Flying to Sarajevo

I need to cheat a little bit for a couple of days, so I’m going to share bits of a piece I wrote a while ago about a trip I made to Sarajevo in 2004 (ish) to visit a friend who was working there for a few months.  It was an eventful weekend……

Sarajevo circa 2004

The plan was that I would fly to Sarajevo and my friend L would meet me at the airport, we would hire a car and drive to Dubrovnik, spend the weekend there, and then drive back to Sarajevo for one night before I flew back to London.

I flew Lufthansa from London to Sarajevo via Munich, my only anxiety over the very tight connection I had to make at Munich airport.

It was a beautiful clear day and looking out of the window of the plane I could see the runway of Sarajevo airport glinting in the sunshine, a tiny oblong plaster adhering to the green slope of the hillside.  It looked too small, at an awkward angle, across the contour of the landscape.  It was my first sight of Sarajevo.  Something shining, not the pockmarked city I had seen on the television news.  L had told me it was a brand new airport financed by European Union money.

I heard the undercarriage lock and, as the plane tilted forward, I watched the ground approach.  The view of the runway slid around out of sight as the plane lined itself up. I sat back into my seat ready for touchdown.  The engine drone heightened pitch for final descent.

Suddenly the plane lurched violently one way and then the other, juddering.  I gripped the sides of the seatback in front of me with both hands in the foolish belief that holding onto something, no matter how flimsy would make me safer.  People behind me screamed, high pitched and prolonged, as the plane bounced again and I saw green hillside directly out of the window.  White knuckles, I put my chin to my chest.  The plane pitched, bumping and shaking from side to side.  The shrill screaming intensified.

‘This is it,’ I thought, my fingers digging into the foam padding of the seat back finally finding its hard skeleton with my fingertips.  We were going to crash.  We were going to crash into the bright green hillside.

On the approach I had seen that the airstrip was in a bowl surrounded by sharp slopes.  We were jolting towards one of them.  So many of my father’s stories of his involvement in air crash investigation were of planes flying into hillsides.  Once you’re heading for the side of a hill it’s very hard to recover, I knew that much.

Did anyone apart from L know where I was?  How long would it be before my family would know what had happened to me?  There was nothing I could do to save myself.  I turned my head to look at the man sitting beside me so that at least I had looked at another person, albeit a stranger with his eyes closed, as one of my last sights, rather than the blue fabric of the seat back.

With a massive force I was thrust backwards as the plane climbed steeply, the engines screeching.  Higher.  Higher still.  Roaring in my ears, pressure in my head and chest.  Finally the screaming stopped.  I could hear the pounding of my own heart, and I released my hold on the seat, carefully, slowly, one finger at a time.  I looked out of the window again and saw the mountains a long way below us.

‘He will try again,’ the American sitting beside me nodded towards the cockpit.

‘Maybe,’ I said.  But I knew we weren’t circling.  We were very high, flying in a straight line.  ‘I think we’re going somewhere else,’ I said.  But where?  I had no idea of the geography of where we were.

‘What’s happening?’ someone shouted in heavily accented English.  It was repeated by several other voices, turning into a near chant.  ‘Tell us.’

A stewardess appeared at the front, and the PA system clicked into action.  In German.  I didn’t understand a word, but have travelled enough to recognise the life jacket instruction routine.

I began to feel sick, all relief evaporated.  We were going to crash.  In water.  It felt as if everyone apart from the man sitting beside me was shouting.  He was praying silently his hands clasped, his lips framing rapid words of supplication.

‘What’s happening?  ‘Where are we going?  Speak English’

I tried to calm myself.  We were still flying straight, high over mountains.  Slowly it dawned on me, we were going somewhere on the coast.  That was the only possible explanation for giving the life jacket explanation now.  I hadn’t paid attention at take-off, but it was obvious.  Flying from Munich to Sarajevo would not normally involve flying near a large body of water, so there would be no need for a lifejacket.  I tried to reassure myself that it was just routine.  I wanted to experience a safe landing in this aircraft.  I wanted this pilot, whoever he was, to be successful.  I sent up a prayer that he had not lost his nerve.

After a brief, shocked silence the shouting from the back started again.  The stewardess attempted another announcement in German.

‘Speak English!’

Her voice faltered.  ‘We go to Split.  We arrive in 30 minutes.’

‘Where is Split?’ the man beside me asked.

‘On the coast, I think,’ I said, already anticipating the resurgence of fear for the next landing.  And wondering how long we would have to be in Split; how far it is from Sarajevo; how I was going to contact L.  I had to breathe and swallow gently to keep the bile from the back of my throat.

‘Is this your first trip to Sarajevo?’ I asked my neighbour.

‘Yes.  You?’

‘First time too.  I’m just going for the weekend.’ I laughed.

He looked at me incredulously.  ‘Why?’

‘To visit a friend.  You?’

‘I’m going to work for a USAID programme.’  After a long pause he said ‘I can’t believe anyone would go to this place for a weekend.  What sort of protection will you have?’

‘None.  My friend says it’s safe.’

‘Not this trip,’ he said.

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2 Comments

  1. brendan stallard

     /  April 13, 2011

    Rowena,

    Wow!

    If you can transfer any of the excitement of that into your novel, you have it made in the shade.

    Purely as a piece of writing, and I know it actually happened to you, it left me identifying with the characters. I cared about what happened to them and wanted to know more.

    A terrific bit of writing. An experience I’m sure you’d sooner have missed, but a cracking tale:)

    brendan

    Reply
    • Thank you very much, Brendan. I hope the rest also hits the mark; it was a pretty weird experience all round And I do try to keep to the truth that everything is potential material for writing.

      Reply

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