Excavating memories of Bosnia, I stumble on buried sadness and shame. Since my husband’s death there is no one who shares this time of my life with me, no one who understands – and so I can forget. Even when the Balkan war was raging, like any war that’s not yours, it was more than most can fathom so questions do not get asked, stories are never told. But the recent conviction of Karadzic and the new novel by Edna O’Brien – The Little Red Chairs (beautifully reviewed here) launched me into emotional archives.
I arrived on New Years eve and heralded in 1993 by drinking too much beer with British and Danish soldiers in the basement of a hotel-turned-UN base in Kiseljak, just 20 miles outside of Sarajevo. UN Peacekeeping seemed like a chance for me to make a difference – an idea quickly squashed by hopelessness and a murky mandate. I followed orders and stuck to the rules like a good neutral, well-paid international civil servant.
My job was to take notes at meetings with now-convicted war criminals. In bombed-out factories and airport hangars, freezing schools devoid of students, the men smoked, drank slivovitz and monologued about ancient grievances. On the way to one meeting, we passed burning houses, doors open, laundry flapping – the people fled – or worse. As I watched the thugs suck on their cigarettes, it was the smoke of the village that made me cough until tears ran down my face. The reports I wrote up were received on waxy paper that faded within weeks. At night, when I hid under my covers listening to the HVO (the Bosnian-Croat army) moving through the streets and thought of the violence of neighbor on neighbor, I wept and felt guilty for being there and doing nothing, ashamed for being part of the human race.
Whenever I could I spent the night with my husband-to-be at the Holiday Inn where he lived with the rest of the International Committee of the Red Cross. I envied them the good work they did, delivering tangible results – reuniting families, bringing in relief supplies. Neil brought cigarettes to prisoners and did his best to make everyone laugh. A natural rule-breaker, he looked to save lives, smuggling people out of the city more than once. I fell for him because of that and for the laughter. Also at the hotel were the many journalists who passionately exposed atrocities and relentlessly pushed for the world to see what was happening on their doorstep. I was quiet at these dinners, not wanting to identify myself as part of UNPROFOR – the Peacekeeping Operation regularly under fire by them – for me – doing nothing. I felt a fraud.
On one snowy day, I sat in the back of the armored car driven by the sweet young British soldier who’d been assigned to drive my boss. The 5 ton vehicle strained to get up the winding hills over Sarajevo. The view was incredible – the hills from where the Serbs lobbed thousands of shells into the city, torturing their former neighbors for more than 3 years. One big gun erupted – as if shot for our benefit or warning – just as we passed. The massive car lifted and we continued up the road deafened, to the well-fed town in the hills above the city they were strangling.
My boss and I sat across the table from him and his wife and between bites, chatted about their work as psychiatrists, the time they spent in my old neighborhood not far from Columbia. She made some comment about New York being a good place for psychiatry. He mentioned the poets Charles Simic and Kenneth Koch as if they were friends. He asked how the food was where we were based. Only after the crumbs were swept off the table did he discuss his map – getting up with a toss of his hair to point out his version of the future – using the word ‘cleaned’ in referring to entire area of Bosnia and into Croatia. Cleaned. Of the many men I met who did terrible things, he was most clearly evil.
Perhaps forgetting makes sense for what is there to do with such guilt? Who do I ask for forgiveness? So I bury it and wait for the discomfort, the sickening feeling to fade. What is to be gained by remembering? Or what might be lost in forgetting? There was little I could have done – but I did so little.