Zagreb, Sarajevo and the Seychelles, August 1994
We would marry in Sarajevo in August. This impossible destination absolved us from choosing between divorced parents who refused to see each other, estranged siblings and extended family we never spoke with. Everyone would receive an invitation but no one could get into the city now under the longest siege in modern history. Instead, we would celebrate with mostly Neil’s friends who were either working or trapped in the city. Looking at photos of the wedding, I barely know anyone’s name but for the rest of our lives, we’d have a great story to tell.
Dropping a fortune on a dress I’d wear only for my wedding seemed ludicrous and never crossed my mind. Instead, I searched Zagreb shops and found a flowing, wrap-around silk skirt in buttery white. On one of our trips to Italy, I found an elegant ivory jacket with a collar of silk flowers in Bologna and a pair of soft-suede vintage shoes with a much higher heel than I was used to wearing. They were adorable and I could suffer them for a few hours for the enjoyment of being a little closer to Neil’s height. I felt proud of myself for cobbling together a wedding outfit for a pittance of what most women dropped on a dress. Neil, much more of a fashion plate, initially planned on wearing a gray name-designer suit but when a Scottish friend offered to loan him a kilt, he decided to wear that instead. He’d change into his handsome suit for the party afterwards.
Strapped in close to Neil on the plane to Sarajevo, I recalled my departure over a year ago, leaving depressed and defeated. Lacing my fingers through Neil’s, I felt victorious: committed to love even as this terrible war continued to rage. Our heads tipped together as we peered out the tiny window, down at the green mountains that hid the guns of the warring factions, a déjà vu of when we first met.
The airport was hot and gritty from the sagging sandbags snaking around the boarded-up buildings. Fellow UN staff members in Sarajevo knew of the unusual wedding taking place in this city of rare, happy occasions, and the Norwegian soldiers still manning the airport, greeted us warmly. Standing in the sweltering sun, I flashed back on the frigid winter day when I arrived in Sarajevo for the first time. I had waited in this same spot with other UN staff, for an Armored Personnel Carrier, a tank-like windowless vehicle to deliver me safe, but miserably uncomfortably to Kiseljak. Today, I climbed into a UN “soft-skinned” as opposed to armored, pickup truck.
Ducking into the driver’s seat Neil leaned over and kissed me. “Well, we’re here my love, and tomorrow we’re getting married!”
“I know! I can’t believe it!” I beamed at him, over the moon to be launching into life with this mad, magnificent man.
The road from the airport was still a treacherous stretch of no-man’s-land. A Mad-Max landscape of destroyed cars, buildings and graffiti marked rubble left from years of mortar hits and gun battles. Once again, I was grateful for Neil’s speed as he swerved around massive potholes towards the center of the city.
The Holiday Inn hotel staff greeted us warmly and exclaimed how fat Neil had become. Just like the old days, he doled out cartons of Marlboros as he collected the key to his former room. Neil ran around excitedly checking on bullet and shrapnel scars, switching the TV on to find out what channels were available, turning the water taps (there was water!) and checking the view out the window. Flopped across the bed, I watched him, in his element on the frontline.
That evening Victor hosted a small party at one of the restaurants still in business supplied by the black market availability of food and booze. Afterwards, drunk from too many toasts of Russian vodka, we returned to the Holiday Inn and fell into the familiar lumpy bed, Neil repeating, “I love you, I love you.” The snipers and big guns were silent, although I doubt we would have heard a thing.
The next morning, wanting time alone before the noon ceremony, I set off to find someone to do my hair. Even in the smallest hamlets in these countries of Former Yugoslavia, when every other storefront was closed from lack of goods, supplies or electricity, there would always be one place still in business and often full of laughter and chatter: the hairdresser. In any town or city, women attended to their locks, peering into mirrors lit by candles or the light of an open door. Young women were stunning in all the countries of former Yugoslavia taking great pride in their appearance in spite of bombings or sanctions. Sarajevo was the ultimate style capital – even under siege I knew I’d be able to find some place to brighten up my usually limp ‘do’ for my wedding day.
Stepping out from the shadow of the hotel out to the open street, the heat of August hit me like a wave. I imagined every sniper’s gun in Sarajevo trained on me. A ceasefire wouldn’t stop some drunken sniper from taking a potshot for entertainment. The street, wide as a boulevard was completely empty. Nicknamed Sniper’s Alley, this stretch was literally the front line. Heat shimmered in waves across the desolate stretch, an urban desert scene. I passed the towering, skeletal remains of office buildings sure I was being watched from the dark interior. I wanted to run but feared drawing more attention to myself – as if that were possible. There was no one else in sight. Neil had offered to give me a lift and I felt foolish for deciding I needed to walk on the most dangerous street in the city like a lost tourist who’d taken a wrong turn. I had wanted some time alone to reflect on marrying, to prepare myself for this next chapter of my life. It was all I could do to calm the beating of my heart, every sense alert as an animal, a sense my life was on the line.
Eyes on the mortar-pocked pavement, I lost count of the permanent splatter marks coined ‘Sarajevo roses’. How many of these concrete scars marked someone’s death? I looked ahead to the smaller buildings up ahead where Neil had told me I’d be out of the range of the snipers and stepped up my pace, jogging the around a corner, breathless and sweaty. The storefronts were dark and closed but for one doorway. Two middle-aged women in smocks sat on the stoop, as if they were expecting me. The sign above their heads read ‘Frizerka’ hairdresser. They looked at me with surprise, an obvious outsider. I greeted them excitedly, “Dobor dan! Ja sam treba hitna pomoc!” ‘Hello! I need emergency assistance’. They laughed, stood up and looping their arms through mine, led me into their dark shop. I mimed putting on a ring, and with the odd Bosnian word I knew, explained why I needed to look beautiful. The women kissed my cheeks in congratulations as if we were old friends and ushered me to a basin in the corner. Using buckets of precious water – perhaps collected rain or hauled from the only well in the city, carefully scooped out of a garbage bin, they washed and rinsed my hair. I was their only customer so they both pitched in massaging my scalp, laughing and joking in whatever snippets of language we understood between us. My racing heart, slowed and by the time they finished, I felt beautiful, my brown hair softly framing my face thanks to a blow dryer fueled by a car battery. The women kissed me again and wished me well, waving from the shop doorway as I made my way, a little less nervously, down the deserted street and back up sniper alley to get ready for my wedding.
A few hours later, we drove the pick-up truck to City Hall where we made our way through the dark hallway to the marriage office followed by a lively parade of friends and coworkers. Sarajevo citizens on their own business stared in disbelief at this weirdly jovial scene. We entered a large carpeted room decked out in heavy curtains and Bosnian flags and crested bunting. A man and woman of about 40 sat behind a large ceremonial looking desk from where, without cracking a smile, they conducted our wedding. A woman who worked as a UN interpreter translated the Bosnian vows, prompting us to say “Da” for “Yes” at the appropriate times, the only words we spoke during the ten-minute ceremony.
I never imagined myself marrying, never fantasized about walking down an aisle, facing my partner in front of others, declaring my love in public and vowing to make it forever. The wedding scenario, supposedly the pinnacle of couple-love was completely missing from my repertoire of dreams. I knew only a fraction of the people filling this grand room and counted fewer as friends. Still, there was an atmosphere of excitement and when I glanced over at Victor’s warm smile, I felt reassured. In the stuffy room on this August heat, my left hand clutching the small bouquet was cold while my right rested warm from the heat of Neil’s firm grip. Finally, we exchanged rings and kissed, sealing the deal. The crowd, staff from Sarajevo’s UNICEF, UN and the ICRC offices and a few journalists, burst into applause.
As we stepped out of City Hall, we were pelted with handfuls of rice courtesy of the World Food Program. An Associated Press photographer asked us to pose against a wall gouged by shell and shrapnel marks and Neil obligingly pulled me into his arms for a kiss. This photo, Neil in kilt practically lifting me off my feet, was printed in newspapers and magazines around the world. An English newspaper quoted Neil, “We wanted to get married quietly and someplace where our families couldn’t come.” CNN ran a piece with the anchor noting how unusual it was to be reporting “good news from Sarajevo”. We both look happy climbing into the little white pickup truck. Driving away from city hall, I remember both happiness and relief it was over.
We honeymooned in the Seychelles wandering the gorgeous islands, diving into the waves of the Indian Ocean. Neil signed up for every adrenaline-inducing sport on offer while I read my book safely on the beach. I attempted scuba diving but strapped into the heavy gear, made it as only far as the swimming pool practice before being swallowed up in a wave of claustrophobia and pushing up to the surface in near panic. Instead, I happily snorkeled in shallow waters as he explored deep-reefs and later went paragliding amidst the clouds. Flopping down by my side after one trip into the sky, he tried to convince me to join him.
“Come on, give it a try. You’ll see – you’ll love it. It’s so beautiful – it feels like you’re flying.”
I considered it briefly. Why couldn’t I just try it? Why couldn’t I be more of a risk-taker like him? It looked amazing but even thinking about getting into one of those harnesses and lifting off the ground made me ill.
“I’m just so terrified of heights, honey. I can’t. I think my heart will just stop. You don’t mind, do you? I’m really happy here with my book.”
“So it’s okay if I go again?”
“Yes! It’s fun to watch you.”
“Right! I’ll blow you kisses from the sky then!”
Even thousands of feet up, he struck a funny pose for me as I watched below.
A few months later we were in Florence for the weekend and picked up a home pregnancy test. Neil paced the hotel room while I went into the bathroom to pee on the strip: it immediately turned blue for ‘si’ and I ran out yelling, “Yes! Si, si, si’!” and tumbling into his arms, we fell on the bed and held each other tight, arms and legs around each other as if to seal in this new joy. My dream of a family was coming true.