Battle fatigue sets in on the home front
Saturday 09 March 1996
In the four traumatic weeks since our landlord announced his intention to move back into his Sarajevo home (two bedrooms, office, sitting room with view of Serb trenches, kitchen, bathroom with running water most of the time, and garage) my household has wallowed in nostalgic memories of siege, shells and snipers. Life was so much simpler then.
For him it's just an attempt to escape the hideous reality of house-hunting in competition with hordes of foreigners arriving to rebuild Bosnia, refugees returning home and all the veteran correspondents, aid workers and political advisers being booted from the (cheap) places we had snapped up during the war.
It happened one night: my flat-mate, Stacy, who works for Newsweek, called on the last day of my holiday to announce our impending eviction. We railed and raged: how dare the landlord want to move back into his own house in this callous way?
Never mind, I said. I know the number of an estate agent who apparently finds houses immediately and then charges the landlord. It will be fine: now we can get a bigger house so that the various Newsweek correspondents and photographers who come through can have a spare bedroom rather than the sofa. This could be a blessing in disguise, I said.
Thirty-odd houses later, I'm in the new place, admiring the scarlet and orange shagpile carpeting the kitchen door, the electric-blue pile on the upstairs floor, thanking God that Stacy went on holiday this morning: she will need to gather her strength before facing the giant, photographic trompe l'oeil (a woodland scene in autumn) decorating the stair well. Even retro fashion hasn't become this Seventies yet. And the worst of it is we are only planning to spend two months here - it was a last resort to avoid imminent homelessness.
We had found the perfect flat (three bedrooms and an office, multiple balconies, white walls, wood floors, gracious living, no view of sniper nests, just in case, two garages) 24 hours before our eviction date. The sitting tenant had even agreed to share with us for March and then move across the hall to a second, smaller flat. We were ecstatic for, oh, several minutes. Until a friend phoned to say that he was now being evicted from the smaller flat so that we could have the bigger place.
We decided there had been enough ethnic cleansing already, and that adding one cross American and his Canadian flat-mate would be A Bad Thing.
The trouble here, when whining about house-hunting, is that all too many locals have had really stressful experiences: the new landlord's family in eastern Bosnia, for example. Dozens of relatives were expelled from their homes when the Serbs took Zvornik in 1992; they now live as refugees in Austria and Sweden.
And one cousin who fled to Srebrenica that summer was caught by the Bosnian Serbs and machine-gunned in a huge group; he felt his father fall dead, then pulled his wife down with him. There the couple lay among the corpses. A soldier walked up and shot his wife in the head but he survived, playing dead. Once the soldiers had gone, he found a few other survivors and walked through enemy territory to safety. At least our rent money will fund a trip to see the son and daughter who fled the siege in 1994.
And the landlords - he's a Muslim, she's a Croat, very Sarajevo - are so nice that we should be able to cope with the inevitable, Yugoslav flaws that affect even the perfect flat: landlords in this part of the world believe that ownership gives them the right to wander in at will, every day or so, to check on the place. The lawyer renting the perfect flat on behalf of its owner, a Serb who moved to Belgrade, adopts this policy with zeal.
Still, he surely could not be as bad as my friend Chris's landlady in Zagreb: she used to pop in to do her ironing, cooking or washing every day. Eventually he cracked, and called her English-speaking son to try to resolve the issue. "I need to talk to you about the flat," Chris began in a purposeful tone. "Fine," replied the son. "I was planning to come by for a shower tonight after basketball so we'll chat then."
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