Sarajevo writer captures agony of siege

January 20, 1994|By Neely Tucker | Neely Tucker,Knight-Ridder News Service

Why stay?

It's the logical question to put to any Sarajevan who has had a chance to leave the city during its 20-month siege. It's the one that newspaper columnist Zlatko Dizdarevic answers in this powerfully evocative, disturbingly beautiful collection of essays taken from Sarajevo's daily paper, Oslobodenje (Liberty).

The answer, like these essays, is profoundly simple: because they led a civilized life before the war, and decent people do not let themselves be bullied out of doing the right thing.

"This is what keeps us here and will probably cost a lot of us our heads," he writes. "But what good is a head if its boundaries are set by idiots from the back hills? . . . One day this will be over, and there will be some mirrors left in town in which we will have to look at ourselves. And what shall we do then? Which bus would we depart on? With what collective passport, made out in whose name?"

One can debate the causes and blame in the war that has consumed the former Yugoslavia. Except, as Mr. Dizdarevic accurately points out, Sarajevo is not really at war. It is simply encircled and bombarded from the hills by Bosnian Serbs. The Serbs do not have the forces to overtake the town, plus they know such action would finally trigger air strikes from the West.

So they rain down shells and sniper fire at whim, with no real military target or purpose. They're simply killing civilians -- an estimated 150,000 so far -- for the hell of it.

Mr. Dizdarevic again and again puts a cool finger on the complicated, fevered levels of life that come with living under this sort of siege. The outrage of seeing a 3-year-old girl shot by a sniper. The fear of working in a bombed-out office building, where people are sometimes shot to death on the steps. The surreal beauty of shells fired across a night sky. The psychological terror of learning to live with the unspeakable. The fury at a world that watches but does nothing to help.

He writes:

"How to describe the sensation of things closing in on you, slowly but surely? It's as if you are standing in line . . . and in the end you arrive at this ticket window where you have to pay for everything that had till now been priceless: love, happiness, intimacy, mad faith in people and humanity, trust, and generosity."

One night amid the piles of plastic water buckets stacked in his hallway, amid firewood foraged from city parks, he writes of "standing behind lowered blinds and camouflaged windows, and looking out in the starry summer night sky crisscrossed by the flaming red missiles that rise from both sides of the horizon. As they fall, they carry off another person's life, curtailing his or her already barren hopes, or perhaps only destroying something built and striven for over a lifetime."

I am in the habit of turning down page corners in books where I find particularly moving passages. In the 183 pages that his columns cover, my copy has 23 folded corners.

In its fury, quiet wisdom, simple style and honest emotion, this is not a book that will make you cheerful. It is a deadening experience. So is the city it portrays.

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "Sarajevo: A War Journal"

Author: Zlatko Dizdarevic

Publisher: Fromm International

Length, price: 208 pages, $19.95

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