Romeo and Juliet in Sarajevo

By Daniel Seifert

November, 1992

"Tomorrow at dawn."

The colonel's eyes skimmed over the two figures seated at the table: a boy and a girl. The couple was young; mid-twenties would be the oldest possible guess. noted that the man's right hand hadn't parted from the girl's left in the twenty minutes they'd been sitting in the dimly lit downtown apartment. Pacing slowly across the room, he lifted an American cigarette to his lips, sparking the stick to life before exhaling with a sigh.

"And you're sure it'll work?"

He raised his head to meet the colonel's eyes, but found no such response.

"I give you my word that my forces will let you by. I'm not so sure what I can say about her people though." The colonel motioned to the girl with a condescending jerk of the head.

A flash of anger shimmered across her eyes. She inhaled as if to speak, but instinctively stopped herself as the man's hand stroked her back. The girl let out a deep sigh.

"My people have already given us their word." She spoke with confidence, shards of anger still sharpening her tone. "This now hangs upon you, colonel." The last word dripped with sarcasm, something both men took note.

The colonel stood silently for a moment; the man struggling in vain to read his face.

"I find it a bit hard to believe you don't want anything out of this." The man commented flatly.

The colonel's face muscles contorted, forming what the man could only assume to be a smirk across his scarred face.

"I told you already, I do whatever I can for old friends."

As much as the boy wanted to believe him, as much as the burning optimist needed this reassurance to thrive, he just didn't know. The war had changed people; it had changed everything. How could the war not have changed him? Looking to the girl, the young couple produced a pair of artificial smiles in unison, something the peoples of this country had become quite adept at.

October, 1985

"There, that one."

Ivo Novakovic swiveled his head to the left, maintaining a low profile. His wiry frame didn't much lend itself to standing out in a crowd, but he could make himself seen if he wanted to. Eyes sweeping across the far side of the classroom, he skimmed over the various faces until fixating onto the intended target.

"You see her? Yeah?" the voice behind him pestered. "Am I right? Nice, eh?"

"Yeah, yeah, shut up, Dragan. I see her." Ivo kept his gaze on the girl's curly brown hair, only occasionally breaking away to meet her dancing eyes.

"Well comrade," Listening to both sarcasm-tinged vowels, the teenager shifted uncomfortably at his desk. "We've got a few minutes before Mr. Karadzic gets here. Twenty dinars says you don't have the balls to talk to her."

Ivo leaned against the wall, contemplating for a moment before pushing himself forward.

"You're on."

The seventeen-year-old shoved past Dragan hastily, striding over to the brunette without skipping a beat. She stood with a friend who promptly disappeared into the hallway at Ivo's approach. His eyes remained locked onto hers, even as he began to speak.

From across the class, Dragan watched the situation unfold. His ears weren't quite as keen as he'd have liked, and watching the body language proved to be quite difficult. After a few minutes, Ivo strode back towards him, the girl leaving through the same door that her friend had.


Ivo spoke calmly. "Her name's Nina Grebo. She's seventeen and Bosnian. She likes the band Rush and she seems to have a thing for Serbian guys."

Dragan's jaw hung semi-open.

"I'll take the twenty dinars now. I'll need something to pay for our date."

He snorted. "I'll hand it to you, man, that was pretty impressive. I'm all out of cash right now though…how does an I.O.U. sound?"

Ivo rolled his eyes with a smile. "Yeah, alright. But don't think I'm gonna forget about it."

April, 1992

Ivo loved his city. He loved every old imperial building, Markale marketplace, and even the drab communist housing blocks from the 80s where he lived. He drank in the view of the Olympic stadium, losing himself in the proud memories he felt waving the flag in 1984. He'd take walks to the Monument of the Eternal Flame, where his veteran grandfather's name was inscribed, and across the Latin Bridge where the assassination of a minor Austrian prince had sparked the Great War so many years ago. As hard as he tried, the only comparison to his love of Sarajevo was that young Bosnian girl he'd met so many years ago.

And for that, he was happy. They shared a small apartment on the twelfth floor of an old housing block in the city's west-end. He'd had work as a freelance translator between Serbian and French for several months now. The two had been together for nearly seven years now, straight out of high school. He sometimes couldn't believe how much they'd been through. Their relationship had survived a year away from home while he studied in Belgium, the angry ex-boyfriend who'd taken a swing at him last year, and Ivo's parents' initial contempt at him dating a Muslim girl.

He still remembered his mother's ranting at how "inappropriate" it was for a "good Serbian boy" to be seeing a Muslim girl. Ivo had seen this as a mass hypocrisy; his mother's work as an interpreter throughout Yugoslavia was the very reason he was able to look past religion and ethnicity. His father had been indifferent, more than likely the years of Krajinovac vodka taking its toll. It took years before his mother finally relented and consented to the relationship, though Ivo had always suspected she'd still wanted it to end when he went to Belgium. Things had been fine since then.

Fine until April.

Everything changed on that April morning.

The first shells landed at around 1:00 PM, in the eastern part of the city. Jumping from the explosion, Ivo dropped his coffee mug to the café floor, taking little note of the tiny white ceramic pieces scattered around. He looked across the table to Nina, a look of equal concern on her face. Others in the café immediately shrieked, a hellish sound compounded with more artillery explosions. The two suddenly stood up. They had known something big was coming for a while now…first the war in Croatia, then the shootings at the peace march earlier this month. Without a second of hesitation, Ivo grabbed Nina's hand and sprinted towards the Yugo parked across the street.

November, 1992

The days had become monotonous. The omnipresence of the Serbian artillery cascading into the city resembled an angry god, something all citizens – Muslim, Orthodox or Catholic – could relate to. Day and night, the artillery's lash had become as indiscriminate as the snipers who haunted the main roads. Sarajevo had become a hollowed-out husk; what was once a multicultural role model now succumbed to acts of brutality that belonged in the 40's. Ivo and Nina had their connections, and for that they were thankful.

Looking out the barricaded cracks of the front window, Ivo's lively eyes had begun to lose their glow in the last few months. He turned around to find Nina curled up on the couch, and to his surprise, watching the staticky transmissions of the Serbian nationalist channel.

"Our brave forces continue the fight to free Sarajevo from the insidious Muslims, and to bring freedom to all in the city! Citizens of Sarajevo are now being well-fed by the courageous Serbian soldiers…"

Nina clicked the mute button. "How can anyone take this shit seriously? As if they're feeding anyone – nevermind only Serbs. The Bogdanovics down on the eighth floor had to butcher their poor cat for food yesterday…"

Ivo slumped onto the couch next to her, his right arm curling around her shoulders.

"I don't get it. I honestly, truly don't. We grew up in Yugoslavia… we were all taught to respect one-other, regardless of nationality or religion. How did it come to this?" The Serb shook his head slightly.

"Ivo…" Nina began. "We need to get out. How much longer can we go on like this?"

His head cocked back, Ivo ran his left hand through his hair. "I know, I know. We'll find a way somehow."

He'd always been the optimist. She found vain comfort in his words, leaning into him as she flicked the volume on again. On the TV, a young army officer of about their age as they was giving a fiery speech. With each arm raise and hand-motion, the officer whipped the crowd into a greater frenzy. As Ivo watched the man, it suddenly clicked. He jumped off of the couch, staggering as he stood.

"What's gotten into you?" Nina asked.

"You don't realize who that is?" Ivo retorted with another question, motioning towards the TV. Nina offered a shrug in return.

"That…raving lunatic is Dragan Galic. You're honestly telling me you don't remember him from school? He's the one who pushed me to talk to you in the first place. Jesus Christ, what the hell is he doing in a Serbian uniform?"

Nina's mouth opened as if to let out a gasp, but nothing came out.

"I have an idea. Your cousin is still in the Bosnian army stationed in the east-end, right? Maybe…maybe if you can get hold of him and I can get through to Dragan, we could negotiate some sort of path for us out of the city."

Pulling the blankets up to her neck, Nina scoffed. "I'm convinced your 'optimism' comes in syringes, Ivo…in any case, what makes you think Dragan will do you a favour? You haven't talked to him since you went to Belgium."

He spoke confidently, "he owes me."

The street was eerily quiet, save for the pitter-patter of the rain. Ivo couldn't remember the last time Sarajevo Boulevard – or "sniper's alley" as it was now called – had actually seen a lull in the fighting. The break had allowed the young couple to meet with Dragan Galic, now a hard-line nationalist army officer, and secure a deal with him. It had also let them get all the way to the Holiday Inn to meet with Nina's cousin, who had pulled some strings as well.

The soldier at the hotel's front door peered outside nervously. It must have been this lull that had unnerved the soldier so much. Twenty feet away, Ivo and Nina sat on a run-down looking couch, one that had no doubt been high-end only a few years ago.

They were awash in anciety, the spry energy of a young couple sapped from their once innocent faces by the horrors of war. The hotel lobby remained quiet, the lone exception being the mumbling of soldiers in the other rooms. Glancing over his left shoulder, Ivo caught site of a faint smile forming in Nina's mouth.

"What?" he asked rather brusquely.

"You," she let out a soft chortle. "You just look ridiculous wearing that track jacket."

Ivo looked down. The red, white and blue of the Yugoslavian team's 1984 Olympic track jacket were faded and tattered now. The Red Star was nearly completely gone. He did suppose he looked a bit outdated, and who was he to go against Nina; she'd always had an eye for fashion.

"Shut up," he joked with her. "It was the only one I could find."

The two laughed quietly. The sounds that escaped Ivo's mouth now seemed so alien to him. Neither he nor Nina could remember the last time they had actually shared a laugh together.

The moment of happiness winded down as soon as it had begun. Ivo then took Nina's hand tightly.

"Nina, we're going to make it, you understand?" his gaze locked onto her brown eyes. "I don't give a shit if this city or even this entire country won't accept us anymore for who we are. The fact is that we're going to make it – out of this building, over that bridge – to something new." The young man paused.

"We're going to make it."

Suddenly, a lanky Bosnian officer strode into the lobby and paused in front of the couple. He checked his watch before jutting a bony finger towards the door, speaking with authority.

"It's 7:00 PM: Time for you two to leave. You saw the bridge outside; that's Vrbanja Bridge. You're going to be crossing it to the safe zone where you'll be picked up by the UN. Everything's been arranged on our side, so let's hope they keep their word."

Nina walked over to the soldier and gave him a deep hug. "Thank you, Stjepan."

He looked first at Nina, and then to Ivo. "Allah be with you both."

Ivo followed Nina's lead and nodded before grabbing his large duffel bag, all that he had left to show of what had once been considered a successful life. The nervous soldier held the door open for both of them, watching intently as the two strode off into the rain.

Ivo's left hand gripped Nina's right tightly as they approached the bridge. It had taken its fair share of punishment throughout the war, marked with concrete scars and faded bloodstains. Both could feel their hearts racing as they stepped onto the bridge. They were alone, two silhouettes watched by many. Ivo could see the other side through the rain; he could feel it. Each step brought them closer to freedom, salvation.

A shrill crack.

Nina felt a huge weight tug from her left. She cranked her head, horrified, to see Ivo slipping towards the ground. A large red splotch the size of a tennis ball appeared in his chest. The duffel bag hit the ground first, producing a fine mist as he fell an instant later. Nina wasn't granted a second to react before another crack pierced the silence.

Now she fell, her own body becoming too much of a burden. A similar hole had manifested itself on her right shoulder.

Nina shrieked in agony before looking over to Ivo. His eyes were barely open, blood streaming from the corner of his mouth. He struggled to speak. "I'm…"

Tears began to stream down both of their faces.

"…sorry. I should've…known."

Nina shook her head, feeling her strength waning as well.

"It's not your fault Ivo…it's not. You couldn't have known…neither of us could've known this would happen."

"Try and get across, Nina…you can still make it." He coughed blood onto the ground before quietly uttering, "I love you."

His eyes went blank. Nina screamed with the fury of a thousand lost souls, throwing her arms around her lover.

"I love you Ivo…I'm not going anywhere without you… I promise you that…"

Her face caked with tears and blood, she settled her head onto Ivo's chest. Under the rains so bitter and the gazes of men corrupt, Nina slowly allowed herself to come to rest, finally attaining a lover's absolution as the tale of Romeo and Juliet of Sarajevo came to pass.

Author's notes: I originally wrote this in May 2009 as my final project for a creative writing class, and I had a great time with it. While I did take creative license with the circumstances, it is in fact based on the true story of Bosko Brckic and Admira Ismic, two young lovers who were gunned down as they tried to flee Sarajevo. They were the subject of a famous photo taken of them, dead in each other's arms on Vrbanja bridge.

I really feel like due to the length restrictions placed on me by the class, I couldn't fully develop Ivo and Nina's romance. I hope to add some more to the story later, most likely when I have time over the summer. Thanks to everyone for taking the time to read this!