War from a tween’s perspective

One day after the Facebook post that was heard around the region, I saw another post about what war was like—this time from the perspective of a 12-year-old girl. In this piece we experience the days and weeks immediately preceding the siege, the down-to-the-wire relocation, and then the years of day-to-day survival in a city without electricity, central heating, communication, freedom of movement, access to food. I thought Lejla’s post would be the beginning of a series of responses (in fact, I hoped it would be), but that does not seem to have happened. It is understandable, though. Based on the first-person accounts of war that I have read and from meeting some of the people who wrote them, it takes an extraordinarily strong person to go back ‘there’ and relive the experiences and select those events and details that can be put into words—and then to do just that.

Many thanks to Lejla for allowing me to translate and publish her post. I also thank Adela, a friend and colleague from my Sarajevo Film Festival days and one of those kids from Lejla’s building on Koševsko Brdo, for introducing me to Lejla and commenting on my translation. 

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What is war? (from the perspective of a 12-year-old kid from Sarajevo)

War is something that sneaks into your home one morning, and Dad turns on the television and the radio (in 1992 we didn’t have the Internet or websites) and turns up the volume, little by little, until both are going full blast. Then he dials the phone (in 1992 there were no cell phones), calling friends, family, acquaintances and strangers—even he has no idea who he’s calling, the main thing is that he’s doing something. When he’s not calling, he’s pacing from window to window. He picks up the television remote and curses because the sound doesn’t go any higher than 100. He goes to the radio and turns the knob that is already turned up to the max, and then he starts scanning through frequencies, and at maximum volume the radio shrieks, crackles, roars, thumps your brain. That’s not enough for him, so he goes down to the basement and brings up some old-time radio, plugs it in and turns it on, raps it a few times, and when he hears that specific sound produced by the overlapping of two different stations, he turns up the sound. And he’s still not satisfied, so he gets his little transistor radio from the knapsack where he keeps his fishing gear, extends the antenna as if he’s trying to receive a signal from Mars, and turns up the volume. Then he comes in to my room, where I’m trying to watch MTV. He curses MTV and switches to the news. I get ready to go out because I really can’t take the assault on my eardrums any longer. He screams, “Where are you going? Don’t you dare move!” I protest. While we’re fighting, a neighbor walks in our front door and says quietly: “War.”

Every day shells fall in Sarajevo. Vogošća is quiet. Every day Mom goes to work in Sarajevo. Every day Dad calls friends and family and old neighbors from Koševsko Brdo and tells them to come stay with us in Vogošća. Everyone says the same thing: “Oh, this will be over soon.” Every day the same, but the days are passing.

Dad readies the basement. He brings beds down there, buys food, cans, stacks them in the basement. He prepares as if he knows what’s needed, as if he has already lived through a war. But he hasn’t. None of this makes any sense to my sister and me.

Beginning of April. Everything is the same with one exception: One evening our next-door neighbor Nešo brings over a Kalashnikov rifle and a few hand grenades, then puts Dad and another neighbor in charge of guarding our apartment building and all the tenants. From whom, from what, no one has any idea. Anyway, the three of them cover the building’s front doors and windows with newspapers (Oslobođenje, AS), stack sandbags, make barricades.

On 19 April 1992, tanks—personnel carriers—enter Vogošća. Mom is at work. Someone rings the doorbell and I answer it before Dad can yell “Stop!” Nešo is at the door. He speaks to Dad quickly and quietly. He gives Dad something wrapped in a child’s sweatshirt and tells us to leave right away.

Dad is starting to act crazy. This is not my father, I think, watching him throw things willy-nilly into a suitcase. Mom, who has returned from work, says we shouldn’t waste time straightening up, we should go immediately.

“Where are we going?” I ask.

“I have no idea,” he answers.

No, this is definitely not my father, I think. In my child’s naiveté, I pack my favorite book and two Barbie dolls into a small cardboard suitcase bought in Hungary at the end of the 1980s. My sister, who had just started first grade that year, tries to fit her Barbie doll and her first-grade reader into her even smaller suitcase.

I still think my father is crazy an hour later, as he floors it and speeds like a madman through Vogošća. We encounter the first barricade at TAS—Tvornica Automobila Sarajevo, the VW manufacturing plant. They want to know where we’re headed.

“To my brother-in-law’s for coffee,” my father answers.

The man in the camouflage uniform holding a gun looks at us, looks at Dad’s papers, looks at our cardboard suitcases, and looks at us again. “OK, be back by evening,” he says, returning Dad’s papers.

Dad resumes speeding through Hotonj and up Kobilja Glava until he hits another barricade in Bare. Again men in camouflage uniforms with guns. They also want to know where we’re headed. They get the same answer. They behave the same as the first ones, like they don’t really believe what they’re hearing. “How is it there,” they ask, and all sorts of other things, but finally they let us pass.

Dad resumes driving, not saying anything, lighting cigarette after cigarette. We arrive at my uncle’s place and get out of the car, but Dad doesn’t move from the driver’s seat. Mom looks at him and he tells her, his voice shaking, “Just one more cigarette. You all go in…”

What I didn’t know was that Nešo had given Dad a handgun, and that Dad was not sure, if the soldiers didn’t let us past the barricades, who he would shoot—them, or us.

We didn’t return home that evening; we didn’t return home for the next few years. Vogošća was soon cut off from Sarajevo by force. You couldn’t get from here to there or cross from there to here. You couldn’t, but some people still got across, secretly, through the forest, for the first few days. Our neighbor Nešo, who stayed on the other side in Vogošća, escorted these people up to the barricades manned on our side by the Bosnian Army Green Berets. Some of the soldiers were men he’d grown up with, worked with, gotten to know. They would all joke around, smoke a few cigarettes, and then Nešo would return to Vogošća. That is, until one day his people killed him because they found out what he was doing.

His? Ours? Theirs? Yours? Who’s who?

A few months with my mother’s brother in a one-bedroom apartment. Two families: four adults, three children and one baby. No electricity. No water. Shells are falling. They’re aiming over our heads at the telecommunications tower at the peak of Hum Brdo. No glass left in the window frames. We walk hunched over, or crawl, so as not to be seen through the windows. Less and less food. The baby, my cousin, doesn’t even cry, as if she knows there’s no sense in crying.

In the summer of 1992 we move to an apartment on Koševsko Brdo, the apartment of a journalist who went over their side. Theirs? Ours? Once in a while people in uniforms come in and ransack the apartment, taking away everything of value. They say they are from our side and that it is evidence against the other side, proof that they had been preparing this for a long time.

Them? Us?

In December 1992, Dad is wounded by a shell. Severely. Operations. Fixators. Operations. Clinical death. Operations. Crutches. Invalid. He can’t go to work, so everything falls on Mom’s shoulders. She goes to work hungry. As snipers shoot over her head, she rolls discarded tires up Gorica Street to our apartment to be used as fuel, so she can make us lunch, so we can warm up a little. She sews by candlelight, making jackets out of sleeping bags in exchange for a few kilograms of flour. Money in Sarajevo is worthless. When the candles are gone, she sews from memory. And from memory I call up pictures and play out scenes from books.

In spring 1993, we kids from Koševsko Brdo go out for water. We carry five-liter jugs (two or three tied together with rope). We walk a few kilometers to the train station or we wait for the cistern-truck that comes after nightfall, and we are careful not to spill a single drop. We go to school, we try to live as if there were no war—we play hide-and-seek, badminton, chess, cards. We fall in love, we fight. And at every opportunity snipers aim at us, sometimes hitting, but most of the time missing on purpose. After every shell that slams down near us but doesn’t hit us, we laugh hysterically. When we hear that someone close to us has been killed, we don’t cry. We live in convulsions.

The year 1993 is the most difficult year of the war because all food reserves have been eaten. A kilogram of sugar costs 80 DEM, a liter of oil 35 DEM, a chocolate bar 15 DEM, one egg 10 DEM. But there’s no money. ‘Bread’ made of rice from a pressure cooker, ‘pâté’ made of yeast, ‘Eurocrem’ from powdered milk and cocoa from a past life, ‘butter pastry’ from humanitarian aid canned beef, ‘cheese pie’ from rice and primrose petals (to provide the color of egg), ‘salad’ from dandelion greens, ‘vegetable stew’ from rice… All the families in the building cook on a wood-burning stove installed in the foyer of the third floor; using just two logs, everyone can cook their main meal and bake a loaf of bran bread.

We’re happy when we get a lunch packet—Chicken à la King, powdered drink mix (which we kids take outside, share with our friends, licking powder from our palms), cookies, powdered milk, herring in sauce, peanut butter, dried fruit, one deciliter of oil per person… We read books in semidarkness, by candlelight or the open flame of a gas torch. We read a lot of books, we live other people’s lives while the people around us are dying. Water restrictions. Gas restrictions. Life restrictions.

By winter 1994 we are living in a city of death. We are hungry, thirsty, freezing. We live without summer vacation, without winter vacation, without a past, without a future. Everything they taught us before the war has been negated during the war. Lost in the present. We don’t expect to survive until tomorrow, to laugh hysterically after the next shell lands. We become tired and worn out. Shells fall instead of rain. The sun means nothing. We don’t even see the blue sky. Snow or heat, it’s all the same to us. We haven’t been down to the basement, to the bomb shelter, for ages. We don’t run when they shoot from Poljine, we just stand aside for a moment and then continue what we were doing. Why run when there’s no escape? Still, we go through the motions of a normal life: we go to school, we study, we try to keep up with the world while we get farther and farther away from ourselves. We slowly go crazy, each in his or her own way… No one says “oh, this will be over soon” anymore.

Fall 1995 and the end of the war. It is a strange feeling to go outside in the morning and… silence. No shells. No awful feeling that someone is watching you. Silence. Everything is destroyed. Buildings in ruins, windows without glass, apartments without people. And birds are singing. Maybe they were singing the whole time, but the shelling was louder than their song.

And, just like that, life goes on. Like nothing happened. Like all of us were only dreaming. Having nightmares. And, finally we woke up and it took us a little time to realize… to realize what? That all of it was pointless. Because people learned nothing from it, because they will always find some idiotic reason to justify doing it all over again…

So that is war (in a watered-down version because the full version requires much more space). And now, 21 years later, there are some people who want to do it all over again.

 Translated by Paula Gordon
Image of map is a screen shot of the siege of Sarajevo map, showing siege lines and
shelling targets as of July 1995. Image © openstreetmap.org and CARTO

About the author, Lejla Balagić Pavlović
I was born in Sarajevo in 1979. After finishing high school in Sarajevo, I studied comparative literature and pedagogy, graduating in 2006. I worked for five years at BH Radio 1 on the drama program, adapting and dramatizing literary works for radio. I have two children, a 9-year-old daughter and a 6-year-old son.

I spent the war in Sarajevo and live there today, in a very confused post-war period. I was raised with different rules, rules that are unknown in modern BiH society.

Literature is my first love. I adore books and have a strong need to write. I write a blog at http://perduto.blogger.ba/. I have three unpublished manuscripts, one unpublished collection of short stories, and a collection of war stories in progress. The inspiration for writing is inexhaustible because its source is always alive—inspiration is in and around me.

Translator’s notes
Brdo mean hill; Koševsko Brdo and Hum Brdo are place names taken from the hills surrounding Sarajevo.

DEM is short for Deutsche Mark, that is, German mark, which during the war was the predominant hard currency and the standard upon which prices were pegged.

The types of food are in scare quotes because the dishes were similar in name only. Instead I could have written “so-called bread, mock Eurocrem, fake salad…” For more on wartime recipes, see “A Sarajevo Wartime Cookbook, With Recipes Bitter And Sweet,” by Daisy Sindelar, April 6, 2012.

An online exhibition of the siege of Sarajevo, with a map (from which the featured image was taken) and various statistics, can be viewed at the website Sarajevo pod opsadom (Sarajevo under Siege), available in a few languages.

“According to data from the Union of Civilian Victims of War of the Sarajevo Canton, during the siege of the town, which lasted 1,425 days, an average of 329 shells fell every day, killing 11,541 people, of which 1,601 were children.” Translation of a quote from this Slobodna Evropa article.

There are many more resources I could post here, but I narrowed it down to these to reinforce that this story, for all its specificity, is by no means the exception. It is the story of an entire city of kids who grew up in Sarajevo during the war. And I am not forgetting those children in other cities, towns, and villages who experienced the war differently, who were separated from or lost their parents, who were driven from their homes into the forests or to different parts of the country or to different countries altogether. Some of them are beginning to tell their stories, too.

map-snip-5-07-95-with-key

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