Prologue: December 24, 1993, Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina
It’s dusk, the wind is bearable and the snow has stopped, but despite the promise of ceasefire in honor of Christmas, the by now mundane shells are exploding all around us, spilling the accumulated snow from the rooftops in smoke-like puffs as Mario and I round the corner of the pothole-ridden street on our way to the Roman Catholic Cathedral. Both of us are breathless from running, but Mario, what with his Manhattan-easy chair grown stomach, is the worse off. After four weeks here, with my daily diet of two boiled potatoes and plenty opportunity to tone up while dodging snipers, I’m in top shape and have learned to no longer worry about whether I finish crossing a street, alive. Fact is, no matter how careful or agile you may be, a bit of sheer bad luck, and that’s it, my friend, your number is up. Alas, Mario arrived only this morning, and every whizzz! and pam! creates another brutal dent in his macho cool, causing him to hop and dance like the proverbial cat on a hot tin roof.
Noticing that he’s fallen quite a bit behind, I slow down and a good thing it is, for just a few yards ahead of me a battered red Fiat’s windshield gets hit by a sniper’s random bullets, careens off the road, smashing into a group of three, a man and two young girls who’d been hurrying in the same direction as we, towards the Cathedral. With a hoarse cry, Mario bumps up against my back, recovers and pulls me aside preventing me from dashing forward to check for survivors. But another approaching shell, must be from a Howitzer, whizzes over our heads, crashes down upon the Fiat, and the small vehicle explodes in a tremendous surge of heat, orange-red light and flying bits of melting metal, rending my good intentions academic and my kneecaps jelly.
I sink to the ground but Mario grasps me by the waist, lifts and drags me until we stand half-hidden on the threshold of an open door to a bombed out, abandoned but once-upon-a-time handsome Austro-Hungarian era building. Good that I’ve lost all that extra flab, I find myself grinning in a fierce lunge for sanity, or else Mario wouldn’t have been able to lift me as easily as he did!
The shelling intensifies, eliciting a babel of agonized cries while dislocating pieces of human flesh, bone, plaster, building concrete as well as pavement. The air is soaked with the stench of burning gasoline, leather, fabric, and also... something else that I can recognize instinctively, but shake my head and adamantly refuse to attach a name to it.
We press our backs flat against the wall but refrain from kicking the door shut for extra protection. What’s left of the door is rotting wood, wood which would not only fail in stopping the errant bullets or pieces of mortar, but would add splinters to the wounds they might cause.
A tallish, emaciated-looking man bent beneath the weight of a wet carton box of relief food roped to his back, limps out of the shadows favoring his right leg and joins us in our refuge. I recognize him as Shaban, a Muslim accountant, widowed father of four, forty five years old, but seems sixty. He wears a black coat, but no hat upon his soaking wet gray head, nor shawl, or gloves, and is trembling violently — yet I daresay not only from the cold. His expression blank, he whispers in English, “I’m sad that I can’t celebrate Christmas this year with my friends... you see, they’re all gone....” With a philosophical shrug, he adds, “But I shall pray for their safety and happiness.”
Blood rushes to my face and I glance at Mario, his features momentarily illuminated with the orange light of another explosion across the street, strongly smelling of sulfur. We’re the same height, five feet seven, and I can look directly into his eyes. His blue-eyed boyish face is pale, tight like a mask. Naturally, he is so new here, but if he survives the next couple of days, his confidence will grow as he begins to learn how to weigh the caliber of death by gauging the length of the whistle, its type, and the point of origin of the explosion. To his credit, his sixth sense is unusually keen, which he of course never admits as such but calls it logic combined with experience.
Another whizz, passing quite close to us, and then a mighty explosion, and from the noise of shattering glass I hazard it was a dead hit, perhaps a third floor apartment, about a block down. Could it be a whole family sitting around a table, playing cards? Just like the Dragnic’, two days ago? The shell exploded near the kitchen window, blowing a ten-foot hole in the wall and covering the apartment’s floor with a deep pile of debris blanketed with crumbled plaster, reported ten-year old Elvina, a guest in the house and one of the two survivors. The other one, Mensur Dragnic, 77, is now the sole, wounded and what’s worse, maddened, survivor of a family which has lost three generations with one strike; his wife died with their son, daughter, son-in-law and two grandchildren....
All at once Shaban lets out a savage cry, and then off he is, a dark and vulnerable figure scurrying among the mayhem on the street, in a desperate hurry to bring home food while he is still in one piece. But his chances are so small! I feel compelled to steeple my hands and pray aloud, “Oh, Mary Mother of God, help him, keep him safe! Oh, Mary, please, do let him come home to his family.... “
“Amen,” Mario finishes solemnly.
I’m so overwhelmed with sorrow that I begin to shiver, setting my teeth to chatter hard enough to perhaps crack the enamel. There’s nothing I can do for this good man whose devotion to his family reminds me of my late father’s, and yet with all my being, I want him to come home and present that food to his loved ones, surely awaiting his return with anxiety-torn hearts. I wish I could bargain with God, offer to trade my life for Shaban’s, yet I’m not ready to do so for I have loved ones too, a purpose, a goal to fulfill, and the blueprint of a child budding beneath my heart.... Yet guilt grasps me by the throat and I’m so frustrated that despair threatens to draw me into its vortex; my head spins, vision blurs and I begin to hyperventilate. For the first time in my life, I feel hopeless, real down and dirty, hopeless; is this how one goes into shock and is led down the path of self-destruction? Mother Mary, please, hear me! I’m humbled! I hadn’t felt so humbled even in Nagorno-Karabakh, while recording the atrocities committed by the Armenian Militiamen in tandem with the Russian mercenaries, and afterwards, by the aggrieved Azerbaijanis who struck back with a ferocity equaling theirs’.
“Easy, pet, easy,” Mario whispers in my ear, “slowly take in a deep breath... exhale... breathe in....exhale....” I follow his instructions, breathe in, breathe out, and his voice is a calm island among this roaring ocean of madness.
“The Chetniks are so drunk with Christmas joy that they shoot without the slightest notion of whom and what they’ve been hitting!” I cry furiously, and then I’m buoyed by the fact that my vocal cords are still functioning, and what’s more, my hearing is intact, pulse rate is slowing down. A few more seconds, and my sanity and will to fight on for another day, returns like a failing marathon runner’s second wind.
“It’s better to shoot under the cover of dark,” Mario replies, his arm around my waist pressing me against his thumping heart, “what you can’t see at night, won’t haunt your conscience in the morning.”
“Or at any time thereafter,” I add, just to say something, just to keep hearing my own voice and marvel at that yes indeed, we’re still alive, and that Shaban might have an alert guardian angel after all, and that I’m still in possession of my marbles. Though the question begs: why us, and not the threesome — perhaps a father leading his two young daughters to receive the sacrament on Christmas Eve— who’d been running ahead of us?
“I think there’s a break coming,” Mario observes, his narrowed gaze surveying the shadowy hills festering with snipers so vile, that not even the jackals would call them their own, “it’s best if we go on.”
“To the cathedral, right?” I ask, hoping that my tone is forceful enough as to brook no denial. On most occasions, when I’m beset by anger, terror, pain, or a dire loss of faith, and need to pray, the world is my cathedral at anytime and place; I’ve learned to withdraw to the quiet spot in my soul, to visualize the AllMother draped in blue surrounded by a radiant golden light, and then I’m blessed by peace, hope, even spiritual balance. Alas, not so today....
“But of course, pet,” he sighs.
He could have just as easily opted to make a run for the relative safety of our hotel, housing a bunch of rugged foreign-correspondents, in the center of Sarajevo. He is sleepless, worn-out from his efforts to enter the city unharmed and without surrendering the extra food and clothing he brought along. Grateful, I kiss him on the cheek.
As we leave our makeshift sanctuary, the street comes alive with the hardy and the heroic. Though so desperately ill-equipped, they lose not a moment braving the still leaping fires of the burning Fiat as well as the any-second-now resumption of a sniper attack, to search for those whose luck has run out on Christmas Eve, ‘93.
Mario’s pull of my hand gives no quarter and we hurry through the deepening darkness with the icy snow crunching under out booted feet. Boots, yes, I wear boots, warm, lined with fur, and even though I gave away my down coat, I still have a woolly one left, with two sweaters beneath. Once again I feel frightened — not so much for my life as for my faith, close to being suffocated by the cynical futility permeating my soul. Hey, you, Mary, Mother of God, how can you live with yourself? Or is God really a chauvinist male who’s at last managed to strip you down of all your female power? I wonder about how many men, women and children, are due to eclipse today. The well-publicized 21-month Bosnian war has consumed close to 200,000 lives and left about 160,000 wounded; 9,700 people have been killed and 56,000 wounded in Sarajevo alone, many of them members — two or even three generations — of the same family who died in the same instant. I had tears in my eyes from how they were living, recalled a colleague from the Associated Press, about the family of his former landlord whom he had visited three days prior to their deaths, the mother, a H.S. chemistry teacher, caught by a flying shrapnel while waiting in line for bread, the pharmacist father and liberal arts student son machine-gunned while taking her to be buried, but how they died, was even worse....
Tears spring up in my own eyes and their pain is more than psychic, for they soak up the ice cold fumes in the wind and burn my corneas. Blinking repeatedly, I try to recall details from my mother’s accounts of the Second World War, when she’d run for her life under a hailstorm of bombs, to compare notes, but my memory draws a blank. Nonetheless, the fact remains that she had survived an epoch as evil as today’s, with her faith in the innate goodness of Man, still intact, and I will not, could not, do any less or else I may not call myself her daughter....
“I came to Sarajevo to report on what’s been happening here,” I whisper to Mario, my voice staccato for I can hardly breathe, “but all I’ve done so far... is to be a Witness to a valiant corpse who refuses to admit its death without one heck of a battle.”
Pausing abruptly, he grasps my chin with his free hand, turns my face to look me in the eye and declares calmly, “You’re the master wordsmith, Anya, is this the best you can come up with?”
Taken aback, I glare at him, but then I break out laughing. Once again he’s pulled off what he is so good at, which is to cut through the emotional b.s. and bring me crashing back to terra firma.
“And now it’s time for you to take your leave, old girl,” he continues, his tone turning steely, “I will make sure of that. Believe me, I will.”
I lay my hand upon his, remarkably warm in this bone-chilling cold. I might well save my breath by not voicing any protest, for we’ve been together from when I was eight years old and after three decades, Mario knows the very words I would employ. However, neither will I listen to him, for I shall leave Sarajevo only when I can implement the next step in my strategy as an American journalist committed to spotlight the true scope of Serbian expansionism in the Balkans. However, triggered by Mario’s statement, my commonsense roars, Anya! Stop taking yourself so seriously! Never forget that all life is but one river, steadily flowing along its preordained route in an ever-turning circle, and no Man (or any writer’s pen) but God can alter its course.... so, old girl, don’t scream, don’t weep, give it up, give in, throw away your pen, shut the windows of your soul to the world, accept what you can’t change, because the mysteries of KISMET are too sophisticated for you to comprehend.
I recoil, my fists clenched. Why, this is a defeatist train of thought, with the power to force anyone into apathetic acceptance of What will be, will be. Bristling, I square my shoulders and stick out my chin. Hell, no! I’m on this quest in honor of my parents’ memory, and I refuse to be bullied by Fate! I loved my parents and all through my life my empathy with their idealistic drive was such that I felt we were three aspects of a single soul. One of the strongest bonds we shared, was our thirst for knowledge and commitment to digging out and spreading information — for the good of all. In our respective ways, we fancied ourselves as a “champion” of the poorly informed, and deemed it an inhumane crime for anyone in power to withhold or distort information from those it could benefit....
“You should’ve known better than let yourself get pregnant,” Mario declares suddenly and once again I’m returned to earth.
“Well, I didn’t think this was what I was getting at the time,” I snap, then pause, bewildered for I’m not sure whence came this attempt at ... what? Being witty? Now?
We resume our walk, arm in arm, the world is suddenly all quiet, and I suspect that somehow, we have entered the eye of the storm. “Once, my parents took a walk like this in Vienna, in 1945,” I find myself recounting, “it was on the morning they’d heard that the Russians were two hours away and Papa’s Albanian comrades had beaten a fast path, leaving him to face certain death by being strung upside down from a lamppost. So they walked, calmly, arm in arm, ignoring the cannon fire echoing all around them, until Mama decided to spirit him away from Vienna... all on her own....”
“Yeah, she was a remarkable woman,” Mario nods. “But getting back to you, pet,” he continues after a brief silence, “the truth is, as a mother-to-be, you’ve forfeited the freedom to play Donna Quixote.”
I hold back a smile. He can’t help it, this much-tested best friend of mine, for even though his mother was an Italian, famous for her passionate outbursts, Mario Moran is still too much of a stoic Irishman to openly weep. Nevertheless, though, later he made one concession when he murmured something about that not even Satan could compete with Man’s inhumanity to Man....
Christmas Eve. Celebrated — yes, celebrated! — in a city under deadly assault for being a Muslim stronghold. Well, to those who might liken the Serbs’ siege of Sarajevo to Muslim-held Jerusalem’s siege by the Crusaders, it ought to come as a surprise that there are still thousands of Christians here, braving the odds to survive one more day of thumping their nose to death by random mortar and shell fire. But then again, in this information age, everyone knows that the real bone of contention in Bosnia-Herzegovina is not Christianity versus Islam, oh, no, only a nasty little war to gobble up more land and real estate. A war no different that the one in Nagorno-Karabakh, in the Caucasus region. Or for that matter, the ignored one, in Tibet. That’s all. Just rout out or mow down those who are in your way, and the rest is purple-prosed redundant editorial.
“Do you think Alex would’ve found Dryta if the Serbs hadn’t been on to him so soon?” Mario asks all of a sudden.
I can’t reply, don’t know how to. Besides, it’s useless to speculate. The last I’ve heard of Alex is that he was caught and jailed. I need not to be hysterical to imagine him being tortured right this minute — that is, provided he is still alive.
“You shouldn’t have let him go to Kosova,” Mario picks up tonelessly, “but you did... what’s worse, you didn’t even tell him about... about...” he bites his lip, swallowing the rest of his words.
He reaches for my hand again, holding it tightly between his two. Though it’s been more ten years since our divorce, he is still a friend of my heart, closer and dearer than any husband or lover could ever be, and I know he understands that Alex was soul-bound to enter Kosova in hopes of at long last, finding his Dryta, and that I, was equally bound to keep him uninformed about the consequence — though I would have liked to call it the fruit — of a passion we share too strongly.
Mario and I remain silent for the rest of the service, listening to the chants while random shells chip away at an ancient cosmopolitan city slowly dying like the sunset on a clear day. In 1984, Sarajevo had been the site for the Olympics, and after passing a referendum for independence in February 1992, crowned as the capital of a nation admitted to the U.N. as well as to all important international organizations and institutions. Only the Belgrade regime, drunk on the dream of a Greater Serbia, refused to recognize Bosnia-Herzegovina’s sovereignty and attacked to subjugate through wide-spread rapes and downright genocide. Their task was made a picnic by the hands-off policy of the powers-that-be and their resolutions forbidding Bosnians the weapons to defend themselves. Earlier this year, our Warren Christopher echoed Neville Chamberlain’s famous remark of 1938,1 when he painted Bosnia-Herzegovina as a “humanitarian crisis a long way from home, in the middle of another continent.” The American public will not be concerned, he assessed, because “... we have to save our power for those situations which threaten our deepest national interests.”
Yeah, right, Warren, old boy, I rebut him inwardly, and the vision of a new world order espousing humanitarian values, was just a fancy notion, and its loss can’t possibly boomerang upon our shores....
The question begs: Forty years from now, will I have a child left alive who will dust up my yellowed, crumbling papers, read, and be moved to republish them with his or her footnotes for emphasis, the way I had done it with my own father’s works, after he had passed away?
And if I do, what will my child’s angle, be? A tragic story of defeat, or of a Phoenix rising from the ashes?
I look around and sense that everyone around us, including those engaged in different tasks, have placed their cynicism aside and are absorbed in prayer. I envision the snipers on the hills, and their superiors, replete with food, drink, and arrogance, and remember the Serbian saying: “Sila Bogu me moli.” Meaning, Power does not pray to God. Helped by the assorted behind-the-scenes interests of European and American bigwigs, Serbs are the undisputed winners in this tragedy, so they need not to pray.
I close my eyes, focusing on what Dobrica Cosic, former Yugoslav President, told Radovan Karadzic, President of the Bosnian Serbs, while they were still planning for their inglorious conquest, “Keep doing what you’re doing, until what once seemed impossible, becomes possible.”
Well, there is a moral in this. In fact, a vow. Sila Bogu me moli, Power does not pray to God — but Faith, does, and I too, shall keep praying, and writing, and fighting — with my pen, and my heart, and my soul, until what once seemed impossible, becomes possible, and my very much alive child or grandchild, after going through my yellowed papers, writes the story of the Phoenix...