After years of wartime horror and uncanny escapes, Dijana Voljevica dreamed of bringing her incredible journey to Hollywood. A seizure claimed her life before she had a chance.
In 1974, on a soggy dirt street in Old Breka, Sarajevo — a suburb of aging houses and unkempt lots — four-year-old Dijana Voljevica was inspired by mud. She gathered her four girlfriends and whispered a cruel prank: Someone will poop in a chocolate wrapper and give it to the weird kid down the street named Bumba. He eats everything. Somehow his name suggests this.
Dijana left the wrapper on the porch and knocked on the door before joining her friends behind a nearby bush. The girls laughed, and, as if the universe were in on the prank, an unattended Bumba opened the door. He saw the wrapper and took it into his mouth. His mother heard him scream and arrived in time to watch the girls run away.
Decades later — long after her native Bosnia declared independence from Yugoslavia in 1992, long after the Bosnian War ended in 1995, and the siege of Dijana’s city, Sarajevo, lifted in 1996 — Dijana loved to tell this early part of her story. She always had a strange sense of humor. But the anecdote also portended her brutal future. Later that day, Bumba’s father found Dijana walking home. “Here! Have some chocolate you Jew bastard,” he yelled, smothering “chocolate” in her face. (We don’t know whose.) Mistaken ethnic identity (Dijana was not Jewish), violent older men, and feces, as if the universe were again in on the sinister plan, would reprise in Dijana’s life during the war. But before she had to survive the war, she first had to survive her father.
In 2007, Dijana moved to Los Angeles with her autobiographical screenplay. It remains as proof of her life and the crimes against her. It’s proof that war does not destroy everything, and that war can also give. War is how, in part, she escaped her abusive father. War is where she fell in love. War had shaped her, and she liked who she’d become. She was proud of her survival, though she hated the war. Her suffering made her more sensitive to the suffering of others.
War gave her a story to tell. She dreamed of the Oscar.
In 2014, I rediscovered Dijana’s screenplay while boxing files and moving to a new apartment. For years we had worked on it together in college. Throwing out her life story felt wrong, and writing it felt like a small moral victory. Dijana wanted to tell her story, but never got a chance, so I’m telling it for her. That does not count for much, not nearly enough, but it’s something.
This article relies on extensive interviews over many years with Dijana and her husband, who I call Nikola; he asked not to be identified because he still has family in Bosnia and is concerned for their safety. This article is also told with excerpts from Dijana’s autobiographical screenplay, which I’ve edited for clarity. I fact-checked Dijana’s story with Nikola, a kind man who answered invasive questions about the worst moments of his life. I’ve also checked Dijana’s story against the public record, using maps, history books, death certificates, divorce records, United Nations investigations, news reports, and other documents. In some cases, however, Dijana or Nikola’s word is all I had. All names have been changed, except Dijana’s. I believe she had an agreement with her sources, and I’m honoring that agreement.
After the 1974 chocolate incident, Dijana chronicled her family’s dysfunction. She began with Ferida, her grandmother. Everything with Ferida was like a soap opera. In the margin of her screenplay Dijana noted: “My grandmother was dramatic. She thought that by crying and begging, people would feel sorry for us and would help us. I was so embarrassed and ashamed because of her behavior.”
When Ferida asked the local piano teacher if Dijana could take lessons, she was politely told to fill out an enrollment form. The banal offer of paperwork drove Ferida into overwrought oaths of thanks. Down on her knees she cried, and then exclaimed, “God bless you Miss. God bless you.” Though these displays embarrassed Dijana, Ferida loved her granddaughter. It was Hussein, Dijana’s father and the family’s resident dictator, who, as Dijana tells it, ruined everything.
In 1984, Dijana was fifteen. The family often had afternoon coffee together, although Dijana was not allowed to drink it. But then Dijana’s mother, Nermina, offered her a cup. It was a slight against Hussein’s authority that Dijana recorded in her screenplay.
Hussein: Put that cup down.
Dijana: I won’t.
This angers him even more, so Hussein takes Dijana by the arm, lays her over his lap and begins to beat her. We see fear and hesitation to confront him on Ferida’s face.
Nermina: Hussein, please stop. I beg you to stop.
As he beats Dijana he accuses Nermina for Dijana’s behavior.
Ferida attempts to halt Hussein’s assault on Dijana. After becoming tired he stops and drops Dijana to the floor.
Nermina picks up Dijana.
Nermina died on January 29, 1984. Her death was always hard for Dijana to talk about. In her screenplay she wrote vaguely about a “horrific scream” that came from somewhere in the house, and she always blamed her father for Nermina’s death, without making a specific accusation. There’s no additional information indicating what happened, or whether or not he was involved. Nermina was buried in the Kosevo/Lav/St. Mark Cemetery Complex.
Within weeks, Hussein took Dijana away from Ferida to live with Aisha, his girlfriend. “This is your new mother,” Dijana remembered Hussein telling her. Dijana hated Aisha’s bright-red lipstick.
As the years got on Dijana learned when to avoid her father, when to apologize, and when to take blame. But Hussein’s temper was a shifting minefield she could not safely navigate forever. Walking home from school one day (the date is unclear but she was still a teenager), Hussein accused Dijana of accepting a ride to school. He demanded to know the driver’s name. Dijana protested, saying she’d walked. When they got home Hussein slammed the door shut. Dijana wrote a scene about what happened next:
Aisha: What’s wrong?
Dijana: He thinks someone gave me a ride to school.
Hussein slaps Dijana with the back of his hand. Taking her by her hair, he drags her into another room. Dijana screams. Hussein puts Dijana on the floor and repeatedly slaps her. He lies on her and takes off his belt.
Hussein: You little bitch.
Dijana attempts to crawl away on her stomach. Hussein pulls her by her legs back and hits her with the buckle of his belt and continues to beat her. Dijana, screaming, crying, begins to bleed.
The doctor said Dijana had suffered significant head trauma. Seizures and mood swings followed. An EEG and MRI confirmed Dijana had epilepsy. She suffered debilitating seizures the rest of her life.
The good news was that unfaithful husbands tend to be unfaithful boyfriends. Aisha’s friend allegedly caught Hussein with another woman and called with the news. Aisha hung up the phone and summarily evicted Dijana, who went happily to live with Ferida.
* * *
In 1984, Sarajevo hosted the Winter Olympics. The world saw what ostensibly appeared to be an urban paragon of diversity and tolerance. Croats, Serbs, and Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims, Dijana’s ethnicity) lived together peacefully, especially in heterogeneous Bosnia. Ethnicity was a distinction between people, not a justification for “ethnic cleansing,” a phrase that would come to be associated with the oncoming war.
By 1991, when Dijana was 22, the multiethnic socialist republic of Yugoslavia was breaking apart. Wracked by ethnic nationalism, corrupt legislation, inflation and unemployment, its six states — Croatia, Slovenia, Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, and Serbia — were separating. Bosnian Serb nationalists, backed by neighboring Serbia and its military, wanted their own pure Republika Srpska (Serb Republic), to be part of an expanded Serbian state, a “Greater Serbia.” That included Sarajevo, Dijana’s home.
The warnings had been there: the nationalist militias, the violent rhetoric, troubling news reports, and the brutal war next door in Croatia.
But after living in ethnically mixed communities for years, even the coming war still seemed far away from Bosnia.
“We are civilized people,” Dijana wrote in her screenplay, describing the disbelief.
And then the war arrived.
On March 1, 1992, Bosnia voted for independence. Of 3.15 million people almost two million voted, and 99.7 percent supported independence, though most Bosnian Serbs boycotted. About a month later the siege of Sarajevo began. With support from Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic — later to be tried for genocide — Bosnian-Serb forces, the Army of Republika Srpska, targeted Muslims and Croatian civilians, though atrocities were committed on all sides. That army positioned artillery in the hills around the encircled capital, intending to annex the territory for the Republika Srpska and Greater Serbia. Those hills made Sarajevo easy to cut off and terror-bomb from lofty strategic positions. On TV, Dijana and her friends watched their country and world break. Dijana remembered the beginning like this, with a friend yelling:
Sanja: My God!
Sanja runs, turns up the TV’s volume. We see their faces in disbelief. Frozen.
Dijana: Should we leave?
Dragan: Ok, calm down. This is not for real. It will calm down. Police and the army will calm everybody down. It is impossible to have a war in Sarajevo. This is a city, man. This is like New York City. This is like Paris.
Early into the siege, sometime in the night, Ferida had a stroke. She kept asking for her favorite baklava, and Dijana volunteered to buy it. She kissed Ferida on the cheek and called her “mama” as she left. Why not take Ferida straight to the hospital? I don’t know, but whatever the reason, once out of the house, Dijana changed her mind, deciding instead went to speak with a doctor at Kosevo Hospital.
On her way, she passed two men calling themselves Sarajevan police officers. In truth, they were unofficial militia, likely organized local criminals who, in addition to fighting Serbian troops, terrorized the people of Sarajevo.
Police Officer 1: Let me see your ID.
Police Officer 2: Where are you going?
Dijana: I’m going to the hospital. My mama is sick and needs a doctor.
Police Officer 1: I will drive you where you need to go. It’s not safe for girls like you to go alone.
Dijana gets in the car.
Police Officer 1: What’s your father’s name?
Police Officer 1: What kind of Muslim is your dad when he gave you the name Dijana? What kind of fucking name is that anyway? Dijana, hmm…
Dijana: It is an international name. We are going the wrong way.
He took her to Kosevo/Lav/St. Mark Cemetery Complex, where her mother was buried. He ordered her out of the car. When she refused he leaned close to her. Brushing his elbow against her breasts he opened the glove compartment. He showed her three bullets inside a revolver. She got out of the car. The sun was setting when he raped her.
When the officer left Dijana at a nearby apartment complex he tossed her a money roll, told her, “See you tomorrow at six,” and drove away. When his car turned the corner she thought it was safe to scream and cry. A woman in a nearby apartment ran to her and took her to Kosevo Hospital.
Because the rapist was a so-called policeman in an increasingly lawless city, Dijana feared retaliation if she reported the crime. So did the examining doctor. When he asked who raped her, Dijana told the truth.
“No one raped you,” he said. “You should go home.”
Years later, Dijana still remembered his flushed purple face, short chubby fingers, and bloodshot eyes. She remembered the heavy drops of sweat on his forehead and the smell of alcohol.
* * *
From May 1992 until the Dayton peace agreement on December 14, 1995, Sarajevo suffered an average of 329 shell impacts a day, according to a UN study. About 35,000 buildings were destroyed. Parts of the city were without running water and electricity. Serbian snipers terrorized the city. More than 12,000 city residents were killed and 50,000 more were wounded, mostly civilians. The average weight loss of adults in the city was 30 pounds. The city was being murdered.
Ferida died in the winter of 1992-1993, while Dijana and her friends ducked sniper fire, avoided mortar, and searched for food.
“We have to get out of this fucking city,” Dijana’s friend Goran told her.
Exit and safety required money and connections, both of which Dijana and Goran lacked. But there was good news. The war had emancipated Dijana from her abusive family. Hussein was gone. Not caring what happened to Dijana, he had fled the country and was now living in Croatia with Aisha, whose unattended apartment in Sarajevo likely had food.
The apartment was in the neighborhood of Marijin Dvor, near a military hospital and a Holiday Inn then popular with the foreign press. When Dijana and Goran arrived they met Aisha’s sister, Nevza, who asked the now commonplace question, “What nationality are you?” This meant, “Are you Serb, Muslim, or Croat?” which really meant, “Whose side are you on?” Goran told her the truth. “I’m Serbian.” Nevza called the police.
The real police arrived, but not before Dijana and Goran ate themselves fat. And once Dijana told the police Aisha was her stepmother, they left her and Goran alone.
Dijana managed to make moments of happiness among the desperation.
She often said she never laughed more than during the war. It was between shellings that she fell in love.
About a month after the Nevza incident Dijana met her future husband, Nikola, waiting in a water line. For some reason an old house near Pionirska Dolina Zoo still had running water from a broken pipe in the basement, even when the water lines were down. Dijana described how they first met:
Goran and Dijana are at the end of the line. As they wait young men come up behind them and they say “Hi.” One is very tall, skinny, long hair, hazel eyes, and smiles. He catches Dijana’s eye.
Dijana described a wartime date on a tennis court in Breka:
Nikola is smoking. No conversation. He’s very tall and confident. Dijana blushes. She’s looking at him. There’s an apparent attraction, but it’s painfully suppressed. We expect them to kiss but nothing happens. Someone calls Dijana to play tennis. Shells explode nearby, but no one pays attention. Someone farts and everyone laughs.
Their first kiss happened under a kitchen table.
Despite the shelling Dijana and Nikola are happy to be together. A shell lands close and the building shakes. They passionately look at each other. They are breathing hard, not just out of fear, but also out of love. They stare longer. As more shells drop, they kiss.
Walking back from a mosque that supplied food and humanitarian aid, Dijana, Nikola, and Goran met four Bosnian paramilitary officers. Dijana described how a few minutes changed their lives forever.
Officer 2: IDs.
Officer 1: What is one Muslim girl doing with two Serbs? And you two, why are you not in the Bosnian Army? Seventeen and eighteen are old enough.
He hits Goran in the ribs with his gun. Officer 3 pulls Dijana by the hair. Dijana is crying. The officers beat Nikola. Officer 3 radios in. People pass by and try to avoid the scene.
Officer 3: We have a new package.
A military truck arrives. An officer opens the tent of the back of the truck and shoves Dijana, Nikola, and Goran inside with thirty terrified men and women. A man in the truck is dead. A woman is screaming, weeping, and hitting the back of the driver’s seat.
The door of the truck opens. Footsteps. An officer opens the tent and jumps in the back of the truck. He walks over those sitting on the floor and steps over the dead body. He hits a man who looks at him, but gently approaches the crying woman. He hugs her.
Officer 4: You need some fresh air. Come on. There is nothing to be afraid of. He leads her out of the truck.
Officer 4: Everything will be alright.
Quickly he pulls out a knife and stabs her in the side of the head. She falls to the ground. He tries to pull out the knife, but it’s stuck. Frustrated, he starts moving the knife left and right, finally pulling it out. He gets back in the truck, starts the engine, puts the truck in reverse, and runs over the dead woman.
Dijana, Nikola and Goran were taken to a bombed-out housing complex near the frontline, on the hills of Sarajevo, one or two miles from the city center. The perimeter fence was a heap of melted broken bicycles and metal parts with barbed wire on top. About 30 prisoners lived there in putrid conditions. A few had blankets. There were makeshift detention camps like it all over the Sarajevo area now. Bosnian Muslims and Croats detained Bosnian Serbs, and Bosnian Serbs detained Bosnian Muslims and Croats, as both sides committed crimes against civilians.
Musan Topalovic, aka “Caco,” a Muslim paramilitary leader and self-declared “city defender,” ran the camp. In 1997, The New York Timesinterviewed Salih Jamakovic, a former member of Caco’s unit. ”Caco killed many Serbs, and even some Muslims who he said were collaborating with the Serbs, in his headquarters in the city,” Jamakovic said. ”He brought the bodies up here at night and dumped them in the pit. Those who were executed here were escorted to the mouth of the pit by Caco’s snipers or a special execution platoon.” It’s possible Dijana, Nikola, and Goran had been taken to this camp.
At “the place” — the camp had no other name — food was scarce and the ruthless guards and frontline work deadly. Some women and children were exchanged for Muslims from occupied Serb territory. Some men never returned from digging trenches on the front. The women avoided the guards. Some failed, as Dijana remembered:
The women become silent as they see a man’s eyes look through a small crack in the door. Dijana and all the women watch as the door slowly opens. Two soldiers enter the room, and leave the cell door open a crack. We see the face of the soldier look at each female individually. His eyes move from left to right.
Young Soldier: Do you miss banging?
Both soldiers laugh.
Soldier 1: Let us show you how nice and clean the Muslim dick is.
Soldier 1 pulls the hair of a woman and she falls down on the bed. She begins to cry.
Young Soldier: Take off your pants and shirt. Are you clean?
Woman: I am.
Soldier 1: Serbs don’t even wash their asses when they shit. Disgusting nation.
The soldier takes from his inside jacket pocket a bottle of Bosnian plum brandy and pours it over the woman’s vagina. She screams and the soldier puts his hand over her mouth.
The escape was unplanned and desperate and maybe that’s why it worked. Four days after Dijana, Nikola and Goran arrived, a loud firefight nearby distracted everyone. In that moment the three dug through the junkyard fence and sprinted for their lives.
Goran: I can’t believe it was this simple.
Dijana: It was this simple? We are still next to the fucking place.
They ran towards Sarajevo’s center, past destroyed houses. After a few miles they arrived at the Miljacka River and found a sewage tunnel. Catching their breath, they rested inside, gagging from the sewage stench. (For Dijana, the return of feces and ethnic hate was a cosmically absurd life parallel.) After an hour they realized no one was following them and the only thing to do was walk.
The plan was to reach Grbavica, once an ethnically mixed, prosperous neighborhood in Sarajevo, where Nikola had grown up and where his parents owned an apartment. They did not know who controlled the area, having only heard rumors that often proved wrong.
At night they reached seemingly deserted Pionirska Street. From there they fled to the apartment of Fadila, a kind women in her late fifties and Branko, her ill husband, who Dijana had known before the war. The poor couple gave the children food, clothes and German marks, the only currency accepted in the city.
Back on the road they followed the Miljacka River, making their way to heavily damaged Grbavica. They passed freshly dug graves and an exploded tank. They stopped near Vrbanja Bridge.
“WELCOME TO THE REPUBLIC OF SERBS,” Dijana wrote in her screenplay.
They had unknowingly entered Serb territory. Dijana explained why they hadn’t been shot: The General had arranged an exchange with the Muslims of the city for his daughter and boyfriend. The soldiers thought Dijana was the daughter and took her, Nikola and Goran to a nearby building to meet this self-proclaimed general, who was really a paramilitary leader. He ordered Dijana, Nikola and Goran to remain and live under his rule. Two soldiers, Zikka and Bora, showed them an abandoned apartment where they could stay and the mess hall where they’d eat their meals with other soldiers. The escape had worked.
But soon Nikola and Goran were back in the General’s office.
Above a Persian rug hung large portraits of Slobodan Milosevic and Radovan Karadzic. The latter is currently on trial at The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. Karadzic, a founding member of the Serbian Democratic Party, is charged with genocide and other crimes, including, “murder, unlawful attacks on civilians, acts of violence the primary purpose of which is to spread terror among the civilian population, and the taking of hostages.” Milosevic died in prison before his trial concluded.
General: Good news. Since we think you have the potential to become great and dedicated soldiers, I’ve decided to send you to Ozrenska.
Nikola: Sir, with all due respect, we are only seventeen and we just went through hell in the Muslim area. We heard that Ozrenska is the worst fighting line on the Sarajevan front.
Goran: We will not go.
Bora: You can’t say that to the general.
Goran: Fuck you. We are not going.
General: Fucking cowards. You are not real Serbs. Take these two on vacation.
The General jailed Nikola and Goran with other Serbian men in a military complex near Sarajevo’s airport.
Some prisoners joked about their crimes. One former soldier bragged about killing his cheating wife and her lover. Another claimed he killed two elderly Muslim women. After eight days in that jail Nikola and Goran joined the military.
Meanwhile, Dijana waited, scared and alone, in the abandoned apartment. In Serb territory her last name was dangerous. She had heard that drunken paramilitary officers killed two women with Muslim names in her building. But where could she go?
Goran and Nikola were stationed with two other young men, Darko and Boyan. They worried about NATO airplanes bombing their position.
The buildings and trees that lined Ozrenska Street in Sarajevo created a battle line, with Bosniaks on one side and Serbs on the other. Snipers constantly watched positions on Ozrenska, a long street that at points overlooked Sarajevo, making it strategically important to both sides. Nikola helped Dijana write about his experience on the front:
Darko: Fuck this war. Serbs, Muslims, Croats. Fuck their mothers and those who fucked them. Fuck everyone.
Darko starts throwing away his ammunition, gun, knife, and grenades. Nikola and Goran grab his arms to stop him.
Darko (Hysterical): I’m leaving. That’s it. Fuck you. Fuck everyone.
Nikola: Shut the fuck up. You’ll get us killed.
Goran: Calm down, man.
Darko (staring at the distance): Do you guys think the Americans will really bomb us?
Goran: No, Darko. They don’t fucking care about us here. Muslims just hope the Americans will help.
All of a sudden we hear a soft shot. Darko’s head snaps back. Darko’s body shakes.
Nikola’s face is pale, frozen, his lips colorless. Silence. We see Nikola and Goran’s sweaty faces, eyes wide open and alert, waiting on the next shot. Silence. Soldiers shoot at invisible targets.
Nikola is crying, trying with Goran to put Darko on the stretcher. They put Darko in an emergency military truck. Nikola goes with him.
Nikola: Darko, we are going to the hospital. Don’t worry.
Red Cross Officer: Hey, buddy, stay with us.
Nikola: Please, God.
Nikola takes Darko’s head in his hands and weeps.
These days Nikola tries not to think about war. “As a matter of fact that war was a war between humans and non-humans,” he told me. “Unfortunately, non-humans won and people ran away.”
* * *
In the fall of 1993, Nikola and Goran received a seven-day leave pass and escaped with Dijana to Serb-controlled Ilidza, a large and mostly safe suburb where Goran’s father lived. But Nikola and Goran were technically still in the military and going AWOL was risky. Dijana had a crazy and reckless idea that, again, worked. She relished telling this part of the story.
Dijana: If you go to a doctor and say you lost consciousness, pissed yourself, don’t remember anything, have headaches and bit your tongue — and all this had been happening for weeks — they’ll suspect epilepsy. They will send you to a neurologist for an EEG at Pale hospital, and then I’ll take the EEG for you. When you get a referral, we’ll put a letter “A” at the end of your name and it will be a female name. When we come back we will take bleach and erase the “A.” There are no phone lines so no one can check anything. With epilepsy you are disabled and cannot be recruited.
At week later a letter arrived. Nikola officially had epilepsy.
But Goran was still in the military and he could not leave. (They decided not to pull the epilepsy trick twice at the same hospital.) However, Goran was lucky and got assigned to Ilidza, where he served on a relatively safe border area. Despite the occasional bombing he had what was then considered an easy job.
After a year in Ilidza, in early 1994 and after a hard winter, Dijana and Nikola decided to get out of the war entirely. They fled to Belgrade, the capital of Serbia, a safer city where they might find work through relatives while seeking permanent relocation to another country though the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR). Goran’s father bought their bus tickets. Dijana remembered the bus driver’s warning, “Dear passengers, we will drive the next two minutes really fast because of the sniper. Please keep your heads down and god bless us all.”
Refugees can wait years for relocation. Dijana and Nikola had to find a way to survive until then. Nikola found work selling food products to grocery stores. But after two months the failing economy took his job and he resorted to odd jobs painting and selling fruit at a farmers market. Nikola and Dijana never knew where they would sleep the next day. Sometimes they had an apartment, sometimes not. Sometimes kind people gave them food and shelter. Sometimes a friend helped.
It could take years for soldiers to obtain a pass to visit Belgrade, but it only took Goran four months. He went AWOL and joined Dijana and Nikola.
But there were still obstacles for Goran. UNHCR was unlikely to relocate a single man of fighting age who had been in the military and didn’t have epilepsy. The solution was strange and simple — the same tactic that always seemed to work. Dijana married Goran. UNHCR kept husbands and wives together.
Dijana kept Goran’s last name. Maybe she wanted to forget her past.
Goran and Nikola had escaped the military, but they could be conscripted again. While waiting for a bus to the outskirts of Belgrade, Dijana and Nikola crossed the famously savage Arkan’s Tigers, a Serbian paramilitary group. Two black military jeeps approached the bus station and soldiers in black uniforms began forcibly recruiting civilians for the war.
Soldier 1: All Serbs from Bosnia and Croatia immediately come forward. They begin to check IDs. Soldiers take a man to the jeep. A person from the line starts to run.
Dijana: Now. Run!
Nikola and Dijana escaped, but still they waited for UNHCR.
In March 1999, the Tiger unit’s warlord-celebrity leader, Zeljko Raznjatovic, aka Arkan, was accused of crimes against humanity. He escaped trial in 2000 when a man shot him in the eye at the Intercontinental Hotel in Belgrade.
Dijana and Nikola lived in danger and poverty until late 1994 or early 1995, when UNHCR informed them that they, along with Goran, would be relocated together. (But for some unknown reason they were lucky. UNHCR was not obligated to resettle Nikola with the newlyweds since he was not technically family.) In June 1996, after a peace agreement was signed in Paris on December 14, 1995, they arrived at Americana Boulevard, South Orange Blossom Trail Orlando, Florida, their new home.
UNHCR Representative: This is going to be your apartment. Number 29.
Dijana: Is this a safe part of town?
UNHCR Rep: Well, Orlando is pretty safe. This is not the safest area, but considering where you are coming from, it’s safe. Welcome home.
INT. FLORIDA APARTMENT – LATE EVENING
Nikola and Dijana in bed. Nikola rolls over, looks at Dijana and sighs.
Nikola: I can’t believe we’re here.
Red and blue police lights flash on the apartment walls.
Dijana: Something is going on outside.
Nikola: This is exciting. Our first night in America.
The screenplay ends with a gunshot, somewhere outside in the dark.
* * *
Dijana never heard of Tsutomu Yamaguchi, but she understood his story.
On August 9, 1945, Yamaguchi was on a business trip in Hiroshima when at 8:15 a.m. the Enola Gay dropped Little Boy, an atomic bomb, on an unsuspecting populace, immediately killing about 90,000 people. Yamaguchi survived and two days later, as he arrived in Nagasaki, Fat Man exploded. This time about 70,000 people died. Again, Yamaguchi survived. He died at 93 years old on January 4, 2010.
That story exemplifies what Dijana meant by her screenplay’s title, “13-29,” lucky in her bad luck. Contradictory luck. Was Yamaguchi the luckiest unlucky man? Dijana knew that question. It was her life’s question, too. The siege helped her meet Nikola. Her mistaken identity on Vrbanja Bridge — when soldiers thought she was the “General’s” daughter — had saved their lives, but then got Nikola and Goran sent to the front. Her epilepsy may have saved Nikola’s life, but it ruined hers. The war got her to the U.S. The screenplay’s “13” refers to Dijana’s August birthday and “29” refers to two dates. The day her mother died, January 29, 1984, and February 29, 1992, when Bosnia and Herzegovina initiated its referendum on secession from failing Yugoslavia. Two dates, both lucky and unlucky.
I cannot claim perfect insight into Dijana’s thoughts, but she desperately wanted a witness to her contradictory luck, needed it to be acknowledged. Dijana’s life had a pattern. It is a pattern of war, and maybe peaceful life, too, but violence made it visible. She understood the brute fact and profound absurdity of what had happened, and wanted someone else to see it, too. But more than that, she wanted people to know that all the suffering had made her who she was, and she liked who she was. Suffering had made her a better person. Her pain made her severely sensitive to the pain of others. She had a full, almost overly sincere response to people. She had a reflex of kindness, and maybe she was grateful for that.
Nikola and Dijana had to learn how to live in the U.S. They studied English, took driving lessons, and looked for work — all the normal things that people in the U.S. do. But it was hard, after everything that happened, to get on with a normal life. And Dijana still had seizures, which got worse after doctors switched her medication. Once, after taking new pills, Dijana tried to jump out of a window. But most days were not like that. Dijana, Goran, and Nikola both found work. Dijana graduated from community college, and Nikola liked the laid-back attitude of the U.S.
Around 2003, to continue her education, Dijana and Nikola moved to Massachusetts, just outside Boston, and married. (She had divorced Goran, of course.) I met Dijana two years later, at nine a.m. in our Concept Development class at Emerson College, when she had an epileptic seizure. She had another seizure in our Intro to Media Production class and this time I knew where she kept the Lorazepam pills. A few weeks later she asked if I’d help write her screenplay and I had to find Sarajevo on a map.
At Emerson, a downtown Boston arts school that prides itself on hip, open-minded acceptance of everything different, Dijana was too strange. Students and professors were kind, but from a cold distance. They didn’t know her story (why should they?) and lacked the context to understand her behavior. She believed some people are born evil, and statements like that scared people away.
The bad days were never far away. When Dijana had a seizure, Nikola got a call. Emerson professors and Dijana’s employers didn’t know what to do. Nikola worked a night shift and attended classes at UMass Boston in the morning.
He often had to leave class to help Dijana. The doctors never found the right medication. Nothing really worked, not even a thirteen-day treatment at Bingham Women’s Hospital.
But despite all that, Dijana and Nikola made a good life in Boston. They found jobs, rented an apartment, made friends, planned for the future, and got a cat. They’d settled into their new lives. But Dijana always dreamed of making her story a movie. So in 2007, Dijana and Nikola headed west.
In her emails to me Dijana wrote about making a sincere go of it in L.A. After moving into an apartment in North Hollywood, she arranged an internship and gave her elevator pitch to a few mid-level people, who, according to her, seemed interested in her screenplay. But nothing happened. After a few months, Dijana formed a theory about L.A. people: The already rich and famous are kind, but difficult to meet, and the mildly or not yet rich and famous people are not kind (but easy to meet) mostly because they’re so ambitious to be richer and more famous, which is pretty much everyone in L.A. But Dijana never gave up.
Dijana believed the U.S. is a place where peoples’ stories get told. After years of intermittent work on her screenplay she confidently headed to LA, imagining she was living the end of her story. Think of the sky-bound pullback shot. Think of her in a car zooming into the city with the radio on, all that possibility ahead. That’s the ending she wanted. It’s the one she deserved. Instead, a grand mal seizure killed her while she slept.
Few people knew Dijana, even fewer remember her, and that’s not how she wanted to die. She wanted a movie theater of witnesses to her cosmically unfair life. She wanted people to know her survival story and see how she’d made it in the U.S. But when she died on September 17, 2007, there was no obituary.
Nikola does not know what happened to Goran in the U.S., or even if he’s still there. Many years ago they had a falling out. Nikola doesn’t like to talk about it, and they never spoke again. He said Goran might have changed his name. I could not find him. Nikola still lives in the U.S. and has remarried. He seems happy. He still celebrates Dijana’s birthday.
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Daniel DeFraia is a freelance journalist and American Studies PhD student at Boston University. He tweets at @ddefraia.
Eros Dervishi is an Albanian illustrator living in New York. He currently spends his time reading, trying to learn how to cook, and being sentient. See more of his work at erosdervishi.com.