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IDEAS

During wartime, finding beauty is the key to survival

Growing up in Sarajevo taught me how to defy the ravages of war.

The author, age 17, sitting on the rubble of the National Library in Sarajevo in 1996.Sandi Halilbegovich

As the war in Ukraine reaches its 11th month, missile strikes and freezing temperatures threaten millions of lives. While the main concern is how Ukrainians will survive the winter, what I learned from having endured more than three years of war as a child in Sarajevo, Bosnia, is that mere survival is not enough. In the coming months, the Ukrainian people will not only have to fight to live but also find ways to thrive in conditions aggressively hostile to human life.

During the siege of Sarajevo, my mother insisted on keeping her job as a bank manager. The shortage of electricity and gasoline halted all public transit. On the rare occasions when it resumed, it was only a matter of time before snipers shot at trams and buses, killing drivers and passengers. Every weekday morning, I watched my mother get dressed, put on makeup, and brush her long, black hair so that, in spite of the risks of shelling and sniper fire, she could walk five miles each way to and from work.

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As I cried and begged her to stay, she said, “Nadja, I can’t. If I stay, I’ll feel dead. I’ll be a prisoner of this apartment, and of my mind and soul.”

Her monthly salary was often nonexistent, and as a small consolation, the bank provided a warm lunch that she always brought home in a plastic container. I spent countless afternoons waiting for my mother by the front door as explosions roared throughout the city. I wondered why she risked her life and what was more important than surviving. She always came home exhausted from having run from bullets and crunched glass and debris under her feet, but she also seemed lighter — and more free. As a child, all that mattered to me was hearing the sound of her heels clicking up the stairwell to our 14th-floor apartment and the relief of having my mother for one more evening.

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Sometimes, she would surprise me with a treat from one of her co-workers: an apple, a pear, a few cherries. One time, she pulled an egg out of her purse with the flair of a magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat. I had not seen an egg in months.

At work, my mother had a close group of friends who exchanged recipe ideas that required very few ingredients and allowed substitutions for milk, butter, eggs, or sugar, which were extremely scarce. Together, they created recipes using the most common item in our humanitarian aid: rice. For our first New Year’s Eve under siege, we made fried rice, rice pie, and rice wine. Although nothing tasted as good as what we had before the war, we were grateful for all of it.

Whenever one of the children had a birthday, Mom and her friends would cobble together enough ingredients for a small cake. Someone scrounged just enough sugar, while someone else brought butter or flour. For my 14th birthday, I had a few friends over, but we couldn’t play, laugh, or even talk too loudly. The neighbors who lived in the apartment below us had just learned that their son had been killed at the front. We heard them crying all afternoon.

The daily newspaper Oslobođenje printed numerous pages of obituaries of our fellow Sarajevans. Its headquarters was targeted by the Serbian artillery until the 10-story building burned to the ground. Several reporters were killed and dozens wounded, but the staff continued working from a makeshift newsroom in the basement, delivering daily issues — even if it meant only a dozen copies. Pages of Oslobođenje were taped to the walls of buildings across the city, so that people could stop and read while catching their breath after sprinting across intersections to evade bullets or while awaiting a lull between explosions.

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At 13, I was wounded by a mortar shell that struck our apartment building. After many days of wilting indoors during the bombardments, I had gone outside on a rare peaceful morning. A sudden explosion caught my legs in a rain of shrapnel. In the following weeks, while I was bedridden, my neighbors visited me in large groups. Many brought a special treat: a carrot, an apple, a piece of chocolate. More than 200 tenants from our 20-story apartment building rallied around me, especially children. Cooped up inside for weeks at a time, we had all become fast friends.

One afternoon, my friends came to visit, talking and sitting around my bed, when a nearby explosion shook the building. Everyone ran for cover to the narrow hallway, but I was unable to move. I started crying and punching the mattress with my fists. Before my parents could rush over and lift me out of the bed, my 9-year-old friend Arijana ran back into the room, cupped my fists with her tiny hands, and said: “Don’t cry Nadja. I’ll stay with you.”

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I eventually started walking again with a pair of ski poles, because crutches were unavailable. As soon as I could, I resumed my music lessons and choir rehearsals. Throughout the siege, we performed concerts for children in schools, basements, and hospitals, as well as for various journalists and foreign dignitaries. If the shelling started in the middle of our concert, we just kept on singing. Despite the siege, Sarajevans put on plays, concerts, art exhibits, and film festivals. Due to the shortage of electricity, many events took place under a few lamps powered by a generator, or even by candlelight. In winter, both the players and the audience remained bundled in winter clothing.

In our apartment building, the children organized hallway exhibitions of our drawings, as well as concerts during which I sang and played my guitar. We designed invitations and delivered them to each resident. We also started a children’s magazine with poetry, drawings, short stories, and recipes. We copied each issue by hand and offered them to children in neighboring buildings. In 1993, four of my poems were published in a collection of children’s poetry. A year later, I published my war diary. Hundreds of citizens risked their lives to attend my first book reading at an underground theater in downtown Sarajevo. Many took an added risk of picking flowers from their gardens in order to be able to bring a beautiful bouquet.

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Pages from the diary the author kept during the war in Sarajevo.Nadja Halilbegovich

I am heartened to read about similar stories from Ukraine: The National Philharmonic in Kyiv still performs concerts by battery-powered lamps; a woman teaches a dance class for kids during blackouts with just a tiny light; a young man bakes hundreds of rolls a day to feed his neighbors; two nurses get married in a Kyiv hospital despite the bombings.

No one can live on rice and fear alone. The deepest nourishment comes from living with purpose and dignity in the face of war. And as each day inflicts more loss and misery, beauty is the balm that protects against despair. Every day is not only a fight for survival, but for transcendence over hatred and insanity.

We must remember that what was true for Bosnia is also true for Ukraine: For every battle fought over a town or a city that makes headlines and captures the world’s attention, there are countless important battles being waged in the hearts and minds of everyday civilians, in which beauty not only defies war — it wins.

Nadja Halilbegovich is the author of “My Childhood Under Fire: A Sarajevo Diary.” Follow her on Twitter @nhalilbegovich.