My War Gone By, I Miss It Soby Anthony Loyd
Anthony Loyd’s gripping depiction of the depravity of war in Bosnia and Chechnya “places him into the great tradition of Hemingway, Caputo, and Michael Herr.” —The Boston Globe
Born to a distinguished family steeped in military tradition, raised on stories of wartime and ancestral heroes, Anthony Loyd longed to experience war from the front lines. He left England at the age of twenty-six to document the conflict in Bosnia, and for the following years he witnessed the killings of one of the most callous and chaotic clashes on European soil. His harrowing account from the trenches shows humanity at its worst and best, through daily tragedies in city streets and mountain villages during Yugoslavia’s brutal dissolution. Addicted to the adrenaline of armed combat, he returned home to wage a longstanding personal battle against substance abuse. Shocking and violent, yet lyrical and ultimately redemptive, this book is a breathtaking feat of reportage and an uncompromising look at the terrifyingly seductive power of war.
“Battlefield reportage does not get more up close, gruesome, and personal. . . . The fear and confusion of battle are so vivid that in places, they rise like acrid smoke from the page.” —The New York Times
“Loyd’s fragmentary reports morph into first-rate war correspondence from Bosnia that places him into the great tradition of Hemingway, Philip Caputo, and Michael Herr.” —Dusko Doder, The Boston Globe
“[Loyd] gets past the carnage and begins to answer the more fundamental question of just how the war in Bosnia came to be so bad. . . . Some of the finest writing to come out of the Bosnian conflict. His prose can be both beautiful and disturbing.” —Kimberley A. Strassel, The Wall Street Journal
“Reading his book can be murder, but what a writer, what a vision. In its rawest passages, My War Gone By, I Miss It So is hard to read. From start to finish, though, it’s hard to read and not be impressed.” —Peter Rowe, The San Diego Union-Tribune
“My War Gone By is not your father’s front-line reporting. This may just be flat-on-your-belly grittiest coverage to come out of those tormented killing zones thus far.” —John Gamino, The Dallas Morning News
“Loyd’s strongest writing is in his descriptions of carnage—of the sound and smell of shellfire; of the sexual release of blasting away with an automatic machine gun . . . This is pure war reporting . . . Loyd waxes eloquent on the backblast of his war time, a heroin addiction that begins before his arrival and becomes the only way he can survive his breaks from the fighting.” —Salon
“A testament to his honor and courage . . . [this] book shines with small truths and larger, philosophical ones about life and war.” —New York Post
“It takes a journalist with incredible dedication to endure the risks and horrors of covering war from the battlefield. Or it takes someone like Anthony Loyd. . . . His disturbing remembrance of the war in Bosnia, My War Gone By, I Miss It So, is an exploration of baser human motivations. . . . The book helps round out the literature that has looked back on the war in Bosnia. Better than most, it helps explain a war that seemed so at odds with the promise of the post-Cold War world.” —Steven Komarow, USA Today
“[Loyd] never whitewashes the horror of war nor the way it favors bullies over humanitarians. . . . Like his dispatches, his book is a photo in disguise and has a photo’s immediacy of effect. Some things need to be shown.” —Dan Blue, San Francisco Chronicle
“Loyd’s rebellious irritation and visceral response to the atrocities around him give uncommon immediacy to this thoughtful, unpretentious memoir of the war in Bosnia.” —San Francisco Examiner
“This is a book about dark motivations and self-destruction, and (considering the effects of the great cruelty that marked this conflict) what draws people to such hatred, either to watch or to take part. . . . My War Gone By is a raw and ragged book for a war that officially announced to the world that what’s old is new in conflict: war fought between neighbors divided by religion or ethnicity, and fought hand to hand. . . . Bringing a war often seen through a haze of euphemism into sharp and jarring focus. This great horror in a century of horrors finally has it jeremiad.” —Justin D. Coffin, The Philadelphia Inquirer
“Loyd’s memoir is exceptionally well written and a devastating reminder that there are still places where the particular hell of war is the everyday norm.” —Ernst-Ulrich Franzen, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
“A fascinating look at war from a front-row seat. . . . In the end, readers well understand the toll war has taken on the lives of its players—whether witting or unwitting. . . . Reading My War Gone By is like diving into parts of your psyche you might not want to confront. Our empathy with Loyd and his crazed doings poses a troubling, if well-worn , question between each of his harrowing lines: Mad? He seems to say. Aren’t we all?” —Patti Thorn, Denver Rocky Mountain News
“[Loyd] has given us a dazzling, hallucinogenic, harrowing and utterly riveting book. . . . Loyd manages to get on the inside and look out, and so provides a perspective on hatred, cruelty and human depravity that is sobering and terrifying. . . . My War Gone By, I Miss It So is strong stuff and certainly not for everyone. But there are touches of brilliance here, and readers who do stomach their way through it—and once started it is almost impossible not to—will be touched and, yes, even enriched for the experience.” —Lawrence Goldstone, The Hartford Courant
“The stark, often lyrical quality of his prose accentuates the surreal atmosphere of wartime in Bosnia. . . . Loyd’s account blends personal revelation with biting commentary on diplomacy and war. By turns horrifying, contemplative, and savagely funny, this memoir captures the peculiar ferocity of ethnic and religious civil strife. . . . This unforgettable work ranks with the great modern accounts of war.” —James Holmes, Library Journal
“An extraordinary evocation of the war in Bosnia, that is also a painful personal story. . . . Idiosyncratic, unsparingly graphic, refreshingly self-critical, and beautifully written.” —Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“Writing with a combat veteran’s dark knowledge and a seasoned war correspondent’s edgy, hesitant desire to cling to some sort of confidence in humanity, Loyd delivers a searing firsthand account of the war in Bosnia that successfully blends autobiographical confession and war reportage. . . . Just when a reader begins to feel that Loyd is too cynical and detached, a scorchingly lyrical passage will illuminate the Balkan war in all its anarchic horror. . . . Not like any other book on the Yugoslav war, his gripping, viscerally subjective chronicle puts a human face on the tragedy as it mourns the strangled soul of multiethnic Bosnia.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“Loyd does his war close-up: bloody, muddy, and terrifying. He writes from the trenches and the mass graves; from the sniper’s nest and the carnage of the first-aid station. His writing is in the finest of traditions, of Martha Gellhorn’s The View from the Ground, and not since Michael Herr wrote Dispatches on his experience of the Vietnam War has any journalist ever written so persuasively about violence and its seductions, of all of war’s minutiae of awful detail.” —The Observer (London)
“Powerful and moving . . . Elegantly written . . . Loyd is painstakingly honest about the sheer excitement of war, and breaks the often unspoken taboo of war correspondents—that battle can be a better high than sex or drugs, the whip-crack of bullets and the whistle of shell-fire the deadliest siren call of all.” —The Independent
“Undoubtedly the most powerful and immediate book to emerge from the Balkan horror of ethnic civil war.” —The Daily Telegraph
A Book Sense 76 Selection
Sarajevo, Spring 1993
There was a Bosnian government army sniper positioned in one of the top floors of the burned-out tower block overlooking the Serbs in Grbavica. He was audio landmark to our days. We lived in the street below at the edge of Sarajevo’s ruined parliament building in a small strip of the city sandwiched between the frontline Miljacka River and the wide expanse of Vojvode Putnika, the street dubbed Snipers’ Alley soon after the war began. The area had a few benefits but they were purely relative in the overall scheme of Sarajevo’s war.
Our proximity to the Serbs meant that they were seldom able to bring down heavy artillery fire upon us for fear of dropping short and hitting their own troops on the other side of the small river. The tight clustering of buildings afforded protection from automatic fire, provided you knew which alleys to run across and were not unlucky with a mortar round.
It was only if you chose to leave the claustrophobic confines of this narrow template in search of food or as a release from the stifling boredom that your troubles really began. There was no way around it, if you wanted to go anywhere else in the capital you had to deal with Vojvode Putnika. Empty your mind, fill your lungs and kick out for the centre knowing that if it happened then you would not hear it, merely get smashed forward onto your face by a mighty punch. Some people never bothered to leave the area. They waited for others to bring them food, growing paler and madder with frustration by the day. Others never bothered running. They said that they were fatalists but I think they were just tired of living, exhausted by the mental effort of dealing with the random nature of the violence. Kalashnikov rounds and shrapnel might have been the city’s new gods but there was no need to hand them your destiny on a plate. Even so, however fast you beat the ground you knew that it would never be faster than a speeding bullet. But most of us kept making the effort anyway, hoping it would cut us a bit of leeway with the reactions of the men on the hills above us.
I was sitting with Endre with my back to the wall of our house. It was late morning and the March sun was high and moving slowly south-west, leaving us in the wedged shadow of the building. We were indulging in Sarajevo’s greatest wartime activity: smoking and hanging around hoping nothing would happen to us but that something would happen somewhere, anywhere, to break the monotony and give us a sense of time progressing, of anything progressing. The war had been going on for nearly a year and had no end in sight. The city’s inhabitants were sinking into a sense of hopelessness which was catching, even for a foreigner with a way out. Our conversation followed the usual pattern: I asked lots of questions to try to get my head around the situation while Endre, a Hungarian Yugoslav, listened attentively and then began his answer. He did it the same way each time. “Well, Antonio,” he would open ponderously, “it’s like this …” The sudden bullwhip crack of a bullet interrupted us and we looked at the tower block. The government sniper was obviously back up there, though we could not see him, and had taken a pop at something he had seen across the river.
The two sides of the tower visible from our position almost never changed their appearance: the front was a wide expanse of black and twisted window frames, the southern side a concrete Emmental of shellholes from tanks. There was only one time I can remember it ever looking different. Some Muslim soldiers had crawled up to the top at night and unfurled a long banner down the side of the building that directly faced the Serbs. “DON’T WORRY BE HAPPY” it read vertically in letters each a metre high. The Serbs shot it to ribbons the next morning. I could never work out if this meant that they had got the joke or not.
After a few seconds’ silence our conversation continued. Then another shot rang out. Endre paused again, this time raising an index finger in expectation of something. Across the river a machine-gun fired a burst back towards the tower, its dull popping sound following only after the whacking of the bullets chipped off bits of concrete in harmless-looking grey puffs above us. Still Endre held up his finger, waiting for something else. Again the sniper fired, only this time there was a scant second between the crack of his shot and great explosive smashings and sparks as an anti-aircraft gun riddled the top storeys of the tower in a nerve-jangling roll of sound. Silence followed the last detonation. The sniper would not fire again that day. Endre lowered his finger and turned to me smiling. “Well, Antonio,” he began, “that is what we call ‘educating fire.’”
* * *
Sarajevo was a schooling such as I have never had. At the time of Endre’s words I had been in the city only a short while and still knew almost nothing of war though the subsequent days queued packed in line to throw their rocks into the still pool of my naivety.
Aside from the deeper reasons behind my being there, my path to the Bosnian capital was marked in equal parts by coincidence and intent, milestones which stretched from a prophetic warning on the day Tito died over a decade before to a stoned conversation with a Serb deserter in Marrakech in the late spring of 1991. By the summer of 1992 I had finished a post-graduate course in photojournalism. My CV, updated with the new qualification, swarmed through London mailboxes. I wasted four months before giving up on a response. There was no specific moment when I suddenly resolved to go to Bosnia alone, though I do remember having felt an accelerating motivation earlier that year when transfixed by a photograph in a British, newspaper of a Serb fighter, cigarette in one hand, kicking a dead Muslim civilian in a town called Bijeljina. The photographer himself was to have a part in the final endgame of my war experience, but that was far away then; part of a future I could not have even guessed at.
I knew if I went I would not have much money with me, certainly not enough to hire an interpreter, so I rang up the Serb restaurant in Notting Hill and asked if there was anyone there who could teach me Serbo-Croatian. A surprised voice the other end of the line agreed to meet me at Notting Hill tube to discuss the prospect. Waiting for the rendezvous there as bedraggled commuters hurried in silent groups past me in the cold gloom of the winter evening I saw a beautiful girl waiting by the station’s entrance. She had long straight hair that fell halfway down her back, its blackness matched only by the dark of her eyes, and was smoking a cigarette, hauling deeply on it as if it was the last she had. Mima was from Novi Sad. Her mother was Croatian, her father Serbian. She had left Yugoslavia to escape the sanctions, and hated the Milošević regime. She agreed to try to teach me the rudiments of her language. Her advice on Bosnia she repeated to me like a mantra throughout most of our evening lessons: “There are some very crazy people there. Very crazy. Most of the intellectuals have left. The scum have risen to the surface. You must be very, very careful.” The last lesson was different. She asked me if I would marry her as the Home Office was giving her grief.
In the New Year and with the end of winter in sight I felt ready for what lay ahead, my formless concept of war. Mima introduced me to some friends of hers in Hammersmith, Omar and Isidora, a Muslim-Serb couple from Sarajevo. Isidora’s parents still remained in the city. She asked me if I would take a parcel of medicine and money together with some letters to them, and told me that if I wished to stay in their flat I would be a welcome guest. She drew me a little sketch map of the city, X marking their house. The X was a little close to the thick red line she had used to indicate the front line but it seemed rude to bring that up at the time. Sarajevo seemed an obvious place to begin my journey and I was glad to be given a contact there.
However, I still waited hopefully for an employer to end the drumroll of my preparations. The thought of going off to a war without the cloak of a professional guise was a little unnerving. Without a contract there would be no aim to fulfill other than my own, and that was fairly vague: merely to go to war using, if possible, journalism as an open-ended ticket to remain in Bosnia for as long as I wished. I felt I needed at least some kind of contractual blessing to go, some practical and mental safety net to justify myself if it all went wrong. None came. I was left having to face the full responsibility of my own actions.
Two friends from college were leaving London for Moldova in a battered Skoda, hardly the golden chariot of my dreams. They were driving via Budapest, which was not far from the Croatian border. I tried to balance reason to produce an answer that would tell me “Go.” I failed. My plan was not reasonable. So I thought fuck it and went anyway, throwing my bags into the Skoda one cold morning. It was not a decision that had anything to do with courage, but more an absolution of self-responsibility, a releasing of myself into the hands of chance.
The journey across Europe in the Skoda passed like a week-long Last Supper culminating in a seedy but otherwise empty bar in Budapest where my two friends and I got drunk together before going our separate ways. At some stage in the evening the juke-box had fired into life as if operated by an unseen hand and a young Hungarian girl walked in and up to our table. She wore a short black dress, had slanted green cat’s eyes, pale skin and blue-black hair so clean it smelled like gun metal. Without a word she beckoned me up, put her arms around me, pulled me close and began to dance, swaying slowly to U2’s “Cruel.” I felt young and lucky. It seemed like we danced like that for a long time in absolute silence before the music stopped, I sat down and she smiled and walked out of the door. I try to fight superstition with the power of reason, but with the drink and smoke and significance of that last night I could not help but feel that she was some ghostly omen of good fortune. Then again, maybe she was just bored and between tricks.
From then on I was alone, taking trains and buses until I reached Split on the Dalmatian coast. At the UN office in the airport I flashed around a covering letter of accreditation made out by a friend in London which suggested I was a photographer. In return I was given a UN press card, the ticket for passage on a Hercules flying aid into the besieged Bosnian capital. I had no conception of mortal fear then, just apprehension at what lay ahead.
There was no slow spiralling of descent. The plane just nose-dived suddenly and through one of the windows I saw Sarajevo rising up beneath us. Acres of small ruined houses marked the western end of the capital, giving way to a narrow linear run of taller buildings and apartment blocks caught between high ridges of ground to the north and south. From the ruined airport complex a Ukrainian APC took me to the PTT building, the city’s central communications centre and at the time a main UN base. From there onwards my UN press card lost its power. There were a couple of young Frenchmen from an aid organization waiting around at the PTT so I asked if I could ride with them back to the city centre. I tried to appear nonchalant as nothing invites refusal so fast as the smell of innocence. Though I clutched the dog-eared sketch map given to me in London by Isidora, it seemed a better idea to check into the Holiday Inn, then Sarajevo’s one functioning hotel, for the first night in the city. There I could at least work out my bearings and get a feel for what was going on before I blundered into trouble. The Frenchmen eyed my baggage warily for a minute, then loaded it into their car. We roared off at speed and in silence, the city rushing past me on either side of the straight road in a dirty grey blur.
The war was the best thing that could have happened to the Holiday Inn. It had given a token vestige of character to what would have otherwise been the twin sister to a motorway service station: an empty, ugly transit centre of soullessness encased in a square of lurid yellow and brown paint, complete with terrible food and grumpy staff. Though the southern face was uninhabitable due to the damage inflicted upon it by the Serbs across the Miljacka, it was a safe enough place to stay. There was either some tacit understanding within the Serb command that the hotel was the focal point of the media in Sarajevo and should be left untouched or possibly there was a deal to ensure its security. Occasionally a government sniper would use the top floor or roof as a position, provoking more `educating fire’ in response, but by and large it was untouched after its initial baptism. I got a room and lay on the bed smiling with delight. I was there. At last, a real full-on war and I was in it. As if on cue a burst of automatic fire rippled away elsewhere in the city. I laughed and laughed. It meant nothing to me and I did not understand what it might mean to anyone else.
I knew that I would have to get across Vojvode Putnika somehow to find Isidora’s family, but was not exactly sure what happened on the other side as the details on the map were vague. However, the next morning a young man hanging around in the hotel foyer offered to take me to the address. Jasmin asked for nothing in return, and even when I later offered him a bit of cash he refused it determinedly. Those who have never been there may have the impression that Bosnia was simply a morass of hatred and killing. At times it could be. But it is the only place I have been to in the world where I know as an absolute certainty that if I stopped in a strange town, night or day, within an hour I would be accepted as a guest in someone’s house, fed whatever food they had and plied with drink, with no expectation of anything in return. As long as you stayed clear of topics such as religion, war or politics, hospitality was seldom a problem in the Balkans. But, though Jasmin may have given me my first glimpse of Bosnian warmth, he also gave me an insight into their irrational obstinacy. As we walked to the edge of the hotel, our final cover before Snipers’ Alley, he told me that he would not run across to the other side, explaining that he “never ran for those people.” Even as a newcomer I could see that Vojvode Putnika was certainly a place to run if anywhere was: not a soul in sight, the empty road littered with debris and the Serbs only a few hundred metres away on the high ground overlooking us. It would not need the skill of a sniper to kill us, anyone who could pull a trigger could have managed it.
I was in a dilemma. To run across alone would be unforgivably rude and craven in the face of Jasmin’s kindness. Yet to walk the stretch and risk being shot on the first day for the sake of politesse seemed equally stupid. The compromise was uncomfortable and a little ridiculous: as he strolled slowly across, face raised to the hills, I kept abreast of him walking sideways like a crab, first one way and then the other, hoping that anyone who wanted to shoot us would take out the easy target first.
We reached the other side and, after ducking through a narrow alleyway, walked through the door of a large four-storey house, its facade a bubbling plane of peeling plaster. Inside, the stairwell was dark and cool and for some minutes we used matches to check the names on doors as we ascended the stone stairs. Isidora’s parents were not overly surprised when we finally knocked on their door. The war had bred a particular ingenuity to all who remained stuck in its confines and somehow, through a Gordian knot of communication I did not really understand that involved ham radio and distant phone connections, warning of my possible arrival had reached them from London. And as an entity from the outside world, part of a peaceful normality Sarajevo had long lost sight of, and a link to their family in London, I was welcomed like the prodigal son. They clutched at me for news from the outside and I felt the inadequacy of the half-learned language I had picked up from Mima. For the first but not the last time, I found myself moved by something in that flat. As they tore open the letters that had accompanied the small parcel, there was a few minutes’ silence during which I felt a strange emotion welling within me. It was difficult to define and carried with it a sense of great awkwardness and humility. Suddenly I felt very sad, a feeling I struggled to explain to myself while the skin on my back shivered as if with presentiment.
Three people lived in the flat. Isidora’s father, Petar, was a Serb from Montenegro who had lived in Sarajevo for twenty-eight years. As a partisan during the Second World War he had fought everybody, he told me later, Cetniks, Ustaša, Italians and Germans, and raised his hands to click the trigger of an imaginary rifle as he explained. He was sixty-eight years old, but could have passed for much younger, small and compact with fitness, his black hair betraying hardly a trace of grey. His eyes shone with an energy I never saw diminish until a moment three years later. Even then it was only to dim for a second. He was a mathematician, as eccentric and stubborn as anyone in the Balkans. There was no way he was leaving his house for any war, even if it was on his doorstep. Yet it was obvious even in those first few minutes of meeting that his wife, Yelena, was not so easily able to resist the pressures of the conflict. She was a Serb born in Croatia, and there was a great sadness about her, visible in her downcast eyes, the paleness of her skin, and the way she tilted her head wistfully to one side as she spoke. Afraid and deeply depressed, she had only left that little street twice in the eleven months since the war had started.
With a face like a young decadent David Bowie, thin frame and slick mop of black hair, the third figure in the room lounged in a threadbare armchair, cigarette dangling precariously between long fingers, looking like the Thin White Duke obscurely transplanted from an underground Berlin nightclub. Momcilo was some kind of cousin, thirty-five years old, a natural ally who for me came to embody the spirit of resistance to the war and its madness, a quality that you found in ever dwindling numbers of people as time went by and most were forced into taking one side or another by the erosive propaganda, or else just ground down by the energy and pain required to keep an open mind. He had fled from his hometown of Cisak in Croatia when the war started there in 1991, for although he was a Serb, Momcilo wanted to fight for neither side. He had escaped to Sarajevo, seeing it as a bastion of multi-ethnicity that no war could ever reach, a misjudgement he still laughed over when I first met him. He spent his mornings selling copies of Oslobodenje at a point near the state hospital, which meant he had to run the gauntlet of Vojvode Putnika every day, though ironically the bullet he had taken in the calf he had gained collecting firewood on the other side of the house. In the afternoons he hustled for black-market deals or short cuts in the handout of aid, always with one eye cocked for opportunity, the other for the approach of the army press-gangs that stalked the city. He was one of Bosnia’s natural survivors and quickly became my “droog,” comrade, my guide and mentor.
Their flat was a one-level affair with seven rooms, two of which had a direct view of the front line. These were bullet-scarred and had been unused since the start of the fighting. The main room, in which we spent most of our time, moved in an L shape through an incongruous circular arch of Sixties-style architecture. At one end of it was a small kitchen and dining area, around the corner some chairs and a gas stove. Outside, snow still lay on the ground in icy grey scabs. The warmth of the small stove with its sometimes feckless flame became the focus of our conversations with the coming of darkness each night.
The local community was predictably close-knit under the circumstances and of such mixed religious definition as to deny you the possibility of making any judgement as to who—Serb, Muslim or Croat—made up the predominant group. At this stage of the war there were still up to 60,000 Serbs living in Sarajevo, a little under a quarter of the total population that remained. Some had joined the government army and fought bravely alongside their Muslim neighbours against what they saw as the forces of nationalist aggression that threatened their beloved city; others, including Petar, remained because they did not want to leave their homes and hoped the war would end soon; a lesser number actively sympathized with the men who shelled the city but were trapped in their houses by the gelling of the front lines that had encircled the capital.
Our discussions around the stove were a forum for arguments from every strand of the spectrum and frequently became hot-tempered affairs of raised voices and wild gesticulations. At this time I had no real foundation for an opinion of my own concerning the war. Of course it was obvious that the city was suffering, and that terrible deeds were being committed elsewhere in Bosnia. Yet my impressions of the conflict prior to my arrival had been moulded by Mima’s tutoring and in general she blamed all sides equally. So in debates I acted as a kind of muted umpire. Angrier exchanges were often halted as if to protect my sensibilities, bestowing me somehow with a passifying role. I listened with interest to what I heard.
Momcilo was in favour of foreign intervention and massive air strikes upon the Serb forces around the city. He was convinced that this would bring the war to an early close, leaving some hope for a continued form of co-existence between the various religious denominations. He was supported in this opinion by Endre, a friend and neighbour whose knowledge of the English language helped me to grasp details in the debates that otherwise would have been lost on me. However, Endre was not in favour of lifting the arms embargo that hamstrung the Bosnian government’s ability to fight. He believed that the consequent withdrawal of UN troops would lead to an immediate Serb retaliation that would swiftly overrun Sarajevo’s fragile defence lines. Petar opposed both air strikes and the lifting of the arms embargo. He said either move would lengthen and intensify the war. Though he was no lover of the political or military strategy that emanated from Pale, the ski resort town east of Sarajevo that the Bosnian Serbs had styled their “capital,” in his heart he was a Yugoslav, and division of that creation was not something he saw as desirable. If pushed, his loyalties lay ultimately with the Serbs.
The city’s war was a strange experience, far more abstract than I had expected. First, you never saw the “enemy.” The metal that scythed through people’s lives came as sudden barrages of noise and dust, combustions of energy that it was hard to equate with invisible men pulling triggers or cords. As the days slipped into weeks there were times when we could laugh it off from the sanctuary of our seven-room womb. Petar would chuckle and nod his head from side to side as a gunbattle grew in intensity outside, while Momcilo would roll his eyes and smile, as if to say “same old shit again.” We were seldom hungry, though the quality of the food we had varied tremendously. Sometimes, if Momcilo had linked up with one of his contacts inside an aid distribution centre, we would find a meal of pasta, meat and eggs as we gathered in candlelight around the dining-room table. At others we supplemented the handouts with whatever we could gather in the overgrown gardens that bordered the surrounding buildings, on one particular evening enjoying a real delicacy of boiled stinging nettles and fried snails. There were nights when Yelena could offer little more than a lump of hot fat, and we would slither the greasy chunks onto our plates trying not to catch each other’s eyes.
But war is not dismissed so easily. There were times when our feelings changed, as if synchronized by a hidden clock, and the noise of the fighting outside reached into us. Except for Yelena’s murmurs we would stare at the burning ash of our cigarettes or into the gas stove as bullets and shrapnel whacked into the walls of the house, clawing at our moods, drawing us into a dark shadowland where we existed only as helpless beings whose sole aim seemed to be to shoulder the grim, sometimes fearful tedium of just getting by, carry on living until something so far away as to be invisible arrived and altered things.
For me there was always a way out. I could go to the airport, flash that UN ID card and get on a plane to Split. I could be in London the same day if I timed it right, and that knowledge protected me from the despair that affected Sarajevo’s people. But it was not a move I wished or chose to take, and in the close proximity of that flat, sharing their life with them, I found myself susceptible at least to the moods and emotions of the people with whom I lived. After a time I discarded the bullet-proof vest I had bought in London. I had worn it because I was aware that it was easy to die in those streets—especially as a stranger new to the rules of the fighting—and realized that life was not something to be treated flippantly there. Yet I soon found it more of a barrier, in my own mind at least, between myself and those who befriended me than between my body and bullets. Its heavy weight ceased to be reassuring and instead brought only shame to me in the presence of people I knew, people who had no avenue of escape. I began to leave it in the room in which I slept, where it finally gathered dust.
On the streets outside, however, the war’s lessons were less subliminal; harder, more immediate physical entities. Within a few days of arriving I was shot at. With my growing confidence I had walked off alone to see the old town. Sarajevo was then only a vague series of impressions in my mind. I wanted to know it better. Names of places and hills were still alien, as was the overall physical perspective of the city, which I had only glimpsed during the first day for a few seconds through the window of the Hercules. As a pedestrian you seldom travelled anywhere directly, but took instead a zigzagging route that gave you cover from fire.
I approached a junction where two old women were preparing to leave the corner of a building. They presented a fairly comical sight, both small and round with fat, slightly bowed, their bodies encased in thick black coats drawn across their stomachs with long belts of material to keep out the cold. Between them they pulled a child’s wooden cart laden with potatoes.
Their shuffling pace did not alter as they left the cover of the wall and stepped into the open intersection. Momcilo had already advised me to run across this area because it presented a clear gallery to the Serbs in the buildings to the south. I broke into a jog and had nearly drawn parallel to the old women and their cart when around me the still winter air broke into a cacophony of fluttering zings, smacks and whistles. There were sparks on the tarmac, a sudden cloud of dust from the wall that provided a backdrop; a small wheel blew off the cart and chips of potato flew everywhere.
It was over in seconds. I passed the old women at speed. They seemed incapable of going any faster and steadfastly refused to relinquish their grip on the cart which now scraped along the ground on three wheels. Puffing and swearing indignantly, they joined me as I stood on the leeside of the distant wall. I felt outraged. Someone had just tried to kill me for no reason at all. I was not even carrying a gun. They had also shot at two people whose silhouettes, whatever the range, can have suggested nothing other than what they were—a couple of old bags pulling a go-cart. I expected the women to share my surprise, recrimination and anger. Yet they barely looked at me. They examined their cart for a second, said “yoy” and “fuck,” “fuck it,” “fuck him” and “fuck his father,” swore “on his mother’s cunt,” then said “yoy” again a few times before trundling off dragging their scraping burden behind them. The women’s indifference annoyed me even more than the gunman’s bullets but when I told the story to Momcilo he simply smiled tolerantly, shrugged and opened out his hands, palms up. “It’s like that now,” he laughed. “It’s … normal.”
Sarajevo’s “normality” came in many guises. The city was full of hidden traps, structures of power and allegiance that were far from obvious, even to those who lived there. The fighting had first broken, then obliterated the old hierarchy of authority and social structure. Within weeks of the outbreak of war, while the lines of confrontation were still fluid, thousands of people had fled the city, to be replaced by refugees from rural areas who brought a new brand of culture to the capital and with it new tensions. In the absence of a professional army, the only groups with any real organization, weapons or structure were the city’s criminal gangs, and so they took over the task of defence. For a long time the government’s strategy was in the hands of men like Juka Prazina, Celo and Saco: hard, enigmatic criminals with localized cult followings and a taste for killing. Later that year, battles would be waged not across trenchlines with the Serbs, but within Sarajevo itself as the government sought to wrest control from the hands of these splintered mafia groups by establishing a central, legitimate body using loyalist special forces and police groups.
In the meantime these urban barons and their subordinates held supreme power. Usually it was easy to spot the men of authority as they moved around the city with their cortèges of bodyguards, but there were exceptions. One afternoon, as I returned home from my wanderings, the streets’ atmosphere changed—as it so often did before something bad happened. Sometimes the change came with no warning at all, but usually there was a sudden sensation of unease, a brooding electricity that emptied the pavements of people. The sense of foreboding mounted in intensity, like the gathering movement of an orchestra, the pressure and silence cranking your nerves until you were almost desperate for the noise to rend it all open again. The feeling was soundless but it crackled. You could not see it, but it was black. Then it would come: the double concussion-sound kerrump of shellfire and the air-cutting crack of bullets. It almost brought you relief but it had a reverse side: times, stretching to a week, when as if by unspoken agreement everybody knew it was safe to promenade down Sarajevo’s thoroughfares in full view of the Serbs. Such periods would inevitably end in blood and weeping as the resumption of fighting would reap inordinate casualties among the vulnerable crowds.
I hurried into the ruined Bosnian parliament building for cover, lit a cigarette and waited. Inside there was the usual huddle of soldiers—they too silent and smoking—and a new unit of men in black uniforms who formed a group of their own in the shadows. Explosions erupted from behind the twin Unis towers to our north, followed quickly by heavy automatic- and rifle-fire to the east. Once it had begun the tension subsided and the soldiers began to talk in lowered voices among themselves and someone laughed. A couple of the black-clad strangers approached me to ask who I was and what I was doing. There was no menace in their words, merely curiosity, and they seemed happy enough with my answers. But then a small fat man wearing a pink T-shirt, camouflage trousers and bedroom slippers walked up. He was unarmed but carried a walkie-talkie. He jabbered away at the two fighters too quickly for me to understand, stabbing his finger in my direction to emphasize his words. The two soldiers changed, becoming cold and formal. “Where are your papers?” they demanded. I showed them my passport and a Bosnian accreditation card I had picked up but this did little to satisfy them.
The fat man in the pink T-shirt continued talking. It seemed obvious to me that he was just some insignificant troublemaker who had nothing better to do than sow suspicion in the minds of bored troops. I weighed up the odds and decided that a display of resolution might restore things in my favour; he seemed the sort of loud-mouthed bully who would wither in the face of confrontation. I took a breath, rounded on him sharply and told him to “fuck off.”
The bullets were still raining down outside as two of the soldiers carted me off to the police station. As the fat man’s shouting receded into the distance the men dropped their hostility, though there was no point arguing with them. One held my arm above the elbow but his grip was not hard, more like that of a B-movie villain hustling someone into a car, knowing that he has a gun in his pocket to back up the authority of his fingers.
The door to the police station was on the other side of the road. Behind us was the ongoing gunfight, and the overspill of Serb fire smacked around the doorway and pavement outside. A car slewed round the corner with a mixture of policemen and soldiers inside, took two rounds in the door, then bounced off the kerb as it squealed away. We stopped and my arm was released. The soldiers looked at each other then across the road at the doorway. I could not believe that they were considering crossing the road to reach it. “Listen,” I said, realizing the whole misunderstanding was getting out of control, “we can sort all this out later. Why don’t we just go back to the parliament building, have a smoke and return when this is all over?” The man who had held my arm looked like he might have gone for my suggestion, but the quizzical glance he gave to his companion drew only a shaken head in response. Whatever authority the little pink shit had was obviously greater than the fear of the Serb fire. No-one said anything for a second as we all looked at the far wall and its narrow door while the fire still sung around us. `When we say run, then run, you understand?’ one of the soldiers said. I immediately thought this was a sick plan conjured up by the fat man; on the given word it would be me alone who ran out into a hail of bullets—a bit like the final scene of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. But I had little choice. You can only argue so far with armed men. I grumbled without much hope that they had both better come with me, before one shouted, “Run.”
The three of us belted across the road, for a second jamming together in the doorway in a tangle of thrashing limbs. It must have looked hysterically funny to the Serbs. Inside, anger lending me strength, I turned on them: “I don’t fucking believe you made me do that.” They just laughed, though the tinge of relief in it spoiled their display of bravado, offered me a cigarette and escorted me upstairs to an office.
I was invited to sit down by a stern-looking grey-haired police officer who sat the other side of a large wooden desk. He was wearing an immaculately pressed shirt and seemed to be of some rank, though since pink T-shirts and slippers obviously carried such clout I could not be sure whether the bars on his epaulettes meant anything. He asked me my name and a few other mundane details before starting to talk about London. He had a daughter who lived near Islington, he said, and had visited the city in the late Eighties. He asked if I liked Sarajevo and what I thought of the war. We talked in this way for about an hour before he smiled and said that unless there was anything else, I could go. Puzzled, I told him that I thought I was under arrest, explained to him what had happened, right up to the road crossing, and said that I would need at least a letter from the police, some document I could produce in case of a similar incident. He waved a hand dismissively and shook his head. But what about the fat man, I said, who was he anyway? “The commander,” I was told, as though that explained everything. As I got up, shook his hand and turned to leave, I asked who was in fact responsible for the parliament building area. He just looked at me, smiling like I was a dumb child too young to understand, and shrugged. “Listen,” he told me with slow deliberation, “these are difficult times here. Some of today’s heroes are yesterday’s criminals.” Then came the words I was to hear a thousand times during the conflict, the short-circuit dismissal of any attempt to analyse the confusion, the air of resignation accompanied by hunched shoulders and raised hands: “What can you do?” he said. “It’s war.”