Letters from Sarajevo

Sarajevo, 2 December 2011

'How are you?'

'Today, better than tomorrow.'

This is a new, dark joke I heard in Bosnia. Once the reply to this question was 'Today, better than yesterday', but not anymore.

Sarajevo has changed. There are many street beggars – mainly women and young children – in the heart of the city. It is winter here, below zero, but many of the beggars are barefoot and in T-shirts. Large packs of dogs wander through the city. I have never seen so many hungry, dirty, beaten and sad dogs in Sarajevo. I saw dogs with broken legs, with one eye, with large patches of skin missing. I heard dogs whining and howling. People here do not pay much attention. I guess they are used to it and are preoccupied with their daily struggle to survive, but I found myself on the verge of tears much of the time. I felt sick and in constant fear of what I might see next.

My friend Selma told me that some of the dogs and cats on the street have a pedigree because they were pets once, kicked out of their homes by their owners who did not have enough money to continue feeding them. These former pets are left on the streets to survive on their own, or to die. Someone told me that the city no longer provided the service that we all knew as sinteraj, which once arranged the collection of street dogs and euthanased them. This was the usual way of dealing with street dogs before the war. I guess Sarajevo and the rest of former Yugoslavia decided to change their treatment to follow the standards of more civilised countries around the world. They decided to abolish sinteraj and spare the street dogs' lives and treat them with care, however no care has been provided so far.

I have been told that the city plans to build a shelter for street animals. In the meantime, the dogs and cats wander among the people. A handful of organisations try desperately to protect the animals but there is only so much they can do. They have no financial means to undertake projects for animal protection and the staff who works in these organisations often have no choice but to shelter animals in their own homes, or offices. Their main financial help comes from a handful of foreign animal welfare organisations, while Bosnian authorities remain indifferent to the problem and have not enacted legislation to protect animals.

Beggars, too, are ignored and neglected, and must fight to survive cold and hunger each day. I saw young kids sitting on cardboard boxes, singing, with one hand out: begging for money. It seemed to me that a number of the beggars were Roma people, but not all. Late one evening when the temperature was below zero, I saw a beautiful young girl, maybe six years old, in a shirt without sleeves. She was running after a group of older foreign men, arguing that they had given her money that she could not change into Bosnian currency. The men were dressed in business suits and spoke in a foreign language; they were amused by the girl's panic. I have seen too many heartbreaking scenes like this. When I told this to one of my friends, he said in a flat voice, 'But we had beggars before, this is nothing new.' My friend was taken aback by the fuss I was making.

I am convinced that it was not 'like this' before.

Do I see things differently now? Do I notice more? Do I perceive things differently because I live in Australia now? Of course, Sarajevo had street dogs before but (my friends have confirmed as much) never as many as there are now. The difference is maybe in sensation. I notice things I would not have noticed before or which my Sarajevo friends are used to living with. I complained to a few of them about the appalling conditions of the street dogs in the city and then immediately felt ashamed. How dare I make a fuss about the dogs to my friends, who have no jobs, no money and a bleak future? Do I care more about the dogs than the people? How arrogant must I appear to be worrying and looking desperate just because I cannot save the Bosnian dogs?

People here are preoccupied with their own survival. Literally everyone I met was in need, financial or psychological. Every second citizen is unemployed. The average salary for the lucky ones who have some sort of job is around six hundred Australian dollars a month. In Bosnia, it is hard to survive with this amount of money, but the real killer is unemployment. My peers, young people, walk around without jobs and without plans for either the present or the future. There are no plans for the future here. I don't dare ask my friends about their futures or where they are going for Christmas or the New Year's holiday. I know that many have not been anywhere on holidays for years. They can't afford it.

Many of my friends do nothing because there is nothing to do. I wonder sometimes how they spend their days. What do you do the whole day if you do not have a job or money? 'Nothing. I watch TV, cook something, babysit for my sister and friends. I check my emails and sit around the house,' my friend Aldijana told me. She is in her early thirties with a Masters in gender studies, and has been jobless for a year.

It is so important to have a job here, any job, and parents would do anything for their children to be employed. The mother of a friend told me: 'She [her daughter] has a job: that is important. It does not matter that her salary is late four months. She will receive it one day, hopefully.' People know that not having a job is a trigger for stress, alcoholism, drugs, disillusion and a desperation that too often leads to illness and suicide. It is difficult to understand how someone can be satisfied with having any job, even one where payment is late several months or, in some cases, years.

Some of my friends, who don't have any work, suffer from anxiety and other mental illnesses. They finished university, they are qualified lawyers, doctors or tradespersons in their mid and late thirties, with or without kids, and they have no work. They are stressed, angry, bitter and helpless. Some are bitter about those people who lost close family members in the war and can now enjoy a pension and other benefits from the state because of it. Jasna told me: 'Does it mean that my father needed to be killed in the war so my family has a meal today? I am sick of the people who lost someone close because they have more benefits than I who did not lose a close family member. Even during the war, these people got two cups of flour and my family got only one because no one died in my family.'

When I told Elma about this complaint, she told me a war joke that circulated in Sarajevo during the siege. Little Mujo asks Huso, who is eating a big sandwich, 'Huso, give me a little bit of your sandwich, I am hungry.' Huso replies: 'I don't want to. My babo (father) is a sehid (martyr) and I deserve this sandwich.' Mujo told him: 'Oh, Huso, just wait and you will see. My babo will be a sehid too and I will eat such a sandwich and won't give you any.'

In Sarajevo, images of poverty exist in parallel with new buildings, large western-style shopping centres, coffee shops and pubs with wireless internet connections, fancy bookstores and expensive handmade souvenirs. None of it is for the local population, but for the foreign tourists and researchers who still flock to the city. Tourists like myself. I am a Bosnian, but I am a foreigner too. As Suada, the mother of a good friend in Sarajevo, told me, 'I have a homeland, but no home anymore.' In this sentence, she explained the aftermath of war. Indeed, this is exactly how I feel.

I used to have quite a few friends in Sarajevo, but each year the number grows fewer. There are now only a few friends who I call on when I come to Sarajevo, and one of them is Elma Softic-Kaunitz. I met Elma ten years ago at an international organisation where we both worked. Although I have been living in different places and countries over the past decade, I have always maintained a connection with Elma.

Elma is well known because of the war diary she wrote during the siege in Sarajevo. Sarajevo Days, Sarajevo Nights was published as a book in 1996 and instantly became a bestseller. Elma never left Sarajevo, the city she was born in. She could have left during the siege, but chose not to. This choice is what made Elma's story unique. Now, sixteen years later, Elma wants to find time to reflect on her life during the 'bad peace' as she calls the peace she lives in now. She told me that the spirit of the people is destroyed and that the energy that many people like her invested in Sarajevo by staying behind has gone.

'When your life becomes everyday life, then it is not life anymore. What sort of life is your life if it is just "everyday life" and nothing else? It is not a life.' Although she stayed in her beloved Sarajevo during the siege, Elma's advice to her two children, Hannah and Ivo, who were born during the siege, is that they should leave the Balkans.

Just like last year, we met in a famous Sarajevo beerhouse. It is a large pub and a restaurant, where international visitors and a few high-income locals like to come, eat, drink and socialise. I do not smoke in Australia, but when I am in Bosnia I smoke and like to drink sljivovica (a famous homemade plum brandy) with my friends because this is a part of our ritual and bonding. As a migrant, you change language, friends, residence, your way of thinking and consciousness, and often live in a political and economic system different to the one you are used to. Regardless, once you return home, you instantly become who you really are: a local person immersed in familiar rituals, traditions and culture.

I transform myself the moment I step from the plane into Bosnia. I start to speak my language, switch off my Australian mobile and turn on my Bosnian phone (I still have the same number although I left my homeland five years ago). I have a valid Bosnian ID and a passport, and occasionally I still receive letters to my home address in Banjaluka. My parents keep the mail for me and each year when I visit, I go through it. It all seems surreal, like my life in Bosnia has been frozen in time and my life in Australia is just a dream. The fact that I usually come to Bosnia in winter makes it even more surreal and distant from my life in Australia, a country with little snow and temperatures that rarely dip below zero (at least in Queensland). In Bosnia, I still have my dentist and a family doctor who I always visit during my stay.

I knew that Elma smokes, so I brought a pack. After we hugged and kissed each other, happy, excited, I opened the pack and lit a cigarette for us while telling her:

'I have to tell you a lot, but let me first tell you about Maria Tumarkin.' With these words I opened a Pandora's box of emotions and memories of the war. I told Elma that you wrote her a letter and that in your first book Traumascapes (MUP, 2005), you write about Sarajevo and about her.

Elma, with a great surprise, and wide-open, big green sparkling eyes asked me: 'About me?'

I said, 'Yes, you.'

I told her that you sent a letter to her and while I was taking the letter out of my backpack, I told Elma that it was up to her whether she wanted to read it now or later and whether she wanted to respond and how. She told me she wanted to read it immediately. Around us people were chatting, eating and smoking. The light was dim so we asked the waitress to light the candle on our table. I was watching Elma open the envelope and unfold the letter. She moved close to the flame of the candle and started to read. This image of Elma reading under the candle reminded me of the war, of how we had virtually no electricity during the siege. I was thinking of how Elma wrote most of her diary by candlelight. Now, sixteen years later, Elma was sitting and reading your letter beside a thin candle flame. I could see her eyes immersed in the words coming from across the ocean, from so far away, written by someone who had never met her, but had been moved by her destiny and life.

I was trying not to look at Elma because this was an intimate moment, although she chose to read the letter in this loud, smoky place. Out of the corner of my eye I watched Elma shaking with her eyes full of tears. I, like Elma, may not realise how profoundly we have been affected by the way we experienced or witnessed war, and the extent to which small signs of humanity and attention can trigger painful memories from the past.

'I need to meet her. How is it possible that my work could affect someone so much, someone so far away?' she asked me.

It was a sincere question.

'Because you decided to stay in Sarajevo during the siege. Because you had an option to leave but chose to stay. You chose the option that brought you closer to death with each passing moment, day, week, year. Because people admire courage and are fascinated by your decision and life. I, and other people, think that what you've done is extremely courageous, that's why.'

I could see that your letter dug deep into Elma's soul. There was a sense of disbelief that someone would be thinking of her after all these years; that someone cared enough to write a personal letter to her and express gratitude and admiration for who she was and is.

There are not many people left who remember Elma's war diary. Elma received acknowledgments from a few people, but for a long time no one contacted her. She thought that she was forgotten and that her story had no meaning anymore. Not many people I met here have empathy or solidarity or even the patience to listen to someone else's story.

I met Elma each day during my stay in Sarajevo. On our last meeting, just before I left, we met in a cake shop in the centre of town to say goodbye. She brought a book for you and for me, as a present to take back to Australia. All the sadness and feelings of anxiety I had kept deep down inside me over the last few days found their way out through my eyes. I could not control myself; tears were rolling down my cheeks. Elma was trying to console me by saying that Sarajevo is still a city, where people live in its apartments; sometimes more, sometimes less happy. I told Elma how ashamed I felt to cry in front of her, when her home city had witnessed the worst downfall of civilisation at the end of the last century. We parted ways on a cold night. Elma told me then that she would respond to you before I left Bosnia. She kept her promise.


Melbourne, 24 November 2011

Dear Elma,

When I read Sarajevo Days, Sarajevo Nights almost ten years ago, I felt such a strong sense of kinship with you, such an inexplicably deep connection, that to discover all these years later that we have a friend – Olivera (I call her Oli) – in common feels to me exactly right. It all makes sense. I wrote about you in my first book called Traumascapes. Oli was going to bring a copy for you to Sarajevo, but I got the dates of Oli's departure mixed up and sent it too late. I am really sorry. One day you will have it.

I want to tell you that reading your words written during the siege, the way you wrote them, the register in which you wrote, the need that drove you to write them in the first place, struck me on reading them for the first time – and they have the same effect on me still – as the very essence of what I understand as humanity, of what I understand as courage, of what I understand as the refusal to be broken by fear and suffering. I read your words and wondered what I would do in your place (and the fact that what happened to you in Bosnia didn't happen to us in the Soviet Union after its collapse is a sheer fluke, dumb luck really, it could have so easily been us). I wondered whether I would have ten per cent of your inner strength, of your fearlessness, of your refusal to be made into something less than fully human. Could I have written as clear-sightedly, as brilliantly, as honestly as you did? I read and re-read your words and felt the deepest kind of admiration, pride and, also, hope.

I want to thank you from the deepest place in me for being the way you are, for your words, for your refusal to leave Sarajevo, for your need to bear witness, for the way in which you put – and continue to put – your life on the line so others like me can understand the world and humanity a little bit better. I want to thank you for your humour, too, for the lightness of your touch, for the brilliance of your mind. We all grow taller with people like you next to us.

I wonder if you could tell me how you are now, what it is like to be in Sarajevo, to be you. I would be very grateful if you could tell me what you think about it all more than fifteen years later – the war, the siege, the survival, the aftermath, being a woman in all of this, being Jewish in all of this, having children in all of this.

I know that one day we will meet. I hope Oli will give you a hug from me. She is beautiful, Oli.

With the deepest respect and much, much warmth,

Maria Tumarkin


Sarajevo, 23 December 2011

Dear Maria,

Olivera (I call her Olja) gave me your letter a month ago when we met at one restaurant in Sarajevo. I always enjoy Olja's company – she is so smart, so positive and brave person – and she makes me to be real I – Elma I would like to be. So when she told me she has a letter for me from her friend from Australia – I was surprised. I thought we have some mutual friend from Bosnia or Yugoslavia (well-known as 'ex-Yugoslavia' these days) who lives in Australia now.

But when I read your letter – I knew we three have known each other not from some ordinary physical place, but from one special world where live just few persons I ever met. I like to call this place Yuval, which in Hebrew means 'stream' or 'small river'. It would be really long story to explain why Yuval means something special to me – maybe we can return to that saga some other time, but I must tell you that that special place is the one where I go when I need to look in my own inward – there where I can still recognise freedom, freshness and richness of my own being. When I am in that place – I am ready to share my soul with other wonderful inhabitants of that world. Unfortunately, such travels bring me far from the reality and I cannot afford to be out of the reality too often, or to stay there too long.

Thank you so much for your wonderful letter. Thank you for reading my book with such affection and benevolence. The time when I was writing the book was a horrible mistake as each time of war is, but the experience I gained during those years is the most valuable experience I have. I realised that destruction and torturing really do exist, not just in the past times or distant places, that they are filling up each pore of life now and here. When thinking today about war and life and writing the book, I believe that I put so many efforts in writing my diary and letters to known and unknown friends, because I was scared to death. I was not so much afraid that I would be killed or injured. Of course I was worrying for my family, but I somehow knew, or I just believed, as many others do, that bad things cannot happen to my dearest. I was horrified because I became accustomed to all that horror around me. I believe that the reason why I put so much effort in writing was because I desperately needed to explain to myself that the horror should not be the normal order in the world.

Today I do not write as I used to. It is too much painful when I face with my own thoughts. They are so superficial, so muggy and so colourless.

I feel that, in some unknown moment during last fifteen years, I lost the ability to judge the world and myself. Although I can distinguish between good and bad, it is not enough anymore to be sure I will do the right thing. When I start to analyse good and evil, I discovered that both have the same source, the same argumentation and the same face – face of timeless despair.

I know my last sentence sounds so pessimistic, but I am not pessimist at all. I am okay. I love, I work, I am trying to educate my children, to love my husband, to be helpful to my parents, not to alienate from my sister who lives in Australia – in a very, very different society. In fact, I am doing my best to convince myself that I am successful in my strivings to be a good person in the environment where conditions for the development of strong and positive personality are not conducive.

Here and there I write a poem or a short story. But – I never write the end. You will ask me why? I do not know. I think it is because I know that the end will sadden me. And, I do not have the right to be sad – at least – not yet. There are people who need me to be strong and playful and not sad and blue.

And that is how it is being me in Sarajevo today.

Dear Maria, I feel like I know you and I know we will meet some day – not just in my Yuval place, but in this real, somewhat sore, but still interesting world. Until then, I will meet you and Olja and few other wonderful persons in my precious sanctuary where I go when all the other doors are closed.

With respects and warmest wishes for you and your dearest,

Elma Softic– Kaunitz


Melbourne, 31 March 2012

Dear Elma and Oli,

I've almost forgotten this about books – that they can bring us together like this. Oceans are nothing for books, and decades gone are nothing, and the idea that most people in the world are strangers to each other is a big fat nothing, too. Here we are, the three of us, connected now in a way that cannot be undone. All because of your book, Elma.

And it hurts to think, dear Elma, that you feel that your book, once heralded as 'an extraordinary document' (those reviews were glowing), read eagerly, passed from person to person, doesn't mean anything to most people these days. For a moment there, when your book came out, it connected you and the unfolding history you recorded to the rest of the world, and the book itself, correct me if I am wrong, only exists because during the 1395 days of the siege, you refused to allow the possibility that your people and your city, surrounded from all sides, isolated and unreachable, could simply fall out of history and be forgotten. This is why you kept a diary. This is why you wrote your letters.

I want to tell you that your book is not forgotten. I know this for a fact. I am sure you've read Mikhail Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita. Remember that line from the book, the most important sentence in it: 'Manuscripts do not burn.' They don't, Elma. Books do not just disappear. Your book is beside me right now. It still reads as if it was written yesterday. It is urgent and timeless at once. I am still terrified when I read it. I still feel like my heart will break. And your words make me laugh too, Elma. How is it possible?

Dear Oli, you write – about what happened in Bosnia, about crimes committed in your name, about memory and grief, about families, like yours, damaged beyond repair, about peace that has brought no peace to you or to Elma – as if your life depends on it. You remind me of what it is to write. In Australia, people don't talk about Bosnia much these days, do they? Perhaps, they still do in Europe. But here it feels like people have forgotten already, or perhaps, everyone is just too relaxed and comfortable, or it's just too much, you know, every month brings a new disaster, a new kind of unbearable pain. I know you understand and I know too that the thought of Bosnia slipping out of people's minds with such finality is unbearable to you. Sometimes I think you write like a woman possessed. I mean it in the most admiring of ways.

Dear Elma and Oli, I come from a country (there are many others like mine, I know) with an unbreakable tradition, of which I remain intensely proud, of people bearing witness to the moral catastrophes around them. I know now that without their words, there would be no true documents of what happened in the Soviet Union. Without their words, there would be nothing to stop history being totally rewritten, or forgotten (forgetting happens so quickly, as you know).

There lived at the start of the twentieth century a celebrated Russian-Soviet poet called Osip Mandelstam. Like a million others, he perished in the camps in 1938. His widow, Nadezhda Mandelstam, an extraordinary woman in her own right, decided that the foremost task in her forty-plus years of widowhood was to preserve her husband's poems. She was right. Her husband was a genius. To keep his poems alive, including different variations and drafts of the same poems, Nadezhda continuously repeated them at night. She spent most of her life after Osip's arrest and death on the run. She was next in line without question, but somehow she managed to outfox the henchmen.

Between 1937 and 1938 more than one and a half million people were arrested in the largest wave of mass repressions to engulf the Soviet Union. More than seventy thousand of them were shot.

In 1938, in a small Russian village near Yaroslavsky Road, where Nadezhda Mandelstam briefly lived, cattle-trains filled to the brink by those sentenced to spend three, five, ten years in the camps would pass through every night. And of course, everyone in that little village would talk about what happened at night and at least some villagers felt insulted by the fact that they were banned from so much as giving bread to those people trapped inside the heavily guarded trains. One day the woman in whose house Nadezhda Mandelstam was living, managed to throw a chocolate bar, intended as precious treat for her daughter, through the broken window of a train. In an instant, soldiers pushed her away but the woman was happy all day – she managed to do something, to connect to the people inside the trains.

'Will anyone from future generations understand,' Mandelstam would write decades later in her memoirs (I'm giving you my translation), 'what this chocolate bar with the kiddy picture meant in a stuffy train carrying people to camps in 1938?'

People, for whom the time stopped, and the space became a prison cell...a cattle-train carriage filled to the brim with the half-dead human cargo, cast
off, forgotten, struck off the list of the living with no names and nicknames...moving irreversibly into the black non-being of the camps...these were the people who, for the first time in months, received a message from the other world, which was completely closed off to them – a cheap kiddy chocolate bar, which told them that they were not forgotten...

Dear Elma and Oli, to me there is no greater purpose in writing than to write against the black non-being of oblivion, to write so as to connect people who feel forgotten to those who refuse to forget them. And the refusal to forget itself strikes me as just about the most important human task there is. This is what you do. This is who you are. All I can say is that I will never forget you, and I won't forget your words. You can count on me.

With love,



Sarajevo, 7 July 1993

Dear friends,

It's now forty-five minutes past nine. I'm sitting in the kitchen and using up the last drops of petroleum in a homemade lamp – a small jar that was once filled with Fructal brand baby food now contains the diesel with a pinch of salt added – to reduce the smoke – and a wick pulled through the lid. The jar is standing under a cylinder made from a bottle of Meinle egg liqueur whose bottom has been cut out, and the whole thing is standing in a glass ashtray.

First: what does it mean to sit in our kitchen in these times in these spaces?

It means taking the risk that a piece of shrapnel from a sudden mortar shell might smash through the tile and Arborite of our improvised kitchen and interrupt the writing of this letter, and turn my life into a death notice [notices bearing the name, dates and likeness of the deceased posted on walls, telephone poles, etc., rather like our lost-and-found signs] – its text typed by the hand of one of my loved ones and photocopied ten times over for the ten corners of this city. There exists, of course, a more fortunate possibility – that I lose a hand or some other trifle of my anatomy. We already have one hole from such a piece of shrapnel in the kitchen ceiling. It is not my wish to frighten you or fascinate you. I'm merely trying to illustrate for you life in Sarajevo.

Secondly: what does it mean to use up the last drops of diesel fuel?

Most simply put, it means that for the time being we will be groping around in the dark unless I manage to get hold of three litres tomorrow.

Somewhere a shell has just fallen, but not close enough to make me withdraw to the 'safety' of a lower floor. But that shell might have landed in somebody's apartment and blown up its safest nook and killed a sleeping family. In Sarajevo there is no safe place. But Sarajevans are now used to that and it is generally acknowledged that one cannot escape fate.

Perhaps this statement sounds defeatist to you, but thanks to it life here manages to flow on.

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