Window on Sarajevo: A Personal View


It’s ironic to begin a literary piece in the ruins of a library that once housed thousands of authors’ introductions. But irony is the language of war – sometimes expressed in whispers, sometimes in screams.

Both echoed around us as we made our way through the rubble of what was once the National Library of Sarajevo. My husband Charles and I stopped, again and again, trying to make sense of the devastation. The scenes before us epitomized the primal aggression of the previous four years: the attempt of bare brutality to strip this city of its civility.

Charles was there to bring the courage of Beethoven to a community that still had sporadic water, light, and heat. I was there to renew my personal and political ties, to learn more about the little-known heroism of women in this war, and to sort out how we might be more helpful from our embassy in Vienna.

This journal is a collection of images – in words and photographs – that can’t begin to capture what we observed, heard, or felt. For in the wake of war, we witnessed human life, raw and unadorned, stripped of the graces of better times. We saw the ugliness of human cruelty, the leaden sadness of loss. But we also saw extraordinary courage, and the energy and optimism to launch the long, laborious task of rebuilding.

Sarajevo is a city that refused to die. And we had the privilege of being there to document the first moments of her rebirth.

Swanee Hunt
January, 1996

At the bombed National Library of Sarajevo, 1996

Day One

“A soccer field transformed into a graveyard may be an apt symbol for the bloodshed of Sarajevo, and that image was captured on film by the United States Ambassador to Austria, Swanee Hunt. Her photograph… was taken in December 1995 on a visit to the city in the former Yugoslavia that was devastated by warfare between Croats and Serbs. In Sarajevo, where sports brought the world together for the 1984 Winter Olympics, sports facilities have been largely abandoned or converted to grimmer purposes.

It is one of 93 works on paper that are on display at the Brooklyn Museum of Art in a show titled ‘Process on Paper: Recent Acquisitions — Prints, Drawings and Photographs.’ All have been acquired in the last 10 years.” — The New York Times, Aug. 3, 1997

Bosnia graves in the soccer stadium

Snow is blanketing Sarajevo today, covering up some of the pain. And in the quiet, forgiving beauty of this wintry day, the graceful turn-of-the-century buildings regain a brief moment of timeless elegance.

But just beneath the surface, injury is everywhere. Even the marble lion that once guarded Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s last breakfast in 1914 has now himself been wounded, bullets having ripped his thigh.

We’re here for a week, having flown in on a Soviet-built, U.N. cargo plane. My husband, Charles, will conduct the Sarajevo Philharmonic for a New Year’s Eve concert in the National Theater. I will meet with political leaders and visit various humanitarian projects.

But in a sense, we’re here for a lifetime. One never leaves behind the impressions of Sarajevo, a city under siege for four years, now just two weeks since the formal declaration of peace.

Damaged lion statue, Sarajevo, 1995

Our headquarters are the American Embassy. In this small but new office building, we have two cots in a corner, with sleeping bags. The American Ambassador to Bosnia, John Menzies, has been sleeping in his office since he arrived 13 months ago. It’s the only really safe place, and with Washington office hours beginning at 2 p.m. Bosnia time and stretching till midnight, it’s helpful being 20 feet away from the communication system.

On the walls are dozens of maps -– and almost nothing else. No embassy china here; we eat two meals a day in the basement with paper cups in front of the TV, as we try to stay plugged into the world via CNN. Happily, Charles and I arrived with a stash of weekly news magazines and old newspapers, voraciously snatched up by the few dozen embassy personnel. Otherwise, no mail arrives. But morale is incredibly high. After all, there’s been electricity most of the time for weeks. And, more important, there’s the charge of knowing your work really matters.

Before coming, I asked John what I might bring. Sure, I could rustle up two space heaters and pack them in my duffel bag. And, yes, I’d have room for some bags of coffee too.

So what, that the embassy is surrounded by coils of barbed wire, and diplomats ride in armored cars? So what that they launder their socks in the bathtub and hang their ties on strings between the bookshelf and window? Those are simply inconveniences. We are surrounded by real hardship. And the evidence is everywhere we look:

— through bullet-scarred doors into dank stairwells, light filtering through drafty windows with jagged, broken panes;

— in the despair on a father’s face as he describes how his daughter was shot while lying in her hospital bed;

— in young and old men on crutches, hobbling gingerly on one leg across the icy streets;

— in the ravaged carcass of a bus, parked beside the remains of the maternity hospital, hammered with unsuspecting patients still inside;

— in the tears of a refugee grandmother, describing her six weeks of terror with seven others in her tiny apartment, until separatist gunmen forced them to flee with nothing;

— in the haunting shells of buildings that once were home to thousands of families;

— in the Olympic soccer field, from a distance an orderly Austrian vineyard, but upon inspection, lined instead with hundreds of wooden grave markers rising above the snow.

But there are other signs too – signs of hope. In spite of a 10 p.m. curfew, coffeehouses are brimming with life. Our first night we go out to sample the local brew – strong and rich, thick as mud. The coffee is usually served in a small individual brass pitcher, generously sweetened, then drunk from a tiny handleless cup.

A thin, wan man recognizes me and approaches our table. He is a Sarajevo journalist, in Vienna when the Bosnian/Croat Federation agreement was negotiated in our embassy, almost two years ago. “That was the first real step toward this peace,” he says.

I remember him. “You told me at dinner in our residence that you hadn’t eaten meat in two years,” I recall. He smiles.

“I was your guest then,” he says. “Now please be mine.”

It’s a significant gesture. After all, most people appreciate being rescued, but few want to live on indefinitely in the role. So at his bidding I drink one more cup of strong coffee… then spend a near-sleepless night, tossing on my cot, with plenty of hours to wonder about the stories that have been lived out behind all those plastic-covered windows.

Snow is blanketing Sarajevo. NATO troops are moving in. The snipers have been told to hold their fire. The shelling has ceased. And the dawning year is blessedly quiet.

Day Two

Military trappings are everywhere: combat boots stomping through the snow; green camouflage uniforms and AK47’s, carried even by local police; “state of alert” warnings disturbing quaint, old-world settings; rolls of barbed wire across “off limits” areas; and big, lumbering, white tanks, with the familiar NATO Implementation Force (IFOR) label.

As our nation focuses on American troops joining their NATO partners in Bosnia, I find myself reflecting on the moral foundation for our involvement. My visits today to two humanitarian projects provide a ground more solid than any philosophical argument.

Stairway with sign reading, "State of alert"

War is tough on everyone — but hardest on the kids. Not only are they physically more affected by deprivation, but their young egos are especially vulnerable to the onslaught of violence. My first visit is to a therapy center for children traumatized by the war.

How do you reach a child who has watched her mother raped, his father beaten and killed, her playmates terrorized? Words often can’t touch the terror; but movement, music, and drama can. As guest of honor, I have a front-row seat. Actually there’s only one row for the audience, because this is really about the performers.

The show opens with a dozen young girls dancing to raucous music, while one young superstar holds a play microphone and cuts loose as lead singer. All are dressed in black, with dramatic makeup, flowers, and glitter — glamorously adorned. The choreography allows no wallflowers. When they’re finished, we applaud and whistle our approval.

In return, I sing for them — “Morning Has Broken” — as I sit on the floor picking out the chords on a synthesizer in my lap. The hopeful theme of the song seems especially apt for this new dawn of Sarajevo. One sweetheart asks if she can kiss me. Exuberant, the girls surround me, smothering me with kisses.

The second piece is a skit by the boys, dramatizing peace negotiations in Geneva. A map of Bosnia is spread across a table as young Clinton, Chirac, Yeltsin, Kinkel, and Akashi pore over boundaries, arguing about how to divide up the territory. They shake their fists at each other, their voices growing louder and louder. Finally, grudging agreement reached, they are interviewed individually. Each takes the mike. Shouts — distorted and shrill — pierce my ears. My interpreter whispers, “Those aren’t words; they’re just making noises.”

I leave the center, wondering how much we could learn from the children, if only we were wise enough to listen.

Maybe it’s appropriate for the season that my second visit is to an inn that has no room. The former hotel for single people now houses hundreds of refugees; every possible space is filled, and newcomers must be turned away.

The wall is smooth now, where only a few weeks ago there was a gaping hole from a mortar shell. The windows, like most in Sarajevo, are covered with plastic.

Children are laughing and playing in the halls, although I notice small mounds of bright red pellets, poison tempting not only to rats but also curious kids, I would guess. Our guide leads us with pride to the cold, dark, unlit basement, where five showers have been installed. But we can’t reach them, because a chest-high pile of wooden logs is in the way. Oh well, it’s winter, she reminds us. People mostly shower in the summer.

Sure, I’d be interested in seeing a room. We knock, and the door opens into a 12-by-15-foot space, which for two years has served as a cramped home to a family of five. The building is allotted gas only every second day, so a small iron stove, piped out the window, converts back and forth between wood and gas. A tin plate with porridge is bubbling on top of the stove. Laundry hangs above it.

Grandma invites me to come in and sit down. She is knitting brightly patterned socks, to be sold for $3 on the black market. The scarf on her head frames a heartwarming smile.

I can accept the fact that Grandma’s constant grin is toothless. She has lived a long life. But her 18-year-old grandson standing by the window has only one of his six front teeth. The aggression of war is everywhere — even in a smile.

I listen to the story of the flight from their village, a 13-day ordeal of terror. But then I remember, they are the lucky ones. Hundreds of thousands were horribly brutalized — or simply shot.

They realize, as well, their good fortune. No talk of going home. Or of regaining their life savings. Or ever living again with their possessions. They, like two million others, are starting over.

So Grandma squeezes my hand with delight, to say thanks for an elegant Christmas card I leave with her. And when I ask, if she could have just one wish, she whispers, “to live in two rooms.”

Day Three

In mid-sentence, I stop. The lights blink off, then on, then off again. My hosts don’t even seem to notice. There is no stir, no commotion. Candles simply appear and are passed down the table as the meeting continues.

In a building next to the river swelled with snowmelt, up two flights of a dark stairwell, across hallway puddles, past the ubiquitous broken window panes and unmarked doors: we’re gathered in a large room, with simple furniture and no decorative features. This is the meeting place for an informal federation of women. Here they speak out, away from a cultural norm of quiet deference when men are present.

Melita is sitting across the table from me, in an understated gray suit that blends with streaks of gray in her hair. She is President of The Union, a coalition of women’s groups across Bosnia.

“The changes for women must begin inside,” she tells me, “We keep waiting for someone else to make things better. That’s how it was under Communism. But we’ve got to make things different ourselves.”

The last four years have been a proving ground for the women of Sarajevo. While their brothers, fathers, fiancés and husbands have been in the trenches, women have been bringing in the family income, growing vegetables in the parks, and raising children — often without schools, heat, or electricity. Raising the children who have survived, that is; in Sarajevo alone, 1,700 have been killed and another 3,000 wounded in the four-year terror campaign.

And in addition to everything else, somehow the women have been organizing, forming well over 50 associations across this small country. The groups are centered around myriad shared interests and causes: politics, academics, professions, trades, and humanitarian crises, to name a few.

But that’s not all. Some women have been on the confrontation line, digging trenches, or behind rifles. In the dim candlelight, I study the delicate features of the fair 22-year-old before me. She has lost everything — her home, her family, her hope. So why not join the soldiers at the front? It’s best not to ask about the experiences that led her to that point. The important thing is now she is back, to rebuild.

Women will provide the backbone of that work. Just by simple mathematics: So many men have been killed or maimed, physically or psychologically, the burden of reconstructing a civil society will have to fall on the women. As Sarajevo comes alive again, women are actively engaged in the most public street life, hawking journals and cigarettes. But behind the scenes, Bosnian women are hampered by serious social discrimination.

I remember the 14 days of Balkan peace negotiations in my embassy in Vienna in 1994. No women among the dozens of lawyers, experts, and political leaders. Now I understand. The Bosnian “glass ceiling” allows women to be 80% of the judges at lower levels, but only one out of nine in the new Constitutional Court. That is the pattern: females as workers, males as managers.

Now, like so many professional women throughout the war, the fifty-year-old editor sitting on my left is working without a salary. Hana is managing a sophisticated monthly magazine. Each of the 6,000 copies is read by ten women in Sarajevo. In places with dense concentrations of refugees, the readership is 50 per copy. Hana insists that her magazine must provide a voice for women. I offer to arrange an interview for her with the NATO commander; she asks, instead, if there’s not a woman in the command structure with whom she could speak.

She is adamant: Sarajevo women are not asking to be rescued. Yes, atrocities have been committed, including thousands raped as a deliberate policy of Serbs to humiliate Bosnian Muslims. Yes, they have suffered. They have borne the gruesome brunt of war. But they have survived. And they are stronger for it.

I think back on my visit earlier in the day to the ruined magnificence of the National Library: a temple of wisdom and beauty, reduced to rubble. Now the card catalogue file leans against a pile of debris and icicles have replaced the delicate ornamentation above the doorway. Then I remember the shattered rose window of the church in the heart of town, creating a tragically ironic background for the Prince of Peace. Those places remind me of these women — sources of mental and spiritual vitality, in spite of the battering of war.

As the candlelit meeting continues, ghostly shadows dance across the walls. The picture forming in my mind is also surreal: week after week, these sophisticated, highly educated women, dressed in the quiet elegance of cameos and pearls, dodging bullets as they dart across sniper zones to collect water in plastic jugs. One woman describes bathing each day for three years from a cup of water. Still, every single morning, she put on her makeup, as a simple act of defiance against the cruel ugliness of life under siege.

Before I leave, I pour 40 tubes of American lipstick onto a silver tray and pass them out. The women laugh. They understand the symbol. I shine a flashlight on the tray – so they can choose their weapon.

Day Four

“Go to the city bakery, Madame Ambassador. The people who work there are the true heroes of the war.” And taking my cue from Bosnian President Izetbegovic, I head out for the bread and pasta factory, the continuous source of sustenance for this city during the siege.

We drive through the neighborhood, past commercial buildings ripped apart, their metal roof parts now hanging like Spanish moss. Windows have been systematically shot out — rows of targets at a carnival.

At the bakery, I’m met at the front door with ceremony, including a very modest bouquet — the only fresh flowers I’ve seen. Bread and roses.

My hosts at the factory are six managers — all men between 40 and 60. But that’s where the stereotype ends. For, like the rest of Sarajevo, they represent the ethnic diversity that made this city a symbol of multiculturalism in Yugoslavia. Two are Muslims, two Serbs, one Croat, and one from a mixed marriage.

That ethnic spread has been a critical feature of this war. Rebel Serb propaganda has painted this war as one among ethnic groups. But the capital of Bosnia has long belied that myth. The real struggle is between the notion of ethnic purity and the ideal of multiculturalism.

And so I sip coffee from a diminutive Middle Eastern cup, and sample cookies from the bakery, literally tasting the blend of East and West that makes this place more like an American-style melting pot than most cities in Europe.

I don a clean jacket and enter a world of dusty white. The building has little to distinguish it architecturally: a hundred-year-old mill house, a cavernous box with three small assembly lines, and four large silos, all grouped around a yard piled high with bags of flour. But enclosed within this industrial compound lies the heart-wrenching story of Sarajevo.

Virtually every pane of glass has been shattered by gunfire. Some are taped; most are replaced by thick plastic. Two of the silos have gaping holes. The mill tower has collapsed. And the walls behind the assembly lines are pocked with bullet holes. Still, the vapors spiraling out of hooded smokestacks on the snowy roof testify to a spirit not defeated.

It is in this environment that 400 women and 200 men have risked their lives to report to work each day for the past four years. Large numbers have been wounded, many losing limbs. And 20 have been killed — 2/3 of them women. Drivers have been picked off by snipers as they’ve made deliveries to over 170 sites across the battered city. At one point, shelling was so heavy the workers could not return home for a week.

This factory is nestled in the city — not on the front lines. It was not caught in some line of fire. The targeting was strategic, an attempt by the rebels to starve the 300,000 citizens of Sarajevo, about half of whom are refugees from a terrorized countryside. With the airport under siege and roads blocked, the city’s humanitarian supplies were cut off for months. For over a year, there was no electricity, gas or oil. The bakery used a 62-year-old Sherman tank motor to run its generator.

Flour supplied by the United Nations has kept the factory in operation, stacks of bags doubling as barricades in doorways and windows. Add to that the powdered “Truman eggs” (as the Bosnians say, harkening back to another time of war). In two and a half years, no spare parts have been supplied. As a result, production is limited by equipment breakdowns. But in spite of the damage sustained by workers and machines, 800,000 baked items and thousands of bags of pasta have been produced daily.

As I watch the noodles being poured into simple clear plastic bags, the manager mentions how important even that packaging has been for Bosnians, a reminder of civilization during this time of wretched barbarism.

In a city in which the very infrastructure has collapsed, the provision of 600 jobs is, in and of itself, a major contribution. Granted, many of the employees are seniors, who receive about $2 a day — and a loaf. But most people in Bosnia have been working without wages for several years. Life has been simply survival, at the most basic level. On January 1, 1996, the bakery workers would take their first day off since the war began.

There’s something reassuring about the warm, fragrant brown loaves, twisted and twirled into small works of art. Across cultures, bread has been a symbol for sustenance and nourishment — rich in sensory pleasure and religious meaning. And so it is with the bread of Sarajevo.

Day Five

Her perch is upstage right, behind the trombones. From there, Sonja reigns over the orchestra, peering over the heads of the oboes and violas, her small, dark eyes riveted resolutely on the conductor.

Sonja has been dividing her time between kitchen kettles and kettle drums for at least 40 years. Thin, almost gaunt, her frame seems frail beside the huge drums, until she starts swinging those mallets. The rhinestones on her sleeves glitter as her arms fly in a pattern — crisscrossing, then flailing like the wings of a bird. In her blend of frailty and strength, I see the soul of the Sarajevo Philharmonic. These 35 survivors include retirees who have answered the call back into service and young students who otherwise would not have such an opportunity. Their work is a gift from the heart; the players have not been paid for four years.

I’m watching Sonja from a box above the stage in the National Theater. It’s my favorite vantage point, because at the same time I can see the orchestra, the audience, and the animated face of my husband, the conductor.

The hall is a small jewel box of Hapsburg elegance — the lower half slate blue trimmed with gold, evolving into dusty rose and painted floral designs as the eye moves upward. For some reason no one seems to know, this building was spared years of Serb shelling.

Still, the war has taken its toll: It took a management decision to heat the building tonight, because oil here is so precious. So the string players, for once, are not fiddling in overcoats. In fact, the minister of energy is in the audience. That means the building will have electricity — and the musicians will have light — throughout the concert.

The performance has started 20 minutes late; it took awhile to get past the soldiers in camouflage uniforms, waving metal detector wands across each elegantly dressed guest. Every nook and cranny of the building has already been searched for bombs by a special team with long-handled mirrors. Even the conductor’s briefcase has been examined. But with the first pounding chords of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, those gathered in this hall have left behind the deprivation of war and entered a new sphere of civility and hope.

I look out at the crowd, across journalists and jurists, soldiers and surgeons. My eyes settle on the Mayor of Sarajevo and his wife, Tarik and Essena, with whom we spent two hours earlier in the day.

Sitting in their living room, we discussed the political situation, the challenge of rebuilding a civil society, and the significance of the concert Charles would conduct a few hours later. Then they asked if we would like to hear their daughter, Mihra, play.

It was a simple, quiet piano piece by Bach. As I listened to the predictable musical developments, my eyes wandered to a shattered glass balcony door on one side of the piano. and holes in the wall and sofa on the other. The family had been in the kitchen when bullets riddled this room. Mirha hadn’t been practicing just then.

This was not their original home. That one, in a suburb I had visited earlier this morning, had been totally destroyed. There, one apartment building after another stands with gaping holes and burned-out rooms; barricades of buses and wrecked cars are piled high to protect against snipers. Next to one mortar-marked building loom three tall metal poles: today’s Golgotha.

I walked along one stretch of street where over 500 pedestrians were picked off by marksmen in the surrounding hills.

My driver this morning was from the neighborhood. I asked him about the trenches stretched out before me. For soldiers? “No,” he had tried to explain, in broken English. “Citizens.” I looked at him puzzled.

As I talked to Essena in her living room, I understood. She described running through those same trenches, braving the snipers to salvage the few small sentimental items she could. With a smile, she held out a napkin embroidered by her mother retrieved from the wreckage.

Now, in the concert hall, I watch the hope on Essena’s face. Then a sweet passage from the piano concerto pulls at me from the stage. I look around the audience; there are few dry eyes.

Heaven and earth are meeting in this hall. And Sonja the drummer, with the wisdom of a grandmother, is determined to keep us all moving forward, boldly, into 1996.