I’m Tamerla Kendall and my story is about how I survived living in Sarajevo during the Bosnian War 1992-1995. “Guilty Survivor – Memoirs of Tamerla Kendall”, is written by ghostwriter Marianne Stephens.
Buy link: http://www.secretcravingspublishing.com/MarianneStephens.html
What qualities helped you cope with living in a war zone?
I had no choice but to compromise and adjust everyday to whatever I faced. Lack of supplies for my restaurant business meant dealing on the “black market”, making deals with military officers for supplies in exchange for cooking/baking for troops, always looking for water and wood, needed for both my business and my own life.
I couldn’t give up and leave, abandoning my business. My husband and I hoped the war would end soon and wanted to have it for our future. He left shortly after the war began, avoiding military duty but I stayed, running our business.
I had to find inner strength to face each day. And, I had to acknowledge the fact that I’d use the gun I possessed if my life were threatened. Fear had to be compensated for by hope and the desire to live.
Emotions had to be set aside, especially when sniper or grenade attacks happened and I helped those dying and injured. Cleaning blood off sidewalks, walls, streets, had to be done without tears. And, although I cried inside at seeing the dead while knowing I could do nothing for them, I concentrated on the living.
Networking before and during the war helped me to find people I could trust most of the time.
Tell me about your risk-taking trips out of Sarajevo, only to return to keep the family business operating.
I had no choice but to get my daughter out of Sarajevo. I couldn’t risk taking her to school anymore, and she cried with fear while missing her father (he’d already left). Through a carefully, secretive plan using two cars and different drivers, I passed three checkpoints with her and brought her to safety.
My second trip had me dressing as a United Nations soldier.
My second trip to Kiseljak was more difficult and done with me masquerading as a soldier. I’d called Commander Ivicarajic of the Croatian army to ask for help in crossing the border in November of 1992. I made a deal to transport some food supplies for him. I would be allowed to cross over into Croatia this way.
I then spoke to United Nations’ officer, Vladimir Sidorenko, (from the Ukraine) and asked him for help in getting across the border lines. He came to Restaurant Meli often and was known to help the people in Sarajevo.
He told me to go to the UN barrack area at night, sleep there, get up at 4:00am and dress like a UN soldier in a Ukrainian, UNPROFOR uniform (United Nations Protection Forces) he provided. Part of the deal was that I’d bring supplies back with me for his troops. Desperate to visit my family and encouraged by his plan, I agreed.
I arrived at the UN barrack late that night. A blue and green military uniform and boots were provided for me and I slept in a military bed but was given a room and bathroom just for me. Other soldiers knew I was a woman but keep my secret.
The uniform was big, as were the boots. I used cloth and tightly circled it around my chest to hide my breasts. I stuffed paper into the boots so my feet wouldn’t slide out. I put on the uniform and l looked at myself in a mirror. Even without makeup, I was afraid I’d be noticed and discovered to be a woman.
I pushed and pinned up my hair high on my head and pulled the cap down low enough to hide my hair and almost cover my eyes. The less seen of me the better. Even without using perfume, soap, or deodorant, I still thought I smelled like a woman. I practiced lowering my voice when I spoke, although the plan was for me not to speak at all. Would I pass as a man? Sound like one? Go unnoticed among other soldiers?
For one crazy instance, I imagined myself as preparing to go on a secret mission. I thought about spy movies I’d seen or books I’d read where people had to wear disguises. Not only had I found many avenues of keeping my restaurant operating, thanks to the war, but now I found a new talent. I would have my first performance as an actress.
I did not have to walk from checkpoint to checkpoint with other soldiers, but got to ride in a tank. I remained silent, even in the tank, and the other soldiers inside with me ignored my presence. Maybe it was their way of following orders to treat me as another soldier, and keep from staring. If they didn’t look at me, I really wasn’t there.
If you could offer your author advice, what would it be?
My advice would be for anyone. Be prepared to find inner strength and rely on your knowledge to get through troubling times. Network. You never know when some contact will be needed. Treat others with kindness and respect, and they’ll be the ones you can trust in difficult times. Trust others to help, but always be on guard for those who’ll betray you.
Are you happy with the way people perceive you?
Although I learned English while in my homeland, I still needed to learn more. As an adult, it’s not an easy transition. People sometimes avoid me, possibly because I’m still considered a “foreigner” and don’t have a better command of the English language. I tend to shy away from people because I’m not sure they’ll take the time to understand me.
Although I ran my own business, went to college, and have many skills associated with managing a restaurant and preparing food, I had to start at “square one” again in the US. I encountered some resentment from those trying to teach me what to do…while I already had more experience than they did.
Tell us a little bit about your daily life living in a war zone.
I never knew if the electricity, gas, water, or phones would work. Each day meant worrying about how to compensate for the lack of utilities. I had to carefully scrutinize supplies to figure out what I could serve…and what I had to go find on the “black market” or barter for. Sniper and grenade attacks happened at random. Usually once a day, during a “lull” period between warring factions, I’d dress up and walk my dog in the park. Others did the same. We had a two-hour “window” of eerie silence and would act as if we lived normal lives. How foolish I now feel, thinking about how I could have easily set myself up as a sniper’s target. Every night, I slept with a gun nearby. Some employees slept in the restaurant and I hired some protection people to stay with them.
What is the most frightening thing that has happened to you?
So many things to choose from. My trips out of Sarajevo were frightening. So was the first grenade attack on my restaurant. But another scary event after the war forced me to make a major life-changing decision. I was robbed at gunpoint and almost shot. Threatened because I’d married an American, I had to decide what would be best for my family’s future safety.
What other characters have influenced you?
My first husband taught me not to trust men. My second husband’s values of honesty, determination and work ethics, fortified my own values and goals. He’s a man of integrity and honor.
Have you ever lost control?
After taking my daughter to safety, I returned to Sarajevo to find my house had been torched and burned. Once back at my restaurant, I found it had been robbed by soldiers while I was surveying my destroyed home. Frustrated, I lost control and confronted a military officer. Luckily for me, he listened and agreed to my compromise. He’d return my stuff if I’d cook/bake for his unit. I realize now how risky my action had been in confronting him.
Is there a question you wish I had asked but didn’t?
Have you returned to Sarajevo? I’ve made some trips back, but it’s not the same. There’s only one friend I still see when I go. I visit my parents’ cemetery. My sister and I still own their home. I’ve turned over my restaurant to my daughter, and it’s to be sold. The home I’d rebuilt after the war will also be sold. I’m always happy to visit, but things have changed and my life is in the US now.