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A Sarajevo From Another Time

(Page 2 of 2)

``What are you doing in New York?''

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``New York? I'm not in New York. I'm in Dobrinja.''

``The operator told me somebody from New York was calling.''

``The Yugos think anybody with an American accent is from New York.''

And drinks Coca-Cola. I never drank Coke until I went to Sarajevo. And then I only drank it because I was afraid of hurting my hosts' feelings if I turned it down. They were so proud to be able to offer an American Coca-Cola, as a sign of their sophistication.

Actually, the Yugos had many touches of Western sophistication I could have lived without: dirty skyscrapers, disco music, trains that didn't run on time, and smog so thick you could literally taste it. But they also had one non-Western custom I wish I could have brought home with me - polite taxi drivers who not only spoke English but would drive you to the ends of the earth for 5 dinars. Nema problema - no problem.

MARJA would be about 30 now. I sometimes wonder if any of the children I see on television lying wounded in Kosevo Hospital on dirty sheets are hers. Kosevo was the Olympic hospital in 1984. Today, it is said to be one of the favorite targets of the Serbian Army from their strategic command posts atop Mt. Ingman and Mt. Bjelasnica.

Marja's boyfried was a soldier in the Yugo army. She showed me several pictures of him. He was tall, with a long thin face and thick black hair. Was he a Serb? I wonder. In 1984, the members of the Yugo Army were the heroes of the Games, working all night to pack by hand the steep ski slopes of Ingman and Bjelasnica, marching in unison up the hillsides in their greatcoats and fur hats, singing patriotic songs.

The night before the Olympics were to begin, Don Metivier, then the editor of Ski Racing Magazine, took me to dinner at the Sarajevo Journalists Club. Metivier was the only non-Yugo member of the club. He told me that the club was unusually boisterous that night. Tomorrow morning the Olympics would begin, and tonight the Yugos were blowing off a little bit of steam and a whole lot of pride.

After dinner a band started to play, and we pushed back our chairs and joined in with the others, clapping, stamping our feet, and singing the chorus to several Yugo folk songs. On our way out we felt like folk stars ourselves, with people touching us, shaking hands, smiling, beaming. So full of hope, so full of pride. How do you like our city? they asked over and over. Dobro, dobro, we assured them. Which ones were Serbs? I wonder now. Which ones were Muslims? Which ones were Croats?

Last week I was cleaning out a drawer in my desk, and I came across a tiny statue of a Russian babushka. A Soviet journalist gave me that statue the night of the Russian-Canadian hockey game.

I was in the stands watching the game with Marja and some other off-duty reporters. In addition to idiomatic English, Marja could also speak pidgin German, and she learned that the Russian sitting next to her was named Dmitri. He worked for the Soviet news agency, Tass. Marja excitedly introduced us: New York Times, meet Tass.

I shook hands, wondering if Marja's knowledge of Soviet journalism was anything like her ideas about American newspapers. The Russian seemed to be thinking the same thing. He eyed me skeptically. Suddenly, he smiled and reached in his pocket for the little statue. I took it, smiled back, and said, ``Danke.'' Our little secret.

I don't remember who won the game that night. I just remember the three of us sitting there in a comfortable silence, admiring the skill of the players on the ice, cheering their excellence, and enjoying each other's company. The Russian, the Yugo, and the American.

Sarajevo, I loved your city.