At curfew she walked with me to the end of her street. There was fighting on Igman. We watched flashes across the dark face of the mountain. There was worry in Ana’s face.
“You must leave soon, Bill.”
I studied her face, mulling over a thought. “What if I stayed?”
“Don’t be foolish.”
“I love you, Ana. What if we were meant to…”
She quickly cut me off. “If we were meant to be together we would have met in Chicago or Paris or anywhere but here.”
I sighed heavily and looked again at the mountain. She was right, of course.
“I talked with a friend the other day,” she said. “He works on the tunnel in Dobrinja. He says that if you can get there he will help you across to Butmir.”
“It is very dangerous, but if you have no other choice.”
The time had come, and I decided that night, as I evaded the police on the way to Hasan’s, that I would leaving the following night. Ana’s friend would be at the tunnel and, with a bit of luck, would help me across. I would go to see her in the afternoon to say goodbye. It would be quick, like tearing off a bandage.
The next morning I returned to the military hospital for the letters Alto and Emira had written for their family on the outside. Snipers were dueling in the plaza. The halls of the hospital were crowded with patients and doctors chased there by the gunfire. Above the frustrated curses of staff, protestations and the moans of the sick and wounded, bullets could be heard slapping against the walls of the building, sounding like clapping hands. I found Emira calming patients, but I might have thought I had rescued her. Grabbing my arm she led me quickly up to Alto’s room.
“Terrible,” she said of the shooting, “much worse than I have seen it in some time.”
The Serbs were putting pressure all around the city, attempting to force the Bosnians to divert troops from the mountain offensive.
“Little boys with dangerous toys,” I remarked.
“You will hate me, but I haven’t finished the letter. I simply have not had time, with all the fighting and new patients. We are overwhelmed, you understand. I don’t think that Alto is finished either. I’m sorry, but if you could return tomorrow.”
“I was leaving the city tonight.”
“One more day, if it is not too much of a problem.”
At least I might have one more day with Ana. “No, it’s no problem.”
“It’s funny,” she smiled. “I didn’t know what to write. Is that crazy? After so long I had a million things to say and to know. I could have written a book, but with all this time passed and only a few small pages, what is most important to say? All I could think to say was ‘I love you’ a thousand times.” Emira shrugged and smiled weakly. “So you’re leaving the city.”
“You don’t sound very happy?”
“I met a girl.” We paused near Alto’s door. The shooting had stopped and he was on his cot working on the letter.
“A girl? That’s fantastic!” Emira exclaimed. “Tell me her name, really you must.”
“Your Ana is a lucky girl,” she hugged me. “I hope she knows that.”
“If she won’t marry you,” Alto quipped, “I will!”
Emira swatted at him playfully, admonishing him with a sweet smile. “You’re mad! Now finish your letter so this poor man can go home to America.”
“I’m not finished yet,” he said.
“It’s not supposed to be War and Peace!” Emira remarked.
“Just war,” Alto replied.
Two bullets smacked the wall beside the window chasing us into the hall again. Alto hopped around on one foot having abandoned his crutches with the letter in the room. As more gunfire resounded in the plaza below he thought better of returning for either of them.
“Ah, jebim te…!” he swore.
“Relax,” said Emira. “Bill will return tomorrow.” She looked at me, her eyes hungry for every detail of Ana. “So is this serious with your Ana?”
“It was all a mistake, Emira.”
“Real love is never a mistake.”
“I didn’t plan on this. Really, it was never my intention.”
“Did you think that one day you would just wake up and say, this is the day I will fall in love? When you return tomorrow we will have coffee and we will talk more.”
Later that evening Ana and I went to see her grandmother downtown. Ghostly white clouds drifted silently above the dark city and broken rooftops. I said nothing about leaving, and Ana seemed to be in no mood to confront that eventuality either.
Ana’s grandmother Angela lived in a five-story building near Bashcharshija. There were no lights in the stairwell. Tall windows on each landing allowed starlight and offered a magnificent view of Trebevich, but also made us targets for snipers. Angela was expecting us.
She appeared on the landing at her door beckoning us to hurry. She greeted me warmly and ushered us inside. Despite her age and the hardships of the war, Angela remained a lovely and refined woman. I saw not a small amount of her in Ana. They were both proud and mannered almost to a fault. A wool shawl was thrown around her shoulders, and there were hints of silver in her curly dark hair. By candlelight her skin had the luster of fine alabaster.
The apartment was small but inviting and warm. The window in the tiny front room held a stunning view of Trebevich and the frontline. Despite the fact that the walls of the building were peppered with bulletholes, Angela’s windows had miraculously remained intact. The room was kept like a museum, with a beautiful espresso colored loveseat, and an impressive library of Bosnian and Yugoslav literature kept under lock and key behind bevelled glass doors. Opposite the windows and mountain, and easily the centerpiece to this magnificent place, stood a turn-of-the-century Austrian writing table.
The walls were filled with original oil paintings by some of Yugoslavia’s best artists. Among them were lithographs and several sketches of a nude girl I felt sure were of Angela done many years before. The candlelight warmed the dark wood of exquisite Austrian antiques. In glimpses it was almost as if we had stepped into another time. There were keepsakes from around the world, and posters that hinted at Angela’s career as a Yugoslav film producer for movies like “Tito and Me,” “A Time for Gypsies,” and “When father was Away on Business.”
I could feel her studying me as we sipped hot tea. She seemed to scrutinize every word and gesture, as if to gauge some clue to my motives. Ana seemed to notice as well, and seemed terribly worried over her grandmother’s opinion, much as she was with Cico. Years of sizing up opponents in the cutthroat system of the Yugoslav Communist Party had made her adept at identifying and neutralizing threats. For the moment I was a threat to her granddaughter. Despite that, I found that I both admired and feared Angela. As if sensing this, Ana would reach over now and then to touch my knee and let me know that everything was all right.
Angela produced a small plate of palachinka, jam-filled Bosnian crepes. She delighted in watching as Ana and I devoured the entire plate. It was, quite frankly, the only substantive food either of us had eaten in days. Angela had gone to great expense to make them.
She usually kept a very tight, indeed miserly, reign on her finances, which were dwindling steadily as the war continued. In the late Eighties, following the death of Tito, as the Yugoslav Dinar began to crumble, Angela wisely converted much of her cash to German Marks. She knew that the cash starved government and corrupt officials would plunder the state-controlled banks. If war broke out the Dinar would be worthless.
We stayed only a short time. Angela begged us to visit her again. She rarely had visitors any longer, and the cold and war had aggravated her arthritis so that she almost never left the apartment. Neither of us let on that I would be leaving soon. We could hardly bear the thought ourselves. We hurried past the windows on the stairs as tracers spit from trenches on the mountain. Down on the street Ana held me tight.
“How did I do?” I asked.
“You were great. She really liked you. I knew that she would.”
A soldier was waiting in the war room when we returned to Ana’s. He was tall and handsome, with broad shoulders and neatly trimmed blond hair. He was still in uniform and dirty from being on the line. He paced the room while his girlfriend looked on with a concerned expression. She was equally stunning by appearance, imbued with the grace and elegance of a dancer. Long golden hair was pulled tightly from her small face. Their expressions were severe and tense. Ana knew why they were there. She checked to be sure no one was on the stairs and closed the door tight.
“Bill, this is my friend Damir.”
I held out a hand but he ignored it. “What has Ana told you about the tunnel?”
“Nothing.” I shrank from his girlfriend’s icy stare. Her name was Nina. She and Ana had gone to school together, and had trained at the same dance school.
“Did she tell you that I work on the tunnel?”
“She never mentioned any names.” I looked at Ana. Her expression spoke of the danger and seriousness of all this.
“Damir,” Nina scowled, “this is a big mistake.”
He waved her off and thought for a moment. “Normally I would not do this. There is a reason that foreigners are forbidden from the tunnel. If the Chetniks learned the location the war could be lost.” He sighed heavily. “However, because of my friendship with Ana I will help you, if you can get there.”
“You understand that if Damir is caught he could be shot,” said Nina. “Will you carry that on your conscience?” She glared accusingly at Ana.
“I will be at the tunnel Monday and Wednesday night,” Damir went to the door. Nina joined him there. His eyes met mine, as though second-guessing his decision. “Do not tell anyone of this.”
They left quickly, Ana and I languishing in the heaviness of their departure.
“I’m sorry for Nina,” Ana rubbed my chest. “She comes off like a bitch. It’s just that she worries for him terribly.”
I nodded. “Do you trust him?”
She looked so terribly sad as she nodded. I sighed and checked the time. It was nearly curfew.
WC Turck is an author, artist, playwright and talk radio host in Chicago. He has been called the most dangerous voice on the Left. He is currently working on a new book “Shoot Down: An unflinching look at the events leading up to the shooting down of Malaysia Air Flight 17.” His first novel, “Broken” was recommended by NAMI for its treatment of PTSD. In 2006 he published “Everything for Love,” a memoir of his experiences during the siege of Sarajevo. He wrote and produced two critically acclaimed plays, “Occupy my Heart” and “The People’s Republic of Edward Snowden.” He works with the homeless and foreclosure victims in Chicago. He partners in a weekly radio show dedicated to issues, society and politics with cohost, activist and artist Brian Murray For more information, past shows, videos and articles, visit www.revolutioandbeer.com