My basement has stacks and rolls of moldy drawings, walls are covered with collages framed for past exhibits and peeking out of corners of my small house are dusty wood sculptures carved long ago in Kyoto. For years, I wanted only to make art. But I was never obsessed nor particularly good, and eventually writing became a more compelling creative outlet.
Words take up less physical but still claim psychic space – and it’s time for me clean house. I worked on my memoir for years, religiously waking at the crack of dawn and putting in almost an hour before work every single day, writing and re-writing. Driven perhaps by the desire to understand what happened, to answer my own questions. To remember.
August 25, would have been the 25th anniversary of my wedding in Sarajevo. Neil wanted me to write our story although we both hoped for a different ending. Molly has read and approved. I’ve gotten lazy about trying to flog this in the traditional publishing world and rather than have all this work languish in my Mac, I thought I’d start posting chapters here. A little bit more of letting go. As always, thanks for reading.
Sarajevo – January 1993
The day I met Neil at Sarajevo airport, staccato bursts of gunfire cracked the frigid air but we heard no mortar thunder. Seven years earlier international athletes arrived in droves for the winter Olympics but now only United Nations staff, relief workers and journalists scrambled across the artillery-pitted runways to board planes in and out of the besieged city. Military aircraft lingered long enough for cargo to be unloaded before lifting back into the sky. Sarajevo’s citizens remained trapped for almost four years while us foreigners hitched free rides on humanitarian aid flights for weekend getaways. Incoming, planes were loaded down with supplies but the heaviest weight on flights out of the city was the occasional dead body of an international peacekeeping soldier or civilian. Sharing one such ride with a fallen colleague, I spent the hour-long trip staring at my book, pretending to sleep, looking out the window – anywhere but at the body-box tethered to the center of the plane.
On a late January day, stepping through filthy slush, I followed a wall of sandbags to the airport’s makeshift arrival and departure building. A young blond soldier greeted me from behind a metal desk, spitting tobacco juice over his shoulder before stamping my blue UN passport with the clever “Maybe Airlines” logo. I peered into the waiting room. Frozen clouds of breath and cigarette smoke hung in the air like cartoon bubbles illustrating the cacophony of languages spoken by the two-dozen or so waiting passengers. British accented English of the BBC crowd in the corner drowned out the hum of Italian, French and Spanish occasionally punctuated by shouts from the Norwegian soldiers manning the airport.
A towering man with an ascot knotted around his neck stepped out of the shadows and walked in my direction. I’d seen him earlier in the week smoking cigarettes in a hallway in the abandoned factory where I’d been at a meeting taking notes for my boss, Victor. We nodded at each other as I hurried out to the next appointment. “There’s a handsome guy,” Victor whispered, elbowing me, as if I hadn’t noticed. Now that handsome guy was sauntering towards me like he was at a cocktail party. He flashed a grin of straight white teeth and offered me his hand, “Hello! Neil Hamilton. Didn’t I see you a few days ago? You’re with the UN, right?”
I put my frozen fingers in his warm grip and he held onto them until I reluctantly pulled them away.
“Yes, I remember you from the other day. I’m Tricia with Civil Affairs UNPROFOR – based in Kiseljak. Are you’re with the ICRC? I know you were at that meeting at the Coca Cola factory in Hadzici.”
“So you remember me!” He winked and sounded pleased. Surely he knew he was memorable. He was gorgeous.
“Are you with the ICRC?”
“Yes. I was brought on as the transportation and security guy. Part of the package with the British Red Cross. The Brits donated an armored Land Rover that I drive for the Swiss. And I do – I drive them mad!” He laughed at his own joke. “You’re on your way to Zagreb too?”
“Well, unfortunately I couldn’t find any flights to the Bahamas from here.”
Why did I have to be a wise ass? To make up for it, I gave him what I hoped was a fetching smile as I ran my hands through my helmet-flattened hair, trying to fluff it back to life.
“Ah, wouldn’t that be lovely! A beach!” He leaned in towards me. “Anything special planned for the weekend?”
“Not really. Good food and lots of hot baths. I just need to get out of here for a bit.”
“You’re bloody right. I’m dying for a good soak and decent nosh. I’m based at the Holiday Inn here and the food is awful. How is it in Kiseljak?”
“The Danish Battalion runs the place so there’s good bread and lots of herring. I’ve had worse. You should come try it.”
“Is that an invitation?”
We were definitely flirting. I needed this.
January had been an endless routine of hopeless days. Speeding through ravaged villages in our armored car, I took copious notes for Victor as he negotiated with men who later ended up convicted of war crimes at The Hague. Meetings were held in a haze of cigarette smoke and usually in unheated schools and defunct factories like the one where I’d met Neil. Afterwards, Victor and I went back to our sandbagged office and drafted reports we faxed to UN headquarters in Zagreb, that sometimes were used to draw up agreements they warring sides mostly ignored. At first, I imagined we were making progress towards peace and found the work compelling. But nights I returned alone to my freezing flat that often had neither electricity nor water. As the war escalated, I began to feel like I was being swallowed up into the abyss of darkness and evil around me.
That morning in the airport, leaning against the frozen cinderblock wall, I shivered with a sense of possibility. Maybe this guy was the man of my dreams. In any case, he seemed a damn good prospect for the weekend.
“UNPROFOR flight is leaving. Please, make your way to the plane!” the soldier called from behind his desk, “Be quick!”
The Antonuv engine roared on the runway ready to lift straight up and out of range of bullets and mortars. Strapping on my blue helmet, I scurried through the tunnel of sandbags, sure Neil was behind me. Heart pounding, sweat trickling down my back in spite of the cold, I sprinted the open stretch of tarmac, imagining a drunken soldier about to take a pot shot at me. I jogged up the ramp to the plane, the metal rattling with each step. Setting my pack onto webbed bench, I pulled off my helmet, shook out my brown hair and turned expectantly and immediately felt foolish. He wasn’t there. I peered out at the runway beyond the plane’s tail where he stood talking to two ruddy-faced men out on the open tarmac. Finally, they shook hands and Neil strolled to the plane.
“Sorry about that,” he said, leaning close to my ear so I could hear him over the noise of the engine. “They’re mates I haven’t seen in ages. I was an ODA convoy leader for a few months before taking the ICRC job and they were my drivers. Great lads. We had some laughs.”
The bellowing engine grew even louder. He reached into a breast pocket and pulled out a pack of Benson and Hedges, offering me one.
“No thanks!” I grimaced.
“Right, it’s a shit habit but I can’t quit now. Do you mind?” Without waiting for an answer, he shook the cigarettes, pulling one out with his teeth.
“No, but I don’t think you’re supposed to smoke on the plane.” I yelled, pointing to the international signs and Cyrillic letters that I surmised meant “no smoking” in Russian. He shrugged and lit up, motioning towards the cabin, “The Ruskie’s don’t care. Look at them up there puffing away.” Sure enough, cigarettes hung from the lips of the crew standing in the cockpit. Neil turned to me. “Are you married?”
I leaned back in mock surprise. “My! You get right to the point don’t you? All right then – no, are you?”
“Well, there’s no time to waste, is there?” He smiled. “I’m not married either. I was once – as a kid – barely eighteen. I have two beautiful, grown girls in England. I also lived with a bird up until about six months ago. It’s over now. She wanted to get married but I knew she wasn’t the one.”
Did he give me a meaningful look? I turned away to fuss with my backpack so he wouldn’t see me blush.
We looked out the same window, his face inches from mine. Thick eyebrows grew out in straight tufts over his hazel eyes lending a dash of seriousness to his gaze. He shifted closer and a scent of tobacco and cologne filled the shrinking space between us. The plane lifted off the runway and over the destroyed homes, blackened-walls of caved-in kitchens once full of warmth, bedrooms with love, now brimming with frozen snow. Our heads nearly touched as we watched the battered city disappear behind the clouds. How easily we get to leave the suffering behind, I thought with a pang of guilt. I stole a look at Neil’s handsome face as he peered out at the wreckage as if searching for something.
During the hour long flight, Neil told me jokes, did goofy magic tricks with a rag he found under his seat and probably would have done handstands to keep me laughing. By the time the plane landed, my cheeks ached from smiling and we’d agreed to rendezvous the following day. I couldn’t remember when I felt so hopeful about a date.
Nine months earlier I’d departed New York City with a broken heart, anxious to get far away from the man I loved who married another woman. From my position as a Public Information Assistant at UN headquarters, I applied to UN Peacekeeping Operations and was accepted to UNPROFOR – the mission in former Yugoslavia. As June temperatures cranked up, I felt glad to escape the heat and the subway’s relentless press of sweating humanity. And the mission took me far from reminders of my lost love.
It worked. The change of scenery and abundance of swaggering young soldiers from around the world not to mention my front seat to the woes of war, quickly put the pain of my failed romance into perspective. For the first few months I buried myself in work. But three seasons had passed and the harsh winter felt like it would never end. I longed for a little action not to mention some warmth during the frigid nights. Of course, I wanted more than a fling; I yearned for a bona-fide, monogamous relationship. For many years I’d been happy enough with my bohemian life, including almost 4 years of living in Kyoto, Japan. But baby longing changed everything. I wanted children. Preferably with a soul mate – if such a thing existed. But time was running out and I could not ignore the urgency of my diminishing fertility.
Yet I wasn’t ready to shut the door on adventure. I still wanted an interesting life. I imagined myself on a European street stepping out of my sun-filled flat for good coffee and bread, baby strapped against my heart. Peacekeeping Operations seemed as good place as any to connect with a man to fill in the blanks to make this dream come true. A war-zone may not be the first place most women would look to start a family but I thought it made sense for my fantasy future. Besides, the pool of men had to be better than the shark waters of NYC where I’d been swimming for the past four years.
I enjoyed flirtations with soldiers from the ranks of British and Danish battalions but imagining them sharing tales of conquest with their troop was enough for me to keep my distance. UN’s Kiseljak headquarters, a 70s style hotel designed to accommodate 200 guests now packed with over 600 soldiers, was too much of a fishbowl to mess around in. This handsome British man staying at the Holiday Inn in Sarajevo a half-hour drive away held promise.