On the first anniversary of September 11 I was in my second month of teaching in Sarajevo, a city which had seen large scale tragedies of its own. I’d definitely spent time wondering how I’d be received as an American, not only in Sarajevo but abroad in general. Looking back, after two years there, I can say I never felt put on the spot as an American by a local person. It could just be general Bosnian hospitality and goodwill, or the fact that people don’t want to be judged by the politics and politicians of their own country and so don’t judge others that way.
But back to the night in question. The day was relatively uneventful, the only mention of the date when a colleague pointed out that the Yahoo page was in black and white. And then at about 7:30pm, right after the second evening class had started, the electricity in all of downtown Sarajevo went out.
The class I was with was mostly made up of young people, some of whom I knew hadn’t stayed in Bosnia during the war. But this was still a city that had spent nearly four years without electricity, and one teacher later told me that her mind immediately went to the war — and really, how could it not. My students stayed calm, some of the teenagers — who were apparently also smokers — holding up lighters. I found my way to the reception area and tried to sort out what was going on. I got the word to send people home.
I lived close enough to walk, and found the electricity working as normal back in my flat. After a quick, slightly nervous phone call home, everything seemed to calm down.
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The next day, one of my students knocked on the door of the teachers’ room and presented me with a red rose, for no reason, she said. But I’d seen it with her the day before — she’d probably brought it on that day to give to me but hadn’t had time when we all rushed out to go home. For some time, shell marks in the sidewalks in Sarajevo were filled with red resin (most likely as a form of memorial but possibly to keep people from tripping), and they were known as Sarajevo roses. So I thought of this as an acknowledgment of empathy that was unique to Sarajevo.
There was never any explanation for the electrical failure, not that I came across anyway. It’s almost impossible to think it was some kind of bizarre coincidence, but frightening to imagine any reason for it beyond that. But in the two years I lived there, I never experienced another power failure downtown (although sometimes Russia did turn off the gas on Mondays in the winter because Bosnia was so far behind on payment).