From Sarajevo: 'The Terror of Our Everyday Life'

April 11, 1993

Sandra Cisneros, author of "Woman Hollering Creek & Other Stories," received the letter that follows. It was originally published in the Los Angeles Times. The introduction was written by Ms. Cisneros.

Ten years ago, while traveling on a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, I lived in Sarajevo. I met Jasna K., the woman across the street who could speak English. Eventually, we came to be confidants, collaborators, sisters of the heart. She also became my literary translator. But to say simply this is to say nothing; the woman Jasna K., she is my friend. This letter reached me in San Antonio a week ago.

Jan. 22, 1993

Mi querida Sandra,

Your brief letter dated Oct. 3, 1992, reached me only three days ago. Do I need to tell you how happy and grateful I was? I am hungry for any word from that other, normal world which seems so terribly remote from me now.

No need to tell you that the citizens of this sad city are deprived of simply everything. We do not have electricity for months, the water supply is cut off most of the time, telephones do not work within the city, not to speak of any kind of connection with the "outer" world. The city is heavily shelled, daily, from the surrounding hills. We still live on the humanitarian aid, which is bad and insufficient, mostly due to the bad distribution within the city.

Everything is so humiliating that I sometimes wonder how much longer I shall be able to stand all these difficulties and the terror of our everyday life, this ever-present feeling of the closeness of death, this hunger for normality, peace, freedom, civilized life. I haven't taken a proper bath for months. We haven't had a single proper normal meal since the beginning of the war. We have almost no heating in the houses, and nothing at all in our offices, schools, hospital. People are dying of cold. All the trees from the streets and city parks are gone. People have cut them in their struggle to survive, so Sarajevo may as well be called a city of fallen trees, a city of cemeteries, a city of grief and pain.

We are still alive, my mother, (my sister) Zdenka, and me. My mother, however, is very sick. She weighs less than 80 pounds. )) Zdenka has lost some 40 pounds, and I am about 30 pounds lighter than I was. The food is terribly bad. What we eat is flour, oil, water, salt, rice, various kinds of noodles, a little bit of beans. Occasionally we get some powdered milk, but my stomach cannot take it. During these months of war, we didn't taste a single egg, not to speak of fruit or vegetables. We even tried to prepare bread from ground rice once we ran out of regular wheat flour. Almost everybody except the numerous war profiteers is undernourished. In the summertime we had some apples from the tree in my garden but they were hardly edible, full of worms and sour.

However, the food that I write about so much is the smallest problem. We live with some improvised lamps made of pieces of cork, aluminum foil, a shoelace, a little bit of oil in a glass. These little improvised lamps are the only source of light in the majority of Sarajevo households. The lucky ones who were able to preserve the batteries from their cars have a little bit better illumination.

My house is still in one piece, except for several windows broken by detonations. We have just a little bit of wood in my garden shed. We put on a fire in our little stove and that is how we bake bread, how we cook, how we get the house at least a little bit heated.

Maybe, one day, if I survive this hell, and if I get a chance to see you again, I'll try to tell the things that I'm trying hard to forget.

I still hope that one of my friends is going to leave the city soon and I'll ask him to mail this letter. I feel so miserable that I'm only complaining to you in this letter, but there is no good news here. There is no mental or emotional or physical strength left to put down something nice and comforting. We walk terrible distances just to get some water to drink and to get washed, under the mortar and sniper hits.

I only wish my mother can survive this hell and be out of here before she dies. I would like her to go to Slovenia, to my sister, but she doesn't want to leave Zdenka and me behind. At this moment Zdenka and I cannot leave the city, according to some laws invented for the circumstances of war. Therefore, it is a closed circle of difficulties. I'm lucky because I live so close to the place where I work, so, statistically, my chances to survive are a little bit greater. Still, I walk around the city a lot, I move a lot and I believe that is how I am managing to remain normal.

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