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Jun 20, 2014

Thinking back to Bosnia

Bosnia-Herzegovina will battle Nigeria on Saturday with the spirit of the nation driving them on.
Bosnia-Herzegovina will battle Nigeria on Saturday with the spirit of the nation driving them on.

Waiting on Bosnia to begin its second game in the World Cup, I'm remembering a young woman I met six months ago in Sarajevo. Her name was Nina Imamovic and she chose a trendy café for our meeting. Well-dressed and successful, nothing about her suggested that as a 10-year-old girl, she walked 50 miles to safety through enemy patrols and waist-deep snow. Once she heard the screams of a girl her age being raped. Her generation learned about rape before a parent could manage an awkward talk about the birds and the bees.

"Every person in Bosnia could write a book," she says, "and it would be a best-seller."

Even then, just after Bosnia had qualified for the World Cup, the excitement over a soccer team made her feel sad, confronted by the reasons people latched on to such a fleeting joy. It reminded her of a war story, one about a little girl, a soldier and a piece of hard candy. Months later, waiting for Bosnia to play, the story remains impossible to shake. During the war, Nina and one of her cousins reached out their hands to a passing armored personnel carrier of soldiers, one of whom threw Nina an orange and her cousin a single piece of wrapped candy. Both of those things were impossible to get during the war. Nina's cousin guarded her treasure.

She took one lick a day, making it last for months.

The story hung in the air, both informing and transforming the vision of a nation's love affair with something as small and insignificant as a soccer team. It hangs still, and I remember how I felt when I heard it for the first time. When she's finished, Nina steps out into the streets of Sarajevo. Despite her memories, she feels whole, just as the young men taking the field in Brazil feel whole.

She believes her generation can escape the weight of its memories.

"Every person is given the pain they can survive," she says.

The traffic rushes past and she seems to disappear. She is tall now, in a willowy dress, but once she was small and she walked through the snow, kept going by her uncle's promise of a chocolate if she made it just a little bit farther.

"I survived," she says.

She pauses to remember and to forget.

"I survived," she says. "I'm living and I'm happy."