The view from Sarajevo, 12 September 2001

by Rhodri C. Williams

On the tenth anniversary of 9-11, I thought it might be more appropriate to post on what I thought then than what I think now. Then was Sarajevo, working on property restitution with the OSCE, my then girlfriend (now wife) ‘A-L’ in New York doing an LLM. What to say about the decade that followed? Turns out Ehud read the tea leaves better than I did, I guess. My endless gratitude to ‘H’ for having a proper filing system and digging this ancient email up.

During World War II, a fighter on patrol got lost in fog and hit the Empire State Building.  It made a big hole that was patched and life went on.  Thats the first thing I thought of when my boss called me in my office to tell me the news yesterday afternoon.  Simultaneously, some other part of my mind was tracking A-L’s morning bus route past the twin towers.  The rain was pouring down outside, and the email I was typing on the stage during which an administrative decision becomes executable under Bosnian law stopped in its tracks.

CNBC was the only channel we could get in the guard room, which was already packed with colleagues.  Smoke was pouring out of both towers into a hazy blue New York sky, the likes of which had greeted me so many bleary mornings on the way to law school.  As the Pentagon caught fire and the south tower went in a vast cloud of smoke, the world ground and slowly rotated from its bearings.

Anything was possible.  The urban architecture of the eastern seaboard was steadily being demolished in paced five minute blasts.  Every airplane in the sky had gone mad.

No news of A-L.  I rush an email to friends in New York.  “Please write me right now and tell me you are okay.” Almost immediately, a response from Steve.  “I am fine.  but shit is hitting fan down here.  totally black.  give me your number and I will call you.”  He calls and suddenly I am hearing directly from the trading floor of the Stock Exchange, packed with panicked people.  People who, like Steve or A-L’s roommate walking to school, had seen the first plane hit.  Witnessed a macabre ticker tape parade of business documents and had no idea what was happening.  Run from the blazing debris and shuddering thump of the second impact.  Sitting in Sarajevo, I am closer to the situation, I can only hope, than A-L.

The north tower collapses into itself and south Manhattan is submerged in black smoke before I get an email from A-L that has me weeping with relief at my desk.  She was already at school long before it started.  My assistant H, who spent the war in a town near Sarajevo, whose parents went on a desperate mission to Montenegro to persuade a drunken Yugoslav Army officer to release her brother days before his unit was sent to fight in Bosnia, says she knows how I feel.  I suspect she does.

Home to stay with my friend J, whose girlfriend in New York is fine but trying to contact friends working in both the WTC and the Pentagon.  Glued to BBC. Mad, rambling interview with Ehud Barak who calls the “civilized world” to arms in a battle with “terror thugs”.  He cites a list of “rogue states” where the fireworks should start.  J is yelling at the television.  Ehud Barak’s girlfriend isn’t in New York. Is he using this human tragedy to justify policies that produce people willing to die?  I am numb on the couch.

Back to the office to call A-L.  She had been in class when it started and a report by two fellow students was broken off when the usual chorus of Manhattan sirens rose to a shrieking cacophony.  There may be class tomorrow. When will she be able to go back to her dorm in Battery Park?  Should she go home to Finland?  She bought a toothbrush in stores full of panic buyers.  Is staying with a friend in D’Agostino dorm who saw the second plane hit the south tower from her window.  Nothing visible now but a pillar of smoke.

When I flew to La Guardia on domestic flights, I always asked for window, left side.  In the final descent over the East River, Manhattan would slide into view, its glittering surfaces terribly powerful, and now, terribly vulnerable. I remember standing in the viewing gallery of the south tower, gazing directly down on the mansard roof of a splendidly elaborate turn of the century building fifty stories below.  Gone no doubt.

The first and only laugh of the day comes when I talk to Dad.  They have evacuated the big mall in Florence, Kentucky.  Fortunately, by the end of the day, we learn that Skeffington’s tux shop and other fine retail institutions will be spared.

I wake up on J’s couch.  For the first time this week, the day breaks sunny and shines on my face.  It shines on the mountains where men with guns sat for three and a half years and rained hell down on this city.  That seems as distant as the Napoleonic wars now.  The TV looms dark in the corner, a great obese raven packed with evil news.  I press the button and it spews its filth.  New footage of the event, every possible camera angle capturing the obscenity and turning it into a trailer for a Bruce Willis movie.

The phone rings, an importunate colleague from another organization.  Why did you cancel today’s meeting?, she asks in a scolding tone.  Subtext: if your organization doesn’t make me look good, I’ll lose my funding in December.  I mention that we are all officially supposed to stay home today, and she is silenced.  I hope you didn’t lose anyone she says.  I want to tell her to stuff her polite afterthought in her ear, but just sign off and turn off my mobile phone instead.

Lots of police on the street as I walk to work.  Everyone is exaggeratedly polite when they hear my foreign accent.  A man is standing on the sidewalk reading the newspaper.  In the office, the TV churns on, a perpetual motion machine.  H spent all night watching people jump out of a burning building. Tears are standing in her eyes and she stammers that if it turns out that Muslims had anything to do with this, she wants me to know…  Its an understandable reaction, I suppose, but absolutely the last thing on my mind.

This doesn’t have to do with religion and it doesn’t have to do with people in places like this.  It has to do with places where people’s lives have been rendered worthless, even to themselves.  We can and should ask about our responsibility for those conditions.  And we should grieve for innocent lives lost and innocent lives ruined.  And rebuild.  I’m not sure what other response is appropriate or useful.

I’m so glad to have heard from so many of you that you are okay.  That’s all.

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