Monday, August 31, 2009

They will know you by your name

Some time in the last few months of the war, when the shootings were more sporadic, we heard that few people, namely Serbs, from our neighbourhood were occasionally crossing the 'border', the avenue between two buildings with opposite armies on each side. They were going to the Serb side to get food, since they were better supplied or to use a phone, since phone lines on our side still only worked for local calls. I have family in Belgrade, so one day mom, her girl friend, and I decided to 'go over'.

These crossings were still not 'legal', and the avenue was patrolled by the Serb army. There were no Bosnian soldiers there, so only those who were Serbs had really the freedom to go back and forth.

I must add here that during that time, something like this was only possible for women to attempt. Since only men were soldiers, any man without an adequate documentation to prove they live there, would be arrested and their fate unsure.

The 'border' was five minutes walk from our building, and the post office another five. We were able to get there unnoticed and shock my relatives when they heard our voices. There were no phone booths, so the conversation was censured and cryptic.

On the way back we were stopped by an uniformed man on the Serb side of the avenue. He asked for our ID's, and I was the only one who had my refugee card from Belgrade with me. Since my name sounds Serbian, I was 'safe'. Both my mom and her friend have Muslim sounding names, and would have trouble if caught on the Serb side. The solider asked my mom for her name, and she was witty enough to answer with the name where she removed one letter from it and said a similar name that sounds Serbian. The third lady then did the same. After little more questioning, he then let us pass.

This time we were lucky that this armed man didn't insist we all show him the ID's and didn't take us in for any further investigation.

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The level of destruction

Pictures speek for themselves.

This is a "Loris" building near the Zeljo soccer stadium, that was on the first line of defense. That was the first line that my friend and I were considering crossing while we were trapped on Grbavica trying to return into the city. The building was hit so many times, that the entire staircase on the corner has collapsed. It was made from the iron reinforced concrete.


All of these buildings, although some looked like they have been eaten up by termites, are patched up and still standing.









These two images are from the neighbourhood closest to the airport that we had to go through when embarking on the adventure to go through the tunnel under the runway.

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Back with the storries

I haven't posted in a while...
See, I was visiting Bosnia couple of months ago, and all of these memories came back alive during my time there. I just wanted to take some times to process them.

One interesting fact that I learned about these memories is that they affect me very much differently than they do for my mom, and probably other people who have lived through the first two years of the war that I avoided. They are very reluctant to bring them up to the surface, because they stir up too much emotions for them. Even when a war time event creeps up into a conversation unintentionally, they are quick to drop the subject as neither party wants to think about that time period. I noticed this first hand with my mom when I would ask her some details that I missed or forgot, and she basically asked me not to ask so much.

I guess I am blessed to not have such deep scars on my soul, and can re-tell these important storries without getting too distrubed.

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Monday, June 15, 2009

Displaced

I never knew there is a difference between definition of refugees and displaced persons until I became one. A displaced person is someone who was forced to leave their home but still lives in the same city. A refugee is a displaced person who lives in a different city.

I was a refugee while I was in Belgrade. I didn't officially become one right away when I got there, because there wasn't a war, and I didn't flee the country. After a few months of my life in Belgrade, when it became obvious the war in Bosnia is only getting worse, I started thinking of what to do while I was there. I met other people from Bosnia, who came after me and got a refugee status. With it they got some benefits, like free public transportation, a health insurance, and some humanitarian aid (which I later sent to Sarajevo). To get the refugee status, one also had to prove they are either in school, working or looking for a job. I was a student back in Sarajevo, and although studying was the last thing on my mind those days, I enrolled in the university to get the refugee card. On my refugee days some other time.

My family in Sarajevo, on the other hand, had status of displaced persons. To get the same benefits that refugees in Sarajevo, during and after the war, had, they had to prove they cannot return to their home because it was devastated. Also, to get an apartment to live in someone had to declare that our old apartment is not livable. For our old place it was very difficult to get such paperwork, because it was on to the Serb territory, and it took a long time until Bosnian institutions established a way to classify those properties. All of these procedures were very stressful for my mom.

After the first few days of their displacement, they were given keys to an apartment in the middle of Dobrinja. All apartments before the war were owned by companies, military, or government and their employees were given apartments based on merits and years of service. They were assigned an apartment for temporary use that belonged to a military Serb family who left the city. They moved there not knowing anyone in the building. The apartment was emptied of all the food by the neighbours before mom and brother moved in. It was difficult to ask for help from people they never met, and often times they wouldn't get any. Some folks were even very hostile and hateful toward my family because I was still in Belgrade. The Bosnian army soon wanted the apartment back, and mom had to look for something else.

After about two years my mom's company assigned her an apartment in a building next door that belonged to a man who worked for the same company as my mother. He was a Serb who left the city at the beginning of the war. The government, or companies, then declared such apartments abandoned and were assigning them to refugees and displaced persons like my family. It was first for a temporary use and then they changed it to a permanent permit. That was the apartment I came to after I returned to Sarajevo.

Couple of years after I moved to the US, the man who used to live in that apartment came back to Sarajevo wanting to claim it back. By that time, the government and companies were issuing certificates to anyone who lived in an apartment before the war so they can purchase it as private property. Those papers carried a value based on how many years the dweller has invested in the housing plan through the company. People who worked 20+ years had a high enough valued certificate that they could purchase the apartment with no additional cash. This man wanted to use those certificates to privatize his apartment, and then sell it to someone, as he had no intention of coming back to live in Sarajevo.

By that time both my brother and I lived in the US, and mom was tired of Dobrinja and all the bad things that happened there, that she found another place for herself closer to downtown. I was fortunate to be able to help her with acquiring that apartment, as all purchases were done with cash only. This one was about $40K. As the faith would have it, that same year I won a drawing in my apartment complex to live there free for a year! That really helped with the financial situation. That apartment we purchased is the same one I stay in when I come to visit Sarajevo.

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Exiling our home

As I mentioned before, prior to the war we lived in an apartment in the suburb Dobrinja. It was close to the military base and the airport, so there was a lot of military movement around the buildings in the days leading to April 5th 1992. When the city then became blocked off, and all roads closed, families have rapidly leaving our neighbourhood. Very few people who stayed behind, were forced to stay inside most of the time. Even in those early days, residents of Dobrinja had already had a different war experience from people who lived in other parts of the city and were able to walk outside freely in those days (for the most part). My mom and brother, and other people who stayed, started receiving threatening phone calls that the Serbs are coming to our building the next day and will kill anyone who hasn't left. Mom spent several nights on the floor by the front door. with a knife in her hand.

The soldiers and other armed men, from both Serb and Bosnian side, came several times during the days, to find out who lives there, and see if there are any soldiers and weapons. There were often gun fires outside, and they had to keep the blinds closed, and often turn the lights off. One day, somebody even started shooting at our bird on the balcony, and mom was furious and started yelling at an invisible attacker downstairs. I remember them telling me on the phone when they had the first bullet hole in the house. It went through a closet and into mom's fur coat. She was so upset, and was figuring out how it can be fixed. They had much bigger troubles ahead.

During the month of May, 1992, it became increasingly dangerous to live there, especially in our apartment that was on the corner of the building, top floor. In one day only, they would receive several dozen grenade hits. During the day, my family would stay at our friend's apartment on the first floor in the middle of the same building. Gradually, more and more people were gathering there. Their neighbours left them keys of their apartments, so people spread out in apartments in the first two stories in that staircase. Since they lost electricity during that time, they gathered all the food from all those apartments to consume it before it goes bad. They had big feasts.

By June, out of some 252 apartments in the two block area, there were only 40 people left, and they all congregated in that one staircase. The front of the building, which faced the Serb side, was too dangerous to walk in front, so mom and my brother used the back side and entered through balconies of the apartments on the ground level to get to our apartment. When it became too dangerous to go back every night, they packed a suitcase each, and with the bird cage, moved to the place in middle of the building. Mom carried all of her jewelry in little sacks around her neck, but didn't want to search through my room in order to take mine until the very last time they went back. The soldiers, this time from the Bosnian army, were already in the apartment, making them self comfortable, and one was sitting in my room. My inheritance was no longer there.

Those brave forty realized their lives were really in danger and decided they will all leave together on the morning of June 5th (I am going on memory here on these dates, so I'll have to confirm them later with mom). The gun fire had some pattern by that time, and they knew that it's usually calm early in the morning. There were few Bosnian men with guns there with them, guarding the entrance to the building. Since most of those entrance doors were tempered glass that has shattered, people welded steel bars to protect strangers from entering. On the morning of their set departure, they were awaken by guns near by. The men who were there to protect them were either asleep or not at their posts. Some Serb soldiers, who were not informed that there were still civilians in the building, were startled when they stumbled upon people in their surveying of the area, and started shooting. At that moment, my brother was on the ground floor and mom on the first. My brother's friend's mom grabbed the two boys, and started running across the street to the other side of the wide avenue. My mom saw them through the window and at first though "at least he will be saved". Then she realized that he is still a 13-year old boy and needs her, and jumped from the balcony, injuring her ancle, to run after him. They left all the possessions and suitcases behind, including our bird. All they saved was what they had on them, my mom's jewelry, and my brother's playing cards and dice. They hoped they'll come back to it in the next few days, but that never happened.

As they ran across that avenue, several people got killed and their bodies left their for days. The Serbs brought tanks near our building, and no more crossing to the other side was possible. When they made it to the building on the other side, parallel to ours, they knew they couldn't stay there. The grenades were forcing them to move further into the neighbourhood, so they made it to the next parallel building and then to the one perpendicular to it. That one however was facing the airport, and several tanks started approaching and shelling that building. They now had to run across another street to the building parallel to the one facing the airport, but on the opposite side. That street was extending all the way toward our building and further, and Serbs had the tank sending grenades down the street all day. It took them several hours until they could finally leave that area, a distance of maybe 200m. They stayed with another friend for a few days, until the local government gave them keys to another apartment to use.

Mom came back to the edge of the building from where she could see our apartment for several days following their exile. She wanted to make sure it is still there. It was getting severely damaged, but was still in one piece until one day in July. She came to that corner and saw the apartment on fire. All three stories were burning, and nobody of course was trying to put the fire out. The building is made of concrete, so it was still standing, but everything that was flammable was burning. It burned for 2 days, until there was nothing left. Because our apartment was on the top, it was heated the most, so even the metal structures got bent out of shape from all the heat.

After the Dayton agreement, while this was still the Serb territory, I went with a friend, the one who used to send inflammable bullets at our apartment, to see if there was anything left. There were still land minds in the building, and he lost his heel on a landmine as a soldier during the war, so he knew what to pay attention to. I followed him in his foot steps. The staircase was completely charred and full of bricks, concrete chunks, and other debris. The tiles have fallen off, the railing was half gone, and all apartments were just holes with no doors. There was very little debris in our apartment, just some trash left there by the soldiers. There were no remnants of any furniture, no parquet nor cabinets, and huge holes in the walls. Half of the bathroom was gone. We found a metal frame with
wires in the living room and couldn't at first figure out what it was. Then we realized it was from our piano. We found some ceramic pieces in the living room, collectibles from the old china cabinet. I collected and glued those back together, and those were the only physicall memories we have from the previous, peaceful life.

These are some before and after pictures. The middle pictures were taken after only the interior and the windows were fixed, and the last ones after all exterior was completed.

This is the back side of the building, facing the avenue that divided the two armies. Our apartment is the top left one. Most apartments still had just foil on the windows.

This top window used to be my room, that I moved into not even a year before this all started. People got the materials to repair apartments from different sources, and that is why the windows are all different.

The front side of the building, with my brother's and mom's bedrooms. You can notice how the higher floors have much more damage. The corner room was actually missing half of the wall, but it has already been patched with new building blocks on these pictures.

Apartment entrance.

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Saturday, June 13, 2009

The nature of the war

There have been many heated discussions when describing the war in Sarajevo as a "civil war". I will try not add to that fire here. I know what I know, and putting any particular label on what happened would not make it any less tragic.

I know who was integrating Me, who was preventing Me from being with My family, who made Us leave Our home, and who was shooting at Me. And I didn't volunteer to be a part of any of that. So for Me, it has never been a civil war in the sense that civilians from both sides have knowingly entered into conflict with each other. Many civilians in Sarajevo were forced to take guns to defend themselves and their homes. Many of the people I knew, who never intended to be soldiers, have had to become ones because they realized there was nobody else who will fight for them. The civilians, who had no weapons to begin with, had to face the national army. So, what I know is that some political decisions have caused our blissful, happy lives to be interrupted when heavy armed forces started targeting at us civilians as at a shooting range. A civil war involves two-sided violence; a massacre of civilians by the state is not a civil war.

Most people in Sarajevo have called it the aggression, and in many parts of the country it was a full blown one. It was an aggression in the sense that after Bosnia declared its independence, the national army of the former Yugoslavia, now under control of the government in Serbia, consisting of soldiers from both Serbia itself and the Serb majority regions of Bosnia, has occupied other parts of the country. The well equipped army had all the advantage against the civilians. For whatever reason, however, after the first couple of months of the war, the Serb army didn't advance any further into Sarajevo. They stayed at their positions up on the hills, and continued aggressively sending explosive presents down unto the city.

I realized after I moved to the US that in the west this phrase "civil war" was used by default when talking about conflict in Bosnia, and for the outsiders I suppose it looked that way. Over the four years of the war, the Bosnian army, through different means, acquired weapons to defend the country. With guns comes the violence and innocent people were killed on all sides. I am not going to delve into the dictionary definitions of these terms, but war in the city definitely had a different nature.

Sarajevo is a densely populated city. Most people live in apartment buildings and sky risers. It was also a diverse city, where some 75% of marriages were a mix of different nationalities. Many families were divided and people felt the need to take sides. Many Serbs in our old neighbourhood were in the national army, because half of the apartments were owned by the army. Many, if not all, of them knew about what was planned to happen, and left the town right before or in the early weeks of the war. Many Serbs were afraid what would happen to them if they stayed, so they voluntarily left their homes and moved just outside the city limits. Many moved into houses of people of other nationalities who had to leave because the army was threatening them (like they did to us).

Some of those who stayed were working as the insiders. They were shooting out from their apartments onto civilians who didn't expect bullets coming from those directions. These people eventually ended up in local prisons. My mom was telling me of the flashy signals coming out the building across from ours in the early weeks of the war when they didn't know what was going on.

In the early days, when the borders were still being defined, soldiers from the two sides would literally be on either side of a building. Some buildings, like this one, were completely collapsed in the middle, because the armies were so frequently sending grenades at each other. This picture is the first line of defence on Grbavica. The red building in the center had the Bosnian soldiers on the left, and Serb soldiers on the right. In the middle or the building all the floors have collapsed. This was an absolutely no civilian zone, for several blocks away.

The apartment building where we used to live before the war was also on the front line, from the Serb side, so you can imagine a similar destruction. The layout of the neighbourhood was different than Grbavica, and there was a 4 lane avenue in front of the building that was the border. The soldiers on either side had positioned themselves in certain apartments, ours being one of them, and barricaded the windows with bricks leaving only a small opening at the top. A friend of mine, whom I didn't know before the war, who fought in the Bosnian army had told me that he was in one such apartment in the building across from hours, on the Bosnian side. They were sending inflammable bullets, and competing who can hit through the narrow opening. Our apartment could have caught on fire through one of these games.

The ending of the war on paper happened at the end of 1995 with signing of a peace agreement in Dayton, Ohio. Because the military positions were within neighbourhoods, and apparently the participants in Dayton did not use detailed maps,
boundary lines in Dobrinja ran right through the middle of two apartment buildings. There were disputes as to which side owns what which emerged from the problems of partitioning what had been ethnically mixed territory.

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Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Am I ready...?

Am I ready to die this very minute?

Have you ever asked yourself that question? Ever? And were you able to answer with a 'yes'?

There were only two moments in my entire life when I felt ready to die at that very instance. One of them happened during the war.

Living in constant danger of being shot certainly increased our chances of dying any minute. But most of the time I was just trying my best to avoid death. Rarely would I think about 'what if'. And when I did, I would always conclude that I still wanted to fight to survive. It seemed that other people had the same force driving them to live, because interestingly, in spite of lack of nutrition, we were all rather healthy.

But this one time, I was particularly aware of how close the end of my life could be, and there was nothing I could do about it. It might have been late 1995 and I was riding on a bus. The bus was following the street parallel to the river, the street that was going along side the hill Trebevic, from where most of the missiles came. Standing next to a window, I was observing those houses and woods up the hill. There were few buildings that were protecting us from the view, but for most of the route the hill was very visible from the bus, and vice-versa. I was thinking about how there have been before, and maybe there were at that very moment, snipers looking and targeting at vehicles on the streets bellow. And that there may be one that is targeting at me right there.

At one point, in the minuscule reality of that scene in the bus, the realization came: "I am ready to die right now". And I felt at peace with that. I was not afraid, anxious, nor angry. I don't believe I was giving up, but I wasn't resisting either. My mind was not grasping for control in protecting my body. I didn't have any regrets. I thought I lived my life the best way I could, and for that brief moment, I felt like my soul was clean and ready to leave the pettiness of this world and meet its Creator. And for me that meant continuing onto something better for which I war ready.

I was ready to die.

I thought about this in the years since then and how liberating it felt to be ready. Like I said earlier, only one other time was I physically, mentally, and spiritually ready to go in that particular moment. Usually my answer would be: "could I go tomorrow?", because I had, or at least I thought I had, things to take care of. I have tried to remind myself every now and then that I never know when I'll be called home and try to be prepared mentally that it is inevitable. Even thinking about it on occasion has helped me live in a way where I could at least be a little bit more ready tomorrow.

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