Writing the madness of war.
December 1, 2002
Dec 1, 2002
7 Min read time
Writing the madness of war.
Four Walls Eight Windows, $19.95 (cloth)
I was born in the muddy, flat Yugoslavian Northeast during its “Golden Age.” My Muslim mother and Christian father, drunk with hope resurrected from the ruins of World War II, had married in 1965. I had a home, friends, and a beautiful language full of enchanting Slavic myths. My father, a professor of classics, told bedtime tales of Orpheus, of spoiled gods and goddesses of Olympus. He took me to my first opera. My mother taught me about the French Revolution, Napoleon, and Hitler, and how wrong it was to take more than one needed. Life was more than kind.
From America, I’m told, it seemed as if Yugoslavia exploded with nationalism. On the ground it was more a slow malignancy. I witnessed its growth. After Tito’s death in 1980 the Golden Age evaporated. The fragile balance of his peculiar Communism—and its stranglehold on nationalism—began to falter. By 1983 Yugoslavia was one of the most indebted states in Europe. The metastasis, when it came, was unstoppable.
I felt it most personally through the music of the time. By the late 1980s the lines at the opera house, where my father had first taken me, were shrinking, and a new kind of music crammed the stores: terribly aggressive turbo-folk, expressing the discontent of a nation gasping for air under the yoke of the disintegrating economy. And then there were my friends at Belgrade’s Academy of Arts, where I was a film student. Once, they were sharp, unflinching supporters of free thought; individualist, secularist. Now they were succumbing, lost and hopeless, to the new mantra—“Serbia, Serbia.” My half-Muslim blood rendered me persona non grata at their parties. My phone grew quieter and quieter.
Bad things lay ahead.
• • •
I escaped relatively unscathed in August of 1989. I was romantic, highly ambitious, and I had always burned to see New York City. In less than three months I had a job at a local gym, I had learned how to drive, and opened my own bank account. My aunts referred to my new life in wonderment—“Natasha has a car in America.”
From afar I watched the violent face of hatred disfigure the expressions of my Balkan brothers and sisters. In January 1990 the Yugoslav Party Congress voted to renounce Communism and its principles and broke into sections. By July, Slovenians were voting for autonomy. Hyperinflation spiraled out of control. The price of milk doubled in the course of a single day. A loaf of bread cost a weekly wage. The black market and racketeering ensnared the economy. People were starving and angry. And on December 9, Serbs chanting “Slobo, Slobo” elected the rampant, mad-eyed, and murderous Slobodan Milosevic.
The madness, the utter madness that so often engulfed the Balkans, the beautiful and seductive volcano holding inside all of Europe’s repressed violence, erupted again. Twenty million people of former Yugoslavia suffered in a way we hoped never to have to witness again. To include the facts here would be pointless. How does one meaningfully list close to 250,000 dead, more than a million refugees, thousands of reported rapes, and God knows how many more concealed by shame? How do you enumerate the dead children? What are the acceptable symbols for the destroyed lives, hopes?
It was, according to the first Bush administration, a “European problem.” But Europe did nothing about it—no more than either the United States or Europe addressed the Nazi answer to the “Jewish question” fifty years before. The new butchers took advantage of the world’s forgetfulness and disbelief, and the darkness devoured Yugoslavia.
I watched paralyzed, from afar, as my father, stuck in Belgrade, struggled to stay afloat. A gentle and quiet man, he became an unsure bundle shuffling around his room waiting for the next meal, forced to reconcile himself with a parent’s great fear: that his children would have far less than he had. My brother, whom life endowed with more passion and beauty than anyone I’ve ever known, swallowed the bait of the Underground and was lured deep into it. When he wasn’t running from the law he was running from himself, breaking both my heart and Dad’s. My mother had died in Belgrade, and though I missed her terribly I was actually relieved that she wasn't around to see what was happening. Her Muslim brothers and their Muslim children were under siege in Sarajevo, and the rest of the family would not know if they were alive for close to five years. When I finally spoke to my uncle I didn’t recognize his voice: starvation had claimed all of his teeth. And he was the lucky one.
As for me, by the time the Dayton Peace Accord brought some form of peace to Bosnia in 1995, I was writing fiction in Columbia’s MFA program. My project was a complex love story rooted in a fantasy world. There were a few elements of my personal life connected to the story, but it remained flat, indulgent, full of unnecessary adjectives, obscure verbs, and literary exercises. I clung to it.
Then another conflict erupted in 1999. The Albanian refugees forced from their homes by Serbian tanks crowded the makeshift “camps” of Macedonia and along the Albanian border. Stories of more atrocities heavied the newspaper covers. NATO bombers crowded the Serbian sky. My father’s apartment’s floor shook from the close-hitting bombs, and my brother was hiding from the draft somewhere deep in the east Serbian mountains. At night, one of the friends he was hiding with would make a call from a stolen satellite phone and let someone in the urban area know they were alive. That person would then get in touch with the rest of us. The phone would immediately be destroyed and they would have to change their location. I dialed for hours, praying to get through. It seemed to me that I was really going mad, but not only from trauma; my guilt, my responsibility haunted me and visited me in the little sleep I was able to get. It was clear to me that I would soon lose touch with reality unless I did something that mattered.
One night, during the bombardment of Belgrade, I finally abandoned my love story. I opened a new page and wrote the first sentence: “It was too hot for early October, but if he took his sweater off, the skin of his fresh scar would make people uneasy.” At the end of the night I had a seven-page short story about a returning soldier that would later becomeHomecoming.
George Orwell said, “In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.” When I decided to tell the story of the dead in Yugoslavia, I learned something I had not been taught in school: the power of fiction as a political tool, as a means of humanizing the historical facts, the gruesome nonfictional details that on their own leave the readers cold, the unique role of storytelling in documenting and guiding us towards uncomfortable truths.
So I abandoned the silly tale of love, the intricate sentence structure, the numerous adjectives, the endless search through the dictionary for the verb least used. Fiction doesn’t require fancy words; it needs understanding readers willing to face the hard, unconscionable truth of what one human being is capable of doing to another and the consequences of ignoring such acts.
I don’t know if Homecoming is a novel worth reading. I only wish to ask my readers not to forget those who were silenced.
Excerpt from Homecoming
There had been only marginal street fighting in Halid’s town. What would later qualify as the war between the Serbian paramilitary and the Muslim Resistance started as a bar brawl between the members of the Serbian and Muslim soccer teams and their fans. On one side there were the Serbs led by their goalie and a temporary team captain. Momir had been the real captain, but he had already shipped off to Sarajevo for the “real war.” On the other, the Muslims and several Catholic Croats. They feared their homes would be wrecked and their daughters raped by the rowdy Serbs, so they sided with the Muslims to increase their numbers.
The dispute started over a penalty kick against the Serbs that led to the only goal in the game and their loss. Incensed, the Serbs refused to shake hands with the winners, the first sign of impending trouble. Then, they retreated to “their tavern.” For months while preparing for war—by government order as enforced by the local police—the people of different religions were ordered to drink separately. Drunks were harder to control.
That evening not even the most persuasive infiltrator could convince the angry fans that the Serbian judge, “the traitor of his own blood,” who called the penalty against the Serbs wasn’t on Istanbul’s payroll. Serbs demolished the “Muslim” tavern an hour later. In retaliation, the Muslims set a police car on fire, and the armed conflict escalated out of control.
The Serbs managed to smuggle a long-range M109 Howitzer tank from the army camp across the river. One of them was an excellent shot, and right after he hit the mosque’s minaret, he struck the general store. A perfect shot, so rare in artillery fire, dug a tunnel straight through the first floor. The top two floors had no fire marks, but the twelve identical windows were all shattered.
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December 01, 2002
7 Min read time