Monday, April 03, 2006

Balkan Wars

My first memory of Sarajevo was the drive between the airport and the hotel. The airport is surrounded by bombed buildings, separate entrances that divide the city between Serb and Bosniak, piles of rubble and a smattering of bullet holes in places you find your eye being led.

The center of a billboard with a half naked woman straddling a chair and advertising panty hose

My stay in Sarajevo was short. A driver picked me up and we drove five hours to Bijeljina, a small Serb town along the border. Sometime in September, I was chosen to monitor an election in Tuzla.

My first memory of Tuzla was Sherazada.

“My full name is Sherazada, but you can just call me Sher.”

She thrust her bony and thin hand across the table to meet mine half way. She looked 30 years old. But in the last few months, I had learned to take the age of a someone living in this region and subtract at least five years for the war. She was likely 25.

She quickly pulled her hand away and stuck it back into the warmth of the down vest that rode up around her ears as she hunched her shoulders and tucked her head into the lining. She fidgeted to stay warm and quell the creeping cold of the cool Tuzla, Bosnia September.

She popped her red nose up to tell me amongst clouds of frozen breath “I’ll be your translator.”

“You speak great English Sher. It’s almost American.”

Her body stopped bobbing for warmth; she looked me in the eye and raised one eyebrow. “I am American.”

I blushed.

“How culturally incorrect of me. I’m so sorry. I just assumed.”

“I was born here. But my father married an American woman during the war and now I have US citizenship. I live in Nebraska. You speak English well too. Where are you from?”

“I see, I’m so sorry.”

“Forget it.” She absolved my embarrassment by returning to her shivering.

“Jane. I’m from Seattle. Nice to meet you.”

I gave her my outstretched hand. And she took it.

There was nothing that physically distinguished Sher from the other local volunteers. She shared large eyes, teeth that needed fixing and a cool stare that hid horror stories. But Sher held her shoulders back more like the men in the group. She walked tall and always jutted out her jaw before she began a sentence. Sher looked people in the eye.

When she spoke, she enunciated all her sentences with careful pauses. Bosnian words flew out of her mouth like a woman scorning her child. I couldn’t understand a word that she spoke, but I felt lucky I wasn’t on the receiving end of what was coming out of her mouth.

When she spoke English she was confident but gentle, like the girl sitting next to me in History class. She understood every cultural pun, witty jab or complicated rambling sentence that I sent her direction.

Standing in the cold Tuzla morning air, I had no idea the adventure this woman's friendship was about to bring me or how she would change my life.

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