You could all but hear camera shutters clicking, preserving Bosnia and the country to which it belonged—Yugoslavia—if not in photographs then in someone’s mind’s eye. Click. See, we all got along, Muslim, Croat, and Serb. Click.
Our town had a mosque, but it also had an Orthodox cathedral; we weren’t religious, but we’d feast to celebrate the Muslim holiday of Bayram or the Serb holiday of Petrovdan; everyone went to Christmas Eve mass at the cathedral. Click. Click.
See, we spent the summers at Croatia’s beaches along the turquoise-hued Adriatic, the winters skiing the rugged mountains of Slovenia, visited Sarajevo to idle away the hours in cafés in the old Turkish quarter, went to the opera or the museums in Belgrade. Click.
We were communists, but we experimented with capitalism; here we are in front of our holiday home, our vikendica, which we built from the money we earned working in Munich. We were open to the West; we crossed to Trieste, Italy, to buy our clothes, and look: Here are the photos of us all hosting international tourists at the 1984 Winter Olympics in Sarajevo. Click.
This was the world in which the Bosnian families I came to know had once lived. In fact, it was the only world they knew. Yugoslavia’s leader, wartime resistance hero Josip Broz Tito, had governed the country from 1945 until his death in 1980. Under his rule, being Yugoslav mattered more than one’s ethnic origin, than being Muslim, Croat, or Serb. Suddenly, within a few years of Tito’s death, everything that happened to people depended on their ethnicity.
The Key to My Neighbor’s House: Seeking Justice in Bosnia and Rwanda*
by Elizabeth Neuffer
Learn to eat breakfast again. Cook coffee on the stove every morning. Read and read a lot. Spend time at home; in silence and solitude. Go for walks whenever you can. Cook soups and bake zucchini bread. Purge your living space. Hang the tealights again. Replace all the light bulbs around the apartment; winter is going be dark enough just by itself. Pre-order Janet Fitch’s upcoming book. Drink copious amounts of ginger tea. Return to the sea. Write about the cities you’ve been to. Write. You are ready. Spend time at home; in silence and solitude. Leave your phone on airplane mode. Travel: book more flights, jump on a train, just go. Eat less, drink less. Improve your sleeping habits. Say no more often. Practice mindfulness (you haven’t been and it shows). Feel what you need to feel; then let it go.
Week one, day two.
Time doesn’t flow for me the same way anymore. Everything has changed. I make lists in my head; little numbers. How do you measure grief?
The weekend stretched on endlessly. It took a lot of wine, cigarettes, and two movies at a cinema to survive until Monday. But then again. I’ve aged in the meantime. There’s new gray hair as proof. It’s only been five days — how is that possible? I can hear the seconds clicking; time moving so slowly it’s thick as a pot of hot semolina. It’s been two years since a dinner at Mama Africa; I find myself craving it these days. And I know what’d he say, too.
Slow, and heavy. Absent-minded, ambivalent. Even the slightest smile hurts. And yet — everything is okay. I am okay. It’s just that I’d forgotten what it feels like when no one else is affected as much as you are. The betrayal of that feeling. When you are an island in the middle of the ocean. Must keep swimming. Grief is like the sea. I need to learn to navigate the waves of it just the same. It’s not like before. Nothing is. I am starting from scratch. Back to square one.
You give me miles and miles of mountains
And I’ll ask for the sea*
I miss the sea; I miss the sea because it teaches me. Sleeping in the fresh salty air, under the stars, being awoken by the sun each morning. And the waves of the open sea that are life affirming. In comparison, my days feel like a warm swamp now.
The freedom. But what is freedom without a price to pay?