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Thompson: Ronaldo and his father

Euro 2016

Why Cup means more to Dzeko, Bosnia

We met a broken old man on a broken road.

"Everything is gone," he said.

Something in Bosnia was once whole, and beautiful, and then the civil war came, and nothing has been whole and beautiful since, 20 years on. The old man passed around a plastic bottle of homemade liquor, showing off a pig turning slowly on a spit. Everything is broken, he said, standing by a little shack. A surplus army coat kept him warm. Two teenagers laughed at him. The man's beard grew wild and unkempt. His fingernails were neatly clipped. He lived in Sarajevo once, and now he'll die here in the wilderness, because he is a Serb, and his own people shelled his hometown. He recited lines from a book, about brothers, and the power of life. It's Dostoevsky.

"'Crime and Punishment,'" he said.

Right now, as I write this sentence, the sun is about to rise on the day before Bosnia-Herzegovina will play its first ever World Cup match, against Argentina. I'm reminded once again that all stories in Sarajevo are war stories, especially the journey of this team to Brazil. A generation of young Bosnians lived through something medieval, surrounded by a modern world they couldn't touch. These children of war have grown up, and they are the ones who are playing Sunday for the Bosnian national soccer team, and they are the ones packing bars and public squares in Sarajevo to cheer them on.

Six months ago, I visited Bosnia to write about star striker Vedad Ibisevic, who went to high school in St. Louis. When that was done, I had a few days left. My translator, a survivor of Bosnia's civil war, took me on a journey through his country's past. We started in Sarajevo. The city pulsed with its own stubborn sense of survival. It endured, and in enduring, it emerged with a hard earned self-image.

Sarajevo is the town too strong to die.

Everyone there has a war story.

Edin Dzeko, Bosnia's best and most famous player, is the only member of the team who lived through the siege. Most of the others suffered the death of family members, and the trauma of being ripped from their homes, but the Dzekos stayed in Sarajevo. They moved from their bombed out house into a tall apartment block, then into a smaller place, surviving. Dzeko learned to play football indoors with sandbags around the windows. Once he wanted to take his ball to a park but his mother said no. Minutes later, an artillery shell landed where he would have been. His mom tells that story now as proof of the divine nature of everything that happened next. Dzeko grew up to be a millionaire superstar for Manchester City, dating the most beautiful woman in Bosnia, living a dream.

- Thompson: Vedad Ibisevic's mission to rebuild a shattered family legacy

In the final minutes of the game that would send them to Brazil, the players tried not to look at the scoreboard. The whistle blew. Dzeko's father jumped the wall separating the seats from the field and ran toward his son. No security in the world could stop him from reaching his son. Midhat saw the tears in his Edin's eyes. He lifted him in the air, just like he did decades ago when the shells would whistle through the air, and nobody knew where they might land. Edin lost control, weeping, leaning on his father for support. His dad held his hand.

In the bleachers, his mother, Belma, felt her stomach cramps disappear. The fans jumped and sang and hugged each other, and the ones near Belma folded her into their arms.

"Thank you for having him," they told her.

The interview with Dzeko's parents stops because my translator starts to cry.

We are in the rebuilt version of a beloved Sarajevo café, sitting in the corner. His mom has just finished describing the reaction of her fellow fans. Outside the plate glass window to the right, people rush back and forth. Dzeko's parents are friendly, shy people. His dad wears all black and his mom smokes Aura brand cigarettes. Edin calls during the interview to say hello.

My translator is a former war fixer named Dzemal. He's got ice-blue eyes and a hardness to him. One night, we ended up in a dive bar surrounded by violent Croatian nationalist mafia toughs. I started to panic. He looked at me and said evenly, "I'm not scared." That's Dzemal. I love him.

So at the café, everything was going smoothly. Dzeko's parents are sharing details about a magical night when suddenly Dzemal can't talk. Words just won't come out.

"Tears of joy," he says softly.

Dzemal struggles to compose himself.

"I have so many memories of war," he says.

Edin Dzeko is set to play in his first World Cup on Sunday for Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Edin Dzeko is set to play in his first World Cup on Sunday for Bosnia-Herzegovina.

How do you explain the things that happened to Edin Dzeko, to his parents, to his teammates, to my friend Dzemal? Hundreds of books detail the events leading to the war, and to the genocide and ethnic cleansing that happened after it began. I read about a dozen of those books, written by journalists and psychologists and survivors, and it is still hard to understand how a place could go so completely insane. A passage written by journalist Peter Maass, who covered the war, comes closest. "When the call of the wild comes," he wrote, "the bonds of civilization turn out to be surprisingly weak, professors turn into nutcases and everything that a generation built up can be destroyed in a day or two, often by the generation that built it. The wild beast has not died. It proved itself a patient survivor, waiting in the long grass of history for the right moment to pounce."

Serbs surrounded the mostly Muslim Sarajevo and shelled it with heavy artillery, day after day, for 44 months. Snipers looked through powerful scopes and shot civilians. Anti-aircraft guns, designed to bring down a supersonic fighter jet, fired ribbons of tracer rounds into parks and squares. Howitzer shells exploded in living rooms and in markets and in hospitals. In the Munich airport waiting to board my flight, I read a week's worth of news stories from January 1994 -- exactly 20 years before my arrival. On Jan. 3, 203 shells landed on the city. One exploded in an apartment, killing three generations of a family who'd been playing gin rummy. The next day, 868 Serb shells landed in Sarajevo. The Bosnians fired back 11. The next day, brutal assaults on the international airport shut down all international aid flights. Five days later, they'd run out of flour, and no food remained at all. On Jan. 11, 1994, more than 1,300 rounds landed on the city -- the worst day of the siege. One killed a woman waiting at the Red Cross. Another killed a 9-year-old girl. A 128mm rocket landed on the airport. This went on for page after page. I kept reading until my plane landed on the same runway as those shells and missiles.

Sarajevo is a cemetery where memories are buried in shallow graves. The tall apartment complex where the Dzekos moved during the war is familiar to Dzemal. Two identical towers rise up between the airport and the city center.

During the war, Dzemal and an American journalist interviewed an old man and woman on the 15th floor of one of the buildings. Dzemal found the man in the bitter cold, sawing up the boards of his balcony for firewood. He was a Serb, and she was a Croat, but they loved Sarajevo, so they endured the siege. It was a kind of miracle: during a civil war fueled by ethnic and religious differences, they stayed in what many saw as a Muslim city. They identified themselves as Sarajevans, not as Serbian and Orthodox, or Croatian and Catholic. It's a story of spirit and survival that can get someone through another day. After the interview, something about the couple touched the journalists, so they bought two loads of firewood and carried it back up the 15 flights of stairs.

The couple cried when they received their gift. The story doesn't end there, though. When the fighting stopped, the bonds of marriage proved weaker than the new reality the war had created. The woman went back to Croatia, leaving her husband alone in Sarajevo. He went onto the balcony they'd destroyed for firewood, looked out at the broken city they'd called home and he jumped alone into the void. His body made a terrible sound when it hit the ground.

The Dzekos sit in the café, waiting patiently for Dzemal to compose himself.

They have cried the same tears many times.

There is a connection between people who survived Sarajevo. They don't tell their own stories of loss and pain out of respect for what other people might be holding inside. Even in the Bosnian locker room, the players don't talk about the war, because they don't know what scabs might be ripped off by bringing up the past. "Everyone has their story," Vedad Ibisevic says, and they give wide berth to the memories that haunt their friends. Some of the players are Muslim, some are Croats, and some are Serbs, but they are all survivors. Their fathers might have shot at each other, but they just wanted to live another day. That unites them.

Belma takes a drag off her cigarette, and Midhat stirs his tea. Dzemal gathers himself, and the Dzekos pick up the story of that magical night when Sarajevo once again knew joy, because of their son. The accompanying sorrow goes unmentioned, not because it wasn't present, but because it was just understood. Every story in Sarajevo is a war story, especially one about a soccer team.

The team members and their families boarded a charter plane in Lithuania, and they took off, bound for Sarajevo. They sang old traditional folk songs, keeping time by drumming on the overhead bins. The flight took about three hours. Nobody told them what awaiting them on the ground.

Happy smoke filled the streets.

Sarajevo looked like the city in the siege photographs, except instead of burning buildings, there were road flares, and instead of exploding shells, there were fireworks. Hundreds of thousands of people crowded together, watching the game on big screens, and then jumping and hugging and crying when the match ended. Bosnians from other cities returned to the capital city to take part in the joy.

"People love Sarajevo," Dzemal explained. "People got separated from each other. When they come here, they feel that people are together. They enjoy walking the streets, sitting at the bars, and when they come back from Sarajevo, they are full of positive energy."

The plane approached the airport, and the pilot said what once was one of the most terrifying sentences imaginable: We are cleared for landing in Sarajevo. The plane echoed with a new round of cheers, and when they touched down, the players saw what their success had wrought.

Fans packed the road, and a double-decker bus took the team through a canyon of delirious screaming Bosnians, headed toward the center of town. Djeko and his family rode past their old wartime neighborhood but couldn't make out faces in the darkness. They waved anyway, knowing old friends were out there somewhere. They saw people running out of their homes in pajamas, following the convoy on television and wanting to see this historic occasion in person.

"Now I feel free," Edin told his father.

The bus stopped at the eternal flame in the center of town, the World War II memorial. Two years before, on the long avenue leading up to the flame, the one now packed with fans, the city placed 11,541 red chairs, one for each citizen killed during the siege. They used tiny chairs for the children. Nobody can shake the image of the little chairs.

Edin stepped out on the balcony overlooking the avenue, and he felt like a rock star playing a big festival, with a blur of bodies as far as he could see, stretching even further than those empty red chairs.

"Hello, Sarajevo!" he said into a microphone. "We are going to Brazil!"

"You are the country's pride!" the crowd shouted back.


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