Memoir — From the April 2013 issue

Life During Wartime

Remembering the siege of Sarajevo

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There was spring rain and pale fog in Sarajevo as my plane approached the city last April, veering over the green foothills of Mount Igman. Through the frosted window I could see the outline of the road we used to call Snipers’ Alley, above which Serbian sharpshooters would perch and fire at anyone below. Twenty years had passed since I’d arrived in Sarajevo as a war reporter.

During the siege of the city, most foreign journalists had lived in the Holiday Inn, and it was in that grotty hotel that the man who was to become my husband and the father of my child professed undying love. I met some of my best friends in Sarajevo and lost several others — to alcoholism, drugs, insanity, and suicide. My own sense of compassion and integrity, I think, was shaped during those years.

Since then I had come back many times to report on Bosnia, on the genocide there, and to try to find people who had gone missing during the war. Now I was returning for a peculiar sort of reunion that would bring together reporters, photographers, and aid workers who, for one reason or another, had never forgotten the brutal and protracted siege, which lasted nearly four years. By the end of the war, in 1995, a city once renowned for its multiculturalism and industrial vigor had been reduced to medieval squalor.

Why was it that Sarajevo, and not Rwanda or Congo or Sierra Leone or Chechnya — wars that all of us went on to report — captured us the way this war did? One of us, I think it was Christiane Amanpour, called it “our generation’s Vietnam.” We were often accused of falling in love with Sarajevo because it was a European conflict — a war whose victims looked like us, who sat in cafés and loved Philip Roth and Susan Sontag. As reporters, we lived among the people of Sarajevo. We saw the West turn its back and felt helpless.

I had begun my career in journalism covering the First Intifada in the late 1980s. I came to Sarajevo because I wanted to experience firsthand the effect war had on civilians. My father had taught me to stick up for underdogs, to be on the right side of history. But I had no idea what it would feel like to stare into the open eyes of the recently dead; how to count bodies daily in a morgue; how to talk to a woman whose children had just been killed by shrapnel while they were building a snowman.

During my first ride into the city from the airport — past a blasted wall on which the words welcome to hell had been grafittied — it was clear that my wish to see war up close would be granted. I had gotten a lift from a photographer named Jon Jones, and as we careened down Snipers’ Alley toward the city, he told me how many reporters had already been killed, how close the snipers were and how easily they could see us, and about the hundreds of mortar shells that fell on Sarajevo each day. He recounted in detail how a CNN camerawoman had been shot in the jaw, and told me that a bullet could rip through the metal of a car as easily as a needle pierces a piece of cloth.

“Think of being in a doll’s house,” he said, edging up to a hundred miles per hour on the straightaways. “We’re the tiny dolls.”

He dropped me off at the Holiday Inn, the only “functioning” hotel in the city, leaving me to lug inside my flak jacket, battery-operated Tandy computer, sleeping bag, and a duffel bag filled with protein bars, antibiotics, a flashlight, batteries, candles, waterproof matches, pens and notebooks, and a pair of silk long johns (which I never took off that entire first winter of the war). I had with me just a single book: a copy of The Face of War, by Martha Gellhorn, a journalist who had covered the Spanish Civil War, the Allies’ invasion of Normandy, Vietnam, the Six-Day War, and almost every other major conflict of the twentieth century. She settled in Paris in 1930, married a Frenchman, and began to write for Collier’s, The Saturday Evening Post, and other publications. In 1936, in a bar in Key West (the Frenchman was long gone), she met Ernest Hemingway, whom she married, and later moved with him to Spain. She was blonde and beautiful and, above all, brave. She was also, as I would later find out, very ill-tempered and often not a “woman’s woman.”

I had gone to meet Gellhorn in Wales on a hot summer day in 1991, having been sent to interview her about a collection of her novels that was just being published. History had forgotten her to some extent, but she had a loyal cadre, mostly men, who adored her. She drank and smoked, but she had a rare femininity.

That day, I took a train, a bus, then finally hiked over hot fields to reach Catscradle, her remote cottage. I was keenly aware of my youth and inexperience, and felt embarrassed for all that I had not yet witnessed. She answered the door in tailored slacks with a long cigarette in her hand. She was in her eighties by then and still extremely good-looking. She invited me inside and together we watched the invasion of Slovenia on television while she made astute comments about the coming destruction of Yugoslavia. I listened intently, but, as she made clear, she had no interest in taking on a protégée.

“I hope you’re not expecting lunch,” she said rather sharply. She did bring me a glass of ice water, and had laid out a guest towel in her upstairs bathroom for me to use. But that was the limit of her hospitality and, by implication, her professional encouragement.

A few weeks later, I got a letter from her scolding me for having made mistakes in my article. I had reported that the light in the room was strong, when in fact it had been rather weak. What infuriated her most was that I had mentioned she had once been Hemingway’s wife. You violated the rule of journalism, she wrote. You lied.

Some years later, shortly before she died (her close friends believed it was suicide), we served together on a panel about war reporting for Freedom House, and she called me “dear girl,” and embraced me affectionately. By then, I had reported on many sieges and many wars. Someone took a photograph of us together, both speaking animatedly, our faces captured in heated emotion.

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has won four major awards for her war reporting and is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She is currently writing a book about Syria, to be published by Norton. She lives in Paris.

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  • David George

    Feasting on blood

    It seems the fashion these days to report of the atrocities in contemporary conflicts by one party without explaining the whole social dynamic at work, including the participation, or its lack, by contributing powerful western and other parties Ms. di Giovanni’s report, however, even falls below this abysmal level, describing her allure to her future husband amid the terrible destruction in Sarajevo abetted and encouraged by the West who sought to limit any residue of Communism in Eastern Europe. She explains nothing of the conflicts nor its origins in the at least 500 years of Western, Ottoman and Russian influence in the Balkans. It is her own personal travail that predominates. Where is Hugh Deane, Homer Bigart, even Charles Moore who managed somehow, strictured by editors, to convey the folly of foreign intervention. Shame on your report.

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