There was shooting in the plaza and around the Holiday Inn. Bullets flew thick and heavy as we neared Saint Josip’s at the edge of the plaza. A dozen or more people were pinned down behind the church. Along sniper alley French and Ukrainian peacekeepers cowered behind vehicles, unable or unwilling to return fire. High above the valley, floating like a vulture in the afternoon sun, a NATO warplane circled impotently.
Ana wished to get Dom Luka’s blessing for our civil ceremony, but the fighting made it too risky to reach the church. Suddenly she bolted down the alley, hugging the wall. She was half way down the alley before I realized.
Hoping Ana would draw sniper fire, an older woman behind the church took off towards the hotel, running awkwardly in high heels across the glass-strewn lot. She screamed as bullets kicked up dust around her. It seemed forever before the woman collapsed sobbing and exhausted behind a car across the road. I started after Ana. Keka quickly pulled me back.
“She’ll be okay. You’re too good a target. You’ll only get killed!”
An old man dodged across the road. A hail of bullets slapped the ground around him. He tripped and went down hard, covering the last twenty yards or so on hands and knees.
I was frantic and couldn’t just leave Ana out in the open. Just then she reappeared, ducking bullets and racing down the alley. She fell into my arms unable to catch her breath.
“Jesus, Ana! Was that worth it?”
Unable to speak all she could do was nod.
I had to get to the Holiday Inn, and there was no time to wait until the fighting subsided. I went around the back of the plaza, using the cover of several apartment buildings. Climbing through a bombed-out store front I made the two hundred yard dash across open ground to the hotel.
Out front a French anti-sniper team arrived with a recoilless rifle. For nearly a minute the gun’s thundering whumpf-whumpf-whumpf filled the plaza. When it was over the sniper fire had ended. Some poor lout had just been blasted to pieces, but his comrades had doubtlessly retreated to look for new hiding places. I hoped to make it back before the shooting started again. Already there was new shooting near the Brotherhood and Unity Bridge.
It was dark and cool inside the hotel. The place was empty, as usual. A few journalists kept to the shadows and relative safety of a small bar at the back of the cavernous lobby. Bosnian snipers were firing across the river into Grbavica now. The gunfire reverberated with muffled, hollow reports, like the dull throbbing of a kettledrum.
I hated it there. The hotel was a monument to the hypocrisy of war. The Serbs left the place more or less alone, despite that nearly every other building in and around the plaza had been destroyed or heavily damaged. The upper floors were gutted, and the Serbs took occasional pot shots at the front of the building to rattle and warn the foreign Press and diplomats who stayed there.
The Holiday Inn had always had something of an unsavory reputation. The squat yellow and peach building looked as if it had been dropped by accident among some of Sarajevo’s best known and most beautiful architecture. There were rumors that the owners had made some arrangement with the Serbs and local mafia. The relatively cosmetic damage to the place only tended to bolster its nefarious reputation.
The American delegation to Bosnia was on the third floor. It was called an embassy, but only in the loosest possible terms. Next door to the embassy the Newsweek correspondent, a rather miserable looking fellow, was working on a story. A Bosnian guard slept in a chair in front of the embassy. A fully loaded assault rifle threatened to spill from his lap. I quietly slipped past the guard into the embassy, surprising several intelligence officers who scattered quickly as I entered. A tall blond diplomat stepped forward, blocking me until they were gone.
“Dave Johnson(not his real name), First Secretary.” he said with all the sincerity of a used car salesman. He listened impatiently to my story. “So, you’re getting married. Fantastic! That’s just great. No problem, we can give you whatever you need.”
As he spoke Johnson guided me back towards the door.
“Oh, and they also need something that says I’m not married back in the States,” I said.
“Oh,” Johnson winced. “That might be tricky, if not downright impossible. Tell you what, let me call out consular office in Zagreb. We’re nothing here, just more or less a liaison office.”
I waited while he placed a call to the embassy in Zagreb Croatia. He returned a minute later with the bad news. Sure enough the only way to get proof about my current marital status would be back in Chicago. I sighed, wondering if there wasn’t some other way. Johnson apologized and said it was really out of his hands.
“You might try asking the Bosnians to forego that requirement,” he offered. I nodded
“But I can get the citizenship paper?” I asked.
“Just tell me what you need and I’ll have it typed up for you.” Johnson flashed a broad Ivy League grin and deftly guided me out into the hall. “I wish you luck, though. Let me be the first to congratulate you.”
Ana was less than pleased with the news from the embassy. Back at Opshtina the woman was less than sympathetic. She refused to budge on the marriage document. We could not get married without it, she said. Ana sank in her chair, utterly dejected.
“Of course,” the woman said cynically, “there are other ways to deal with a problem if one is creative. Perhaps we might think of some way.”
I knew what she was asking, but I had barely enough money to escape the city. Paying a bribe was simply out of the question. My unwillingness annoyed her. Out of spite she began to rattle off various and steeply inflated costs for paperwork, seeming to take joy in crushing our dream of getting married.
“You won’t have enough to get out?” Ana said, worried.
“It’s all within reason,” I tried to reassure both of us.
“Unfortunately,” said the woman, “there is still the problem with your marital status.”
“Everything is possible with money,” Keka offered. Ana rubbed her forehead, tortured by stress.
“I’m not rich,” my temper rose.
“It is the only way,” said the woman.
“I can’t finance the whole damn war!” I’d finally had enough.
Ana tried to calm me as it all fell apart before our eyes. The woman stood and retrieved a file from across the room. She opened it and handed it to me. It was a file on two British journalists married a month or so before.
“This is what we require. It is the law. You must understand,” she smiled cruelly. “It is out of my hands.” Only when she saw that Ana’s heart was breaking did she soften. “I am sorry.”
I caught up to Ana and Keka outside beside the Ali Pasha Mosque. Ana refused to look at me. I took her arms. The instant our eyes met I knew exactly what I had to do.
“Go home and wait for me,” I started back to Opshtina.
“Bill, where are you going?”
“I have something to do.”
I had one last chance, and it was a long shot. In fact, it was unlikely to work out the way I hoped, but what choice did I have? If it failed I knew that I would lose Ana forever.
I barged into the marriage bureau startling the women there. One of them screamed and hurried to find a guard. The others could do little more that protest feebly as I went to the cabinet and pulled out the marriage file on the British journalists. In an instant I had it open and had my journal out.
“You must leave here or we will have you arrested,” one woman complained. I ignored her and quickly copied the citizenship document.
“One document can say both things?” I asked. The blond-haired woman nodded. Johnson at the embassy had already said that I could get the citizenship paper. That was the easy part. Near the center of the page I inserted the line, “In so far as this embassy is aware Mr. Turck is not married.” Nothing about the statement was untrue. I wasn’t married, and the embassy had no idea one way or another. It was a long shot, but it was all that I had.
There was shooting in the plaza again. In fact there was a lot of shooting, but there was no time to worry about it now. I had to get back to the embassy no matter what, but as I stepped from the bombed-out storefront two bullets struck the wall beside my head. I dove headfirst back through the window and crawled up against the wall.
“Shit!” I exclaimed, my frightened breaths exploding in the empty shop.
Every heartbeat thundered in my ears. I laughed, realizing how close I’d come to being killed. Fear was a weight I could ill afford, that is if I really wanted to be with Ana, but it was a weight that kept me from moving for some time. I fought it and threw myself into the open, letting blind momentum decide my fate. I was immediately at a dead run. Ahead of me, past the hotel and a Ukrainian APC on the road, death stalked from a thousand empty windows. A rifle shot thundered in the plaza. I shouted and strained to cover the last few yards before collapsing against the back of the hotel.
Upstairs in the embassy Johnson gave the paper a quick review and nodded.
“I’m sure this will be fine,” he said. “We’ll type it up. Why don’t you come back in the morning?”
“Dave,” I said at the door, “do me a favor and get an office in a better neighborhood. Every time I come here I get shot at. I’m starting to get a bad impression of Sarajevo!”
There was a woman I knew in the lobby. Her name was Fahira, an impeccably dressed business-like woman in her mid forties. Her reddish blond hair was flawless, and held in place by copious amounts of hairspray, that must have cost her a fortune to attain through the black market. Fahira was sitting before one of the hotel’s tall windows staring out at the desolation of her city. She was there most days, hoping to make money as a translator, but no one cared about Bosnian much anymore. I sat down beside her, and knew better than to ask her how business was. She hadn’t worked in many months and was growing more discouraged by the day.
“I thought you might have gone by now,” she said, without looking at me.
“Soon, I hope.” I said nothing of Ana.
“I think the war is lost.” She said dully. I didn’t reply. “When the world no longer cares what happens here, when the Chetniks know the world is looking the other way they will come and slaughter us.”
I let the topic go. I was in no mood for politics.
“How is your daughter?”
“She asks for things. What do I tell her?” Fahira pulled a pack of cigarettes from her purse. She counted them and thought better of having one. She put them away and huffed. “I think that I have ruined her. When everyone else was starving, I could still afford food. We always had money, you know? Now we have no food, nothing. I almost wish that something terrible would happen, then perhaps someone will come and I will make a little money for her.”
I sat with her a while longer, though we didn’t say much. She did most of the talking. I stood and looked out into the plaza. The sun was setting and I didn’t want Ana to worry.
“Well,” I said, not looking at her, “good luck to you.” Fahira nodded slightly and looked off across the plaza.