Eleven thousand five hundred forty-one red chairs. There were eleven thousand chairs arranged from curb to curb down Titova Boulevard in central Sarajevo. I enjoy theater and could have swelled at such a display if not for the terrible symbolism behind the display. Eleven thousand red chairs to memorialize the eleven thousand Sarajevans killed during the war. I still recall those days, the morning after a battle or following an attack. The siege hit civilians the hardest. And for the cynics-and there are scores- even among those fighting from the beleaguered trenches around and within the city, most were civilians pressed into a desperate 31/2 year fight to protect their families, save the city and maintain what feeble supply opportunities could be found to sustain the slowly strangling city of 300,000.
Ana. My Ana, was a child of 15 when the war began, still struggling with her own identity in the best of times. Fifteen. An age filled with the naive but eager assertions of emerging adulthood, but imbued and tethered deeply to the innocence, curiosity and vulnerability of childhood. And so she was thrown into the ultimate construction of human cynicism and cruelty, emerging in the incongruous and unsatisfying strangeness of adulthood and something called”the end of the war.”
I won’t call it peace. Peace is a fraud. It is not the end of war, because wars do not end, except for fools and politicians. war only changes character. The dead are still dead. The scarred and still forever scarred. Only the character of war changes, receding as embers to a half buried fire to smolder in the hearts whom it has affected or ruined.
She cried all day Friday, lamenting and commiserating with friends and family back in Bosnia or scattered by the aftermath of war around the planet to strange and foreign cultures. There was rage and sorrow, but mostly the injustice of what had been stolen from them. These modern accoutrements of Skype and Facebook make it more immediate for those commiserations and lamentations, but are only bandages to unalterably wounded souls. Ana’s friend Alma in Sarajevo summed it up succinctly, “I feel as if the devil was sitting on my shoulders all day.”
When I climbed aboard that Lufthansa 747 back in 1993, the siege was already better than a year old. I still did not know “my” Ana yet. Nor would I for another year. I did at least realize that I was temporarily departing a home in Chicago for a war, and that if I made it home from the war I at least had a home and friends, a job and a culture to return to. war, that war, its true implications on personal levels was still very much an abstract, just as it was for all those watching 30 second sound bites and out-of-context reports on the nightly news.
I would never face the rationalization of choosing a new homeland because mine had been destroyed. On holidays, such as this one I would never longingly recall family holidays and reunions that will never occur again, because of those lost or refugeed across the planet. I would never search soulfully for purpose or justice or rationale to the fate that robbed me of my innocence, my dreams or my right to a life unaffected by what amounted to a meaningless tantrum over real estate that swept into cycles of vengeance and ultimately left much of that land unusable for centuries for millions of landmines.
The sun was setting as my plane lifted off from O’Hare that September evening back in 1993. The future was unknown to me, but I was charting, at least in part my own fate-arrogance in the face of what was happening all across Bosnia. I understood that well enough, but would soon come to find that fate is hardly our own. As I gazed at the photograph of those 10,000 red chairs in Sarajevo Friday, knowing the faces and names of a good many of those whom each empty chair recalled, that realization became all too apparent.