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.

In the lobby of the Holiday Inn, I looked around and tried to be brave. To my surprise, there was an ordinary, if dark, reception area with cubbyholes for passports presided over by a rather elegant bespectacled man who took my documents, registered them, and handed me the keys to a room on the fourth floor.

“There’s no elevator,” he said matter-of-factly, “since there’s no electricity. Take the stairs there.” He gestured toward a cavernous hallway and told me the hours of the communal meals, which were served in a makeshift dining room lit by candles.

“And please, madame, don’t walk on this side of the building.” He pointed to a wall, through which you could see the sky and buildings outside, that looked as though a truck had run into it. “And don’t go up on the seventh floor,” he added cryptically. The seventh floor, I soon learned, was where the Bosnian snipers defending the city were positioned. And the forbidden side of the building faced the Serbian snipers and mortar emplacements. If you emerged from the hotel on that side and a sniper had you in his range, you got shot.

Walking into the dining room that first night, I felt I had made a terrible mistake. I knew no one in Sarajevo, it was a few weeks before Christmas, and it was bitterly cold. I had not seen the photographer since he’d dumped me at the hotel (declaring, in passing, that he hated all writers). Perhaps, I thought, staring at the blown-out windows and mortar-cracked walls, I should stay a few days and go home.

Around me, I heard many languages: Dutch, Flemish, French, German, Japanese, Spanish, as well as Serbo-Croatian (which is now often referred to as three separate but nearly identical tongues: Serbian, Croatian, and Bosnian). The huge room was full of grizzled reporters, everyone looking slightly dazed — a combination of exhaustion, hangover, and shock. In the distance I heard machine-gun fire and a mortar shell dropping somewhere in the city. No one paid attention to the noise, or to a newcomer like me.

But I soon encountered warmth and even fierce camaraderie. Over dinner — a plate of rice and canned meat from a humanitarian-aid box — an American cameraman of Armenian descent named Yervant Der Parthogh told me about the toilets. “Find an empty room and follow your nose,” he said, passing me a bottle of Tabasco sauce, standard issue in war zones, where the bland diet of rice cried out for a little seasoning. (ABC, the BBC, and other TV-news organizations bought the condiment in bulk, and it was often shared.)

What exactly did he mean about the toilets? Yervan explained that certain rooms were always vacant, since their walls had been partially blown away, exposing the interior to sniper fire. But in the attached bathrooms, the toilets remained — unflushable, full, and stinking. “Find one and make it your own,” he advised.

The window in my room had been destroyed by a rocket and replaced with plastic by the U.N.’s refugee agency. The shelling was continuous. I unpacked my gear, propped my flashlight against a cup, brushed my teeth with the mineral water I had brought from Zagreb, laid out the St. Jude medallion my mother had given me, and unrolled my sleeping bag on top of an orange polyester blanket left over from the glory days of 1984, when Sarajevo was an Olympic city and the gruesome Soviet-style structure of the Holiday Inn had been built.

As I discovered the next day, the press corps consisted of a bunch of men with cameras or notebooks in a standard uniform: jeans, Timberland boots, and ugly zip-front fluorescent fleeces. The sole exception was a tall, thin Frenchman named Paul Marchand, a radio reporter, whose outfit consisted of a pressed white shirt, creased black trousers, and shiny dress shoes.

There were, I was relieved to see, other women. I recognized Amanpour, young, glamorous, and more visible than ever after her coverage two years earlier of the Gulf War. I also encountered a few French female reporters, all of whom violated the masculine dress code: a reporter from Le Parisien who wore cashmere sweaters; the petite radio reporter Ariane Quentier, who favored a Russian fur hat; and Alexandra Boulat, a photographer with a mane of long blond hair (she died after suffering a brain aneurysm in Ramallah, in 2007, at the age of forty-five).

I also met Kurt Schork, who had a room near mine on the fourth floor. He was a legendary Reuters correspondent who had become a war reporter at the age of forty after working for New York City’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority. Schork brought me to the Reuters office and showed me how to file my copy on a satellite phone for fifty dollars a minute. There was a generator in the next room, which reeked of gasoline, and if it was running, one dialed the London office, then read the copy to a distant, frenetic typist, spelling out all the Serbo-Croatian words. It was very World War II. Carrier pigeons would have been faster.

Over the next few weeks, Schork patiently told me where and where not to go. He showed me how to rig up a hose as a kind of makeshift shower. On Christmas Eve, we went to midnight mass together at St. Josip’s Catholic church on Snipers’ Alley (though not at midnight, since that would have been an invitation to the Serbs to shell us); Christian soldiers, who made up perhaps a quarter of Bosnia’s largely Muslim defense force, came down from the front line at the outskirts of the city to receive communion.

Room 437 would be my home, on and off, for the next three years: the mangy orange blanket, the plywood desk with cigarette burns, the empty minibar, the telephone on the bedside table that never rang because the lines were cut. And through the plastic sheeting of my window, I had a view of the city, with its 35,000 destroyed buildings and its courageous populace that refused to bend to its oppressors.

The 2012 reunion in Sarajevo was to take place over the first week of April, Holy Week. This had some resonance for me, since during the siege I often went to mass with other Catholic reporters in the battered Catholic church. It had given me solace, and seeing the old ladies bent over their rosary beads reassured me in some way that wherever I went in the world I could find a common community bound by religion.

Shortly after I arrived for the reunion, I ran into Emma Daly, who had been a reporter for the British Independent during the war and now worked for Human Rights Watch. She had married the war photographer Santiago Lyon, now a senior AP boss, and was the mother of two children. In those days, I don’t think either one of us projected much into the future or could have imagined ourselves married, with children, living more or less normal lives.

“Have you seen the chairs yet?” she asked.

Emma explained that a kind of temporary memorial had been set up on Marshal Tito Street, in the center of the city: 11,541 empty red chairs, one for every resident killed during the siege. Walking downtown, we approached the Presidency Building, where we had risked sniper fire and stray mortar rounds during the war to interview President Alija Izetbegovic or Vice President Ejup Ganic , who always let journalists into his office and sometimes offered us hot coffee. “If you’re brave enough to come to this building,” Ganic once told me, “then I am going to talk to you.”

The rows of red chairs, some of them scaled down to represent children, stretched far into the distance. Later there would be some grumbling over the fact that the chairs had been made in a Serbian factory. Yet the amount of destruction they represented was overwhelming — every one of these people might still be alive if a sniper had failed to pull the trigger, if a mortar shell had landed twenty feet to the east or west.

That night, at the refurbished Holiday Inn, we all got horribly drunk. Then we started taking group pictures. All of us were a little rounder in the face, the men with less hair and bigger bellies. The women, though, looked remarkably good.

The Holiday Inn now offers Wi-Fi, working toilets, a few restaurants (the food still bad), and clean sheets. We gathered in the bar, a group of veteran reporters and photographers who hadn’t seen one another in twenty years. There was Morten Hvaal, a Norwegian photographer who once had driven me around the city in the AP’s armored car, pointing out landmarks; Shane (“Shaney”) McDonald, an Australian cameraman who had sat in my room one night with Keith “Chuck” Tayman and Robbie Wright, watching falling stars from an open window; and there, in a corner, Jon Jones, the photographer who had scared me so on my first ride from the airport. Now he was nice. We had all grown up.

But some people were missing from the Holiday Inn lounge where we had spent years living on whiskey, cigarettes, and chocolate bars. Shouldn’t Kurt Schork have been sitting on a barstool, drinking a cranberry juice? Kurt was killed by rebel soldiers in Sierra Leone in May 2000, the morning after we ate dinner together in a restaurant overlooking the sea. And where was Paul Marchand, with his black shoes and white shirt? (He had once called me in the middle of the night to shout, “The water is running and she is hot!”) After the war he wrote novels, started drinking, and, one night in 2009, hanged himself. Juan Carlos Gumucio was gone, too. A bear of a man — and the second husband of Sunday Times reporter Marie Colvin, also gone, killed in Homs, Syria, in February 2012 — he had introduced himself to me in central Bosnia by exclaiming, “Call me JC! Like Jesus Christ. Or like King Juan Carlos.” We used to go to Sunday mass together in Sarajevo — and in London too, but then out afterward for bloody marys. In 2002 he shot himself in the heart after, in Colvin’s words, “seeing too much war.” I was in Somalia at the time, on a hotel rooftop, and someone phoned to tell me. There were gunshots all around me, and over that din I began to cry for my friend.

The morning after our reunion, we all had hangovers. Gradually, we pulled ourselves together, and shortly after noon, we went to a vineyard owned by a local former employee of the AP. There we spent the afternoon drinking wine and looking out over the hills at Sarajevo. It was almost unthinkable, but we were sipping wine and eating slow-cooked lamb in the exact spot where snipers had set up twenty years before.

Our return to our homes in Auckland, Beirut, Boston, London, Milan, New York, Nicosia, Paris, and Vienna was followed by a flurry of comradely emails and pictures posted on Facebook. There was much talk of getting together again, which we all knew would never happen. Then we all plunged into depression. A few days later I received a letter from Edward Serotta, who had gone to Sarajevo to document its Jewish population during the Bosnian war and now works in Vienna reconstructing family histories that were lost during the Holocaust. Serotta said that he remembered coming back to his Berlin apartment after weeks in Sarajevo and putting on a pair of trousers that slid off him. At first he thought they belonged to someone else. Then he realized that they were his — and that he was still himself — but physically and emotionally, he was not the same person who first went to Sarajevo.

Serotta told me he remembered a night he walked through the city, in November 1993, thinking, “If mankind is going to destroy itself, I feel honored and privileged to be here to see how it is done.”

After I put his letter away, I gathered up all my Sarajevo mementos — the tiny bits of shrapnel, a photograph of me and Ariane in helmets on the front line, a copper coffee pot, a love note that Bruno, my husband, had left me in Room 437 after our first meeting, his English then imperfect: “I won’t loose you.”

At the airport, a group of us had gathered for coffee: Serotta; the Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Roy Gutman; Ariane; Peter Kessler (a U.N. refugee worker) and his wife, Lisa; and Anna Cataldi, an Italian writer and U.N. ambassador. Ariane and I soon boarded the plane to Paris, and she — always the astute little reporter in the fur hat — caught my mood.

“Don’t be sad,” she said. “There are many places to go.” She fiddled with her handbag and read Paris Match.

But I was sad. My experience in Sarajevo was the last time I thought I could change something. The city was passing below my eyes from the plane window, forever broken, resting on a long flowing river.

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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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