AFTER THE WAR: NOTES FROM A BALKAN JOURNEY
by Lyndon Back
The train from Zagreb to Sarajevo, a prewar model, was coming to life, hissing small puffs of steam from its undercarriage. Linked behind it were a couple of beat-up cars. As I dragged my suitcase along beside the train, a middle-aged woman walked ahead of me with a decided limp. She reminded me of a toadstool. She had a small head, brown hair pulled up in a topknot, slightly askew. A tan raincoat almost covered her wide, heavy-looking skirt, and beneath the flare of skirt, two spindly legs grew like stems from her dark, low-heeled shoes. She looked respectable in a carry-everything-you-own-with- you-on-a-trip kind of way.
As I approached, she was trying to heave her two large suitcases up the metal steps onto the train. In addition to the suitcases and her handbag, she struggled to keep several shopping bags from spilling onto the gravel. Roundish, and not very tall, she turned to me in exasperation, and her face had the chalky whiteness of the flesh of a mushroom.
“Can I help?” I asked.
She looked at me suspiciously.
“Do you speak English?” I asked.
She continued staring.
“Is this the train for Sarajevo?” I spoke slowly and gave her my best smile.
“Yes,” she said, in faultless English. “Yes, if we can ever manage to get ourselves on board.”
One of her suitcases teetered precariously on the second step. I reached out to keep it from falling, and soon we were pulling the rest of our luggage up onto the train. The conductor watched impassively. A man was boarding at the next car and didn’t even turn his head.
Their indifference reminded me of why people in Zagreb depressed me. They seemed so self-satisfied, clinging to their European identity with stubborn determination rather than acknowledging their Yugoslavian and Balkan ties. And being a Catholic country, the city closed down on Sunday. I had wanted to visit some of the art shops and ateliers, but banks, grocery stores, book stores, everything was closed. Sunday had been a long, boring day.
As we struggled I thought about how I used to spend Sundays in Zagreb, eating leisurely breakfasts with colleagues, or hiking in the mountains just outside the city. But ten years had passed and it made a difference. I wasn’t that keen on hiking any longer.
I had come back to ex-Yugoslavia to visit friends I’d kept in touch with since the war. After a week on the Dalmatian Coast soaking up the sun, and wandering through upscale tourist shops, I’d fallen in love with the folk art, called “naïf art” by people in the know. I loved the lively paintings, colorful villages and richly embroidered landscapes, so different from the devastated and lifeless scenes I had known when working with a humanitarian aid agency during the war.
The train was already under way as we stumbled into the first empty compartment; we couldn’t lift our suitcases onto the overhead racks, so they took up pretty much all available space. Lela, who introduced herself as we herded our belongings, slid across to the window and stretched out her legs on the suitcases.
“Good, nobody can enter,” she said. She wiggled out of her raincoat, clutching her handbag and arranging her shopping bags around her like lumpy security cushions.
I liked the old European trains where passengers sit facing each other. There is an instant camaraderie, almost an intimacy that develops on a long journey. And this proved to be a very long journey indeed.
Lela started off by explaining that she was traveling to her flat in Sarajevo, which she hadn’t visited for about three months. She also had two flats in Zagreb that she owned with her brother. She hoped to sell one of the flats in Zagreb soon because real estate prices were dropping quickly. This she attributed to the fact that Croatia was being destroyed, a broken country for which she blamed the government that was being run by robbers and the mafia.
Serbia had won the war, Lela maintained, proven by the fact that there were two Serbias, the country itself, and Republika Srpska, the part of Bosnia and Herzegovina governed by the Bosnian Serbs. The Federation, ruled by a coalition of Bosnian Muslims and Bosnian Croats (Catholics) was, according to Lela, ruled secretly by robbers and the mafia. She had a lot to say about robbers and spies and such.
During the next hours, Lela told a long, rambling story about her father, a Serb, a military intelligence officer who had worked in Sarajevo and had taken a flat there during the war.
A spy? I didn’t ask the question out loud.
She had been educated in Belgrade, very well educated. “I speak German, English, and of course Serbian and Croatian.” She paused, her eyes bright with challenge.
I murmured something politely. I wouldn’t win that contest.
She, her mother, and brother and sister moved from Belgrade to Zagreb during the war, while her father was living in Sarajevo. She didn’t say why. They were teased and bullied and accused of being Communists in a country which had become fanatically Catholic under Tudjman during the war. When her father died, about ten years ago, her family had inherited the flat in Sarajevo, but they had never lived there. Her mother had died and her sister as well. Her brother, a successful artist, had moved to Ljubljana, Slovenia, for a while. She wished he had stayed there. Lubljana was a better city, and Slovenia was a better country. But her brother had moved back to “follow his profession.”
I wasn’t sure what that meant.
In addition to being an artist, Lela said her brother also painted sets for the theater. But he had recently had open- heart surgery.
“Oh, that’s too bad,” I said. “What kind of artist is he?”
“He paints landscapes,” she said. “Very successful. Unfortunately, he has been unable to work much lately with his heart problems, health problems,” she added vaguely. She burrowed through one of her shopping bags. “I have one of his cards somewhere.” She pulled a small beaded purse out of her shopping bag, opened it, and handed me a visitor card.
“Here,” and without more explanation, she went on with her story of how she hoped, after selling the flat, to move to Austria, which she said was the only civilized country.
“What do you do?” I asked the question cautiously.
“Oh no, I have never worked, although my father always said I was the most intelligent of his children.” She smiled with satisfaction and dismissed the question with a wave of her hand.
When I remarked at the fallow fields and neglected-looking farms, she said the government had abandoned the peasants. There was no program for rebuilding the food supply. The Catholic Church used propaganda to convince the peasants that God would take care of them. I mentioned that along the coast it was looking prosperous enough, and people there had told me Croatia would soon enter the EU.
Lela didn’t agree. “That won’t happen. The people are fools.” She explained that Croatia wouldn’t be allowed to enter the EU until they complied with the Dayton Peace Accords and enforced the Right of Return for Croatian Serbs who had been ethnically cleansed during the war. “The EU won’t last. It will fall apart. You wait and see. I read The Economist.”
On and on she went. I didn’t say much about myself, only remarking that I had lived and worked in Serbia and Croatia during the war. I didn’t mention any connections with Bosnia, or any of my Bosnian friends. Lela wasn’t interested in my story, anyway. She pushed ahead with her monologue with the steady pace of a long distance runner.
About a half hour outside of Sarajevo a young woman squeezed into our compartment. The train had made many stops along the way, and was so crowded some passengers were standing in the aisle.
“Excuse me,” she began. “Yes, I can find a place.” She couldn’t have been more than early twenties, with pale skin and dark eyes, heavily made up. She had dyed black hair that she twisted around her finger as she talked. Her clothes were shabby: faded blue jeans, a tight long-sleeved shirt, and soft boots. Speaking with a slight lisp and shifting restlessly in her seat, she introduced herself, Jasmina. She grew up in Sarajevo but was born in Brčko, which was badly damaged in the war. Her family had moved to Lubljana during the war, but she was returning to her apartment in Sarajevo, which had been totally sacked, everything gone. “Nothing lives there,” she said with a sad smile. “Nothing but bats.”
Lela nodded as though it was to be expected.
Jasmina was planning to attend the American University and study law. Her parents had agreed to help finance her. A few stations outside of Sarajevo, she got off, and we wished her well, but privately I felt that the challenges to this sad, nervous girl were going to be too much.
When we finally arrived in Sarajevo, it was past 7:00 p.m. Lela warned me about robbers and thieves. Muslims were lazy, terrible, influenced by the Turks, she said. Turks had spies in the city. It was dangerous. I should hide my rings or people would rob me.
I began to feel a little nervous.
As we pushed our bags out into the corridor, two cheerful young men picked them up, carried them down from the train and up to the terminal. Waving off my thanks they disappeared into the night. Lela had no comment.
She refused to take a taxi. “You can’t trust taxi drivers,” she said with finality. So we took a trolley. She had a couple of tokens that she shared with me. We got off just across from the beautiful National Library, shelled during the siege. I noticed it was still under repair, shrouded in some kind of enormous netting. The trolley clanged off, and with the help of a sweet young woman with very bad teeth, we lugged everything across the busy street to my Pansion Vijećnica. The young woman invited us to come by the café where she worked the next day and have a coffee. She told us the name of the café and said as she was leaving, “I’ll be waiting for you.”
After I had checked in, I offered to accompany Lela to her apartment and carry at least one of her bags. She protested, saying she could make two trips, but finally gave in. It was almost dark as we walked through the cobbled streets of Baščaršija, the Turkish section, past the fountain in Sebilj, Pigeon Square. The suitcases we pulled behind us like lumbering pets clicked over the uneven stones. Her anxiety grew.
We followed alleys into narrow passages and hidden courtyards until we reached a small hole in the wall bakery giving off a delicious fragrance of freshly baked bread. Inside the pass-through window which glowed like a beacon in the surrounding darkness, people in white caps and long white aprons spilled crusty rolls and small loaves of bread into trays which they placed on the wide counter. Lela said the place was open twenty-four hours a day and the bread was free. She stuffed a few rolls in her bag and led me back onto a street busy with pedestrians and crowded cafés.
“This is the nicest part of town.” Lela was stating a fact.
I noticed we had left the old part of the city, and now the buildings where larger, more substantial, Austro-Hungarian- looking. Lela hurried along, an anxious, determined look on her face. When we got to her apartment building, she insisted on going around to the back entrance.
“I never let people know when I’m leaving or arriving,” she said.
By this time I was thoroughly uncomfortable, not to mention tired. It was getting late, and I wasn’t sure I could find my way back to my pension.
Lela steered me through the back entrance and up the darkened stairs to the second floor. When we got to her apartment, she sorted through her bags, looking for her keys in separately wrapped pouches. With the many locks undone, she opened the door and I stared into a hallway crammed from floor to ceiling with boxes, furniture and junk.
Lela peered inside. “No one has been here,” she said with obvious relief.
“But how do you get in?” I asked.
“Oh, I have my ways.” Lela smiled a brief, secret smile and waved her hand.
I thought, Maybe she built this edifice to ward off real or imagined marauders.
The apartment was dark.
“Do you have electricity?” I asked. “Heat? Hot water?” I looked into the darkness with foreboding. “A phone?”
Lela seemed irritated by my questions. “Nema problema,” she said.
She shoved her bags into the seemingly impenetrable wall. “Do you know how to get back? I’ll come with you.”
Limping heavily, telling me not to be in such a hurry, she stopped after a few blocks to rest against a stone wall.
“I can find my way from here,” I said, catching sight of the gray shroud of the National Library rising over low rooftops. “Let’s have lunch tomorrow. We could go to the café, what’s the name?”
“Yes, Vera, that would be nice.” She was leaning heavily against the wall. “I enjoyed traveling with you,” she said, and straightened up to go. “I’ll call you tomorrow.”
I watched her tired progress, and then headed gratefully for my room.
After I had unpacked and was in bed trying to fall asleep, Lela’s stories filled my head like a cobweb of false starts. How old was she really? I had thought in her mid-forties, about my age. But if she was in high school during the war, it didn’t add up. That would have been ten years ago, fifteen at the most, making her in her thirties. Why did her family move from Belgrade to Zagreb during the war? That was like moving to enemy territory. What was her father doing in Sarajevo? He was the one person she spoke about with any affection. Was she destitute, or some kind of hoarder? What about her brother? A successful artist? Maybe he supported her. The threads tangled my brain until suddenly I remembered something.
“Oh, where did I put it?” I bolted out of bed. Fumbling for the light, I found my handbag, searching for the visitor card Lela had given me. “Željko Lućić, Umjetnik,” it said. I turned the card over. To my surprise, the address on the back was for the Galerija Naif Art with a street address in both Zagreb and Sarajevo. So, her brother lived in Sarajevo too, or had an address here. I sat for a minute puzzling, and then got back into bed. My last conscious thought was Tomorrow I’ll look him up.
The next morning before leaving to change money and buy a new SIM card, I asked the desk clerk to tell anyone who called or came by that I’d be back around noon. He said he remembered the woman who was with me the night before and would watch out for her. His expression wasn’t exactly approving.
My errands took longer than I had planned. I wandered among the little shops and through the open market, lost in memories. When I got back to my pension, the desk clerk told me no one had called. He had the same disapproving look as before. I wasn’t surprised.
Sasha, whom I had worked with during the war, had invited me to dinner that night. He was the main reason I had come to Sarajevo. Now I had the afternoon free, and I decided to spend it tracking down Lela’s brother Željko.
I handed the visitor card to the desk clerk. “Do you know this address?” I asked.
He studied the card. “I think that street is out in Dobrinje. Yes, I can show you on the map. Here, yes, you take the trolley out to this stop, just past the National Museum. There you get a bus; number six to Dobrinje. Get off here, at Fra Kneževića. You will see a big new Radon Hotel where the bus stops. Nedzarići Street is a few blocks from where you get off. Here it is.”
I followed his finger west from the old city and along the main highway that ran out to the airport. It used to be called “Snipers Alley” during the siege when the Bosnian Serbs controlled the area from the surrounding mountains. Now it was Bulevar Meša Selimovića, after one of Bosnia’s most famous authors.
Before leaving I called Sasha. Hearing his voice, I felt a frisson of excitement. He had been briefly and unforgettably the love of my life. I told him I was spending the afternoon looking for a local artist named Żeljko Lucić. I figured that somebody should know where I was going.
The trolley was easy, and I recognized the Holiday Inn as we passed, now brightly refurbished. Everything had a faintly familiar, but somehow disorienting tinge to it, like I should remember things but didn’t quite. I got off at the Radon Hotel. In a little shop nearby, I stopped for a cheese pie and coffee.
Ten minutes later I was walking down Nedƶarići Street. It was a neighborhood of small houses, unpaved streets with children playing and mothers pushing carriages. Nobody paid much attention to me.
Toward the end of the block, I came to a two-story building with a sign hanging from a post. “Galerija Naif Art.” I walked up the worn brick path to the front door. Nobody was around. I opened the door and entered a center hallway. Everything was silent.
I walked into a small sunlit room. Lining the walls were colorful paintings, some in miniature, others done on a larger scale. I went closer and studied one that caught my eye. It was a snow scene, done in acrylic, the trees in silhouette, their branches delicately curled like gnarled fingers holding mounds of snow. Sturdy peasants in their colorful costumes chopped wood, threw branches on a fire, their homely faces lit by the flames. Just the kind of painting I had been looking for.
I walked around the room entranced, my shoes echoing on the shiny wooden floors, studying each painting, trying to make out the artist’s name. One of the larger paintings, as simple as a child’s, was a farm cottage with a heavy thatched roof and bright pink walls. In the foreground, rows of large, colorful flowers. A peasant woman, wearing a white fringed scarf, leaned over to pick them, her hands like awkward mittens, on her arm a large basket. Lollipop trees and bright red apples dotted the flat landscape behind the cottage. I leaned in for a closer look, and painted in small careful letters in the right hand corner it said Željko Lućić. The price sticker was more than I could afford.
I heard footsteps in the hall and turned.
“Dobar dan, molim vas?” A man stood in the doorway. I thought it must be Željko, and for some reason I blushed like I had been caught robbing the store.
“Dobar dan,” I said. “Izvinite, jasam iz Amerika. . . . Do you speak English?”
“Yes, of course,” the man said with some impatience.
“Oh, that’s wonderful. These paintings are wonderful. I came to see Željko Lućić’s work. I know his sister.”
“You’re American.” It was not a question. “How do you know Lela?”
I told him that I’d met Lela on the train and that I was interested in naïf art. I had worked in Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia during the war and I’d come back to visit friends, see how things had changed.
“And they have changed of course. I was so lucky to meet Lela, otherwise I would never have known about this gallery and about her brother. I love these paintings. They speak of a different time, a more innocent time. . . . Lućić’s work is wonderful.” I stopped, out of gas.
The man was staring at me. He was dressed in jeans and a sports jacket, his shirt open at the neck. His dark hair was graying at the temples, his deep set eyes had a somber, brooding quality.
“Lućić is not here,” he said heavily. “Did Lela tell you he had a heart operation?”
I nodded. “Yes, she did. I hope he is recovering?”
The man shook his head. “No, he is not recovering. And he will not recover. He died this morning. I came in to close the gallery. I’m sorry but you will have to leave.”
His words hit me like a shot. My head jerked backwards.
“Leave? I’m sorry, what? I can’t believe . . . How could this happen? Oh, My God! Does Lela know?”
“No, she doesn’t know.” His voice was harsh.
“But she will be so upset. What will happen? What will she do?”
“This is not your problem.” His voice was cold, even angry.
I had offended him. I had been too enthusiastic, too eager, too American and he was dealing with death.
“No, it isn’t. I’m sorry. You must be a good friend. I want to help. Is there anything I can do?”
He turned away, his hands covering his face, his shoulders heaving. Suddenly I knew. He and Željko were lovers.
He wiped his face with the sleeve of his jacket. “There is something.” Still without looking at me, “You know Lela is rather difficult.”
“Yes, I got that impression. I helped her carry her bags to her apartment.”
He looked surprised. “You saw her flat?”
“Well not exactly. I couldn’t squeeze in. Nobody could.”
For the first time he smiled. “My name is Aleksandar. Excuse me for not introducing myself. I was not expecting visitors.”
He was looking at me now, assessing. With an intake of breath he said, “Yes, there is something. Will you wait while I close? If you’ll allow me to drive you to Lela’s flat, we might find her there, or we can leave a note. Perhaps you could be with her, comfort her. She has not many friends.”
And that’s how it happened.
While he locked the doors and went into the back, I waited outside. It wasn’t what I had expected, but I had turned up at the right time. I could be a help and already I could piece together more of the puzzle. I had seen Željko’s work and now I was determined to know the whole story. Perhaps I could even take one of his brilliant paintings home with me.
Lyndon Back worked in ex-Yugoslavia during the war. In 2010, she returned to visit friends and colleagues. “Balloon Head,” the first in a series of short stories set in ex-Yugoslavia, appeared in the January 2015 issue of Forge. Her poems, articles, and book reviews have been published in Friends Journal, Pendle Hill Publications, Quaker History Journal, First Day, and Poetry Ink 2013. Lyndon serves as clerk of membership for the Nobel Peace Prize Group of the American Friends Service Committee.
Photo: Sarajevo’s famous Pigeon Square