27 November 2009

Thinking about Thanksgiving

Yesterday was everything I look for in a holiday dedicated to gratitude and good food. Dinner went off without a hitch and I think I turned out the best turkey I've ever roasted in my life. Few things give me the satisfaction of preparing a meal for the people I care about. That satisfaction gets the gratitude train moving in me and it's easy to reflect on just how good I have it when I'm elbow deep in a raw turkey. I have the life I imagined for myself when I was a teenager and I marvel at that all the time, on Thanksgiving particularly.

While it's true I wouldn't have chosen the path I took to get here had I known what was involved, what's important is that I made it. Back then, my big picture imaginings for what my future held were that I'd be in a position to call my own shots and that I'd be surrounded by people who love me. I have both in spades and I'm a fortunate, grateful man for it.

Yesterday we were joined at dinner by someone I'd never met. Dzenan is a neurosurgical resident at the big teaching hospital in Tampa and he's a colleague of my friend JD. Dzenan is a recent transplant here and doesn't know many people locally. JD had told me earlier that he was from Sarajevo originally and that he was a good guy.

I swear, when I hear an accent I know that there's a story lurking in there somewhere. The wars that tore apart the countries in what used to be Yugoslavia were a horror show that barely warranted a mention in the US. So whenever I meet someone from that part of the world I always find a way to steer the conversation back to the place they used to call home.

The Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina declared its independence from Yugoslavia in March of 1992. By early April of that year, both the European Community and the United States recognized the independence of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Within days of that recognition the Yugoslav People's Army (JNA) and the Army of the Serbian Republic began a military attack of Sarajevo. The Bosnians were overwhelmed and waited for a UN intervention that never came.

Photo by Mikhail Evstafiev

From 1992 to 1996 the JNA and the Serbs blockaded the city of Sarajevo and unleashed upon it the most sustained and violent siege of a capital city in the history of modern warfare. The blockade was nearly complete and it's estimated that 10,000 people were killed and 56,000 were wounded during the conflict. According to UNICEF,
Of the estimated 65,000 to 80,000 children in the city: at least 40 percent had been directly shot at by snipers; 51 percent had seen someone killed; 39 percent had seen one or more family members killed; 19 percent had witnessed a massacre; 48 percent had their home occupied by someone else; 73 percent have had their home attacked or shelled; and 89 percent had lived in underground shelters. It is probable that the psychological trauma suffered during the siege will bear heavily on the lives of these children in the years to come.

The siege has also had a profound effect on the psyche and future of the city's population. The Bosnian Government has reported a soaring suicide rate by Sarajevans, a near doubling of abortions and a 50 percent drop in births since the siege began.
Dzenan was 19-year-old when the blockade of his home town started. He lived through the deprivation, the sniper fire, the bombs and the shelling. He was a medic in the Bosnian resistance and at 19 found himself running across a tarmac with two friends. Had they been born anywhere else in Europe they'd have been doing what 19-year-olds do anywhere. But because they were 19-year-olds in a blockaded Sarajevo, they were running across a tarmac and dodging sniper fire. Dzenan was the only one who made it to the other side of the tarmac.

This is not ancient history, but something that played out in the lives of people who can tell the story today. What I found so amazing about Dzenan's telling was that he related his experiences without a hint of self-pity or attention-seeking. He's happy to be where he is and he's fully engaged in chasing down the neurosurgical visions he has for his own life.

His story gave me plenty of things to think about. If my 19-year-old vision for my life was that some day I'd be in charge and that I'd be surrounded by people who love me, what does a 19-year-old who loses his friends to sniper fire look forward to? Compared to living through armed conflict, my trials and tribulations are trivial at best.

So thanks Mr. Sarajevo, you brought the very essence of Thanksgiving to my Thanksgiving and all you had to do was show up.


  1. Isn't it fantastic how a stranger can give us a little life lesson. Your post made me think about the things i am thankfull for.
    Have a great day!

  2. You have a great day too Mel. I miss reading your musings!


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