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While I Wait: A Journey of Recovery

Memories of Life in a Besieged City

Tag Archives: Socialist Yugoslavia

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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

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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