The following is an excerpt from Everything for Love:

Damir and I passed quickly through Alipashno, jogging the open ground into Dobrinja.  Despite the fog the Dobrinja was alive with the pop and crackle of small arms fire. I followed a few paces behind Damir, just as he had instructed. He chanced a look in my direction and gave a reassuring nod.

We passed through the first few blocks without difficulty. That luxury was painfully short lived. The Dobrinja canal ran lengthwise through the tortured apartment blocks. Ignoring the fog, the Serbs fired on the approaches of a small sandbagged bridge. The ground was open to either side of the canal. Serbian gunners firing from either end of the canal effectively cut Bosnian territory in half here.

 Damir and I waited for the shooting to let up then made a dash for the bridge. We reached it just as the shooting began again. Bullets sounded like angry hornets slapping into the sandbags along the bridge. A small trench at the far side covered part of the open ground there. The shooting was even worse there, and a number of men clustered at the edge of the trench waiting for the shooting to abate. One by one we made for the cover of buildings forty yards away.

There was a cordon of soldiers up ahead, and more in the vacant windows overlooking the street. I recognized one of them. It was Karlo, the soldier who felt so guilty the night I was arrested in Dobrinja. Our eyes met for an instant and a cold shiver ran down my spine. He was looking at me when Damir pulled up my collar and shoved my head down. I glanced back at Karlo. He turned and walked away.

“Wait here,” said Damir.

He chatted with several soldiers for a moment then waved me over. Before anyone could protest or question us, he shoved me through the line, and kept pushing until we were safely inside the first building of the tunnel complex. We paused and looked back along the street to be sure no one had followed.

“That was too easy,” he said. “Ajmo.”

The building was as dank and dark as a dungeon. We were in a narrow passageway with small windows and gaps every few yards or so. The walls had been stripped to the bare concrete. The floor was a mess of mud and debris. Bullet holes peppered the walls at each window. Dark stains among them told the price of miscalculation. The nearest Serb lines were barely a hundred yards.

The passage turned to the right up through gutted apartment flats. We came upon a long line of ragged-looking refugees. The air was heavy and thick, and filled with the acrid bite of urine and unwashed human bodies. Someone had shit their pants and a woman near me vomited and collapsed to the muddy floor sobbing. Bullets slapped loudly against the building.

This was a desperate place. This was the siege. It was at once heartbreaking and hopeful. It was a supremely human place, and cursed with every human failing. But the tunnel was a constant contradiction. It was here that Sarajevo defended herself on one hand, and defiled herself on the other. Women bartered their bodies and men gave their souls to the devil for the chance of crossing to freedom. The men who fought and died defending the tunnel were a special breed, but everywhere there were opportunists who preyed on the desperate and weak, like rats coming to a carcass. More than anything the fate of Sarajevo depended on this place.

Damir left me and pushed ahead through the tightly packed bodies. By the soft moans and muzzled sobs I guessed that many had been there for many hours, perhaps  days. I could only wonder what that meant for my chances. Damir returned a short time later. I tried to figure my chances from his expression but could not. He pulled me to the side and up against the wall.

“Maybe we wait one hour,” he whispered, “and then we go.”

“I’ve waited a month,” I replied. “I can wait one hour.”

The crowd crept forward a little. Not that anyone was getting through, but rather because of an anxious surge as the fighting outside grew worse. We were cattle, anxiously awaiting salvation or slaughter. Alternately we prayed for both. I looked at the sullen expressions around me and could feel the deadly determination of animal survival stirring in each soul. Each person was making subtle negotiations with their own humanity, each of us fully at the mercy of our individual strengths and fears.

The temperature rose with the crush of bodies. Sweat and filth streaked faces turned to the sooty ceiling for any bit of unused air. Small pockets struggled against one another. A baby cried somewhere. Grown men were reduced to tears. Nearby a woman huddled with two small girls and some bundled belongs. One man succumbed and collapsed against a post. We stepped over him as though he was trash. There was nothing more to be done.

All the while soldiers came and went from the tunnel. I wondered what place the story of the tunnel would take in Sarajevo’s long history. Outsiders had written much of the city’s history, and outsiders were forbidden from getting near the tunnel. Even to Sarajevans what happened there was but a whisper of a rumor, a shadow, a secret that doomed the memory of this place.

Damir’s hour went by, and then another. I was drenched in sweat, my own and that of those around me. It ran under my collar and over my body in slimy tentacles that made the miserable excruciating.

The crowd surged again and was fought back by soldiers. Now and again the soldiers would pull someone out line and push them down into the tunnel. There seemed no rhyme or reason, except to relieve pressure, or if a soldier recognized a face.

Damir was pleading with an officer. The officer was as filthy and haggard as the rest of us. He considered things for a moment then gave a nod.

There was no hesitation. Damir yanked me out of line and shoved me towards the tunnel. I skidded down into the hole and into an open air trench through the remains of an old farm. The ground closed around us as I dipped my head and entered the tunnel once more. Mud oozed from the walls, and the ceiling seemed to sag with the weight of tons of wet earth. Murky brown water sloshed nearly to my knees. I could feel the walls closing in on me. Panic threatened to overwhelm me. I had to stop and collect myself.

“Okay?” asked Damir sympathetically

“Yeah.” I was sweating rivers.

“Six hundred meters. Can you make it?”

“I can make it.”

He went ahead, squeezing past me in the narrow passage. There were sounds up ahead, loud splashing and clanking sounds. More soldiers were coming from the Butmir side, laden with weapons food and supplies. One of them dipped a shoulder and came at me hard, no doubt believing momentum would prevent us from getting stuck. As we ground past one another the muzzle of his rifle smashed hard into my face. It knocked me hard to the wall and I came up spitting blood and bits of tooth. I was still shaking off the blow when Damir shoved me into a little cubbyhole as two men pushed a cart of artillery shells past.

At five hundred meters I tasted fresh air again. It renewed me, and gave me the strength to finish the last hundred meters or so. Damir and I stumbled onto the road outside the tunnel, gulping in clean air. I looked back in the direction of the city. The fog erased the world beyond a small chicken coup. It was almost as if Sarajevo had never existed.

Damir walked with me as far as the dull green Zheljazhnitsa River. The fog was holding, but would not last forever. I would have to continue and find a way to Igman alone before it lifted.

“This is as far as I can go,” he said beside a half finished bridge. “Any father and I will be considered a deserter. Stay on the road to Sokolovichi, then straight across the field to Hrasnica. Remember, to the left and to the right are the Chetnik lines.”

“Damir…” I began. He cut me off.

“Maybe one day we will see each other again.”

“I owe you everything.”

“Nemam nishta,” it’s nothing, he said. “Good luck.”


One thought on “Escape from Sarajevo

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