Mom, Dad, and Boys Brave Out the War
In Sarajevo, chickens live better than people. But the Kaljanac family has learned to improvise. Despite exploding shells, they grow tomatoes, play games, do homework, and cope with constant danger. First of two parts.
BREAKFAST is the same as last night's dinner, today's lunch and dinner, and tomorrow's breakfast: an off-yellow spinach and cheese pie.
Breakfast starts with a battle. Two hours earlier, five-year-old Tarik shut off his father's alarm clock before it woke him. With his mother at work and his father oversleeping, the blond-haired preschooler was free to run wild in his family's three-room castle.
"I turned it off because I wanted dad to be late," Tarik explains with a devilish grin. "And I'm going to turn it off again tonight."
Another day of monotony, mischief, and terror has begun in besieged Sarajevo.
His exasperated father, Eko Kaljanac, a balding man with a child's face, shakes his head with a smile. A military policeman who works the graveyard shift, Eko fishes the 15-inch pie out of his cold oven and takes hard-boiled eggs, bread, and margarine from the warm refrigerator. For the last three weeks, all electricity, gas, and running water have been cut off to the city.
Dressed in matching royal blue Adidas soccer shorts and jersey, Eko is young, spry, and constantly joking. He later explains that the jersey is from a night soccer league he used to play in. Ten of the 50 players have been killed in the war.
The house is silent as they eat. No jabbering DJ on the radio. No smiling hosts flashing on the TV.Birds quietly chirp in the yard, abruptly interrupted by a burst of machine-gun fire from front lines a half-mile away.
Since 1992, Bosnian Serb forces have surrounded this Bosnian capital and UN-declared "safe area" of 300,000, and have routinely shut off utilities, blocked aid convoys, and shelled the civilian population.
Tarik strategically drops a hard-boiled egg on the floor, drawing an angry look from his father. "It tastes funny," he complains. "I don't like it."
Eko was nearly killed two years ago in his back yard when fragments of an antiaircraft shell penetrated his chest. A second fragment ripped through his hand, instantly limiting his use of it and the Army's use of him.
He doesn't read a newspaper because he can't bear knowing that another friend has been killed. At last count, 70 people he knows have died in the war.
Breakfast finishes, and Tarik's older brother, Haris, makes up the pull-out couch the entire family sleeps on. Sleeping bags, ready for a trip to the bomb shelter next door, are put away.
A skinny 11-year old with brown hair and eyes, Haris moves silently through the apartment, dressed in a blue shirt and white shorts with grinning crocodiles on them. Without being told to, he sits down at the table in the TV room, opens a book, and begins taking notes on Roman history.
Full school days were canceled three weeks ago during heavy shelling of the city. Haris, who receives the equivalent of As and Bs, now attends school on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 9 a.m. until 11:30 a.m. or when the teacher decides it is safe.
The apartment looks run down. Russian spoons, decorative plates, and dolls line walls and shelves - testaments to better prewar times when Eko worked in Moscow and Iraq installing heating systems and vacationed in Italy and Germany.
A gunshot rings out from the steep, forested hills that ring the valley Sarajevo is nestled in, but is ignored.
Bored with the house, Eko and sons move outdoors.
The four families that live in the dilapidated, two-story building have transformed a rocky back yard into a combination vegetable garden-scrap heap.
Makeshift fences made of car hoods, roofs, and doors encircle each garden, keeping stray dogs from feasting on priceless contents that Sarajevans rely on as a crucial food source.
Eko wanders into his garden, opening a chin-high door he created from sections of old heating radiators. Outside, two chickens, the family's source of eggs, and a rooster prowl.
"My chickens have a better life than me. They get food, they get water, they walk around where they want," Eko says. "I protect them better from cats and dogs than [the United Nations] protects us."
He surveys his handiwork. A bathtub full of weeds has been turned into a compost, producing fertilizer. Empty half-gallon silver containers labeled "Refined Vegetable Oil - USA" are filled with the best soil he can find and used to grow seedlings.
Eko, who never had a garden before the war, prowls the 20 square yards of red tomatoes, green beans, brown potatoes, and other vegetables for weeds. A tiny hole in a cement wall is the only evidence of how he secretly pilfers richer soil from the school yard next door.
"When the war is finished, I will be president of this small land," he jokes. "I will be satisfied with that."
Eko's goal this slow-moving morning is to make and install stakes to support his growing tomato plants. Instead of string, six-inch-long strips of old videotape are used to tie off the plants.
Pieces of scrap metal on the roof funnel rain water into two 50 gallons drums, creating an ample supply of water for the garden. A local plant that repels insects soaks in the water, creating an instant pesticide.
He works with his shirt off, a two-inch scar on his chest marking where the fragment from the antiaircraft shell entered his body and a three-inch scar on his back marking where it exited. About 50 shells have hit near the house, the last one a week ago.
Eko suddenly sniffs the air around him. The faint smell of burning rubber hovers. "Someone is heating up lunch with a pair of shoes," he quips. "Too many people are burning their old clothes because they don't have any wood."
As their father works, Tarik and Haris begin their daily battle with the boredom of confinement. Required to stay in a 200-foot driveway because of shelling, their imaginations struggle to create new games.
A concrete step leading to an apartment is turned into a Ping-Pong table. Haris and the boy next door, Hamza - a skinny brown-haired 15-year-old in jeans and worn sneakers - string a blue wire across the step, neatly creating a net and court.
The game abruptly ends when the boy with the only Ping-Pong ball gets angry and goes home. Attempts to play with a wildly bouncy "superball" are futile. Haris and Hamza skulk around the yard, finally starting a game of volleyball over an imaginary net. Later, Haris explains how he passes the time.
"We play football, we talk about tools, about movies, and American movie stars," he says. "Sometimes we only sit here, imagining that we are somewhere else."
In another part of the driveway, Tarik and Dzenana, the five-year-old girl next door, put a small mat on the rocky ground. They lay on it, pretending they are sun-bathing at the seashore 100 miles away. They vividly bring to life something they have only heard their parents describe - an ocean.
"I want to get some sun, but because of the war you can't go there," Tarik explains and then points at the rocks at his feet. "But with all these stones I can make the seashore right here."
Tarik begins fighting with Dzenana. Haris climbs a tree, and Eko shouts at him to get down. "I don't have to go to the zoo, because I have monkeys here," Eko says. He turns to Tarik. "Chief, why don't you ride your bike?"
"I don't want to," Tarik answers. Eko sits down in the garden, contemplating when to make the long, dangerous trip to collect drinking water. "If you do the same thing five days in a row," he says. "You break down completely."
He watches his sons. "They can't find anything to do. Nothing holds their interest."
A commotion erupts in the driveway, Tarik has spit on Amela, the disturbed, middle-aged woman who lives downstairs. "He does this everyday," Eko says. "She's not well, she's a little crazy, but who knows why he does it."
A shot rings out from the hills above the city.
It is finally time for lunch. The same spinach pie is fished out of the cold oven. More hard-boiled eggs, more bread, more margarine, more jam.
After a quiet meal, the pie is packed back in the oven. Eko readies himself for a long walk through city streets exposed to Serb snipers and shells.
The day's biggest adventure and risk - a trip to the drinking water line - is at hand.
r Tomorrow, Part 2.