The train from Zagreb to Sarajevo, a prewar model, was
coming to life, hissing small puffs of steam from its
undercarriage. Linked behind it were a couple of beat-up cars.
As I dragged my suitcase along beside the train, a middle-aged
woman walked ahead of me with a decided limp. She reminded
me of a toadstool. She had a small head, brown hair pulled up
in a topknot, slightly askew. A tan raincoat almost covered her
wide, heavy-looking skirt, and beneath the flare of skirt, two
spindly legs grew like stems from her dark, low-heeled shoes.
She looked respectable in a carry-everything-you-own-with-
you-on-a-trip kind of way.
As I approached, she was trying to heave her two large
suitcases up the metal steps onto the train. In addition to the
suitcases and her handbag, she struggled to keep several
shopping bags from spilling onto the gravel. Roundish, and
not very tall, she turned to me in exasperation, and her face
had the chalky whiteness of the flesh of a mushroom.
“Can I help?” I asked.
She looked at me suspiciously.
“Do you speak English?” I asked.
She continued staring.
“Is this the train for Sarajevo?” I spoke slowly and gave her
my best smile.
“Yes,” she said, in faultless English. “Yes, if we can ever
manage to get ourselves on board.”
One of her suitcases teetered precariously on the second step.
I reached out to keep it from falling, and soon we were pulling
the rest of our luggage up onto the train. The conductor
watched impassively. A man was boarding at the next car and
didn’t even turn his head.
Their indifference reminded me of why people in Zagreb
depressed me. They seemed so self-satisfied, clinging to their
European identity with stubborn determination rather than
acknowledging their Yugoslavian and Balkan ties. And being a
Catholic country, the city closed down on Sunday. I had
wanted to visit some of the art shops and ateliers, but banks,
grocery stores, book stores, everything was closed. Sunday
had been a long, boring day.
As we struggled I thought about how I used to spend
Sundays in Zagreb, eating leisurely breakfasts with colleagues,
or hiking in the mountains just outside the city. But ten years
had passed and it made a difference. I wasn’t that keen on
hiking any longer.
I had come back to ex-Yugoslavia to visit friends I’d kept in
touch with since the war. After a week on the Dalmatian Coast
soaking up the sun, and wandering through upscale tourist
shops, I’d fallen in love with the folk art, called “naïf art” by
people in the know. I loved the lively paintings, colorful villages
and richly embroidered landscapes, so different from the
devastated and lifeless scenes I had known when working with
a humanitarian aid agency during the war.
The train was already under way as we stumbled into the first
empty compartment; we couldn’t lift our suitcases onto the
overhead racks, so they took up pretty much all available
space. Lela, who introduced herself as we herded our
belongings, slid across to the window and stretched out her
legs on the suitcases.
“Good, nobody can enter,” she said. She wiggled out of her
raincoat, clutching her handbag and arranging her shopping
bags around her like lumpy security cushions.
I liked the old European trains where passengers sit facing
each other. There is an instant camaraderie, almost an intimacy
that develops on a long journey. And this proved to be a very
long journey indeed.
Lela started off by explaining that she was traveling to her flat
in Sarajevo, which she hadn’t visited for about three months.
She also had two flats in Zagreb that she owned with her
brother. She hoped to sell one of the flats in Zagreb soon
because real estate prices were dropping quickly. This she
attributed to the fact that Croatia was being destroyed, a
broken country for which she blamed the government that was
being run by robbers and the mafia.
Serbia had won the war, Lela maintained, proven by the fact
that there were two Serbias, the country itself, and Republika
Srpska, the part of Bosnia and Herzegovina governed by the
Bosnian Serbs. The Federation, ruled by a coalition of Bosnian
Muslims and Bosnian Croats (Catholics) was, according to Lela,
ruled secretly by robbers and the mafia. She had a lot to say
about robbers and spies and such.
During the next hours, Lela told a long, rambling story about
her father, a Serb, a military intelligence officer who had
worked in Sarajevo and had taken a flat there during the war.
A spy? I didn’t ask the question out loud.
She had been educated in Belgrade, very well educated. “I
speak German, English, and of course Serbian and Croatian.”
She paused, her eyes bright with challenge.
I murmured something politely. I wouldn’t win that contest.
She, her mother, and brother and sister moved from Belgrade
to Zagreb during the war, while her father was living in
Sarajevo. She didn’t say why. They were teased and bullied
and accused of being Communists in a country which had
become fanatically Catholic under Tudjman during the war.
When her father died, about ten years ago, her family had
inherited the flat in Sarajevo, but they had never lived there.
Her mother had died and her sister as well. Her brother, a
successful artist, had moved to Ljubljana, Slovenia, for a while.
She wished he had stayed there. Lubljana was a better city,
and Slovenia was a better country. But her brother had moved
back to “follow his profession.”
I wasn’t sure what that meant.
In addition to being an artist, Lela said her brother also
painted sets for the theater. But he had recently had open-
“Oh, that’s too bad,” I said. “What kind of artist is he?”
“He paints landscapes,” she said. “Very successful.
Unfortunately, he has been unable to work much lately with his
heart problems, health problems,” she added vaguely. She
burrowed through one of her shopping bags. “I have one of
his cards somewhere.” She pulled a small beaded purse out of
her shopping bag, opened it, and handed me a visitor card.
“Here,” and without more explanation, she went on with her
story of how she hoped, after selling the flat, to move to
Austria, which she said was the only civilized country.
“What do you do?” I asked the question cautiously.
“Oh no, I have never worked, although my father always said I
was the most intelligent of his children.” She smiled with
satisfaction and dismissed the question with a wave of her
When I remarked at the fallow fields and neglected-looking
farms, she said the government had abandoned the peasants.
There was no program for rebuilding the food supply. The
Catholic Church used propaganda to convince the peasants
that God would take care of them. I mentioned that along the
coast it was looking prosperous enough, and people there had
told me Croatia would soon enter the EU.
Lela didn’t agree. “That won’t happen. The people are fools.”
She explained that Croatia wouldn’t be allowed to enter the EU
until they complied with the Dayton Peace Accords and
enforced the Right of Return for Croatian Serbs who had been
ethnically cleansed during the war. “The EU won’t last. It will fall
apart. You wait and see. I read The Economist.”
On and on she went. I didn’t say much about myself, only
remarking that I had lived and worked in Serbia and Croatia
during the war. I didn’t mention any connections with Bosnia,
or any of my Bosnian friends. Lela wasn’t interested in my
story, anyway. She pushed ahead with her monologue with the
steady pace of a long distance runner.
About a half hour outside of Sarajevo a young woman
squeezed into our compartment. The train had made many
stops along the way, and was so crowded some passengers
were standing in the aisle.
“Excuse me,” she began. “Yes, I can find a place.” She couldn’t
have been more than early twenties, with pale skin and dark
eyes, heavily made up. She had dyed black hair that she
twisted around her finger as she talked. Her clothes were
shabby: faded blue jeans, a tight long-sleeved shirt, and soft
boots. Speaking with a slight lisp and shifting restlessly in her
seat, she introduced herself, Jasmina. She grew up in Sarajevo
but was born in Brčko, which was badly damaged in the war.
Her family had moved to Lubljana during the war, but she was
returning to her apartment in Sarajevo, which had been totally
sacked, everything gone. “Nothing lives there,” she said with a
sad smile. “Nothing but bats.”
Lela nodded as though it was to be expected.
Jasmina was planning to attend the American University and
study law. Her parents had agreed to help finance her. A few
stations outside of Sarajevo, she got off, and we wished her
well, but privately I felt that the challenges to this sad, nervous
girl were going to be too much.
When we finally arrived in Sarajevo, it was past 7:00 p.m. Lela
warned me about robbers and thieves. Muslims were lazy,
terrible, influenced by the Turks, she said. Turks had spies in
the city. It was dangerous. I should hide my rings or people
would rob me.
I began to feel a little nervous.
As we pushed our bags out into the corridor, two cheerful
young men picked them up, carried them down from the train
and up to the terminal. Waving off my thanks they
disappeared into the night. Lela had no comment.
She refused to take a taxi. “You can’t trust taxi drivers,” she
said with finality. So we took a trolley. She had a couple of
tokens that she shared with me. We got off just across from
the beautiful National Library, shelled during the siege. I
noticed it was still under repair, shrouded in some kind of
enormous netting. The trolley clanged off, and with the help of
a sweet young woman with very bad teeth, we lugged
everything across the busy street to my Pansion Vijećnica.
The young woman invited us to come by the café where she
worked the next day and have a coffee. She told us the name
of the café and said as she was leaving, “I’ll be waiting for you.”
After I had checked in, I offered to accompany Lela to her
apartment and carry at least one of her bags. She protested,
saying she could make two trips, but finally gave in. It was
almost dark as we walked through the cobbled streets of
Baščaršija, the Turkish section, past the fountain in Sebilj,
Pigeon Square. The suitcases we pulled behind us like
lumbering pets clicked over the uneven stones. Her anxiety
We followed alleys into narrow passages and hidden
courtyards until we reached a small hole in the wall bakery
giving off a delicious fragrance of freshly baked bread. Inside
the pass-through window which glowed like a beacon in the
surrounding darkness, people in white caps and long white
aprons spilled crusty rolls and small loaves of bread into trays
which they placed on the wide counter. Lela said the place was
open twenty-four hours a day and the bread was free. She
stuffed a few rolls in her bag and led me back onto a street
busy with pedestrians and crowded cafés.
“This is the nicest part of town.” Lela was stating a fact.
I noticed we had left the old part of the city, and now the
buildings where larger, more substantial, Austro-Hungarian-
looking. Lela hurried along, an anxious, determined look on her
face. When we got to her apartment building, she insisted on
going around to the back entrance.
“I never let people know when I’m leaving or arriving,” she said.
By this time I was thoroughly uncomfortable, not to mention
tired. It was getting late, and I wasn’t sure I could find my way
back to my pension.
Lela steered me through the back entrance and up the
darkened stairs to the second floor. When we got to her
apartment, she sorted through her bags, looking for her keys
in separately wrapped pouches. With the many locks undone,
she opened the door and I stared into a hallway crammed from
floor to ceiling with boxes, furniture and junk.
Lela peered inside. “No one has been here,” she said with
“But how do you get in?” I asked.
“Oh, I have my ways.” Lela smiled a brief, secret smile and
waved her hand.
I thought, Maybe she built this edifice to ward off real or
The apartment was dark.
“Do you have electricity?” I asked. “Heat? Hot water?” I looked
into the darkness with foreboding. “A phone?”
Lela seemed irritated by my questions. “Nema problema,” she
She shoved her bags into the seemingly impenetrable wall. “Do
you know how to get back? I’ll come with you.”
Limping heavily, telling me not to be in such a hurry, she
stopped after a few blocks to rest against a stone wall.
“I can find my way from here,” I said, catching sight of the
gray shroud of the National Library rising over low rooftops.
“Let’s have lunch tomorrow. We could go to the café, what’s
“Yes, Vera, that would be nice.” She was leaning heavily
against the wall. “I enjoyed traveling with you,” she said, and
straightened up to go. “I’ll call you tomorrow.”
I watched her tired progress, and then headed gratefully for
After I had unpacked and was in bed trying to fall asleep, Lela’s
stories filled my head like a cobweb of false starts. How old
was she really? I had thought in her mid-forties, about my
age. But if she was in high school during the war, it didn’t add
up. That would have been ten years ago, fifteen at the most,
making her in her thirties. Why did her family move from
Belgrade to Zagreb during the war? That was like moving to
enemy territory. What was her father doing in Sarajevo? He
was the one person she spoke about with any affection. Was
she destitute, or some kind of hoarder? What about her
brother? A successful artist? Maybe he supported her. The
threads tangled my brain until suddenly I remembered
“Oh, where did I put it?” I bolted out of bed. Fumbling for the
light, I found my handbag, searching for the visitor card Lela
had given me. “Željko Lućić, Umjetnik,” it said. I turned the
card over. To my surprise, the address on the back was for
the Galerija Naif Art with a street address in both Zagreb and
Sarajevo. So, her brother lived in Sarajevo too, or had an
address here. I sat for a minute puzzling, and then got back
into bed. My last conscious thought was Tomorrow I’ll look
The next morning before leaving to change money and buy a
new SIM card, I asked the desk clerk to tell anyone who called
or came by that I’d be back around noon. He said he
remembered the woman who was with me the night before and
would watch out for her. His expression wasn’t exactly
My errands took longer than I had planned. I wandered among
the little shops and through the open market, lost in
memories. When I got back to my pension, the desk clerk told
me no one had called. He had the same disapproving look as
before. I wasn’t surprised.
Sasha, whom I had worked with during the war, had invited me
to dinner that night. He was the main reason I had come to
Sarajevo. Now I had the afternoon free, and I decided to
spend it tracking down Lela’s brother Željko.
I handed the visitor card to the desk clerk. “Do you know this
address?” I asked.
He studied the card. “I think that street is out in Dobrinje. Yes,
I can show you on the map. Here, yes, you take the trolley out
to this stop, just past the National Museum. There you get a
bus; number six to Dobrinje. Get off here, at Fra Kneževića.
You will see a big new Radon Hotel where the bus stops.
Nedzarići Street is a few blocks from where you get off. Here it
I followed his finger west from the old city and along the main
highway that ran out to the airport. It used to be called
“Snipers Alley” during the siege when the Bosnian Serbs
controlled the area from the surrounding mountains. Now it
was Bulevar Meša Selimovića, after one of Bosnia’s most
Before leaving I called Sasha. Hearing his voice, I felt a frisson
of excitement. He had been briefly and unforgettably the love
of my life. I told him I was spending the afternoon looking for a
local artist named Żeljko Lucić. I figured that somebody should
know where I was going.
The trolley was easy, and I recognized the Holiday Inn as we
passed, now brightly refurbished. Everything had a faintly
familiar, but somehow disorienting tinge to it, like I should
remember things but didn’t quite. I got off at the Radon Hotel.
In a little shop nearby, I stopped for a cheese pie and coffee.
Ten minutes later I was walking down Nedƶarići Street. It was
a neighborhood of small houses, unpaved streets with children
playing and mothers pushing carriages. Nobody paid much
attention to me.
Toward the end of the block, I came to a two-story building
with a sign hanging from a post. “Galerija Naif Art.” I walked up
the worn brick path to the front door. Nobody was around. I
opened the door and entered a center hallway. Everything was
I walked into a small sunlit room. Lining the walls were colorful
paintings, some in miniature, others done on a larger scale. I
went closer and studied one that caught my eye. It was a
snow scene, done in acrylic, the trees in silhouette, their
branches delicately curled like gnarled fingers holding mounds
of snow. Sturdy peasants in their colorful costumes chopped
wood, threw branches on a fire, their homely faces lit by the
flames. Just the kind of painting I had been looking for.
I walked around the room entranced, my shoes echoing on the
shiny wooden floors, studying each painting, trying to make
out the artist’s name. One of the larger paintings, as simple as
a child’s, was a farm cottage with a heavy thatched roof and
bright pink walls. In the foreground, rows of large, colorful
flowers. A peasant woman, wearing a white fringed scarf,
leaned over to pick them, her hands like awkward mittens, on
her arm a large basket. Lollipop trees and bright red apples
dotted the flat landscape behind the cottage. I leaned in for a
closer look, and painted in small careful letters in the right
hand corner it said Željko Lućić. The price sticker was more
than I could afford.
I heard footsteps in the hall and turned.
“Dobar dan, molim vas?” A man stood in the doorway. I
thought it must be Željko, and for some reason I blushed like I
had been caught robbing the store.
“Dobar dan,” I said. “Izvinite, jasam iz Amerika. . . . Do you
“Yes, of course,” the man said with some impatience.
“Oh, that’s wonderful. These paintings are wonderful. I came
to see Željko Lućić’s work. I know his sister.”
“You’re American.” It was not a question. “How do you know
I told him that I'd met Lela on the train and that I was
interested in naïf art. I had worked in Serbia, Croatia and
Bosnia during the war and I’d come back to visit friends, see
how things had changed.
“And they have changed of course. I was so lucky to meet
Lela, otherwise I would never have known about this gallery
and about her brother. I love these paintings. They speak of a
different time, a more innocent time. . . . Lućić’s work is
wonderful.” I stopped, out of gas.
The man was staring at me. He was dressed in jeans and a
sports jacket, his shirt open at the neck. His dark hair was
graying at the temples, his deep set eyes had a somber,
“Lućić is not here,” he said heavily. “Did Lela tell you he had a
I nodded. “Yes, she did. I hope he is recovering?”
The man shook his head. “No, he is not recovering. And he will
not recover. He died this morning. I came in to close the
gallery. I’m sorry but you will have to leave.”
His words hit me like a shot. My head jerked backwards.
“Leave? I’m sorry, what? I can’t believe . . . How could this
happen? Oh, My God! Does Lela know?”
“No, she doesn’t know.” His voice was harsh.
“But she will be so upset. What will happen? What will she do?”
“This is not your problem.” His voice was cold, even angry.
I had offended him. I had been too enthusiastic, too eager,
too American and he was dealing with death.
“No, it isn’t. I’m sorry. You must be a good friend. I want to
help. Is there anything I can do?”
He turned away, his hands covering his face, his shoulders
heaving. Suddenly I knew. He and Željko were lovers.
He wiped his face with the sleeve of his jacket. “There is
something.” Still without looking at me, “You know Lela is
“Yes, I got that impression. I helped her carry her bags to her
He looked surprised. “You saw her flat?”
“Well not exactly. I couldn’t squeeze in. Nobody could.”
For the first time he smiled. “My name is Aleksandar. Excuse
me for not introducing myself. I was not expecting visitors.”
He was looking at me now, assessing. With an intake of breath
he said, “Yes, there is something. Will you wait while I close? If
you’ll allow me to drive you to Lela’s flat, we might find her
there, or we can leave a note. Perhaps you could be with her,
comfort her. She has not many friends.”
And that’s how it happened.
While he locked the doors and went into the back, I waited
outside. It wasn’t what I had expected, but I had turned up at
the right time. I could be a help and already I could piece
together more of the puzzle. I had seen Željko’s work and now
I was determined to know the whole story. Perhaps I could
even take one of his brilliant paintings home with me.
Lyndon Back worked in ex-Yugoslavia during the war. In
2010, she returned to visit friends and colleagues. "Balloon
Head," the first in a series of short stories set in ex-
Yugoslavia, appeared in the January 2015 issue of Forge. Her
poems, articles, and book reviews have been published in
Friends Journal, Pendle Hill Publications, Quaker History
Journal, First Day, and Poetry Ink 2013. Lyndon serves as
clerk of membership for the Nobel Peace Prize Group of the
American Friends Service Committee.
Photo: Sarajevo's famous Pigeon Square
|AFTER THE WAR:
NOTES FROM A
by Lyndon Back