Bosnia and Croatia – Spring 1993
My solitary nights in Kiseljak became harder to bear after Italy. Winter dragged on into what should have been spring and for days on end my apartment remained without heat, electricity or water, the phone line – dead. I crawled into bed early for warmth and read by candlelight, falling asleep as a way to pass time. As I shivered between the ice-cold sheets I craved the reassuring warmth of Neil’s body beside me, the comfort of his voice. During days when the sun made a rare appearance over the mountains I felt the promise of spring, but nights remained long and frozen. Listening to the terrifying grumble of tanks rolling through the darkness, I wondered what the hell I was doing here alone in this terrible place? How was I any kind of “peacekeeper”? What made me think pushing a pen at my desk could change anything for the people here? The expectation I should at least try was set in my childhood.
Swept along in a sea of towering adults protesting the Vietnam War, I gripped my father’s soft, papery hand with sweaty fingers. I hoped he might notice my fear, and as if willing him to look at me, I locked my eyes on his profile afraid I’d otherwise be lost in this shouting crowd. I dared not tell him I was afraid. I was 7. My English teacher parents often brought us kids to marches and peace rallies. Personally and emotionally, they followed the up-tight Irish-Catholic script of the 1950s, getting married at twenty and producing four children within 5 years. But socially and politically, they were proudly liberal and would join rather than cross, a picket line. Grievances at home were muted and mostly involved slamming doors and long angry silences, while out in the world we were encouraged to speak up against social injustice.
We lived in a non-descript apartment building in the nicer part of the Bronx. My brothers squeezed into one tiny bedroom, my older sister and I shared another. When we wanted to speak at the table, we raised our hands to be recognized by either of our teacher-parents. While shoveling forks of pork-chops and potatoes into my mouth with one hand, my left hand would be stretched high, waiting my turn to be recognized. After dinner, we watched the news – gunfire and dead soldiers in black and white images of war. Growing up with a war felt natural, and it was understood that I should speak up against it, that I should do something.
Idealism ran through my veins and anti Vietnam War protests were my training ground. But this was the real thing and I was losing heart. Just as I hoped my distant father might lift me up above the terrifying anti-war crowd and hold me tight, I wished for Neil to sweep me away from the darkness of this war. And he seemed ready to step into that role.
My flat in Kiseljak sat on the main road of a predominantly Croat populated town in the violent patchwork of Central Bosnia. I heard everything. Nights, I hid under a ridiculous number of blankets as much to muffle the drunken shouting and yelling of local soldiers in the street as to keep warm. I knew I’d be reading military reports at work of Moslem families being bullied from their homes, men taken away in the night. That is, if anybody paid attention. I wasn’t alone in listening-but-doing-nothing about the evil soundtrack of those sleepless hours, was I? What about my neighbors, their neighbors? These people had lived side-by-side for generations and now, under the veil of darkness, families who’d always lived together were forced from their homes. The Croats were ethnically cleansing the town of their Moslem neighbors right on the doorstep of the UN base, supposedly here to protect them.
Man’s inhumanity to man being played out so close around me, clouded my excitement of my new love. Instead, an icy fear and anger clutched at my throat, tightening with every night. Years later I remain haunted by that Bosnian-Croat town – the dark secrets and nights of violence spilling into daylight. Of course a love born in such a place harbored grim secrets.
On a March morning I stood on the corner waiting to cross the road to headquarters. Closing my eyes to soak up the feeble rays of morning sun, my feet cold in dirty slush, the momentary pleasure disappeared with the sound of yelling and commotion in front of the UN gate. A Danish soldier was yelling at three men wearing green uniforms who were yanking a man in ill-fitting jeans, a jacket to thin for the frigid weather, and unkempt hair, out of a beat-up black Zastava. Laughing, they began punching him.
“Stop! Stop it!” The UN soldier yelled in English. The Dane waved his gun but did not leave the UN HQ entrance security booth, steps away from the fracas. A group of villagers gathered, joining me to watch the violence. Others hurried away. I stood, frozen liquid seeping through my boots, unable to continue out of the dirty snow drift to cross the street, not wanting to draw closer to the violence. Nor did I want to turn away. Where would I go? There was no one to call from my empty flat, even if the phone worked. No calling ‘911’, no police. The perpetrators wore uniforms.
I told myself to scream, ‘Leave him alone!’ but my protest stuck in my throat. I remained silent. The thugs ignored the young soldier in the blue helmet whose face crumpled in horror as he yelled from the UN booth, “Fucking, stop it!” More Danish soldiers joined the guard, now all of them yelling from the gate. The international soldiers clutched the sidearm to only be used in self-defense, screaming first in Danish then in English, their voices cracking in the cold air. The thugs did not even glance up, instead laughing, enjoying the audience as they continued to hit and kick the man in the snow.
Finally, they shoved their now-bloodied victim off onto the shoulder of the road and squeezed into his car. Flooring the gas, they took off with smoke belching out of tailpipe leaving a gray cloud hovering behind as the car disappeared. The man lay in a bank of snow, his limbs at strange angles. Was he dead? I should help him, but what could I do? It was as if my feet were nailed on this spot. For what seemed forever, he remained completely still. Finally, he stirred, his face a bloody mask. Pulling himself out of the snow, he held his head up high and limped away from us silent witnesses, following the smoke of his stolen car.
The smear of blood would remain visible until the snow melted. The man, at least for now, had his life but his car and dignity had been stolen in broad daylight in front of the United Nations and me.
I willed myself to cross the street, flashed my ID and passed through the gate, gaze down. The Danish guard who usually greeted me with a jolly good morning, avoided eye contact, but I felt our shared shame of the United Nations – or for that matter – the human race. My eyes blurry, I stumbled down the stairwell to my office, every bone in my body heavy. I wanted to sleep. It was the fastest escape I could think of from this terrible place. This was a minor incident especially compared to what was happening elsewhere, everyday. I knew that. Accusations that the United Nations in Bosnia was doing nothing here were true. I had done nothing. Not even raised my voice.
I began to dread my basement office – the orange room with taped up windows and a wall of sandbags to absorb shattered glass. Roundtrip rides into Sarajevo where I might see Neil but still be able to get back to Kiseljak for work the next day, were not always easy to find. I spent hours pushing papers in the musty cell, returning home alone to my flat. I had been on this mission for more than 9 months. The initial hope and idealism I felt in the beginning was now hard to muster.
For the first six months I was based with Victor in Knin, the self-proclaimed capital of the Serbs in what was officially Croatia. Every day felt like we were on a ‘mission’ as we drove around the stark but gorgeous landscape to meet with local leaders from opposite sides, trying village-by-village to build peace. Once old friends, even relatives, sometimes enough middle ground could be found to allow for check-point meetings, prisoner, or sadder – body exchanges. But since being posted to this isolated town in Bosnia, the futility and my feeling of impotence had become depressing. And now in love, I began resenting the 14-hour -7-day week requirement. Neil had applied for a job with the UN so we might be posted somewhere together. I would request to be sent wherever he went and a bit guiltily, we hoped it would be in a place like Split, one of the cushier-posts with views of the Adriatic Sea.
Most mornings I woke early enough to join the Danes and other UN staff for breakfast at the base – a smorgasbord of pickled fish and dark breads, cereal and coffee. But lately I slept fitfully and as a result, found it harder to pull myself out of bed in time. Those days, I stopped into a bakery near my flat and picked up a cheese burek for breakfast. I liked this shop because the family, two women who looked to be mother and daughter, always greeted me warmly – a rare thing in this cold town. “Dober dan! Kako ste?” We asked after each other, our conversation limited to greetings and the weather. I nodded as the younger woman chatted to me as if I understood. She wore her dark hair pulled away from her ruddy face, a smock apron tied neatly around her waist. Sometimes a little girl was there too. “Moja kci.” The middle-aged woman said proudly holding her dark haired daughter’s little shoulders, beaming proudly. A flowery curtain was usually drawn across the back of the shop but on a recent morning, it was open enough for me to glimpse a man who looked in his thirties with dark curly hair, sitting at a table. At first he peered back at me nervously, his eyes haunted as he flipped worry beads with one hand and clutched a little coffee cup in the other. I smiled and waved at him and his face brightened as he flashed a smile of crooked teeth and nodded.
A few nights after the assault and theft outside of headquarters, I woke to yelling. My heart in my throat, I peered out from behind the bedroom curtains. The noise was coming from about five buildings down the street from me. Four men in uniforms standing between a Yugo and the bakery entrance were restraining a man dressed in a t-shirt and sweatpants. The mother and her young girl ran out of the building, weeping and clutching at the man I’d seen behind the curtain. He was being dragged to the car.
“Stanite! Molim vas, stanite!” Stop! Please stop! The woman begged. “Pustite ga, molim vas. To je moj muz molim. Moja muz!” My husband!
“Tata! Taataa!” the little girl wailed.
There was no other movement on the street but I knew others were probably watching this terrible drama from behind their dark windows. The man from the bakery was shoved into the back of the Yugo by one of the men in uniform, who then hit him with the butt of his gun. His family screamed and wailed as the soldiers drove off with their husband and father. The daughter held onto her mother as she collapsed in the road, her cries echoing through the street. The grandmother came out and led the two back inside. I stared at the deserted street.
Bile filled my mouth. I crawled back to my bed as if I might be seen, as if they might come for me next. Shaking under my covers, I wondered where they would take him, what they would do to him? What had he done? I suspect he was one of the remaining Moslems in this nationalistic Croat town. I remembered the hunted look I’d seen on his face a few mornings before.
Teeth rattling, I wept into my pillow until the first signs of light. How could these neighbors so shamelessly inflict violence on each other? What was I doing here? My presence was a farce. I needed to leave.
I walked the short distance to the UN base. The bakery remained shuttered. The normalcy of everything in daylight was disconcerting. And a lie: this place was not normal – it was wicked. I searched the faces of the villagers. The scowling lady selling candy and sundries from a corner shop, the grizzled man leaning on cane with a cat by his side, the mother with a young child on her hip. As I passed them on my short walk to the UN base, I wondered how they could let this happen around them every day and night? Were the men in uniform their sons, their husbands? Once, before this war, maybe the man in the bakery had been their friend. Certainly his daughter played with their children or grandchildren? I hated them but even more, I hated myself. Fear and secrecy permeated every corner and I too was afraid.
Victor was at his desk when I got to the office. I barely stepped through the door before sobbing and recounting last night’s drama.
“Oh the creeps! They are creeps! The bastards. I’m so sorry, Treesha,” Victor exclaimed, putting an arm around my shoulder he turned me to look me in the eye, hands on both my shoulders. “Call Zagreb. You have had enough. They’ll give you a post another post. I don’t want you to leave but I understand. It’s time for you. Listen, I need to go to my morning meeting with the Chief of Staff but call – call personnel and tell them you need to go. Tell them that I said so. Everything will be okay.”
Grabbing a pen and pad of paper for his meeting, he gave me a hug and hurried out the door.
I agreed. I’d had enough. I wanted to get out of here before witnessing worse and more hideous crimes. Before I lost my soul.