sarajevo life in two acts

a refugee of the Bosnian war returns home to face what cannot be forgotten

Illustration by Joe Sacco from The Fixer, Drawn & Quarterly, 2004 (

excerpted from the print magazine…

First Act
Even seven years after I left my hometown Sarajevo to become one of the marbles in the great world mosaic of emigrants, I still feel guilty about living somewhere other than Bosnia.

Yes, I know I am not the only one who chose to move from the insecurity of a war at home to the big world of possibilities. I am not the only one who followed the instinct to escape and forget. I am just one of the three million Bosnians living abroad since the war.

By the way, Goran, I say to myself, don?t forget that every fifth inhabitant of the Earth carries a passport different from that of his or her country of origin.
But these facts still don?t alleviate the feeling of being a traitor that must reside in every emigrant. ?Once you experience ten days? delay in the arrival of the present you sent to your father for his birthday,? my friend, the sculptor Sasha Bukvic, tells me, ?you can?t feel otherwise than as a traitor.? Or when the telephone is the only connection with your previous life, your family and relatives still living in the country you were born in.

But if that is the only burden carried from your previous life, then you can consider yourself a happy person.

Since new wars replace old ones so fast, the fear of forgetting recent history is one of the most justified fears we face. The lesson we learned at school was that Historia est magistra vitae ? history is a great teacher. Even I have some doubt in that Latin sentence, whether because we are bad pupils or history is in fact a bad teacher. Because of my doubt, I have a need to repeat some of the facts that shouldn?t be forgotten.

Not one day passes that I don?t remember the victims of grenades and sniper bullets that were fired by the Serbian Army from its position surrounding Sarajevo. For four years they treated the civilians as clay pigeons. I can describe the black statistics of war by recalling just the first year:

My mother died. She couldn?t stand another war fifty years after she survived WWII. My brother was badly wounded by a sniper bullet. He died five years later because he never fully recovered. The architect Brankica was killed by a grenade just after her husband died, leaving two seven-year-old kids. Edo, a sixteen-year-old technician, was shot by a sniper while washing his favourite Rolling Stones T-shirt on his terrace. Our neighbour, father of three daughters, was shot while tying his shoelaces on the street. Admira and her six-month-old baby were killed by a grenade that flew into her house while she was feeding the child. These were some of the civilians I knew, not to mention the soldiers whom I did not know. And the horror stories that came with refugees from small Bosnian towns about slaughtered families and entire villages in flame. For us, who knew nothing about war, it seemed that even our darkest imagination was nothing in comparison with reality.

Living through that period without any running water or electricity, with the telephone line cut off and surviving on food from UN humanitarian aid programs, we learned that human life is cheap.

I was a Serb endangered by other Serbs, since I had children with a Muslim wife, and rejected Serbian nationalistic euphoria, believing instead in a multireligious Bosnia.

But every time I think about the horror of those days, strangely, I can?t help but smile. If war hadn?t happened, I wouldn?t have learned what precious neighbours I had. We all became specialists in categories we never dreamed of and we shared our knowledge. Since my first duty in the morning was to collect water in plastic canisters at the public wells provided by the UN (which took me at least a few hours), I would bring the water to my neighbour Krkalic, who was too old to go himself. His sister taught me how to make a meal for four people using just one small can of meat. Another neighbour, Velo, taught me how to connect my radio transistor to the dead telephone wires and make it work without using batteries. I made him a little woodstove using an empty tin can. It was not enough for cooking meals but it could make tea or coffee. I wouldn?t have discovered my mason?s skills if a grenade hadn?t destroyed the entire wall of my first-floor neighbour?s apartment. He, in turn, wouldn?t have discovered his skill to wrap perfectly in plastic foil my windows broken by bullets?

Goran Simic was born in Bosnia-Herzegovina on October 20, 1952. His poetry, essays and reviews have appeared in all the prominent journals of the former Yugoslavia as well as publications abroad. He has also written short stories, plays and radio plays, and was the editor of several literary magazines. He came to Canada as a landed immigrant in February 1996 under the auspices of PEN Canada. His most recent book of poetry is Immigrant Blues, published by Brick Books, 2003.

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