Emilja, the remembrance


Sarajevo, 1984.  I had come to the city as a member of the International Organizing Committee for the XIV Winter Olympic games.  Emilja, I would later learn, had been one of the Yugoslav dancers who took part in the games’ opening ceremony.   She was Muslim, with green eyes and a curious command of the English language. We met at a party in the Olympic Village the day Jure Franko won the silver medal in the giant slalom.  There was much cause for celebration that evening, for it was Yugoslavia’s first Winter Olympic medal ever.  It was also Valentine’s Day, the thought of which sank to the bottom of my stomach like a fist covered in cement.

Emilja and I spent the night together, though we weren’t intimate – we didn’t kiss, we didn’t hug or hold hands. Instead we shared a strong cup of muddied Turkish coffee in the Bascarsija and went for a walk along the Miljacka River. We crossed the bridge where Gavrilo Princip shot and killed the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, triggering World War One.  We passed her favorite record store, which sold bootleg copies of the Clash and Nick Lowe.  I told Emilja she was beautiful.  We were overlooking a minaret, which, bathed in a soft orange glow, captured the shadows of snowflakes falling from the sky.  She said nothing, only smiled, and we kept on walking. She showed me the home of her first lover and the park bench where she and he kissed for the first time.  Emilja told me that it was “her bench,” for all love is possessive.  She then asked if I had ever been in love.  I told her yes, more times than I cared to remember.  “Will you remember for me?” Emilja said, as the first call to prayer sounded in the morning and we went our separate ways.

Eight years later I watch the siege of Sarajevo unfold before me on TV from my dilapidated flat in Buenos Aires.  A bomb goes off in the Bascarisja, tearing through a dozen bodies, leaving a pile of raw and gooey flesh.  Snipers nest in the tops of minarets picking off women and packs of mad dogs.  Houses and high rise apartments are burned. The National Library is leveled, reduced to rubble.  Children begin to starve.  When winter arrives families start burning books to stay warm. Men risk their lives to cut down trees in municipal parks and in the forests on the outskirts of the city.  I watch all of this for days, weeks, months.  During this time I never once think of Emilja, for I have nearly forgotten all about her. But then, on February 14, 1993, I see the following image on CNN: two teenage kids, a boy and girl, kissing passionately on a park bench along the Miljacka River. They are in love and entirely oblivious to the world falling to pieces around them.  Emilja, I remember now, and I wish there was some way that I could tell you.

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