Sunday, May 24, 2009

Life under fire

It is a fact that doesn't need stating that Sarajevo was under almost daily gun fire during the war. We all lived with the fact that when we go outside we can get shot. But the war lasted 4 years, and we of course couldn't be inside for that long, so many people, some 10,000 civilians, got killed in Sarajevo. That number is higher than the number of Bosnian soldiers killed in the city.

It also may be obvious, but I must clarify here, that we mostly walked, actually run, wherever we needed to go. Despite the lack of food, we were in good physical shape because of all the running. There was no public transportation, there was no gas for personal vehicles, and anyway most of them were destroyed by artillery. So, people were a relatively slow moving target for a distant sniper, and grenades an effective 'solution' for large gatherings.

The geographical position and the siege of Sarajevo allowed civilians to be such an easy target. Sarajevo lies in a valley and is surrounded by several hills and mountains. The Serb army was stationed on the elevated positions on the three sides of the city, and on the 4th, west, side is the airport, thankfully controlled by the international forces after the first few months of the war. West of the airport was the territory and the only mountain, Igman controlled by the Bosnian army. The windy road up this mountain was under frequent fire and few, very brave drivers dared to ride it. They would usually go at night, but their car lights would give them away. Our parish priest, fra. Mirko, made numerous trips on this, the only road leading into the city, bringing supplies to all the people of Sarajevo. My godmother went with him a couple of times, and told me he always requested she led the prayer of absolution, the long version, she would say. He received honors from the city for all the selfless, generous, and unbiased help that he brought.

We kind of new when it was a bad day to go out because of the shooting. It was obvious, we didn't need the news. Some areas were more dangerous than others. In the early months, several intersections were marked with signs like these "Attention, Sniper". Many streets were not passable, and we took the back roads. There was pretty much only one route to go from our side of the city to the center, 6-7 miles which took about 3 hours. We had to maneuver through some trenches, go behind the buildings whenever possible, and always run on the intersections. Even after the war we had an instinct to cross the streets very quickly.

Because we knew the guns were up the hills, on most smaller streets facing the hills people draped large pieces of fabrics hanging between the buildings on each side of the street. On large intersections huge steel cargo containers or damaged cars were lined up and stacked up. Amazingly, snipers sometimes were able to find the victims even through the small spaces between the two containers.

Our eight story building was 'safe' for most of the war. We lived on the third story, but we still had few bullet holes in the walls, and most windows blown out from grenades that fell on the top of the building. The last two floors were all destroyed. We had a sniper once trying to hit my mom and brother on the balcony as they were setting up the stove. That sniper was "working" that area only shortly, and after a couple of weeks we were able to live in that side of the apartment again. There was only one occasion when we were scared enough that we had to run down to the basement. Some city residents, on the other hand, spend many of their days under the ground.


  1. Wow, I can't imagine what it would have been like to live for four years with hearing so much gunfire so close. I guess you become numb to the sensation?

    Your priest sounds amazing, what wonderful people we have working for our Lord!

  2. Actually, you never can get used to that awful sound. You become so sensitive to it, that years later any sound similar to it makes you flinch.