Enough was enough. The shelling of Sarajevo had to stop. Led by the United States and France, NATO issued an ultimatum: The Serbs were to withdraw their heavy-caliber weapons twelve miles away from Sarajevo or place them under the control of United Nations forces. Any weapons left within striking distance of Sarajevo would be subject to air strikes. The Serbs were given ten days to comply. The deadline was set for one o’clock on the morning of February 21—D-day as the Sarajevans were calling it, giddy with anticipation.
The planes were invisible, obscured by the persistent cloud cover of a Bosnian winter, but they made an impressive roar, drowning out normal conversation and rippling the plastic sheeting taped across the broken windowpanes. Sarajevo shuddered, but nobody complained about the noise. They looked up to the fog-shrouded skies with anticipation that the roar was a message from above and redemption was on its way.
“I’m so happy. I’m trembling when I hear the airplanes,” said Delila, her eyes glittering with excitement.
NATO forces had been patrolling the skies over Bosnia since 1992 as part of a limited mandate to enforce the no-fly zone, and to provide air cover for the UN troops on the ground. The United States had the largest number of planes in the NATO fleet, and Sarajevans had cherished the belief that these Americans would eventually come to their rescue. It was a hope nurtured by a steady diet of American films, television, and recollections of World War II.
Alija Žiga, the seventy-two-year-old head of the mosque behind the courtyard, had just finished leading services for the start of Ramadan when he came out to talk to some neighbors. He had fought with Tito’s partisans. “I was behind the front lines. The Germans had us surrounded and they were trying to starve us to death. Then, all of a sudden, these American planes flew overhead and they dropped—you are not going to believe this—hot goulash.”
Some had darker recollections. In 1943, when the Allies tried to bomb a Nazi headquarters housed in the Razija Omanović school, they mistakenly hit the Hajrić house two doors down. Suad Hajrić’s father was killed in the accident.
Almost all anybody could talk about was how the Americans were about to liberate Sarajevo. They imagined it would be a cross between the Normandy invasion and the Desert Storm bombing of Iraq in 1991. Nermin Džino declared, “The Americans missed a few targets in Iraq. I want the air strikes, even if they end up bombing my backyard by mistake.”
Delila agreed. “If I get killed by an American bomb, I won’t mind so much as if it’s a Chetnik bomb.”
As the deadline grew closer, and the Serbs continued to balk, the NATO planes flew lower and more frequently, buzzing the Serb artillery positions in warning. Everybody was convinced the Serbs would be bombed into submission. Delila was out of control. Four nights before the deadline, she ran out of the bomb shelter in the orphanage at midnight to cheer at the NATO planes flying low through the clouds.
“Come on! Come on! Do it!” she yelled, until a policeman walked by and urged her to go back inside.
Tarik Kaljanac woke up one morning, stumbled into the kitchen as his parents were watching the television news, and asked Minka, “Mom, is this the end of the war? Are the Americans really going to help us?”
The weekend before Monday, February 21—D-day—police knocked on doors up and down Logavina Street, advising people to take precautions in case the air strikes missed their targets, or, more likely, the Serbs sought retribution. A rumor swept Sarajevo that the Serbs had a new weapon, a poison gas they planned to unleash on the city. The police showed residents how to fashion a gas mask out of dishwashing liquid and a cotton rag.
After one police visit, Minka confessed she was more afraid than ever. “I worry that the Chetniks will be so angry they have to withdraw that they’ll shell us with all they’ve got. They are sore losers.”
As darkness descended on Sunday evening, Minka hung a heavy blue wool blanket over her living room window, which faced Mount Trebević. You never wanted any light glinting out to make a target for the gunners in the hills. She packed sleeping bags for the family, bread, and a canister of water in case they needed to take cover in the basement of the school. The dishwashing liquid was on the kitchen table, just in case.
The anticlimax should have been predictable. First, the Serbs balked at the conditions set by NATO and Sarajevo filled up with television crews from around the world who were expecting a rerun of the Persian Gulf War. Then Russian president Boris Yeltsin offered to send Russian troops to secure areas from which the Serbs had withdrawn. The Serbs viewed Russia as their political ally and accepted a deal under which most of their heavy weapons were delivered to UN-monitored collection sites.
Ekrem and Minka had stayed up until 1 A.M., playing cards and listening to the radio. “You always expect something to happen, and then the next morning, it is just the same old crap,” Ekrem complained the following day as he wolfed down a lunch of rice and canned meat.
Kira was also annoyed, having stayed up all night not to await the NATO bombardment, but because the baby was fussing. “Let me tell you about the world,” she said wearily. “I’ve heard all of it before. They always make promises they don’t keep. They said they would attack—they didn’t do it—and now, whatever they do or say really doesn’t interest me.”
Yet it couldn’t be denied: The shelling had stopped. Sarajevo was quiet again. You could even hear the birds. Sure, there was an occasional burst of gunfire around the Holiday Inn, or an odd boom from the direction of the front lines, but Sarajevo was, for the most part, safe.