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While I Wait: A Journey of Recovery

Memories of Life in a Besieged City

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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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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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