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While I Wait: A Journey of Recovery

Memories of Life in a Besieged City

Tag Archives: PTSD

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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Copyright W.C.Turck 2008“Boom!” A crackling detonation followed by a rumbling sound in the distance jolts me from a deep sleep. Disoriented and ready to dive under my bed for shelter, I jump up, my head almost colliding with the wood floor. Trying to regain balance, I hold with one hand to the metal railing of the bed. Still dazed, I begin to survey the room, taking stock of objects barely visible in the dark , lit only by the diffused light from a lamp  outside. Where am I, the thought echoes through my brain, leaving me unsettled? I panic, lost briefly in the space where nothing makes sense and memories do not exist. It is just me and a vast prairie of emptiness.

“Boom!” Another loud sound, followed by a burst of light radiating through the semi-closed, white blinds propels me forward. I begin to run. I run away from the terror-laden sound, my feet heavy and filled with concrete allowing for infinitely small steps that seem to lead nowhere. I run, cold and shivering suspended in a vacuum where nothing but the confines of the body and physical reactions exist. “I” am not there. The smell of fire permeates the air, the sound of explosions mingles with the blinding light streaming intermitted amid the rhythm of blood rushing through arteries; clogging  my ears with a hissing sound. I run for hours, or so I think.

When it happens, I can’t be sure. Slowly, as if someone moves a dusty curtain, weighed down by a billion moments of amnesia, inch by inch the image of my soul is revealed. I stand  facing the window, my bare feet soothed by the coolness of the floor. I turn my head to the right, locking my gaze on the painting that hangs above the antique, wood dresser. Even though obscured by dark, I know its subject and the light brush strokes of the watercolor by heart. I know the story of my grandfather who purchased the painting of the villa on the coast of Adriatic, hoping to keep fond memories of his youth. I know the story of the dresser. I remember the day my husband dragged the heavy wooden piece home with the triumphal pride of a successful hunter etched on his face.I know that if I reach under one of its legs I am sure to find a rusty nail poking-out ever so slightly, catching the threads of the mop each time I clean.

Comforted by the familiar, memories and stories of the past safely tucked in the far recesses of my brain; I slowly walk back to bed and sit down. Propping my back with extra pillows I listen to the howling of the wind from a thunderstorm unleashed on Chicago. With each thunder-clap I flinch as the loud sounds resembles the sounds of detonations.

How is it that these same sounds offered a pocket of safety for us during the war? We slept through them, lulled by the knowledge that during bad storms snipers and heavy artillery were mostly silenced. Nature and its power offered us a reprieve from fight, allowing us to catch a breath and experience the sense of safety, even just briefly.

As I watch the last flickers of lightening diffuse through the blinds I feel my lips curl in a smile. Each time the flash-backs erase my memories, I cease to exit. And when they come back, even the bad ones I welcome them eagerly as they all make up my soul and that which connects me to life. Calmed by the storm, I slowly drift into sleep, hugging the pieces of my wounded self  as closely as I can.

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Hana, I and our Highschool Friends Shortly Before the War

For Hana and Friends Lost

There is not a soul that is ever ready for war. Sure, living in a city under siege, we quickly learned the mechanics of survival, and the constant military assault gave us the insight into civil defense. We grew accustomed to the deafening sounds of heavy artillery. Informed by experience, our ability to discern the orientation of attacks became ingrained. Instinctually, we knew when to take cover and when to ignore the whistling sounds of grenades as they crossed the airspace over our rooftops. And, on those days when our attention began to falter, fueled by deprivation of sleep and food, snipers offered a lasting reminder that our lives were at peril.

However, physical destruction is not the only truth about wars. Indeed, the logistics of a military assault is a miniscule part of the organism that is birthed by war. What stays etched forever in survivors are the deaths, either physical or metaphorical. These are the wounds that never heal, and they alter our realities forever. The pain of losing those dearest to us, of our ways of life, begins to unravel our center. Everything that we use to orientate ourselves and to identify with for the sake of clarity and stability disappears within few weeks, and we are left with the fragments of ourselves, alone and destitute.

The day after the protests, my best friend called from the airport. She was in tears, explaining that her mother just announced that she was leaving Sarajevo, packed bags laying already at her feet. “I don’t want to leave my friends, my city, “Hana argued pointlessly. Angry and hurt, she was explaining the situation, assuring both of us that she will return within a few weeks, “once everything settles down.”

This feeling of improbability of war ever coming to fruition was shared by most Sarajevans. We lived in a cosmopolitan city, city of art, culture, computers, and microwaves. Surely, wars only happen to those who are not in control of their national destiny. Wars happened to OTHERS! Furthermore, just a weekend before all the happenings, we were talking about changing the place we usually went out. We were planning to try out a place behind the Art Academy since the art crowd was familiar to us, the art high school students.

These stories of heartbreak repeated all over the city. Those of us who stayed went through a myriad of emotions. At first we felt deserted and hurt by  many departures of our friends and families. They just left, as if nothing mattered to them, or so we thought. Then, after the first year or so, we became resentful. We imagined our departed friends in fancy schools, partying and living the teenage life to its fullest, while we sat in basements, struggling to find food and water and chancing death every minute.

 Many of our friends who stayed were killed. One by one they disappeared in tragic deaths, either blown apart or slowly dying as a result of being wounded by weapons usually reserved for the destruction of physical structures and military vehicles. Snipers fired anti-aircraft bullets that ripped bodies into shreds and detached limbs and heads within a fraction of a second. Some of us witnessed these happenings and some of us heard about them from others. No matter how it was delivered, the information about our friends’ deaths echoed painfully through our hearts.

Grieving for those who had died and those who had left, we fought against the seductive power of loathing and hatred. We still wanted to keep in touch with those on the outside, trying unsuccessfully to explain the anguish and darkness we felt. We asked for the acknowledgement of our struggle and validation of our pain. All that we received in return were justifications of the decisions made and explanations of emotional distress they felt for not being able to reach loved ones and learn of their fate. We were not hearing each other.

Hana and I met after the war, embracing each other in a long hug at the Frankfurt airport, sobbing uncontrollably. Awkwardly we tried to connect as old friends, but the wounds were fresh. Molded by different circumstances we grew apart. Unfortunately, neither of us realized that the war gave us the tools with which we built our own trenches, unable to extract ourselves from perspectives of our own making.

That is the tragedy of war. It never leaves one’s soul and it becomes a main orientating point around which our lives begin to mold. It becomes an organism with demands of its own. And since the pain is so great, silence offers a refuge. Quiet and alone, we hope that the past will become something benign and almost forgotten. This way, our pain becomes our truth and we choose to distance ourselves from those who are a reminder of who we were before.

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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 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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