Just before dawn the Bosnian Fifth Corps broke out of the encircled Bihach pocket, sixty miles north of Sarajevo. It was a desperate attempt to link up with Bosnian forces in the south. They had caught the Serbs napping, but many of the Bosnian fighters were conscripts, and many of those were untrained old men and boys without guns. Still they quickly overran Serb positions, pressing towards the town of Sanski Most and road to Sarajevo, driving panicked Serb forces and civilians before them.
As for Sarajevo, there was little it could do. The Fifth Corps would have to succeed or fail on its own. Serbian resistance stiffened along the Bosna River valley, and to the south as Bosnian forces pressed their offensive across the rocky heights of Treskavica.
On Treskavica the fighting was especially brutal. Hundreds died in bloody trench warfare. Snipers stepped up attacks in the city, effectively cutting Sarajevo in two. Gun battles flared all along the siege line while shells fell on Butmir and Hrasnica. Movement in much of the city became a deadly proposition.
Ana and I kept to doorways as we made our way to see a neighbor who had offered to help us negotiate the complex and inane government bureaucracy to get married. Her name was Keka, an oddly mysterious woman with a reputation as the neighborhood psychic. She wore thick eyeglasses and seemed a bit of a know-it-all at first. Clips of curtly blond hair kept falling into her soft blue eyes.
Over coffee Ana told a fantastic story of how Keka had predicted all this would happen. I listened with my usual measure of skepticism, believing assertions about Keka’s connection to the spirit world only masked Tarot and fortune telling tricks for the gullible. The more Keka spoke, however, the more I understood that she was most sincere. Not that I was prepared to believe in any of this, but I knew that Keka believed every fortune she foretold.
By afternoon the fighting had slowed enough for us to go to Opshtina, the Sarajevo city hall. The red-brick building was along the river, across from the French outpost at Skendarija.
I was still a little suspicious of Keka’s intentions. She seemed a little too eager to help us with all of this. Ana reassure me. She genuinely believed in Keka, and was reassured by her professed experience in dealing with the government.
“They’re all piranhas,” she remarked as we stepped inside the sprawling marriage bureau. “They would think nothing of eating a nice couple like you for lunch.”
The place was the very definition of chaos. Desks were crammed among canyons of overstuffed file cabinets. A half dozen or so officious and hopelessly overworked women toiled over mountainous stacks of papers, seemingly oblivious or unconcerned to the ever-growing piles. All of it was bathed in dingy yellow sunlight falling through grimy windows and UNHCR plastic sheeting.
The three of us sat at a small desk before a middle-aged woman who, under the guise of small talk, proceeded to tell me how repugnant she found the United States. She was a pissy woman with the face of someone who sucked lemons as a matter of course. Ana could see she was trying to bait me into an argument and reached over to squeeze my knee when she noticed I was getting perturbed. I had a mind to fire back as meanly as I could, but for Ana’s sake I nodded and smiled passively.
Keka rummaged through her purse, quite obviously setting a pack of cheap Drina cigarettes on the desk for the woman to see before producing a far more expensive pack of Marlboros. She offered the woman one, allowing me a brief reprieve from the woman’s indignation. We sat quietly for a time as the women stared past one another through the cigarette smoke in some unspoken negotiation; as if they were playing a high stakes game of poker. I was struggling to remember Keka’s advice about being patient, since nothing in Bosnia ever happened quickly.
After a long silence the woman leaned forward and cleared her throat. With that she mechanically rattled off a list of documents and translations that Ana and I would need if we were to be married. The most important was a letter from the American Embassy, in the Holiday Inn, confirming my citizenship and marital status.
There wasn’t a minute to lose. We had forty-eight hours to get the paperwork and organize a wedding before I met Damir at the tunnel Wednesday night. It might be my last chance to escape. We had learned from Nina, his girlfriend, that he was being transferred from the tunnel soon.
There was shooting in the plaza and around the Holiday Inn. Bullets flew thick and heavy as we neared Saint Josip’s at the edge of the plaza. A dozen or more people were pinned down behind the church. Along sniper alley French and Ukrainian peacekeepers cowered behind vehicles, unable or unwilling to return fire. High above the valley, floating like a vulture in the afternoon sun, a NATO warplane circled impotently.
Ana wished to get Dom Luka’s blessing for our civil ceremony, but the fighting made it too risky to reach the church. Suddenly she bolted down the alley, hugging the wall. She was half way down the alley before I realized.
Hoping Ana would draw sniper fire an older woman behind the church took off towards the hotel, running awkwardly in high heels across the glass-strewn lot. She screamed as bullets kicked up dust around her. It seemed forever before the woman collapsed sobbing and exhausted behind a car across the road. I started after Ana. Keka quickly pulled me back.
“She’ll be okay. You’re too good a target. You’ll only get killed!”
An old man dodged across the road. A hail of bullets slapped the ground around him. He tripped and went down hard, covering the last twenty yards or so on hands and knees.
I was frantic and couldn’t just leave Ana out in the open. Just then she reappeared, ducking bullets and racing down the alley. She fell into my arms unable to catch her breath.
“Jesus, Ana! Was that worth it?”
Unable to speak all she could do was nod.
I had to get to the Holiday Inn, and there was no time to wait until the fighting subsided. I went around the back of the plaza, using the cover of several apartment buildings. Climbing through a bombed-out store front I made the two hundred yard dash across open ground to the hotel.
Out front a French anti-sniper team arrived with a recoilless rifle. For nearly a minute the gun’s thundering whumpf-whumpf-whumpf filled the plaza. When it was over the sniper fire had ended. Some poor lout had just been blasted to pieces, but his comrades had doubtlessly retreated to look for new hiding places. I hoped to make it back before the shooting started again. Already there was new shooting near the Brotherhood and Unity Bridge.
It was dark and cool inside the hotel. The place was empty, as usual. A few journalists kept to the shadows and relative safety of a small bar at the back of the cavernous lobby. Bosnian snipers were firing across the river into Grbavica now. The gunfire reverberated with muffled, hollow reports, like the dull throbbing of a kettledrum.
I hated it there. The hotel was a monument to the hypocrisy of war. The Serbs left the place more or less alone, despite that nearly every other building in and around the plaza had been destroyed or heavily damaged. The upper floors were gutted, and the Serbs took occasional pot shots at the front of the building to rattle and warn the foreign Press and diplomats who stayed there.
The Holiday Inn had always had something of an unsavory reputation. The squat yellow and peach building looked as if it had been dropped by accident among some of Sarajevo’s best known and most beautiful architecture. There were rumors that the owners had made some arrangement with the Serbs and local mafia. The relatively cosmetic damage to the place only tended to bolster its nefarious reputation.
The American delegation to Bosnia was on the third floor. It was called an embassy, but only in the loosest possible terms. Next door to the embassy the Newsweek correspondent, a rather miserable looking fellow, was working on a story. A Bosnian guard slept in a chair in front of the embassy. A fully loaded assault rifle threatened to spill from his lap. I quietly slipped past the guard into the embassy, surprising several intelligence officers who scattered quickly as I entered. A tall blond diplomat stepped forward, blocking me until they were gone.
“Dave Johnson(not his real name), First Secretary.” he said with all the sincerity of a used car salesman. He listened impatiently to my story. “So, you’re getting married. Fantastic! That’s just great. No problem, we can give you whatever you need.”
As he spoke Johnson guided me back towards the door.
“Oh, and they also need something that says I’m not married back in the States,” I said.
“Oh,” Johnson winced. “That might be tricky, if not downright impossible. Tell you what, let me call out consular office in Zagreb. We’re nothing here, just more or less a liaison office.”
I waited while he placed a call to the embassy in Zagreb Croatia. He returned a minute later with the bad news. Sure enough the only way to get proof about my current marital status would be back in Chicago. I sighed, wondering if there wasn’t some other way. Johnson apologized and said it was really out of his hands.
“You might try asking the Bosnians to forego that requirement,” he offered. I nodded
“But I can get the citizenship paper?” I asked.
“Just tell me what you need and I’ll have it typed up for you.” Johnson flashed a broad Ivy League grin and deftly guided me out into the hall. “I wish you luck, though. Let me be the first to congratulate you.”