(EDITOR'S NOTE: Sharon Machlis Gartenberg of Framingham, a former Middlesex News reporter, returned from Bosnia this past week. She made the arduous journey to the war-battered city, just recently freed from a brutal four-year siege, so she could finally meet the residents of Sarajevo she has come to know via ham radio.)
By SHARON MACHLIS GARTENBERG
Special to the News
SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Hercegovina -- The descent into Sarajevo on a C-130 military plane is steep and swift: There is no chance for a gentle ride into a city ringed by mountains. For four years, Serbs shot at planes making this dangerous approach -- something that couldn't help crossing my mind, even though I knew that the airport had been quiet now for some time.
Our flight landed without incident; my biggest problem turned out to be a nosebleed from the sharp drop in altitude.
After years of waiting and longing, I had finally made it to Sarajevo.
I am a ham-radio operator, and I had regular contact with Sarajevans before the war. We'd chat several times a week, about usual things like work (mine) and school (theirs). But by March of 1992, the talk turned to barricades up around the city and gunfire in the streets. I was terrified what would happen to my friends. A month later, the brutal siege of Sarajevo began -- when it was finally lifted, more than 10,000 people were dead, tens of thousands more wounded, and the one-time Olympic city largely in ruins.
Mail was first cut off to Sarajevo in April 1992; phone lines went two months later. My friend Kamenko was trapped in his neighborhood near the airport, surrounded by heavily armed Serbs bombarding civilian centers, and unable to get to a radio. Somehow I managed to get messages to him, via ham friends in nearby Slovenia. Later, I made contact with other hams in Sarajevo who passed messages between us, and those hams became my friends as well. We'd never met, but we loved each other very much. And as the bombs rained down and my friends shivered and went hungry, we dreamed that someday, we'd be able to meet.
A few weeks ago, the chance arose. My friend Sherry in Massachusetts helped organize a 75-ton aid shipment to Sarajevo from Hadassah (the women's Zionist organization), and arranged for me to accompany their delegation. Exactly two weeks ago, we set off for Sarajevo, flying commercial airlines as far as Croatia and catching a NATO plane into the Bosnian capital.
Devastation along the road from the airport to Sarajevo center is particularly bad, I was warned, because fighting was especially fierce in that strategically vital sector. This was indeed true. However, as I looked out at the ruined, gutted buildings, snapping photos to look at later, all I could think about was meeting my friends.
I was impatient to get to town. We were headed first to the Jewish community center, and I wondered how long I'd have to make polite talk with people there before I could beg to use their phone and tell my friends I'd arrived. But it turned out that my Sarajevo friends were as restless as I was: When I got to the center, eight of them were there waiting.
Our meeting was as incredible as I'd imagined. We hugged, kissed, and smiled. After years of their suffering, and my fear that I'd never have the chance to see them in person, we were finally together. I couldn't stop staring at them. My friend Samir finally laughed, "Stop looking at me like I'm a photograph. I'm real!"
Our dreams had come true.
We took a couple of taxis -- yes, there is taxi service in Sarajevo -- to Kamenko's place (or, more specifically, the place where he is temporarily living now. His apartment was destroyed in the fighting, and he was driven from his home by Serb extremists in 1992). My four days in Sarajevo began as they might anywhere -- sitting around with friends, talking, joking, drinking beer. But of course, Sarajevo is not anywhere. It is a place just tentatively emerging from an unimaginable hell.
In touring the city, it is impossible find a building without bomb damage unless it had been repaired or rebuilt. Every apartment building seemed to have at least one apartment demolished by a direct shell or mortar hit; all the buildings were pockmarked from shrapnel as well. On the streets, my friends pointed out the marks from various explosives that terrorized them these four horrible years. One is what they call a "rose," for the petal-like markings of a shell hit; another is the triangular shape of a mortar. There are many, many to be seen.
At Kosevo hospital, a favorite target of Serb gunners, buildings were riddled with holes large and small. A damaged ambulance sat parked outside. The Serbs used to wait until there was a lot of activity at the hospital, I was told -- many incoming casualties, or the start of visiting hours -- to unleash their heavy attacks. A nurse at Kosevo described how a shell hit an intensive-care room, killing the people inside. Dozens of wounded would pour into the hospital each day, but often all she could do was hold young victims as they died, since there was so little medicine or equipment. She remembers relatives clutching at her legs, pleading with her to do something as life drained from the victims....
Living conditions in Sarajevo have improved dramatically in the past six months, my friends told me. People again walk the streets without fear, no longer having to dash across sniper-exposed intersections or walk near buildings to find cover in case of shelling attacks.
Electricity, though rationed, appears to be constant. While there are few street lights on and many apartment hallways remain dark, at least people have power now for lights, TV, and refrigerators (although not enough for electric heat, which much of the city used before the war).
Water is more of a problem, since residences receive it only a few hours each day. Thus people must arrange their bathing, cleaning, and dish-washing schedules around the daily water times; the rest of the day, people use water stored in bathtubs, containers, and empty soda bottles for washing hands and pouring into the toilet.
Stores are being repaired and opened at a brisk pace these days, and many businesses have already replaced their windows. Such is not the case with homes; few have glass on the windows, instead using ubiquitous UN-provided plastic sheeting to try to keep out the cold and rain. But with warmer weather, the city's meager gas supplies stretch better, and it's available for cooking and limited heat.
It is actually possible to go souvenir-shopping in the old town, since the little shops of Bascarsija, the city's 500-year-old bazaar, have been rebuilt. It is not the same, Kamenko tells me, since the old buildings were built from a special type of wood while the new ones are just plain. Nevertheless, the skilled metals craftsmen have been able to return from weapons-making back to making platters and Bosnian coffee sets -- although you can also find engraved ammunition casings for sale, no doubt a new addition to the craftsmen's wares.
Trams are running again regularly, and they seem to be fairly safe now. During the siege, snipers especially liked to shoot at the streetcars because they were jam-packed with people unable to escape. A single bullet was almost guaranteed to injure, and a rocket or mortar to kill.
Serb nationalist propaganda claimed during the war that Serbs who remained in Sarajevo were second-class citizens only permitted to ride the trams that were painted yellow. (Thousands of Serbs stayed in the city throughout the war, defying nationalist extremists to fight for continued multi-cultural living). It was a ludicrous tale; but so many Serbs in occupied territories believed it, my friends said, that Sarajevans of all ethnic groups tried to get onto those trams: The yellow ones were the safest in the city, since many Serb soldiers were reluctant to shoot at them.
Food -- desperately short during the siege, when 2 lbs. of sugar cost upwards of $40 -- is plentiful in city markets now. And, prices are often comparable to elsewhere in Europe. Salaries, however, are not. Those lucky enough to work for foreign agencies or embassies earn enough to shop there. Those with "Bosnian" jobs, including doctors and nurses at the city's two hospitals, are "paid" $15 or $20 a month -- barely enough to buy food for two days.
Somehow, though, my friends and their families managed to put out incredible food spreads wherever I went. Surely, I must be the only person to visit Bosnia for four days and gain weight; but everyplace I feasted on special Bosnian meat and cheese pies, stuffed grape leaves, veal, and the like. Hospitality in Bosnia is legendary, and being a guest means you not only get the best of everything, but you don't pay for anything. When I once tried to pay for a taxi ride, I was sternly told that hosts pay, guests do not. Period.
The situation is dramatically different from a year ago, Sherry said, when she aid just two meals during four days in the city.
"Now you see you don't have to worry about us anymore," another friend named Samir told me. "We have everything here -- like in the United States," he laughed. That evening, he mentioned that his home hasn't had running water in two years, because of a damaged pipe.
Much has been written about how close the killers were to their prey in besieged Sarajevo, but I was nevertheless stunned when walking the former front lines to see just how near the Serb snipers were to the civilians they terrorized. If you want to get some idea, look out your window at a house across the street and a couple of doors down. Now imagine that house is filled with heavily armed men shooting at anyone that tries to walk outside. In Dobrinja, near the airport, people were unable to leave their homes for months at a time, sniper- and shell-fire was so intense.
A Serbian Orthodox church, completed just two months before the Serbs launched their attacks on the city, offers a commanding hilltop view of the entire district. That was one of the many places from which snipers regularly shot at the unarmed people below, Dobrinja residents explained. Some suspect the church was built specifically with that purpose in mind.
Serb tanks lined up near the airport at the start of the siege, one friend told me, blasting away at the defenseless apartment blocks for hours -- methodically punching through one building in order to hit the next one behind it. Dobrinja's residents could only huddle in fear, unable to fight back. "It was really awful," my friend told me quietly.
The destruction there defies words. Buildings are totally gutted, many are unrecognizable. Even those who passed the war elsewhere in Sarajevo were shocked when the Serbs pulled back and they could finally see what had happened there.
I also crossed the bridge into Grbavica, the last Serb-held suburb to be turned back to government control under the Dayton accords. Here, the damage was inflicted by the Serbs themselves, who burned, looted, and destroyed everything they could before they left. One friend pointed out the lack of "roses" on the Grbavica streets -- an indication that unlike government-held Sarajevo center, which was under constant Serb attack, civilians in Grbavica apparently did not suffer indiscriminate shelling and mortar attacks at the hands of the Bosnian army.
People driven out of Grbavica by Serb extremists were finally able to return last month after the Serb pullback. They found homes stripped of everything -- doors, floors, bathroom fixtures. But my friend Danny who brought me up to his ravaged top-floor Grbavica apartment, is optimistic he can live there again by the end of the year -- if reconstruction money and materials arrive. "We will rebuild everything," he told me confidently. "I'll send you photos."
Time and time again, I was struck by the resourcefulness, courage, and dignity of Sarajevo's people. When the electricity was cut, people jury-rigged generators to run on natural gas, wind, or river current. One friend found the remnants of an American Tomahawk missile, and took out the electronic board to give to a ham needing parts for an amateur TV station. Another friend told me that when he was forced to wait hours for water -- a dangerous timer, since Serbs often shelled water lines -- he and his girlfriend took tennis rackets with them and pretended they wanted to be outside. "We tried to live a normal life," he explained. Later, he pointed out a nearby school where more than a dozen people died when a water line was shelled.
My visit to Sarajevo coincided with the Jewish holiday of Passover, and I was able to spend our festival of freedom in this city recently freed.
"The purpose of the seder tonight is to give us hope," said Rabbi Moshe Tutnauer, an American-born rabbi now living in Jerusalem. "Three thousand years ago, an enemy tried to destroy us, and we are still here. If you are strong, you can live through the darkness."
Another rabbi had tried last year to come to besieged Sarajevo for Passover, but couldn't get through. This year, though, Jews from throughout Bosnia, Europe, and the world came for the celebration.
On the second day of Passover, leaders of the Christian and Muslim communities as well as government and international officials joined the Jewish community for the seder.
Ejup Ganic, Bosnia's acting president, told of an interviewers' recent question. "Sarajevo's parks are full of graves. Most of that is destroyed. What will be your revenge to those who did that?"
He then related his answer. "We will build libraries," Ganic said. "We will build schools. And we will be something that is good."
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