Seeing the Siege of Sarajevo Through Two Lenses
SARAJEVO -- My friend Nagorka Idrizovic has a rare sense of humor. Without it she might have gone bonkers during the three-year siege of this city, her city.And now there is something she can both laugh and cry about -- the first English-language movie about wartime in the Bosnian capital. The film, a British-American co-production, was recently screened at the White House. President Clinton hopes it might help stifle voices calling for US troops to pull out of Bosnia by June.It purports to be the more or less true story of a British television correspondent who rescued a nine year old girl from a Sarajevo orphanage and later adopted her.For Nagorka, the humor will begin when the hero checks in to what is described as "the ruins of the Sarajevo Holiday Inn" in a laudatory review by a Paris-based New York Times reporter.Some ruins. The place was built like a fort, and throughout the war there was liquor before dinner and wine with it. There was electricity, heat, and running water, clean sheets and maid service. A United Nations fuel truck routinely topped off the hotel generator's gas tank and the water truck arrived punctually.From time to time, a heavy shell from the south would rock the sturdy 10-story, 350-room structure. Some of these shattered glass or loosened plaster in the lobby. Correspondents in bulletproof vests would make a break for the northeast corner as cleaning ladies in blue and lavender smocks -- grinning at the stampede -- got busy with brooms and dustpans.The movie is all about the harrowing lives of TV reporters, a cavalier blend of fact and fiction. Nagorka Idrizovic's story, all fact, makes the life of the average war correspondent seem like a day at the beach.Nagorka, 49, a journalist called "Nagi," lived 300 feet -- a football field -- from the hotel's front door, on the seventh floor of a building that was not built like a fort.Shrapnel demolished her living room and kitchen windows, splattered her walls and wrecked her furniture. One day a large chunk of shrapnel tore a deep gouge in her kitchen stove just seconds after she stepped away from it.Outside, she had to duck snipers in fair weather and foul for a loaf of bread. When the hotel's water truck arrived, she would scramble under it to fill containers from leaks and spillage.She had to carry that water up the seven flights of stairs, and carry slop pails down. Her elderly mother and father lived with her, the three of them barely getting by on city bread and UN handouts, with no electricity and no heat.One day the water truck didn't show up. So Nagorka somehow made her way past tight security into the restaurant on the second floor of the Holiday Inn."It was unbelievable," she remembers. "There was dim light and soft music, and tablecloths, and they were drinking wine and eating steak!"She raised a ruckus. And Nagi, a strapping woman with dark eyes and a fiery temperament, is something to behold when she bears down on you -- even without three or four buckets in her hand. Several hotel employees knew her, and formed a kind of skirmish line around the diners. In no time at all, they filled her containers with water and soothingly escorted her to the back door."I must have looked a sight -- hair wild, dirty dress, buckets and bottles -- like a madwoman," she remarks.Before the war ended, she lost her father, mother and brother, 42, in that order -- they all died of "natural causes" during a time of high-explosive shells, stress, cold, short rations, fear and depression.When the shelling was particularly fierce, buildings blazing and people running for basements, her father, frail and senile, would shout, "Turn the TV down!"Now, among friends, she can laugh at this story, and so she will probably get a few chuckles out of the parts of ''Welcome to Sarajevo" that show how the reporters endured the hell of the Holiday Inn.It's certain she will note that the eye-catching footage in the film was recorded not by fictional reporters but by her fellow Sarajevans. The real-life orphan rescuer, for example, was only in Sarajevo for 17 days.She has already noted that Woody Harrelson, who plays the movie's obligatory loudmouth American reporter with a heart of gold, parked his well-stocked star trailer just about where her neighbors planted subsistence gardens during the war."But Harrelson himself," she says, "seemed like a very nice man."PNS correspondent Terence Sheridan is a free-lance journalist.