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Christmas in Sarajevo
By Janine di Giovanni
Sunday, December 27, 1992 (Sunday Times)
On Christmas eve, the city of Sarajevo was pitched into darkness except for the occasional flare from the tracer rounds and the sound of the sporadic shells. On this day, like so many others before, The Susko family went to bed at about 9pm their only escape from the unlit cold.
On Christmas day light snow began to fall again and the temperature dropped to -5C. Mario Susko awoke to the sound of shelling in the borrowed unheated room where he lives with his wife, Maria, and his daughter Alexandra, 17. Wrapped in blankets on the floor where he sleeps, he could feel the detonations, but for some time now the 52-year-old Catholic Croat has not felt frightened.
"After three weeks without water, one month without electricity and eight months of total siege, I no longer feel fear," he says. "My own apartment has been blown up and looted, I have been injured by a mortar. By now, I have no nerves left, I only have disgust."
The one fire a day can only be lit at night and had gone out hours before: the room was freezing. Mario washed quickly with half a cup of cold water and a small bit of soap from a relief packet. He then had a day-old cup of tea and a slice of stale bread. It was the fifth day the family had not had their bread ration. His wife, a former dental technician whose beautiful hands are now scarred from chopping wood for fuel, had already gone out to join the local bread queue. Alexandra was waking up; her job was to go out in search of pieces of wood.
Susko fed his llasa apso dog, Sunny, the last biscuit from a packet he brought from a trip to England before the war. "I lectured at the University of East Anglia. I used to go for walks around Norwich my God, it does not seem possible any more that I could ever live that kind of a life." He ate his piece of bread slowly, knowing that he would not eat for another seven hours. "It's strange how our lives are measured. When you have used one finger of oil from your only candle, you go to bed. When you have drunk half a cup of tea, you have had enough to drink. You have to know when you can eat, drink, burn wood, move through the city swiftly without getting hit. Life in Sarajevo is one big illusion."
Throughout Christmas day and yesterday the muffled thud of shells from Serbs in the hills, determined to drive out Bosnian resistance in the besieged city, rocked the little room. A few miles away at the headquarters of the United Nations troops, snipers kept up their relentless attacks.
Susko is a professor of modern literature at Sarajevo University. Before the war he wrote poetry and reviews and translated Saul Bellow and e e cummings. Now he sits for hours in his cold room, remembering his days as a postgraduate student in America and the first silver Christmas tree he bought 20 years ago to celebrate passing his exams. "That tree, like the rest of my life, is gone forever," he says.
It was left behind with the rest of the family's possessions in Dobrinja, a frontline neighbourhood. The Susko family was evacuated by armoured car in August with two suitcases and a pile of Mario's books. "Two months ago, Maria returned to our apartment. It was levelled and nearly everything was gone except for one of her jumpers and Alexandra's white coat." He smiles sardonically: "Nobody would take a white coat because it is even more of a sniper's target."
He says that his life has disintegrated and he is particularly bitter about his career. "You struggle and struggle and climb to the top and just when you begin to make it, you are cut off." Sometimes Susko has nightmares: he remembers vividly when he stood in the hallway of his Dobrinja home and a mortar landed in the kitchen, destroying half the apartment. He remembers when a rifle grenade was fired through his window one month later, and how, after being thrown against the wall by its impact he ran down the stairs, covered in blood, screaming: "Maria, our apartment is gone!"
"I am completely wrecked," he says. "At night, I have visions of being torn to pieces. I can no longer work. I am afraid to move around in the city where I was born. This is the worst kind of despair. I am afraid to say, this is not a good Christmas for me."
THERE are no Christmas trees in the Bosnian capital because they have been cut down for firewood, no coloured lights because there is no electricity, and the traditional midnight mass was conducted secretly in the battered Church of the Holy Trinity on "sniper's alley", the dangerous road from the airport through the city centre.
There is virtually no water and little food. Instead there is the cold blowing down from the mountains through the windows shattered by bullets and shells and endless bread queues and rows of people waiting for water in front of a single slow-trickle tap. There are old people in Veliki Park waiting to collect the twigs from the trees that the stronger people chop down, and people running across particularly dangerous streets in groups to avoid Serb snipers.
There is hardly a place in Sarajevo that has not been brutalised by war. The injured and maimed lie on cots in hospital, without painkillers. There are nearly 100 children in the Dom Ljubica Ivezic Orphanage sitting in the dark and cold because there is no light, listening to the artillery fire from the hills, and fighting each other because they no longer know how to play. There is the football field that is now full of freshly dug graves; three months ago it was only half full.
"In reality, Sarajevo is a concentration camp that has existed for the past eight months," says Archbishop Vinko Puljic.
"The situation here is desperate," says Peter Kessler from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. "The death rate among the elderly has doubled since peacetime. The pre-war infant mortality rate has tripled."
As people move through the streets quickly, there is always the fear that a sniper can hit, a mortar can fall. There are constant glances towards the Serb positions in the hills. "I always believed that Satan was not powerful," says Fr Mirko Majdandzic, a monk who lives in the only Franciscan monastery in Bosnia that has not been bombed or occupied by Serbs. "Now I truly believe that there is a strong presence of evil lurking."
Padre Ljubo Cucic from the parish of St Anthony's in the old town of Sarajevo has his own mortar bomb: a 62mm that landed in the church courtyard. Midnight mass at St Anthony's was held in the afternoon in an underground bunker because the church is often targeted. There are still 30,000 Catholics in Sarajevo and despite the danger, Padre Cucic says that the church has been crowded throughout the past week.
"People come to confession and tell me that they hate the Serbs, but they don't want to, because they know that it isn't Christian," he says. "Before the war, people lived in this neighbourhood like brothers Muslims, Catholics, Serbs. Now we are butchering each other."
TWO days before Christmas, Mario Susko had decided to leave his room to attend a concert at the Sacred Heart Cathedral in the centre of the city. He walked quickly, moving along the safer back streets rather than the main road where the snipers have a clear view, and he smoked his last cigarette. At the market-place, he bought 200 Marlboro for 50 D-marks (Pounds 25) and tried to buy some food for lunch but there was nothing he could afford. A tin of beef, pilfered from an aid packet, cost DM20, a kilogram of powdered milk was DM30.
Susko, a former Fulbright scholar, has been getting DM12 a month since the siege began. And even for the people who do have money, there is little to choose from a small packet of lentils on one trader's table, a used pair of mittens, a bar of chocolate.
"Last Christmas, life in Sarajevo was still the good life," Susko recalled. "There were undertones of war, but nobody could foresee what would happen here and how we would have to live."
Last Christmas, there were relatives visiting and a turkey for dinner and Mario gave his wife a silver bracelet. Alexandra got a new winter coat and his other daughter Klea Jokic who lives in the city with her husband, Zoran, and 18-month-old baby Deni got golden earrings.
Inside the cathedral, the musicians from the Muslim, Croat and Serb communities wore overcoats and blew on their fingers to keep warm. The conductor's breath came out in icy puffs as he directed Stabat Mater Dolores. The soloist wore a fur coat over her long black dress. During the encore Silent Night Susko dropped his head and closed his eyes.
"Things are bad physically, but for me it is the spiritual vacuum, the kind of inner exile," he says. "The other day I had to walk somewhere, a seven-minute walk, and suddenly it occurred to me that during that seven minutes, I had 420 chances to die. It only takes a second for a sniper to kill you. When you realise that your life is worth that little, that someone on the hill has that much control over you, then life does not really seem worth living."
A FEW miles away from her parents' room, Klea, a former primary school teacher, had woken up on Christmas eve to the sound of her son crying. She lay in bed in her two-room cottage where the family has lived since their apartment was bombed and began to worry about how to get food for lunch and where to cook it. Christmas eve dinner was to be at her house and she had been hoarding food for six weeks two potatoes, some ham a Muslim neighbour gave her, some flour to make pitta bread. She had saved one candle that the family lit during the meal, and she had put up a small artificial tree in the corner, but there were no presents underneath, no lights around it. For Deni, she found a musical birthday card that he received last year. She wrapped it and put it under the tree.
There was no water to wash out Deni's cloth nappies; she was running out of baby food; her husband, a former computer analyst and now a soldier, had been injured on the front line and she had to take him to the doctor.
Her life this Christmas has revolved around finding wood. It took two hours to find a one-metre piece which will last for one month and it cost DM150. She carried it back to the cottage, put one small piece in the stove and glanced longingly at the dysfunctional television, the stereo that never plays because they have no power, the radio that has no batteries because they ran out three months ago. She has had to burn some of her books for fuel and it is often too cold to play cards. She and Zoran rarely see their friends any more once, in late April, they had a visit from a Serbian friend who warned them that they should take the baby and leave the city. "He told me that things were going to get bad, but he would not say why," she says. "He was one of our best friends, but that night he left and went to the other side and we have not seen him since."
ON Christmas day Mario, Maria and Alexandra went again to Klea's house, taking the loaf of bread that they managed to get. The family sat around a small table with a single oil lamp and talked about what life once was work, freedom, travel.
"You can kill life without actually killing everyone," says Mario slowly. "It's a psychological way to destroy the citizens by taking away, bit by bit, our normal life. First the food, then the water, then the light. After 4pm, you are blind, you can do nothing more but sit in a chair and stare at the walls and wait for the day to end."
He paused and shook out another cigarette from the packet. "You remember what things were. Then you go to sleep, you wake up, you stand in the queues. And if you are alive the next day, your life goes on."
Klea makes coffee by standing next to the fire holding a small pot inside it. She warms her hands by rubbing them against her leg. "Two or three months ago, we had hope. We believed that things could change, that things would change," she says and bends down to pick up Deni, who is crying. "Now, I believe in nothing."