It is unnerving, being on a bus for so long, but also calming. I read a book and I eat my peaches, sucking down on the meat, trying not to let the juice dollop on my chin or thighs. I listen to music I’ve heard countless times on my MP3 player and gaze out at the blurring horizon beyond the window. Little villages and hamlets nestle into the burrow and curve of Bosnian mountains, sometimes climbing beyond where they reasonably should. Ordinarily, the eye would go to the church steeple or bell tower rising above the houses. But here, the Orthodox churches remain gutted skeletons from the war. Instead, the eye from the bus looks for the mosques. The domes and prayer chants rise high like warblers, which nest there like they would in the beams of a church. They don’t pray. Birds have no religion. And they live longer than Bosnians.
The bus passes malachite fields, vermillion blooms, linseed crops, and crystal lakes where lily pads mingle with the bulrushes. Cows dawdle along dirt paths. The drizzle taps Morse code onto my window. Who do you think you are? it says.
We finally descend into the belly of Sarajevo and the first thing I see is Serbian bullet holes.
The bus docks at the foot of what was once known as Sniper Alley. I bound off of the beast, taking the steps two at a time. I am immediately struck by the boil of the city. Toothy smiles everywhere. Everyone is my age. I don’t see a single head of gray hair. The city is a child, awaiting adolescence. As dusk breaks over the sky, the city elasticizes itself. My backpack weighs my shoulders down and constricts my diaphragm.
Last year, I left the snows of Canada because I had nothing better to do. For two years, I had worked toward a Master’s degree in a program so small, no one had ever heard of it. The mention of Interdisciplinary Studies always culls odd looks and requires a detailed explanation. “Exploring Narratives of Gendered-Ethnicities on the Toronto Stage, Post 9/11.” Try saying that five times, really fast. I’m not even sure my supervisory committee understood what I was driving at. I spent most of my time crying on the chesterfield in my program director’s office as she handed me the Kleenex box and looked the other way. Fear of inadequacy is a paralytic to some. It propelled me forward, and in six months I had written 330 pages for a thesis that should have been 70. It was my neuroses, vomited into Microsoft Word. I was ultimately told to stop all my damn writing, “because this is beginning to look like a Ph.D., and we’re not going to give you a bloody Ph.D., ferchrissakes.”
Degree finally in hand, and congratulated only by the standing ovation in my head, I secured a Working Holiday visa for the UK, packed up my apartment, threw my stuff in storage, bought a one-way plane ticket, and filled my head with inspirational slogans.
“Life is a daring adventure or nothing at all!”
“The world is a book, and those who do not travel, read only a page!”
“Not all those who wander are lost!”
My thankless academic life would now be replaced with adventure and adrenaline. Once in London, I would hit the ground running, rocket-fueled by a never-say-die mantra.
But now, a year and a half into my British extravaganza, I have experienced the holy trinity of failure:
1) I have been fired from my third consecutive job because I admittedly don’t care about anyone else’s mission statement but my own.
2) I have been left exquisitely heartbroken by a boyfriend who thought we’d be “better off as friends.” Our last phone call had me swallowing pride like a locust. Reading from a printed page of notes so I didn’t lose my nerve, I said, “I think we’re at an impasse in our relationship. We can either try or give up. And I choose to try.”
He replied, “This conversation is annoying.”
There is nothing so corrosive as knowing the ones you love do not love you. “Okay, well, if I never see you again, I just wanted to say—”
“You will! Jeez.”
That bitter, pathetic little pill was hard to swallow.
3) The roof of my flat has a Hydra-like leak; as soon as one hole has been plugged, three more take its place.
I had to get out of the sinkhole that was London, and the Balkans were cheaper than the south of France.
On this trip, I have already run through the tumbleweed streets of Kiev, Bucharest, Istanbul, Sofia, Skopje, Pristina, Bar, Belgrade, Zagreb and Dubrovnik. Those cities hummed like cicadas. I felt like a radio antennae hoping to pick up transmissions, but everyone stayed indoors, keeping their music to themselves. Each city seemed to lack meaning for me. Something was missing. Is it the cities, or is it me?
Or maybe those cities were just too quiet. But here in Sarajevo, the clatter of the evening tram echoes through the streets. Every building has bullets and mortar damage.
The big yellow Holiday Inn, where all the international journalists stayed during the siege, has been given a facelift, but the scars of sniper fire have been hastily cauterized. The asphalt is full of hollows. The 1984 Olympic bobsled track sits high in the mountains, entire sections pulverized, its rubble cascading through the forest.
Life seems larger at night, swollen with dark shadows and strange creaks that terrify me. Yet I cannot help exploring it, wondering if there is anyone else like me, awake and catching glimpses of the unknown. Kids drink from the water spout at Gazi Husrev Bey Mosque. Radio stations with their tinny waves echo from inside taxis. The Bosnian accent looks particularly good on men with full mouths. Someone has spray painted “Old Town stand your ground” at one end of Sniper alley, while the opposite end bears “Urban Fuck!” in bright blue. Men play chess with life-sized kings and queens next to the gutted Orthodox church. Crafts are sold from market stalls; bullets made into pens, shells into vases. An old Bosnian proverb says that when you’re unskilled, the mountains cry.
As I walk through the Turkish quarter, I see a bullet-peppered stone wall. I stick my finger in one of the wounds and imagine it healing over my finger, trapping me forever. The bullet hole seems to seethe and swell. On the bus ride, I read the account of Vedran Smailović, a cellist who played adagios in the rubble and wreckage during the siege, risking a blaze of snipers. So I played nothing but arias and sonatas on my MP3 player on the bus: Erik Satie and Chilly Gonzales. Now, batteries dead, all I can hear is the tinnitus-ring of a mezzo-forte adagio. It’s following me through the Sarajevan streets as I search for my hostel. It’s a cipher hanging over my head like a halo.
As I reach my hostel, people suddenly are rushing the streets, pounding out under the heat. Cheers are growing louder, and I can’t tell why. Blue and yellow Bosnian flags smack the air. The eternal flame is suddenly lit. Horns are breaking the town apart like mortars once did. Old men hold up pints of beer, children devour ice cream cones, women cut melon slices and hand them out. Singing musicians appear on the corners.
The city is reacting. To what? Compared to the other cities I have visited on this tour, Sarajevo is anything but quiet.
I walk inside the hostel to the reception desk, “What’s going on? What’s the celebration?”
The young receptionist, a hearty woman with walnut skin in wonderful bloom, points to the television screen behind her head. The sound is attached to massive speakers. BBC World News screams the headline in red:
“Despot Radovan Karadzic has been arrested in Belgrade and is charged with crimes against humanity. He is being transferred to The Hague.”
“Oh,” is the only dumb exclamation I can come up with.
“Do you have a reservation?” she asks, and we begin the process of checking me in.
Finally, with my dorm key in hand, I hesitantly ask, “What does his arrest mean?”
“It means we can finally have justice,” she flatly responds.
“What does it mean to you?” I press.
“My father died during the siege,” she says. “It means everything to me. Where are you from?”
“Canada,” I say. “But I live in London now.”
“Ah, Canada. Cold?” she asks. They always ask that.
“Yeah, it can be very cold,” I meekly smile.
“My father had plans to get us to Canada during the siege. We were going to take the underground tunnel to the airport. My cousins escaped that way,” she says.
“Why didn’t you?” I ask.
An awkward silence swallows us both.
“Oh,” I say. “Of course. I’m sorry.” The sonorous adagio in my ears has turned accusatory. I was just a young girl in 1992, but I feel like, perhaps, there was something I should have done for this woman.
I drop my backpack on my bunk in the dorm room, but quickly run back out to the streets, now ablaze with fireworks breaking up the dark sky.
The city is locked in an embrace. Fists are punching the air. College-aged boys are hanging out of their beat-up cars, singing a chant to everyone around. The horns. The horns!
Some are stripping off their trousers and running into the fountains. They splash and dance in the water like toddlers on sugar. Shopkeepers are handing out cherries and peaches. Bürek flies out of the bakeries, and cups of soft yoghurt stain the teeth of eight-year-olds. Sarajevo brims with the sentiments of justice and respect. What a street party! I am overjoyed to witness this moment in history.
But “Srebrenica” is still heard on the streets, said with a pain, a choking memory, a living horror. Franz Ferdinand (Archduke) was assassinated here and I can’t get those Franz Ferdinand (hipster rock band) lyrics out of my head:
I’m just a crosshair. I’m just a shot away from you.
And if you leave me, you leave me broken, shattered.
I’m just a crosshair. I’m just a shot.
Then we can die.
Over the hills, where the Serbian citizens live, the sky is very quiet. Purple swashes over the horizon and blends into the orange of dusk. Like someone absentmindedly left a Creamsicle to rest on the sky and it soaked itself in, leaving behind a splash of ochre. A swipe of lavender. A scratch of blue and dying saffron.
In the centre of town sits the To Be Or Not To Be Café (the “or not” has been crossed out by its optimistic owner). I take an al-fresco table and order a dinner of crispy roast peppers, sweet apple salad, butter bean stew and garlic rice. I am eating while the calamity rages in the Turkish quarter before me. On the bar sits a framed photo of Miss Besieged Sarajevo, which inspired that U2 song, and a screening schedule pamphlet for the upcoming Sarajevo Film Festival, which began as a form of resistance during the war. Then, the price of admission was one cigarette, as the Convertible Mark had been rendered worthless. In those days, the cinema entrance was directly exposed to Serb rifle fire, so film fans literally had to leap through the cinema doors after a race from the sniper’s crosshair.
A dark kernel, my concentrated core, tells me the music of the cellist is behind me. He is following me. Since I stepped foot in Sarajevo, I have felt the footsteps of his music infecting my ears.
The night is an apple falling to the dirt. The sloping shadows and hibiscus blooms all around have quailed and folded. The delirium of the block-party continues all around me. I don’t know what I was expecting of Sarajevans, but it surprises me to see how empowered they are. They are not victims. They are not prisoners of the past. My thoughts wander back to Canada, and how small that huge country seems to me. I think of the parade of breasted-suits and arched heels on Carnaby Street in London. Where were they 15 years ago? Were they gutless peacekeepers? They weren’t even involved in apprehending Karadzic, the Serbians did it themselves. How will these people ever be able to walk under the sun and not fear the sky? How will these people ever be able to look at their scars and not hate us? If I stay here much longer, I fear I might hate “us.” I think I already do.
Back out on the cobbled streets, I find myself standing on a splotch of red on the sidewalk. They call them Sarajevo Roses. After the war, red resin was poured into craters that were left behind by mortar blasts to mark the spot where a Sarajevan died.
A bed of Sarajevo roses stretches as far as the night is long. The longer I stand here, the more I can feel the resin inching its way up my soles, past my heels, and rising over my ankles. It is clawing at me, anchoring me. I am tattooed.
Something is missing.
When something is lost, you might retrace your footsteps. Did you leave it on the shelf? Did you leave it with your lover? Did you lose it in the city? An absence cannot be mapped, like a word or a name or a street, but it erodes over time. Take away a collection of jade bracelets; an offering of almonds and figs; or a letter from Leytonstone: you will notice when they go missing, but it won’t hurt for long. Because for every item you lose, something always takes its place. But when you talk about a poem or a lover, you are referring to places never visited. And those absences can fester deep in your marrow. They rot you from the inside out.
I watch the joyous Sarajevans dance in circles, arms linked, faces bright like a starburst, and there are no more men in the hills.
The buildings around me whisper to each other. Windows slam in response. The cobblestones curse. Magpies and swallows laugh in high-pitched squeals. The breeze, carrying the sound of the cellist’s adagio, hushes them all.
Christine Estima’s writing has appeared in VICE, Metro News Canada, CBC, Bitch Magazine, subTerrain Magazine, EVENT Literary Magazine, Grain Literary Journal, The Madison Review, The Malahat Review, The New Quarterly, Descant, Room Magazine, Matrix Magazine, Exclaim!, NOW Magazine, The Grid, YYZ Living Magazine, Verge Magazine, AufBau, Canadian Theatre Review, and many, many others. “Sarajevo Roses” was longlisted for the 2015 CBC Canada Writes Creative Non-Fiction Prize. Visit ChristineEstima.com for more, or tweet her.