Remembering the Siege

A bitter anniversary: 20 years since the siege of Sarajevo began. For 4 years, my world revolved around that insane war. Terrible as it was, I felt then that I was at the center of the world. At first, I naively thought I might make a difference. Clicking compulsively through links on the internet, reading articles, watching videos marking this anniversary, more than once there are warnings that images might be too disturbing – you must click on them if you want to see them. I do not. I have enough disturbing images in my mind to last me forever. Still, I search, looking for something, no — for someone — surprised at how bereft I feel, remembering alone.

Parade Conjured Memories

As a child growing up in New York City we always went and sometimes, marched in the Saint Patrick’s Day parade. Wearing my Mary-Janes and double-breasted wool coat, I proudly strutted alongside my Grandfather as he walked, shoulder-to-shoulder with other tweed-cap wearing immigrants from County Cavan. My parents also used to bring us to anti-war marches — a little less festive than a parade.

Lately, in working on my memoir, I have been recalling these protests. Perhaps a key to how, armed with a Bachelors Degree in sculpture, a resume full of waitressing, and a few years of teaching English in Kyoto, I ended up with a job in a Bosnia during the war. What do you think? Here’s a (still raw) excerpt:

“Nights in my apartment in *Kiseljak were harder to bear as the winter dragged on into what should have been spring. For days on end, my cold apartment remained without electricity or water.  To stay warm I crawled into bed to read by candlelight, falling asleep early just to pass the time.  I missed Ian. These days, the telephone rarely worked so there was no comfort in our evening talks. Time apart became harder to bear since our weekend in Italy.

When the sun made a rare appearance in this mountain village, I felt the promise of spring, but nights remained long and frozen. Alone in the darkness, I listened to the terrifying grumble of tanks rolling through the street outside.

What the hell was I doing in this place?

Terrified my sweaty fingers might slip out of my father’s dry, soft hand, I squeezed harder, hoping he might notice my fear.  Shuffling along in a sea of adults protesting the Vietnam War on the streets of Manhattan, I kept my eyes on his profile against skyscrapers, sure I’d get lost in this crowd. I dared not tell him. I was 7.

My English teacher parents often brought us kids to marches and peace rallies. Personally, they followed the Irish-Catholic script of the 1950s – marrying at twenty and producing four children within 5 years. They sent us to Catholic school, happy to have others instill the fear of God in us. But socially and politically, they were proudly liberal and they encouraged us to speak up against injustice.

We lived in non-descript apartment buildings in the nicer parts of the Bronx. My brothers squeezed into one tiny bedroom and my older sister and I shared the other. At dinner, to avoid the cacophony of four children vying to be heard, my parents required we raise our hands when we wanted to speak. After dinner, we watched the Vietnam War on the news, full of gunfire and dead soldiers in black and white. The memory of anger, the shame and conviction that something must be done — daunting as that may be.

Idealism still pulses through my veins, but just as years ago, I hoped my distant father would lift me up safely above the terrifying anti-war crowd, I longed to be swept away out of the dark cruelty of this war.”

(Names have been changed to protect the not-so-innocent!) Anyway, not everyone loves a parade, do they?

*Kiseljak a Bosnian-Croat village about 20 miles outside of Sarajevo where I was based with UNPROFOR – the UN Peacekeeping Operation in Former Yugoslavia.

Attention Must Be Paid

20 years ago, my world was the war zone of Bosnia and Croatia. At first, arriving with the UN as a peacekeeper, I felt sure the world was paying attention and action would be taken to end the bombardment of Sarajevo. I was wrong. The siege went on for years.

Do your eyes glaze over when reading about wars? Sometimes, mine do too. Food and gardening blogs are certainly more enjoyable. Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Haiti, Sudan — the stories dispatched from these places are overwhelming and disturbing. Beyond sending money to organizations that provide assistance, (MFS is my choice) what can we do? I don’t know. The resulting feeling of impotence sucks. So I may switch my screen or turn a page to order seeds for my garden or catch up on trashy celebrity gossip or the latest buffoonery in the primary.

But this disturbs me: I spoke with people this week who knew nothing of the recent deaths of the war correspondents in Syria. Three brave and excellent journalists were killed because they believed they needed to tell the world about the terrible situation there. To be only vaguely aware, not so interested — feels shameful, and deaths of Marie Colvin, Anthony Shadid and photographer Remi Ochlik — who  lost their lives in getting the story out — even more heartbreaking.

I do not have what it takes to bear witness as, NYTs photographer Tyler Hicks writes so  movingly about his friend and colleague here. I salute the brilliance and insight we lost with these deaths — and vow to pay attention.

A Homecoming (Of Sorts)

This was the plan: I would have my baby in beautiful Cambridge, England. Not too far from N’s family in England, but most importantly, home to Chloe, a friend I’d made on the job at UNICEF-Croatia. A breast-feeding specialist as well as a mid-wife, I couldn’t imagine anyone else I’d rather have deliver my baby. There was no way I wanted to give birth in Zagreb where I was still living, especially after my obstetrician there prescribed tranquilizers for me, 6 months into my pregnancy. As a program officer for UNICEF I’d been in plenty of hospitals in Croatia and would prefer not to cross a maternity ward threshold as a mother-to-be.  Then, my husband landed a plum (and turned out, very temporary) job in Brindisi, Italy.  The baby’s due date was August 1. There was time.

In early June, I left Zagreb and joined N in the small town of Ostuni where he’d splurged on an incredible villa. I picked cherries and limes from the garden, filled vases with just-cut roses. I read and napped on the balcony, gazed at the fields of sunflowers and the shimmer of the Adriatic Sea in the distance. Seduced by the beauty and bliss of the place, I quizzed Chloe about what she thought about staying in Italy for the birth. She suggested a comparable choice might also be Sarajevo — still very much under siege. Southern Italian hospitals were poor and birthing attitudes very behind in terms of best practices for the mother.

So we stuck to our plans. I would depart for England in early July. There, I’d finally read the final chapter – about the 9th month – and face up to what I was in for. I’d bond with other pregnant women and learn to breathe and pant correctly. I’d eat fish and chips to my hearts content and revel in finally completely understanding everything said around me for the first time in almost 4 years.

Molly had other ideas: she was born almost 2 months early on June 13 in a tiny hospital in Ostuni. Whisked away from me to Brindisi Hospital, I barely glimpsed her, did not touch her. Chloe was right about the momma-care (it sucked) but not the neonatology department of Brindisi Hospital. Fancy facilities aren’t everything and the doctors and nurses who took care of (including singing to) my too-early Molly, were superb.

As I write, my daughter is back in Italy for 10 days with her high school’s Italian class. I mentally track her there – imagining what she is seeing, hearing, smelling, eating. I know she must be falling deeply in love with Italy. I can’t help but think she chose to be born there. The Puglia region is not on the school itinerary but Florence is – where I purchased a pregnancy kit that read “Si”. In Rome now, she probably sat on the Spanish steps, threw coins with her wishes, into the Trevi fountain. If the weather cooperates, she will visit Capri. We lost our camera on the boat back to Naples where her birth certificate and first passport were issued. Molly will cross the country by bus all the way back up to Venice, and every mile passed will pull her more deeply in love with this place of such rich beauty and spirit, this place where she first glimpsed the world. And in so many ways, this is a wish come true.


Art Therapy

‘Only in confronting pain can there be real healing’ — I’m paraphrasing something Bosnian actress Vanesa Glodjo said during the Q&A with Angelina Jolie about their recently released movie “In the Land of Blood & Honey“.  She was speaking about the reaction of Bosnians to this film. Glodjo’s comment resonated with with me as I continue to ruminate on this subject.

This morning in the car, a discussion on global conflict resolution came on the radio. A Jean Paul Lederach spoke about the power of music, of sound, as healing: “…it this notion of transportability, we think,is a window into several places in which reconciliation and healing … this idea that vibration touches us… healing is about feeling like a person again…what music does is it permit people to touch again, feel touched by, and to even maybe touch their own sense of personhood and voice…you may not be able to explain, you may not be able to speak your way through certain things, there are times in which music and/or sound may in fact permit that to happen in a much deeper way.”  He goes on to talk about poetry, particularly haiku in the same vein.

This possibility of healing the psyche and soul through, as Lederach says, — the ineffable — through music, through art, fascinates me.  To facilitate recovery from the wounds of war, the damage done by addiction, illness, from violence, the deaths of our loved one, suicide. Time may ease or at least dull an ache, but art can help us to process grief and find a way to the other side.


Something Different: Q & A with Angelina Jolie (really!)

What are you doing  this Thursday, January 12 at 8:00 PM (EST)? Why not tune in here for a live online Q&A with Angelina Jolie.  She’ll be discussing her writing and directorial debut, In The Land of Blood and HoneyThis is will be an interactive event and a chance to ask Ms. Jolie questions about the film, live.


I think of the Bosnian war as ‘my war’.  Of course, it wasn’t my country and my experience as a UN peacekeeping operation was muffled by armored cars, flak jackets and always having an exit. And leave I did – as the reality of my impotence and the potency of evil became too heartbreaking. But N and I met in Sarajevo and held our wedding there during a summer cease-fire. Our friends pelted us with relief-rice. A very different story than the one in this film – that I will watch with fists full of tissues.  Please join us on Thursday.

About the film:

In the Land of Blood and Honey has been nominated for a Golden Globe® for Best Foreign Language Film. Set against the backdrop of the Bosnian War that tore the Balkan region apart in the 1990s, the film tells the story of Danijel (Goran Kostić) and Ajla (pronounced Ayla) (Zana Marjanović), two Bosnians from different sides of a brutal ethnic conflict. Danijel, a Bosnian Serb police officer, and Ajla, a Bosnian Muslim artist, are together before the war, but their relationship is changed as violence engulfs the country. Months later, Danijel is serving under his father, General Nebojsa Vukojevich (Rade Šerbedžija), as an officer in the Bosnian Serb Army. He and Ajla come face to face again when she is taken from the apartment she shares with her sister, Lejla (Vanesa Glodjo), and Lejla’s infant child by troops under Danijel’s command. As the conflict takes hold of their lives, their relationship changes, their motives and connection to one another become ambiguous and their allegiances grow uncertain. In the Land of Blood and Honey portrays the incredible emotional, moral and physical toll that the war takes on individuals as well as the consequences that stem from the lack of political will to intervene in a society stricken with conflict.



Object of Loss

I lost my pen today. This pen was a present from my late husband and was probably ridiculously expensive. It was a very nice pen and while I am a bit saddened, I’m more philosophical. It was bound to happen since it no longer quite fit into the little leather loop on my wallet. I often had to dig for for it between the mint tin, checkbook, tissues and coupon mess in my handbag.  Just like I did today at the grocery store before I returned to the coffee counter where I’d last pulled out my wallet. No luck.

My husband’s presents were always over-the-top. He’d buy amazing gifts but ignore the stack of bills. His tastes in everything were extravagant; he liked the best clothes, cars — you name it. There was a time when he worked in the movie business in England when he made great money and could really afford to indulge his expensive tastes, or at least so he told  me. This was before my time. When we were together, he never quite got the making-versus-spending money thing. Now I know this is typical of an addict, especially a cocaine addict.  But even when he (we) could no longer afford things like Mont Blanc pens, he couldn’t resist. That’s what I lost today – a Mont Blanc pen.  I’d been carrying this slick black, too-expensive pen around in my wallet like a Bic for… I do the math from N’s death year 8 years ago, and figure I had this pen for about 10 years. A long time for a pen in my wallet.

When we first got together I admit I was impressed by N’s extravagance. After years of watching my pennies and rarely treating myself, indulging in luxury – at least by my standards – seemed possible. After all, I was making more money than I ever had in my life, socking all my wages in the bank for 4 years while living on a UN daily field allowance in Croatia and Bosnia. In the early years we took some crazy trips and stayed in nice hotels and I bought nicer clothes than my usual thrift-shop finds, but mostly, I stayed my frugal self. N on the other hand, showered me with pricey watches, Bally boots, cashmere sweaters – fancy pens.  His generosity and love of nice stuff was seductive. That was before I became aware that he was spending money he didn’t really have. Then it became painful.

I liked the way the pen felt in my hand but rarely used it to write more than a check. Somehow, it never really seemed like mine.

We Would Be Haunted

This morning I finished a memoir by an American woman who met and fell in love with her husband in Sarajevo during the war, prematurely gave birth to her longed-for baby in a beautiful European location, and struggled unsuccessfully to sustain a marriage to a tortured soul with an addiction problem. No, not my memoir, The Things We Cannot Change (still agent-shopping) – Janine di Giovanni‘s just published, Ghosts by Daylight: Love, War, and Redemption. 

Reading her compelling story was sometimes eerie – as if some Balkan spell had been cast over us who, by choice, lived through those dark days in Bosnia. So much struggle and sadness in our lives, so many unhappy endings where there once seemed such promise – bright love out of the bleakness of war. And yet, of course we would be haunted: what were we thinking?

Janine di Giovanni’s time in Bosnia and mine overlapped although my experience was very different. She is much braver than me and as a journalist, hers was a very clear and admirable mission. As an international civil servant with an administrative job, I lived a comparatively cocooned and frustrated existence. Traveling from New York to be part of a very cloudy ‘Mission’ – I harbored the short-lived illusion, I might be serving the cause of peace.  My war experiences do not compare to her powerful accounts. But as women in love – with love, adventure, romance, our respective babies, our men – it was like reading my own story. And for the battle against addiction, there is no armor.

She writes beautifully – her heart pulsing in each word as she relives her life with Bruno. I vaguely remember him from the Holiday Inn and remember seeing Janine – such a majestic, striking woman. And I remember her friend Ariane, a French journalist who never seemed to leave Sarajevo yet always appeared to be cheerful. I wonder if they would recall the crazy, dashing Englishman, smartly dressed with an ascot tucked into his Barbour, who drove the ICRC around and certainly flirted and flattered them? He never missed an opportunity to leap from the balconies inside the Holiday Inn connected by the climbing lines one of the journalists set up. I think it was Paul who did this – Paul Marchand, the elegant, warm French photographer with a perpetual cigar was one of Neil’s favorite people in Sarajevo. Just this morning, from Janine’s memoir I learned that in 2009, five years after my husband ended his life, Paul also hung himself. So many memories stirred up – and so much sadness. But regret? No. Like Janine, I marvel at my child and cherish the love from those ashes.

The Power of Herbs

Yesterday we finally enjoyed a Spring Saturday of sunny warmth. I gardened all day, transplanting, mulching, raking. My body now buzzes with the delicious, all-over, day-after ache of a good workout. I think that’s from wrestling with Mint. For years now, every spring I must rip out the thickly woven roots of this magnificently fragrant, insidious plant that threatens to take over my vegetable garden. And every year I think I have completed the job yet, between tomatoes, basil and beans, stalks of Mint emerge.

Standing, I loosen the roots with a pitchfork, a ripping sound my cue that I can pull them out without injury to my back. Then, sitting down in the dirt, I grab the roots with gloved hands and yank. As I do this, strings of tentacles pop out beneath the soil, leading me to another tangle of growth.  I planted this mint as a fledgling gardener, not knowing I would forever battle this harmless looking plant – so delicious for tea and in salads. Now I cautiously plant perennial herbs only in pots or where I want wild, fragrant coverage. Never in the vegetable garden.

Yesterday, I also pulled out a Purple Sage that for over a decade, has grown beside the vegetable garden’s gate. In spite of ruthlessly cutting it back every spring, by July I must squeeze between the fence and furry leaves on woody limbs, to get to the rest of the garden. With my pitchfork, I easily lifted out the Purple Sage and moved it to a flower garden where I am attempting to orchestrate a constant show of color of perennials and shrubs. Hopefully, it will thrive between the Irises and Azaleas.

Every time I bruised by the Purple Sage, or plucked some leaves for roasting a chicken or to be sauteed in butter for a simple pasta sauce, I think of the friend who brought it to me during my first spring in this house. She was visiting from NYC and arrived with a flat of herbs.  This plant survived those 15 years although our friendship did not. I have never known why she no longer wanted me in her life. She disappeared into silence during the height of addiction drama in my marriage, when she had just launched into her own, happier marriage. I imagine, we were too much for her — and don’t blame her: I would have felt the same aversion to us, her messed up friends. But she had been there at our beginning: she and I were off for a weekend break and were passengers on the same military transport plane out of Sarajevo when N and I connected for the first time. She predicted our future then – with a happier ending. Over those years in the madness that was former Yugoslavia at war, she was my dearest friend – family to N and I. Then, we all ended up here — her in the city, us in Connecticut. We saw each other less, especially as N descended into his hell of addiction and I scrambled to keep the pieces of our lives together. I left her a message or two and sent an email wondering what I had done, but I never heard from her. I still wonder what happened and miss her brilliance and hilarity. I moved this shrubby herb to gain more space to plant vegetables, but also, unconsciously, perhaps to end these flashes of mourning evoked by the scent of Sage.

Making Nice

My natural talent for being a wise-cracking asshole was tempered by my years working for the United Nations. After serious training, I learned how to avoid offending people from around the world – it was a job requirement.  On any given day, I spoke to 100 + people who came for a tour of the UN.  Leading my flock through halls and meeting rooms, I spouted the latest Security Council resolutions condemning either Israel or South Africa (this was the 80s) and hedging my way through questions posed by irate visitors about why the UN would not intervene in Tibet or Northern Ireland. Uncomfortably, I lectured Japanese tourists in my abysmal Japanese, about the importance of nuclear disarmament while surrounded by melted artifacts from Nagasaki and Hiroshima. I learned to deliver the information – passionately, but without personal opinion.  This meant no smirks, frowns, glee or embarrassment – unless officially sanctioned by the international community.

It wasn’t easy. I’m pretty opinionated and used to delight in verbal sparring. Sometimes, still do. But to this day, I value the skills I picked up in those international rooms. One key to maintaining a mask of control and fending off potential conflict is to have a script — a few non-commital words expressing whatever the neutral party line is. This still comes in handy. Just the other day, someone cornered me at work wanting to know what I thought about the competition shutting down in the next town. “It’s always sad when a bookstore closes.” I said. And while this is true in theory, in reality, I think: better them than us — I sure hope that we get a bump in business comparable to the hit we took when they opened.

Often, being diplomatic can just mean keeping your mouth shut, and that really doesn’t come easily to me. I have only gotten fired once in my life – from a waitressing job when I was in college. Too many years have passed for me to recall the exact exchange, but a customer was rude to me and I dished it right back. In retrospect, I admire that gal but today, I need my day job.

Keeping my mouth shut was a skill I really got to practice in the war zones of former Yugoslavia. You don’t want to piss anyone off when Kalashnikovs are around.  A neutral smile, courtesy and a United Nations blue passport were all useful in getting through checkpoints manned by sometimes drunken Serbs, Croats or Bosnians. This discipline of not inflaming dicey situations still helps me today: I avoid road-rage incidents on Route 1 and can defuse the instinct to punch the lights out of unpleasant customers in the bookstore. I think a certain amount of public neutrality is common sense – who wants their window smashed by a right-winger offended by a ‘Planned Parenthood’ or ‘Support Our Soldiers: Bring them Home’ sticker?  The only bumper-sticker I have on my car says “READ”.  I think that’s safe.



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