How We Survived Winter in Wartime

I know something of what Ukrainians are going through. Thirty years ago, my family was under siege in Sarajevo and without heat, light, or water.

A black-and-white photograph of an interior domestic scene of Sarajevans under siege during war
A family in mourning. Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovi​na. Winter 1994. (Paul Lowe / VII / Redux)

As millions of Ukrainians face their first winter of the war, I share in their dread because I know how brutal a winter war can be. As a child in Sarajevo, Bosnia, I survived three long winters in a city under siege. I endured the cold and deprivation alongside the constant anxiety that I might lose my parents to a bullet or a mortar shell every time they went out to forage for wood or water. War and winter are relentless, but so is the human spirit. This is why I have hope that the Ukrainian people will survive this winter with grit—and even some grace.

The siege of Sarajevo started in the spring of 1992, and during the first few months, the daily onslaught of thunderous explosions made our apartment building shudder, forcing us to seek refuge in the moldy basement. By the end of the summer, we gave up hope that the Serbian blockade would end anytime soon and began readying for winter. At 13, I dealt with the ordeal by keeping a diary. On November 6, 1992, I wrote:

Most of the trees have been cut down for firewood, so we can’t see the leaves changing to beautiful autumn colors … Death is the most frequent passerby on the streets. Life seems cheaper than a slice of bread or a cup of water.

Although everyone dreaded the first snowfall, I was secretly excited. In my childish naivete, I hoped that the snow would act as a cushion for the mortar shells, preventing them from exploding. The first time I saw scarlet splatters in the snow, all that remained of my innocence melted away.

In early November, we managed to get a small wood-burning stove to heat our home, which was already freezing because all of the window panes had been shattered. In their place, we taped plastic sheeting in the bare frames. That kept us protected from the snow and rain, but did little to insulate the apartment from the plummeting temperatures. Like most families, we quickly ran out of firewood and had to find other things to burn. People resorted to burning furniture, books, shoes, picture frames, even musical instruments. The constant damp made the wood flooring of the apartment warp and lift, so we started burning squares of lacquered parquet. But they burned so quickly that before long, we had stripped all of the floors, exposing cold, bare concrete. After our car was destroyed by an explosion, we started burning chunks of the tires, even though they gave off thick smoke and a horrible smell.

At night, we closed off my bedroom to conserve the little heat we had in the rest of the apartment; I slept on a makeshift bed in the hallway near the front door. Being tucked in that narrow corridor offered at least an illusion of shelter, especially to my mother, who agonized over my safety. I spent many sleepless nights there, shivering, listening to the crackle of sniper fire. At daybreak, before my father got up to stoke the fire, I could see my breath as if I were outside. The only thing that got me out from under the covers was the thought of being with my friends.

At school, too, everyone was freezing despite hats and gloves, but we were determined not to fall behind in our education. Classes were held in the basements of apartment buildings, and everyone brought something to burn in the stove. Afterward, I attended singing lessons. I wore my winter coat and as I sang, I gazed through the hole that a mortar had made in the ceiling of my music school. Three decades later, I see myself in every image of a Ukrainian child playing or studying in a dank basement.

In Sarajevo, the winter’s darkness seemed unrelenting. When our supply of candles dwindled, we improvised lamps: a little cooking oil and a cork with a shoelace strung through it for a wick, floating in a cup of water. Despite the risk from snipers and mortar shells, everyone foraged for things to burn amid the wreckage of our city. When our neighbor found several crates of plexiglass, we broke it into long, narrow pieces and lit one end to use as torches in the dark stairwells. The smell was acrid and intense, stinging our eyes and noses. Most mornings, I awoke with black circles around my nostrils from the soot.

One day, I accidentally shifted one of the paintings in our living room, which we refused to feed to the stove, and was shocked to discover the pure white wall behind the frame, unstained by smoke. It was a small reminder of what our lives had been before the siege.

Some days, I felt wilted and my lungs ached for fresh air, but the bombardments kept us inside for days at a time. While my parents were asleep, my brother and I would sneak into his room and open one of the windows with taped-plastic panes. The city was in complete darkness except for the artillery explosions that lit up the sky with orange-yellow flashes. It was dangerous standing there, but we felt better for expelling the stale, putrid air of our confinement.

On the rare occasions when the electricity came back on, we were stunned by the lights and noises from our now useless appliances. The dishwasher had become a locker for our paltry supply of pasta, rice, and lentils; the washing machine had not run for months. With the power back on, we scrambled to complete as many chores as we could: cooking, cleaning, and vacuuming. Even then, the water pressure was too weak to reach our 14th-floor apartment, so we used the elevator to carry up buckets of water.

My brother and I would be in a frantic rush to finish all our household tasks because we longed to watch just a few minutes of MTV or the movie Top Gun, which we had on VHS. All too soon, the power would go again, we’d be plunged into darkness—and a cry of disappointment would echo around the whole neighborhood. Such scenes have already been playing out in cities across Ukraine as they contend with blackouts and the deepening cold and darkness.

Of all the privations, the shortage of water was the hardest to bear. Sarajevans resorted to collecting rain and snow, and filling up containers at public fountains and wells. Sometimes, a water truck would park in our neighborhood, inviting a long line of people with their buckets and canisters. My dad insisted on being the only one of our family to go out to get water, because it was the most dangerous task. Every few days, he would gather up all our containers, strap them to a sled, and walk into the night to stand in line for hours. The tanks encircling the city frequently targeted these gatherings. On January 15, 1993, I wrote:

A deadly missile exploded in front of the Sarajevo Brewery where citizens were collecting water. Eight killed and fifteen wounded! In a single second, two children were injured and lost both their parents.

Considering the dangers, each drop of water became precious, and we made every effort to conserve and reuse as much as possible. Above our bathtub, we hung a 10-liter metal container with a brass spigot, and we kept a plastic basin below to catch the water we used to wash our hands, so that we could reuse it to flush the toilet. When I washed my hair by pouring freezing cups of water over my head, I agonized over every drop spilled, because it meant my dad would be in danger again that much sooner.

During that first winter, we focused so much on surviving, it would be easy to think that we weren’t actually living. Yet Sarajevans went to work and school, published newspapers and books, and performed concerts. We put on theater productions that mirrored our grim reality, always peppered with black humor because laughter helped stave off the misery. We banded together, and eventually the winter always relented. This way we survived not one but three brutal winters.

I imagine there will be many such months ahead for the Ukrainian people. But my hope is that they will survive the hardship to experience the moment we Sarajevans dreamt of in the darkest days of winter: Despite the war’s infinite callousness, at the spring’s first thaw, we walked into the sunlight and warmed our faces. We were weary and scarred—but unbroken.