The light grows brighter but the air is cold. I throw on a thick robe and slide my feet into slippers. The dog close at my heels, I make my way downstairs and prepare some tea before sitting at my desk by the window. Steaming cup beside me, I settle in for a solitary hour to reflect on my life.
Once I lived in a war zone. In Sarajevo, I met a man and married him. He should still be here to share memories, reveling in how precious peace is, but that is not what happened. Instead, I am in this pretty suburb in Connecticut with his child, without him. Years have passed and I continue to search for answers, and remembering how it all began, I write.
“Welcome to Sarajevo!” a young Norwegian soldier with a clipboard yells over the roaring engine. Moments ago, our huge plane dropped straight down onto the shell-pocked tarmac. I scurried down the gangplank, to cross the short stretch to the airport building, imagining a sniper off in the distance aiming a gun at my head. It was all I could do not to drop my bag and break out into a run. My eyes on the Sarajevo Aerodrom sign on the boarded up building ahead of me, I tripped slightly in the shallow pit of a mortar crater. Machine gun fire echoed from the outskirts of the landing field. Finally, I joined the other passengers gathered behind a snaking wall of sandbags, our breath visible in the air, our cold feet in a black soup of slush. In front of a doorway a wooden hand-painted sign lay propped against a chair “Check In”.
The line of United Nations soldiers and police moved quickly and soon, it was my turn. Shivering, I stepped forward. One of them motioned to the blue UN helmet dangling in my left hand.
“That’s not a pocketbook you know!” he scolded.
I nodded, now embarrassed that I would risk getting shot in the head rather than have ‘hat-head’. My teeth chattered from the cold or nerves as I smiled sheepishly. I pulled out my UN issued passport and handed it to a good-looking soldier with a red chapped face. Although a freezing damp fog lay thick around us, the soldiers at the desk wore only shirtsleeves under their heavy bulletproof vests, guns at their sides. A flush of heat rose from my neck as he looked up at me with a wink before stamping my “Laissez Passez” with the “Maybe Airlines” logo, thus christened because there was no guarantee that planes would fly on any given day. The airport often closed for days, or sometimes weeks, because intense fighting made it too risky to take off or land the planes.
The soldiers had pulled their check-in desk to the doorway to capture the dim daylight. The room behind them was dark but I could make out a mountain of military issued luggage in a corner. A napping soldier, who looked eerily like a corpse, was sprawled over the backpacks and duffle bags.
I could get trapped in this dismal, dangerous place. Looking around at the gray and twisted remnants of the building, I momentarily longed for the grimy subways of New York. Breathing deeply, I inhaled diesel fumes. I could hear the roar of the plane still and imagined myself dashing back across the tarmac to return to Zagreb. I’d explain to personnel there I made a mistake: I did want that job in the UNPROFOR press office in Zagreb or Belgrade, safer alternatives they suggested to me, in case I did not want to accompany my boss to his new assignment in Bosnia. I turned down those options. Here I was. Faking courage. Feeling fear.
Sarajevo was where the action was, and the thrill, and even the danger, had seemed irresistible. Besides, Boris relied on me. I’d worked for him for the last half of the year, since joining this peacekeeping operation, UNPROFOR (the acronym for the United Nations Protection Force in Former Yugoslavia) and we had become good friends. I couldn’t let him down.
“Welcome to Sarajevo!” The soldier repeated as he handed me back my passport with a reassuring grin.
“Thank you.” I said, twisting awkwardly in my stiff flak jacket to push the thin passport back into the shoulder bag strung across my thumping chest. Fingers frozen, I grabbed the strap of my dirty brown duffel bag, and heaved it onto my back and followed the soldiers away from the rumbling airplane.
For weeks before leaving, I studied maps of Bosnia marking the distances between places. On the flight, I had craned my neck to see out of the tiny windows, mostly obscured by the tower of cargo strapped down in the center of the plane. How far was Kiseljak from Sarajevo? We were to set up the new Civil Affairs office in Kiseljak. How close was all the terrible fighting and violence? And how far to the crystalline Adriatic Sea, and across the water to Italy? Italy. I had always wanted to live in Europe and it was there I imagined myself one day. I’d be blissfully painting, a handsome, loving man in my life and a baby.
The map of Bosnia was filled with lines within lines symbolic of the endless mountain ranges. There was a scribble of them – mountains upon mountains and then more mountains. Travel here would not be easy. From the plane window I saw that this landscape was not like the scrubby Mediterranean cliffs surrounding my previous post in Knin, but more like the Swiss Alps – beautiful, fierce, foreboding – isolated territory difficult to penetrate or escape from. I felt as if the weight and mass of rock and snow were closing in upon my heart as we hurtled toward the center of what seemed to be an endless, formidable range.
I lumbered to the back of the airport building and dropped my bag. Over the walls of dirt and sandbags, I saw the empty landing field stretched around a winding road that lead to the remnants of a string of apartment blocks. White buildings, now blackened, with gaping windows that appeared to be silent screams against the steel sky. I imagined the lives that had once lived behind those missing windows. Everything in sight was destroyed.
Shuddering, I pulled my leather gloves out of the pocket of my purple parka and put them on. Sure that my dripping nose was red, I covered it by pulling my scarf up over my cheeks before turning my attention to the other passengers. As always, faced with a new group of people, I hoped I might find a potential friend or better yet, a lover, maybe even the love of my life. There were soldiers and a group of older men garbed in United Nations field service uniforms but no faces registered until a woman I did not remember from the plane met my gaze. She smiled warmly and came towards me, flinging her long dark hair over her shoulder.
“Hello there. Were you on that flight?” Her skin was pale and flawless, her eyes sparkling. She spoke with an Irish brogue.
“Hi. Yes, I was. Were you? I thought I was the only woman.” I said.
“Well in this costume, how could you tell?” She said laughing and knocking on her navy blue flak jacket, swinging the helmet she held in her hand.
“Watch out. I got scolded for carrying my helmet.” I warned her.
She rolled her eyes.
“I suppose they’re right, it is foolish not to wear it. My name is Fiona.” She peeled off a wooly glove and reached out her hand towards me.
“Mine’s Tricia – nice to meet you.” I shook her hand. “Are you based here?” I asked, hopeful that I had found someone to continue my journey with.
“No. I’m with UNICEF in Zagreb but my husband works with Lord Owen and he’s living here for now. We only got married a few months ago so I try and get down to see him whenever I can.”
Zagreb, the capital city of Croatia, was a sophisticated, beautiful city where the UN and other organizations that had stepped into the Balkan fighting, were based. Unlike Sarajevo, or Knin for that matter, there was, heat, water and electricity and no bombings or machine gun battles.
“That must be hard – being separated.”
“He gets out pretty regularly to Zagreb or I come to him here. Our family thinks we’re mad but really, it keeps things exciting. Anyway, that’s the way things are so …” She shrugged and smiled then looked around. “I hope the shuttle to the PTT building hasn’t left yet.”
“Oh – that’s where you’re going?” I asked, disappointed. Before the war destroyed the city’s infrastructure, the PTT building housed a telephone company and now it headquartered the UN in Sarajevo. I was going in the opposite direction. I wanted to continue our conversation, I wanted to know more things about Fiona: did she meet her husband here? How long would she live this life? How did she envision her future? Would she have kids? She was about my age and I sensed that we could be friends. I wanted to ask her things, imagining that her responses might lead to answers to my own questions.
“Yes, aren’t you going to Sarajevo?” She asked.
“No. UNPROFOR is setting up an office in Kiseljak and that’s where I’ve been assigned.”
“That should be all right then. The shelling in the city can get pretty intense.”
“Sarajevo! Passengers going to the PTT building in Sarajevo!” A soldier called, poking his head out of a mud-spattered tank that had just come grinding into the muddy patch in front of us.
“That’s me! I’ve got to go. Listen, give me a shout next time you are up in Zagreb and we’ll have you to dinner. Just call the UNICEF office there and they’ll connect you. I better dash. I don’t want to get stuck at the airport! Take care and good luck. Lovely meeting you.”
“I’ll see you again, then.” I said hopefully and watched her walk towards a group of UN soldiers and police waiting to go into Sarajevo.
Fiona was proof that I wasn’t crazy: love is possible even if you choose a life of adventure. And I wanted it all. I didn’t want my life to be a humdrum existence of going to a 9 to 5 job and home again. I wanted to contribute to and see the world and now, here I was – this was my chance. But I was tired of being alone. Over the past two years, since I turned thirty, the yearning to be a mother had become a gnawing ache I couldn’t find a remedy to. Fiona’s life was exciting, productive and she had the beginning of a family, just what I wanted for my life.
“Kiseljak! Any passengers going to Kislejak? This way!” One of the Norwegians yelled over the din of the APC and the plane returning to Zagreb, now howling on the tarmac before liftoff.
Ground transportation away from the airport was via a huge, slow moving UN tank – Armored Personnel Carriers, referred to as “APCs” in the military and UN language of acronyms. Stepping away from the wall of the building towards the APC bound for Kiseljak, I noticed a group of journalists. They were easy to spot with press badges and cameras looped around their necks. I watched them climb into two bullet riddled, un-armored, “soft-skin” cars marked PRESS in big letters on the hood, doors and roof. Laughing, one lifted the trunk and held it up while the others threw their protective vests and helmets in before tumbling into the car. Their scruffy looks and affectionate, easy manner with each other appealed to me, as did the incongruous fun they seemed to be having. Were these jokers the same ones who took devastating photos and wrote heart-wrenching articles about the war? Wistfully, I watched their cars spin away from the airport at top speed.
My helmet now securely strapped on, I waited with the other passengers to get into the APC that would take us to Kiseljak. I didn’t feel the journalists’ bravado and was grateful for the protection of the Scandinavian soldiers and their armored vehicles. The Antonuv plane that had delivered me here, lifted off with a last roar, rising like a monster towards the mountains into the heavy gray clouds, back to Zagreb. I climbed into the darkness of the APC and positioned myself in one of the molded plastic seats closest to the door. It closed with a thud. My chest tightened. I should not panic – I would not be in this heavy tank forever. I tried to relax, unclenching my hands and jaw and slowing my beating heart. I looked towards the light from the hatch through which the driver peered. The APC lurched out of the airport and headed towards Kiseljak.
From the airport to Kiseljak there was only 10 minutes or so of dangerous territory – where vehicles were sometimes hit by small arms fire or encountered booby traps set along the road. On that first journey, all I saw were the grim faces of the half dozen other passengers, until the space filled with the smoke of cigarettes and our breath. A few passengers tried to talk, yelling at each other over the din of the grinding noise of the APC, but thwarted, quickly retreated into silence. A British officer sitting opposite me was obviously an old hand at this kind of travel. He sat like a relaxed Buddha for most of the hour trip, his eyes closed, his hand on his pack in front of him. I closed my eyes too and visualized a horizon to keep myself from getting sick as we pitched around. Inclined to carsickness and claustrophobia, I struggled to stay calm, conjuring up all of the yoga breathing exercises I could think of.
I tried to imagine what I was in for: Fiona and the journalists were promising glimpses in this otherwise bleak place, but they had gone to Sarajevo, in the opposite direction, not deeper into the mountains as we were. Anyway, Boris was arriving in a few days. He was a warm, affable Russian who’d been with the United Nations for years and over the last few months, we shared confidences and laughter after dull meetings. I just needed to be able to laugh.