Bosnia – January 1993
Back at my desk on Monday, I read though a stack of grim situation reports and a wave of guilt flooded out the thrill of the weekend. While I was drinking cappuccinos and cavorting with Neil, families hid in basements while mortars destroyed their homes. Deliveries of food and medical supplies and evacuations were blocked in places the UN had just declared ‘safe areas’ while we, the international community, had done nothing to make them so. I punched holes in the slippery fax paper and filed more terrible stories away in my binders. Looking past the sandbags in the windows, I replayed scenes from Zagreb as if remembering a dream, the warmth of my hotel room at the Intercontinental, the softness of the sheets, room service, Neil.
The hotel door clicked shut behind us, we dropped our coats onto the thick hotel carpeting, and Neil steered me to the wall. His hand behind my head as a cushion, he kissed me hard as I stood on tiptoe to reach his warm lips. Eyes closed, I grasped the jam of the bathroom door to steady myself. He pulled away for a moment and gave me a mischievous smile.
“Just a cuddle, eh?” I said breathlessly.
Laughing, he lifted me up, kissing me while stepping with two strides over to the gigantic bed where he gently lay me down, peeling off our winter clothing, first his own – pulling his jacket off, snapping his ascot off with a flourish, unbuttoning his shirt, then turning to me, my hair crackling with static as he slid my turtleneck over my head. In bed with this long and big boned man, I felt petite and safe as I burrowed into his chest, exhaling in relief after months of guarded living. We explored each other’s bodies. His skin was soft, just the right amount of hair on his chest, Sean Connery style military tattoos on his forearms including a heart with the words “True Love Roslyn” etched in the middle. I held his arm out and pointed.
“That’s ages old! My ex-wife. I’ve been meaning to get that taken off. Anyway, I don’t want to talk about her now – I only have eyes, and lips and …”
“What are you day dreaming about, Treesha?” Victor came bustling into the office. “A good weekend?” His eyes twinkled. He already knew. Of course, he did – UNPROFOR was such a fishbowl and one of the Russian officers from Kiseljak had been checking out at the same time I did, with Neil by my side.
“Who told you?”
“Ah, I have my sources! I’m happy for you. It’s good to have love in the midst of this mad war. We need to go to Pale after the my morning briefing – half an hour?”
“Sure. I’m ready when you are.”
Neil did not, as I expected of men, disappear behind what would have been the believable excuse of the usually dead-phone lines or long workdays. Instead, he came up with reasons why the ICRC needed to travel to the UNPROFOR base 20 miles of muddy roads through military checkpoints to visit me. And when we had meetings in Sarajevo, I could spend the night in Neil’s room at the Holiday Inn.
A bright yellow box of a building right on the front line along ‘sniper alley’, the Holiday Inn was a strange flash of color in the grey landscape. Only the side facing away from the Serb neighborhood of Grbavica was considered safe enough to stay in. UNHCR plastic covered the blasted windows like bandages. Neil’s room was on the second floor.
“Look at all the souvenirs I have in here. There’s some shrapnel lodged in this corner and I pried a bullet out of here – you can still see the hole,” he said, proudly pointing out the scars in his walls.
He pulled the heavy blackout curtains tight across the windows meticulously making sure there were no cracks of light to attract alcohol-stoked-soldiers on sniper duty. Popping a ‘Phantom of the Opera’ or Freddy Mercury CD into his boom box, he opened two beers and we settled back into his double bed, piled with extra pillows he’d cajoled out of the housekeepers.
“What do you think? Not a bad setup, eh?” He grinned at me proudly.
“It’s very cozy. You have everything you need, don’t you? More than I do in my cold little place.”
“Now that you’re here, I do.” He said reaching for my bottle and setting it on the side-table then pulling me close.
“Time for cuddles,” he whispered, swooping me beneath him and lifting my sweater up to lay his warmth against mine. I lost myself between his kisses, beneath his heavy limbs, intoxicated by the still-new but already familiar scent of him. Our skin pressed close and damp, the battles around us melted away in the heat of our love. Pressing my face against his chest, I felt home even as machine gun fire echoed through the streets outside.
After I untangled the knots in my hair, we floated hand-in-hand down to the window-less dining room at the center of the hotel. The carpeting and moveable walls muffled gun battles but mortar shell hits sometimes rattled the china. Tables were set with linens and the waiters wore mustard-yellow jackets with black bow ties. Neil knew them all.
“Kako ste, moja Muslima friend?” He teased a favorite waiter, affectionately grabbing him in a half-hug. The waiter, like the rest of the hotel staff, seemed genuinely fond of him. Neil explained that he “looked after them” regularly bringing them presents of cartons of Marlboros and bottles of Johnny Walker for use in place of the useless local currency or to feed their own habits. Everyone in his orbit seemed to enjoy Neil’s kooky humor and the waiters always offered him an extra portion of instant mashed potatoes or butter when others were told nothing was left.
Dinner at the Holiday Inn consisted of dubious meat and overcooked vegetables but we ate with pleasure with Neil’s ICRC colleagues and other humanitarian aid workers and journalists. Christian Amanpour might be at the next table, Bianca Jagger once made an appearance and Susan Sontag was a regular, parked in the same corner each night, deep in discussion with her journalist son David Rieff.
The Holiday Inn felt the center of the world but I felt like a fraud there. These journalists regularly lambasted the UN as being idle witnesses to the war, or even complicit. I was beginning to agree. I’d filled books of meeting notes on the front lines of this mission, repeats of the same entreaties, accusations, atrocities, and the sense of doing any good had faded. I felt increasingly frustrated and impotent. I wanted to do more and envied my colleagues working in humanitarian relief. Earlier that week, to placate me, Victor assigned me to, along with a US civil affairs officer, meet a young girl who’d come to Kiseljak headquarters to ask for petrol for their car to escape to Moslem territory as tensions and violence was building in the Croat run town. The girl was sixteen – sent as her families’ emissary because she spoke the best English. The family was frightened. The answer was no. UNPROFOR could not be seen as assisting in ethnic cleansing, it was not in our mandate to provide petrol to individuals. I felt sick. And sitting at the Holiday Inn with journalists and relief workers that did provide real aid, I felt like I was on the wrong team. I kept a low profile, not engaging with anyone but Neil and his coworkers, ashamed and also wary about saying anything that might show up in an article.
We usually sat with the more staid, ICRC table. “Bonsoir,” Neil’s colleagues greeted us as we joined them for dinner. Like the hotel staff, they appreciated the crazy Brit responsible who got them safely to and from meetings and prison visits while cracking jokes, enjoying the comic relief he provided during and after a grueling day in the field. My favorite of this crew was Alberto*, a soft-spoken Italian who specialized in helping new amputees adjust to their prosthetics. He had taken leave from his usual post in Afghanistan to help out in Bosnia for a few months. Neil regularly harassed Alberto on the madness of this.
“How many people take a break from one war zone to work in another? My friend, you’re either a saint or insane,” Neil regaled Alberto, who smiled and shrugged, adjusting his rimless glasses while answering softly,
“It’s what I do. But I miss Afghanistan, I can tell you.”
“You’re taking the piss, right? You’re from Italy, one of the most beautiful countries in the world and you’d rather be in Afghanistan with the mujahdeen?”
“I’m serious. I’ve been here almost a month and I miss the people and my work there. The Afghans are the warmest you’ll ever meet in your life.”
“Bloody hell! Isn’t this place something?” Neil shook his head.
Alberto made a point of trying to engage Neil beyond his jokester persona, gently urging him to cut back on his smoking, questioning him on why he chewed his fingernails to the quick. Alberto worried about Neil even as he chuckled with the others at his comedic antics.
After dinner, we climbed the steps back upstairs to his room (the elevator never worked) for a cup of what he described as “proper English tea” made from his stash of PJ Tips, just in time to catch Star Trek on television. Neil had literally taken control of the hotel’s television selection by sneaking up on the roof of the Holiday Inn to tilt the satellite dish while communicating via ICRC radios one of his Sarajevo colleagues who sat on the bed and guided Neil while risked sniper danger and tilted the satellite dish until Star Trek reception was just right. The next morning at breakfast, Neil laughed into his coffee as a CNN reporter complained to the hotel manager, “Hey man! What’s happened? We can’t get our news station anymore. You need to get that fixed. I mean we’re paying for almost all the rooms in here.”
“I’m very sorry sir, I don’t know what happened. The satellite must have shifted. I’ll see what I can do.” The manager looked at Neil and shrugged. Eventually, CNN and Sky News dominated the screen again but not until more complaints came in and someone else was willing to brave the snipers.
Entering the UN offices in Sarajevo together, Neil draped his arm over my shoulder, leaning down for a kiss as we neared the gates manned by French Legionnaire soldiers. I squirmed at his public display of affection but he tightened his embrace, as the soldiers hooted approvingly.
The French Legionnaires are a special French army unit of volunteers from many countries. Some were fleeing a shady past, like the Texan who told me he held a degree in graphic design and hinted at trouble with the law. He’d previously been a mercenary in Central America before deciding he wanted the more formal structure of the Legionnaires. This exotic army of renegade soldiers spoke French between themselves but when talking to us, often broke into English that revealed a twang or brogue. Once, crossing the parking lot of the PTT building with helmet in hand instead of on my head, a Legionnaire yelled at me from his guard post with a Cockney accent, “Eh! That’s no’ a bloody pocket-book, y’know!”
Neil struck up a friendship with a freckled soldier from Belfast, the name O’Connell incongruously embroidered above the French flag on the sleeve of his uniform.
Twenty years ago this Belfast soldier and Neil had been deadly enemies. Neil joined the British army at 17 to escape the boredom of the West Midlands and landed right into the killings of Bloody Sunday. Neil was armed with a rifle to O’Connell’s rocks and Molotov cocktails, both only boys. They shared cigarettes and stories and when they thought me out of earshot, talked about women.
“Did you see that bird there? ‘Caw, she’s lovely,” O’Connell commented as a group of local women who worked in the kitchen and as interpreters passed through the security check outside the former telephone company building that had been taken over by the UN.
“Not my type,” Neil answered, “Besides, I have my love from New York.”
I sat in the ICRC car with the door open, pretending to read. Neil blew a kiss in my direction then turning away from me, continued in a lower voice,
“Although there’s an interpreter in the UNHCR office that if I weren’t with Tricia, I wouldn’t mind doing.”
What the hell? But I knew he was a flirt and it’s not like I had exactly stopped checking out the multitude of men around me. How could we not? I chuckled. In fact, eavesdropping on these former adversaries sharing cigarettes and banter on a cold Sarajevo afternoon comforted me. My Brit and this Irish man were proof that the terrible generational cycles of hate and ancient wounds could heal. There was hope for this torn land too.
Neil clearly bore deep wounds from his military service but was uncharacteristically mum about the time he served. When I pressed him he said what he had seen and done were too awful to tell. But sometimes I glimpsed his torment when I woke to him sweating and flailing beside me. In his dream, he was fighting for his life and he always worried he’d hurt me by mistake. I never pressed him for details about his nightmares unsure I wanted to know about what haunted him.
* Alberto has yet to lose his love for Afghanistan and in fact was just awarded citizenship there! Check out his TED talk to get a sense of what a special man he is. https://www.ted.com/talks/alberto_cairo_there_are_no_scraps_of_men?utm_campaign=tedspread&utm_medium=referral&utm_source=tedcomshare