As we unpacked our Christmas tree ornaments this week, my sweetie, a former photographer for The New York Times, (now an editor there), pulled out a Ziploc bag and handed me a small reddish brown booklet, the length of my middle finger, crumpled and water-stained.
He found it in a ski chalet in the mountains of Bosnia, in December 1995, that had been turned into a war hospital.
Its black and white photo shows a clean-shaven man wearing a dress shirt, woolen vest and dress jacket. His name, it seems, is Sokolac Mehmedovic, born May 9, 1950. My sweetie found his identity papers, for this is what they were, lying on the floor.
Was the man dead? Fled? In that bleak, freezing, terrifying place and time, one could only guess.
The paper, a list of Serbo-Croatian words and phrases, contains normal things like Hello (Zdravo), and Please (Molim).
Cease fire (Prekid Vatre)
Don’t shoot (Ne Pucajte)
Drop Your Weapon (Spustite orujze)
He arrived in Bosnia on December 6, according to one of his battered press passes, the one issued by the United Nations Peacekeeping Forces in Zagreb. He came with 20 power bars, long underwear and a carabiner, a light, strong metal clip used by mountain climbers.
Why would he need a carabiner?
It ended up saving his life.
His vehicle, containing a reporter and interpreter, got stuck in deep snow at dusk. Two German UNHCR peacekeepers, one named Wolfgang, a former photojournalist, towed them out — attaching their truck to the car with a cable they looped through the carabiner. My sweetie had picked it up, as an afterthought, at the checkout counter at Eastern Mountain Sports on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
A little voice had told him: “You’re going to need this.”
For a month, he was cold, wet, tired, scared. On Christmas Day, he was alone in a hotel in Tuzla.
His New York Times colleagues had packed a pile of trinkets for him, knowing how hard that being far from home in so frightening a place would be. One enclosed two packs of Marlboros, and several pairs of women’s stockings, with a card that explained: “This worked for my father in WWII. Maybe this will work for you.”
By 4pm, he hadn’t eaten all day. No one else was staying at the hotel and he found the restaurant closed. Begging the manager, he was given a piece of bread and a bowl of hot chicken soup — broth only.
That was his Christmas meal.
This week – warm, dry, employed, safe from guns and knives and rage and freezing cold — we celebrate our Christmas.