The Politics of Food

In a city under siege and starved of anything to eat, Janine di Giovanni remembers how Sarajevo’s most precious commodity became a Mars bar – and that she’s never bought a more expensive can of coke

A member of the press - represented by a cartoon dog - eating fried eggs during the food shortages caused by the Bosnian civil war
Illustration by Jason Ford

Paul, the French radio journalist who wore shiny city shoes in the grimy snow, and a big black wool topcoat instead of a flak jacket, looked up from his dinner and said somberly: ‘My grandfather in Buchenwald ate better than this.’

It was ten days before Christmas, Sarajevo, 1992, the first year of a nasty and terrifying war. I was sitting in the Holiday Inn at a dinner table with three other people. There was Paul; there was Joel, a handsome surfer kid from California who arrived improbably on a Eurorail pass at the beginning of the siege and ended up staying throughout, becoming a star reporter; and there was Kurt from Reuters.

Joel and I were sitting at the table in our flak jackets, which is what we did in those days – the shells came very close to the hotel, and besides, they kept you warm. On that freezing-cold night in wartime Sarajevo, our meal was not delicious and there was no alcohol. Our dinner consisted of half a plate of boiled rice, congealed and slightly burned, and a pile of what looked like delicate bird bones in one corner of the plate. The entire concoction was covered in a lumpy paste that was meant to be gravy. Kurt, a vegetarian, pushed the plate away, and Paul muttered deep disgust in French. But Joel and I, American kids who grew up hearing stories about children starving in Biafra, ate slowly until the plates were clean. There was no chance of getting any more food until morning.

“You weren’t even safe inside. I knew someone whose mother stayed in for the entire siege but was killed by shrapnel that flew through her window as she was washing dishes”

I was the new kid there, freshly arrived from central Bosnia, so I wasn’t sure how much complaining I could do without appearing spoiled. It was my first real war. I had stones thrown at me in the West Bank and had met with militants on the run in Gaza, but nothing was quite like Bosnia. When we came out the back door of the Holiday Inn, there were snipers watching us and you never knew when a shell was going to come crashing down, sending hot shrapnel flying and decimating everything in its path. You weren’t even safe inside. I knew someone whose mother stayed in for the entire siege but was killed by shrapnel that flew through her window as she was washing dishes.

It may have been hard to stomach, but what we were eating at the Holiday Inn was Julia Child’s canard à l’orange compared to what was available to the civilian population of Sarajevo, who were subsisting on rice, macaroni, cooking oil, a small packet of sugar and some tinned meat or fish. This came out of a humanitarian aid package that arrived, if they were lucky, every few weeks. I did not yet know how crazy people would get for a piece of meat, or the hot drag of a real cigarette – a Marlboro Red, for instance. In fact, a man had positioned himself near the Holiday Inn selling puffs of a cigarette for a few deutschmarks each.

Meals at the Holiday Inn, though spare, were attempts to be classy. The food came on thick white ceramic plates and the waiters wore clean white shirts and bow ties. But breakfast was always depressing, as you climbed out of your sleeping bag cold and went to the cold dining room, yearning for coffee but getting boiled water.

“Food is always a previous commodity in a city under siege. In Sarajevo, everything could be bought and sold for a Mars bar”

Once at breakfast, a few months later, I would see the writer Susan Sontag squirrelling away a sack of bread to give to her starving actors, whom she was directing in Waiting for Godot. As for alcohol, you had to supply your own on trips back to Western Europe or to Zagreb or Split. The wine cellar of the restaurant had been drained dry by journalists the summer before.

The Holiday Inn was a testament to resilience, and it survived numerous attacks. The toilets did not flush and there was no running water – at one point during the summer of 1993, there was a cholera scare and we had to drop red pills into the carafes of water – but still, we were lucky. Everything we ate, every ounce of oil that sparked our generators came from the black market. We paid handsomely to live in that third-rate university dormitory and someone, somewhere, was making a huge profit.

‘Baklava!’ I will never forget the joy on the face of Chris, a Reuters photographer, when he saw the ‘dessert’ one night. In fact, it tasted nothing like the sublime honey-coated flaky pastry, but it was an attempt at normalcy. Normalcy was important. The Sarajevo girls still put on lipstick and dyed their hair with lye during the siege, because they refused to be frumpy. ‘If that happens’, said one friend who applied her eyeliner as the bombs crashed down, ‘the Serbs have won the war.’

Food is always a precious commodity in a city under siege. In Sarajevo, everything could be bought and sold for a Mars bar. And we were lucky. Because we were journalists, and therefore had cash and access to things the people of Sarajevo did not, we could manage far better than the local populace. Système D, the French journos called it – the Second World War strategy of making-do when you have nothing. That’s when I first noticed the national differences among the reporters. Next to our foursome that night was a French TV crew who were feasting.

“Once, when I had a terrible hangover, I am embarrassed to admit I paid twenty-five marks for a can of Coca-Cola on the black market”

They had brought bottles of Burgundy, saucisses, slabs of cheese. The French were always generous, but at some point people looked after themselves. The Italian journalists were the most reliable. They usually arrived in Sarajevo with enormous wedges of Parmesan cheese and asked the waiters to cook pasta, which they brought in by the sack. The waiters would then bring the huge bowlful to their table with a flourish, and one of the Italians would dish it out to everyone on little plates. The entire dining room got a taste. It reminded me, in the middle of the intense loneliness that was Sarajevo, of lunches at my Italian grandfather’s house when I was a child.

The Brits brought chocolate, and The Observer reporter once came to my room with a huge bag of Maltesers and mini Bounty bars. The Americans, as a rule, did not share. The big guns from CNN sat grandly by themselves in a corner, ignoring peons like us. American newspaper reporters tended to operate like lone wolves: each man for himself. I remember one reporter coming down to breakfast with two eggs in his pocket. He removed them and asked the waiter to cook them. He then shamelessly ate the fried eggs in front of the rest of us. Reporters from other networks, like ABC and NBC, were much kinder, especially if you were poor and a freelancer. Later, when the summer came, a producer named Carlo based in Split would send in boxes of fresh tomatoes, garlic and onions that he grew in his gardens.

Once, when I had a terrible hangover, I am embarrassed to admit I paid twenty-five marks for a can of Coca-Cola on the black market. Coca-Cola, a Croatian journalist called Sasa told me, could sustain you for more than a month: ‘Sugar, water, caffeine. You’ll stay alive, at least.’ After a while, this is all food was to us: a way of staying alive and putting energy into our bodies. At a certain point, I gave up and lived on Toblerone bars. And I smoked and smoked, which helped, and all of us drank an awful lot. Alcohol drowned out everything, most of all the terrible things that were happening outside, which will haunt me for the rest of my life.

“She showed me how she made cheese – a cup of powdered milk, a cup of oil, a cup of water,
salt and a few drops of vinegar”

Outside the Holiday Inn that night ten days before Christmas was the war, but it was also snowing, big fat snowflakes coming down quietly between the heavy thumping of the shells. There were no Christmas trees in Sarajevo, they had all been chopped down for firewood. Instead, there was a yellow fog. The cold went right through your bones, and there was no heating anywhere. The few places in the city that still operated—a bakery where you could occasionally get bread, the beer factory on the other side of the river where you could get water – had huge long queues. People stood in the cold for hours until they no longer felt their legs.

On winter mornings before Christmas I walked through Veliki Park. There were old people dragging twigs on sleds, small children sliding on the ice. Then came the crackle of a sniper rifle somewhere not so far from us, maybe five hundred yards away. Everyone froze, and then scurried away. About this time I met a lovely but sad girl. Klea lived on top of a hill, Bjelave, in a tiny little house with her husband, Zorky, and her baby, Deni. The daughter of a professor of English, she had spent part of her life in America and England and was named after the character in Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet. She was resilient and coped pretty well with the nightmare around her: the snipers positioned on the hills around the city when she went to stand in queues; her poet father, Mario, quietly losing his mind and burning all his books to keep warm; being unable to feed the beloved dog; seeing the apocalyptic scenes on the street. But she refused to let the Serbs get to her.

Klea was a Catholic Croat, and wanted to celebrate Christmas. ‘So what are we going to make for Christmas dinner?’ She stood in front of me, her jeans sagging on her emaciated body. (A week before she had been standing in a line waiting for bread, and a sniper’s bullet went right through her jeans. It left an entry and exit mark but missed her flesh because she had lost so much weight.) Klea wanted borek for Christmas, a pie made with a flaky pastry and chopped meat and onions. This is the Bosnian national dish, and every Bosnian mother has her own secret ingredient. Klea had hoarded dried eggs from her aid package for a few months and swapped them for a tin of humanitarian aid pork from her Muslim neighbour. ‘Disgusting,’ she said, but she made the borek and we all ate it that Christmas by candlelight.

“Wartime coffee was something else… it was made from rice that was roasted and then ground”

Klea had other recipes that had come from desperation. She showed me how she made cheese – a cup of powdered milk, a cup of oil, a cup of water, salt and a few drops of vinegar – or a faux Nutella spread made from flour, powdered milk, oil, cocoa and sugar. Greens would be supplemented by nettles. ‘They stung your skin, like poison ivy when you touched them,’ she remembers. ‘We boiled them and served them with rice.’ Salad was made from dandelions.

Bosnians love coffee. Every home I went to during the siege, no matter how desperate, would serve coffee, Turkish style, cooked over a flame with several teaspoons of sugar. It would be insulting to refuse it. Wartime coffee was something else, though: it was made from rice that was roasted and then ground.

I am looking back at that time from eighteen years’ distance. I remember Paul, young and strange and handsome, not yet writing his novels, smoking a cigar. And I see his end by his own hand in a Parisian flat, after a tortured life. I see Kurt and me having dinner years later at a different table, this one overlooking water in Freetown, Sierra Leone. We’re eating prawns and drinking beer. The next morning, Kurt went down the road to a place called Rogberi Junction, where he got ambushed by some kids with RPGs and guns and never came back, not alive. And I think of Joel, who went to California, married, had children, continued to surf, and lives, I believe, a very happy life. Klea and her family live in Canada now, and are Canadians, not Bosnians. I have not seen her in sixteen years, but because of what we went through together during those war years, we are still very close. The war bonded us inseparably, forever.

I go back to Sarajevo often now, and once I stayed at the Holiday Inn, which was empty, and saw some of the waiters. ‘Remember the soccer games that you had in the dining room at night because you could not go outside to play because of the snipers?’ I asked. Said was not there, but the others pretended to remember. I stayed in my old room on the fourth floor. Strangely, although the hotel was expensive, it had not changed much since the war – the same awful purple and orange interiors and nasty fake wood furniture. But of course the big difference was that the toilets flushed and there was running water for bathing. They had moved the dining room to the back of the hotel. That would have been impossible during the war because it was the side of the building that got hit all the time. I ate fried eggs and toast, and drank cappuccino. Passing Kurt’s and Paul’s old rooms, I mourned our younger selves. Too many ghosts. I picked up my case and left, and never stayed there again.

Janine is a war reporter, author and documentary filmmaker. This article originally appears in Port issue 4