantly.

“Well you should celebrate your second birthday today,” the doctor said, as she dug her fingers into Mama’s spine. I watched as she pulled the shrapnel out of Mama’s back, stunned by the fact that I was witnessing a real surgery done without anesthetic, right there, without a warning! “Wow, Mama,” I said, amazed, “I can see inside of you.”

     I stood dumbly and watched, hoping that it would all end soon. And it did. Mama was sent home with the apologies that they did not have any painkillers or antibiotics to give out. I was shown how to change bandages and clean the wound in order to prevent infection. Mama managed a pained laugh realizing how I could not stomach anything that had to do with bodily functions, and that I would not be the one dressing the bandages. This is where Olja excelled and later on she took on this task masterfully and with love.

    That night Olja and I laid in bed hugging each other, our arms and legs intertwined. We whispered to each other a promise that we would never leave the house again. Instead, we would live like hermits, catching glimpses of the outside world only through our bombed-out windows. We vowed to support each other in our quest for safety and the oath was as sincere as the reality of Mama being wounded that evening. Neither of us slept, but we pretended to do so anyway. I listened to the echoes of distant detonations and artillery barrage, mixed in with the rhythm of Olja’s uneven breath, feeling strangely comforted with these familiar sounds. As if stuck on a repeat button, the events of the day replayed in my mind. I shuddered involuntarily every once in a while, reminded of the distinct possibility of Mama’s disappearance from our lives.

    She created our little universe, offering us guidance and comfort. She was the parent, a friend and an enemy at the same time, and she was there to offer a solace in moments when fear and exhaustion flooded our bodies, breaking us down and leaving us confused and disoriented. With a seriousness of a psychoanalyst she allowed us to shed the tears of self-pity, amplified by our savage, teenage self-centeredness, only to tell us that it would all work out in the end. “Everything happens for a reason, and if you are lucky you will find out the answer soon,” she told us so many times during the War. I often fought against this rationale, not being able to see a valid reason for people being tortured, raped, starved, and eradicated. However, a sense of some order amidst the utter chaos, a possibility that everything that was happening to us could be explained in the future, was a true gift of this kind of thinking. A plunge into madness seemed unlikely.

       Through the night I remained suspended at the surface of dreams, the kind of space where the sounds and smells are still present but they take on forms of animals and inanimate objects. Each time I felt myself being jerked from the edge of a deep sleep, I reached for Olja’s hand, weaving my fingers through hers, only to feel her squeeze back, her eyes remaining closed. We had each other and that would have to be enough.

          At the break of dawn the city was eerily quiet. A few black birds fought on a branch of one of the remaining trees in front of our window. For a brief instant I thought that the yesterday’s events were just a part of a strange scenario created by my overactive brain, so vivid and alive. I turned my head to look at Olja and was startled by her gaze. Her large, blue-green eyes were wide open, shadowed by the depth of thoughts unknown to me. I glanced down, towards our hands, still locked together, and smiled.

“I’ll go and check on Mama,” I said, releasing her hand, hesitant to get up, not knowing what would await me once I got to her room.

Somehow this new, wounded Mama felt like a stranger. What should I say? Would she be in terrible pain? Would I recognize her? All of these questions followed the skidding of my slippers as I slowly shuffled through the windowless living room in the obligatory three-layer outfit, thrown on to avoid frostbites. In just a few seconds I arrived to Mama’s bedroom and stood motionless in front of her door, listening for sounds of life on the other side. I knocked lightly, hoping to prolong this moment a while longer.

“Come in,” Mama’s voice echoed strong and sure as always.

I opened the door slowly, bracing myself against the aftermath of previous night’s events. The room was icy cold and dreary, bathed in the filtered light of a gloomy and foggy December morning. The biting smell of gunpowder and metal, which still permeated each room, was much stronger here. Covered only up to her waist, so not to have anything touching her wounds, Mama was laying on her stomach. Pale, freezing and clearly in pain, she mustered enough strength to greet me with a smile.

“Well Mama, you did a great job last night uniting the neighborhood for the first time. I think that we should get you a job at the UN,” I said jokingly, trying to push back the tears that were already collecting on my lashes, dangerously close to erupting into the largest and fastest river of fluid ever to come out of a human being.

 Looking at me from the corner of her eye with the all-knowing look which had irritated me for the better part of my teenage years, she extended her left hand, leaving it open for me to take.

“Don’t fight it honey. Just let it out,” she said, giving me a safe space and a permission to collapse.

        Tears rushed down my cheeks and I began to weep. I wailed, gulping for air choked by the tears now already in my nose and my mouth as they sprinted downward, pulled by the force of gravity. I tried to dry my face with the sleeve of my jacket only to give up after a few minutes. Suddenly, my loud and uncontrollable cry was met by a timid sniffling. Olja, who had come in a few moments prior, began to cry as well. There we were; Mama, her body ravaged by shrapnel and burns, unable to turn on her side or her back; me, gulping for air and Olja gripping both of our hands, all of us crying. Becoming aware of the comic nature of our situation and relieved that we had survived a dangerous and emotionally charged day, we soon began to laugh, rejoicing in the fact that we still stood there, together.

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