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Everyday life in a war zone

On Linda Flynn Beekman's first day in Bosnia, a young woman told her, "Sometimes, people find themselves when deprived of the familiar." For Beekman, it was true.

In June of 1993, Beekman was 50 years old. The Clearwater woman was divorced, the mother of a teenage son, a former dancer and actor with a housecleaning business, no college degree, no strong political background.

But for several months, news reports of the siege of Sarajevo, the video of its citizens dodging the gunfire of Serbian snipers as they crossed the streets of their city, had haunted her.

"It was on TV, on NPR every day," Beekman says. "I kept thinking, this could happen anywhere."

The sight of Sarajevans held hostage in their own city moved her. "I've always had this feeling of wanting to help the underdog."

So she kissed her son goodbye and got on a plane bound for Bosnia as a peace witness, to volunteer _ she wasn't quite sure how _ to help the people of Sarajevo.

She didn't speak the language, didn't know where her help might be needed. She had only a connection to an Italian peace organization, Blessed Are the Peacemakers, and a press card issued by WMNF, Tampa's community radio station (although she had never been a reporter).

Her first host in Sarajevo was a woman whose apartment faced a street known as Sniper Alley. Beekman and another volunteer shared the place with her and a gigantic German shepherd.

"When she said it was on the ninth floor," Beekman says, "I never even thought about what it meant to live on the ninth floor with no working elevator."

She would get used to it. She returned to Sarajevo throughout the 3{-year siege and several times afterward, carrying in everything from medications to 60 pairs of ballet shoes in her luggage. She created the nonprofit Sarajevo Project to raise funds and train volunteers. In Florida, she returned to college after 20 years, completed a degree, learned to dance the tango and wrote a book.

War Cake: A Witness in the Siege of Sarajevo is the story of her experiences in Sarajevo. It focuses not on politics but on the struggles of everyday life in wartime. "My reason for going there was the ordinary people caught in the war," Beekman says. "I wanted to focus on them and why they survived."

In 1992, as the former Yugoslavia sank into civil war, the city of Sarajevo, Bosnia, was surrounded by Bosnian Serb fighters, supported by Serbia. The cultured, handsome city that hosted the 1984 Winter Olympics was fired on by snipers, shelled and cut off from supply lines. Its power and water systems were severely damaged.

In a city of 300,000, more than 10,600 Sarajevans died during the siege. More than 1,000 of them were children.

The title of War Cake comes from the cake, or kolac, that is traditionally served to guests and at celebrations in Bosnia. During the siege, ingredients such as eggs and milk were scarce, and with no electricity or gas, baking was out of the question anyway.

So, Beekman writes, Sarajevans such as her friend Ana improvised. "She mixes a couple of cups of dried bread crumbs with a little oil, sugar or artificial sweetener, a little powdered milk or water, and presses it into a cake pan. Before serving, she spreads the top with the cream mixture made from powdered milk and yeast."

Many hosts served her war cake. "I never question the custom or the ingredients. The taste is not important. What is important is the woman's hospitality and her effort to maintain a sense of normalcy and tradition for herself and her family amid the chaos of war."

That desire for stability struck a chord in Beekman. She grew up in St. Petersburg, graduating from Northeast High School in 1961. Her childhood was unhappy, she says, but she found solace in dancing.

"I studied dance from the age of 13. I just submerged myself in it. The day after I graduated high school, I went to New York to be a dancer and actress."

Beekman studied acting and dance and performed in an off-Broadway musical based on Little Women. But she began to suffer from "huge depression," she said. "It really robbed me of a career. I think I had talent."

After five years in New York, she moved to Boston, where for a time she lived with a contemplative order of nuns. Eventually, she returned to St. Petersburg. In 1975, she enrolled at St. Petersburg Junior College, where she met Frank Beekman.

They married in 1976, and their son, Matthew, was born in 1978. The Beekmans divorced in 1989.

Beekman had dropped out of college after she married. In 1994, after several trips to Bosnia, she decided to go back to school. After all, she had learned to deal with sniper fire, food shortages, government bureaucracies, power outages, language barriers and fundraising. How hard could college be?

She earned her associate's degree in 1996. A couple of years later, she began working on the book that would become War Cake.

"It's just a little book, but it took a long time," she says. One of her housecleaning clients was St. Petersburg author Bob Andelman, and he encouraged her. "Bob was instrumental in me writing the book."

Her first draft contained much more of her personal experiences, but her friend Anna Cataldi told her it was really two books. "She told me the people of Bosnia deserved their own book."

While she was working on War Cake, she enrolled as a student at the University of South Florida. "It was a spur-of-the-moment thing. I was on campus during registration, and I saw the international studies table. I said, "Of course.' "

In 2002, she earned her degree in international studies and anthropology. This year, she self-published War Cake. To finance its printing, she sold it in advance through a Web site and to many of the donors who had funded the Sarajevo Project.

She hopes to sell the rest of the 4,000 copies printed to inform people about life in wartime. "And it would be nice to get them all out of my bedroom."

She will be in Bosnia in October as a volunteer observer of municipal elections for the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe. She hopes to find a full-time job in election work. "I'm struggling with being almost 62. When do I give up and stop doing this?"

But, although Sarajevo's siege may be long over, the images of war still trouble her. "I saw a report the other day from Iraq. These two girls were standing in front of a wrought-iron gate, looking so normal. I know what it's like for them. I think we never should have done this," she says of the invasion of Iraq. "If we wanted to get rid of that guy, there's other ways."

Between Sarajevo and college, Beekman discovered another passion in 1999: the tango. With the same intensity of purpose that took her to Bosnia, she has traveled to Argentina to study the dance she compares to a romantic relationship: "You lean on your partner a little bit, then you find your own balance."

Beekman has become such a tango enthusiast that at her tidy little home in the High Point area, she has built two tango floors. The first was a small one on the back porch. Rimmed with mirrors pointed at the dancers' feet, it covers only a few square yards. "The tango doesn't take much room."

The larger one is outdoors, in the shade of backyard trees, surrounded by benches. There, Beekman and her tango friends can dance and learn.

Sarajevo, she says, taught her that in war, people find out what they really need. "What they needed was to go to the theater, to go to concerts. You get down to what really does sustain you.

"Sometimes, if you can just get a person a jar of peanut butter and a concert ticket, that's enough."

Colette Bancroft can be reached at (727) 893-8435 or bancroftsptimes.com.

To purchase War Cake: A Witness in the Siege of Sarajevo ($14.95 plus shipping), go to www.warcake.com. The book also is available at Haslam's Book Store in St. Petersburg.

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