A Family Sustains Its Warmth Under Fire

WAR-TORN Sarajevo is a place where even a simple task like fetching water is risky. But the resilient Kaljanac family finds ways to survive and to make time for laughter and love. Second of two parts.

WITH the family's stale spinach pie - today's breakfast, lunch, and dinner - stored in the oven and his sons ready to concoct a makeshift bomb shelter out of sofa cushions, Eko Kaljanac leaves home for the most dangerous part of his day in Sarajevo: a trip to the water line.

As he heads down the street of a city besieged, slowly moving toward an area with Serb snipers, Eko stops to say hello to Fahro Porca, a friend in jeans and a stylish T-shirt who has only one arm; the other was blown off during heavy fighting in 1992.

A little farther, another friend in an Audi slows down to chat. As the car pulls away, Eko explains that the man, Sakib Bektic, took out a Serb bunker in honor of Eko after Eko was wounded. Sakib also lost a leg in battle.

Eko ambles on, cracking jokes to anyone who will listen as he enters the sniping zone.

Just before crossing the Bosna River in downtown Sarajevo, Eko passes the spot where a young Serb, Gavrilo Princip, shot Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914 and sparked World War I.

A communist-era museum commemorating the incident has been gutted by gunfire. A vandal with a flair for the dramatic has stolen the marker where the assassin allegedly stood.

As he crosses the bridge, Eko pays little heed to the fact that snipers have a clean shot at him. His only precaution is to take a different route each day, thinking somehow his risks are lower.

A shot rings out as he passes a UN post where French soldiers are erecting new barricades. "They keep trying to put more things around themselves," he quips, "to save their own [skins]."

He passes a group of five Bosnian government soldiers toting rifles, full backpacks, and sleeping bags. "They are preparing us for something," one of them shouts. "Good luck," Eko says back.

Twenty minutes into his journey, he arrives at a government-run water-collection site inside an old storefront where empty American grain sacks have been turned into sand bags and stacked against windows. Throughout the city's three-year siege, Eko explains, water lines have been frequent targets of Bosnian Serb artillery.

Inside, dozens of people jostle for position in front of three spigots in a small, dark room. The smell of mildew fills the air.

A cross-section of the city's residents waits for precious water they use to cook, wash their clothes, and flush their toilets. Weary looks fill the faces of old men in bland, ill-fitting clothes, soldiers in uniform, middle-aged housewives in sweat pants, and teenagers in cut-offs.

The front of the building is clogged with makeshift carts. A wheelbarrow filled with plastic water jugs, a reinforced flight-attendants' luggage cart, and a modified baby carriage wait for their inventors.

Inside, tempers flare as the line lengthens. An elderly woman mutters "I'm fed up with this," and cuts in line. A man confronts her, a shouting match erupts, and angry words echo off the walls.

Eko fills his 10 oddly shaped two-gallon containers quickly, fearing someone may steal the new cart he has built out of a metal supermarket shelf, wheels from an old dolly, and handlebars from a bike. On days when his wife washes clothes or his sons take their once-a-week bath, he makes two trips to the water line.

Eko begins the long walk home: Back through the bombed- out streets, through the sniping area, and up the steep hill leading to his house. As he enters the driveway, machine-gun fire rings out from the front lines. He doesn't even flinch.

Jasmina, Eko's wife, has returned from work as a waitress. She quickly tells Eko that Tarik, leaning out the family's first floor window, has just poured coffee on the head of their mentally ill downstairs neighbor. When asked why he did it, Tarik shouts, "because I wanted to."

Dressed in purple sweat pants and a long, pink Mickey Mouse T-shirt, Jasmina's deep voice and easy laugh seems to have a soothing effect on Eko and the children. A heavy dose of mascara accentuates her brown eyes and her brown hair is dyed red.

Jasmina's $250-a-month job at a privately-run cafe is a gold mine for the family. It pays well by Sarajevo standards and leftovers from the restaurant allow her sons to eat meat and yogurt - and occasionally even milk - once or twice a week. But apples and oranges remain an expensive luxury the family can only afford once every two weeks.

Eko and Jasmina talk about Tarik in worried tones. "Every time he fights someone, he always has to fight to the end," Jasmina says, as she gently rubs her foot against her husband's calf. "He always has to get the last punch in."

They chat about Eko's brother, who was wounded on the front line 10 days ago, wondering whether a care package they scraped together for him made it to his room. Of the four boys in Eko's family, three are soldiers, and two have been wounded.

Occasionally looking out the window to check on the children in the yard, peals of deep laughter burst from her throat as she listens to Eko make up wild stories about his day. The two, who met in a Sarajevo discotheque in 1978, laugh easily together.

Flies buzz around the center of the room. Afternoon slowly stretches into evening. A shell explodes on a nearby hillside.

"Every day is the same," Eko says. "What is Saturday? What is Sunday? I don't even know what day today is."

Haris bursts through the door, shouting to his father that a boy who owns the neighborhood's only Ping-Pong ball has returned after stomping away in a huff. Later, another commotion erupts in the yard. Tarik is in the neighbor's garden, picking vegetables.

Eko rolls his eyes and tells a story about work. A few nights ago, a Serb on the other side of the front line tried to lure him into a conversation. The Serb mocked him by using the name of the late Bosnian foreign minister, Ifran Ljubjankic, who was killed last month. "The [Serb] said 'Come on Ifran, come on Ifran, say something," Eko said. " 'Come on you little, stupid Muslims, let me hear you.' "

Suddenly, air raid sirens sound. A terrified neighbor appears, scoops up her five-year-old daughter, and sprints inside. Ekobellows out the window for Haris and Tarik to run inside.

As they wait for shelling to start, the mischievous Tarik cuddles with his father. "He's a gangster," Eko says, half-jokingly. "He's going to be Al Capone. Sing-Sing [prison] is the mother he needs."

The shelling never comes. More spinach pie is offered for dinner, more hard-boiled eggs, more bread, more margarine.

The sun sets and the soft light filling the room fades. Jasmina washes dishes by candlelight, carefully conserving water. She starts a fire in the wood stove to begin the two-hour-long process of cooking beans.

Haris gets in his pajamas and dutifully unfolds the sofa bed. The sleeping bags are readied for a possible trip to the shelter next door. A shot rings out from the hills above the dark city.

As Tarik puts his pajamas on, a shell lands close to the house with a tremendous blast. Jasmina hugs her chest, the boys scurry into the bedroom, and a look of fear spreads across Eko's face for the first time in the day.

As the boys huddle together in the bedroom, a deep sadness spreads across Eko's face. "They are behaving like animals do when they are in danger," he says. "They hide together."

A few minutes later, the phone rings. Eko's military police unit wants him to report for duty early tonight. Jasmina lies and says he is not home. She calls the wife of another military policeman and finds out that the entire unit is being called in early. New fighting may have erupted, she says.

The two boys watch as their father puts his uniform on. Jasmina sits in the family room, her arms across her stomach, gently rocking back and forth as she stares blankly out the window.

Eko emerges from the bedroom and walks to the door. Good-byes are said quickly. Jasmina's eyes are still blank. Eko crosses the yard, and Amela, the downstairs neighbor, begins shouting profanities.

He then pulls a black knit cap over his head, and his face seems to disappear. As he heads down the street he mutters goodbye to this reporter.

Eko and his garden, his smile, and his jokes, disappear into the darkness. Another faceless soldier, on another night of grinding siege, dreading another random bullet.

* Part 1 appeared yesterday.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to A Family Sustains Its Warmth Under Fire
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today