This month marks the 20th anniversary of the end of the Siege of Sarajevo and the Bosnian War. This is an excerpt from my book, Everything for Love, a memoir, available at Barnes and Noble and Amazon.com:
The fog had lifted clear to the edge of town, and the guns began to awaken across the valley, coming closer and more sustained. Another half hour and nothing would be able to move on the mountain without drawing fire. I climbed the last few yards to the road and threw off my pack with a groan.
The fog lifted just as I reached the tree line. It was a short climb to the clearing into bright warm sunshine. Several mountain warriors chatted near the center of the clearing. To the right of the clearing an elderly couple was preparing a modest winter shelter from logs and heavy plastic. A piece of cardboard was tacked to a tree. It read “Kafana.” They had a good fire going. Fat logs crackled and popped. The scent of cold pine and wood smoke awoke my senses. Vehicles were already gathering among the trees above the clearing. The soldiers waved me over as if I was a neighbor.
The soldiers were local guys from the mountain. Two of them were young enough that I thought the third might be their father. “Dad” looked my passport over curiously. He was most interested in the international visas that filled the back of the green booklet. He winked mischievously at the boys and asked why there were no visas for Bosnia.
“This is a sovereign nation,” he bellowed, fighting the urge to smile. “You must have a visa or you can be arrested!”
I pulled out a pen and handed it over, also winking at the boys. They laughed as he handed back the passport.
“It’s okay. America is a good friend to Bosnia.”
One of the boys produced a bottle of brandy and we toasted to our new friendship.
“To peace,” I offered.
“What’s that?” one of the boy’s remarked.
“Whatever it is,” I said, and took another swig.
“You came from Sarajevo?” the older man asked.
“Igman is very dangerous now. A lot of fighting.”
“What can I do, huh?”
“Keep the brandy,” he said. “It will help to keep you warm.”
I took the brandy and climbed down to a ledge above the valley. All that remained of the fog were patches here and there. It was gathered around the waist of Hum and among the lower hills to the south. Ana’s neighborhood was still concealed beneath its soupy whiteness. Sniper fire crackled above and below the clearing as Bosnian gunners found targets in the valley. There was little return fire, but enough that I retreated from the ledge back to the clearing.
A white VW Rabbit raced down the mountain and skidded to a hard stop near the soldiers. The driver, a man in civilian clothes and a leather jacket, was fuming and had a murderous expression as he climbed from the car and slammed the door with exaggerated emotion. There was a figure in the back seat. It was a teenage boy dressed in camouflage, his eyes tightly bound with a scarf. The driver drew a pistol and began to rant and rave, working himself up to something.
“Fucking Chetnik!” he bellowed.
I looked in at the boy. His head was cocked at a funny angle as he tried to see beneath the scarf. Along with a lock of his long brown hair, the rag hid a nasty welt under one eye. His expression was empty, like a man who knew he was already dead. An old man rapped his cane hard against the window causing the boy to jump with fright. The old man flashed a filthy, toothless grin and drew a finger slowly across his throat.
“He looks familiar,” someone said.
“Teshalovich,” the driver checked a round into the pistol.
“I knew a Teshalovich once,” someone else remarked, “from Trnovo.”
“Trnovo?” inquired the old man.
“I don’t know if he had a son.”
“Fuck him,” another spat.
The driver’s anger flared. “I have a mind to put a bullet in his fucking skull!”
Someone motioned to me. “We, uh, have a visitor. An American.”
“Sranje!” The driver glared in my direction. “And fuck him too!”
Spitting in my direction the driver yanked open the door and began to drag the Serbian kid from the car. I felt sorry for the kid and felt sure he was about to die. I thought of the two girls in the neighborhood the night before, more than ten thousand dead in the city and Ana. A part of me pitied the boy the way I might pity a drowning rat. I pulled my camera and backed away from the scene. Someone saw the camera though, and the driver warned, in no uncertain terms, against taking a photo.
“Mother fucker!” he screamed and shoved the kid back into the car.
As the car sped off something had happened to the men in the clearing. They were different to me, and from that moment they hardly acknowledged me at all.
I couldn’t bring myself to worry about the kid. There were more important concerns. As the sun set behind Igman the temperature dropped dramatically. The wind howled through the trees stabbing through my wet clothes. I stomped and worked my arms to keep warm. Before long all I could think about was the cold, and began to fear that I might die on the mountain.
The fire at the edge of the clearing had been doused to keep from drawing artillery fire. The first stars were splashed across the darkening sky. As night fell soldiers passed back and forth from the lines. Trucks moved into place and then started down into the valley. The thunder of Serb shells falling on the road shook the mountain.
“Imate li cigareta?” a passing soldier asked. It was a simple enough question, right out of my Serbo-Croatian phrase book. It was a question I had heard a thousand times in the Balkans, but my mind was so muddled by the cold that I could only stare dumbly.
“Imate li cigareta?” he said once more, with emphasis.
“English?” I managed to say, shivering so badly I could barely get the word out.
“You look terrible,” he said in decent English. His name was Zhijad, an average looking sort, with wavy dark hair. He wasn’t much older than I, but pipes of gray hair at Zhijad’s temples betrayed the hardships and horrors of the war.
“I’m freezing,” I stammered.
“You must get off this mountain. It might snow tonight. You’ll freeze for sure.”
“I could sure use some help. I’m Bill. We shook hands. His hand was so warm I hated to let go.
“Sometimes cars come to drop people off, or meet them. You must watch and be clever. You have some money?”
“Only a little.”
“Everyone needs money here.”
“I’ll make a deal with you,” I began. “If I find a ride I’ll take you. If you find one…I’ll pay our way. Deal?”
Snow tumbled in the air. My clothing had begun to freeze in places, sticking to my flesh. The parade of men and equipment seemed unending. I studied their faces, seeking any way possible to divert my mind from the cold. I wondered over the reasons each man had stayed to fight, when so many others had gone. Was it simply about loss? There was no one in Bosnia who had not lost someone close. Some had lost more than others, and too many had lost everything. Did they fight out of patriotic duty, or for some other deeply personal reason? In the end war was always about revenge.
Zhijad was all I had in the world at that moment. Without him I was at the mercy of the killing cold. He encouraged me to keep talking and to keep moving, anything to stay warm, but it did little good. My words slurred as though I was drunk, and I would lose track of thoughts mid sentence. Before long I was having trouble making any sense at all. Zhijad held me in a vain attempt to keep me warm.
His face was cut with deep lines of sorrow and three hard years of war. He looked so much older than his thirty-two years. He told me hed had been an engineer before the war, a career; he said longingly, that gave him a decent and purposeful life. Staring blankly at the parade of men and vehicles he mentioned a girl he knew before the war.
“What happened?” I asked, teeth chattering loudly.
“I lost her somewhere,” he replied soulfully.
“And your family?”
“I am the oldest of four brothers.”
“How can you ever forgive after this war?” I asked. I pressed closer to his warmth, but it was of little consequence.
A passing soldier cried in a tone one might use to rally a sports team, “Allah u Ahkbar!” God is great. A smattering of others replied in kind. It was hardly the jihadist sort of zeal some Serbs spoke of.
“It is not my place to forgive or not to forgive,” said Zhijad. He was struggling with every word, against a deeper hatred that screamed for revenge. “That is for God to do. Why all this happened is not for me to say. I use to hate them, the Chetniks, but I don’t have the energy anymore. This war has robbed everything from me. Everything is gone, Bill, and all I have left is my fate.”
A feeling of warmth and euphoria came over me suddenly. The world seemed at the end of a dark tunnel, into which I sank deeper and deeper. I wanted to sleep and would have wandered off somewhere if some part of my mind hadn’t reminded me that I was dying. Zhijad saw it too and shook me hard.
He left me and ran to catch a jeep turning around in the center of the clearing. Just as he grabbed for the mirror Zhijad slipped. The front tire ran over his right foot with an awful crunch. As the jeep sped away Zhijad screamed in pain.
“It’s broken, broken!” he wailed. “This is bad, so bad.”
Bracing himself on my shoulder Zhijad tested his weight on the shattered foot. He screamed as it gave out under him.
“We’ll get off this mountain and find a doctor. I’ll help you,” I promised.
“You don’t understand, I must be back on the line in two days!”
“Well, you can’t go on the line with a broken foot.”
“I have no choice.” Zhijad was near tears now. He started to undo the boot. “This is bad. Someone can die because of me. Someone will be in jeopardy because of my handicap.”
He winced as he pulled away the boot and wool sock. The front half of his foot had already swelled badly, while a dark bruise darkened across the top of his foot.
A silver Audi pulled up and dropped a soldier off half way across the clearing. Zhijad was now as desperate as I was to get off the mountain now. Hobbling over he banged on the car’s window to plead with the driver. A minute later he waved me over.
“I found us a ride,” he said. The Audi the driver was already fending off several others, every bit as desperate as Zhijad and I.
“How much?” I asked.
“He will take us for eighty Marks.” It was more cash than I could spare.
“Tell him forty. I’ll pay, but I need a place to sleep tonight.”
Luckily the driver was as eager to get off the mountain as we were, and I seemed to be the only one with cash.
The clearing was complete chaos now. Refugees and soldiers milled about, contained and kept from the road by constant threats from the security detail. All the while trucks passed on their way to the valley; an endless effort to sustain a city of three hundred thousand. Shells slammed into the road below the clearing as Zhijad and I piled into the Audi. I could only imagine the carnage if the Serbs managed to find the clearing itself. Through the trees I caught one final look at the city below. I was thinking of Ana, my heart trying to tear itself from my chest. As we turned into the mountain I could take no more and passed out cold.