It's not my war: becoming a peacenik in Sarajevo

Interview with Predrag and Vedrana Ajvazovic

By Metta Spencer

Two days before Christmas, Predrag and Vedrana Ajvazovic immigrated to Canada. They had married two weeks before, but if you had gone to the airport to greet a couple of honeymooners, you wouldn't have picked them out in the crowd. For such a handsome young couple, they seemed less exuberant than seasoned and weary. And no wonder; it is Sarajevo that they are putting behind them.

In Sarajevo they grew up and became friends during their high school and university years, not as a Serb-Muslim couple, but simply young Yugoslavs. Of that era, all that they bring with them are some old photos and mementos, a Turkish coffee pot (required for civilized living), and sturdy affection. They spent two weeks with me, apartment hunting and learning to navigate Toronto's transit system. Despite Predrag's three years in a city under siege, and Vedrana's dangerous visits to him, they have neither nightmares nor enemies, and they don't blame anyone for the war. Predrag attributes their lack of anger to the fact that they did not choose the war option. Had they done so, he would have taken sides and would have plenty of enemies. Instead, he decided right away that "this is not my war" and that he would not fight in it. He pities those who did.

When the war began in Bosnia, Predrag recalls, in November 1991, he was a law student living with his parents in an apartment by the river in the centre of Sarajevo. Vedrana had received her degree as a computer engineer and taken a job in Vienna, but they could still phone each other. She was predicting war. He was not.

Even the national [ethnic] parties were not speaking about war as an option," he said. "In reality all three main parties--Serb Democratic Party, Croat Democratic Community, and the Party of Democratic Action--were preparing for the war. I did not belong to any party so I did not know that they were just waiting for it to commence. There were demonstrations going on, calling for peace. Sarajevans did not believe that the war had actually started for them. Only during the war did my Muslim friends tell me that they were getting weapons from the soldiers then retreating into Bosnia."

Before the war, the Jugoslav National Army (JNA) dug trenches around Sarajevo. The Muslim officers founded the Patriotic League and urged other Muslims to leave the JNA, which consisted thereafter entirely of Serbs. The Muslim soldiersjoined the new Army of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Still, the JNA stayed in Sarajevo even after the war broke out, living in barracks. Besides the JNA, there were the police--the Ministry of Internal Affairs forces, initially neutral. They even patrolled the city jointly, but when the war broke out, 85% of them joined the Serb side and only 15% stayed in the city under government control. There was even a gun battle between the Muslim and Serb Internal Forces inside the city.

As the war started, the government fell apart and various armed groups took power. These volunteer militias would later join their respective ethnic armies. Two months before the war, the Serbians' Democratic Party had quit parliament and moved from Sarajevo to the Serb areas encircling the city.

Four or five days before the war, armed people massed around Sarajevo. They had no experience in using weaponry, though they had been armed for a year. Predrag said, "When the war began, they used the weapons in a horrible overkill fashion. The shelling would start with the Serbs, and the Bosnian government side, wanting to respond, would overdo it. Refugees were coming in. We heard that the villagers were being slaughtered by the Serb troops. I don't know what to believe except what I saw. There were fantastic rumors. People were shown on TV and labeled as scouts who had been sending signals to the other side, pointing out where to shell. I don't know that the Bosnian government condoned these accusations."

Though "this was not his war," Predrag found it hard to stay out of it. Even before it started, he had been called up to serve in both armies, but he ignored the orders and started sleeping away from home, lest the military police come and take him at night. He found a job as a journalist on a magazine published by the Bosnian Railway, because it was supposed to exempt him from military duties. Nevertheless, he was conscripted. Using his connections, he managed to be assigned to a unit that would see little action on the front lines. He did have to go to a military action once, but he managed not really to participate, and he was not hurt. After that, he became even more determined to get out of the military, using any means necessary. His old JNA papers had declared him partially deaf, but fit to serve. Claiming that his hearing was profoundly impaired, he won a discharge to resume work as a journalist in the Muslim side of the city.

Again he lived with his parents in their flat, exactly between the Serb and Muslim lines. Shells now whizzed overhead, and his street was where snipers claimed the most victims. Once his toe was shot.

The only currency in circulation was the old Yugoslav money, which the new government stamped to certify that it had not been brought in from Croatia. Still, people from both sides could not buy what they needed, so they resorted to pillaging. Soon the shops were empty. The worst hunger was between July and September of 1992. Electricity, water, and gas started to fail, and the telephone building was blown up.

Predrag and his father collected edible plants to spice up their plain rice. No one had sown seeds yet, as they did in 1993, when food was growing everywhere. The average person lost 15 kilos--some lost 30. Aid started arriving but at first there were no warehouses and no system of distribution. The Muslim side became completely dependent on U.N. aid. The Serbs were also receiving it, but they also had their own resources.

A person's ration kit would include a kilo of rice and 10 grams of sugar--about half a cup--once or twice a month. Vedrana's aunt stayed in the city for several months living on tea and stale bread, which she toasted.

Pets disappeared. Then there were no trees left because people cut them for fuel. Finally there were no birds, both because their trees were gone and because people ate them--especially the pigeons. Predrag cut a tree with kitchen tools. It took 10 days to cut the damp wood into small pieces and then he had to wait for it to dry. He built a fireplace in his kitchen, with a tube taking the smoke to the balcony. Many people did that.

Yet, ironically, even during the worst period, one florist kept a shop open, somehow selling fresh flowers every day! And the foreign journalists, who lived on the unshelled side of the Holiday Inn, dined very well indeed.

Because the water was polluted, Predrag became sick with hepatitis. His only medicine was B vitamins, plus the water from yogurt, supposedly good for the liver. He could eat cheese, so his father walked to the edge of the city to find people who kept cows and would sell milk at any price.

A month after Predrag recovered, his parents left in the last convoy bound for a Serbian district. People were allowed to leave if they were incapable of military service. At first there were convoysto Slovenia, where people were put up in hotels until finally there were too many. Convoys were stopped in February 1994 after the shelling of the market in Sarajevo. Then, for a time, there was some access to the city by way of the "Blue Road" leading to the sea. Finally the Serbs closed that road and also, intermittently, Sarajevo's airport.

Predrag changed jobs, joining ProjectHope '87, an organization based in Vienna which tries to take care of Sarajevo's 800 war amputees. As their press officer, he accompanied the medical teams on their visits to amputees' homes, photographing their injuries. When some Hope '87 staff came from Vienna, he gave them a letter to forward to Vedrana. Usually their letters traveled three months before arriving, but this one came quickly and Vedrana visited Hope's office. There she saw photos of the amputees, some of whom she recognized as old friends. Since Hope '87 needed someone who spoke Serbo-Croatian, German, and English, they hired her. She joined the next trip in December 1993 to Sarajevo, where she and Predrag met again for the first time in two years.

Vedrana, who had experienced no hardship in Vienna, arrived in Sarajevo on a cargo plane, sitting on the floor among packages, wearing a bullet-proof jacket and helmet. "When you land," she explains, "the doors open and they tell you to run, but you don't know in which direction. The U.N. soldiers are trying to shelter you. Shots come all the time from the Serb side, and you run, but the airport building is damaged. They push you into an armored personnel carrier and drive through the suburb, where all the buildings are destroyed. I was shocked."

She visited Sarajevo six times that year. Once she went to the beautiful flat where she had grown up. Her mother, who owned it, had left everything there when she left. It was unlocked, so Vedrana went in. Someone yelled, "Take off your shoes!" She started to remove her shoes but stopped, realizing that she was in her own home. The new inhabitant coolly told her that the apartment and all its contents now belonged to him and that her mother would never live there again. She asked for a small painting as a souvenir but he would relinquish only her family photographs. She never went there again.

For three years Predrag lived between the Muslim and Serb lines. To go to work every day, he had to avoid snipers. He would climb into a window of the destroyed parliament building next door, and make his way through the ruins to the other side. Most of his Muslim friends were glad he stayed in Sarajevo. Other Muslims were suspicious of him, and so were the Serbs, of course, since he, a Serb, had refused to join their cause. Though the Serbs had far more weapons than the Muslims, each side was shooting at the other. When the (Muslim) Bosnian government could no longer obtain supplies, they dug a tunnel under the airport to bring weapons into the city. Neither the U.N. peacekeepers nor the Serbs knew where the entrances were located.

Predrag hardly speaks about the violence, but Vedrana says he saw friends killed. "It becomes a normal situation," she says, recalling what he has told her. "It is tragic for one hour until you collect yourself. At first you think of how to help if the victim is still alive. And then you start to think of yourself--where to hide. You don't think of that tragedy anymore. You keep on moving because it will happen again in the nexthour. You see such things every day. It becomes normal to see a child's body smashed."

Predrag murmurs, "There was one corpse--a middle-aged woman--in the crossing in the street. I had to walk next to the wall for protection from bullets. I couldn't go near her body, so it stayed there for 10 days. I would rather be killed than wounded because if I were wounded, nobody could come and help me."

Yet Predrag carried on his own fight in a different way: the struggle to adapt. "The only food I had was horrible, so the fight was to manage to eat it, and without salt. I had just one cup of water a day to shave and wash. After you wash dishes, you save the water for the toilet tank. Such conditions become normal."

I was puzzled by Predrag's and Vedrana's calmness. Why were they not bitter and traumatized? Most of the Serbs, Muslims, and Croats in Canada are in a perpetual rage, constantly hating and blaming each other. These two had confidently entered a mixed marriage. In Toronto they quickly found a dozen old friends, couples who also seem to lack rancor. I asked myself: What is the magic source of their tolerance?

Most Sarajevans share their own values, they explained, because their city has always been ethnically mixed. But Serbs, Muslims, and Croatians from mono-cultural enclaves never got to know each other, so are more susceptible to hatred. Vedrana and Predrag said, "Most Yugoslavs have decided they want their states to consist of single nations. We don't want that, so we came to Canada. It's not our war."

Welcome, friends. Welcome to peaceable Canada. I hope.

Metta Spencer is editor of Peace.

Peace Magazine Mar-Apr 1995

Peace Magazine Mar-Apr 1995, page 7. Some rights reserved.

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