Skip to content

Toothache, Bleeding, Farewell

A personal history of the Siege of Sarajevo

Born in Sarajevo in 1966, Miljenko Jergović is one of the most prolific and widely read and translated ex-Yugoslav writers. His poetry, fiction, essays, and columns grapple with the legacy of the 1990s Bosnian war, Balkan history, and the tension between personal and official historical narratives. His books in English translation include the novels Kin (2021, translated by Russell Scott Valentino), Ruta Tannenbaum (2011, translated by Stephen M. Dickey) and the short story collection Sarajevo Marlboro (2004, translated by Stela Tomasevic). He can be seen in the film The Long Road Through Balkan History.

In this essay, originally published on his blog, Jergović recalls the first week of the Siege of Sarajevo, on its thirtieth anniversary. Intertwined with a story of one of the thousands of relationships that the siege severed are keen observations on Bosnian and Sarajevan culture.  

—Mirza Purić

Nataša went to Belgrade on Wednesday, and I got a toothache. She was supposed to stay for ten days and return. Then on Thursday I set out with Duško Trifunović[1] and some other writers—their names and faces I’ve forgotten—for a reading in Bosanski Brod.[2] What if we are stopped, abducted? Never mind, Duško is with us. That’s what they said to take heart as we boarded a dark blue Volkswagen van. The van I remember, and the scrum inside, but the writers, you see, I’ve forgotten to the last man.

My toothache gradually worsened. I pictured a hand slowly turning up a potentiometer on an amplifier. I popped a Plivadon, the first of many I would take over the following days. I kept them in my pocket, pressed between silverish aluminum sheets folded a few times over. As we drove along the valley of the river Bosna, everything seemed quite ordinary. A lovely Bosnian spring was setting in, the forests, deep green, had come alive. Reports on the massacres in the northern Bosnian city of Bijeljina played on the radio, delivered over the phone by upset male voices. Duško shifted in his seat. He was wearing a light-colored blazer, the kind one would wear for a TV appearance. His face was flushed, as if from high blood pressure. In Bosanski Brod, some men asked: “Good people, how’s all this going to turn out?” Duško joked with them. It was pitch black on the return journey, just the way nights in Bosnia used to be before the war. Cigarette tips glowed in the darkness. We took a break somewhere along the way, for the non-smokers to get some air.

Back in Sarajevo, I didn’t sleep at all. The pain had grown sharp and relentless, no longer felt like a usual toothache. It was a novel pain, never before experienced, never in life tasted, and it terrified me. Pictures of Bosnian-Herzegovinian communities flashed on television. People’s leaders were making statements. I squeezed my tooth with my fingertips, trying to free up some space in my head. But there was none to be freed.

I thought about what all this would be like once it receded into the past. Well, now I know.

On Friday, at eight in the morning, a respectable hour, I went to see my neighbor, a private-practice dentist who lived two houses up on Sepetarevac Street. He opened the door looking fearful, asked how all this was going to turn out, and my appearance scared him even more. I told him I looked terrible on account of my aching tooth, it was all just the tooth. I remember his dentist chair, the smell of his office, the magnificent view of the city and Mount Trebević. He was a pedigreed Sarajevan with a German surname, what we call a “suitcase-lugger”—a descendant of Austro-Hungarian clerks and administrators who moved to Bosnia when the country was annexed by the empire in the nineteenth century. I remember his late mother, and his sister, a disabled, singularly endearing woman.

The dentist picked up a drill and opened the tooth, which he then steeped in something. “The pain will stop now,” he said. And it may indeed have stopped for an hour or a half, only to return with a vengeance, radiating from the lower left molar, down my neck to the veins and lymph nodes, and further into a space no longer inhabited by me, but by an endless starry expanse, a galaxy, the Milky Way of pain. When Nataša phoned around ten and again at six in the evening, I pretended to be fine. No pain at all. I barely kept myself together for those brief conversations. “Why so tense?” she asked. “How’s Javorka?” she asked.

I didn’t sleep on Saturday either. Actually, I did, in half-hour intervals, after swallowing two Plivadons, until the pain returned with the same vengeance. Then I stood in the dark by the window, gazing at Trebević. There they were, above the last houses in the city, built on the steep slopes, above the cliff swooping down on the valley, on the mouth of this long dormant volcano—the coniferous forests, fragrant and thick. As kids we used to go there for picnics, which I didn’t like—I’d always return with a high fever. It’s nothing, my father would say, the kid will get accustomed to altitude sickness. True enough, the fevers didn’t last long, maybe an hour or two. But every picnic on Trebević ended like that. I think I’ve never been up there with a body temperature below 38°C.

Up on Trebević, mildly dizzy, my head aching, I’d look down at Sarajevo, which seemed like the biggest city you could possibly imagine when you’re little, yet also small enough to make out each house, each alley, each pointy, leafy poplar—and all the minarets. That vista of Sarajevo is among the greatest wonders of my childhood, even if it wasn’t real, arising from an infantile dream, from pre-experience, from my imagination stoked by the fever. That is possibly the most important image I store in my eyes, it still defines me, as I write about it from a distance. That Sarajevo, which lay beneath the feet of a boy on a picnic, who didn’t dare inch toward it lest he fall into the abyss, that Sarajevo I could pelt with stones, to hit passersby. I could, it seemed to me, throw a stone all the way to my house, over those poplars, over the spires of the cathedral, over that yellow apartment building on the right bank of the Miljacka. A friend of mine, long deceased, a Željezničar FC[3] fan, struggled with his architecture studies. He swore that after graduating, he would buy a proper leather football, climb up to Trebević, and kick it as hard as he could into Sarajevo. And that’s what he did, eventually—I used to have the photograph. I imagine the ball landed in someone’s back yard, rolled down the long sloping streets and alleys, and ended up somewhere down below, as someone’s ball, a ball someone lost . . .

And so, as I gazed, oppressed by toothache, across the valley and into the dark slopes of Trebević, a little before midnight on April 3, 1992, I didn’t think about the cannons and mortars that had been emplaced up there—by the Yugoslav Army over the previous months, so that “Bosnian Serb forces” would have ready positions once the war began—because my cognitive horizon was befogged by pain. Thinking only of my tooth, I gazed at Trebević for the darkness to soothe me. Or to pass the time, and with time, the pain. I thought about what all this would be like once it receded into the past. Well, now I know.

On Saturday, sleep-deprived and in pain, I went down to the city. Sepetarevac is a steep street, as is Dalmatinska which adjoins it. I grew up on that slope, sledded down the street in winter. That was the turn of phrase we used: I’m going down into the city! Although Sepetarevac is in the city center, it’s not part of Sarajevo, for the city is what is down below, in the valley. I bought papers at the kiosk by the Central Bank; we were still getting all the Zagreb and Belgrade dailies, the widest variety on Saturdays. With an armful of newspapers I went to the snack bar of the hotel Beograd, took one of those three small tables by the window, and, hoping no one familiar would pop down to disturb me, ordered a double espresso and a coke, swallowed two more Plivadons, and read till the pain returned.

That afternoon the radio reported unrest and new war crimes in the northern regions of Posavina and Semberija. Having sunk yet again into one of her bouts of depression, my mother, Javorka, lay in the living room, with a quilt over her head. Had I been alone, I would’ve been screaming. In the evening, I swallowed two more Plivadons and went to the Partibrejkers[4] gig. A friend of mine—a blond, much younger girl, who I thought was in love with me at the time—handed me a Tramadol, which I gratefully swallowed. All the pain vanished within twenty minutes, and I spent the subsequent hour and a half in a state of euphoria, convinced the tooth would no longer hurt, feeling above it all, above the war and the valley, immortal. After the show, I kissed her on the cheek, met her wistful gaze, shouted “See ya!” and returned home.

Over the following days and months, I taught myself the sounds of weapons, their discharge and their projectiles’ impact. 

High on Tramadol and beer, I fell asleep on seeing the pillow. That would be my last night of peacetime sleep. And the last night without pain. Around half past three, just before dawn on Sunday, April 5, I was woken by the toothache. Or perhaps by a burst of automatic fire. Unsure whether or not I was actually in pain, I decided, to solace myself, that it was the burst that woke me. But the burst seemed quite distant. Then came another, and another, and some single shots. Acoustically, the valley is almost a single space, closed by the mountains on three sides, with the Sarajevo field sprawling on the fourth. It could have been the amphitheatre for a great classical tragedy. But that’s not what it is, it is a concert hall with uneven walls that frame and stress every note and sound. So, when at the crack of dawn someone on the other bank of the Miljacka ripped a burst from an AK-47, the famous Soviet rifle that would become a folk instrument, more important than the saz, the accordion, and the gusle, the ear made it out as clearly as if it were played in Lisinski, Zagreb’s finest concert hall. An hour or two later, when my toothache had returned, two explosions resounded. The first bursts and blasts in Sarajevo.

Over the following days and months, I taught myself the sounds of weapons, their discharge and their projectiles’ impact. Mortar bombs, 60mm, 82mm and 120mm. Howitzer shells, 155mm, tank and cannon rounds. The solitary sniper shot, often from the vintage M-48 rifle. Or a more modern one, procured in the West. The detonation of an 82mm mortar shell down in the city, or on our hill, or on the next one. An explosion close by, followed by another a few dozen meters away, and immediately after, the patter of summer raindrops on the tree crowns in an orchard—the shower of shrapnel. To this day I feel uneasy when summer rain starts.

In the first week of war, an 82mm mortar shell hit our garden and exploded in the crown of a cherry tree. Our façade was riddled with shrapnel, there were shards of broken mirror on the dressing table—seven years of bad luck that don’t seem like much now. But as I listened to the first bursts and blasts at dawn on April 5, I wasn’t yet familiar with the acoustics of my city. And I hadn’t learned to count the whistle, didn’t know that those you heard couldn’t kill you. The whistle of the shell that will kill you is always heard by someone else. The whistle is the sound for the ears of the spared. What struck me then with clarity, however, while the Tramadol was still working, before the pain returned with all its vengeance, the thought that changed my life passing through my forehead like a lobotomy blade, was the realization that, after those first bursts and blasts, I was no longer me, nor was that house my house, nor was that city my city. Everything that would happen subsequently, I understood that morning, would never be proper to me and my life in the way all that happened before was.

The war had started with the first explosion. And the war, I felt, would last a long time, it would in fact never end. Because that war, unlike the one in Croatia, couldn’t have had an ending. In its essence, it was unimaginable and impossible, for what sense could a war in Sarajevo make, given that it was inhabited, according to the 1991 census, by 259,470 Muslims (in 1993 they called themselves Bosniaks); 157,143 Serbs; 34,873 Croats; 56,470 Yugoslavs; and 19,093 others? What would a “just” division of the city look like? Once an impossible war begins, it can never end. I instantly felt bereft of home, as if someone had taken away that bed, those books, the turntable, records, wardrobes, and walls. And so what I desperately tried to do in the subsequent months and years was to preserve that Sarajevo of mine, save it from the nocturnal heist that took place just before the dawn on April 5, 1992. In a way, that’s the most intense identity reflex I’ve ever had in my life. It took me a long time, maybe all of these last thirty years, to learn to live as a foreigner, even in my own language, in my own country.

A child and her mother leaving Sarajevo (November 26, 1992). | Dimitri Messinis

In the morning I was quite beside myself. The pain had returned with all its violence, but I could no longer control it, I could no longer live with it because I’d lost my inner cornerstone. I fell apart with those bursts and blasts. When Nataša called, I barely managed to hide what was going on with me. Though I don’t know what I would’ve told her even if I hadn’t managed—that I had a toothache and had heard gunshots that morning? Go see a dentist immediately, she would’ve told me. And buy a train ticket or a plane ticket, take Javorka, I’ll pick you up in Belgrade. That’s what she would’ve said had I tried to speak my mind. And it would’ve been the right thing to say, to some other man, in some other life. But she wouldn’t have loved that other man, nor, most certainly, would he have loved her. From that point of view, our love was perfectly impractical. And man is, above all, a practical, calculative creature, ready to accept the greatest losses, to live someone else’s life.

That day, April 5, revolved around situation reports from the city police departments—there had been problems at the Novo Sarajevo police office!—and skirmishes around the police academy building in the Vraca neighborhood. I went down to the city, where the usual Sunday lull reigned, but the tooth forced me back home shortly after. In the evening, I told Javorka that that I couldn’t take the pain anymore. Although it was Sunday, she phoned the dental clinic at the university hospital center, where she used to be head of accounting—they all knew her. I spent that night awake.

Monday morning, around seven, we went to the dental unit—a several-hundred-meter trip through secluded alleys of Mejtaš, past the houses big and small, and down Nemanjina street, partly constructed during the Austro-Hungarian Empire, partly in modern times. We used to make that trip quite often, but this time there was something new: shells were falling all around, terrifyingly close to an untrained ear. Not a soul was in the street, save for my mother and me. She was screaming with fear, and I with pain and irritation at her behavior, which struck me as affected. Now I no longer know how a fifty-year old woman—she was fifty back then, all of six years younger than I am today—divorced, neurotic, and crazy, reacts to her first shower of shells. In the months and years that followed, Javorka, too, would grow accustomed to the shelling. Like so many other Sarajevans, she’d react to them as one might react to rain in a world shorn of the umbrella, peacefully waiting in an apartment block entrance for the shower to subside. But, that first time, she screamed. And I was furious with her, in spite of the pain and my animal fear of what was to transpire.

It turned out my fear was well-founded. At the case conference they were surprised by my complaints. The tooth had been opened, there was no visible inflammation around it, but they still opted for urgent extraction, in light of the fact that a war seemed to be raging outside. As the anaesthetics had no effect, two strong men had to hold me down while the professor—a beautiful, strong woman—pulled the tooth out. I remember my howling as someone else’s. But I no longer remember the pain. She ripped the tooth out, but a bit of the root, bent like that of a baobab, was stuck inside, in a way that required the jawbone to be ground down. At that point, mercifully, I fainted.

As we walked back to Sepetarevac, rockets and tracer bullets crisscrossed the sky. Somebody was having fun up there.

My mouth was full of tampons as we rode home in a taxi. I think there was no shooting during the drive. Though the pain was gone, the bleeding wouldn’t stop—slowly pooling in my mouth all night, through which I slept intermittently in my room, waking up every half an hour when the blood started to suffocate me. I put towels on the pillow: everything around me was red and brown. Around midnight, when the bleeding still hadn’t ceased, my father arrived and took all three of us back to the clinic. They gave me a shot and sutured the wound again. This time it didn’t hurt, leaving me relaxed and indifferent. As we walked back to Sepetarevac—my father came along, then went to his own home—rockets and tracer bullets crisscrossed the sky. Somebody was having fun up there.

Those on Trebević were relishing the war they had started. They probably hadn’t taken any casualties yet. And they were surely fascinated by the spectacle of people down in the valley, small like Play-Doh figurines, scurrying about like ants. It must have been difficult to fire the first salvos into the city. Ripping the first burst was likely the hardest part. After that, everything went smoothly. Like a big, insane party. Until the first of them were killed, that is. Then came revenge. Killing with the righteous sense that one of the figurines may have killed their comrade. For months and years, people from Serbia would come to the party for the weekend, as would Russians with sniper rifles. The famous Russian writer Eduard Limonov, beloved in the West, especially in France where he is a café society novelist along with Emmanuel Carrère, who wrote Limonov’s biography for which he won France’s most important prose award, that vaunted Limonov, for the purpose of appearing in a documentary film and for his own enjoyment, fired at Sarajevo from a machine gun. And I, for twenty years or more, wrote about other books by Carrère, as though he was not a swine but a writer. But that’s my debt to life after April 5, 1992: among pigs I must be as if among men, lest I live with a perpetual mental toothache.

I continued to bleed through Tuesday afternoon, when I went to my father at the haematology ward, where they took my blood while he was hospitalized. A shell had landed in front of the hospital entrance and killed two women—though that’s not what he was hospitalized for. The tests showed everything was fine with me.

That night, we once again went to the dental clinic, where I was received by Professor Boško Kućanski, who said he was a reader of mine, and that I needn’t worry about a thing. He kneaded something in a small bowl: “We’re going to patch that up with gypsum quite nicely,” he said. And then, swiftly moving his fingers in my gaping jaw, he did something very strange. For a second I thought that Boško Kućanski—the famous Bosnian-Herzegovinian and Yugoslav sculptor, professor at the academy of fine arts and at the school of dental medicine in Sarajevo—was turning the head on my shoulders into a gypsum sculpture to be cast in bronze. I liked that thought. That’s how the pain would go away, along with the bleeding and the war, as well as the sudden loss of home.

The wound stayed like that all night, filled with gypsum. For fear of bleeding again, I locked my jaws until Wednesday morning, when I cautiously spat out Professor Kućanski’s work—that miserable piece of bloody, gypsum-encrusted gauze—and threw it away, which was a mistake: it could’ve been sitting on my shelf to this day, in front of the rows of books, where I keep mementos and small works of art. Born near the Plitvice lakes, in the Serb village of Krbavica, Croatia, Kućanski was a fellow of the Bosnian-Herzegovinian Academy of Sciences and Arts (arts department, not medical science), and the author of the now destroyed monument on Mount Makljen in Herzegovina, erected in honor of the Battle of the Neretva.[5] His wood-and-rope sculptures stood out in all exhibitions of contemporary Yugoslav art. Some twenty years ago at a gallery in Budapest, I recognized a work of his, photographed it, and sent him the picture. The old artist was glad that I thought of him. In my message I mentioned how he’d saved me from shedding blood. He replied that it was nothing, “mere technicalities of some rudimentary trades.”

When the stitches fell out of my healed wound a few days later, the stomatological phase of the beginning of the siege of Sarajevo ended for me. The shots hadn’t worked because the inflammation had spread from the tooth to the jawbone. That may have explained all that pain, and perhaps the several days of unstoppable bleeding. In the first days of shelling, the upset and frightened people tried to act. Dentists pulled every tooth in sight; those who feared death more than the loss of home rushed headlong out of the city, future heroes and future graves rushed to man the yet-to-be-established front lines, to defend what they believed could be defended, while I stayed there, in Sepetarevac Street, to do my inner stock-taking and invest myself deeply into something that was doomed to downfall and defeat. The siege was thoroughly reported on and studied as a social, political, and cultural event, as a site of a collective tragedy that, according to the general perception, was suffered by the Bosnian Muslims, while the story of intimate experiences of the siege, and the transformation that each person underwent, was told by no one. That’s a pity though, for each of those 527,049 individual stories, which is how many of us there were in Sarajevo and the satellite municipalities in 1991, is truer than the historical and the collective narrative.

I was caught in a besieged world with my mother. We lived mostly in the basement flat of the house on Sepetarevac, because all the windows of the upstairs flat looked out on Trebević, facing those who conducted the siege of Sarajevo much like gamers nowadays play their first-person shooters. We, the humans down below, to them, the humans up above, were smaller, more trivial than the characters in a digital animation sequence. I suppose we exerted no greater pressure on their conscience. What mattered, as we’ve said, was just that first burst, the first shell. Everything that happened afterwards was a game.

She went to work daily, and I went down into the city, to the newsroom of a local magazine I wrote for, where I also filed copy as a correspondent for a Croatian newspaper. It doesn’t matter anymore what it was called. I never stayed in the basement for more than two days without sticking my head out. You had to carry on, aware of being in the crosshairs all the time, and that the person on the other side didn’t see you as a human being but as a varicolored Tetris block. Appeals for mercy were futile, for there would be none. If you survived, you had to accept that another person wouldn’t show you mercy, and, after all was said and done, when you traveled to that person’s corner of the world, you had to travel as a friend visiting friends. Nothing else made any sense.

I don’t know why it was so important to try to preserve the world that was taken away from me by the first bursts and blasts at dawn on April 5, 1992. A man is not a tree; a man must move; a man should be amenable to transplanting. After all, in the last week before the siege, and in the first two or three months of it, tens of thousands of people fled Sarajevo, headlong, with amazing levity, or in panic. A Sarajevan poet and his family escaped midway through painting their apartment. He had just applied the first coat of paint when they got the urge to run. They got away, I think, on April 3 or 4. I mocked them back then. Today, if I’m honest, I don’t even know the poet and his wife. All I know is that they’re back in Sarajevo, acting like they’d never left. I could admire the ability to lose nothing even in a situation such as the siege of a city.

Those eight days marked the beginning of the siege of Sarajevo.

I’ve done many bad things since, strewn around many wrong words and sentences. But I can’t remember a single bad thing I did from the moment my toothache started to the moment professor Kućanski plugged the wound in my mouth with gypsum and stopped the bleeding. Those eight days marked the beginning of the siege of Sarajevo. There was one bad thing, but it was before the toothache: I forgot where Nataša and I had been and what we’d done that last Tuesday evening, how we’d parted ways, whether or not I’d driven her home to the Dolac Malta neighborhood in my blue VW Beetle. In the following months—in April, when telephone lines still worked, and afterwards, when we spoke through satellite phone or the amateur radio at the Jewish Municipality—I didn’t give our parting much thought. But when there was no more amateur radio, and when, in the summer of 1993, I arrived in Zagreb where it was impossible to communicate with Belgrade, only then did I realize that I’d completely forgotten what was supposed to be just another date night. We’d been together for three years. And though there was no reason to remember the leave-taking, I would miss that memory afterwards. It would seem as though I’d betrayed her by forgetting.

A year or two prior, when she started her studies, Nataša said her plan was to graduate and move abroad, perhaps to America. Although the plan did involve me, I tried, as cautiously as possible, to convince her to do something in earnest over here instead. I invented beauty in the world that, hand on heart, was becoming uglier and gloomier. When the siege fell between us, she told me she didn’t want to stay in Belgrade; instead, she would go, as soon as possible, to America or Canada. I told her I wasn’t leaving Sarajevo. In the end, at the same time somehow, she went to Canada and I to Zagreb. Then, thanks to me, we lost touch for a few years, until I reestablished the connection in 1996.

Long-distance communication would go on over the following two and a half years, after which I stopped contacting her. I remember, rather vividly, a detail: it was, I think, the summer of 1997, when I phoned her from Sarajevo, from the same light-green telephone on Sepetarevac which I’d used to call her when we were together. At one point, in the middle of a sentence, I inhaled cigarette smoke, at which she exclaimed, all cheerful, “You smoke!” In that moment we were quite close though on opposite sides of the globe. After Tuesday, March 31, 1992, we never met again.

[1] Bosnian poet, novelist, TV writer, and lyricist for many Yugoslav pop-rock acts.

[2] A town in Northern Bosnia, the site of some of the first hostilities in the 1992–1995 war.

[3] One of the two Sarajevo-based major-league football clubs.

[4] A Belgrade-based rock band, a Yugoslav version of MC5. The name is English, pronounced “Partybreakers,” but spelled according to the rules of the Serbian language.

[5] One of the key battles of WWII in the Balkan theater, also known as The Battle for the Wounded. It was fought in 1943 in the valley of the river Neretva in Herzegovina between Germans, Italians, and Serbian, and Croatian collaborationists on one side, and the Partisans under the command of Josip Broz Tito and the Communist Party of Yugoslavia on the other. The Partisans prevailed.