We hope, we hope, we hope. We hope, because it is the Knight that does battle with the cold and agonizing emptiness that surrounds and fills us. It is that emptiness which, in the absence of hope, is poised to crush and devour us. Only hope, and its cousin, love, defends us. They are comfort to our hearts and a curse to our intellect. They are our salvation and our burden. We need hope to exist, and therefore we drink it in madly. Hope was in desperate supply in Sarajevo, and it was the one thing I was determined to give Ana, but I wondered if it was proper to offer such a thing. It felt like a fertile branch floating upon an uncertain ocean. Was there a promise of approaching shores or of the unrelenting sea?
There were few sights that spoke of the siege as graphically as the hillside cemetery above the soccer stadium. Then thousand wooden markers, ten thousand mounds of earth, ten thousand dead nearly bisected the city. It was a community in it’s own right, if one defines a community by its common bonds and needs. Bound by death, their only need was remembrance, for they had long ago lost the need for justice. New graves quickly overtook the old ones and replaced the grove of tall willow, pine and maple that once shrouded the cemetery. The bones of those older graves lay scattered on the muddy ground. The city of the dead was slowly taking over the places for the living.
I detoured among the graves that evening on the way to Ana’s. I often walked among them trying to find some commonality among them: between them and me. I read the names, if there were any, and the dates of their births and deaths. Some were decorated with curiously personal trinkets, flowers, poems, letters, children’s toys and more. Many were simply forgotten, or were simple mounds with no marker or name.
Near the stadium I found the grave of IRMA GRABOVICA, born 1982 and died 1993. Nearby lay HUSEIN KAROVICH, born in 1938. Beside the grave of twenty-two year old IZET BEGICH were two anonymous graves. Further on PAVO BLAZHEVICH, A Catholic Croat lay beside ZLATIMIR TEZICH, a Serb, and KASIM MEZHUR, a Muslim. Kasim and Zlatomir’s graves were so close together I wondered if in life they were friends.
It was quite dark when I reached Ana’s building. The night was brisk and moonless night. The Milky Way was bright and splashed across the sky. Ana waved from the window and hurried downstairs and into my arms. She was eager for me to meet a friend who had been crippled in the first days of the war. A battle erupted northeast of the city and spread along the lines. Despite the fighting we headed for Bare, a working class neighborhood on the northern edge of the city.
Bare was in a fold two blocks below Ana’s building. It was pressed between a communist-era hillside cemetery and the Serb lines on an adjacent ridge. Ana and I were thankful for such a dark night, as the squat, widely spaced apartment blocks were fully exposed to the lines.
We went quietly, never speaking above a whisper and tensed for the punch of a sniper’s bullet that would come quick and silent. There wasn’t much in the way of cover, just the occasional wreck amid trash strewn empty lots.
“Chetniks,” Ana whispered, “no more than three hundred meters. There is no wind tonight. We must be careful. They can hear everything up there.”
“Who are we visiting?”
“My good friend Cico. It is important that you meet him.”
ZIP! A bullet ripped the air close by. Ana and I were instantly racing for the cover of a nearby doorway. The night fell silent once more, but Ana and I refused to move. We were holding tight to one another. I could feel her heart beating madly through her coat. There was terror in her eyes. Her face, half consumed in shadow, was suddenly pale.
“Are you all right?” I asked.
“My nerves. I’ll be fine. I think it’s safe now, but we should hurry.”
Cico’s building was close. The building was dark, but for the flickering glow of candles through translucent UNHCR plastic covering the windows at the back of the building. We ran until we reached the open door. Ana called up and a huge figure appeared at the top of the stairs. Candle poured light across a man’s face.
Even from the bottom of the stairs I could tell that Marko Markovich, Cico’s father, was a good soul, a beer and pretzels sort of guy. The candlelight painted the map of a difficult life upon his simple face. He leaned over the rail to help light our way with the candle. A welcoming smile came to him when he recognized Ana.
“Hey, Ana! Kako ste? Shta ima?” His rich deep voice filled the stairwell. Woven within was the elation of a man momentarily rescued from despair.
“Nemam nishta,” nothing much, Ana replied breathlessly. “Kako ste vi?”
“Dobro sam,” very well, he nodded meeting us on the stairs. He greeted Ana with a huge one-armed hug, nearly lifting her off her feet. “Ah, the daughter I always wanted!”
Ana introduced me. Marko welcomed me with a big handshake and hearty pat on the shoulder.
“Come, come,” he said. “It’s warmer inside. You must forgive me but I have nothing to offer.”
The apartment was tiny, much smaller than Ana’s. It was cluttered like most wartime apartments, and a bit of a mess, for which the sweet-natured Serb kept apologizing as he lumbered around the place. We found a seat on an old couch. Beautiful red and black Oriental blankets were thrown and tucked over the most worn places. The room had a strange character, as though it was as much a memory of someone that had passed as anything else. There was an air of clumsy preservation, in which a woman’s touch had been staged or recreated. That sense hid at the edges of the candlelight, like a memory fading with time. Ana was expectant, less about Cico and more as if there was something she needed to confirm here.
He said something about the last place being wrecked by a missile, and they had not settled into this place yet. Ana and I shared a smile. Marko was as awkward as a schoolboy with a crush.
“You will have some tea, both of you,” he said, leading us by candlelight through a narrow hall into the living room.
“Please, no,” said Ana. “You have much too far to go for water here.”
“Nonsense. It’s freezing outside.”
“A small cup then,” she relented.
Ana and Cico were friends before the war, but not as close as they were now. They lost touch for a while. It was then that Cico’s life changed forever.
The first weeks of the war Cico was riding in a car with some friends. One of them was playing with a gun when it went off and blew away part of Cico’s left foot. It was a terrible wound, but at the hospital it hardly compared with those missing arms and legs, with guts hanging out or faces shredded. There were dozens as badly wounded as Cico and dozens more that were hurt much worse, with casualties mounting by the hour. What remained of the hospital staff was hopelessly overwhelmed. The best he could hope for was a simple bandage. Infection set in quickly and the doctors did their best to save as much of the leg as possible, but without the proper medicines all they could do was amputate more and more of his leg in a vain effort to stay ahead of the infection. After the last operation doctors told him he should be prepared to lose the entire leg.
I looked around the room and remarked how sad it seemed. It was as if another soul was in the room with us.
“It’s Cico’s mom. You could feel her even stronger in the last place. She died when he was small of kidney failure. She was in terrible agony…I just can’t imagine.”
We could hear Cico on the stairs. He was hollering at Ana for interrupting the best pool game he’d had in weeks. He clumsily negotiated the clutter in the hall on a pair of silver metal crutches. He was tall with thick dark hair and bright playful eyes. Cico had a huge grin on his face. It dissolved the moment he saw me sitting beside Ana. Our introduction was no less awkward. He was very obviously jealous.
They caught up with neighborhood gossip. One girl was a refugee in Germany, and a kid from school had been killed on the line a few days earlier.
There was shelling to the south. The dull rumble drew concentric rings across the surface of my tea. Now and again Ana would touch my leg and ask if I was all right in English. Each time Cico took note. He leaned to Ana.
“Why don’t we hit the American over the head and steal his money,” he smirked in Bosnian. Ana fought the urge to laugh.
“Really?” she replied.
“And why not?”
“Cico, he understands everything you say.”
His eyes went wide with surprise. “Everything?’
“Everything,” she said. He looked sharply at me and blushed as I nodded.
“I, uh, I only joke,” he stammered.
“That’s okay,” I winked. “Ana suggested we mug you if you won big in pool!”
From that moment Cico and I were friends. Ana seemed terribly relieved and went back to her conversation. Gossip was the only real entertainment left in the city, and the scandalous stuff he had about who was sleeping with who was golden. For my part I marveled at Ana and the intensity she brought to every relationship. In her embrace I knew I could forever be safe from the treachery of the world. As for Ana and Cico, what passed between them was rich and pure, and much deeper than simple friendship. For Cico, by the way he looked at her and hung on every word, I knew it was nothing short of love.
Listen Saturday’s from 11am-1pm to WC Turck, Brian Murray with Jack Hammond and guests on Chicago’s real alternative media, AM1680, Q4 radio, streaming at www.que4.org.
WC Turck is an author, artist, playwright and talk radio host in Chicago. He has been called the most dangerous voice on the Left. His new book “A Tragic Fate: is 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