'Once a lady,' Bosnian woman sifts rubble to survive
May. 17, 1997
DOBRINJA, Bosnia-Herzegovina (AP) _ Frail and filth-caked, an old woman sifts through rich lodes of rubble for spent cartridges to sell for bread. She pauses when she realizes someone is watching.
``You know,'' she says, straightening up and brushing a wisp of gray hair from her blackened forehead, ``once upon a time I was a lady.''
Her name is Naila Kljaho. Just five years ago, she explains in elegant Italian, she was a mere 61, a happily married receptionist at a holiday hotel in the lovely old town of Foca.
``We had two cars and a big house, a family, good friends,'' she says, smiling a little at the distant memory. ``It was a very nice life.''
Her husband, wounded in World War II, received a generous pension. Her son made good money driving a cab. Back then, their ethnic label, Muslim, meant nothing in their mixed social circle.
An eon later, the war is over, and she is old. All she has left is a handsome Harris tweed jacket tailored for a large man and a look of diehard dignity in her eyes.
Her home is now a neighborhood of crumpled high-rise apartment buildings that recall photos of Hiroshima after the atomic blast. And she seems to personify the human equivalent of the physical damage.
``The Serbs came,'' Mrs. Kljaho says simply when asked about her home in Foca. Asked for details, she closes her eyes. ``My husband died of a heart attack when he saw how they treated me.''
Her cousins were killed, but her 33-year-old son helped her flee through the woods. He went back to fight. She made her way through Hungary and Italy before finding her son again in Sarajevo.
Now hers is one of several million stories that Bosnians on all sides are still eager to tell, but the outside world is tired of hearing.
Altogether, up to 250,000 people died in the war, U.N. specialists say, and 80 percent to 90 percent of them were Muslim civilians like Naila Kljaho's family members.
About 20,000 Muslims may never be accounted for. A U.N. team trying to exhume mass graves gave up in frustration in April when they raised only $300,000 of the $6 million they needed.
Despite the Dayton peace accord, 450,000 Bosnian Muslims and an equal number of Serbs live in precarious conditions among their own kind, unable to return to homes on the wrong side of the ethnic line.
``My pension is 12 German marks a month,'' Mrs. Kljaho says. That is $7. ``Can you imagine living on that? My son is demobilized, but he has no money, no job, no prospects.''
Every morning, she takes a dirty sack and tries to fill it with brass cartridges and metal casings from the detritus of the war's front line.
On a good day, she collects two kilos, about five pounds, which is worth 2 marks.
``That is just enough for a loaf of bread and some cigarettes,'' she explains. ``It is all we live on.''
Somewhere she has distant relatives who might be able to help, but she has given up looking for them. Her son goes out daily to see what he can find. Mainly, he finds other ex-soldiers looking for work.
Mrs. Kljaho's hunting grounds, just beyond sight of Sarajevo airport, is still deadly for the inattentive. The damage is so awe-inspiring that seasoned French U.N. officers on patrol stop to take tourist snaps.
Routinely, children playing in the ruins lose limbs, or their lives, from unexploded ordnance.
``Everyone tells me I should be careful because I might be blown up by a mine,'' Mrs. Kljaho tells her visitor, before bending down and getting back to work. ``So far, I have not been that lucky.''