In the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s, I used to visit the former Yugoslavia, where I had and still have many friends. Often, I stayed in Sarajevo (now in the Republic of Bosnia and Hercegovina), with Marija and her family. Here is something that happened on one of my visits. The account comes from my book about Yugoslavia, “SCRABBLE WITH SLIVOVITZ”.
Marija, my host in Sarajevo, lived alone in her flat. Her husband, although an ardent communist, had fallen foul of Tito’s regime. Since the late 1940s, he had spent most of his life in prison. Many years after my last visit to Sarajevo, Liljana told me that her father used to be released from jail occasionally for short periods only to be re-arrested and re-incarcerated soon after. I was not clear about what he had done to deserve this. He must have been the ‘wrong kind’ of communist. Maybe, he had been a Stalinist and/or a supporter of Cominform. This organisation’s headquarters were in Belgrade from 1947 until 1948, the year when Yugoslavia’s relationship with Stalin’s Soviet Union began to go sour and the country was expelled from Cominform. It is possible that it was Stalin’s militant antagonism to Yugoslavia in the late 1940s that helped Tito to unify his ethnically diverse population.
During one of my visits Sarajevo, I noticed that the white part of one of my eyes had become completely red. It was a little uncomfortable as well. I hoped that no one would notice it; I wanted to avoid any fuss. So, I set off one morning to find a pharmacy, hoping to buy an eyewash, something like the British product ‘Optrex’.
As there was no way that I could possibly have explained what I wanted using my rudimentary knowledge of Serbo-Croatian, I decided that I would have to try to act out what I wanted. I wandered along the chilly snow covered streets, puzzling over how to do this. In the end, I felt too shy to try to attempt the necessary charade. I hoped that with the passage of time my eye would heal.
When I returned to Marija’s flat that evening, she immediately noticed my eye. In French, and sounding worried, she said that I might have caught something that sounded to me like ‘retinit’, a disorder about which I knew nothing. She succeeded in alarming me greatly by saying that there was an epidemic of whatever this was in Sarajevo, and that many people were being blinded by it. Next morning, she told me, she would take me to see a friend of hers, an ophthalmic specialist, at the university hospital. This also worried me. I remembered the depressing looking hospital that I had seen many years earlier when I was visiting Peć in Kosovo. My enduring image of that place was of its pyjama-clad inmates leaning out of upper-floor windows and hauling baskets of food up on ropes from their relatives, who were waiting outside the building on the ground below. The hospital in Sarajevo was nothinglike that.
I was introduced to the lady ophthalmologist, who then seated me in a special high-backed chair. A white-coated nurse approached me, carrying a syringe fitted with a long, broad-gauge needle. I must have winced in anticipation because Marija said,
“Ne t’inquiétes pas. C’est seulement une piqûre.” (Don’t worry. It’s only an injection)
An injection … in my eye: I did not like the thought of that. She
laughed again, and said,
“Regardez, le dentiste a peur d’avoir une piqûre!” (See, the dentist is afraid of having an injection)
Eventually, the nurse managed to squirt some liquid onto the surface of my eye, rather than into its interior, as I had feared was going to happen. The ophthalmologist examined it with her special equipment. It turned out, to my great relief, that I had an attack of conjunctivitis, which could be easily cured with the eye-drops that she gave me. After the clinical examination, we retired into her office. She rang for an assistant, who returned with cups of Turkish coffee and a dish filled with little cubes of lokum (Turkish delight).
I have lost touch with Marija and her family. All I know is that her daughter and son-in-law along with their child emigrated to the Seychelles shortly before Yugoslavia erupted into a self-destructing civil war.