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Before the War

I FIRST MET GAGA IN 1984 during the Sarajevo Winter Olympics. I was a wayward college student searching for exotica. Gaga was a bon vivant. We became friends through our love of mountains. With him as my guide, I also trekked through Sarajevo's frenetic cafe life. Gaga lived each day as a separate adventure. He bounced around from job to job, only putting much effort into his real interests--mountain climbing, photography, and good times.

There was a brief, unhappy marriage. And he drank too much, especially after undergoing surgery on an ulcer. Gaga had the lean build of a serious hiker, an easy grin, and soft brown eyes that quickly made friends. His mustache and goatee would appear and disappear so often that his face never looked the same in photographs--a mutability that's eerie in retrospect.

Three years after our first meeting, I returned to Yugoslavia as a graduate student. My friendship with Gaga deepened. It was Gaga who hauled my spirits out of a deep depression. With Gaga, I set out to master the highest peaks in the Balkans. On hot summer days we roamed the cool, forested mountains ringing Sarajevo--Jahorina, Bjelasnica, Treskavica and others.

It was only in our last encounter, in 1991, that I realized something that had gone unmentioned in all our talks, but that would mark Gaga for the short time remaining in his life. He was a Serb. Yes, a Sarajevan, a Bosnian, a mountain climber, a photographer, son of communist partisans, my close friend-all of these things.

But Gaga was also a Serb. When war came to Sarajevo that was all that seemed to matter.

Next: War Begins

Images (top to bottom):
1. Gaga (l.) and the narrator, Michael Montgomery
2. Mountain-climbing club stamp book (Link, jpeg 86k)
3. Gaga in the mountains (Link, jpeg 71k)

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