Authors: Janine di Giovanni
A Memoir of War and Love
Janine di Giovanni
(This is my love letter)
‘In his sorrow he found one source of relief in war’
We arrived in Paris in rainy January, the first week of the new year, shuffling our feet like little soldiers retreating from battle. The moving boxes and crates had followed us from places where there really was war: the Ivory Coast, Iraq, Sarajevo, and Afghanistan, and were filled with remnants of the life that both of us were trying to leave behind.
The boxes were tall and foreboding. Mine were cardboard from an overpriced shipping agency in London. The movers came to my Notting Hill flat one afternoon and wrapped my entire London life in plastic and paper, nearly twenty years of it sealed away in boxes. They packed everything, even lipstick-stained cigarettes left behind in ashtrays from a dinner party the night before.
Bruno’s crates were more solid. They were wooden and imposing and came by ship from Abidjan. Together, our combined possessions lined the dining room of our rented apartment on the Right Bank so there was no room to walk around unless you shimmied between them. Unpacking them seemed a distant chore, impossible, something that would happen far away in the future.
Inside my boxes were pots and pans with burn marks from omelettes that were left unattended for too long; velvet dresses worn once or twice at a forgotten London fancy-dress party; down-filled coats and sleeping bags still lightly coated in dust. There were hiking boots with red mud from Afghanistan; my mother’s delicate china tea set; my black-and-white photographs from Africa and the Middle East and the Balkans. There were pieces of a disassembled wooden Shaker-style chair I had bought with a previous boyfriend, ready to be reassembled in Paris, and piles of old, worn linen sheets bought in Ireland and Rome. There were towels and dishes, pie plates with bits of burnt pastry still left on them, and hundreds of books.
I had left the flat where I had lived for a dozen years empty except for the bed. That was staying behind; I could not bear to bring it to my new life. I had inherited it from an Irish girl, a banker, who had fled to Dublin with a broken heart, and it seemed time to pass it on again, this time to the blonde German lodger, a solemn psychoanalyst, who was renting my flat.
Also inside the boxes were things that would only make sense to me. Painful Gucci stiletto heels which were bought in New York on a whim and worn only once; an ashtray stolen from a hotel in Algeria; some bits of metal shrapnel twisted like an odd sculpture; a packet of love letters – some of them faxes, faded with time – tied with a pale pink ribbon; and two flak jackets with Kevlar inserts to protect the chest and groin and shoulders from bullet wounds.
There were also two helmets with my blood group taped on the front and carefully marked in indelible ink; a nylon bag of medical supplies; packets of the antibiotic Ciprofloxacin; a buddy injection of a liquid opiate that I had stolen from a miserable red-headed American soldier before leaving Kuwait for Basra. There was a satellite telephone and two digital cameras that I had never learned how to use, still in their boxes with the instructions. There was a waxy chemical weapon suit, wrapped in plastic and tied with elastics; an unused gas mask; and maps of Baghdad circled in red at strategic points.
There were eighteen black covered notebooks scribbled with names like Ali and Bassam and Mona and Ahmed – names of people I had interviewed in what seemed like another lifetime, and my canvas boots, still full of sands from the western desert in Iraq.
Bruno’s packing cases were more exotic than mine. His boxes were filled with things Claude Lévi-Strauss might have collected during his long and lonely voyages. There were bits of woven fabric in equatorial colours; long feathered arrows from Brazil; black-and-white shimaghs from the Middle East; pink-and-white shells from the beaches near Grand-Bassam, outside of Abidjan; green and red and black beads from Mali; a dried-out starfish that still smelled of the sea; teak tables and mirrors with ivory inlays; brass trunks; a heavy white blanket from Ethiopia; and ancient Buddha heads from Afghanistan and Burma. He had a long cloak from the Tuaregs in the Sahara, and he knew how to wrap it so that he looked, as he put it, like a man from the desert.
There were six brass cups from somewhere in Central Asia. There were lapis lazuli necklaces from Iraq and prayer rugs from Kurdistan. There was a metal box full of photographs which he kept secret. There was his name written in Greek on a gold plate which an old girlfriend, a lawyer, had made for him. And there were rugs from a trip to Afghanistan where we had both met by chance, and then dramatically split up, for absolutely the last time, I had thought. We were slowly, and with great tentativeness, lifting our old lives from the boxes and trying to make room for them in this new and frightening life.
Bruno looked the same as he did when I first met him, many years before, in the hotel lobby of the Holiday Inn in Sarajevo. It was in another lifetime, and it was strange, how we met, how two people, two lives collided full force with as much impact as a donkey kick. And because of that chance collision, another life was made, a child was born, and our cycle went on. ‘Now you both are immortal,’ someone told him the day our son was born. At the time, still bleary from drugs and pain, and the shock of holding another life in my hands, I did not understand the words. Now I do.
The lobby of the wartime Holiday Inn was an ugly, cavernous space that opened up to the hallways of the eight floors. It was freezing in winter, scorching in summer, and got shelled and shot at on a regular basis. It was positioned in one of the most dangerous front lines of the city, a place we called Sniper’s Alley. Journalists, penned up for months and months and growing bored, used to abseil with rope from the top to the bottom of the lobby. There were long periods without water, electricity, and heating in the winter, and one season we had to drop red tablets into the water for fear of a cholera epidemic. The food, one of my colleagues once remarked, was worse than his grandfather ate in Auschwitz. We subsidized it with expensive black market luxuries, or packages of chocolate picked up at the last minute in Zagreb Airport before boarding the United Nations flight that dropped us in Sarajevo for months and months and months.
In the summer of 1993, the second year of the war, Bruno and I arrived from our respective homes in Paris and London to report on the longest-running siege in modern history. He was a cameraman for the main French channel, France 2, and I worked for a major British newspaper. We were young, easily impressed, very green, and young enough to have real passion for what we believed in. I believed then, as I sometimes do now, that occasionally what you write or photograph or film can reach someone somewhere, and make some kind of difference. But I did it with more fire in those days.
I had been in Sarajevo since the previous December, but it was Bruno’s first time. He saw me, he said, from a mezzanine, which was suspended between the first and second floors. There was a piano on that level, hidden in a corner near the bombed-out side of the building where we were not meant to go because it was particularly visible to the snipers, and sometimes I heard an Italian journalist called Renzo playing ghostly tunes – Schubert, or jazz, which sounded alien, coming, as it seemed, from nowhere.
In those days, we would try to go to the daily press briefing at the UN complex in the old Post Telephone and Telegraph building on Sniper’s Alley. If you had an armoured car, the journey was fine and took about seven minutes. If you did not, it was nerve-wracking: stuffed into the back seat of a VW Rabbit with your fellow hacks wearing flak jackets and laden with bags stuffed with computers and cameras, hoping a stray shot would not pierce the metal of the car. In those days, I remembered with frightening clarity the prayers the nuns had taught us when I was small: a slender white book I had forgotten, embossed with gold; prayers about seeking forgiveness before death.
The briefing was at 9 a.m. sharp and I was not a morning person. I usually woke, drank a watery coffee served in a makeshift dining room, grabbed a piece of hard bread, and ambushed a television journalist – they always had armoured cars – to beg them into giving me a ride. CNN’s truck was always full, and they had the reputation of not helping anyone but their own. The BBC people, however, were more generous, and they usually waved me into the back of their truck. ‘Get in, hurry up.’ The back of the car smelled of gasoline from the stores of petrol in tin cans.
The morning I met Bruno was sometime in August. It was hot, but the clouds in Sarajevo lay low and grey, and gave the impression of an autumn rather than a high summer day. After breakfast, I found Jeremy, a fellow journalist, who was kind and funny and who said there was no rush. ‘Drink your coffee,’ he said, ‘then we’ll go.’ We drank the coffee – bitter, black and without sugar – and Jeremy looked at his watch. We grabbed the flak jackets, which accompanied us everywhere. I swung mine over my shoulder, bearing the weight on my right side, and wincing slightly at the pain in my right collarbone, which I had broken twice already. We were headed through the lobby, towards the stairwell that took us to the underground parking lot. Once you got to a car, you strapped in and raced out of the car park as fast as lightning because the entrance lay right in view of the Serbian snipers.
But before we reached the stairwell, someone passed us, clearly in a hurry. I bent to tie my shoelace, then stood up, and saw something out of the corner of my eye. A strange and beautiful man had dropped to his knees in front of me. Both Jeremy and I stopped short. The man held a large camera on his shoulder and was saying something in French – or perhaps in French-accented English – we could not hear because he was whispering. I stared, and Jeremy stared, and the man was also staring, intensely, at me. Eventually, I made out his words: ‘Don’t ever look at me like that!’ he said dramatically. He was laughing.
It was a strange moment, one that would ultimately change the entire course of my life. I looked down at this person on his knees. He was slender, almost Asiatic looking, wearing baggy combat trousers and a t-shirt. His boots were highly polished. He had a beautiful, wide smile. He was flirting, and laughing at my reaction. He picked himself up and stood in front of me. He looked directly into my eyes: his were green and unflinching. There was not much for me to do but smile back, weakly, and then turn, embarrassed, and keep walking towards the door.