I love snow. My early memories of snow are steeped in feelings of hope and wonder. There is something magical about how excited I felt as a child during snow storms in Sarajevo. Snow would come in abundance, brought from the mountains that surround the city. It would always announce itself with a crisp bite in my nose. I knew the next morning I would look through the window and see my school and my favorite apple tree blanketed in a heavy coat of snow, the kind of snow that begs to be disturbed and played with.
During winter break, the first morning after the snow storm would become very noisy. My sister and I, along with other kids from the neighborhood, would run out and go wild on the hill in front of our apartment building. The crowd pleasers were sled races on the “trail of death,” ending with a steep drop onto the street. The goal was to throw oneself off the sled in a most artistic and heroic way at full speed. I developed my own style and would fall in a classic James Bond fashion, ending on my feet, keeping my cool.
On weekends we went skiing, having the luxury of Olympic ski trails twenty minutes away. We would spend all day skiing and warm up at the ski lodge before the most anticipated event of the weekend. Skiing at midnight was what we all waited for eagerly. One trail would be illuminated with lights, while music accompanied us as we raced down the mountain. All I could see was the sparkle of lights refracting through snow, making me feel as if I was an integral part of the magic of nature.
These feelings of wonder and excitement of snow and winter disappeared after the war. When Sarajevo came under the siege in the Spring of 1992, all electricity, gas, water and food were cut off, leaving the city of then 500,000 people without infrastructure and under a constant assault. The first war winter was a big adjustment for us. My sister and I soon relied on each other for strength and support.
Our regular routine of getting up at 2 am, crossing part of the city under sniper fire and waiting in line for water up to five hours, became almost unbearable in winter. We dealt with the cold, the physical exertion and the understanding that we could be killed at any moment by a grenade or a sniper. What made our routine soul draining was the fact that we went back to a home without windows, which were shattered in the first months of the war, and lacking a viable source of heat.
Only one room in our apartment was heated since it had the last remaining window. We created a “wood-burning “stove out of a water heater and burned old shoes, furniture and clothes for heat. Wood was almost impossible to come by and we refused to cut down our apple tree or deplete parks or even take wooden crosses from the cemetery. Though our extensive library was off limits, mom was forced to use a couple of books in desperation.
During winters, our home was so cold that to get to the bathroom at the other end of the apartment, we had to dress in layers. Soon, my sister and I learned to live with frostbite on a regular basis. There were scabs on our hands and toes that we accepted as badges of honor.
One frigid morning, after walking miles and waiting in water line for four hours our feet froze so bad that we were in tears. As they began to thaw the pain was excruciating. We ran to our balcony barefoot, dipping them in the snow to numb the sensation. We cried and laughed, feeling a sense of pride that we made it through one more day without giving-up.
I love snow, but now it comes with memories of cold and the constant struggle to stay warm during the war. Even in a warm home, I still feel the chill that cuts to the bone, becoming a physical reminder of war, making it impossible to escape and forget.
*Photo by Zeljko Puljic for FAMA from the “Survival Guide”