War reporters say that you fall in love with your first war, and certainly that was true for me. I arrived in Bosnia in 1992, during the early days of the war, a young journalist discovering a land of forests, mountains, tumbling streams, and the blackened remains of minarets felled amongst the rubble of their mosques.
This week marks the 20th anniversary of the siege of Sarajevo, which began on April 5, 1992, when Serb snipers firing from the Holiday Inn killed two women participating in a peace march in front of the hotel.
Yugoslavia had broken up. Bosnia and Herzegovina had declared independence. But Serb forces, unwilling to abandon the dream of a greater Serbia, surrounded the city, posting thousands of troops in the fields above. For more than three years, they blasted Sarajevo with artillery, mortars and rockets. The snipers, though, came to define life—and death—in the city.
By the time the war ended in 1995, I’d spent the better part of three years living in Sarajevo, chronicling how a medieval siege laid waste to a modern city, and I had fallen deeply, passionately in love: not with a person—although there was the odd war-driven affair—but with the city itself.
Sarajevo winds along a cleft in the mountains, communist concrete giving way to Austro-Hungarian stucco garlands and then to the minarets and souks that signify 500 years of Ottoman rule. Against this romantic backdrop, I was taken by the courage of the Sarajevans, who were encircled by Bosnian Serb President Radovan Karadzic’s madmen and minions in the hills, yet defiant of shells and snipers. When peace finally came and my newspaper called me home, it almost broke my heart.
I wasn’t the only person to fall in love during the war. Despite the bloodshed, it was also a time of romance.
Indira Sorguc met her husband, Fahro Kucuk, when they joined the resistance. They were bonded by a double tragedy: Indira, an 18-year-old student, had lost her only sister in a car crash. Fahro, a pastry chef, had lost not only his wife, who had died five years previously after giving birth to their daughter Aida—but also Aida herself, who was killed in a shelling, the first child to be killed in the war.
“I couldn’t see the point of living,” says Fahro, describing his younger self. “I would have gotten myself killed. Then I met Indira.”
Indira’s parents had wanted her to leave the besieged city. But Indira prevailed. “I felt I had to defend my country,” she says today.
Indira worked in military personnel; Fahro was an officer in the 10th Mountain Brigade, and although the intense fighting forced them to sleep in the same military barracks, their relationship was platonic—at least at first.
“We didn’t kiss for two months but when we did,” says Fahro, “it was like the first kiss of my life.”
After her family home was destroyed in a shelling, she moved into the house of Fahro’s parents in the old part of town. It resembled a ruin: the windows were shattered and covered with plastic sheets handed out by United Nations troops. But against the backdrop of war, the couple fell in love. “We were living under a siege,” says Indira, “but we had our own siege within the siege.”
When Fahro proposed, family and friends objected. After all, food was rationed; water and electricity scarce. “Everyone said we shouldn’t get married because of the war. Even my father said we should wait,” says Indira. “But we felt that we shouldn’t allow the war to stop our life.”
As members of the resistance, they were paid in cigarettes, the de facto currency of the war. (A packet of cigarettes was worth about $50—or two pounds of flour.) Bargaining in this natural economy, Fahro managed to procure veal for the wedding at which Indira wore a green coat and a borrowed hat. They married in July 1993, and for the honeymoon the 10th Mountain Brigade gave them a week’s leave and two packages of food: feta cheese and a tin of sardines—a veritable feast.
Indira and Fahro found love among the ruins. But for many, besieged life in Sarajevo was a lonely affair. Water, fuel, and food were scarce. But to venture out for either meant perhaps getting into the sights of a sniper. The city’s corridors of death were sometimes indicated by little cardboard signs warning “Pazi Snajper” (Beware Sniper) but often not. Trapped inside their city, one friend remarked, “We’ve become a zoo.”
Every day, people queued at the water standpipes of the city. Old ladies staggered home, hauling prams and homemade go-carts laden with plastic containers of water. At home, the precious liquid was carefully measured out for washing, cooking, drinking, and flushing the loo.
Unable to collect firewood, people burned first their furniture and then their books. And yet they died during the brutal mountain winters. To read the dates on the graves is to realize that 1993 was a terrible year. Old and young perished together. Both the shelling and the cold were indiscriminate in meting out death.
Reporting on the siege, I came to know—all too well—the man we referred to as the tallyman of the siege. Alija Hodzic was the reluctant mortuary director, a former baseball-team driver, who came to preside over a house of death. One day, he saw his own son laid out on the marble slab of the morgue. Ibrahim had been killed by a shell. He was 23. And his wife was pregnant.
But amid the destruction, creativity also flourished. People cooked fat to make soap. A professor of forestry kept his family alive by picking fruit on the frontlines, fermenting it in a still he’d rescued from the wreckage of his university lab, and then selling the alcohol that he made.
I met the professor’s son one day when I sought shelter from a bombardment in a doorway. Bobo Krstic lived on the first floor of the apartment building and invited me in. In his larder a wounded pigeon miserably awaited death. Bobo had shot it, aiming his air rifle out of the window. On a wood-burning stove he was melting lead from old pipes he’d foraged from the ruins of other houses. He was making more pellets for his gun. He had made the pellet molds from mud. Later that night, we ate the pigeon. It had a satisfying taste; with meat so rare, it was a treat.
I was going in and out of the city and in the autumn of 1994, a Bosnian doctor in London asked me to bring some pills and a letter to two elderly women who lived by themselves in a flat across from the cemetery. We had just come through a hot and sticky summer, yet the women were terrified of the approaching winter. Insistently, but very politely, they kept saying to me, “Winter is coming—we are not sure what [to] do.”
I am ashamed to admit that it took me too long to return: when I did, the following January, the fear and the cold had driven them mad. I gave the translator, who worked with me, what money I could spare; I had to leave for Britain, and I asked her to make sure they had some fuel and some food. But I knew those few hundred Deutsch marks wouldn’t be enough to see them through the rest of the winter. When I returned in the spring, both the old women were dead.
And then the Dayton Accords officially ended the siege. The madmen of the hills retreated. But the war had thrown lives off course, separating families and friends. The city’s football field had become a graveyard, the iconic Holiday Inn hotel a crumbling shell. In a three-day bombardment using incendiary grenades, Serb forces had effectively erased history as they destroyed Bosnia’s National Library, built during the waning days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. After the attack, the Moorish revival building was a smoldering heap, its resplendent copper roof caved in. Most of the collection, which counted 1.5 million volumes, including more than 150,000 irreplaceable manuscripts and rare books, had disappeared in the fire.
Missing, too, were tens of thousands of people, some displaced, others vanished for good. In Bosnia’s laboratories, the grisly business of identifying remains began. In all, 100,000 people died in the war, and millions of others became refugees. It was the worst carnage in Europe since World War II.
Sarajevo was shell-shocked, and some of the inhabitants who had withstood the siege found trouble in peace. “Many peoples’ lives fell apart,” says Fahro. “Relationships were broken. People were desperately trying to get back, emotionally and materially, what they had before the war. But Sarajevo had spent three and half years in a vacuum, shut off from the world.”
When I visited again in 2003 to do research for my novel, The Girl in the Film, it was a dispiriting encounter. Unemployment ran as high as 40 percent and corruption had consumed millions of dollars of aid. It seemed the only ones who were thriving were the war criminals who’d turned to organized crime. I finished my book and left before Christmas, deeply disillusioned by the place that I’d seen, wondering if it wasn’t Sarajevo I’d fallen in love with but rather the war itself.
Coming back to Sarajevo for the 20th anniversary this year, the city feels revitalized somehow. Almost every tree has been planted after 1995—during the siege, trees were felled and burned—and Sarajevo, which once reeked of smoke, burning rubbish, and cordite, now smells of spring.
Today foreigners crowd the streets; the coffee shops, galleries, and theaters are packed. Sarajevo is becoming what Prague was in the 1990s or Paris in the 1920s—a place where young people come to write, to paint, and to study, drawn to a place just four hours from the Mediterranean that also boasts an Olympic ski resort. Organized crime is down, but the economy is lackluster. That, though, puts the city within reach for the young. A well-appointed apartment in the center of town costs $200 a month; a coffee in the fashionable Hotel Europa Café is less than $1, and a good meal in a restaurant less than $5. And if that isn’t enticing enough, the locals are attractive and you can still smoke in most bars.
Hodzic, the tallyman of the siege, no longer works at the morgue but has built a farmhouse near the old frontline where he breeds sheep. After his son’s death, his daughter-in-law gave birth to a boy whom they named Ibrahim, in memory of his father. He is 19 years old this year, a university student, and, according to his grandfather, the embodiment of his father. He has little memory of the war and is full of hope.
To me, the city’s indomitable spirit is best represented by Indira and Fahro. At 40, she is Sarajevo’s most successful playwright. Her play titled I’m the Gossip—a kind of Bosnian Sex and the City adapted from her newspaper column and bestselling novel—has just celebrated a year playing to packed houses. She is thinking about taking it to the Edinburgh Festival this year.
Fahro, a handsome 53-year-old, has graduated from the frontlines to become one of Bosnia’s most popular children’s book authors, and the manager of the venerated downtown bookshop called Connectum.
Twenty years after the war brought them together, they are still in love.