Original photograph by Dijana Muminovic
It was last summer. My mother and I were in a stuffy red car, driving to the oldest part of the medieval Bosnian city of Sarajevo. Tired, I leaned my head against the window and stared at the confusing contrast of half-ruined buildings and glittering modern hotels.
“How long will it take to get there?” I asked, yawning.
“About half an hour.”
My summer had been basically uneventful, with a few exceptions like this drive to the city. We had left my brother, sister, and father with the majstore (plumbers) at our house. My mother had suggested going to the city to stock up on somune (flatbread).
As we arrived at the bakery, I noticed my mother’s face fall. The bakery, in operation since before the war, was on a street that she had freely roamed as a child. She parked and wildly looked around at these familiar surroundings, murmuring, “I wonder if the same people live here.”
The bakery was fragrant and warm. A large open fireplace flickered at the center, drawing attention to its hand-crafted engravings on rustic stones. In front of it stood rows of stands with steaming breads.
My mother searched people’s faces, half worried and half anxious, but her shoulders fell again when she did not recognize anyone. Suddenly she turned and winked at me, whispering, “It was even bigger and better when I was your age.”
Anxious to return home, I nodded. She painstakingly chose what she needed. When we got back in the car, she asked sadly, “Would you mind if we drove by my house?” My heart lurched–I knew the sadness of it would return – I nodded, now melancholy.
The car’s wheels hit the stone street, causing a sudden bump! She pushed on the gas and the car trudged up the hill where her old home was.
“Look. See that red house?” she spoke quickly.
“That’s my old boyfriend’s house. He was a Serb.”
“Oh. What happened to him?”
“He married some lady. I liked him once, you know. It was really gross – He was ugly, like a slug.”
I grimaced, not wishing to think of this image.
“Look over there. See that boarded up house?”
A now-tilting house stood to the left. Kittens prowled the yard. Strangely, the house was neon pink.
“An old guy lived there. He shot himself in the leg so he wouldn’t have to go to the front when he was drafted.”
My eyes widened with shock.
“Everyone knew what he had done,” she said contemptuously. The car continued up the hill.
“That house with the boarded wooden gate? With the paper stapled on it? Right over there ….”
I nodded, noticing the houses were stacked closely with wooden gates covered in open-mouthed lions. With the cobblestone streets, it looked medieval and haunted.
She began to cry.
“What’s wrong?” I asked, alarmed.
“My best friend lived there. She is the one I still talk to on Facebook. The one who lives in Australia. She took care of me just like a sister….”
Farther up, her eyes began to flow with tears again.
“See, the house with the roses and the broken windows? With the large oak doors? That was Halida’s.”
I felt my heart drop. Halida was my great-grandmother, murdered on the street while waiting in line for bread to take to her starving family.
I spied the bright pink roses, imagining my young mother playing with them and helping Halida choose sweet-smelling trees. She had once told me that whenever she was in trouble, she hid under her grandmother’s long skirts, while Halida would take the stings of the sharp stick that my mother’s mother used whenever children were naughty.
I shuddered, feeling the uneasy ghostliness that loomed in the empty street. My mother’s sobs became louder.
“What’s wrong?!” I asked, near tears myself.
She slowed the car. “That alleyway…. ”
I wildly looked.
“My friend’s brother…fell dead…shrapnel…I saw him die there on the street…He was lying in her lap as his brains spilled…I saw him die,” she sobbed.
Tears filled my eyes and I sighed. The car creaked, straining to pull us to the top. She continued to cry, clutching the wheel. And there it was. The broken, old two-story home that once was hers. We passed the small “cupboard” room (our family joked that she was the Harry Potter of the family) and she winced, straining to spy any lost relics.
Silence followed, and the car released itself down the hill. She wiped her tears and looked apologetically at me.
“I’m sorry. I had to see it.”
I leaned my head against the window.
“I know, Mama. I understand.”