Thursday, April 9, 2009

Crossing to the 'other' side

Since my trip to Belgrade was never meant to be a long term exile, I was seeking the first opportunity to go back to Sarajevo. I actually had my bags still all packed for several months that first year. The first chance to enter the city came in the summer of 1994, when the "blue roads" were opened for the first time. These were roads located throughout the country between the two army forces that were patrolled by the UNPROFOR peace keepers during the peace agreements.

A friend of mine and I decided to take this trip together. None of my family and friends could understand why I'd want to go back, when the war was still not over. I remember an incident at the university when I went to get my transcript. The administration personnel, naturally, assumed that I was going back to the Serbian side of the city. So they told me they will just fax the papers to the other school. When I tried to explain that I am going to the Federation side of Sarajevo, and the fax communication doesn't work there, the lady yelled a cross the room to her colleagues "Hey, this girl is going to the other side!"

My friend and I took a bus that would bring us to the Serbian side of Sarajevo, Grbavica region. It was on the south side of the river, and one of the bridges was the only "blue road" for us to go back. The trip took double the time than what it was before the war, because the bus went only through regions controlled by the Serbs. It seemed we were not the only ones completely clueless of the real situation, because there was a couple who didn't want to get off the bus at its final stop because they thought they are going all the way to the other side of the city. We were staying with my friend's family friends, who actually were not very friendly to us. The lady worked for the local government and gave us some ill advises that led us to be stuck on that side for about a month.

To cross the bridge, one would have to fill out some paperwork with the local administration. We had to explain why we are going over, and for how long. Since we were told we have to tell the truth, we put down we are going back permanently. That automatically closed all doors for us. The Serbian government were not going to let us go over without asking an exchange from the government in Federation Sarajevo. They requested one famous doctor who was a Serb, and the mother of the Grbavica Serbian party's leader. Of course, the government in Sarajevo had no interest of doing this exchange for the two teenage girls.

During our time in Grbavica, and in an effort to get approved to cross the bridge, we went from civilian government, through secret service, to military leaders. The final approval had to come from the general Dragan Bulajic, the head of the Bosnian Serb commission for the return of prisoners of war and missing persons. We spent days in front of this headquarters, waiting for him to return from wherever he was and to let us talk to him. The phone lines between the two sides of the city were not operational, and the connection was possible from only a few government locations. So, all of the communication with my mom during this time actually happened from this building, when they would let us use the phone after days of waiting.

There we were met with all sorts of soldiers eager to talk to girls and sniperists who threatened to kill us from the distance once we go over. There were some who actually offered to arrange for us to "run across the front lines at night", which was not unusual during that time. We would not be able to take our bags with us, and they would, probably for a fee, arrange with their guys in the buildings on the first line of defence, who would somehow communicate this with the soldiers on the Federation side, to not shoot at us when we run across! This all sounds crazy to me right now, but we were actually considering it. On this picture, the first line, where we were contemplating crossing, was between the red bus and the burned building behind it. Later I found out that many got killed trying to cross this way, because the arrangement was not fully communicated to both sides, and their bodies would lie on the streets for days.

Since we were told the only way for us to cross the border is through an exchange, our parents had to talk to Bulajic's Bosnian government counterpart, Amor Masovic, to try to convince him to release the two Serbs. So, just as I was standing in front of Bulajic's office every day, my mom did the same at the Bosnian parliament. During one of our conversations, Dragan Bulajic requested that I call my mom right there and let him talk to her. When I told her "Mom, this general wants to talk to you," her first reaction was "What am I going to talk about with a general?" But she did, and it turned out that the two of them used to work for the same company before the war, and had met on few occasions. Bulajic promised my mother that he will arrange for me to go over, and ended that once this war was over "maybe they could meet and talk over coffee". He kept his promise and I was allowed to cross the border few days later. They actually did run into each other some 10 years after the war in Sarajevo and talked.

The arrangement was for me to go over the bridge during early afternoon hours, a time during which no crossing has ever been done before. The Bosnian soldiers on the bridge told my mom she can go back, because this was obviously some miscommunication and that there is no way I could be going over the bridge during that time. The bridge had huge barricades on either side, with UN soldiers between, and we could not see what is happening on the other side. My friend, our host family, and couple of other people we met during my 3.5 week stay in Grbavica, came to see me go over the bridge. I first had to go through the 'customs', which was in the old gas station and operated by few soldiers. They went through all of my six bags, took all of my mom's letters she sent me during those 2.5 years, and all of my pictures (when crossing the bridge one was able to take only 3 letters with them and very few, if any pictures). They also took my journal and when they saw things in it such as "Bosnia will live", they started a heated discussion with me about existence of our country. They told me that if I choose to stay in Grbavica they wouldn't go through any of my stuff. When they saw a bag full of books from the university in Belgrade, they told me one of them was a son from the dean of college in Grbavica, and would help me get in, and will give me one the many empty apartments there...My goal was to be with my family, and none of this was going to change my mind about crossing over.

Finally, after an hour of interrogation in that gas station, and my friends already getting worried about me, they saw me walk out. The French UN soldiers wheeled my bags away and I followed. It was an eerie feeling walking out onto that bridge (ironically, its name before the war was Brotherhood and Unity Bridge); I used to go over this bridge every day going to high-school that was just on the other side. Now, I could not see either end of the bridge from the huge barricade containers, there was a barb wire on each edge, and the street stripes were replaced with shrapnel holes on the pavement. When I reached the other side, my eyes were nervously watching between containers to see my family. I barely recognized them. They were standing with my friend's parents, who were so hoping their daughter would be there with me as well. She was stranded in Grbavica for another week.

I remember them run to embrace me, and I was in the arms of two people who looked nothing like my mom and brother. My mom has shrunken and wrinkled, her blond colored short hair was now dark with some gray and pulled up in a bun; she has aged 20 years. My 14 year old brother has grown in those 2.5 years, and was now a head taller than me, with butt-long hair and super skinny. My brother went to a concert downtown that evening (Yes, amazingly, the life still existed in Sarajevo), and mom and I had to make our way to the other side of the city where we lived.

It was around 4-5 PM, and the last few trams were about to go by. When I saw how full it was, with half-a-dozen people hanging off of each door, I realized there was no way for us to get in with all my bags. We left half of the stuff at my friend's family who lived near by, and the two of us continued on a 4 hour walk toward Dobrinja, with one bag between us and 2 bags in tow on a skateboard.

Along the way, I wasn't able to hide my complete shock of all the destruction in the city. (This was the front line near the bridge, the four apartment towers are on the other side of river Miljacka, in Grbavica.) All the letters and stories I've heard could not have prepared me for seeing this in person. Although all the buildings were made of concrete, they all had huge grenade holes, some were completely collapsed, there were barely any windows without plastic on them, some intersections had huge fabrics draped across to obscure the view from the snipers up the hill, there were drenches in every neighbourhood....

When we finally reached our neighbourhood, it was already dusk, and my mom pointed out the building where they now lived. "We got the power!" she exclaimed, after seeing most of the windows lit up. She realized she might have left the stove on from the last time they had electricity, and ran ahead of me to check up on it. I made the last few hundred yards by myself, entering into this new life that was going to be anything but ordinary.

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