• Marcia Jacobs

06 | Sarajevo Training | Fall 1993 | Part 6 – Bearing Gifts


Trolley Car
Photo: Adnan Šahbaz // Everything comes to a standstill in the once vibrant Sarajevo, as the war-torn city is besieged by enemy troops. In this modern European city of over half a million people, the siege lasts for almost 4 years, leaving nearly 14,000 citizens dead, half of them civilians.


At the close of our last day of training, Damir and Adriana pick us up to deliver the package from Hasan, the doctor in Zagreb, to his aged father. Sitting in the car, the war-ravaged streets of Sarajevo rushing by outside the window are compelling. But Adriana, sitting across from me, draws my attention away from them. She is beautiful, a 28-year-old woman with silky, pale olive skin, shiny blue-black hair, hazel almond eyes. Her smile so animates her features, I can only think it comes straight from the heart. She possesses a boundless passion, perfectly met by her grace and modesty. The gauntness of her face, and dark circles under her eyes, only emphasize her loveliness. It occurs to me that she would look as much at home in a burgundy and peach ski outfit on the ski slopes outside Sarajevo as she does in her chinos, boots, sweaty open-necked men's shirt, camouflage-patterned flak jacket, beat-up doctor's bag at her feet. As the car lurches we are thrown together, and, startled, I notice tears mingled with the sweat on her cheeks. "Adriana, what is it? Do you want to talk?" "No, no Marcia. We have only met this week, and I don't want to burden you with my silly problems. So many are suffering more." "Please, Adriana. You give so freely to us, and this is all I have to offer, an ear to listen." "But it is such a long story, and my English isn’t so good, and you are tired after your training." "No really, please, speak. I'm yours." “Oh Marcia, if only I could paint a canvas of our life before the war. My father worked for the Ministry of Commerce, and our family lived comfortably, never in need. We had a large flat in Sarajevo, and our home was known among our friends for its stunning gardens. My mother was devoted to her gardens and tended them with great care. She did this for one reason; so that her friends and family could gather, and she could bring pleasure to her loved ones. And none did she love more than her grandchildren, my two girls. We had, as well, a cabin on the nearby ski slopes, which now the Serbian army occupies, and a summer home on the Adriatic coast in Croatia which has been in our family for generations. Vlado and I met when we were very young, and married when I was 19, he 24. Because of our youth, and our demanding studies, those early years were not easy. He was finishing his dental studies; I was a pre-med student. Quite soon after our marriage came the two children. Fortunately for us, both families helped us so much. They told us “Do not worry. We’re here to help. Just devote yourselves to your studies.” We were very lucky to have the support of family. Just before the war started, we took our first family vacation, just the two of us and the children. We so much enjoyed being together.

Photo: Marcia Jacobs // Hospitals were targeted as war raged in Sarajevo. Dedicated staff risked their lives to guide patients into the relative safety of the basement.

On our return home, the shelling of Sarajevo had begun. Even so, war seemed so unreal, so impossible to us. We thought it would last a few days, weeks, a few months at the most. We told ourselves that the world would not stand by while an army shelled us and destroyed our city, killing civilians. Vlado and I never questioned that we would remain in Sarajevo. As health workers, we felt that our place was here, helping our people. But the safety of the children concerned all of us, especially my mother. We decided that she would take her granddaughters and move, with my younger sister, to our summer home on the coast in Croatia. It never for a moment occurred to us that the war would forcibly part us for the next 16 months, with, even now, no end to our separation in sight. My mother is sixty and has a heart condition. Still, we assumed things would be okay on the coast. After all, my mother began going there as a child, and our summer home, in a small village, has been in our family for many years. Most people there have known my sister and me, and my children, all our lives. We have shared our summers together as friends, neighbors, almost family. But things were not to be this way. My mother found the villagers indifferent to her plight as a refugee with 2 small children. Some were openly hostile and would not let her forget that now Croatia and Bosnia were not part of one state, but countries in an ethnic and territorial war. Most upsetting to her have been the problems the children faced at school, and at such young ages, only 5 and 7. In her first week at school, Azra, the older one, was confronted in the school yard. Some children asked her what she was; a Serb, Croat, or Muslim. My child, who had never been called upon to identify herself by religion or nationality, said she didn't know. Bullies threatened her for not choosing. ‘O.K.,’ she replied in all innocence, ‘I'm a Serb.’ At this point the others beat her with sticks. When she returned home her grandmother was frantic about the incident. 'When here on the coast, say you are Croatian. When at home in Sarajevo, you are Bosnian,' she warned her. Shortly after this incident the authorities advised my mother that since the children are not Croatian citizens, they would not be able to go to the local school, a few blocks away. Rather, they would be sent to the refugee school 8 kilometers from home. She and the little ones could not walk this far, and we have no car on the coast. This outraged my mother. She can be a very strong person when fighting for her children. Her granddaughters would not be deprived of schooling. She has been adamant in her position, but the struggles with school authorities have been hard on her and taken much of her strength. Please understand Marcia - we are only one family. Many thousands of refugee children are in much worse situations. A generation of children will be uneducated because of such obstacles, and then what chance will they have? Shortly after my children left Sarajevo, movement in and out of Bosnia was restricted, and it was impossible for me to see them. I couldn't live with this situation; my heart was broken without them. I was desperate and did something very risky. I obtained a forged UN card to travel to the coast to spend some days with family there. On returning to Sarajevo, my forged papers were discovered, and I was charged with a crime. They told me I would never be issued a UN card and so would be unable to leave Bosnia for as long as the war continued. This has been a nightmare for me. Can you imagine this, Marcia? My children were 5 and 7 when I last saw them. Now they are almost 7 and 9. My mother's health is deteriorating, and it is all she can do to care for them. We are, all of us, virtually under house arrest in our own country. Why? What crimes have we committed? Our oppressors, the criminals who torture and kill us, destroy our lives, our country, they go free. How can this be? But the tears I shed today, Marcia, are not for the loss of my children or the oppression of our people. Sometimes I think I have cried myself dry of those tears. Today I shed tears of anger, so much anger. This morning I arrived at my father's apartment on schedule. Vlado and I alternate weeks living at his parents and with my father. This way we share all we have and help the older ones with tasks they don't have the strength for, you know, carrying water, getting firewood. When I entered his flat, my eyes fell at once on the neatly stacked items in the hallway. The piles contained all of my and Vlado’s belongings. At first I was confused. Then a feeling of dread washed over me. I called out to my father, who answered me from the living room. He was seated on the sofa, next to a woman, attractive and much younger than him. I suspected right then what was happening, but I tried to push it from my mind. ‘Adriana, this is Dunja. She has moved in with me. We want and need our privacy, and I ask that you and Vlado move your things out.’ Just as simple as that, Marcia. For me, for Vlado, this is not such a big problem. But what about my mother? She is on the coast with the children, having taken on a job difficult for a woman half her age. It is because of me that she is there. Is this how her husband repays her for her sacrifice? What of their marriage of 35 years? Who will tell her of this betrayal? Where is the justice in this?" Our conversation halts when the car stops abruptly on a tiny lane in the old town of Sarajevo. We have arrived at the building where Hasan’s father lives. Adriana jumps out of the car with me. She will help me find the right flat and will act as interpreter. This old part of Sarajevo, narrow streets winding amongst the ancient mosques and shops, teemed with life before the war. One can still feel the charm and richness of the old architecture, on the banks of the once pristine Miljacka River. Now the river, too dangerous to approach closely because of snipers, is filled with garbage. In the early evening light the street is desolate, the only sign of life a group of Bosnian soldiers smoking in a courtyard. Adriana asks for directions and they point us to the building immediately behind them. They are very young, and anxious to be of help. Our appearance has likely provided a welcome relief from their tedium. We enter the building, then the stairwell; dark, windowless, no electricity to light our way. We walk slowly upstairs, searching in the dimness for the name on the doors. Finally, breathless, on the fifth landing we reach our destination and knock. The door opens, and the rays of the setting sun streaming through the kitchen window blind us for a moment. Coming out of the dark into the light, we are greeted by the unexpected. She is a vision of gentleness, round, soft, the perfect grandmother I never had. Standing barely 5 feet tall, an apron streaked with flour covers her ample body. Thinning gray hair pulled into a bun at her nape, twinkling blue eyes, and an unlined skin, porcelain and rosy at once, complete the picture. Before she knows who we are, she is welcoming us, introducing herself as Mirela, urging us to “enter, enter.” She leads us into the living room, one side crowded with overstuffed furniture, the other filled with a bed and nightstand. In the bed, propped on pillows, lies a cadaverous vision. Only the labored rising and falling of his chest convince me that he is indeed alive. Mirela sits on the edge of the bed, and takes the sleeping old man into her arms. “Kemal, Kemal, wake up! We have visitors. They bring letters, and a package from Hasan.” The old man opens his eyes, his face confused, disoriented. Mirela repeatedly explains, "a package from your son." Finally, he registers understanding, and, tears streaming down the hollows of his cheeks, reaches out towards me. "My son, my son, you have come." Sobs wrack his body. "No, no, you old fool. This is not Hasan, but a young woman bringing word from him." He collapses back onto the pillows, wiping away tears. Fumbling next to him on the bedside table, he picks up a small picture frame, kisses it repeatedly, and hands it to us. The picture, taken in better times, shows Hasan, his wife and their 2 children. After admiring it, we hand him the package we have brought, a note from Hasan along with medicine and money. Soon Kemal falls back on the bed and is asleep again. Mirela bustles into the kitchen, returning with glasses of homemade wine. "You see, I am 82 years, and he 84. He was alone, and I was alone. It is not good to be alone in these times. He needed someone to care for him, and I needed someone to care for. Here, we two can live better than one, and we help each other to survive." After some wine, cakes and conversation, Adriana and I leave the building, each lost in our own thoughts. We hurry down the block. Just before reaching the waiting car, she grabs my arm. We turn to face each other, and she speaks. "Something happened to me in that flat, watching Mirela and the old man. I understood something about my father, and what he is doing. I can't forgive him for the betrayal of my mother. No, I am still angry about that. But I feel something else for him now, something bigger than the anger, and deeper inside. I see that he too is a man alone, who has lost everything, who has suffered greatly, who needs a woman. This afternoon, Marcia, my heart has again opened to my father."

Cathedral in shelled Sarajevo Bosnia
Photo: Marcia Jacobs // Somehow this cathedral window survived as the roof was blown apart by shelling.