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Haven Was A Vacant Lot

Sarajevo was a dangerous place in 1995, but there were locations within the heavily damaged city where people felt safe. One such spot was a vacant lot next to a house shared by five members of our United Nations Military Observer team.

As UNMOs we belonged to teams consisting of eight to 10 personnel from different countries, including my home country of Canada. Our team’s accommodation was split between the rented house and an apartment block. The house, which was owned by a retired university professor, was tucked away on a narrow street in the once beautiful part of the old city. I visited the house often because it had a working generator that provided electricity for light, hot water and television.

The vacant lot was at right angles to the front line in the war-torn city. This helped conceal it from observation and protect it from sniper and artillery fire. During daylight hours, the lot was a beehive of activity. It was dusty and the edges were strewn with debris and rubble, but the rest of it was clear, making it the perfect place to pursue the great European pastime of football, known to North Americans as soccer.

From first light to last, there was always someone kicking a ball around the vacant lot. Piles of rubble became bleachers for people intent on watching the little matches. Many cheered, as if watching the World Cup.

For me it was the eight and 10-year-olds who provided the best entertainment. They had the most energy and least skills; a combination that guaranteed a robust match with an unknown number of kids chasing a ball through clouds of dust. They played without rules, but with unlimited enthusiasm.

I figured if it wasn’t safe to be out in the vacant lot their mothers wouldn’t have let them outside. When it came to managing kids in Sarajevo, mothers definitely ruled. In fact, I had a habit of using what I called the Kid Barometer to gauge the level of tension in the city. The barometer worked like this: The number of kids out and the younger they were was an indication of the threat level. More kids, less threat. In fact, after the General Framework Agreement for Peace was signed on Dec. 14, 1995, I started noticing more moms out with baby carriages.

For the kids in the vacant lot, moms were never far away. They would stand and chat on the street or watch from windows, proof that the unimaginable fear of losing a child is sometimes overcome by the urge to let kids be kids in a city that has seen hundreds of kids die.

I remember the sunny afternoon when I leaned out of the window in the house and just listened to the kids in the lot. As usual, they were chasing a ball. It was a perfect summer day until an artillery shell landed close by. I ducked in the window and then hit the floor, and I will never forget the sound of the children screaming. It lasted for a few seconds and then there was nothing but silence.

If someone had been hit, the screaming would have continued, but the sound would have changed from fear and surprise to pain and agony. It was too silent. I got up and went outside. I headed toward the vacant lot and when I got there it was empty. I could see dust and smoke rising from the shell’s impact a block away. It was extraordinary how the day had changed from fun to fear and then silence. All it took was an incoming shell. All it took was a brush with death, and everything changed.

I wandered back to the house and along the way wondered if the people who fired the shell knew of this place and were trying to target it and its youthful occupants. Probably not. The shell was just one of those random acts of terrorism where they fired the gun and didn’t give a damn where the shell landed.

As I stood on the street, the kids slowly returned to the vacant lot. They were like baby gophers, popping up out of  little hiding places. First it was the moms who poked their heads out to check to see whether it was safe. Their hands holding onto their kids’ hands, not quite ready to let go.

Within minutes, the game was back on in the vacant lot. There were yelps and yells. It was as if nothing had happened. But for the moms, the mood had changed. I saw the look of fear on their faces as they cast their eyes skyward. What a way to live. What a way to raise your children. Fear of loss beyond belief overpowered by the need to try and live your life as a normal human being.

I sat on the doorstep to our rented house and was amazed by their courage. The sun was warm and the sounds of children in the vacant lot filled my ears.


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