This Month my wife and I celebrate 23 years of marriage…
At dawn a duel began in the plaza and along the river as snipers traded shots. Before long the whole city seemed alive with gunfire. The Serbs, determined to have the final say, unleashed a blistering fusillade. Bullets poured into the plaza as they randomly sprayed buildings. As they slapped against the wall outside my window I dove for cover at the end of the bed. The Serb tantrum subsided only after a furious and unexpected response from Bosnian positions in the Jewish cemetery overlooking Grbavica. By the time I left to explore the city and meet Ana, a short time later, the fighting had ended.
For much of the morning I explored the Mahalas and neighborhoods above Bashcharshija. It was possible to see the entire city from here, a mosaic of rust-red rooftops and dozens of Mosque spires painting the valley floor and splashed upon the hills and mountainsides.
Women struggled to carry water up torturously steep hills. Men brought firewood while children played in shell-scarred school lots. High above the city, trees swathed mountainsides in fall colors. Far to the west, above Konjic and Jablanica, snow blanketed craggy peaks. Sarajevo, like Ana, held a certain indecipherable magic, something no doubt woven among their tragic history. Such beauty and tragedy I knew would haunt me forever, no matter where in the world I ended up.
By noon I was waiting for Ana in front of the art school. I had found a place upon the pile of rubble beside the door. Climbing hills all morning had taken a terrible toll on my feet. With a weary sigh I settled back against the wall and closed my eyes for a moment.
The sun was strong and warm there. I must have dozed briefly, as the next thing I remember someone was calling my name.
“She’s late again, eh?” Ana’s sister, Olja, stood over me. Her face was lost in the glaring sun. “She’s always late. Don’t think that it’s you.”
Olja lit a cigarette and sat on the bricks beside me. I admired the way she sort of scowled at anyone who gave an offhand look in her direction. There was a vulnerable side to her, though, one she didn’t casually divulge. Indeed it was only apparent in fleeting glimpses, and only to the most careful observer.
“So tell me, what do you think of my sister?”
I scoffed. “I can’t tell you that! You’ll just go and tell her.”
“If you don’t then I’ll have to make something up, because she’ll pester me to tell her everything you and I talked about.” Olja smirked. “You don’t want me to lie about the wrong thing, do you?”
“Tell her we talked about the weather.”
“She won’t believe that. Trust me, she will know we talked about her. That’s Ana.”
“And you have to tell her everything?”
“Ha! She’s like the KGB. I’m telling you, she’ll torture my soul until I tell everything. It won’t matter to you. You’ll be safe in America.”
“What would you like to know then?” I asked.
“I’ll tell you a secret,” she said, “but you must promise not to tell Ana.”
“I think that my sister is falling in love with you.” The words hit me like a brick, arousing joy and suspicion. Stunned I only stared at Olja.
“Oh, I am an idiot,” she said. Olja flipped away the old cigarette and reached for a new one. “I should not have told you that.”
I was just about to tell Olja that I felt the same when Ana walked up. She knew immediately that we were talking about her. Ana studied us suspiciously for a moment.
“So what lies has my sister been telling you about me?”
“Nothing,” I replied unconvincingly.
I shared a knowing smile with Olja and stood. Ana leaned and kissed me sweetly on the cheek. She was different to me now, after what Olja had said. Everything was different now, from the light glinting off the cobblestones, to the smoky scent of a caressing breeze, and the distant wail of an ambulance. Every breath, every heartbeat was deeper, more substantial and more resonant. Ana smiled dangerously in her sister’s direction.
“Never mind, I will bleed the truth slowly from my sister once we are home.”
Olja rolled her eyes at that and stood having finished her cigarette. She suggested we go to Skendarija, the old shopping mall beside the Olympic skating rink. Ana was against the idea, but wouldn’t say why. I could see was that the place bothered her deeply, but I hadn’t been there yet and was eager to go. In the end Ana reluctantly agreed.
It was a short walk to Skendarija. Wary of snipers we crossed the bridge quickly, ready to bolt for a line of huge white cargo containers protecting one side of the bridge. There was a French UN outpost between the bridge and the flat gray Skendarija complex. We crossed an open lot to a set of steps descending to the below ground mall.
It was much cooler inside the building. The halls were empty, and dust hung heavily in the still air. The windows of vacant storefronts reminded me of funhouse mirrors. Ana was tense, even seemed angry being there. The further we went the quieter and more distant she became.
Surprisingly several shops remained open through the war. They were filled with fashions and luxuries far too expensive for average Sarajevans to afford, like high heeled Italian shoes priced at two hundred Marks, or fur coats for a thousand Marks, or the silk shirts going for a hundred and forty Marks. It was quickly obvious who these shops catered to, and why it upset Ana so. Only blackmarketeers, pimps, their prostitutes who serviced UNPROFOR and foreign journalists could afford to shop here.
Ana refused to go anywhere near the shops, but Olja made sport of it. Under the spiteful glare of sales girls, she would comment on the cheap quality of goods, or ask incessantly about prices. There was a small art supply store a little further on. Ana set aside her reservations for a moment and went inside.
I followed her among the narrow isles as she hovered over glass counters and things she could only dream of. Rubbing the end of a drawing pencil against her thumb Ana remarked how good it was, and that she would need a new one for school soon.
“I’ll buy it for you,” I said eagerly. “Would you like that?”
“Definitely not,” said Ana. She slipped the pencil back among the others and moved on.
“But why not?”
She didn’t answer. Instead she unscrewed the cap on a tube of watercolor paint. “Did you ever work with these?”
“It’s a great medium. Tricky, but once you learn to respect it properly…”
“I always want to use them like oil paints.”
“Part of the magic is that the watercolor resists control. It will fight and frustrate you if you try to control it too much, like a woman,” I smiled.
“Good boy,” she said coyly. “There is hope for you yet.”
That night we sat together on the floor of the war room as heavy fighting raged around the city. She was tense, and warned that if the fighting grew any worse we might have to take shelter in the basement. I held her close enough I could feel the fearful beating of her heart. I’m certain she could feel mine as well.
I left just before curfew, taking the same route back to Hasan’s. I stole from shadow to shadow. Near the train station I could see soldiers and small units moving, but couldn’t say for sure if they were Bosnian or Serbian forces. Infiltrators and thieves used the cover of darkness to sabotage and plunder the city, while counter-insurgency units hunted them. I moved carefully, not wishing to encounter any of them. I hardly took a breath until I was safely inside Nadja and Hasan’s flat.