Riding With a Bosnian Soldier
By Shane Hallengren '11
Shane’s piece from Travel Writing didn’t have a particular assignment other than the general requirement of essays in the class to be about time spent in another culture. Shane handles the history and description of Sarajevo deftly, but it’s his sketch of Ilija, the ordinary and extraordinary housing manager for the US Embassy, that is the heart of this essay about Bosnia after the war.
For the past six years, my father has worked for the U.S. Foreign Services, providing aid to developing nations. It is a position that has moved him around the globe, from Nicaragua to Bosnia Herzegovina to Thailand. During 2009 he was living in Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia Herzegovina. It is a city of complexities: religiously, ideologically and culturally. It is a place where the old world meets the developed world, where Europe meets the Middle East. Walking the downtown streets takes you through a modern European shopping center with clothing shops, cafes, bars, and tech shops. But within a few hundred feet the smooth sidewalks break up into rough-lain cobblestones, and the modern European city gives itself up to an old Turkish village. At meal times, the whole place smells of ćevapi, a Bosnian dish of mixed-meat sausages and pita bread. The doughy smell permeates the packed-together shops of old-town Sarajevo, which sell traditional Bosnian scarves and jewelry, hand-wrought copper ware, and Ottoman rugs.
And, of course, the city is a religious grab bag. Downtown, within a few hundred feet of each other stand cathedrals of the Orthodox and Catholic churches as well as one of the oldest mosques outside of the Middle East. It is this religious trifecta, which traditionally coexisted peacefully, that was torn apart and used to bring the city to war from 1992 to 1996. After Yugoslavia began to fall apart following the death of Tito, the nationalist movements that had been suppressed for so long erupted, and Bosnia Herzegovina declared independence from Yugoslavia in 1992. This threw the country into civil war; ethnic Serbs fought the Muslim Bosniaks for control of the region. Forces from the Republic of Srpska, one of Bosnia Herzegovina’s political entities, attacked Sarajevo for the longest siege on a European capital in modern history.
I was vaguely aware of these facts in the summer of 2009 as I arrived in Sarajevo for the second time. Having been there before, I had seen the hills from which the Serbs had lobbed shells and unleashed sniper fire onto the city. I had even seen the bullet holes covering the city’s buildings, and felt I had grasped a sense of resiliency the city used to deal with this part of its history. This summer I was just looking for an internship, a way to make some money and to bolster my resume while seeing parts of Southeast Europe. My dad had been able to arrange a position working as a summer intern with the embassy. I was assigned to the Management Department, working to provide services to the embassy community.
My first day, I presented my badge to the guard outside one of the embassy’s subsidiary buildings in the city. He cleared me through into the compound. I looked up the towering eight-story glass face of the building. It seemed out of place in the city, most of the buildings of this height in Sarajevo had the impersonal look of communist bloc housing. This building was impersonal in a different way: it was a clinical feeling of polished glass and metal framing in a city of concrete, stone, and fog. I walked through the door and flashed my badge again to get into the elevator, hitting the button to take me to the fourth floor.
The doors opened onto a small open lobby. The fluorescent lights inside were a harsh change from the gray, overcast light outside. I blinked at the difference and found myself in a room arranged with a couple of couches and an assortment of office equipment around the walls. There were doors regularly spaced along the walls of the lobby, leading into offices. I walked into the first office on my right, as my dad had told me to.
“Hi, I’m Shane. I’m starting my internship today,” I said to the man sitting behind the desk. He jumped up. “Yes, you are Mr. Hallengren’s son,” he replied in a thick Bosnian accent. His voice wasn’t deep, but the accent gave it a heavy quality, and he spoke slowly, as if he were considering his words carefully. The accent had always sounded Russian to me, with subtly rolled R’s and carefully rounded syllables and a quality that made it seem all the sounds were formed farther back in the mouth than was necessary. “My name is Ilija,” the man finished as he grasped my hand. He was a tall man, I was staring at his chin as he stood across from me, but he had long, smooth limbs and an ease to his movements that made him very approachable. His smile showed that one of his front teeth was slowly darkening with decay and his hairline had receded into male-pattern baldness.
Ilija was one of many Foreign Service Nationals who the embassy hired for various non-classified jobs in the mission. He was in charge of embassy housing and property management. The U.S. government leases houses across the city for the use of embassy employees, and Ilija was the contact for landlords or tenants, who couldn’t overcome the language barrier. He also prepared houses for turnover as one family left and the next came in on a new assignment.
“Would you like to do some paperwork this morning?” he asked me. I told him I would be happy to whatever he had for me. After finding me a desk, Ilija explained that the department needed second copies of all the leasing contracts. I needed to remove the originals from their folders and make sure they were in order before scanning them to a hard drive and printing a new copy. When he had finished giving me my task, he looked at me, “After lunch you will come with me to see houses.” There was an upward inflection over the last two words, so I knew it was a question. “Yeah, sounds great,” I responded, knowing how badly I would want out of the building after a morning with the lease contracts.
That afternoon Ilija and I got into a white Renault, left the building compound and headed into the city. Ilija kept a constant commentary as we passed landmarks in the city, places that he knew through work, or things he thought I might be interested in. He pointed out some apartments the embassy leased and drove me past his own home. We passed a building across from the river, an old concrete place with bullet holes pocking the exterior walls. “The owner wanted to rent us a unit there, but it is too small. They do not know that Americans like big things,” He said, giving me a knowing look.
We continued along the river. “That is where First World War started,” he said with a nod towards a bridge, raising both eyebrows, as if he expected disbelief on my part. But I knew enough to know that the Latin Bridge was where the Austro-Hungarian Archduke Ferdinand had been assassinated, throwing Europe into war.
Ilija was always friendly with his comments. He didn’t condescend to me, but pointed out things he thought I might be interested it: the reconstruction progress at the public library, the university, a few bars frequented by people my age. We pulled off the busy road by the river and hit the hills surrounding downtown. We climbed up into the sprawling neighborhoods of red-roofed houses and trees became more regular along the road. He slowed in front of a house busy with activity. It was big by Bosnian standard; this far away from the city center things had spread out enough to allow for larger homes. Instead of spreading vertically with more stories, there was room for the building to sprawl across the property, making it look almost like an American ranch house. Boxes were stacked outside and heavy Bosnian men packed them into a waiting truck. “This house with kind of green façade is ours. They will be moving next week.”
We stopped and spent about an hour recording the damages to the house. A crack in a window, water damage around the shower. We wrote the information down, and prepared a work order for repairs. We left the house in the opposite direction we had come from, looping around the busy city center to avoid the traffic. These homes were even less tightly packed together, and at points we passed by large swatches of heavy deciduous trees. We were nearing the top of the hills that surround Sarajevo.
We passed an open patch of land, bare of both buildings and trees. The unkempt grass climbed the hill and met a rocky cliff falling out of the forest above. “That is where my sister was shot,” he said as if he were still commenting on houses. I tensed, not knowing how to react. “It was during Bosnian war. She was just young girl at the time. Both my sisters snuck out of the house to go sledding one night in winter.” I knew this must have been dangerous; snipers and other gunman had surrounded the city during the siege. People had run from building to building to eliminate the time they were exposed to gunfire. The hillside was conspicuously open, and the trees would have been great cover for soldiers. Even at night and even as children it would have been dangerous to be out here.
“They walked here from our home, about one kilometer away. They got here and started sledding for one half hour, when the youngest one got shot in the leg.” I could see the scene. Slow snow falling in big flakes, adding to the blanket of soft powder already on the ground. The night would be lit by a big moon and bright stars. The buildings of the city would be dark. The girls would have tried to be quiet, but would still laugh in the cold night air. They gave themselves away. And the gunshot would have broken the scene like a rock shattering glass, cracking the stillness for an instant and leaving it in quiet ruin, with the peacefulness trying to reestablish itself around the fringes of the scene. The bullet snapped through her layers of clothing and dug into her thigh, spilling blood into the thick snow, the red thirstily drinking up the white stuff, staining it. “They just fired once. And then my sisters hobbled back to our home. My sister lived, but they had to take her leg.” He finished in the same casual tone as we drove back towards the more populated neighborhoods.
I wasn’t sure what to say. At home you aren’t supposed to talk to people about their experiences with war. They have bad memories and PTSD that haunts them for their entire lives. All of my past experiences and my supposed knowledge of respect had told me not to bring up somebody’s experience in war. America is a place where we respect people who have seen wars, but we do so quietly, unobtrusively. We honor the people who have suffered for our country with parades and beer commercials and presidential recognitions. We display them in front of the nation without prying into the knowledge they had gained in the war. War teaches people how to watch a friend die, what it looks like when the mechanisms of war destroy bodies and building. They have experience seeing the world around them thrust into the turmoil of insanity, while they are expected to resist its grip. We honor them by not forcing them to recall that knowledge. We respect them by giving them the opportunity to forget. I didn’t know how the Bosnians handled their experience with the siege.
“That’s awful, “ I said noncommittally.
“It was the war,” he responded, the tone of his Bosnian accent remaining level, stating a simple fact. “This building is where we go next.” We stopped at the next house and Ilija talked to some contracted laborers about the needed repairs. I thought about my own father, a veteran of the first Gulf War. In my entire life I had heard only a handful of stories about his time in the Middle East, and even those I suspected were censored for me. It’s a topic I wouldn’t push with him.
When we got back into the car and headed towards the embassy, Ilija turned on the radio. Bosnian music is an interesting mix of Western and Eastern pop. The male singer was moving nimbly through the bars of his song and Ilija tapped the beat out on the steering wheel. “I love music,” he said, mostly to fill the silence I think. “During Bosnian War I worked at radio station, for free of course. After my military duties during the day, I would go work there. The music was relaxing.”
I hadn’t realized Ilija had been a soldier. It must have been a hard road to walk. The Serb forces had taken shots at anybody they could get in their sights. They had obviously opened fire on Ilija’s sister. The forces that the Bosnian government were able to pull together in the siege were underequipped and unable to take much action anyway, the Serbs had the high ground and the strategic advantage.
But after a day of patrolling the city, helping wounded civilians and praying that he would not be shot himself, Ilija walked into a radio station. He would have been tired, eyes burning with the day’s effort. He would have picked songs he knew well, things from his childhood that were soothing. The control room would have been dark; a brightened window in a dark city is an easy target for a sniper or an RPG launcher. So the blinking red and green status lights from the radio mixer would have lit the dark room, the light filling just enough space for Ilija’s face to be illuminated in the alternating colors. He would put his worn boots up on the panel and close his eyes, letting the music relax him.