When a mortar explodes in the street it leaves a unique pattern on the ground. The concrete scars look like pressed flowers. We call them Sarajevo Roses.
A fresh bouquet was left for us this morning. I stepped around them when I came back from the Holiday Inn, where we go to make a few phone calls, or to pick up and send FAXs to our various friends. These days, it’s our only form of communication with anyone outside the city.
In the relative protection of our underground café, I share a letter sent to us from our friends on the enemy side, those who maintain B92, Radio Free Beograd. They write that the snipers in the hills surrounding our beautiful city of collapse and ruin get paid per target. Extra for children. One sniper who was interviewed by a French reporter—rebroadcast on B92—told of how he relished seeing the expression on a mother’s face when her daughter, standing next to her, is shot.
It’s important to be proud of one’s work—to hold to one’s convictions—even in the face of disputes to the contrary. And even in these troubling and difficult times, it is reassuring to know there is job security in Sarajevean Snipering. So many of us still remain here to be the intended targets in these circus games. We stay, continuing with our daily rounds of Bosnian Roulette in our attempts to get water from the only remaining spigot in the city. Occasionally, due to boredom steeped in repetition, we set up other contests to pass the time competing with the snipers in the hills.
One street corner in particular is a favorite arcade for the sharp-shooters. Anyone crossing the river and coming into town on a trek for water—or trying to sneak out of the city before this tournament is over—has to pass through this crossroad. Quite a rewarding site for the proud snipers who are paid per head; extra for kids.
It was Plamen’s idea really, though he’d never admit to it. That haggard old grump likes to claim that he doesn’t care about anyone or anything anymore. Plamen’s older than the rest of us, like a grandfather who’s wise and sharp and funny. Used to always have dirt under his fingernails from digging in a flowerbed he tended on the roof of his apartment. Born in Beograd, he’s lived in Sarajevo since he was four or five. He’s over 70 now. A landscape of creased flesh and dark eyes, he smiles, yellowed teeth between the missing gaps. He’s lost almost everything he’s ever held dear; children, wife, friends, city. Yet he has never ceased counsel with the better angels of his nature.
He’d been collecting the linens for weeks now. To some, it may look cold and peculiar for this old man to go sorting through the rubble of someone’s bombed-out home and walk away with their bed-sheets. But since, from most vantage points, Plamen is a crazy old man, no one says anything to the contrary. In an insane situation, it is perfectly natural to display behavior that would at other times be considered utterly deranged. Besides that, say those who knew him from that distant Utopian time of “Before the Siege,” Plamen had been to the United States. As if that alone explained something fundamental about him.
Twenty-five and some years ago, Plamen went on holiday in the U.S. He travelled to that fabled land called California, returning with fantastic tales of music and girls and drugs. Certainly, he brought back evidence of the incredible music—miscellaneous LP records—and, to some, his behavior gave credence to his stories of rampant drug parities, but his exotic telling of seductive girls had to be taken completely on faith as no proof was evident. Plamen, you see, wanted to be a beatnik, and in Communist Jugoslavia, he was about as close as anyone had ever come to a poetic bohemian.
He collected the bed-sheets for a specific purpose, and encouraged others to do the same. “Bring them down to the café,” he told everyone. Then, from the former candle shop next door, he scavenged an assortment of dyes. The buckets he needed for his surreptitious plan were plentiful; empty containers lay everywhere. The difficulty was in finding those without bullet holes.
When he had enough bed-sheets, Plamen asked as many people as possible to help, we were a little surprised at how many actually showed up at our little café. Each hauling a hesitant smile and a headful of curiosity. In the darkness of this urban war-zone, that old self-proclaimed hippie graced everyone with a night of joyful diversion. Several dozen of us spent all night tie-dying bed-sheets.
In the last hours before dawn, we’d dyed twenty, thirty sheets in an incredible array of colors, and even though most of them were still wet, we tied them together to make two huge quilts. They looked like motley flags of some tattered nation.
Plamen pulled a few of us aside and told us that we had to take the tapestries to the top floor of the building on the corner of Kulovića street.
Climbing the stairs, we gasped for breath under the weight of so much damp linen (for none of us are as fit as we used to be back when when could eat everyday), and I almost wanted to curse Plamen asking us make this climb. But when we arrived at the top floor and looked out through the fragmented glass remaining in the window openings, we saw what he had intended all along.
Plamen had been there previously, and strung cable across from one building to the other. It turned out that in the bygone days long before the Siege he worked for the television station as an antenna installer. He still had tools and metal cables. Plamen rigged a pulley in one building and an anchor in the one across the street. A double-line of cable ran between them. Tying the bed-sheets to the coiled metal wire, we pulled them out the window until and they hung between the buildings, bright-colored sails thirty meters high, blinding the view from the hills of the pedestrian walkway below; reducing the sniper’s profit margin to nothing.
The centerpiece of the quilt blinder was an old souvenir from Plamen’s journey in the mythic ’60s, to that fairy-tale land known as San Francisco. A red, white, and blue tapestry of a skull with a lightning bolt across its cranium; an emblem of the Grateful Dead. He told us the icon is called “Steal Your Face.”
We laughed ourselves to tears.
I do not know if the dead in Sarajevo are grateful or not. But at least they no longer suffer through the redundant funerary games of hunger and snipers and land-mines. As for the living—we walked across Kulovića street in the shadow and temporary protection of the bed-sheet tapestry, offering gratitude in every step.
Plamen was no longer around to see it. He lingered too long on an early morning water run, losing today’s game of Bosnian Roulette. We joke that since he was an old man, the sniper didn’t get paid very much.
Every Spring, in years past, Plamen planted flowers in his tiny rooftop garden.
Roses were always his favorite.
West Yellowstone, 2004
An account of the actual event upon which this story is based can be found in Sarajevo: A War Journal by Zlatko Dizdarević, reprinted below.
1st Place June 2009
—Press 53 Short-Short Story Award
3rd Place February 2008
—Writer’s Digest Magazine Short-Short Story Contest
“‘Sarajevo Roses’ manages to evoke the war in Bosnia while painting on a very small canvas, and to mix the bitter with the sweet in a perfect distillation. Further, the story manages to portray the essential human need to stand and be counted even in the worst of times.”
—Scott Yarbrough, Judge’s Response, Press 53 Open Awards
“My favorite prose offering was ‘Sarajevo Roses’ by Kirk Barrett, the winner of the short-short story prize. It concerns a battle for this former Yugoslavian town and is told with grim realism: ‘They write that the snipers in the hills surrounding our beautiful city of collapse and ruin get paid per target. Extra for children. One sniper who was interviewed by a French reporter – rebroadcast on B92 – told of how he relished seeing the expression on a mother’s face when her daughter, standing next to her, is shot.’ The author manages to inject sardonic humor also, and one of the main characters is a 70-plus year-old man who likes to collect bed sheets. Why? That’s the focus of the story.”
—Henry F. Tonn, NewPages Book Reviews; January 2009
“Great story … in a very unusual and captivating voice.”
—Manuscript Editor, Remembrances of Wars Past Anthology, edited by Henry F. Tonn
“I teared up several times reading your story. I will never think of Sarajevo or the war with out remembering Plamen and his tied-dye [sic] sheets. One day in the future, surely in the next few years– I won’t even recall that you wrote that, I will think that was what happened.”
—email from a Sarajevan who survived the siege
Sarajevans Blind A Sniper
by Zlatko Dizdarević
It isn’t easy to decide who wages the more dangerous and bloody war in the streets of Sarajevo: those who try their damnedest to turn this city into a distant memory, or those who oppose the annihilation with all their might, who refuse to die or disappear. Yesterday, between one streetcar stop (at the big downtown department store) and the next (Marindvor), six people were killed and twenty wounded. Although there has been no official announcement, we also know that two mortar shells killed five children and wounded at least twenty. We don’t even know if that’s the extent of it; probably not. People are shot and killed every day, dat after day, and the casualty lists are never up to date.
One of the faces of Sarajevo is that of a city in which one lives, works, and dies as if in a call; a while city bent on survival at any cost. The other face of Sarajevo is so incredible, in its own way, that is is hard to describe to anyone who isn’t here. The will to live, a strength gathered every morning from God-knows-where that makes it possible to reconstruct, every day, what was destroyed and ravaged the day before. An unrivaled sensitivity in mending these lifelines that seem unmeandable: hope, perseverance, and faith.
Everything, but everything, here has changed, and nothing is how it used to be. You no longer walk the same streets you did before, you go new ways, decided upon only by the imperatives of survival. you no longer sit where you used to sit, nor sleep where you used to sleep.
On what used to be called Kulovićeva Street (I can’t remember its new name), right next to the Hotel Belgrade (our crowd now calls it Hotel Sarajevo), a banner has appeared just like that, spontaneously, the biggest one I’ve ever seen. From the top of a relatively tall building, attached to it by ropes, this banner goes all the way down to the sidewalk. Thanks to this huge curtain that now flutters gently in the summer breeze, the killers in the hills can no longer see pedestrians on the main thoroughfare. That’s how the city’s worst snipers have been blinded. Our gang delights in the thought of a chetnik getting bent out of shape. “Just imagine how pissed off he must have been when he found out this morning that he can’t see anything,” comments with great satisfaction an elderly gentleman as he stands behind a building and admires the superb banner.
Life finds all sorts of ways to animate the city. Today everybody is talking about the “Sugar House crossroads” at Baščaršija, where you can get drinking water again, of dubious quality but nevertheless drinkable. At Ramiz’s there is even ice cream, five flavors, suddenly present like a mirage. We think it is the best ice cream in the world, the envy of the Italians. Yesterday, Alen moved his store into the former “Sport” next to “Egypt,” Sarajevo’s best pastry shop, and in his store you can find soap, toilet paper, according to some, even bouillon cubes for soups and sauces, slacks for one hundred and fifty thousand dinars, light bulbs for four thousand. The enterprising fellow from Illidža has even managed to procure some toothpaste from God-knows-where. Outside, at a corner of the market, tourist maps of Sarajevo are selling like halva. Some are old and creased, but it is wonderful to see them.
The new topology of the city has been a pain in the neck to all of us, with its hundreds of alleys and crossroads and quarters we never heard of until now. Now we talk about them all the time—either because of the audacious and formidable street gangs of young kids that make life hard for the people in those places.
More mortar shells rain down on the city. People at the TV station call to tell me that some boys from Zagreb have managed to enter the city, and that they have a parcel for me.
I’ve been told that small sandwiches with kajmak† cheese are available at a refreshment stand next to the College of Economics—incredible! I have to see this, take notes, take photographs. A day will come when they won’t believe us. Just like yesterday, I couldn’t believe my eyes when a friend, an ambassador, appeared on my doorstep, brought in by a Hercules transport plane; he came to Sarajevo because he’s part of our crowd.
Here life and death are locked in ferocious combat, forever trying to gain the upper hand. At the moment one can’t say which of the two stands the better chance of winning.
[† A kind of cream cheese.]