A Sarajevo From Another Time

SARAJEVO, I loved your city. I loved your river Miljacka with its graceful stone bridges, your medieval market square Bascarsija with its noisy bezistans, squawking chickens, and turbaned craftsmen. I loved your huge domed mosques with their slender minarets soaring heavenward, your narrow cobblestone streets, steep hills, and dark alleys crowded with mysterious smells, farm animals, and double-doored, hole-in-the-wall shops. I loved your noisy smoke-filled kafanas redolent with thick black coffee and charcoal-grilled lamb and your ancient cemeteries.

But most of all, Sarajevo, I loved your people. We called you ``Yugos.'' You called me ``dobra Leenda.''

Dobro/dobra means good, and it was one of the few Serbo-Croatian words I learned. It was the answer to everything in Sarajevo in the winter of 1984.

How do you like our city? Dobro. How do you like our food? Dobro. How do you like our weather? Dobro. How do you like our people? Dobro.

Of all the words in the Serbo-Croatian language, why did I have to learn the word dobro? What is the word for civil war?

Recently I watched Dan Rather report the news from Sarajevo. He was standing in front of a drab-looking apartment building in Dobrinja, a suburb just outside the city.

I have a picture of myself standing in front of that same building. In my picture, I'm wearing a bright orange down parka and a ski hat. Dan had on an olive-green military flak jacket and a combat helmet.

His face was grim, and he flinched as mortar shells exploded behind him. I flinched, too, as I thought of the place I had called home for three weeks in February of 1984.

Dobrinja was the press village for the Winter Olympics that year. It was brand new, just finished, and the 5,000-member international press corps were the first inhabitants. After the Olympics, we were told the dark, cramped, cinder-block apartments would become upscale housing for Sarajevo's young urban professionals. I guess that has happened.

Dan called Dobrinja a yuppie suburb. He said its residents had been without water and electricity for months because of the shelling from the nearby hills. The nearby hills are called Mt. Ingman and Mt. Bjelasnica. Each morning I used to board a shuttle bus in Dobrinja bound for one of those two hills: Ingman for the Olympic cross-country skiing events, Bjelasnica for the alpine events. The athletes called the hills difficult, challenging, a good test. Dan called them strategic.

EVERY day in the newspaper and every night on the television, my memories and my photo album come face to face with the horrors of war and genocide.

Was Marja, a friend I met in Sarajevo, a Serb, a Croat, or a Muslim? I wonder as I gaze at a picture of the two of us standing in front of the Olympic flame. I just remember how pretty she was, her high tinkling laugh, and the way she used to say ``What?'' when I talked too fast. I spoke Dobro-Croatian and she spoke idiomatic English (``What a hunk.'' ``No prob.'' ``See ya later.'')

Marja loved everything American. To the Yugos, America was Coca-Cola and New York City.

``What do you do in America?'' she asked me.

``I work for a newspaper.''

``Ahh, the New York Times,'' she nodded in understanding, even though I worked for a paper in Vermont.

One day her voice came through on the other end of the telephone.

``Dobra Leenda?'' To make even a local phone call in Sarajevo, you had to go through the operator, although what Marja was doing on the switchboard I have no idea. She had told me she was a nurse. ``Yes?'' I answered.

``New York calling.''

New York? Who was calling me in Sarajevo from New York? ``Hello?'' I said uncertainly.

``Hi, Linda. It's Paul.'' Paul Robbins, who was covering the games for the wire services, was a friend from the press village.

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

``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.

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