Times Daily, p.8A
19 August 1993.
SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina — Wednesday was just another day for Amira Knezevic.
She climbed 480 stairs, walked to the river to get water for her garden, picked some tomatoes, yanked a few weeds, carried seven gallons of water up 15 flights of stairs and stoked her wood stove a second time. It wasn’t even noon yet.
She barely had time to notice it was the 500th day of siege in Sarajevo.
The 48-year-old married woman is just one of nearly 400,000 remaining residents of the Bosnian capital, surrounded by Serb forces since April 6, 1992, who have fallen into a strange sort of routine of coping with the near-impossible.
With shelling and shooting ebbing over the last two weeks, Sarajevo is less like a war zone than a ghetto.
The day begins for Mira, as she is known, around 7 a.m. when she makes her first foray from her highrise apartment to the war garden on the other side of the Miljacka River.
Along the way, she passes a corner where a girl was killed by sniper fire a few days ago.
Is she scared?
Her reply is as matter-of-fact as the woman herself – a furrowed brow and a shake of the head.
Bosnia’s Health Ministry says 9,284 people in Sarajevo have been killed or reported missing over the last 500 days.
Another 54,398 people, about 10 percent of Sarajevo’s prewar population, have been wounded.
Mira’s garden is like Sarajevo itself. Five small plots of ground, donated by friends with bigger gardens, are patchworked among those of Serb, Bosniak and “mixed” neighbors who share horticultural tips.
Before the war, Mira worked in an office and lived an upper middle-class life. She never gardened, save for the flowers she planted at her now-ransacked beach house in Neum, Bosnia’s dot on the Adriatic Sea. Now, gardening is her mental and physical sustenance.
Twice a day she descends her apartment stairs, walks 10 minutes to the plots on the other side of the river, climbs over a barricade and crawls down to the Miljacka’s edge to collect water in two plastic jugs. Then she gingerly walks the perimeters of others’ gardens until she reaches her beets, carrots, corn, squash and cabbage.
“When I water the garden, I usually bring one cigarette,” she said. “I smoke half of the cigarette in the first half of the garden, then I put it out and when I’ve finished the second half of the garden, I smoke the rest of the cigarette, and my outside work is done for that part of the day.”
Once a week, Mira dons her red backpack and grabs a converted children’s stroller for the 90-minute hike to Zuc, a hill north of town, to collect firewood.
She hasn’t gone this week because several people have died in shelling on Zuc, scrounging for wood.
After the morning garden routine, Mira and her 25-year-old daughter Dijana, wait for her over an hour in the building’s dank basement to collect water, which they then carry up 15 flights of stairs. That’s on good days, when there’s at least running water to building basements on the western edge of town. Otherwise, they walk to the nearest water collection point, more than a half-mile away.
Then it’s on to lunch, the main meal. On Wednesday, Mira whipped up an Italian fish stew, using one can of mackarel from aid rations, vegetables from her garden, herbs from friends, rice and macaroni. The only missing ingredient was the white wine, she said with a smile.
The only luxury Mira allows herself is occasional reflection on her summer home in Neum, where family and friends would sit on the balcony under a setting sun and eat prosciutto and drink wine.
She even sees some good that’s come out of the siege — her newfound love of gardening and losing 44 pounds.
The new Mira, with chin-length bobbed hair, bright hazel eyes and tanned skin, looks nothing like the pictures of old Mira at the beach.