Ana and I in Sarajevo. Happy Anniversary

The sun was a sickly yellow ball suspended in the soupy smoke and haze at the end of the valley. The cold reached out from the shadows of the Austrian quarter. What remained of the day ran as a narrow channel of light along the wide promenade. Further on the Western world gave way to the old Turkish bazaar of Bashcharshija. The line was sudden and unmistakable. Vasha Miskin became Sarachi as neatly laced cobblestones changed to uneven quarry stones. The Western philosophy of anonymous commerce gave way to intimate passageways and narrow alleys interwoven with crooked arteries of small shops and Eastern-style kafanas.

Ana and I crossed from West to East past a cordon of soldiers hunting deserters. Muslim men filled the walled courtyard of the Gazi Husref beg Mosque. Its marvelously tall spire disappeared high above ancient maples shrouding the lane. At the head of the valley, the crumbling walls of the fortress Jekovac looked down upon the city. Autumn leaves fell like snow upon the smooth stones. For a moment any distinction between past and present became irrelevant.

“Such a pretty place,” I remarked.

“You should have seen Sarajevo before the war,” Ana remarked wistfully. “It was so beautiful. We really had everything here. We had the mountains and skiing. In a few hours you could be on the sea. There was opera and Rock music. You could go for Chinese food by the river, see a French film at the theater and stop for coffee in Bashcharshija. And friends… we would all go for parties in the mountains: Serbs, Croats and Muslims. It didn’t matter who you were. None of us had learned to hate each other yet. Guys would play guitar under the stars and everyone would eat and sing and…”

Her words trailed away into some distant and private memory. She looked at me as if something had been stolen from her. “You could be any religion or no religion. We celebrated Hanukah with Jewish friends, Bajram with Muslim neighbors and Orthodox Christmas with Serbs. We were so lucky to see the world with so many different eyes. It was like we could see just a little bit more of God.”

“So what happened?’

Ana only shrugged, as if the weight of the answer was too much to bear.

We wandered through the old Turkish market, definitely but not purposely towards the ruins of the Library. It was once a beautiful building, dominating the end of the valley, where the river cut among the deep gorge on its way to Pale. Ana could not bring herself to look at it, and instead kept her eyes to the ground until we crossed to the river. Incendiary shells from Serb guns had destroyed the library, and with it a treasury of Bosnia’s heritage. The steps where Austria’s Archduke stood before being assassinated in 1914 led to the scorched and blackened shell of a building. Ana hurried onto the bridge, and leaned at the rail. I joined her there an instant later.

“Look,” she said as the setting sun cast a pale orange glow upon the shallow waters of the Miljatcka.

The river ran straight through the city between high stone walls. Buildings crowded to either side. The bridges appeared stacked upon one another. As people moved back and forth across them their long shadows were cast upon the glittering sunlit waters of the river. Pigeons gathered in the stone arches of the Princip Bridge. I looked at Ana, her gaze fixed on the city. The city and sunset were reflected in her eyes.

“It’s beautiful,” I said softly, as much about the city as for her.

I could hardly take my eyes off her and would have been content to remain there forever. Ana’s shoulder fell quite casually against mine. The energy passing with that touch was every bit as powerful and fluid as river.

“Do you have a girlfriend somewhere?” she asked.

“No not really,” I said.

“You’re not married, are you?”

“Definitely not,” I laughed.

“How come? There isn’t something wrong with you?” she crossed the bridge and I followed.

“No.”

The cobbled streets of Bistrik climbed steeply before us. This was old Sarajevo, a collection of mostly Muslim neighborhoods called Mahalas. The Mahalas were almost separate communities unto themselves, collections of homes where clear distinctions between neighbor and relation had long ago dissolved. There were houses and families that went back generations, even centuries. Ana was a stranger here as much as I was. The odd looks from doorways and windows only confirmed that fact.

“Be careful what you say here,” Ana warned at barely a whisper. “Many here were supporters of Tsatso.”

I knew the name well In the first weeks and months of the war Musan “Tsatso” Topalovich and other would-be warlords had helped rally the city’s defense. His men fought bloody, wasteful battles from the trenches a few hundred meters above Bistrik. But his forced conscriptions, executions and brutality against Serbs and Croats in the city soon besieged the city from within as well. A government crackdown finally ended his reign of terror. Doubtless, Tsatso’s ad hoc defense those first days and months had save the city, but at a terrible cost. For the Muslims of Bistrik, however, Tsatso was not a criminal but a savior who had saved them from annihilation.

“But Tsatso is dead now,” I observed.

“Here he is a martyr and a hero.”

“Is he a war criminal or a hero, in your opinion?”

The question made her visibly uncomfortable. She kept looking to the darkened houses.

“It is best that we not talk about such things, especially not here, and especially not us.”

I didn’t pursue the subject, seeing how it upset her so. We found a set of stone steps and paused for a moment to look out across the city. Bashcharshija was laid out before us, the red tiled rooftops set ablaze by the final assertions of daylight.

“So how come you never got married?” We started down the uneven steps.

“Honestly,” I replied, “I don’t think I ever will. I have this foolishly unrealistic idea of what marriage is supposed to be: totally equal, friends, lovers, soul mates. I know it’s an unattainable expectation, but I couldn’t be happy if I settled for something less.”
“If you hate it so much why not change your expectation?”

“I don’t know,” I said, a bit forlorn. “Guess I’m just hopeless, and part of me thinks I’ll actually find what I’m looking for.”

“But if it causes you so much pain?’

“Right now I’ve got no reason to change. All I have to worry about is my cat.”

“A cat?’

“A big fat one!” I opened my arms wide.

“How big?” she gasped.

“Well not so big. Seems like it for how much he eats.”

“And his name?”

“Manhattan.”

“Like the city?”

“Like the movie: Woody Allen. I was watching it when a neighbor came over with this little black and white kitten. I had no interest in it, but the kitten sat on my shoulder through the whole movie, and by then I was hooked.”

“Fall in love fast, eh?”

“I wouldn’t say that.”

“And you have no kids?”

“None that I know of. What about you, ever see yourself married?’

“I told you, my parents are divorced. They had an awful marriage. The whole thing really jaded me to marriage.”

“Really?’

“I think that a man expands himself in marriage. He expects to have all his needs filled. He wants a maid, a cook, a mother and a whore. A woman tends to sacrifice to fill that need. She loses herself to become those things. She gives up her need and identity for him, and freedom for her children. That’s what happened to my mom, and I don’t want to lose myself.”

“What about children?”

She smiled mischievously. “None that I know of.”

Our eyes met, and for the first time I thought it would be nice to kiss her. I felt sure she was thinking the same thing, but I blushed and looked away. From the corner of my eye I could see that Ana was blushing too.

We turned down a long sloping lane bounded to one side by the towering walls of the Sarajevo Pivara, or brewery. A fire hose carried water from the Pivara to a gurgling spigot. The natural spring within the walls of the brewery proved to be one of the few reliable sources of water for the entire city. There was a line of haggard looking folks waiting to fill water jugs at the spigot. Ana stopped at the top of the lane. Her face darkened with a memory.

“I hate this place,” she said quietly. “We came here for water the first year of the war, my sister and me. It was a dangerous time. Nobody trusted anybody. A lot of Muslim refugees were coming into the city to escape the Serbs, and they needed some to place to live. Some Muslims in our neighborhood wanted to put us out of our place because our mother is a Croat and my father is a Serb. They wanted to give our place to some refugees. They would see us here waiting in line for water, with the rest of the city, and calls us Chetnik whores. Sometimes others would join in, cursing us, spitting on us or spilling our water.”

“You must hate them?”

“You must remember that real Chetniks were murdering and raping thousands of Muslims, and the Croatian Army refused to help break the siege. There were no frontlines, not as they are now. It still wasn’t certain that the Serbs would not take the city, and they found some Serbs in the city who were preparing for that. There were Serbs in the city with death lists of Muslim neighbors. Many people in the city simply disappeared. We were just two young girls. One word and we would just disappear. So we would stand there and cry, and wait for our turn for water.”

Ana led me to the courtyard of a small Mosque. Dozens of stone markers could be seen through a small embrasure, the stones sinking gradually beneath deepening grass. The branches of a willow hung in mourning above the stones, lightly brushing their round tops. Ana pressed her cheeks to the iron bars of the embrasure. I put my face close to hers, pretending to look in at the courtyard when I was really looking at her. I breathed in her perfume.

“…but the rain is still pouring down as it has for days,” I said softly, relishing in her nearness, “and the pigeons coo in the attic. They announce the day that has not yet come. My hand becomes stiff from holding the pen, the candle spits and sparks a little as it staves off death. I look upon these rows of words, tombstones of my thoughts, and do not know if I have killed them or given them to life.”

“Mesha Selimovich,” she said, surprised.

“Dervish and Death, my favorite Bosnian novel.”

“You know of Bosnian writers?”

“A little.”

“My grandmother knew him.”

We were very near the river again. The city was quiet, the streets nearly empty…

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Saying Goodye in Sarajevo’s Bombed-out National Library, an excerpt from Everything for Love, a memoir

“This is such a sad place,” said Ana.
She paused at the rubble-strewn steps of the National Library. The city was silent, lulled into a somber peace by a low shroud of funeral gray clouds. They made the archways and galleries of the bombed-out library as deep and mysterious as a cave. There was a stillness to the valley, a muddled quality that left the world distant and out of focus, like an old photograph.
There was a sentry at the corner with a Kalashnikov slung over one shoulder. He looked like a guy from the neighborhood. He watched us curiously for a moment before turning away from the dust thrown up by a passing tank. Ana climbed the steps slowly and went inside without a word. I found her in the shadowy rotunda. Her eyes were closed, face turned upwards to the lattice of the broken ceiling.
I paused beneath an archway, not wishing to disturb such an intimate moment. The air was heavy with the scent of burnt and rotting books. Their ashes lay in heaps among the oriental arches and terraces. Serb shells had shattered many of the massive marble columns and a great pile of rubble stood in the center of the rotunda. High above the thundering wing beats of pigeons disturbed the moment. Ana looked at me, her expression weighted by something.
“Will you tell me now?’ she pleaded. All morning I had teased her about a surprise.
“Let me take a picture of you first.”
“Then you will tell me?”
“Maybe,” I laughed.
“I hate you,” she pouted.
“Be that as it may,” I snapped a picture of her, “but I still won’t tell you.”
“Pease, Bill, don’t be so cruel!”
The more insistent she became the more obstinate I became. Not that the surprise was so great. Rather it was more a gift of hope, a way of making the distance between us a little less painful. Ana danced across the rotunda, framed like an angel in the lens of my camera.
“Did you come to this place before the war?” I asked.
“Oh, it was such a beautiful place. It was, it was like walking into someone’s soul, or the soul of humanity. Ideas, truth and history called from every corner, begging them to take their secrets into your heart. There was a huge painting over there, and books there and there and there. I would often sit in those galleries, sometimes reading, sometimes just looking out at the river and mountains.”
Ana turned suddenly and did her best to feigned anger. “Bill, I really must tell you that I hate surprises. Do you really wish for me to hate you?”
“Nice try.” I snapped another photo.
“Why do you torture me so? I swear I will never speak to you again.” She found it impossible to keep from smiling.
“You’re like a child!”
“Oh no, I can be much worse.”
I lowered the camera and went to her. “Ana, do you believe in Christmas miracles?”
“Bill,” she protested, “don’t play games.”
“I left some money with Nadja and Hasan. Not much, but it should be enough for something on Christmas.” Tears welled in her eyes. Ana held me tight.
“I love you so much,” she whispered.
“You have come to mean so much to me,” I said. “Leaving you behind, it will soothe my broken heart to know that I made you smile one last time. Just remember me, okay?”
“I will remember you, I promise.” She kissed my neck. Her tears were wet and cool.
We climbed down from the library into the gray blue cityscape. Gunfire echoed as we walked home along the river. A crowd waited for a tram near the Princip Bridge, spread out along the wall should a shell land among them. From Marin Dvor came the fevered wail of an ambulance. A convoy passed an argument in a window. Numbed and shell-shocked soldiers wandered empty streets, as bitter and aimless as the roaming dogs long ago abandoned by destitute owners. A young man missing a leg hobbled along an alley to an uncertain future. Children were being born blocks from the line where men were dying. Young boys and girls learned the thrill and pain of first love, while a Gypsy family lived out of a storefront and cooked over an open flame. A crazy man ran naked down the street. A parent learned of their son’s death, while a couple made love next door. All of this in a world barely one by three miles long. Ana hugged me close and said that she felt like Robinson Crusoe.


CAM00236WC 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

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