Zagreb, Spring 1993
In Zagreb, water flowed with the turn of a faucet and lights with a flick of a switch. I’d found an apartment on the opposite side of town from the UNPROFOR headquarters. A chipping stucco building from the outside, inside the heavy doors, the old Austro-Hungarian influence of the city shone with a grand marble staircase and thick beautifully tiled walls. The apartment was well furnished and airy with parquet floors and metal shutters that could be pulled down to keep out the heat of the sun. I never did that, welcoming the light. Returning home in the evening, I spent a few seconds searching for matches to light the candles before remembering, I no longer needed them. The normalcy of everything – people walking without worry of snipers, tulips blooming on the square – seemed unreal and almost wrong. It felt odd for cars and trams to be honking and clanging through the streets. How can life go on like this with war raging so close by?
Random moments triggered my tears. Inhaling the scent of a rose blooming in one of the squares, glimpsing a father holding his young child’s hand as they walked down the street, set off sobs. I sought heat as if to thaw my spirit frozen by Bosnia, crossing to walk on the sunny side of the street, turning my face upwards towards the light. At home, I let the hot water rush over my hands as I washed the dishes and took long, scalding baths that left my skin raw as if I might bake and steam my sadness away.
Mornings I squeezed onto a crowded tram for a 20 minute ride to the UNPROFOR headquarters where I reported to the Civil Affairs and Press Office. My new assignment was to answer phones and file papers. Dull administrative office work that I wasn’t very good at. Making copies of Security Council Resolutions, I inevitably mixed up the pages, feeling like a dunce not even able to manage the copier. I was miserable.
Peter, the personnel director who’d urged me to leave Bosnia, now insisted I speak with an UNPROFOR mental health profession. Peacekeeping operations are supported by nations around the world and for the last few years of UNPROFOR, the United States was responsible for medical care of troops and staff. I would be seeing a MASH shrink. I went into the first meeting with trepidation, uncomfortable with the idea of a uniformed American officer probing my feelings.
His office was in a building I’d never been to in the far corner of the UNPROFOR grounds. A man in his 50s in military uniform stepped from behind a massive wooden desk to greet me. I sat awkwardly in the vinyl-covered chair across from him, and momentarily felt like I was in the Principal’s office but he soon put me at ease.
“Call me Ken. What part of the States are you from?”
“New York. I was working at headquarters for 4 years before joining UNPROFOR last June. It’s been about a year now.”
“So you’ve seen some rough stuff?”
That’s all it took for me to dissolve into tears. He leaned across the desk with a box of tissues – Kleenex – not the cheap local stuff. I took two and they were soon soaked. I told him about the incidents in Kiseljak between sobs.
“Clearly you’re experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder.”
“Really? How could that be? Compared to the experiences of many of my colleagues, not to mention the victims in this war, my life has been sheltered.”
“Look, you’ve witnessed bullying, terrorizing and have been witness to the aftermath of violence regularly.”
“I guess… there was that woman who lay for days by the road on the way to the airport. She looked about my age. It’s like she just was part of the apocalyptic landscape until someone finally ventured into that no-man’s land to retrieve Her. I thought about her there stiff from cold and death – who was missing her? Where was she trying to get? What right do I have to be experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder? We drove right by, safe in our fancy armored car!”
“Well, first of all, how many hours are you working? Do you take down time?”
“Seven days a week and average of 10 hours a day, sometimes more. But that comes with the territory of being on mission, doesn’t it? I mean, it’s expected of us.”
“Well, in the end I think we’re seeing that the hours you spent at your job and your commitment to your boss goes above and beyond and is not healthy for you. That’s also what might be happening here. Burnout.”
“But since meeting Neil, I’ve been much happier – although also more resentful of how little time we have together. But what am I expecting – a normal life here? I feel like that’s wrong. I mean I knew, more or less, what I was signing up for. Lately I’ve felt so disheartened but how little I can do.”
“Well, I suggest you try to be conscious of setting boundaries.”
He pushed his glasses onto the top of his head as he looked across the desk at me.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“By boundaries? You don’t seem to draw limits in your relationships, at least certainly not with your boss. What about your boyfriend? So far limits have been set for you by circumstance but will you be able to be clear with him about what you need and say ‘no’ when you need to? Or will you give, give and give until you make yourself sick? I think you’re experiencing the results of doing that now.”
“I’ll have to think about that. But as for Neil – he’s the one who takes care of me,” I answered, thinking about how he spoiled me and made me feel so safe when we were together in Bosnia.
“Good, good, that’s fine. I’m only saying it’s something to be aware of in the future.”
I nodded to the guards at the compound gate and turned left to the street where the tramline ran so perilously close to the sidewalk, I sometimes imagined myself twisting an ankle and falling off the curb onto the tracks as the tram approached. Did that mean I had a death wish? My session with Ken had me second-guessing myself. I’d never thought of myself as a pushover as he seemed to suggest. I had a good work ethic so of course I never said no to Victor about working when he asked me to work on weekends or stay late to work on a report. He was my boss, I liked and respected him and for most of our time together, I was genuinely compelled by the work. It felt important. This was what everyone did here in this crazy war-world. We did whatever we needed to do.
But to Ken’s point, could I recognize and speak up when enough-was-enough, or did I have to fall apart? Did this relate to my relationship with Neil? I didn’t feel like it. He provided me with joy in this bleak world. Generous and warm, he put me at ease, made me feel loved – not like I needed boundaries. In fact, lately I’d thought it was about time to let down my guard when it came to love, about time to risk in a relationship like I was risking in this war zone. Neil and I would be fine: we loved each other. From down the block, I heard the rumble of a tram approaching, stepped up my pace to reach the nearby stop, and climbed on.
The tally of romantic liaisons I’d had in my life made me cringe, mostly short-lived episodes, high on drama and low on commitment. I’d never taken the plunge of living with someone while even the most unconventional of my high school and college friends were now married and having children. I never made that kind of connection with someone until now. At 34, it was about time. I couldn’t wait for Neil to join me in Zagreb.
Gradually, I grew used to the relative normality of my life. The war in Croatia had yet to spread beyond an occasional skirmish in the UN protected areas, circumstantially far away from this cosmopolitan, charming city. Walking freely through the streets, wandering the market, eating good food, I began to relax. Sometimes I met up after work with others from the Civil Affairs office. We spent hours at restaurants where whole lambs turned slowly over an open flame and shared chunks of roasted meat and grilled trout, their hollow eyes staring up from the plate. We drank multiple bottles of wine. Tipsy, I returned to my apartment to watch the non-stop news, following reports of battles only miles away across the hills. My relief at being in a warm, lit room was pierced by pangs of guilt.
Every Friday, Neil caught a flight up from Sarajevo. We went to fancy restaurants where he flirted with waitresses and befriended waiters to ensure the best service and because he couldn’t resist. After too many glasses of wine, we stumbled home to the flat and fell into bed. Hungrily, we rediscovered each other. Curled against his beating heart, I faded into sleep. On Sunday, he’d return to Sarajevo. These interludes brightened my weeks, but it became harder and harder for Neil to leave.
One Sunday evening, hours after we’d kissed each other goodbye, I sat reading in the front room. I imagined Neil in the Holiday Inn watching Star Trek or playing poker with the journalists, when the buzzer rang. I looked out the window and there he was, grinning up at me.
“What are you doing here?” I said, surprised at the panic in my voice. I froze at the sight of him on the sidewalk, his bags beside him. Why was he back? What happened? Turning away from the window, I pressed my back against the wall as if dodging a sniper. This was it. He was really moving in. I hesitated before leaning back out the window and calling down to him, hoping that I sounded excited, “Just a minute, I’ll throw you the key!” With a flourish, he caught the key ring. I opened the apartment door and listened as he shifted all his bags into the entrance hall, the heavy apartment building door banging shut, his footsteps on the wide marble stairs as he climbed the two flights.
He stepped across the landing, dropped the bags, spread his arms wide and said, “I’m back!” in his Jack Nicholson Shining imitation. He grabbed me, kissing me so hard on the lips I had no chance to respond.
“I know I probably should have warned you, but I decided so quickly. I got down to Sarajevo and it was so bloody depressing. I’ve had enough. So I picked up all my stuff from the hotel, caught a lift to the airport and here I am!” he explained while piling his bags inside the door.
“So you quit? Just like that?” I asked, the pinch in my stomach getting tighter.
“I left Philippe a note.”
“You didn’t talk to him? You left your boss a note? Are you sure that was the best way to do things?”
“Well, the UNPROFOR personnel office said there will definitely be a job for me so I figured why be away from my darling any longer? Right? I’m dying for a bath. You get so filthy on those planes and today I got a double dose, didn’t I?” He said proudly.
I went into the bathroom to run the water. Why was I shocked? Only weeks earlier I also left Bosnia abruptly. Except my boss told me to leave. I never would have quit my job without some kind of notice. It felt irresponsible and foolhardy. My stomach was in knots. Was this how he operated? It was too late. He was here and it was time to begin our life together and ultimately, to start a family. This was the dream I’d had and it was happening starting now. The water turned hot. I pushed the rubber stop into the drain. Sitting on the edge, I watched the tub fill.