Zagreb – Autumn, Winter, Spring 1995
Back in Zagreb, we moved to the same tree-lined street we’d lived on before. Our new apartment did not have the charm or fantastic view of our previous flat but nor did it have all those steps to climb with a baby carriage. We were within walking distance to the center of the city and my favorite open-air market. Zagreb’s markets paled compared to Italy’s where bouquets of herbs, varieties of basil, our favorite arugula and endless selection cheeses. Here potatoes and cabbages were piled unceremoniously onto cement slabs. Choice and charm were limited. But I was content to be at home with Molly and loved reconnecting with friends. Leah, a petite but tough nurse from New Zealand I’d worked with out in the field, had also recently become a mom. We rendezvoused at the main square, our babies parked beside us as we sipped coffee in the afternoon sun, marveling at how completely our lives changed in the last 6 months.
Before giving birth to her daughter, Leah had worked with MSF (Medicin Sans Frontieres – Doctors Without Borders). We last met in a makeshift refugee camp on the outskirts of Zagreb filled with thousands of people fleeing conflict in the northern ‘Bihac pocket’ of Bosnia. The Croatian government would not allow yet another wave of refugees, (and this group – Muslim) to cross the border. As a result, the entire town’s population was stranded in no-man’s-land – a buffer patch of a few miles between the official Croatian border and the United Nations Protected Areas where the Serbs lived. Ancient looking men, haggard women and their children crowded together in filthy chicken coops and sodden fields with no running water and an inadequate number of portable toilets. Leah and I reminded each other guiltily of the miserable conditions of these mothers and babies as we sipped coffee in the sunny square with our warm girls sleeping in their carriages.
“You know, Leah, I don’t think I can do it anymore. I just can’t imagine leaving Molly with someone and going back to work in the field. Could you?”
“No way! Look at Sally – she’s such a wee thing. I wouldn’t leave her, not now. No, I’m happy Dennis makes enough so I can care for this little one.”
Leah’s husband was a long-time United Nations staff member and they had traveled the world for years with Leah easily landing a job with whatever international organization needed her nursing skills.
“Isn’t it amazing how powerful this mothering instinct is? I never thought I would be so happy spending all of my time doting on my baby. I mean eventually, I’ll have to go back to work but for now I can’t imagine anything else I would rather do. Luckily I’ve been stashing away my salary for the past four years so I can subsidize my time at home. As an outside contractor for the UN, Neil doesn’t make enough to support us.”
“I know it’s really hard to make that jump from a contractor position to UN staff. I’ve seen it before when we were with UNIFIL in Lebanon. Maybe if you go to New York and he re-applies directly with Field Service or Peacekeeping he might get something. It’s worth a try,” she suggested, sipping her tea.
“That’s an idea. Neil’s so miserable in his new job and before we went to Italy, he just loved being in charge at the Dispatch Office. He’s really a very good manager and he got a kick out of having high-ranking staff sucking up to him when they needed a UN car. And the drivers were devoted to him.”
“That’s a shame. No chance he can get the job back?”
“It seems unlikely. Besides, there’s someone else in the position so he’s stuck.”
These days, Neil usually came home from work despondent.
“It’s so bloody dull! And the git that has my job is terrible. It really winds me up. All the drivers hate him.”
“Maybe you’ll eventually get it back then,” I encouraged.
“No chance. With this new restructuring, all management spots have to be filled by someone who is full United Nations staff – no contractors. They’re such idiots!”
“Well, talk to personnel about getting a different position. They like you. They’ll try and help,” I suggested.
“There’s no bloody way. There’s nothing in Zagreb. They’d want to send me down to Knin or into Bosnia and I don’t want to leave you and Molly.”
The ordeal of Molly’s premature birth still fresh, Neil and I guarded our time together. I didn’t blame him for wanting to stay close to home – I wanted him here too. Weekends we pretended we were still in Italy, sharing long lunches and afternoon siestas as the snow piled up outside. We tried to forget Neil’s dissatisfaction with work but I worried he would do something impetuous again – like quit his job.
Meanwhile NATO had taken action in Bosnia ending the longest siege in modern history with a few well-aimed air strikes, the guns bombarding Sarajevo were eliminated. In Croatia, while we were still in Italy, the Croatians had forcibly taken control of the UNPAs, driving out the Serbs from Krajina. Families who lived for generations in these small towns and villages, fled with their mattresses, refrigerators and any other possessions they could fit onto whatever truck, car or cart available to them. The UN protected areas in Croatia were no more. I wondered about my Serb friends and the family in Knin whose house I once lived in. Where had they gone?
Even if I had wanted to go back to my job with UNICEF, my position as the Project Officer for the Serb populated part of Croatia had brutally been made redundant. The international community was now moving on to other wars in Rwanda and Liberia in a kind of macabre migration of relief workers.
After years of negotiation and peacekeeping efforts, in the end it was violence that resolved the conflict and determined the borders formalized by the Dayton Agreement. For years, our ‘mission’ was to tread water in the hopeful sea of ‘peacekeeping’ but it seemed like all we managed to do was maintain a bizarre status quo. Aggression won and now it was time for us to leave.
Many of our friends and colleagues had already left for Africa where even more terrifying battles were being fought. I was not made of such stuff. I would not venture into those brutal killing fields. It was never in my make-up, but especially not now I was a mother. I had enough of this place where people seemed shameless about hating each another – Serb hated Croat, Croat hated Serb, Bosnian – depending upon where they came from, what brutality had been endured or recounted to them by relatives. A common language, even years of intermarriage, were not enough to keep the ancient stories of hatred told and retold through generations from blistering up again, the flame fanned by politicians and gangsters. How strange and maybe ominous, that my family began amidst this tortured history and boiling hatred.
My UNICEF-provided tickets to New York were set to expire in June. We would build our life in the United States. Neil was thrilled, excited by what he imagined as a new world of opportunity. And I was ready to go home. I would miss the cobbled streets, markets, café culture and other grace notes of European living but I couldn’t wait to see friends and looked forward to the ease of navigating through day-to-day life in my own language. Even after four years, my language ability was only good for shopping and weather chats. I missed the impromptu connections possible with strangers, so much more likely if you share a language.
We were to arrive in the United States a few days shy of Molly’s first birthday and four years to the day since I’d left. Neither of us had jobs waiting for us. Until Neil secured his Green Card, we’d have to live off my savings since Neil had never managed to put anything away.
“Maybe I’ll try and get back into the film game. I hear there’s a lot going on around New York right now.”
“I’m sure you could get into the film or television business there. You have some great connections – like the actor who you met for drinks in New York last January – Peter…”
“Peter Gallagher. Yeah. Maybe. Or I could drive a lorry. I’d love to travel across the country. But of course, I wouldn’t want to leave you two. Maybe you could come with me?”
“I don’t think so, honey,” I laughed. Molly was in her bassinet at the foot of our bed and we lay enjoying the morning light on a Saturday morning. I propped myself up on an elbow to look at him, his eyes still closed, one arm folded beneath his head.
“Come on! I could just see you in the front seat beside me and Molly’s little head poking out from the back cab – it would be fantastic!”
Neil’s future career was a recurring conversation as we tried to imagine what lay ahead for us in America. He wondered out-loud about possibilities and I cheered him on, reassuring him and believing, he could do anything.
“One of the exciting things about going to the States is there are all sorts of quirky, interesting jobs and with your experience, good looks and charm – you can do anything. A whole new world will open up for you there. It’s exciting!” I crawled beneath his heavy arm and lay my head against his chest.
We spent hours speculating about our future alternately excited and nervous. I wanted to be home with Molly and hoped his Green Card and a job would happen quickly so he could support us. He was so charming and Americans love an English accent. I’d seen him in action – I knew what he was capable of. We’d be fine.