Early on the first evening I spent in Sarajevo during the siege, I took a walk from my hotel to Marshal Tito Street in the center of town. The electricity was off, as it usually was in those days, but more luckily, the night was foggy. Luckily, because that meant it was relatively safe to move around. Snipers are not much of a danger except when it’s clear, even when they have infrared night scopes. Having not yet learned to appreciate the literally life-giving gift that no sniper fire represented, I moved about a bit like a tourist. I had not yet learned to be afraid. What I remember most is how dark the streets were and how I felt as if I had moved from the world of color to a world of black and white. As an old man in high boots and a ragged coat passed by me, dragging a bundle of roped-together staves behind him, and then, a few meters along, as I passed an old woman begging, I thought that I had somehow landed in a Roman Vishniak photograph of one of the Jewish ghettoes in Poland in the 1920s.
Outside the former Soviet Union and a few impoverished pockets of Slovakia and Romania, Europe was not supposed to look like this anymore. And it didn’t. In Berlin, or Amsterdam, or Paris, old beggar women were Gypsies or recent immigrants from the non-white world, and if an elderly white man passed dragging an incongruous bundle, he was in all likelihood a released mental patient or a drunk. Sarajevo had been rich, pampered even, at least by Yugoslav standards. It had a Volkswagen factory and Italian tourists by the busload, local rock and roll, avant-garde theater, and its own Gypsies to do the begging.
To walk along a street in a European city and have every ingrained assumption about what could reasonably be expected contradicted in almost every particular, to look at the marble of a historic Corso and see fresh mortar splashes that look like bear tracks, to catch glimpses in the dark of people’s faces and clothes and not be able to situate them at all. . . This in a place where the social markers should have been familiar, and would have been, even a year earlier. But a year earlier meant before the war had begun and the siege ring had tightened around the city, like a noose around a throat. I might as well have been alluding to a previous geological era, so little relevance did that past have on this present.
Instead of being able to see everything and to find cognitive room for it, I could barely see anything and understood still less. It was not that there were no familiar reference points; there were. It was rather that enough of what was recognizable had been taken away, and enough of what remained had been so altered that it was easy to become disoriented. And that can get you killed in wartime. Even in the protected environs of Marshal Tito Street, far from the front line, there were no cars, only the sounds of talk and footfalls and, in the distance, the whistle, screech, thump, and thud, and the light flashes...
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