The Wedding Dress
January 2017

Bus station, Sarajevo

It was a crisp November morning. My gaze turned to the sun for the first time since I arrived in Sarajevo. The mist had lifted and I could see the full circle of mountains surrounding the city. The horizon was drawn with soft, irregular mounds of deep red-brown and green sweeping down the valley. The twin towers at Marindvor, their sad and weeping concrete floors, looked harsh against the sunlight. I turned away from them and walked south towards the river, preparing myself for the slow climb among the broken houses of Kovacici.

There was a car parked outside the grocery store. Azaad was engaged in conversation with a man, who was sitting in the driver’s seat with the door open to the sunshine. He glanced up, mildly surprised that I had arrived at the time we’d agreed. I waited, looking around and listening to the sound of hammers nailing together broken objects and broken memories.

After a short while, Azaad walked across to join me and asked if I had found it easier to follow the map in daylight. I smiled and thanked him for his assistance the previous evening, when I had gotten myself lost. We spoke in German and understood each other well. I was reminded of my time in Berlin, where I often discovered a richer communication speaking German with people who were non-native Germans, because we didn’t worry so much about grammatical errors. When I explained that I was an architectural student from London, his eyes lit up.

He took me across what had once been a narrow road and was now a dusty path scattered with lose heaps of split cobblestones, towards the car, where he introduced me to his architect. The man got out to shake my hand.

The architect had lived in Sarajevo his whole life and had been working throughout the war, collecting together scattered pieces of the city. I wanted to talk to him more, but Azaad became irritated. He was anxious to show me around the house he was building for his family in the neighbouring plot to the grocery store.

Azaad’s house was a large brick and concrete shell, three and a half storeys facing the valley to the Miljacka River. The wide opening from the path led into a dark stairwell, with steps going up to a half-landing and then back on themselves to the first floor. Each floor had three or four main supporting walls already, and a few temporary wooden tree-like supports. None of the walls or floors had any windows or surface finishes yet.

Walking through this raw shell and imagining the possible textures and colours which would slowly break through felt exciting. Azaad had it all worked out. He pointed out exactly where the furniture would be; the sofas, beds, wardrobes, tables, kitchen units and cookers. The kitchen was an important place for Muslim women. It defined the hierarchy and role of each female in the household, and was often a subject of dispute. He had decided there would be one on each floor. “One for my sister and her husband, one for my mother, and one for my wife,” he hesitated, “…for when I get married,” he added uncomfortably.

I smiled. I was easily drawn into this picture of cosy, domestic life, which he painted for me. However, when we reach the third floor, I was startled at the scene in front of my eyes. The whole width of the house at the back opened out onto a balcony overlooking the neighbourhood. From this height and proximity, all that remained of the local houses and streets were wooden rafters and piles of collapsed stones and bricks, screaming out to the sky. The latent smoke of destruction and heavy hearts hung in the air over the valley. I realised why people were reluctant to talk about the war.

Azaad walked to stand beside me and looked out to the city. “Many members of my family live in small villages around Sarajevo,” he said. “I also have a property in the south, but now it is part of Republika Srpska and I don’t think it’s possible to move back there. Anyhow, I do not want to. I don’t really mind where I live anymore. I just want to finish the house and bring my mother and sister here, so that they can be safe. The man who sold me this property moved to Canada, and the Government gave me 30,000 of the 40,000 Deutsche-Marks I needed to rebuild the house. He turned to face me. “It’s a good deal for me.”

“The people here are not worried about where they live,” he continued. “They want to get their lives back together, to protect their families, to be safe. They don’t want the international army to leave because they are afraid of what may come from beyond the hills.” He pointed behind him away from the valley.

I asked him why he had chosen the Kovacici neighbourhood to build his home. The Jewish cemetery was only five minutes walking distance from his house. The trenches there delineated not only the former frontline, but also an area known to be one of the most heavily mined urban areas in Sarajevo. Didn’t he worry about the potential threat lying under the ground where he walked every day? He looked disturbed and turned from the balcony opening to walk back down the stairs.

“During the war, I was in Germany,” he said. “I haven't lived in Bosnia for a long time. Each day, I would wake up and go to my job in Munich dreaming about the day when I would return home. What happens when one returns home to discover that the dream was an illusion? Nothing here speaks to me of what home used to be.

“I rent a room from a kind, old widow, on the other side of the river in Pofalici. I come to the site very early in the morning, by taxi, because I don’t want to linger in the city centre. The longer I am there, the faster the wind sucks away the shards that are left of my dream.

“When we first started to take away the rubble to secure the foundations, I found many broken and sad things; furniture, kitchen utensils, pots, knives, forks, even old paintings of Chetchnian origin. I found clothes too; underwear, shirts, dresses, and thought about the people who lived here before, and whether they are alive now. I remember clearly the day I found the wedding dress. The moment I picked up the threadbare and dust-covered silk in my hands, it changed my relationship to Sarajevo. I made a picture of her face in my mind, the woman who wore that dress, and imagined how she might have looked on her wedding day.

“I have come home to a place that gives me no sense of home. I want to finish my house so that I do not have to breathe the air outside the windows. And then I will no longer have to drive past the bus station in a taxi every morning. There, built into the wall running along the back of the terminus where the buses arrive, is a framed window with an old advertisement for a wedding dress store. I see her face and body in that dress behind the glass, not being able to get out and leave with the convoys of people who left during the war.”

Sarajevo, November 1997

Half of Bosnia-Herzegovina’s 4.36 million population is displaced and 250,000 are dead.

During the four years siege of Sarajevo, almost half of its 500,000 inhabitants fled the city.

10,000 Sarajevans are dead.

The population of Sarajevo at present is 350,000.