Was I right to help them flee the horrors of Sarajevo?
by Janine di Giovanni
(December 19, 1993, The Sunday Times)
Last year I spent Christmas with a Catholic Croat family in Sarajevo. There were six of them: Mario Susko, his wife Maria, his 17-year-old daughter Alexandra, his 24-year-old daughter Klea, her husband Zoran and their baby, Deni. We were in a tiny room of a former garage -— the family’s apartment had been bombed a few months before — with no electricity, no heat, no double-glazing, no water, and one candle in the middle of the table burning far too rapidly.
We had bread that Maria had queued for five hours to buy, a tin of fish that I had bought at Frankfurt airport, and one -packet of cigarettes which Mario was nervously working his way through. We sat in the darkness, smoking and talking and falling silent when we heard the terrible whistle, and then the impact, of shells. Earlier that week, Mario and I had gone from his house to the cathedral to hear a Christmas concert. Mario, who never went out into the streets, was terrified: he had been in two mortar attacks already, two very close calls, and did not believe in pressing his luck. So we moved quickly, not stopping to talk to the silent, faceless people who also moved quickly, dragging their plastic bottles of water or their slender piles of wood that they had chopped down from the last remaining trees in Sarajevo.
I remember the Russian poet, Anna Akhmatova, at the time of the purges, being asked by a woman if she would ever be able to write about the desperation. I thought at that moment that no matter how visual I could be, I could never describe what it felt like to be in Sarajevo at that time: the unbearable cold, the foggy streets with people moving like ghosts, the sadness that permeated everything.
Before the war, Mario Susko had been a famous fixture in Sarajevo: every student who passed through the department of English at the university had stories about him. He was a professor, poet and gifted translator.
The effect of the war on his life was monumental. His hands shook, he had lost weight, he could not sleep. He stopped -going out, stopped reading. Once his flat was destroyed and his
books and life’s work went up in flames, he stopped thinking about the future.
I spent many emotional days with the family: waiting for bread, water, food packages, medicine for the baby, and talking about the past. I began to realise, with a sinking sensation, that from the way he talked and acted, Mario was breaking down
and that he had to get out of the city. “You’ve got to do -something,” he said to me one night.
Many people ask you for favours in Sarajevo; as a journalist, you can do only so much. But I said I would try.
Back in London, I had a letter from the University of East -Anglia: it had read my reports on the family and was moved. It was willing to give Mario, who had once spent a year there doing research, and his family a place to live and work. The Sunday Times agreed to pay their fare.
There were horrendous complications. Sarajevo is a city under siege and matters took more than six weeks to arrange. Two
days before they were due to get on a plane to Zagreb, Mario, Maria and Alexandra were told that they could go, but Zoran, who had fought in defence of the city, would not be allowed, and -neither would Klea or the baby. It was the first step in the -disassembling of a family.
I picked them up at Heathrow airport on a cold February morning. Maria saw me and promptly burst into tears, followed by Alexandra. We kissed and hugged and stared at each other under the garish lights: Mario looked stunned and thinner than I remembered. They were too confused, too shell-shocked to go to a proper restaurant, but we sat and had tea and talked: of Klea and Zoran; of the baby sick with flu; of the terrible shelling the week before.
Alexandra wanted a hamburger from McDonald’s. Mario smoked and said nothing as we drove to Liverpool Street and caught the train to Norwich. Maria cried as we rounded the -corner near Buckingham Palace. “We have left home forever,” she said. “I never wanted to be a refugee. I only wanted to have a -normal life.”
There were tears for the next few months, anguished telephone calls, desperate messages for Klea and Zoran. There were conversations in which Mario said he wanted to go back, that Maria was miserable without Klea and the baby. Sometimes I cut him off brusquely: “Look, you are out of that city. You are one of the lucky ones. You mustn’t even think of going back.”
“You don’t understand,” he would answer, and he was right.
I carried money, food, letters and cigarettes back and forth to Sarajevo. In the spring, Klea decided to baptise Deni and -invited me to be godmother. We drove to the cathedral, the one where Mario and I had listened to the Christmas concert. Deni screamed as we got in the car — he was not used to being inside one — and screamed as I held him when the priest poured water over his forehead. He was not used to water, either.
In the hills above us, the battle of Zuc was raging. We talked above the shooting. “Please, Janine, please, can you do anything to get the baby out? I can’t have him growing up like this.” Klea, like her father, was desperate, but there was no way to get her out without a medical excuse for the baby.
More paperwork, more phone calls, more bureaucracy. -Finally, after three months, the morning came when Klea also got on a United Nations plane, with the baby but without her husband, to leave Sarajevo. I stood next to her as she waited for the armoured car that would take her to the airport. “Please think about what you are doing,” I begged her. “Once you leave, you cannot go back.”
“I know what I’m doing,” she said firmly. “This is for my baby.”
Now Zoran was left alone in Sarajevo. In October, I found him playing football in the parking lot of an orphanage near his house. I brought him a bottle of whisky, a carton of cigarettes, coffee and money, but nothing I could give him could alleviate my guilt.
Looking at his face, talking to him about the grief he felt losing his family, I thought, how could I have done this? By bringing a family out of a war, I thought it could only do good. I never comprehended the damage. “You’re not Mother Teresa,” a friend told me. “You did what you could.”
But perhaps I had done something very wrong. If Mario and
I had never met, they would still be together.
This Christmas, it is all completely different. I had a -Christmas card from Mario and Maria, with a new address in New York state, where he is now teaching. Klea and Deni are uncontactable in Herzegovina, living with Zoran’s elderly grandfather. Zoran is still trapped in Sarajevo. Alexandra is living alone in a rented room in Norwich because she refused to be uprooted again to New York. On her parent’s instructions, she telephones me once a week to let me know she is all right.
“What are you doing for Christmas?” I asked her the other day.
“I don’t know,” she replied. “I’m going to try to work that day so I don’t think about it. Remember last year? It was so cold and horrible, but at least we were all together.”
There was silence. When I think about one family, and my role in their separation, I have conflicting feelings.
Except for Zoran, they are all safe now, but they have lost the one thing that they always had: the support and love of each -other. They do not know the next time they will see each other again, and they all know that it will be a long time before they can return to Sarajevo again, to the jobs, the lives, some of the friends that were once there. Most of their friends are dead, their apartment, their clothes, even their books and photographs are gone.
When they do return, what will be left? Not the city that they loved, not the people, only a barren and burned-out symbol of what it once was ■