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The Road to Sarajevo
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It was in 1962 that they saved our lives. We were trapped in a fierce blizzard high on a mountainous, sparsely populated region of Bosnia-Herzegovina, miles from the nearest settlement. They found us on a narrow, ice-covered road, stumbling feebly against stinging, blinding snow.

It was February. My wife Gerry and I had set out from the Italian frontier determined to explore Yugoslavia border-to-border. We were warned that the largely unpaved roads were terrible and the weather volatile. But who worries about such things when they're in their twenties and seeing other countries for the very first time? Besides, we were driving one of those wondrously dependable machines known as Volkswagens.

Well, they were right about the roads. Even at a mere 30 miles an hour, the most we could do on the best of them, we managed to shake loose some clearly important electrical connections, somewhere along a virtually deserted section of the Dalmatian Coast. The car stopped dead. The weather was summer-like, though, and a sheepherder came over a hill to shyly offer us refreshment from a two-gallon jug of tart white wine.

We had only to wait three hours for another car to come along, carrying a couple of Yugoslavs who insisted, in an interesting amalgam of French, Italian, German, Serbo-Croatian and English, that they knew exactly what had to be done. But though they spent an hour looking with great interest at blue wires and red wires and yellow and black wires, strewing the road with automobile parts, luggage, coats ands whatever else stood in the way of inspection, they did not solve the mystery.

Soon, however, three more Samaritans drove up, and within another hour - bingo! They turned on the motor and then the car radio, full blast, to celebrate the restoration of electricity. Arms entwined, they and the two others performed a laughing, boisterous victory dance in the middle of the dusty, rock-studded road to the rhythm of a Serbian folk tune.

"Yugoslav musik!" they shouted, pounding us and each other on the back, and laughing and laughing.

Next stop: Sarajevo. Sure, we had heard it probably was snowing in that direction, but so what?

The first snowdrift was only a few feet high, but that was enough to stop our little car (which, naturally, was not even equipped with snow chains). We got lucky again: a truck came by. Two men jumped out and easily pushed us through the snow piled up ahead of us.

Less than a mile later, stuck again. A pair of sheepherders did the job this time. Our luck finally ran out a few miles down the road. A snowdrift as high as the car spanned the road, and there were no truck drivers or sheepherders in sight - nothing but bare, uninhabited countryside.

"Ah," said I, suddenly wise, "let's head back for that village we passed a few miles back."

I turned the car around - and into a three-foot-deep ditch at the edge of the road.

Small car, yes. But it would take more than the two of us to set it back on the road. The wind was howling - at 99 miles an hour, it seemed to a couple of Californians whose knowledge of snow was limited to pretty pictures. The temperature, in any case, was far below freezing and the snow very thick and getting thicker. There was nothing to do but try to hike back to that mountain village.

On with all available clothing. One, two, three sweaters, one on top of the other, one, two, three pairs of socks, two jackets each. Down with the last sips of Spanish brandy, the Soberano from Barcelona we had been hoarding.

For 15 minutes we struggled, slipping, sliding and at times not even certain we were headed in the right direction. There were miles to go, and already we were numb and confused.

Then out of the snowy mist it appeared. A mirage, it had to be. Imagine, a large diesel-burning Mercedes-Benz sedan in the wilds of Yugoslavia's poorest republic. But that's exactly what it was, making its way cautiously along the very slick road. It was, in effect, the village bus, owned in common by the people of Posusje, a dot on the map about 90 kilometers northwest of Mostar.

Our passage through the village had been noted and the sedan dispatched to determine if, as was strongly suspected, we might need rescuing. Six heavily bundled men leaped from the Mercedes-Benz, boldly lifted the VW back onto the road and helped us into the rear of their sedan for the ride back to Posusje. Two of the men, one standing on the rear bumper as ballast, brought our car back.

They took us to the village's only public building, the local hotel, restaurant, café, city hall and Communist Party headquarters, all in one two-story stone structure. The building was unheated save for a small wood-burning stove in a large uncarpeted room downstairs. There was no running water, just a well in the street outside, although there was electricity, plenty of meat and potatoes and restorative mugs of hot, sweet tea spiked with rum that our rescuers insisted on buying us.

They pointed to an old cardboard box that held the firewood. It once held vegetable oil, a staple of Yugoslav cooking which, said a label, was "donated by the people of the United States of America."

It was as bare upstairs where we slept, fully clothed and with teeth chattering through the night, on narrow beds in a frigid barracks-like room. The only bright note was a color lithograph of Josip Broz Tito in full marshal's regalia that hung outside the pungent, plumbing-less toilet, best described as an indoor outhouse, across from the sleeping quarters.

Farming was the principal occupation in Posusje - farming and education, since the village was the home of Bosnia-Herzegovina's largest educational institution, a high school that drew some 1,500 students from throughout the republic.

Curious, friendly farmers, students and teachers crowded into the downstairs room, eager to visit with the Americans, the first foreigners most of them had ever seen.

It was a grand opportunity for the students and teachers to practice their language skills. None spoke English, but some knew French, some Italian, some German, some Spanish. We knew enough of each language for simple conversation and in the pinches turned to our ever-ready Serbo-Croatian phrase book.

"Jackie Kennedy - she's an atheist, is she not?" young Mathilde asked us earnestly.

She had been told in school that our president's wife was indeed an atheist, apparently as part of her communist government's explanation for its friendship with a U.S. government headed by the obviously religious John F. Kennedy.

Mathilde said she hoped we also were atheists. The older people in the room said nothing, but it was clear from their looks of disdain that most of them, some Christian, some Muslim, did not share her youthful enthusiasm for the party line on religion.

Young and old, many had questions, about politics, religion, economics, music, art, marriage, the movies: "Can many Americans afford Cadillacs? Do they teach Russian in your schools? What do you learn of Lenin? How do the people really live in Hollywood? You don't really like rock and roll, do you? At what age do you marry in America?"

A middle-aged teacher assured us in rapid-fire French that president Tito was "un grande homme," that without him the unity of Yugoslavia's constantly bickering republics would collapse and the nation fall into chaos and be overrun. Tito was the indispensable leader: "Who, but who, could possibly take his place?"

Although agreeing that no one but Tito could keep the country in one piece, some others were less enthusiastic.

"If my area doesn't vote for Tito's men," an older man explained, "there just aren't any more jobs to go around."

Said another: "If we don't vote for them, we'll get something worse."

Still another man insisted - albeit quietly - that "whatever we do, they'll announce the vote as 99 percent in favor of Tito anyway."

All the while the radio was blaring. We heard American and Italian popular songs, Bosnian, Serbian and Croatian folk songs, the complete score of "Porgy and Bess" in English, "Cool Water" in Serbian, "Yes, Sir, That's My Baby" in Croatian.

Stanko, the reticent Slav who ran the place, was kept busy pouring thick Turkish coffee and tea with rum right up until closing at 9 p.m. A pool table was constantly in use, and around it were tables filled with laughing men playing cards. The place was thick with smoke from hand-rolled cigarettes.

Now and then, a woman or child came in to buy a loaf of bread from Stanko, who had one of the village's few ovens, and one of its few shops. Occasionally, a soldier drifted in, received a few restrained greetings and sat down by himself, scarcely even glancing at the stranded Americans.

During the day, Stanko's place served as a school of sorts for the village's older residents. Dozens of them filed in to listen to lunch-time lectures from local Communist Party leaders about the virtues of Marxism Tito-style and about such practical matters as developing their village.

We were there only three days, yet leaving Posusje seemed like leaving home. The road to Dubrovnik was as rough as any other, although we drove into only one ditch and smashed only one fender. Again, a sheepherder came to our rescue, helping us lift the car out of the ditch and back onto the road.

We made it to Dubrovnik, but we were too exhausted to carry on to Sarajevo. No matter; we had seen Yugoslavia, had seen the country and, above all, its people in ways that few others have been privileged to see them. And we were alive.

Copyright (c) Dick Meister