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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.
“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!”
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
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.
We wove our souls out of the constraining thread of war. Using its unrefined strands, we built our armors that suffocated and liberated at once. We began to understand life only within the context of war. Unannounced humanitarian aid shipments were a source of joy and happiness. Hearing about the deaths of those we knew coated our lives with a heavy and dull sheen of permanent sadness. Daily trips to fetch water under constant sniper and grenade fire made us afraid. Days became all the same, a litany of chores and fears and worries interrupted seldom by moments of joy. And then, in the second year of war, a miraculous transformation happened to Olja and I. If only I could say that the change was a result of an awe inspiring moment, a moment of profound spiritual awakening that made the rest of the war years easier and less tragic. No, to say that would be a lie, as it took 16 years for me to see and understand that the transformation came gradually.
Building on each moment of our agony, we drank from its murky well. Taking big, thirsty gulps, we saturated our bodies with sorrow and self pity. We thought of our youth and mourned its death, teetering on the edge of victimhood, ready to plunge in the protective harbor it offered. But the life carried on, and on the background of war we began to create our narrative of normalcy.
Schools began to work again, and our days began before dawn with a mad rush for water, running through sniper alleys and no-man’s land to stand for six or seven hours in long queues. Then, we were off to waiting at another line for bread. Sustained for one more day, we hastily changed our “work” clothes and dressed nicely for our daunting run to school.
Navigating the city, careful to avoid sniper corners as much as possible, we ran often reciting the last pieces of information needed for the upcoming exams. Powered by a constant adrenaline rush, for scarcity of food could not sustain this pace, we ran the whole time.
In a rush to avoid death, we somehow accepted its certainty and with it we found clarity and stopped fearing. Instead, we became angry and rebellious. We began to fight for our dignity, refusing to be reduced to our animal denominator. We wanted more than just to survive. And we fought everywhere we could. We strengthened personal bonds and looked after the weakest and oldest in the neighborhood. We dressed up and accessorized each day and despite the scarcity of water we washed daily, albeit in the dark. We produced art, we wrote and we competed in ballroom dancing competitions.
Living was our rebellion and we fought by preserving our culture and our way of life as much as we could. We fought the war with the only weapon available to us, civilians. We refused to be silenced. And fifteen year-old Olja was the loudest, running across sniper alleys with both of her middle fingers high up in the air, yelling ”Fuck You!”
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.
Tags: Anti-War Protests, Balkans, Bosnia, Childhood, culture, Family, history, Identity, international, literature, Memory, nationalism, peace, politics, psychology, PTSD, Sarajevo, Sarajevo 1992, war, women