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While I Wait: A Journey of Recovery

Memories of Life in a Besieged City

Tag Archives: Siege of Sarajevo

“Every morning I jump out of bed and step on a landmine. The landmine is me. After the explosion, I spend the rest of the day putting the pieces together.” Ray Bradbury


Copyright W.C.Turck1993

Sarajevo sniper alley

Each day I work hard on forgetting and every minute I fail miserably. I stay away from writing even though I feel the story is an important one to tell. I sit down ready to craft the mess of emotions into a linear telling, but the panic overwhelms and makes me a coward.

Stop and run away,  I tell myself each day, knowing well that the escape is impossible. Fight back,  I scream out, knowing that I can do this. Be coward, be brave, be anyone else but the one who is not. A decision is to be made and it must be truly mine, made of a desperate need for love and clarity. To destroy my soul daily is not an easy choice to make and I am not looking forward to doing so, but it is the right one for me, Today.


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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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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 tripwow.trip advisor,google images

It’s a warm and snowless Christmas morning in Chicago. Outside my bedroom window the humming of steady city traffic is strangely comforting. I imagine people hurrying to spend time with loved ones. I see those who are driving frantically to find that one grocery store that’s still open in hopes of salvaging the Christmas meal with that last necessary ingredient they forgot to purchase a few days prior. Lazily, I reach for my coffee, smiling as my thoughts begin to revisit the most significant Christmas in my life, the one whose memories always fill me with hope.

Christmas Eve was always the big event in my family as I was growing up. The fish dinner and the candle lighting ritual always carried significance for me as Mama would recite the prayer that was passed on through generations.

“God, light up the Love in our hearts,” she would recite as she lit three candles. At the end of the meal she would turn the candles off with a piece of bread soaked in red wine, concluding with, “God, extinguish hatred in our hearts.”

We would then exchange gifts; always something simple such as a journal, a book or even a pair of earrings. It was the anticipation and shared energy of giving that we looked forward to the most, rather than the gift itself. Or at least, that’s how my older self rewrites her personal history. Nevertheless, Christmas always offered a possibility of love and renewal, and this promise became a salvation to us as we were drowning in the war.

The morning of our first War Christmas Eve began filled with usual chores. Olja and I trudged through snow, weighted down by numerous layers of clothes necessary for protection while standing in water lines for long hours. By some miracle, the snipers kept quiet for most of the morning and the line moved quickly. Three hours later, loaded with canisters filled with icy water we set off on our sprint home. Within an hour or so we arrived home, decorated with a new set of frostbite and excited to decorate our Christmas Tree.

And what a tree that was. Small and plastic, it was bought by my parents on credit, as most of the luxury items were in the old Yugoslavia. Olja and I firmly believed that the tree predated my birth, making it, we often stated, a family heirloom. A bit shaggy in spots, held up by electric tape on the bottom, and barely a foot tall, this tree was the most festive and cherished family member. It was a magical tree, imbued with emotions of love and happiness, and somehow just seeing it in our living room again gave us a sense of normalcy and life outside the constraints of war.

Chatty and in a good mood, we helped set the table later that evening. The best china was pulled out, and the hand-embroidered, pristine white tablecloth enveloped the dining table. A couple of evergreen twigs that we have taken off a tree near sniper alley cradled the three taper candles, a small dish with water (before war that would’ve been red wine,) and a tiny piece of bread.

The table was set for the Christmas feast, but this was the War and starvation was our reality. Earlier that week Mama had stashed two cans of Mackerel, a potato and an onion that we received in a UN “Holiday Humanitarian Ration.” Six fillets, a bit larger than tiny sardines were frying in the pan on the makeshift wood-burning stove, and the warm (single potato) salad was ready for plating. Candlelight illuminated the tree which looked festive despite the lack of lights. We were ready for Christmas.

Just as we sat down, a short and familiar knocking on the door signaled the unannounced arrival of my best friend Nina and her brother Dado. I jumped and ran to the door, thrilled to see them as they were my war family.

“Merry Christmas” they yelled in unison, laughing and joking as they entered the hallway.

From the door I could see Mama’s panicked eyes as she surveyed the miniscule amounts of food on the table, barely enough to feed the three of us. She quickly added two more chairs and Olja brought two extra plates to the table. We were all going to be hungry even after our meal but we didn’t care.

“Oh, I got a gift for you guys,” Nina proclaimed, as she fumbled with her coat pocket.  “This is for you,” she said giving me a small package, wrapped in a red paper.

Giddy with the excitement at the unexpected gift, I carefully unwrapped this precious packaged.

“What is this,” I wondered out loud as I caught a glimpse of something green and tubular in shape. My brain, unaccustomed to seeing vegetables for almost a year, slowly registered the familiar shape of a cucumber.

“IT’S A CUCUMBER!!!” I yelled out, holding the vegetable as if it were the eternal flame during the Sarajevo Olympics eight years earlier.

We were all laughing. Still holding a cucumber in one hand and hugging Nina with other, I was crying. Their gift was a sacrifice. Receiving a piece of fruit or a vegetable was akin to winning millions in a lottery. In fact, one would have a higher probability of winning the Mega Millions than having access to nutritious food in Sarajevo during the war. Instead of keeping this valuable commodity for themselves, Nina and Dado decided to share it with us, their friends.

Giggling, we all dug into our feast of potatoes, fish and a cucumber. A few detonations here and there reminded us of the War, but in our living room was a peaceful world, charged with love, laughter and true happiness.

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