The siege of Sarajevo began 21 years ago today, setting a world stage that would ultimately change my life in profound ways. Now I say that understanding only too well that millions of lives were changed, altered, ended and destroyed. I carry their voices. I carried them in my memoir of the war, “Everything for Love.” Below is an except from the book, recalling my first trip to the besieged city. Suleman haljevac, the 11 year old son of close friends, Nadja and Hasan Haljevac was my ad hoc guide to the city…
I liked Hasan. He was a strange character, an odd mix one could only find in a place like Bosnia, where history and ethnicity were worn like robes on a priest. At once I found an oriental pride, the reservation of a man who had lived under Communism and the independent tradition of the non-aligned nations. He was philosophical and deliberate, educated and unsophisticated all at once, but it was Nadja and her art that I was most taken by.
A lifetime of Nadja’s artwork had been lost when the Serbs burned their home. What remained were several small pieces she was able to save before the attack. In them figures swam in ethereal splashes of primary color. It was as if colors were the soul, pulling free of those struggling and unwieldy bodies. It seemed to me a perfect parable about the siege and the souls trapped by their bodies in the city, or perhaps the negotiation between a traditional Bosnian wife and a liberated artistic woman.
That day Sulejman gave me a tour of the city, or rather what was left of it. A weather front was moving in, swathing the mountains and Serbian guns in thick clouds. The gloomy weather suited the city and helped to coax its beleaguered population out of their hiding places. In some strange way Sarajevans rejoiced in the gloom as a respite from the shelling of the last two years. Not that they weren’t wary. It wasn’t quite a month since a Serbian shell had slammed into the central Markale market square, killing sixty-eight people instantly. Everyone kept an eye and ear to the hills. At the Radnik theater on Djure Djakovitca Street a sign warned of snipers
Sulejman and I took full advantage of the weather and went up to a small highway overpass. It would have been suicide to stand there if not for the weather. We leaned on the rail and looked out across the city’s central cemetery. The mounds of thousands of war dead had overgrown the original cemetery grounds to fill the hillside and an adjacent soccer pitch. The graves were laid out uniformly, like some outlandish sculpture by the artist Christo, like a shroud over Berlin’s Reichstag or a thousand giant umbrellas along the Pacific Coast. I had no feeling for them.
Six thousand graves lay before me. Another four thousand or so were scattered around the city. That didn’t include thousands more who were missing or filled mass graves around the valley. Each of those graves held a soul that once had their own understanding of fate and love and self-importance. I looked out across the hillside. To show outrage or disgust would have been a lie. If anything, the sheer weight of Sarajevo’s dead threatened to drive me insane, that is, if I dwelt upon it too long. It was rather like trying to understand what forever really means. There is a limit beyond which the mind can no longer stray. Given the choice between insanity and nothing my mind thankfully chose the latter.
“What do you think of all this?” I asked Sulejman as he picked at peeling bits of paint at the railing.
“It’s shit,” he said, deadpan. “Real shit.”
I came to love that family those few days in Sarajevo. It wasn’t out of pity or sympathy, but because they were real people. They were good people, and if anyone was to be pitied it was me. As a fool I had stumbled into Sarajevo without knowing a soul. I might have been lost, but they took me in and showed me love in a place not known for such things. As I packed the last of my gear that final day Sulejman begged me to stay longer. Nadja was fighting tears as she leaned at the door. I was already missing my arguments with Hasan. It was, in a very real sense of the word, like leaving home.
Everything for Love is available on line @ http://www.amazon.com/Everything-For-Love-Memoir-And/dp/1440132925/ref=sr_1_fkmr1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1365178564&sr=1-1-fkmr1&keywords=everything+for+love%2C+wc+Turck
Please say a prayer for the victims, survivors and their loves ones. Please say a prayer for peace.
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