It grew a little colder each day. Winter would deep snows that would close the Igman road until spring, and I was not at all prepared for winter. It was unthinkable that I would become a burden on those struggling to survive themselves. The previous March I had been allowed to leave because of my UN Press credentials, but more and more my chances for leaving Sarajevo easily looked increasingly bleak. Indeed, leaving was beginning to look more and more like an escape.
I was the shivering that woke me sometime before dawn. Despite layers of blankets, an extra sweater and two pairs of socks I was still freezing. A dim gray morning light bled through the blankets covering the windows. I could see that everything in the room was covered with a fine later of frost.
I could hear the family in the next room. Nadja said something about lighting a fire before they all froze. Hasan worried about wasting what little precious wood they had before winter set in. The dog yelped and Sulejman giggled.
A thick blanket of fog had settled over the valley overnight, silencing the haters in the hills and deepening the unnatural silence of the city. I was to meet Ana for Catholic Mass at Saint Josip’s in the plaza. The church was literally a stone’s throw from Hasan’s, but in the dense fog, or Magla, it was impossible to see. For the first time since coming to Sarajevo I crossed the street without fear of snipers.
The nine o’clock Mass was just letting out. In ones and twos, like soldiers keeping battle intervals. People and families hurried from the church, down the steps and quickly disappeared from sight. A children’s choir voices beckoned from inside. I reached for the handle of the heavy wooden door just as a shot rang out. I pulled at the door in a panic, surprising an elderly woman who nearly topped down the steps. Before I could apologize she was gone.
The choir was singing beside the candle-lit alter. Their voices fell like silver in the cathedral. The candlelight painted their long robes the color of warm butter. The image of the crucified Jesus looked down upon them from the domed ceiling. Shell fragments had pierced Jesus’ body, adding to the anguished expression. At the edge of the alter Dom Luka, the strikingly handsome parish priest, was chatting with several old women. As they hurried along the center isle the women tittered like schoolgirls over the handsome priest.
The gunfire became more persistent as the fog began to lift. I went out onto the street to be sure Ana was safe, alarmed now to find that I could already see across the wide boulevard to the lowest floors of the parliament building. If ever there was a time that Ana should be on time, I thought, it had better be today.
I took cover in a doorway beside the church. An old man struggled up the steps, tottering on a bad hip. His expression was resigned. Nothing could make him move any faster. As if to underscore that fact a shot rang out from the hillside. He only shrugged and teetered up the steps. Ana heard the shot too and was running along the wall of the church when I spotted her. Leaping from the door I grabbed her arm and pulled her quickly inside.
“I’m sorry,” she fought to collect herself. “We got water today. I got here as quickly as I could.”
“I was worried.”
The church was almost empty, with a couple dozen worshipers at most. We found a pew near the center and knelt to pray. In the gentle light Ana looked like an angel. Her eyes were on Dom Luka as he began Mass. Ana smiled and squeezed my hand.
“Do you come here often?” I whispered.
“I come here to think sometimes.”
“Before the war too?”
“I bet it was even more beautiful then, huh?”
“Sshh, Bill, you talk too much.”
I never had much room for God. Not that I didn’t believe. Only a fool could completely discard the possibility in something greater and more deliberate than himself. But unquestioned belief always seemed like a weakness, a concept forged from desperation and despair. It seemed a drug or a relic to our primitive past, but at that moment I could not dismiss the existence of God. I could not escape the feeling that I had been brought to Sarajevo to find Ana. Every misstep now seemed to have been foretold. Every chance meeting that carried me through the war seemed predestined. And while my logical side eschewed such things, another part, much closer to the heart, could not deny them.
The fog had lifted by the time Mass ended. The peace it brought was replaced by gunfire, enough that we left through the back of the church. Ana and I ran for a block before it was safe to stop. She fell against me, battling for breath.
“Getting tired of doing this all the time,” I panted.
“Think how I feel after two and a half years.”
“When do you start getting use to it?”
She laughed with frustration. “Never.”
We took our usual table at the Opera café on Branilacha. Sunlight poured through the windows. It helped to warm the place. Ana and I sat close, our knees touching under the table. It was enough to sit there quietly and let the time run away. I was drowning in the moment, suspended in her vision, but dying with the knowledge that one day it would seem hardly more than the blink of an eye. Ana was thinking the same. It was unmistakable in her eyes.
I wanted to buy some meat for Nadja to cook for supper. It would be a rare treat, something they could little afford for themselves. We went first to the indoor meat market. It was easy to find during the war. One only had to follow the flies, or stray dogs, for follow the stench of rotting meat until it was absolutely unbearable. It was across the road from Markale, a pale yellow building with high glass windows that rather resembled an old barn. The place had survived two world wars, but was crumbling from the war and fifty years of Communist neglect.
It was crowded inside. The floors were slick with blood and bleach and water. No one was buying anything, even if they had the money. Many of the sellers were nefarious, and only slightly less putrid than the bleached carcasses before them. They stood off from their tables sizing up victims like a ravenous pack of wolves. Ana steered clear of them, finding by some unknown formula the few legitimate sellers. Most often these folks sold goat or rabbit or lamb, animals that could be raised in an apartment, that were better quality and better prices. Real Sarajevans, she pointed out, looked as if their city was being stolen from them. The rest looked as if they were the ones doing the stealing. At one table a desperate looking fellow tearfully begged to trade a hand full of gold jewelry from a skinny rabbit carcass. The seller, who, by contrast, looked a bit over-fed, was unimpressed.
“Cash only!” he snapped. “Dollars or Deutsch Marks.”
“But you can sell this for much more paper money than you could get from that measly rabbit,” the man pleaded.
“Sell it to who? Now fuck off!”
“Must be a refugee,” Ana mentioned in passing. Her expression was cold, but there was pity in her eyes.
“So what happens to people like him?”
“If he has some family then there is hope. Many come and find their families have gone or are dead. A lot will not live through the winter. A few will try and steal someone else’s place. That’s why mom is always at home, so no one can claim that it was abandoned.”
“They can do that?”
“They do that.”
“And the police would just stand by and let something like that happen?’
“They have their own problems, like catching deserters, saboteurs, enforcing the curfew and looking after their own families.” She stopped and looked at me the same way a parent looks at a precocious child. “You are holding onto civilization as you know it, but none of that is relevant here. This is like the end of the world, without laws: anarchy.”
I followed a few steps behind Ana. Even after some time in the war I still looked like an outsider. I still did not have that sense of despair or exhaustion, at least not to the same level as Sarajevans. I had no real acumen to understand the myriad scams blackmarketeers concocted to suck the most amount of money from starving people. They put cement in flour, sawdust in grain and pebbles in beans, stretching out their goods for an extra Mark here or an extra Mark there. Ana had a system for figuring out which sellers were honest and which were filthy. She would study their faces from a distance, watching what they did with their hands, the way their eyes devoured the crowd and the way they shouted at passers by. After we had gone completely around the place Ana pulled me aside and shook her head.
“Many of these people are primitives. They rely that we are fools. Many of the chickens are as starved as we are; skin and bones. They were washed with bleach to make them look clean, but they are rotted underneath. Don’t buy meat here, it really isn’t safe.”
I suggested we go across the street to Markale. Ana said she didn’t like the idea, but I insisted, telling her I really want to do something nice for Nadja and the family. Ana was terribly apprehensive. There was a huge crowd in the market, just as there had been the day of the massacre. It didn’t help that there was shelling to the north of the city.
“I don’t like this.” There was a look of terror in her eyes.
“It will be all right,” I tried to reassure her. “We’ll be in and out quickly.”
“I have a bad feeling,” she said. “This is how it was the day of the massacre!”
“The longer we argue the longer we’ll be here.”
She agreed, but only after realizing I wasn’t going to take no for an answer. As we reached the market Ana’s anxiety began to affect me as well. The shelling to the north seemed much closer. The shooting in the plaza, nearly a mile away, sounded so much closer.
I broke into a cold sweat and had a feeling of being trapped by the mass of people. Wind rushed along the narrow street and through the square, sounding for an instant like the whistle of a falling shell. Every muscle tensed, awaiting the flash and furnace heat of a blast, of shrapnel, tables and body parts turned into lethal missiles. I all but forgot about the chicken and only wanted to escape from the square.
“Bill, wait,” Ana grabbed my sleeve and led me to a table with several freshly slaughtered chickens. They were small and expensive, but at least they were of decent quality. A handsome middle-aged woman stood nervously behind her little wooden table. She had one eye to the crowd and another to the hills.
Ana negotiated thirty Marks for one of the birds. Carefully the woman wrapped it in a few pages of Oslobodjenje, the city’s last remaining newspaper, as though it was a cherished pet. She stared glumly at the thirty Marks and sighed as Ana and I left. Clear of the market Ana and I paused to collect our frayed nerves. We were both trembling. Neither of us mentioned it.
There was heavy fighting all around the city that night. It shook the valley until I pondered leaving early. But I resolved not to be robbed of a single moment with Ana. Her eyes only reflected my desire as I lifted her face and let my lips play lightly against hers. At that moment nothing, not the war or the threat of arrest mattered. When we found the strength to tear ourselves from one another it was well past curfew.
“I don’t want to go,” I told her at the door.
“I know, but you must.”
I touched her flushed cheeks and drew her to me for one last kiss before she closed the door. I stood on the street for a moment looking up at her window. Ana appeared a moment later. I wanted to shout up to her, tell her that I loved her more than life. She seemed to sense that I wanted to speak but motioned for me to be quiet. I remembered the policemen on the corner and nodded.
Much of the fighting had stopped by the time I reached the stairs above the plaza. Sniper fire popped and crackled all along the river. I paused and looked out across the city to Igman. A ghostly layer of smoke hung over the city neatly dividing earth from sky. In the moonlight I almost believed it was possible to simply walk across it out of the city. I took the stairs quickly, alarmed at how exposed they were to the Serb lines now that most of the leaves had fallen. Several shots rang out. I bounded down the last dozen our so steps to the street.
There were Bosnian sentries ahead. I knew they would give me trouble, especially on a night with so much shooting. I swore under my breath and dodged into a doorway until they were gone. I sprinted across an exposed intersection when ZIP-POP-CRASH, a sniper’s bullet ricocheted off the curb and shattered a window above my head. It was well past time to leave the city. The longer I remained in Sarajevo it was only a matter of time before a bullet or shell found its mark.