Saturday, 23 February 2013
Aleksandar Hemon: A personal history of Sarajevo
An ice storm looms over Chicago and Aleksandar Hemon is going for a walk. Flat-capped, black-coated, his stride restricted by old football injuries, he gives the impression of a man older than he is. Hemon is tall, and has a shaved head. Everyone who knows him even a little bit calls him Saša. "I walked a lot when I first moved here," Hemon says, as we enter a small, nondescript storefront. For the past year he has gone to this studio during the day to write. He makes a coffee and leads us to a silent conference room; it is 21 years ago to the day that Hemon landed in America – 27 January 1992. The Serbs' terrible siege of Sarajevo had yet to begin, and Hemon was just a young Bosnian journalist about to set off on a tour of the United States. His plan was to return home with the cultural loot of new experience.
"I landed in DC, and an escort from the US information agency and I went to see his friends," Hemon recalls. "We parked in Georgetown, and I remember the street. It was a nice townhouse in Georgetown, and I could see the light inside and the people inside moving, and whatever little bit of furniture, and I thought with that kind of pressing clarity: I will never get inside this house.
"And there was no basis for that. I did not intend to stay, I had no experience in the United States – I may have been here less than 24 hours – but I knew I would never get inside there. And 'there' not being America necessarily, but that harmonious mode of living that some people are lucky enough to have in this country."
Hotel Europa, Sarajevo, May 2006
It was an inauspicious first feeling, and one he would have to live with for a while. Hemon wasn't able to return to Sarajevo for eight years. Shortly after he arrived in the US war descended on Bosnia, cutting him off from friends and family. Rare phone calls brought him news of friends conscripted into the army, separated from their fathers and brothers and killed. Snipers riddled his neighbourhood with bullet holes. The snipers shot dogs when it was discovered that the animals could anticipate a shelling.
Many Sarajevans who escaped lost their whole family. Hemon was luckier. His parents, an engineer and a schoolteacher, got out the day before the siege began. So did his sister. Eventually, they wound up in Canada, where they worked in grim jobs and his father was able to resurrect his love of beekeeping. Stuck in Chicago, Hemon watched as his city was destroyed.