by Emily Hancock

  Taylor's Apprentice

"Tailor's Apprentice" - Paul Strand, 1953

Until last summer, Sanja, 18, lived with her mother in Sarajevo. But Sanja left her homeland to come to San Francisco to live with the family of Lois Melkonian, KCBS news anchor. Melkonian is something of an expert on Bosnia. She's made two trips there in the past 18 months. What has struck Lois is the strength of the women she's met there. This is what she told Moxie about them and their every-day heroism.

"'There is nothing for a girl my age in Sarajevo,' Sanja tells me. 'Because of the war, the future in Bosnia is extremely bleak for anyone my age.' So much of the country has been destroyed, there are no jobs, especially the 'extra' jobs for people in their 20s without families. She will not go back home to live, at least for now."Indeed, Sanja speaks with the voice of one older than 18. Teenage girls in Eastern Europe are far more mature than their counterparts in the U.S. War - and the freedoms given to adolescents there - lead them to mature faster than girls here do.

"Sanja in particular grew up quickly," Lois explains. "Her mother fell and hurt her hip when Sanja was 13. The war kept her from getting medical attention, so it didn't heal. That meant that Sanja was out dodging bullets to get water and food for the family during her teenage years. She was the one to draw the drapes and get everybody to lie down when they were under fire.

"Sometimes everyone in her building was stuck in the basement for days on end. Sarajevo was under siege for four whole years. The city was not completely destroyed, but the threat of destruction loomed over its people every day. If the snipers didn't feel like killing someone on the streets, they would shoot at your water bucket after you'd stood in line for three hours to get water. So the years before she came here were a tough four years for Sanja.

"The even tougher part was that Sanja was an exceptional musician. During the war in Bosnia, her piano was destroyed when a grenade exploded in the dining room. Her music was silenced. Now she's playing Bach again, but she knows the missed years mean that she will never be a concert pianist. When people ask her to play now, she refuses.

"But people who've stayed in Sarajevo wouldn't leave for anything. When I saw Sanja's mother in January, I asked if she would consider leaving and coming to the United States of Canada. She took my hand and pulled open a drawer to show me her silver.

" 'This is my silver, my china, my dining table,' she said. 'Granted, everything was blown up here, but at least I have a home. If I go to Canada, if I come to the United States, I move into an apartment. I don't have any of my own things, my food is not the same, my streets are not the same. Why would I do that?'

"One night when we stayed up late, she looked at me and asked, 'Where is your home?' We were at her flat, where the dining room was still in shambles. 'Three generations of my family have lived in this flat,' she said. 'We have another home in the old part of town, which has been destroyed, so we can't go back to that. So why would I ever leave this flat? This block? This street?'

"Sanja's proud of her mother's stance. She would not want her to want to leave. But she's from a different generation. Her mother has a job she can always go back to. She is a music programmer at Radio Sarajevo. She walks an hour and a half through sniper alley to her job. If someone told Sanja she could have exactly that, she'd be back there in a flash.

"One who has gone back home is Lejla, a good friend of Sanja's. Lejla's mother was killed by a grenade as she was walking along a downtown Sarajevo street when Lejla was 14 and her sister was only 4. Her father took the girls to the Czech Republic where she lived as a refugee. She spent 4 years longing for her life back in Sarajevo. She and Sanja wrote letters often, sometimes fourteen pages long. The letters had to go through Croatia, and then someone had to bring them down to Sarajevo, but they managed to correspond for 3 1/2 years.

"Then last summer, just before Sanja left for the US, Lejla came back to Sarajevo. She and her father and her sister stayed in their old flat. They were lucky that it hadn't been overtaken. Most of the flats that were empty are now inhabited by strangers.

"'Life as a refugee in the Czech Republic was very hard,' Lejla said when I saw her last winter.'I was looking forward to going back home - with my friends in my native town, in my home.'

"But coming back did not work out for the family. Lejla's father couldn't find work in Sarajevo. She and her father and sister packed up to go back to the Czech Republic. Just a few hours before they were to depart, Lejla realized she couldn't leave.

"'The sky in Sarajevo is a different blue from the sky in the Czech Republic,' she cried. 'The air smells different. I have to stay!' She insisted on staying by herself, in the family's old apartment. Her father decided not to stop her.

"When I went back to Sarajevo in January, Lejla was still there. 'It's very hard to live alone,' she admitted. 'If I'd really thought about what it would mean to spend night after night by myself, maybe I wouldn't have made this decision, but I have and this is where I am. I must think about my future. I must learn. I want to be a dentist. It is my wish.'

"Lejla won't have to leave Sarajevo to train to be a dentist. She will do what will keep her in Sarajevo. She's lost her mother, but she will not lose her motherland.

"Tina, 20, is also focused on the motherland. Now a psychology major at Belgrade University, she's among the throng of students who march daily to the sound of whistles while women hang out windows, dropping flowers, and kids bang on pots and pans to cheer them on. Seeing that her mother works for a miserable salary, Tina wants to change the system so that she will not have to leave the country as she did during the war in Bosnia.

"'The point of life is not just to survive," she has concluded. "I want to have a more valuable life. I can't have that here unless there is a change. You don't realize how much it is your home until you leave.'" Tina has vowed to stay on the streets until the demonstrations bring about democracy.

Maya also savors the deep pleasures she has reclaimed upon coming back home after being a displaced person. Her mother is Croatian, her father Muslim. At 15, she and her 5 year old sister ended up in a refugee camp in Croatia for three years.

"'We were separated for 4 years,' she says. 'Now we are together, my sister, my parents, my grandmother, and me. We are here, having coffee together. It is the most important thing.'"

Maya wants to be a film director. Even more driven than Sanja and Lejla, she appears older than they. It's the way she carries herself, her sense of command. She seems 25.

"All these young women are mature because nothing is light or silly for them. They laugh, they have a good time, but they know the meaning of pain, of loss. They have to look toward the future. Here, universities are full of undeclared majors. There, they have to decide what to do and do it. They have a sort of confidence American girls don't know. And they look much older than 20.

"These young women have strong wills. Strong wills from a war zone." 

Copyright 1997 Moxie Magazine All Rights Reserved