Story and photos by Jim Bartlett, Editor-in-Chief
Every once in a while in this place you run into a gem of a person who makes all the rest of the crap you deal with bearable. One of those people not only helped me a great deal during my time in Sarajevo but also became my friend and protector. In fact, that was how we met. His name is Edin, and he is all of 14 years old.
I was strolling the main drag looking at all the grumpy people in the cafes when I stopped to buy a pack of smokes from one of the infinite number of kids who sell them on the street. They wanted to take me to a little pool hall they knew of and although I knew it was probably a wolf's lair of the first order, I went along. After all, I was ready to take care of myself if it came down to that. And what a wolf's lair it was.
It was in the basement of a bombed-out relic of an apartment flat and so smoky you could barely see. Sitting all over the place were some very shady-looking kids and, except for the owner, I didn't see a full-fledged adult. They had one battered old pool table and I was greeted with cold stares when I came in. I knew in an instant this place was bad news, but I was there. So I hung out for a while as the younger kids tried to set me up with a couple of sixteen-year olds and the older kids tried to buddy up. Dickens meets Terminator. Definitely.
After a while, one of the younger kids started talking to me in hushed tones, warning me of what was going down and how the other kids were trying to set me up. The other kids kept saying he was crazy so I took that to mean he was telling the truth. From that moment on, he became my self-appointed protector and advocate, even going so far as to escort me to the bathroom and stand watch outside.
When I went to leave, some other kids wanted to walk me home, read that as "roll the American on his way home." Edin insisted on coming along and took me by the arm the whole way, repeatedly drawing me aside to warn me of the not-so-friendly intentions of his friends. When I reached the apartment where I was staying, my landlady opened the door and most of the kids took off, another confirmation of their evil intent. As I lay down to sleep, I chalked the whole thing up to the weird and wild and figured I'd never see any of them again. Boy, was I glad I was wrong.
Next morning I woke to find my car had been towed by the police. This is becoming more prevalent in Sarajevo and it is done for no other real reason than to do it. While I had taken the Croatian licvense plates off, a politically-correct thing to do in some parts, the plate holder still had the rental logo on it and thus it was marked. So after breakfast I set out to recover it, fully expecting a full round of hassles and expenses inherent in any dealings with an otherwise impotent Bosnian police force.
Because Dayton has pretty much castrated them, the local police exercise power wherever they can, and they do so with a vigor, kind of like a spoiled child with a kickball. Traffic is their new forte and they are more than happy to tow foreigners, slim-jim the locks and steal anything of value inside. It's bad enough with the urchins and the "Sarajevo Cowboys," but when the police turn out to be just as bad it makes me a little sick. War or not, I still believe in something called honor, but it is unfortunately a lost concept with many in Bosnia these days.
Anyway, as I was walking along towards the gates of bureaucratic hell, I heard someone call my name. I turned, and low and behold it was Edin. I told him what was up and he volunteered to help me out. He became my official fixer and a good one at that, although his habit of telling people to fuck off after he asked for directions or such was something I had to insist he stop.
A "fixer" is an essential part of covering Bosnia. They do more than translate. They explain and have the inside track on many issues one might face here. Their name is the best reflection of the role they fulfill. They fix things. Interviews, show and tells, hotels, you name it. They are worth their weight in gold.
As we began to sort out the mechanics of getting my car back, Edin told me about himself. First, I was to call him "John" for John Connor in the movie Terminator, of which he had a copy. He learned a great deal of his English from Terminator, and would quote it regularly. It struck me as completely perfect that this boy would identify so strongly with the whole Schwarzenegger theme as we walked down the destroyed corridor of Sniper Alley. The place was trashed in the same way the movie portrayed modern earth during the war against the machines.
The more he talked, the more I admired the guy. He is a plucky little fellow who has scuttled through this war-torn city, providing for his sister and mother for four years. His parents split before the war and he became the man of the house at age 10. They had the misfortune of living right next to a U.N. base and the house was hit four times by artillery. His 12-year-old sister, Ena, was hit by shrapnel during the siege of Sarajevo and Edin (or John) had a number of close shaves as well. He is more than a little street-wise.
After we rescued my car from the cops, he gave me the guided tour of the city. He knows all the children in Sarajevo and was constantly waving and calling out to his friends as we drove along. It was interesting to hear the role that kids like him played during the war. With most of their fathers either gone or at the front, boys like Edin assumed the role of provider. Almost every day he told me, they braved the streets to gather wood, beg for handouts, and generally hustle to give their families a little edge. One time it almost cost him his life.
He ventured out to gather wood one day in 1993, and went down to an area of Sniper Alley that was particularly hot. Most of the wood in safer areas had already been picked clean so he worked his way up to about 50 meters from the Serb line in Grabvica. That's when the Serbs got him in their sights and fired a rifle grenade at him. But Edin is a quick kid. He ducked into a doorway. Still, the thing detonated five feet over the doorway and blew fragments into the street all in front of him. He hotfooted it out of there pronto, but didn't drop the wood. That night his mother cooked them the first hot meal they had had in days.
Edin is also a man of honor. While the other kids were more interested in a quick buck off the foreigner, Edin protested loudly when I tried to take him out for a pizza. He said it was too expensive. It was all of seven marks but he was adamant until I told him flatly that he was working for me as my fixer and I had to pay him for his services. He continued to protest, saying that he liked hanging out with me and I didn't need to pay him at all. That's when I pulled rank and told him that as long as he was working for me he would do as he was told. That settled the argument and he ate his pizza.