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.

She moved in with three great-aunts who had settled in Zagreb. They came from a village in Herzegovina, but had lived in Sarajevo until the fighting drove them out. A fourth sister, And¯elka, was Brkic’s paternal grandmother, who died before Brkic was born: she is the heroine of the book’s early period. She married young and had four children before her husband died of typhoid. Still in her twenties, she fell in love with a young Jew called Josef. When the Croats sided with Hitler in the Second World War, Josef was taken to a concentration camp. And¯elka clung to the idea that he would return. ‘There are women who listen each evening for a telltale sound coming from the hall outside their draughty rooms that says their husbands and children have returned, Lazarus-like. These women wait for one year, then another. They grow old in their waiting.’ The former Yugoslavia was – and is – full of women like that.

By the time And¯elka’s eldest child, Brkic’s father, Bero, reached university age, Tito was in power. Bero later came under police suspicion because he had refused to join the Communist party. And¯elka urged him and the next brother to ‘Get out while you still can . . . And don’t come back.’ They fled to the States, and eventually she followed them. She was unhappy there, returned, and committed suicide. Years earlier, her sister Ljubica (the one who later had a stroke) was abandoned by her husband. To the embarrassment of the rest of the family, he had been a member of the Fascist Ustasa. When Tito came to power, he fled the country. Ljubica pleaded to go with him, but he refused. From then on, she dressed only in black, and never set foot outside the family flat.

In his graphic novel The Fixer, Joe Sacco describes his return to postwar Sarajevo. People seem to be having a good time, drinking and smoking and sitting in cafés. But if you look carefully you realise that all these people have their eyes shut. You might well think the same about Swanee Hunt’s book about Bosnia, This Was Not Our War: US ambassador to Vienna from 1993 to 1997, she can sound irritatingly upbeat. There wasn’t much for her to do in Vienna, so she took up Bosnia in a big way, and especially Bosnian women. This is a feminist work, and the ‘our’ in the title means ‘us Bosnian women’. She interviewed 26 of them – Croats, Serbs, Muslims and Jews. A ‘profile’ of each one is included in a section at the end of the book, together with their photographs – and one of Swanee Hunt. As well as having been an ambassador (appointed by Clinton, whom she claims as a personal friend, and who wrote the preface), Hunt is a professional photographer. Her pictures of ruined buildings are scattered through the book – competent, but not more. She is also a composer, a journalist, director of the Women and Public Policy Program at the Kennedy School at Harvard, founder and chair of Women Waging Peace, ‘a global policy-oriented initiative working to integrate women into peace processes’, and a member of so many other organisations, committees, symposia and councils that it is no wonder her text bristles with acronyms like an octopus with suckers.

The women Hunt talked to had horrific experiences during the war: exile, imprisonment, homes destroyed, husbands, children, brothers and sisters killed. And rape:

Most of the rapes in the Bosnia conflict were neither side effects of war, sexual aggression, nor acts of revenge. They were planned within the strategy of ‘ethnic cleansing’. Those who organised the rapes forced others to join in. Forced impregnation was the ultimate ethnic cleansing, and Serb rapists taunted their victims, telling them that now they would give birth to a Serb baby. Rape was . . . not the aggressive manifestation of sexuality, but rather the sexual manifestation of aggression.

This passage is one of the more sophisticated bits of analysis in the book, but can it be entirely true? Invading armies have been known to rape without any ideological motives to encourage them.

Most of those Hunt interviewed were professional women: teachers, academics, journalists, engineers, an IT specialist, a dermatologist, an architect, social workers, entrepreneurs, an orthodontist, an ambassador, politicians, accountants. Some came from mixed race (and faith) families; others had married men of a different ethnic group. A number worked for charitable organisations: anything from helping disabled children to promoting multi-ethnic co-operation. All of them spoke in favour of peace among the different races, and most of them thought that women would have handled the situations that led to war better than men could or did. Well, they would think that: that was the sort of women they were. But there must be quite a lot of Serb women who carried on hating the Croats, and vice versa. Hunt sees herself as a sort of missionary: ‘My adult career in human services, diplomacy and education turned out to be an unorthodox form of ministry, it was still driven by a sense of mission.’ No one could deny that her mission for peace in Bosnia was a good cause. But people don’t always like being preached at.

Lynne Jones, the author of Then They Started Shooting, is a child psychiatrist; and the most engaging writer of these three. She went to Bosnia with the International Medical Corps in 1996, after the end of the war between Serbs and Muslims. Her purpose was to interview children who had lived through those four appalling years. By the time she arrived, the Dayton Peace Accords had divided the country into two ‘entities’, Serb and Muslim. The Muslims, or ‘Bosniaks’ as they are now known – it’s an appellation they don’t much like – are mostly just as Slav as the Serbs: the descendants of local inhabitants who converted to Islam when the Turks penetrated the Balkans in the 14th century. Croats too had settled in Bosnia but they had a country of their own to go to if they wanted to get out. What emerges from these three books is that home is where you grew up, which doesn’t necessarily mean that your neighbours shared your race or religion, and where you will always yearn to return. In Bosnia-Herzegovina, Orthodox Serbs, Catholic Croats, Muslim ‘Bosniaks’ and Jews often lived side by side. Minarets and church steeples shared the skylines, and the more educated and sophisticated the milieu, the more people intermarried.

Today, south-east of Sarajevo a small Bosnian excrescence sticks out into the Republika Srpska. The chief town there is the mainly Muslim Gorazde. Half an hour’s drive away across the border is the Serb town of Foca (now called Srbinje). Jones interviewed children in these two towns. She rented a flat ‘in a comfortable villa’ in Gorazde, its windows overlooking the water meadows along the river Drina. The villa belonged to a Muslim family, and their daughter became Jones’s first interviewee. Nerma was now 14, and ‘there was no evidence here of the war-traumatised child so often portrayed by the media. Nor in six months of psychiatric practice did I see very many others.’ I hadn’t expected that.

Jones had to interview the children through an interpreter, but her transcripts of the translations sound convincingly childlike and appealing. Equally appealing are her accounts of the children themselves – their appearance, their expressions, their gestures, and, most of all, their words. They had all lost members of their families in the siege, and ‘best friends’ too, sometimes killed before their eyes by a bullet or a shell. One girl had a man with no face lying next to her after he was hit: ‘He was asking for water and my mother wanted to give him water’ but ‘she didn’t know how to give him water because this man didn’t have a mouth anymore.’ Muslim children (and adults) in Gorazde speak of losing Serb friends who had to flee, while Serbs in Foca lost Muslim friends for the same reason. For some time the town’s only connection to the rest of Bosnia was a mule track over the mountains, and for several months even that was cut off, and they had to rely on airdrops for food. Everyone listened to the radio for the casualty lists: ‘There was always that moment when they announced that someone was hurt or dead, then the relief when it was not her father’s name.’ It’s an inversion of Brkic’s story of widows waiting for their husbands’ footsteps on the landing.

Although many of the children in Gorazde had been through appallingly painful and frightening experiences during the four-year siege of the town, few seem traumatised, and with the exception of one boy, they don’t feel vengeful either. Nearly all their parents share this attitude. What the children want is to do well at school and go to university; or, much more often, simply to have fun. There is an idyllic picture of little girls sitting gossiping under a tree, smugly ignoring the boys who wander past to size them up. Most of the parents just want to go back to the way things were before the war.

‘There is a story told about the war in Bosnia,’ Jones writes:

It has variations, but the central theme is constant: Balkan peoples have always been fighting; they are tribal, primitive and barbaric; and the animosity between them stretches back not just centuries, but millennia. The hatreds were temporarily frozen in the ice chest of Communism, but after Tito’s death the age-old animosities emerged intact . . . The story also had a powerful effect on the public imagination in the West. It was used to justify Western neutrality and the policy of non-intervention championed by the British government. Yet the story bears no resemblance to the lived experience of any families I got to know in either city.

This observation is backed up by a list of quotations from talks with parents and children: before the war, ‘it was wonderful, we were free, the children were healthy. We could live like normal people. We could go to the coast, to the mountains. I don’t think it will ever come back.’ ‘They brought us eggs at Easter; we all ate cake at Bajram.’ ‘I had more Serb friends than Muslims and I never thought that my colleagues would shoot me.’ ‘My best friend was my Muslim neighbour and we were in the same class.’ ‘They were always helping us whenever we asked.’

However, Jones also quotes a poem written by the Montenegrin Petar Njegos in 1847, which begins:

We put to fire the Turkish houses,
That there might be no stick nor trace
Of these true servants of the devil!

‘Turks’ is still a derogative term for Muslims, used by some of the Serb interviewees. A boy in Foca, ‘a pleasant, articulate child who felt well and happy with his life, and like Nerma . . . wanted to be a doctor’, told Jones that ‘the fighting in town had scared him, as had the Nato bombing.’ The bombing, she says, is ‘still resented more than anything else by the Serb children . . . He told me unequivocally that ethnic cleansing – a term he used without embarrassment – had made Foca safe for Serbs to live in.’ Without it they would have been ‘killed in their beds by Muslim fanatics’.

On the other hand, Amela, a Muslim girl in Gorazde, ‘felt that living together was the only way to avoid another war’. When Jones told her that some Serb children in Foca believed that living together was not safe, she was shaken:

‘Then maybe it will be better . . . It would be better if they don’t want that, then it would be better . . .’ She looked very sad and sighed. ‘They don’t want to live together with us. And we want that. Just to avoid the war. If our people try to do something by force, to live together again, then it is war again. Well maybe that is impossible. Well maybe the way is to forget everything that happened. Let’s all forget everything that happened.’ Then she came full circle again: ‘But I think it can’t work because everybody talks about the war. So I think we can’t live together.’

Jones’s book is full of such insoluble contradictions, and leaves one in a state rather like Amela’s.