I always begin bedtime stories to my son the same way: ‘Once upon a time, a long, long time ago . . .’
And he always finishes, because, like me, he is impatient: ‘In a place far, far away . . .’
Every time I fly into Sarajevo, and my plane cruises low over Mount Igman, crushing the thick, grey clouds, I hear that fairy-tale voice inside my head: Once upon a time, in a place not so far away, a city on the river, a city in Europe at the end of the twentieth century, fell under siege.
It was a time of great darkness for the people. Inside the city, which was surrounded by mountains, there was no water, electricity, heating, petrol, food or comforts. Packs of hungry wild dogs roamed the streets, picking up pieces of human flesh. Hundreds, sometimes thousands of artillery shells fell on the once-beautiful city on the river, which was smashed to pieces, and evil snipers perched on hillside mounts, taking aim at women and children running across the street. The soft flesh of knees and thighs was particularly vulnerable: easier to hit.
Surgeons operated by candlelight, or with miners’ flashlights attached on their heads, and tried to keep their hands steady as the artillery rocked the foundation of the hospitals. People burned their books to keep warm and gathered twigs in the city parks. The elderly died in their beds, freezing to death, alone, clutching at dirty sheets. An old man was shot between the eyes by a particularly accurate sniper. He had been chopping wood to heat an old people’s home that was on a front line that everyone – including the United Nations who were there to keep the peace – had forgotten about.
As for the children who came of age during this siege, they learned to live with fear, to comfort their parents during artillery attacks, and to understand madness. Schools stopped and time froze. There were no birthday parties, no cakes made with fresh eggs, no chocolate bars, no Christmas trees for the Christians or toys for the Muslims at Bajram, or play dates or singalongs. There was no future and there were no dreams.
And no one came to save these people, not for a long, long time.
Once upon a time, in the city on the river, 11,000 people were killed, 1,598 of them children. Some 19,000 people were injured and the damages were nearly always horrific: gunshot wounds, amputations and paralysis.
There were so many stories. The young teenage swimmer who lost her breast. The boys who loved soccer who lost feet, legs. The girl who became Miss Sarajevo dyeing her hair with lye. And there was an eight-month-old baby, Kemal. During the shelling, his mother threw her body over his in an attempt to protect her infant. She died instantly, and Kemal had such a grave wound that his right leg had to be amputated at the knee. Kemal’s grandmother found the tangle of blood and bones and flesh in a field and the baby was eventually evacuated to Italy, separated from his family for five years.
There was nowhere that was safe, because living in Sarajevo was like being in a doll’s house with a giant perched above it, holding great boulders that he would drop on the house, squashing the people, just for fun. Some people decided to defy it, to stay inside for the entire siege, not to leave their reinforced apartments. But even they were not safe: one day, a stray bullet would fly through the window as they were trying to wash dishes with a few cups of water that they had stood in line for hours to get. And then they were dead.
Of course, life also continued during these thousand days, because it had to. While people went slowly mad during the siege, people also fell in love, made love, and made babies.
‘I felt healthy as an ox during the siege, my sex life was fantastic,’ a good friend told me later. ‘I never got sick during the siege. My adrenalin was pumping too high, my immune system was perfect.’
Children were born and baptized. I held my baby godson in my arms at the Catholic cathedral one December morning and he screamed and screamed as water was poured on his head, and afterwards we celebrated with rice, bread, cake and chocolate bars bought on the black market. People married, people wrote poetry, people drank and smoked a lot, and a very few lucky ones died of natural causes. Those who stayed put throughout the siege were bound together by a terrible solidarity: they had survived.
And so I returned, many years after the war was finally ended by a schizophrenic peace accord – fifteen years later to be exact. But the city on the river is not the same. There are new people who made money overseas and arrived after the war, picking at the bones of the city’s skeleton, building ugly blue-glassed high-rise buildings and shopping centres.
There are refugees from eastern Bosnia who can never return home because their villages were burned down and the new inhabitants are the men and women who did it, who raped their wives and daughters and killed their husbands. There are foreign diplomats and their wives. There are people running glitzy hotels, boutiques, casinos, and more mosques than I thought possible, built by foreign money.
And of course, there are the spirits of the dead, which hang for me like the low grey clouds that always float around Balkan cities, particularly in the winter. I see the dead everywhere I go: not just in the enormous cemeteries created out of football fields during the war, but in the cafes where I once sat, in the Holiday Inn where the windows were all smashed by explosions, in front of the parliament building, the library, the old beer factory. I see them everywhere.
Those lucky enough to exit the siege of Sarajevo alive fell into several categories. There were those who left physically intact, and could rejoice, on some level, that at least they were alive even if they had endured days of hell. There were the injured and maimed, who still navigate the streets on shaky prostheses or in wheelchairs. There are those who lost several, or all, members of their family. And there are those who may not show the scar of the shrapnel still lodged in the brain, or the thigh, or the shattered tibia or the jawbone shot off by a sniper, but those whose scars and wounds are deeper.
A psychiatrist in Kosevo Hospital, which stayed open during the siege and operated valiantly without electricity, even when the generators went off, once told me that at the height of the war the city was a walking insane asylum.
Another told me that 90 per cent of the war survivors in the city today had post-traumatic stress disorder.
Another told me to do myself a favour and move forward, forget the past. Say dovidenja, Bosna. Goodbye, Bosnia.
But I want to remember. I cannot help but remember. And so, coming back, flying from Ljubljana in the slick Slovenian jet cruising over Mount Igman – at one time the only exit route out of the siege – I looked down and tried to see the tunnel which had served as the sole route for supplies coming in and out of the city. I scanned the ground near the suburb Butmir, across from the landing strip of the airport, but could not see it.
I began to think of all I had lost, and all I had left behind, and I decided I must try to find – if he wanted to be found – Nusrat.
By the winter of 1993, I was beginning to go a little crazy, along with the 300,000 inhabitants of Sarajevo. The war that everyone thought would be over in a few weeks was dragging on in the brutal Balkan winter. The American flags that some families had hung from their frozen windows when a rumour went around the city that the Americans were coming to save them were beginning to look a little tattered and sad. Perhaps even a little mocking. Everyone was beginning to think the world had forgotten them.
My friend Mario, a poet, who had been caught in several artillery attacks, but survived, saw a woman’s shoe full of blood in the snow one day. He rarely talked, but that day, he told me sombrely, ‘You can kill a life without killing anyone . . . You can take a city, but you don’t snipe people, you don’t butcher people, you don’t burn down villages.’ He began to sob and I sat next to him in his freezing house knowing he was slowly going insane, but powerless to do anything except offer him another cigarette.
My friend Gordana saw a dog running with a human hand in its mouth. My friend Aida said, ‘We are all falling down Alice in Wonderland’s rabbit hole.’ She remembers that first day of war in May 1992: she was walking down the street in her high heels and ponytail on her way to work when a tank came up behind her. As she crouched behind a trash can to take cover, she realized she was entering a new place from which she would probably never return. A few weeks later, Aida was forced to send her mother and her twoyear-old son, Igor, on the last bus leaving Sarajevo for Germany, and they were separated for four years.
‘Down that rabbit hole of the siege was a black-and-white world, and nothing inbetween,’ she remembers. ‘Like Alice’s world. There was a Red Queen and a White Queen. And that is how the madness began . . .’
My home on the fourth floor of the Holiday Inn on Sniper’s Alley had plastic windows that came from UNHCR aid packets. On one side of the ugly, Communist-era room was my flak jacket and my helmet with my blood group taped to it. On my shrapnel-chipped desk was a battery-operated Tandy, a high-street precursor to a laptop, a flashlight, a box of candles, four lighters, a box of chocolates and three bottles of water.
Physically, I was deteriorating. I had grown accustomed to not washing and I wore the same clothes several days in a row. Oddly enough, even though no one washed in those days, no one seemed to smell. Once a week, I bribed the men who guarded the hotel kitchen with a few packs of Marlboro Lights for a pot of hot water, and with that, I would set aside an hour to wash my hair. One night, in a fit of despair, I had chopped off my long thick hair with a pair of borrowed manicure scissors and although I looked odd, it made my life easier.
My view out of the plastic window was of a wasted, gutted city of burnt-out buildings and metal canisters that were used to deter the snipers. It was so cold that my skin peeled off when I took off my layers of clothes. I was living on a diet of chocolate bars I had brought in from Kiseljak – the Las Vegas frontier town that was the last stop before besieged Sarajevo – whisky, vitamins and cigarettes.
To this day, I cannot forget that cold. My internal barometer changed forever. The large, cavernous, Soviet-style unheated rooms where we would interview doctors or politicians; the freezing cold houses where people sat huddled and frightened around an oil stove; the ugly interior of the lobby of the Holiday Inn, where one afternoon I came back to see journalists abseiling down from the roof with ropes. Ice-crusted, breathing out slow breaths of frozen air.
I shivered when I woke in my sleeping bag, I shivered when I climbed out and slipped into the same clothes on the floor, and I shivered climbing back into the bag at night, to read by candlelight. Bizarrely, uniformed maids came every day to make up the beds – that is, to pat down the sleeping bags and to move around the dust. There was not much they could do without water. The toilets did not flush and nothing came out of the taps.
I was mentally fried. Every day people came to me with some kind of request: get me out of here, take a package to my sister, take my child to Germany, give me some money for firewood. There was only so much I could physically do in one day, and when I did not, Catholic guilt preyed on me ferociously.
The worst was the knowledge that I could leave whenever I wanted to, and they could not. My friend Corinne kept reminding me I was not a social worker but a journalist. But for all of us living in that place, that time, it was impossible not to blur the lines.
To compensate, I had little routines that kept me sane, like someone stricken with obsessive-compulsive disorder. One was to visit the morgue, every day. I usually did this in the morning, when Alija Hodzic, a pleasant Muslim man in his early fifties who ran the morgue, was still in a talkative mood. By the time I arrived, Alija would have counted the dead who came in overnight from the front lines and the hospitals, closed their eyes, tried to straighten their limbs, or if there were no limbs, tried to piece together the ravages of an artillery or sniper attack.
‘Everyone else was afraid of the dead,’ he would tell me later. ‘But I never was. The dead cannot hurt you.’
After he arranged the bodies on slabs, and closed their eyes, he would then take out an ordinary notebook and carefully write down the names of the dead. This was important. Alija is a simple man, born in eastern Bosnia, a farmer at heart, but he believed in his job and he believed that the dead deserved some respect, especially during wartime. So he wrote their names, and where the bodies had arrived from, in simple school notebooks. By the end of the war, there was a stack of twenty-four notebooks, some brown, some green, some bound with yellowing Scotch tape.
If the dead had been killed in an attack in the city, he wrote ‘grad’. If they had died after being treated in the hospital, he wrote the unit they came from – ‘C3’ meant surgery. Soldiers were given the names of the front lines where they were killed – Stup, Otes, Zuc – and you could always tell where the fighting was heaviest overnight by how many were killed. There were a few ‘NN’s written down – Nema Imena – person unknown.
Alija did not fear the corpses, he prepared them for their funerals. But his assistant, Ramiz, was afraid. The poor man drank himself into a stupor before, during and after his work simply in order to be able to do his job. Even then, he did not do his job very well.
‘It was no use having Ramiz around,’ Alija said. ‘I might as well have worked alone.’ Once, when there was electricity at the Kosevo Hospital – a rare occurrence – the two men had to go to the top floor to collect some bodies. The power went out, and they were stuck for hours in the small space. Ramiz stank of booze from a binge the night before, or possibly even that morning.
‘I kept asking him why he did it, why he was drinking himself to death,’ Alija says. ‘I did the same work and I did not have to drink to do it.’
But Ramiz looked at him woefully.
‘What can I do?’ he said. ‘It’s a war.’
This was a common expression in Sarajevo during the siege. Every possible question, from ‘Why don’t you love me any more?’ to ‘Why are you cheating on your wife?’ was answered with the same response. ‘What we can do? It’s a war.’ It was a refrain repeated over and over by priests, doctors, soldiers, commanders, politicians, aid workers, mothers, teachers: they all said the same thing: What we can do? It’s a war.
I remember Ramiz well. He was bad-tempered and day by day appeared to grow more nutty inside the morgue, and was certainly always drunk. But he survived. The snipers who aimed at people running across Marsala Tito Street did not hit him. He dodged all the shells that struck the city centre.
But he killed himself a few years after the war, hanged himself with a rope. Alija is not really sure why, but he reckons the alcohol, the memory of those dead bodies and probably a bad love affair finally got to Ramiz.
Some days at the morgue were worse than others. During the first months of the war, Alija remembers fifty or sixty people being brought in a day. There were the terrible days of massacres – the bread-line massacre, the water-line massacre, the market massacres – these were days when people went out to get food or supplies and were targeted, deliberately, by Serbs.
There were days when children were brought in, groups of them. Alija hated those days. That was when the children went outside to play, as happened one snowy morning in 1993, because they could not bear to sit in their apartments any more. You can see the scene: the tired, frightened mother and her children begging her to go outside for some fresh air. So they go, because, really, no one but a monster would send an artillery shell into a group of kids building a snowman.
But they did. Alija was there the day the children came in from Alipasino Polje, the kids who were playing in the snow, and died from it. That was a bad day.
But the worst day of all was the day he came in and found his son, his beloved son, his oldest son, the boy who could do anything, lying dead on the slab. Ibrahim. Twenty-three years old, about to become a father in three months. Alija was late to work that day. He remembered he took his breakfast, some bread that tasted like sawdust, and some tea, and wandered down the hill from his house, avoiding the usual places where snipers could see him.
When he climbed the hill towards Kosevo Hospital, and made his way to the morgue, he saw a crowd outside. What’s this? he thought, getting impatient. What do they want? Then he saw people he knew, some of his son’s friends. It’s Ibrahim, he thought quietly, and went into the morgue. Everything went black.
‘I just passed out,’ he says.
Eighteen years later, I find Alija and he recognizes me instantly. He is retired and now lives on a hill above Sarajevo in a house he once built for his son and spends his days tending to his cows. He is now sixty-four and could have worked a few extra years, but he feels that he has seen enough.
We leave the cows and sheep and go to his house and his wife, whose face is still etched with pain, makes us fresh juniper juice and heavily sugared Bosnian coffee. Their home is full of wood and light and is spotlessly clean. We sit, and we talk, and he remembers everything. The death of his son, that day, that time.
His daughter-in-law gave birth to a little boy a few months after Ibrahim was buried. The little boy is now seventeen. He looks just like his father did, and acts like him, and Alija can sometimes squint his eyes a bit and pretend it is his lost son.
My wartime routine rarely varied. Around midday, I made my way up the hill of Bjelave to the Ljubica Ivezic orphanage. This was a strange and terrible place. When the war started, everyone had run away except the donkey-faced director, Amir Zelic. I did not like him, nor him me, but for some reason, he would let me in and allow me to poke around. There were some days he kicked me out, but most of the time he seemed not to care. He asked me for cigarettes and disappeared.
Sometimes Amir was there, sometimes he was not, but no matter what, the children ran completely wild. Not only were they abandoned or orphaned, but many of them were mentally disturbed by trauma, neglect or learning disabilities. When the shelling started, especially when it happened at night – particularly terrifying, because there was no electricity so they lay in the dark with the whistle of the shells getting closer – they howled like dogs.
There were some older, truly crazed kids there, and one wintry day, they locked me in a room for a few hours and I had to climb out over a transom. If you approached them, they wanted cigarettes, money, drugs and food. They shouted, ‘Fuck you, bitch! Welcome to hell! Whore! Fuck you!’
The little ones seemed to get completely lost in the shuffle. They were dirty, smelly and pitiful. If you tried to hold them, they flinched. I never knew, but I am sure, that there was terrible abuse going on when no one was looking – which was more or less all the time.
To eat, there was rice and strawberry yogurt powder twice a day, which Amir would proudly show me. There were rats, and rain poured through the broken windows. The floors were oily and damp and it smelled. The children slept eight or nine to a room, on piles of rags or clothes. There were no toilets, and they scratched with dirt and lice and neglect.
One day I found Nusrat Krasnic. He was nine, and looked more like a wild animal than a little boy. He was a Roma child (5 per cent of the Bosnian population are Roma) and had dark, matted skin and rather beautiful eyes. He was skinny as a rail, and dressed in thin cotton clothes in the middle of winter. Someone who had left or died passed on his boots, and they were too big.
What I remember the most – and what hurt me the most – was that he wore socks on his hands in the middle of the biting, savage winter.
His mother and father had died during the war, in their house on Sirokaca Street. He had two brothers, and somehow they ended up at the orphanage at the beginning of the war – Amir was not sure.
‘I can’t keep track of these kids, it’s a war!’ he said gruffly when I tried to get information on Nusrat’s family. Someone said his father might still be alive, and I went back to Sirokaca Street and asked around. No one had seen him. The neighbours told me. ‘He’s a Gypsy, they move around. Even during war.’
This is what I know, the only real facts because the police documented little during the war: Nusrat’s mother, Ljubica, was killed when a shell crashed through the wall of their kitchen and reduced the entire house to a pile of rubble.
Nusrat knew the house was trashed, but at least once a week, he tried to get back. He ran away from the orphanage, and made the dangerous trek, crossing front lines and going too close to snipers’ view, to get back home. Once he got pinned down for more than an hour inside a flowerpot on a bridge as a firefight raged around him.
Nusrat knew things, which he shared with me on long cold wintry days when we walked through the city together. He knew about grenatas – grenades – and what size they were. He knew how to jump on trucks and steal humanitarian aid packages to get extra food, and where to sell it. He knew what sniffing glue was, because the big kids in the orphanage did it. At night, he slept wrapped around his dog, Juju.
I forgot sometimes that he was a kid, because he was more like an old man. But he was only nine years old, and he still had it in him to want to play. So he and his brother Mohammed went sledding in the snow by holding on to UN trucks that passed and sliding along behind them.
Once in a while, he took me to the basement of the Hotel Europa, which had been bombed to pieces during the summer of 1992. Before the war, during the Hapsburg Empire, it had been the fashionable hotel for the well-heeled doing a Balkan tour. Once, inside the so-called Golden Visitor’s Book, I found a page inscribed in 1907 in an elegant hand by an ancestor of a Bostonian friend. Mrs HHH Hunnewell. Wellesley, USA. I stared at it a long time. Was there ever a time when Sarajevo was a normal place?
Now, more than eighty years later, the Hotel Europa had lost its elegance – it was like being in Dante’s ninth circle. Luckier refugees found bombed-out rooms and moved their meagre possessions inside, guarding their space jealously. The less fortunate hovered in the basement, which was full of water. Nusrat had some friends down there. An older refugee woman had taken in Nusrat and Mohammed, and tried to guide them, to protect them. But she could not control them: they ran away from her, she could not keep track of their movements, and eventually, she gave up.
The war had turned Nusrat savage. I tried to feed him, give him clothes and shoes, and give him tenderness, but I was aware always that I was temporary. He knew this too, with his animal-like sense, and so he did not get attached to me. I would go one day, and he would be back on the streets. I tried to teach him. Once I sat down with him and a book, but Nusrat had not been to school in a long, long time: before the war. He had forgotten how to write his name.
I left for a month to rest. I went to London and went to cocktail parties where people asked the same question: what is it like to get shot at? I could not enjoy myself, even with the marvel of hot water that ran through pipes. I stood under showers for an hour, till my skin rubbed raw. I ate real food, vegetables and fruit, and went into shops and remembered what it was like to have newspapers and telephones that had dial tones when you picked them up.
But then, I thought of Nusrat, and my friends inside the siege, and I felt guilty. I bought him clothes, and vitamins, and food. But when I returned in late April, when the water in the river was rushing high, and the spring military offensive was underway, and the Serbs were really kicking the shit out of Sarajevo, Nusrat had disappeared.
In the early months of 2010, about the same time of year that Nusrat and I used to run the gamut of the city front lines, I came back to Sarajevo, and I took a room in the Hotel Europa. It’s now called Hotel Europe. Unbelievably, the old refugee centre has four stars and a high-end spa. My room overlooked a pub where slick young Bosnians partied all night without fear of getting shredded by artillery.
I took an elevator to the basement. The place where Nusrat and I huddled in the cold is now a gym with an elliptical machine and a sauna. There is a pool. The breakfast table groans with sausages, eggs, bread, different kinds of cheeses, imported meats. German businessmen crowded the table, stuffing their plates with rolls and honey. It almost hurt to look at the waste, remembering how the people I loved during wartime had hoarded a box of powdered milk, a tin of beef. And I began my hunt for Nusrat.
But no one seemed to know. The donkey-faced director, Amir Zelic, was still there, and he sent me a message through Velma, my interpreter: no Nusrat. Apparently, he had stayed on at the orphanage until four years ago – which would have made him twenty-three when he left – but no one had seen him since. The police had no record of his coming, or going.
But I was sceptical of Zelic, because he was involved in a scandal at the orphanage a few years back. There was a terrible fire and eight babies perished. No one seems to know the details, but Zelic was under investigation and therefore wary of talking to people like me. There were no records, he said firmly. That door was closed.
After the war, nuns from Zagreb came to Sarajevo and restored the Dickensian building to a beautiful white convent with hard, glistening wood throughout. It smelled of lemon oil. The nuns were neat and clean and took care of children in need. One Sunday morning, I sat with one of the sisters and she told me that they have tried to scour most of the memories of the war away, the way you wash a dirty floor. She showed me the neat chapel, the fresh flowers.
But on the other side of the convent, where they had moved the ‘wild’ kids, Amir was still in charge. This too had been renovated. People had heard about the orphanage during the war, and with donor money they rebuilt it and the rooms where the children sleep are now clean and light and full of toys. There is a room of babies, smiling, beautiful fat babies in cribs, with hanging mobiles of stars.
The morning I go to meet Amir, by chance, two men who guard the door tell me they know Nusrat well.
‘He was here last week,’ they said. ‘He comes sometimes for breakfast.’
The last time they saw him, however, Nusrat was in terrible shape. He was homeless, and had taken to begging in the new parking lot in front of the Sao Paola Banka. He spent the night outside, and the men told me they thought he was taking drugs. His brother, Mohammed, who had taken care of him in the orphanage (more or less) had died a few months earlier, from an overdose.
‘He seems very ashamed of his life now,’ one of the men told me. ‘We tell him to come, have a shower, have a meal, but he only shows up once in a while.’
‘When he is really desperate,’ says the other man. They took my cellphone number to call me if Nusrat came back, and they told me where to go to look for him.
I thought of the little boy with dark eyes and socks on his hands. Could I have done more if I was not so burned out by that point? I was stricken with sadness. Then Amir came down and said, as though it had been a week and not fifteen years: ‘You again. It’s been a while.’
‘Yes, a long time,’ I said.
‘Fifteen years,’ he said, rubbing his girth. He had put on weight but otherwise looked the same. He called for hibiscus tea, coffee. A plate of biscuits appeared. He said he had gotten divorced. ‘Who knows why? The war did terrible things to all of us.’
And Nusrat? I asked.
Amir nodded. Nusrat came in from time to time, he said, but he never stayed the night. He had been at the home until he was in his early twenties. The death of his brother had been a blow.
Was he taking drugs?
Amir shrugged. ‘Most likely. I tried to get him jobs a while back, and he failed all the drug tests.’
I remembered the kid who showed me how to hook a hand over the back of the UN trucks and slide. I had lost him, in the same way I had lost my own brother, who died three years ago, because he had fallen through the cracks. You try to save people but sometimes it’s like the Titanic: some people get on the life rafts and others do not. The ones who do get on always feel that they should have done more to pull the drowning aboard. I did not pull Nusrat aboard, and I did not pull my brother. I saved myself.
‘What can you do?’ he said, and I froze, thinking he was going to say, ‘It’s a war.’ Instead he said, ‘We could not save all of them.’
He was looking at his watch, but I asked for the records of Nusrat. He said there are none, ‘and anyway, if there were, they belong to the state – confidential’. He asked me if I wanted a tour. We went up to see the babies, but Amir was in a rush. He would not let me hold any of them, even though they were all so very beautiful.
One day, back in wartime, Nusrat showed me a secret room in the orphanage, a room that was magically heated with oil heaters, and where there were several women in clean white clothes. Inside this room, there were also tiny, tiny babies.
We snuck inside, Nusrat and me, when the ladies were not there, and I held the babies. I sat in a hard wooden chair and, inexperienced with infants, shifted the infants from one shoulder to the next. Nusrat sat on the floor grinning. And that became another of our rituals: waiting until the ladies went to do something else, sneaking inside and holding the babies. They were warm and smelled clean. I began to feel something I had never felt before.
But one day we got caught, and the big woman in a white dress with those ugly white plastic Eastern European clogs they wear in Bosnia kicked us out. She locked the door, and told me if she caught me again near that room, she would tell Amir to ban me from the premises.
Later that day, Nusrat told me a secret. Those were the babies of the Muslim women who were ‘touched’. He meant raped. The women who had been held in rape camps in Foca and other places east of Sarajevo, and raped and raped and raped, until they fell pregnant. An attempt, someone once told me, to wipe out their gene pool.
I found one of those rape babies when she was eight. Marina. She was delicate and ethereal, like an angel. I kept staring at her perfect, tiny, lovely face, unable to imagine that such a child could come from an act so violent. She went to school and had no idea her father was one of perhaps a dozen men who held her mother in a sports hall in Foca and raped her, one after the other.
While Marina was playful and sweet and was told that her father was a war hero killed during a battle, her mother was not so joyful. She was a train wreck of a human being, a shell of a body in a faded tracksuit. Her soul seemed to have been squeezed from her.
She shook and cried, she was full of shame and rage, she took tranquillizers to sleep and pills to fuel her up during the day. She rarely ate. And yet she still tried to protect her daughter, a child she had once wanted to abort because of the bad seed that had made her. But at the last minute, she realized the baby was half hers.
One early-spring day after I see Amir, I go to see Jasna. Jasna was in that hall with Marina’s mother those awful days in the summer of 1992 in Foca, but she did not have a baby. She did not have a baby because when she was raped, over and over, nine times by her count, she was only twelve years old and did not yet have her period. Her mother was raped alongside her on one of these occasions. Neither mother nor daughter could help the other. The little girl screamed at the pain of losing her virginity to a soldier three times her age, and her mother was powerless to stop him. So she just lay there next to her little girl while the man pounded at her and the girl shrieked in agony.
Afterwards, when they brought them back, bloody, to the sports hall, they did not look at each other, and they never talked about it.
Today Jasna is thirty. She is a widow: her husband died three years ago, electrocuted on a job. She cannot bear children; she tried for several years and the doctors told her to give up. Her insides are scarred. She lives alone in a small room outside of Sarajevo that the state provides, but it’s not permanent: any day, she says, she could be removed and then she is not sure where she will go.
She is without a man at the moment, and frankly, she tells me, it’s fine. She says she does not like to think often of the days in 1992 when she was used like a punching bag by the Serb soldiers, or the day her father was taken away.
‘They said: you will see him tomorrow,’ she says. ‘But we never saw him again.’
She pulls out photo albums, and I see a little girl, Jasna, before all this happened. She looks normal, like me at that age. The light has not yet gone out of her eyes. She wears shorts and smiles in a countryside shot. She sits with her younger siblings. She is walking to school. Then the photos stop.
She talks and tries to remember, but it’s a merciful blur. Instead, she smokes, she smokes and she cleans her house. ‘It stops you from thinking,’ she says.
Velma and her boyfriend drive to the parking lot near the Sanpaolo Bank in Sarajevo late every night to look for Nusrat. But they don’t find him. They ask people. I ask people. I go to places he might be. I try to find the old flowerpot where he hid during a shoot-out. When I leave, Velma – who is now in her twenties and grew up in central Bosnia during the war – promises she will keep looking.
I can’t forget Sarajevo, I think, for Nusrat. If I forget Sarajevo, then it seems so much has been in vain. Instead, I go to see the man who knows best about memory, about the endless cycle of keeping track of remembering: Alija, and his book of the dead.
We meet again on a Friday morning, the Muslim day of prayer and first day of the weekend. He’s waiting for me in the early-morning light, in the parking lot of a cemetery past the tunnel where one of the few Bosnian tanks used to hide, draped in camouflage. He’s squinting in the sunlight, wearing city clothes rather than his farming clothes: a neat pair of corduroys, a brown sweater, an ironed checked shirt. He takes me inside the office of the cemetery and a friendly secretary opens a drawer and takes out the books.
There are twenty-four books of the dead, and we begin at the beginning: July 1992, Alija’s first day at work, when he took over the job at the morgue.
His hands, big and calloused, now used to dealing with the hides of his cows rather than the cold skin of the dead, stroke the covers of the books. He sits down, with great and heavy exhaustion, and sighs. He opens the first book, which already, only fifteen years after the war, seems very old.
The books are neat and orderly. He goes through them one by one, telling me about the things he remembers.
‘This was my neighbour . . .’ At another line, he points and drops his head. ‘This was a young girl.’ This was a soldier, this was an old lady, this was from that terrible massacre in the centre of town . . .
Finally, he gets to a page in October 1992. He takes out his handkerchief. He wipes his eyes. He runs his big hands over the page. His eyes blur. ‘And this is my son.’
When we leave, he takes my hands. He tells me not to forget. Never to forget. If people forget, then it will happen again.
I have always been close to the dead. Perhaps it is because I have lost so many people I love: my father, my brother, my sister. Two of my boyfriends died. Several of my friends died reporting war and two killed themselves. One put a bullet in his head, the other hanged himself.
I dream of them all, with alarming frequency. Once, in an especially poignant dream, my father was wearing wrinkled pyjamas. This was unusual because he was an impeccably groomed man. He was wandering the streets, in his pyjamas, looking lost.
You’re dead, Daddy, I said. What are you doing here?
He looked hurt. ‘Who told you I’m dead? I’m just in the next room.’
We are connected to the dead, like the bridges that span the Miljacka River, like the Princip Bridge on which Prince Ferdinand was shot in Sarajevo, commencing the Great War. I think sometimes we never lose the dead. I believe strongly we must never forget them. During the war, I used to read the Anne Sexton poem ‘The Truth the Dead Know’, over and over, as if it had a clue to the insanity that was killing the city of Sarajevo.
… and what of the dead? They lie without shoes
in their stone boats. They are more like stone
than the sea would be if it stopped. They refuse
to be blessed, throat, eye and knucklebone.
Louie was a soldier, and my friend. A tall, thin Serb from Sarajevo who fought on the Bosnian side. He was my unofficial bodyguard, a big brother, a protector. He was never a comforter – too gruff for that – but he was someone I knew I could trust with my life. He says, ‘No one ever touched you during the war because of me.’
In those days, when I would fall into deep despair, out of fear or loneliness or isolation or sorrow, he would take me to strange places with strange people – gangsters, probably – where they had a bottle of whisky. Then we would smoke and drink, and he would say, ‘Feel better? Now go home.’ He would drive me home and walk me to my door. He never touched me, although he loved women.
When I see him now, he is so much, much older. He shakes. He drinks a lot. He carries a sadness that I know you cannot wash away, or scour clean, the way the nuns in the orphanage did.
What is it you saw? What did you taste, what did you smell? Those first days of war when you and your friends tried to hold off the tanks with Kalashnikovs, when you gathered at a factory out near the airport, a small virtually helpless band of boy Davids trying to fight off Goliath – what did you think?
Louie and I return on my last day in the new Sarajevo to all the places of the dead. To the front lines where he fought, eighteen years ago. He has never been back, and at some moments while we stare silently at the buildings where he crouched with a gun, at the factory where the battle raged for more than twenty-four hours, I am thinking perhaps it was not a good idea to bring him back.
‘My nerves,’ he says to me. ‘Now you wonder why I shake so much?’
We stand on a railway bridge in Otes, a suburb of Sarajevo, and he looks like he will cry: we had no guns, he says quietly, we had only rifles that cost a hundred Deutschmarks and we tried to take the guns from the dead soldiers … We look down at a muddy, polluted creek, and I can still see the dead bodies, floating, bloated.
At the Jewish cemetery, the scene of some of the heaviest fighting, where the men fought from headstone to headstone, someone has built a new house. A sparkling Architectural Digest house that leans out over the city heights, with a view of Sarajevo below. It’s someone who was not here during the war of course – if he was, he would not live here, among so many dead, so many lingering dead.
Then we go to Dobrinja. It was a wild place, a suburb cut off from the rest of the city for most of the war, where the fighting was always intense. I remember days of shelling, of sitting with people screaming from fear and pain, of running across fields of snow with soldiers urging me to run faster, run faster, reporter run faster . . .
In Dobrinja – where transporters opened up on the civilians on 4 May 1992 and a loudspeaker urged the people to take hand luggage and leave (not many of the population of 45,000 did), Louie fought hand to hand. He was what they called a defender of the city.
But when we go back, there is a terrible moment when neither of us can remember anything. We go back to the main street – now called Branilaca Dobrinje – Defenders of Dobrinja – but we can’t recognize our old landmarks. We grope like the blind, trying to feel, trying to recall, trying to pull out of our memories what happened.
Instead of a wasted, grey outlay of Communist-style buildings eaten away by tank shells and dead faces, and people running from snipers, there are pizza parlours, a playground, gold shops, gangs of beautiful teenagers smoking cigarettes, a sports hall and dogs rolling in the early-spring sun.
‘My God,’ Louie says. His eyes tear up. ‘I can’t remember anything. I can’t see where we were . . .’ He climbs out of his car and lights a cigarette. He is growing agitated. He is shaking again. He stares and stares at the buildings, looking a little desperate. And I remember what I once asked my husband, who also survived many wars:
‘Did this stuff, this war stuff, fuck us up?’
‘How could it not?’ he answered.
I can’t remember anything in Dobrinja either. I can’t recognize where we once stood together, in the cold, in the winter, in the summer. I can’t remember the tanks. But wait – isn’t that the building I sprinted from with a soldier who was taking me to the front line, holding my hand as we ran? No, it can’t be. And isn’t that basement the old Bosnian Army headquarters? The room where I saw that ancient woman who was dying of the cold? The place where the children were killed . . . the snow banks, the trenches, the sandbags used as defences, the metal canisters . . .
Everything has changed. Everything and nothing.
‘Let’s go,’ Louie says quietly. ‘I don’t want to remember, anyway.’
As for me, I went on to report other wars, but I never fell in love with a place again. Like a first love that breaks your heart, and that’s it: scarred forever.
The city on the river captivated me, held me, haunted me. One day, in a fit of madness, I burned every single notebook I reported the siege on, page by page, in a fire in a friend’s garden. As the pages went up in smoke, I hoped, I thought, I was burning the worst of the memories.
But I did not. I never could.
Once upon a time, a long time ago, in a city on the river, during the month of May when there was nothing to eat but cherries that fell from the trees, I fell in love with a soldier.
He was very young – twenty-one – and still in some ways a kid. When he ran along the front lines near the river, he loped, like a wolf. He was fast, a sprinter, and before the war he was a student of journalism and politics. His eyesight was perfect, and so they gave him a gun and made him a sniper.
It was not the kind of love where you run away together and get married and have children and live happily after. It was an unconsummated love between two people who had fallen through the rabbit hole and gone mad with war, drunk with war. We lived together in an apartment on a front line so vicious that we heard the shells crashing and throbbing, sometimes it was so insane that I thought I heard him laughing and laughing. But later he told me he was crying.
Years later we meet in the new, spanking clean Hotel Europa. He is not a boy. He has a good job and wears a suit. After the war, he spent years abroad, trying to forget. He is a father, I am a mother.
When we hug each other, it is the touching of two strange survivors. But we have the same DNA. On 11 September 2001, he found me somehow, and rang me on my cellphone – I was in Paris getting a visa to go to Afghanistan – and said: I love you.
On my last day in Sarajevo, I tell him about Nusrat. I ask him to look out for him, a beggar in the parking lot who is only twenty-seven but will look a hundred. He promises he will try, though he warns me that perhaps Nusrat does not want to be found. But Jasna wanted to be found, and Alija wanted to be found, I say. Sometimes people want to remember.
He orders another beer and lights a cigarette.
‘No. They want to forget.’ Every war drowns out another, he tells me. Rwanda drowned out Bosnia. Somalia drowned out Rwanda. Sierra Leone drowned out Somalia, Iraq drowned out Israel, Afghanistan drowned out Iraq . . . and so on and so on until no one remembers anything.
Later, I ask him what happened to this city. Why did the people rip each other to pieces? Everyone calls it an ethnic war, or a religious war, but it was neither. It was about politics, greed, land-grabbing, and how it can eat you up, turn you crazy, make you turn on your neighbour. It was about politicians and power.
You should let it go, he says, finally.
He looks distant. He looks remote. He says nothing. He gets up to take his long, black coat. I want to cry, but I don’t.
He cups my face in his hands. He kisses me goodbye. He goes through the door of the Hotel Europa, into the new world, perhaps even more frightening than the comfortable world of the war, and I know he is forgetting and remembering.
Photograph © Christian Maréchal