Stolen Identity  by  Michael BanisterStolen_Identity.htmlshapeimage_2_link_0
An automatic reaction can get you killed. Marta turned without thinking toward the explosion across the plaza about 200 yards away instead of away from it as any self-protecting mammal would do to save itself. The flash of the explosion preceded the sound; perhaps that was the cause of Marta’s impulse.

The shock wave followed moments later—really, a fraction of a moment later. The wave hit her as she stood looking out a window above the plaza. Staggering backwards, Marta saw the little bakery erupt in smoke, dust and flame. Screaming, crying and shouting came next. 

The searing pain of grief burned Marta as the spirits of extinguished lives blew through her, as if on a hot desert wind bound for wherever spirits go once released from their ruined bodies. There must have been 20 or 25 people in line in front of the shop waiting to buy bread. Staggering, Marta fell on the worn sofa inside the open window. Sobs erupted from her chest. She didn’t try to stop crying. Instead, she tried to calm her breath and keep her lightheadedness at bay. It didn’t work. 

The room was spinning. She closed her eyes, rolled off the sofa and lay face-up on the floor, trying to keep from throwing up, sweat covering her face. After several minutes groaning and sobbing, her feelings of horror and panic began to lessen a little. She could almost breathe normally, but she was still not altogether here. Still stunned, she entered a dream-like state, a “lucid” dream where she felt both awake and asleep. The spinning stopped. Her heartbeat slowed to normal.

She knew that if she opened her eyes inside her dream, she would no longer be lying on the floor in the Red Cross building where she worked. Opening her dream eyes, she found herself in an abandoned office building. As she stood up, looking for a way out, an elevator appeared straight ahead. When the elevator doors opened, she saw dozens of people—crying, hurt and wounded people. “No room for the living,” a voice said. Try the stairs, she thought. Descending the stairs to the left of the elevator, Marta saw nobody. After two flights the stairs ended and Marta faced a door. She opened it and walked into a vast empty room as long and as wide as the entire building. No exit in sight. Marta re-entered the stairwell and went back up to where she had begun. This time she tried the stairs to the right of the elevator. That set of stairs descended very steeply and made sharp turns like those in a castle tower. Soon, the steps became impossibly narrow, uneven and broken. When the next section of stairs seemed to turn back under itself, Marta stopped at the landing. The landing had a barred, darkened window but no door. She retreated back up the stairs.

She then decided to get into the elevator even if she had to shove her way in. Surprisingly, the elevator doors opened to an empty car. Two men followed her into the elevator. They wore military uniforms and seemed familiar. One had a vaguely sinister demeanor; the other smiled pleasantly at her. No one spoke as the elevator descended. The doors opened onto an empty garden. She walked out of the elevator, leaving the two soldiers behind, and sat down on a bench. A feeling of weariness came over her. 

When she closed her eyes, she heard a voice in her head. A little boy seemed to be crying the word “lost.” Her lucid but unconscious mind asked, is he lost or am I lost? 

Marta opened her eyes, got up from the bench and walked to the shore of a wide river that opened out into a small bay. She felt peaceful and somehow happy despite being lost. Her lucid mind spoke to her again, reminding her that she had to return to consciousness, and then said something that puzzled her—we’ll come back to this place.

Marta decided to wake up. She opened her eyes, her real eyes, and saw the familiar peeling, cracked ceiling of her building. When she felt she could get up without passing out, Marta rolled slightly to one side and got up on her knees. So far so good. Marta said aloud to nobody in particular, “I really have to leave this place. Not just this place, or this city, but this whole doomed province.” She stood up, brushed the dust off her clothes and walked down the hall to the ladies’ room, being careful not to look out the window again. It was bad enough to have to listen to the multitude of voices screaming and crying in the plaza, without having to see the carnage.

Before the explosion knocked her backward onto the sofa, she had been taking a break from her nursing duties at the Sarajevo Red Cross clinic. The building housing the clinic was an ancient structure most recently inhabited by a group of law offices. Since the beginning of the most recent troubles in Bosnia—at that time one of the provinces of the former Yugoslavia along with Serbia, Montenegro, Vojvodina, Slovenia, Croatia, Kosovo and Macedonia—the Red Cross had been the only tenant interested in renting space. 

The Yugoslavian National Army, known as the JNA, was headquartered in Serbia. The Serbs dominated the Yugoslavian federal government as well as the army. A year earlier the JNA had attacked Slovenia, but the Slovenes forced the army to give up and retreat. Now, in the late spring of 1992, the JNA was attacking Sarajevo, Bosnia’s capital, which was not faring so well. Every day it seemed another three or four buildings were destroyed along with numerous vehicles. The number of dead or injured already exceeded several hundred, and the bombardment had hardly begun.

Marta had grown up in Slovenia’s capital, Ljubljana. When she graduated from nursing school in 1991, at 26, she took an internship in Sarajevo where she could get more hands-on training than in her hometown. Little did she know she would get that training in a clinic treating hundreds of Sarajevans wounded by relentless Serbian attacks. She decided to leave after this latest attack on the bakery where dozens of people were killed; she could no longer stand to remain there. 

Marta wasted no time telling her colleagues. But they knew as well as she that her departure would not be easy or imminent. Deciding to leave and actually leaving were two different things. The snipers and artillery gunners positioned on the surrounding hillsides made it difficult to translate desire into decision. Those gunners formed a tight circle the city’s residents dubbed the “Serb necklace.” The probability of getting shot or blown up in an escape attempt was very high. And even if she managed to get out of Sarajevo safely, where could she go and how could she find a job?

*                       *                       *

The press of work, and her fear that escape was impossible, kept Marta working long hours. Later that summer, a few months after the dreadful explosion, Marta’s supervisor informed her that a job very likely awaited her at the Red Cross clinic in Serbia’s capital, Belgrade. “Of course, getting to Belgrade will be a bit tricky,” the supervisor said in a grim tone with a frown on her face. A Croatian woman in late middle age and a native Sarajevan, the supervisor herself could not ever think of leaving the province, let alone take a job in Serbia, where antipathy towards Croats was widespread. More importantly, she could not leave her family or her hometown. 

Milan, a young daredevil driver for the Red Cross who had befriended Marta soon after she started her internship at the clinic, overheard this discussion. He offered to take her with him on his next trip to Belgrade to restock the agency’s medical supplies. A trip of some 350 kilometers, this would be his third to Belgrade since the Serbian shelling of Sarajevo had begun. Milan, who happened to be Serbian like the gunners surrounding the city, told Marta he thought he could get safe passage through the Serbian necklace. He planned to leave in a week. 

Faced with having to make such a sudden decision, Marta now found herself frozen with fear. She wanted to believe Milan knew what he was doing, but yet could not bring herself to commit to joining him. For five days, she vacillated between deciding to risk being his companion on what would no doubt be the most dangerous trip she had ever taken, and choosing to stay behind in one of the most dangerous cities on earth. Finally, the day before Milan’s planned departure, Marta made up her mind. “If you still have room for a passenger, I’ll go with you. I can’t stay here.”

Milan explained that the first five kilometers would be the most dangerous, as they attempted to get out of the city itself. Barring getting shot on the outskirts of Sarajevo, the rest of their all-night trip to Belgrade should be uneventful. Milan claimed to know several members of the Yugoslavian army who occasionally took time off to wander into the city for what they called rest and relaxation. With somewhat more bravado than he actually felt, Milan said to Marta, “They told me there are at least two unmanned places in the circle, and one of them is on a secondary road leading north out of the city. This trip we will take that route.”

Marta took care of her remaining duties, packed up her meager belongings, and said her last goodbyes to her clinic colleagues. The clinic’s head doctor said he didn’t blame her for leaving this conflict behind. Marta objected to his use of the word “conflict” to describe what was going on all around and within the city of Sarajevo. “That’s not what’s happening here,” she insisted. “The people of Sarajevo don’t have a conflict with anyone; they didn’t start these attacks. Milan, a Serb, certainly has no conflict with those Serb gunners who will try to kill him; he just wants to get out of the city alive and to keep his passenger alive as well.”

Nor did Marta have a conflict with anyone, except perhaps with herself. Her familiar apologetic complaint replayed itself in her mind: I’ve only been here six months and I haven’t really been of much use. There’s so much more I could do. But I’ll get killed before my 27th birthday if I keep pushing my luck. She had convinced herself that an escape attempt posed no more danger than sticking around in the vain hope the city wouldn’t get destroyed—and herself along with it. 

As Marta and Milan got into the Red Cross Land Rover the next night, he told her he recently heard the gap in the circle on the north road was not as large as it used to be. Serb gunners were now positioned only about 100 meters from each side. “They are well within earshot of passing vehicles,” Milan warned. “The big guns are trained on the city itself, not on the road, but the riflemen can easily pick off travelers attempting to pass through the hole in the circle. Red Cross vehicles have no free pass. If we tried this trip in the daytime, we surely would not make it. But we might make it tonight. There is no moon and lots of clouds.” 

Very little could be seen in the nearly dark night as their noisy little diesel Land Rover approached the long, straight stretch of road leading into the Serb Necklace. They had no way to know how close or far away the Serb soldiers might be. Well before the Land Rover’s entry upon the straightaway, Milan cut his lights and slowed his pace to a crawl, coasting whenever possible to quiet the noise from the engine. Despite having his headlights off, he hoped he would be able to spot familiar outcroppings once they reached the opening. Milan soon recognized the dark outlines of bombed-out buildings sitting some 100 meters on either side of the road that marked the opening he needed to get through.

“Well, here we go,” said Milan. He slammed his foot down on the accelerator. As the Land Rover began its passage through the break in the circle, shots rang out, but the shots went wide of the vehicle.

“Hurry!” screamed Marta, as she ducked down onto the floor and tried to cram herself into as small a space as possible. Milan sped faster and swerved the Land Rover from side to side, hoping to present less of a target for the gunners. Marta’s screams from the car floor became moans and sobs.

“Don’t worry, Marta. They can’t see us. We’ll make it!”

After a few minutes they heard no more shots. Marta unfolded herself and carefully boosted her body back up onto the passenger seat. Milan released each clenched hand from the steering wheel, one at a time, stretching and flexing them repeatedly. He turned on his parking lights, not daring to turn on his headlights just yet. He rolled his head and shoulders from side to side several times before plucking a half-smoked cigarette from behind his ear and motioning for Marta to light it for him. She took it but shook her head. “Let’s get a little farther away.” 

The two companions let almost another kilometer’s worth of Sarajevo’s devastated outskirts pass by before they breathed normally and spoke. As they passed by the first of many stands of trees, Milan turned on his headlights and they burst out laughing at almost the same moment, lightheaded at their luck, but also trembling at the thought of what have might been the outcome of their gamble. The forested landscape had a calming effect on them, a reminder that cities and the dangers that lay within them might eventually give way to peace and beauty.

Marta found little else of the nightlong trip to Belgrade memorable. For one thing, the dark moonless night made the countryside almost invisible. The road itself presented little more excitement than an occasional cow deciding to cross the road as their vehicle approached. They also encountered an occasional donkey or dog that had decided to take a nap in the middle of the road.

Marta frequently turned her gaze from the road to check on Milan. She couldn’t tell how alert he was, since he mostly stared straight ahead, slouching a bit with his left arm on the wheel and the other on the seat next to Marta’s purse.

Conversation slowly returned to the interior of the vehicle. Marta confided she felt a little guilty that her internship work in Sarajevo had been limited to helping the triage nurse interview patients, rather than providing direct treatment to trauma victims of shootings or bombings. She also thought to herself that Milan might think her work less important than the work of many other volunteers. As if reading her mind, Milan turned to her and said, “You know, a lot of people have managed to stay alive with your help.”

“I’m not so sure about that. I just keep thinking about all these lovely, innocent people bleeding to death or dying of infection or heart attack. I have some training in infectious diseases and as a surgeon’s assistant, but all I am allowed to do is ask questions.” Marta cracked the window to get a breath of fresh air.

Getting the hint, Milan refrained from lighting another cigarette, even though his body strongly craved the nicotine. “We all do what we can. I, for my part, am only a driver. I used to drive a taxi here. I have no other skill or profession. But every month I manage to leave and return with this Land Rover full of medical supplies.”

“Are you a native Sarajevan? Most of the Serbs I have met here are originally from Serbia itself.”

“I am Serb but not from Sarajevo. I grew up in Belgrade. I came here for adventure and to meet some of the exotic women the city is legendary for. How about you? I can’t quite place your accent. Maybe Slovenian?”

“Exactly right. I grew up in Ljubljana. But I guess you could say I’m a mongrel: a little Serb, a little Slovene, who knows that else.”

Marta kept the conversation going, worried that Milan might be a little bit drowsy driving in the middle of the night. She brushed her hair aside with her right hand. Turning to face Milan, she said, “You know, Milan, I wasn’t at all sure I wanted to be a nurse. It wasn’t the sight or smell of sick people that I thought I wouldn’t be able to tolerate. It was their hurt I didn’t think I could bear. Their anguish, their fear, their pain.” She picked up her purse and several paperback books and tossed them into the back seat to give herself more room to stretch out. 

The movement and rustling may have brought Milan back to the present as much as Marta’s comment did. He looked over at her as she tried brushing some of the dirt off her jeans. He turned back to the road and straightened up before replying. “But by all accounts you seem to be handling all this stuff better than most. Sarajevo is a whole world of pain and suffering.”

“Yes, I’m very well aware of that. And I do handle it well. But there was a time in my life when I never would have imagined I’d be able to do this type of work.”

Milan took advantage of a fairly straight and smooth stretch of road to look over at Marta as he drove through the night. “But you must have realized, or at least suspected, your talent even in your late teen years. A career in nursing usually requires some degree of interest and talent, not to mention years of prerequisite courses.”

“Yes. By then I wanted to give it a go. Not because I thought I had any sort of talent in the sciences, but because I had discovered I could read people the way we read a book, and I felt drawn to a profession that would allow me to help people.” Marta paused to collect her thoughts and to gauge Milan’s reaction so far. Nothing more than a glance at her and a return to staring at the road, but she got the impression he wanted her to go on. 

She took a breath and continued. “I remember when I was about 14 enjoying my second scouting summer camp in the Julian Alps near Lake Bled. I dearly loved my scouting days—learning crafts, stamp collecting, music, wildlife taxonomy. But that summer at scout camp I encountered a situation that literally changed my life. One of the campers got sick but nobody could figure out what caused the girl’s symptoms. She had fever, chills and lapses into unconsciousness. She was a friend of mine so I decided to stay by her side that afternoon. The camp staff had no clue, and my friend was uncommunicative. After about an hour, while I held her hands and tried to soothe her, I received a very clear mental picture of her. I saw her in a way I can only call ’elemental.’ There was a glow emanating a little beyond her like an aura. But part of the glow looked murky, muddy, like it wasn’t truly part of the aura, it didn’t belong there.” Marta checked Milan again and sensed he was all ears.

“It occurred to me then—as surely as one can be sure of anything—that my friend had poison inside her. I didn’t know if she had eaten something or had been bitten, but I was certain she had been poisoned.

“I immediately ran to the other medical cabin and started screaming that the girl had been poisoned. The resident nurse was skeptical at first, but something in my tone convinced her. She quickly gave the girl this syrup to induce vomiting. That did the trick. After an hour or so my friend was conscious and able to talk. It seemed she had eaten some kind of plant mistaking it for an edible green, when in fact it was highly toxic. She could have died.” Marta didn’t have to wait long for Milan’s response.

“How were you so sure it was poison?”

“I told you, when I saw the discoloration in her aura, it might as well have been a neon sign spelling out ’POISON.’”

Milan smiled and relaxed his shoulders, pulling another cigarette out of his shirt pocket. “So, you’re a psychic! That’s interesting. We still have another few hours on this long, boring road, so tell me more.”

Marta understood Milan’s reply was not facetious. “No, not a psychic, not exactly. During the remaining three years of high school I had a number of incidents you might call visions—at least involuntary interpersonal communication. A kind of empathy was growing in me. I sensed when people were in pain or hurt in some emotional or psychological way. But I can’t read minds as that idea is commonly understood.

“I decided to get well grounded in medicine and psychology and maybe my new talent would become more defined and focused.”

Milan was fully alert now. He lit his cigarette and asked, “You say ’new talent.’ Didn’t you ever experience that kind of thing before?”

“I suppose I did. You know, I never thought about it like that. When I saw my friend’s aura, I didn’t make any connection between that and my earlier empathic incidents.”

“Give me an example.” This stretch of the long, flat road was in pretty decent condition, which allowed Milan to look over at Marta more often as she spoke.

Marta rolled down her window a little more, took a deep breath and continued. “As far back as I can remember—and I can remember pretty far back—I could sort of read people when they spoke. I could tell if they were hiding something, or if they were hurting or afraid. Though I never could tell if someone was sick, physically sick, or just hiding something.”

Milan smiled as he stubbed out his cigarette and threw it out the window. “I’m guessing you would have gotten quite a reaction out of people if you had said something about how they were feeling.”

Marta nodded and rubbed her eyes. “Yeah, that wouldn’t be cool. I figured that out pretty quickly. Folks usually didn’t appreciate it when I would blurt out what I was picking up from them. Plus, coming from a three-year-old, that kind of comment would usually provoke laughter or annoyance.”

Milan raised his eyebrows and stared at Marta. “A three-year-old! You remember that far back?” He swerved abruptly to avoid a rabbit that ran across the road.

“I told you, my memory is truly phenomenal. I’m not bragging. I remember lots of stuff, and not only isolated events like injuries or dramatic incidents. Almost total recall, you might say.”
“How about earlier than three?”

“Before the age of three, I remember mostly emotions, inarticulate pictures of scenes, that kind of thing. After I learned to talk a little before I turned three, I started keeping track of things, in a way. Language, plus the end of the ’terrible twos’ as it’s called, allowed me to analyze situations and people I encountered. But even at two I wasn’t really terrible. Of course my emotions and desires were stronger than my verbal ability, but even at that age I think I kept them under control more than most kids because I could sense the reactions of the adults.”

“Wait, wait. Are you saying you remember all this about yourself? Or did your parents tell you about it later, the way we collect and store most of our so-called ’memories’?”

“A little of both. I used to share my thoughts about people with my mom and dad, and they would frequently remind me of those conversations later on. But I do think my memories are more purely memories than is the norm for most of us.”

The two of them lapsed into silence for a few minutes as Milan negotiated a stretch of very bad road. Marta watched him, not the road.

“What’s on your mind, Marta? Are you ’reading’ me?” Milan looked over at her; his look was both curious and apprehensive.

“Not at all. I told you, I’m not psychic or telepathic. It’s just a ’knack,’ as my grandmother called it. I usually don’t go digging around in people’s feelings. I can’t, anyway, unless someone is directing something at me—conversation, for example. And even then I’ve got too much respect to pry. I was just going to ask you how you ended up in Sarajevo. I came here almost a year ago when I was 26.”

“I came here in 1988 when I was 22, after I finished trade school in Belgrade. I completed a Mercedes-Benz training course in long-haul trucking, got my certificate, and drove a big rig for a couple of years. I gave that up after I basically drove a 16-wheeler into a bomb crater. The company all but accused me of falling asleep at the wheel, and I couldn’t prove otherwise. So I quit and took up driving smaller vehicles—panel vans, cabs, etc. I liked Sarajevo so I ended up working as a Red Cross driver after the bombardment began in earnest. I’ve been here for almost five years.”

Marta flashed a smile at Milan. “Stick with it. They need you, God knows, and the job suits you. I get a feeling you’re going to be successful for a long time to come.”

“Whew, that’s good to hear, especially from you. You know, what you just said is essentially what a Rom woman told me not long ago. She was a fortune teller and me and a couple of buddies had her tell our fortunes.”

“Huh. Interesting. I’m part Rom myself. Maybe that’s where my gift comes from. But as far as I know, my father had no particular knack in that direction, and he was half Rom. But his Rom mother, Shimza, was a pretty intuitive lady. I spent a lot of time with her when I was little. She was my favorite person in the whole world. She was the first to recognize my knack and helped me learn how to use it and when to leave it alone.”

“Is your grandmother still alive?”

“Yes, she is. I haven’t seen her in over 10 years, but we talk occasionally on the phone. I also talk to her in my dreams occasionally.”

“Does Shimza still live in Slovenia?”

“No, she moved away when I was in high school, right after my summer camp incident. She told us she was going to a Rom gathering in Bulgaria and might end up settling there. That’s what she ended up doing.”

Six hours later, their arrival in Belgrade turned out to be an altogether different experience than she expected—exciting, perhaps not; but a relief, yes. Having just escaped one of the most dangerous cities on Earth—that was exciting. But only when Marta and Milan arrived in Belgrade did they finally feel like they could breathe. As if to help them burn off the adrenalin produced during their road trip, Milan decided to drive Marta around the city and show her the two famous rivers flowing through Belgrade, the Danube and the Sava. She was struck by the immensity and beauty of the Belgrade Fortress, standing atop a majestic 400-foot ridge overlooking the “Great War Island” at the confluence of the Danube and the Sava in the oldest part of the city. 

In addition to that beautiful early-morning river tour, Marta would remember the first few weeks in Belgrade very well, especially Milan’s friend’s apartment where they stayed the first two nights. Milan knew everyone. He knew the city from one end to the other. On their third day in the city, he showed Marta the ornate municipal buildings and introduced her to another friend who owned an apartment building. A few days later she signed a rental agreement and met her future boss in Belgrade’s public health department. Her new life in Belgrade had begun.
  

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Chapter One: Escape from Sarajevo, 1992

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