03 | Sarajevo Training | Fall 1993 | Part 3 – When Darkness Falls
We check through at the airport Quonset hut, and from there to the gate leading outside. My colleague Claudia beckons; our ride's here. With a heavy heart, dragging my 40-kilo bag through the dirt behind me, we head into the center of Sarajevo. Our car makes its way through streets under sniper and rocket fire. At that time Sarajevo had been under siege for months. Who would have guessed then that it would continue for another three years?
The ride from the Sarajevo airfield is tense, bumpy, and frantic, as we avoid roads which make us an easy target for snipers.
Damir is driving, and I'm bouncing around in the back of the Land Rover with Adriana, a Sarajevo doctor. As a surgeon, she’s on call at Kosovo hospital, a hellhole where surgeries are miraculously performed without light, power, medication, anesthetic. She and Damir are now employed by a Norwegian relief agency which delivers emergency medical services to the elderly, and supplies them with water, food, and fuel; what little there is of it. Their organization has offered us transportation and shelter for the week Claudia and I are here. Doctor Adriana is invaluable for many reasons, including speaking excellent English and translating for us when needed.
Damir snakes carefully through narrow cobbled streets near the main road. Headlights are turned off to make us safer. Shadowy ghosts move along the sides of the road, lugging water jugs in any way possible; in wheelbarrows, on bicycles, by hand. We make our way to the UN Protection Forces Headquarters canteen for some food and jugs of water; then and set off with our driver to the apartment generously offered us for our stay. As we make our way through the devastated city, it seems impossible that anyone has survived the buildings racked with bullet holes and blown apart by shells
When darkness falls in Sarajevo, it is very dark. The lights that come out after sundown, those earthly lights bespeaking civilization, have been obliterated. No more windows radiant with lamplight, no more even the warm glow of candlelight; after a siege of eighteen months, candles are too rare to use casually. No streetlights, no neon lights, no traffic lights, no more the beckoning lights and music from the late-night cafes. On a sultry summer evening, one misses the cafe lights, the cafe sounds. Darkness and silence offer an emphatic backdrop for the rumble of shelling in the hills, for the occasional bright bursts of gunfire. Who the hell are they firing on up there at night, all night? Those are the front lines of warring armies, fighting to advance a few more yards on a helpless city of half-starving civilians.
No car headlights either; no petrol, no cars. Except ours. Damir, our driver, is 36 years old, a lawyer before the war, now relegated to driving relief workers through his once opulent city. He is taking us to Adriana and Vlado's flat for the night. They are staying with family, and Claudia and I have been offered their place for our stay in Sarajevo. Damir knows the score. "See that corner? Today snipers killed a man there. He was standing in line for water. That field of fresh graves, it's filled with people under 25 years old. I knew many. Two cousins there. This street is where our car took 3 bullets last week, narrowly missed my colleague and me." He laughs, his laughter a mixture of sardonic disbelief and nightmare terror. Approaching a vulnerable strip of road, he turns off his headlights and careens through the pitch blackness, narrowly missing bicycles and pedestrians shuffling along the sides of the street. "Can't keep our lights on here, makes us sitting ducks for the Chetniks in the hills. My father lives up there, right on the Serb front lines. He's an old man, 73, has no electricity, water, fuel for heat or cooking. Can't cook for himself even if he did. He nearly froze last winter. I don't know how he'll make it through this one. He won't leave his home. I worry for him. He needs his wife to help care for him, but she and my sisters have made it safely to Sweden. Now, how could anyone in their right mind come back here, even if they could get in? And how could I leave my father here alone, even if I could get out?" No answers to such compelling questions, questions of life and death. What would I do without my American passport and UN identity card allowing access into and out of Bosnia? Why are he and Adriana held captive here, not allowed to leave and re-enter their own country? There is so much about this war that I don't understand. Damir speaks. "This is the time of my life when I should be marrying, having children. I can do none of this. But at least we survive." He is thin, gaunt, even emaciated. If this is the look of someone working for an international relief agency, earning hard currency, I shudder to think of the condition of those with no income. He's edgy, jumpy. I'm sure it hasn't helped that snipers have hit his car on 2 occasions. He drives a "soft" car and is hoping that his boss will be able to procure an armored vehicle. He is scared, desperate. I can see it in his eyes; hear it in his uneasy laugh. He laughs at the absurd situation in which he finds himself. Our car climbs the streets to Ciglane, originally a brick factory, then comfortable flats, now a makeshift wartime camp for hundreds of displaced and refugee families. Adriana talks wistfully of when she, her husband Vlado, and children lived here before the war tore the family apart. We travel through a tunnel, and traverse the hillside by switch-back laneways, to finally reach the buildings. No other cars on the road, and only an occasional person, make me feel creepy, removed from civilization. It is black, desolate. The only illumination is from our now turned-on headlights as we move into the complex, past car skeletons overturned, stripped, blackened, past huge hills of garbage staked out by packs of wild dogs. Then, as we pass the numerous laneways between buildings, bringing headlights into the shadows, what I see takes my breath away. In the lanes, lovers locked in embrace. My first feeling is embarrassment, having intruded on the private moment of strangers. As we pass couple after young couple, my heart soars. Even here in the shadows, the forces of love are alive, will not be subverted to the darkness.