Italy and Zagreb – Spring 1993
A day later I boarded a cargo plane from Sarajevo to Ancona, Italy and from there took a taxi to the resort town of Senegalia, populated in this off-season by relief and UN workers on leave. The hotels facing the beach were shuttered except for a bright blue building with doors propped open as if they were under-construction. I slipped in past the plywood into a lobby with sheet-covered furniture cordoned off like a crime scene. The owners, a smartly dressed middle-aged couple, greeted me warmly and explained in perfect English that they were painting for the upcoming season but I was welcome to stay in one of the rooms they’d already finished. The strange desolation suited me. Still feeling the vibrations of the military plane, I followed a maid to an airy room that smelled of fresh paint.
Less than 48 hours earlier I’d stood alone in my sandbagged office dialing the number for the head of personnel for UNPROFOR. We’d spoken only the week before about openings in the mission area, someplace where Neil and I might be sent together. He had seemed irritated with me for badgering him and I didn’t blame him. He had other things to worry about besides keeping lovers together.
“Peter? It’s Tricia calling from Kiseljak.” Merely saying the name of this town I broke down before composing myself together enough to launch into a rant.
“Listen, Peter, I can handle hardships like living without water and electricity, I can handle the shelling and snipers, but I can’t take being a silent witness to the ugly violence happening here. It’s horrible and we are doing nothing!” I hyperventilated between sobs.
“Okay Tricia. Tricia, pack your things and catch the next plane to Zagreb. Okay? Don’t worry about what’s next, for now I want you to leave immediately. Does Victor know?”
“Yes, he told me to call you.” I blew my nose into my soggy tissue.
“Good. Leave today, is that clear?” He sounded worried.
Sobbing my acknowledgement, I hung up the phone before putting my head on the desk to weep some more. I felt defeated and ashamed. And where would I go from here? I needed to tell Neil I was leaving without him. I took a few calming breaths and dialed the number to the ICRC office, hoping the phone lines to Sarajevo would be open. Neil picked up.
“Good morning sunshine!”
“Oh Neil!” I started crying again.
“What? What’s happened? What’s wrong sweetheart?”
“I’m sorry. I’m a wreck! I’ve got to get out of here. I called Peter and he said to pack up and go. I’m leaving Kiseljak today.”
“Leaving? Where to? What happened? Are you okay, darling?”
“Yes. Well, no. I think I’m having a little bit of a nervous breakdown. Last night these motherfuckers took a guy down the street away from his family. It was so horrible to watch. I watched and did nothing.”
I described the miserable scene I’d witnessed that I knew was being repeated in villages, towns and cities across Bosnia, Croatia, Serbia along with rape, torture and murder, minutes from where I lived. What house or factory did we pass every day that hid these crimes? Knowing how close and how impotent I was, we were, became unbearable to me, as was my silence. I was here under false pretense. I could save no one except myself.
“Come to Sarajevo. I’ll make you feel better. And there’s a party at the hotel tonight for one of the journalists. Then you can catch a flight to Ancona and I’ll meet you there for the weekend.”
“Okay. I do want to see you. I’ll go home and pack up and meet you at the Holiday Inn today.”
Sarajevo, a city relentlessly under siege as a destination to escape to – how bizarre. I went back to my apartment and within two hours had fled Kiseljak.
And here I was in Italy. I had escaped. I opened the window and a chiffon white curtain billowed around me on a gust of humid, salty air. I looked out at the empty beach, a stretch of sand leading to the shifting horizon of waves, barely audible. I breathed deeply and leaving the window open, pulled off my grimy clothes and stepped into the shower. As the hot water beat down on me, I began to bawl. Scrubbing my body roughly with a soapy washcloth as if I were filthy, trying to scrape my guilt and grief away. Wiping the steam from the mirror, I looked back at my swollen face. My mouth a grim line, blue-eyes rimmed red, skin pasty. I pulled a sweatshirt over a t-shirt and jeans and clutching my journal and book to my chest, went out to the beach.
I tried to focus on the pages of my book, but could not stop staring across the glistening Adriatic towards the madness I had left. With every breath, I tried to release the twisted knots inside of me. I closed my eyes but the sun turned my lids into disconcerting bloody red kaleidoscopes.
When my hunger grew unbearable, I found a restaurant. Pulling my hood up and wrapping a scarf around my neck, I sat outside in the wind with a bowl of pasta and espresso, grateful to be able to relieve at least the void in my stomach.
As dark descended, I missed Neil. Alone between the crisp, white sheets, I longed for his big arms to pull me tightly against his chest. Hugging a pillow, I listened for the sounds of tanks and shooting and heard only the waves of the Adriatic.
The next day I fell asleep on the deserted beach, my hands and feet dug into the hot sand, comforted by the sound of water gently hitting the shoreline.
“Hello my sweet. Did you miss me?” I opened my eyes to Neil’s heavy boots beside me. Dropping his pack he flopped down and pulled me towards him for a kiss.
“How did you find me?”
We’d agreed to meet in Senegalia but had made no plans beyond that.
“Easy. There aren’t too many places open and I went in to every one that was and asked if there was a ‘bella Americana’ there. They told me at the front desk that I’d find you out here. Looks like a nice hotel.” Neil pulled off his shirt and lay back on the sand sighing with pleasure.
I watched him surrender to the sun and felt a flicker of disappointment. I looked at his profile as he settled back, head propped on his backpack, his eyebrows spiking crazily against the cloudless sky. Why were we not scrambling across the street to the hotel to rip each other’s clothes off? I felt so numb, I wasn’t inclined myself but I hoped he might save me from this paralyzing funk. I tried to explain myself to him.
“It’s lovely, but I can’t shake off this terrible feeling. I’ve been looking across the water and all I can think of are the hideous things people are doing to each other – right over there!” I gestured towards the water. “Entire villages destroyed. No electricity, no water, not enough food. And here we are in this beautiful place less than an hour away and there is no sign of any of it. Everything is normal. It’s surreal to me that we’re so close to such insanity. I can’t wrap my head around it. I feel angry, guilty and …so sad!” I almost started blubbering again.
“Well, let’s enjoy it while we can! And anyway, you’ll be based in Zagreb now and soon, so will I. From now on, our life will be better,” he said without opening his eyes.
“Yes, our lives will. But I feel like it’s wrong for me to be able to escape while so many innocent people are stuck there.”
“I know, it is terrible,” he mumbled sleepily, squeezing my hand. I could sense he was getting annoyed by my dismal mood and had no idea how to talk me out of it. Besides, he was here for a holiday and didn’t want me ruining it. He sat up.
“Let’s go to the hotel so I can drop my stuff off. I’m parched and dying for a good cup of coffee and some decent Italian food.”
We gathered our things and headed across the sand to the ghostly hotel where we were the only guests.
For the next few days, we ate and drank too much, let our skin turn an angry red in the sun and slept past noon. I seemed to have lost the ability to feel pleasure. I embraced the excess hoping to feel something besides the twisting in my stomach and weight on my chest. At meals, I sometimes cried over my pasta. After two days of lying in the sun, Neil’s touch on my livid skin became unbearable. Making love hurt but we did it anyway.
Neil seemed relieved when it was time to leave, happy to be heading back to his adrenaline packed life in Sarajevo. He seemed to feel purposeful and thrived on the excitement, the constant danger whereas I felt exhausted and defeated by it, like I was giving up. We sat side by side on a roaring cargo plane, this time, holding hands. The Italian cargo plane was loaded full of relief supplies so we had to prop our feet on the boxes piled high and wrapped with heavy rope netting. Flying away from Ancona airport, Neil spotted the beach where we’d been hours before – and in less than an hour, we were over the snowbound mountains of Bosnia. I could feel his excitement at being back to the heart of the war while I was relieved to be moving on to Zagreb.