No Stick nor Trace

Gabriele Annan

  • The Stone Fields: An Epitaph for the Living by Courtney Angela Brkic
    Granta, 316 pp, £12.99, October 2004, ISBN 1 86207 657 X
  • This Was Not Our War: Bosnian Women Reclaiming the Peace by Swanee Hunt
    Duke, 307 pp, £21.50, January 2005, ISBN 0 8223 3355 4
  • Then They Started Shooting: Growing Up in Wartime Bosnia by Lynne Jones
    Harvard, 336 pp, £18.95, February 2005, ISBN 0 674 01561 4

Angela Brkic’s The Stone Fields is subtitled ‘An Epitaph for the Living’, but its underlying and overwhelming theme is death – death in Bosnia. It is a chronicle of Brkic’s Bosnian Croat family, from the end of the First World War to the present day (Brkic’s father emigrated to the US in 1959 and she was born there). The emphasis is on war: the Second World War, but especially the wars between Serbs and Croats in Croatia and in Bosnia, after Croatia declared its independence from Yugoslavia in 1991. The jumping about is confusing: other people’s family structures, almost always hard to take in, are especially difficult when the names are exotic and unfamiliar. Thoughtfully, Brkic has provided a family tree, as well as a map and a key to pronunciation. Even so, it might have been better to begin with her grandparents and work up to her own arrival in the Balkans at the age of 22.

Part personal history, part family history, and part just plain history, the story is told as if it were a novel, with roosters crowing, train compartments smelling of dust and cigarette smoke, lovers stroking each other in bed, and conversations and thoughts that can only have been imagined – but plausibly imagined, with insight and feeling. At the end, for instance, one of Brkic’s great-aunts lies in bed, paralysed and speechless after a stroke, and wonders why the sky is so white. Just occasionally it comes to her that what’s above her is not the sky, but the whitewashed ceiling.

Brkic studied archaeology at university in America. In 1995 she travelled to Croatia, and in 1996, a year after the Srebrenica massacre, she joined a multinational team of Physicians for Human Rights as a forensic archaeologist. Forensic archaeologists dig up corpses to establish their identities and the circumstances of their deaths. There were between seven and eight thousand decomposing corpses at Srebrenica, and Brkic’s job was to measure them and the ground around them, hunt for any belongings that might help identify them, get them into body-bags and send them to the specially set-up morgue. Halfway through the day’s work, the team would picnic on unappetising MREs (ready-to-eat meals) among the bones, the decaying flesh, the stink and the flies. Brkic worried that the workers hired to do the heavy preliminary digging were all Serbs. It was the Bosnian Serbs who’d been responsible for the massacre. The Serbs had been at war with Croatia, too, until the previous year. This frightened her, and she tried to keep her own Croat origins secret. She also worked on autopsies in the morgue, undressing and cataloguing the bodies and their injuries, washing their clothes so that they could be shown to relatives for identification. The picnics were better now: although they ate inside the morgue, the sandwiches were fresh, made by the housekeeper at the team’s base. A colleague advised her always to start her after-work shower with cold water: ‘That way you wash off the mess without opening your pores. If your pores open and the smell creeps in, it’ll follow you around for days.’ Brkic had gruesome dreams, and her colleagues advised her to leave: she upset them by being so upset. She took their advice, but later had a nervous breakdown anyway.

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