Magazine article New Internationalist

Love and Death in Sarajevo

Magazine article New Internationalist

Love and Death in Sarajevo

Article excerpt

MARIJA held my arm reassuringly. 'And now,' she said holding her breath, 'the adventure begins. Are you ready?'

I had no other choice.

We were leaving the damaged newspaper building in Sarajevo where she works. There was no other way to get out except to cross a deserted railway line exposed to sniper fire.

Marija was still holding my arm. Her friend Senad was our front guard, armed only with an umbrella. We dashed across the tracks, took a safer route behind an abandoned warehouse for dilapidated trucks, then crawled into the bushes beside a river. That over, we faced the final obstacle -- climbing over a fence; if done quickly it meant we had less of a chance of being shot.

For a split second I was so immobilized by fear that Marija and Senad had to pull me off the ground. But we made it to safety. Marija gave me a hug of relief and we broke into nervous laughter. 'I think we need a vacation in Los Angeles,' Senad said jokingly, 'where the sun shines and there are people everywhere.'

Almost every day since the civil war came to Sarajevo ten months ago Marija and Senad have taken the same route to and from work. They've naturally developed the mental strength to ward off fear -- the bravery of fatalism.

Marija, a reporter, and Senad, a photographer with the underground newspaper Oslobondenje -- which means 'liberation' -- have taken upon themselves the dangerous work of covering a complicated war.

That sunny day Marija was wearing a flak jacket for the first time. A year ago before she became a war reporter Marija had a glamorous job working for a women's magazine. She hadn't lost any of her sophistication. Her lips were painted red, her hair nicely trimmed. She wore a fake diamond stud in her left ear, a dangling earring in her right and a bright blue jacket over her bulletproof vest.

Everywhere I went in the former Yugoslavia the images of women like Marija belied the ugliness of war. It was as if keeping themselves beautiful with cosmetics and stylish clothes were a psychological defiance of misery. 'We have to do this even if war is going on,' she told me. 'We can't just stay in the basement. Life has to go on.'

Marija left me at the guard post of the UN military base that was once a post office. She reminded me about the letter she had written hastily over lunch. It was a love letter I was to deliver to a man named Amer in Pristina, where I would be going the following week. I promised her it would get to him. We embraced each other and said goodbye.

As I walked into the UN base a man with whom I spent most of my three days in Sarajevo waved at me. Nebosja 'Neso' Marijanovic beamed an avuncular smile and pulled me close to him. 'How's my favourite?' he said, as if I had just come home from the neighbourhood playground.

Neso is a Serb. Anyone who thinks Serbs are monsters would not think it of him.

Neso is as much a victim as any Muslim or Croat of the civil strife in Bosnia - Hercegovina. His wife is a Croat; he had to send her and their son to a refugee camp in the Croatian city of Split.

For hours he talked to me about his life 'before all this'. Those who tell their stories steer away from the tragic narratives that are the stuff of journalism. He sticks to the past: 'I was an economics major working for a computer company'. And to the present: 'I'm now a driver for UNICEF'. He takes the emotional leap to avoid what happened in between -- to his own people. Pointing to the urchins lurking outside the fence of the UN base he said: 'They used to be bright boys who went to school every day. Now they're beggars.'

Neso showed me what has happened to Sarajevo. In a white Land Rover he drove me through the streets of what had been one of Yugoslavia's most charming cities. The park had lost its habitues; the presidential office stood as helpless as its people; the cemetery was overcrowded. Near the cemetery is the stadium, now a storage space for humanitarian relief goods, once the pride of Sarajevo during the 1984 Winter Olympics. …

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