Ex-Yugoslav writer Miljenko Jergović shares a stark and poignant first-person account of the Siege of Sarajevo, 30 years after what became the longest siege in modern history, lasting 1,425 days.
In the first week of war, an 82mm mortar shell hit our garden and exploded in the crown of a cherry tree. Our façade was riddled with shrapnel, there were shards of broken mirror on the dressing table—seven years of bad luck that don’t seem like much now. But as I listened to the first bursts and blasts at dawn on April 5, I wasn’t yet familiar with the acoustics of my city. And I hadn’t learned to count the whistle, didn’t know that those you heard couldn’t kill you. The whistle of the shell that will kill you is always heard by someone else. The whistle is the sound for the ears of the spared
Over the following days and months, I taught myself the sounds of weapons, their discharge and their projectiles’ impact. Mortar bombs, 60mm, 82mm and 120mm. Howitzer shells, 155mm, tank and cannon rounds. The solitary sniper shot, often from the vintage M-48 rifle. Or a more modern one, procured in the West. The detonation of an 82mm mortar shell down in the city, or on our hill, or on the next one. An explosion close by, followed by another a few dozen meters away, and immediately after, the patter of summer raindrops on the tree crowns in an orchard—the shower of shrapnel. To this day I feel uneasy when summer rain starts
And so what I desperately tried to do in the subsequent months and years was to preserve that Sarajevo of mine, save it from the nocturnal heist that took place just before the dawn on April 5, 1992. In a way, that’s the most intense identity reflex I’ve ever had in my life. It took me a long time, maybe all of these last thirty years, to learn to live as a foreigner, even in my own language, in my own country.