THE STONE FIELDS
An Epitaph for the Living
By Courtney Angela Brkic
Farrar Straus Giroux. 316 pp. $24
In the summer of 1995 the Muslim town of Srebrenica in Bosnia supposedly was under a compromise truce brokered by the United Nations. "The Muslims would surrender their arms," Courtney Angela Brkic writes, "and the Serbs would remain at their positions without overtaking the city." It didn't work out that way. On July 6 the Dutch battalion stationed there to maintain the truce appealed for air support but was denied it by the U.N. High Command in Sarajevo: "The battalion stood by and watched the Bosnian Serb Army overrun the town, separating men from women, sending the women away on buses. The Dutch soldiers were ordered onto their own compound, and they complied."
A massacre ensued. More than 7,000 people disappeared, all of them presumably murdered. "Women were raped and killed. Even many who managed to escape with their lives did not ultimately survive. One left her children on the road, walked into a wood, and hung herself from a tree." The dead were buried in mass graves. Though some Serb soldiers subsequently claimed they had dug the graves themselves, Brkic believes the victims had been forced to dig them and then had been executed. Given the brutality of the conflict in Bosnia and the history of Serbian "ethnic cleansing," she probably is right.
A year later Brkic arrived in Bosnia to work on the exhumation and analysis of the corpses. She was in her early twenties, trained as an anthropologist, the child of parents who lived in a suburb of Washington. Her father, a Croatian, had escaped to the United States from what was then still Yugoslavia in 1959; he worked as a radio broadcaster and had felt the clammy hands of the Tito regime's censors as well as the general oppressiveness of life there. Precisely why his daughter insisted on returning to her ancestral land (she had visited it often in calmer times) is something of a mystery even to her, though the story of her own family had given her a deeply personal connection to the violence and ethnic hatred with which the region has been afflicted for centuries.
The Stone Fields is in part a recollection of her work on the graveyard project, in part the story of her father's mother, Andelka, before, during and after World War II. Both parts are suffused with a sense of death and loss and are especially concerned with the lives and fates of the women. Brkic writes:
"There is a common denominator in refugee populations worldwide. I knew it before ever setting eyes on the women of Srebrenica that summer, not one of whom had been among the women I interviewed in Croatia the year before. In the ranks of exile, there are women who listen each evening for a telltale sound coming from the hall outside their drafty rooms that says their husbands and children have returned, Lazarus-like. These women wait first one year, then another. They grow old in their waiting, each year like a ball of noxious mercury that combines with another, so that the passage of time is fluid and indistinct. They reject conflicting reports of massacres and the conventional wisdom that all is lost."
In Bosnia in the summer of 1996, that took some doing, because the evidence of what had happened to the missing men was everywhere and inescapable. At first Brkic worked at the morgue in Kalesija, "a town on the edge of Bosnian Federation territory . . . just a few miles from Republika Srpska, the Serbian entity from which non-Serbs had been completely expelled." The morgue had been set up in a building that once housed a garment factory: "The conditions were primitive: there were no windows in the building, and the floor was filthy cement." Decomposing bodies were brought there from the mass graves.
Brkic worked alongside pathologists who X-rayed and examined the corpses brought into the morgue. It was a grim business, separating bones from decaying flesh, reaching into pockets "for heels of bread, photographs, a plastic bag of coarse salt," anything that might help survivors identify the remains. By the end of her first day, she "was aware that [she] had crossed an invisible border." She was "unsure when that moment had been," but she "knew that [she] had become suddenly quiet around midday, unable to do more than watch with large, grim eyes and follow the pathologists' instructions." She "could not wait to put the morgue behind [her]," and transferred to the operation in the field.
This too was unsettling, not merely because it involved excavating the mass graves but because she had to cross the border into Republika Srpska: "I had the sensation that I was falling. My every experience classified that border as the one between hunter and prey. On the other side of it, law ceased to exist. It was a place filled with people who hated Muslims and Croats. And, therefore, me." No longer trapped in the morgue, she was at least in the fresh air, though that air smelled of death. In time her tasks assumed "an odd normalcy," and for a while she was able to carry them out with reasonable efficiency, but eventually it became too much for her, so she quit, and struggled to come to terms with the terrible things she had seen, heard and smelled.
There was precedent for them in her own family history, an important part of which she tells in chapters that alternate with the ones about her own experiences. They are stories told to her by her father, whose mother suffered irreparable loss as a consequence of the ethnic and religious hatreds that course through the region. As a teenager Andelka married a neighbor, Marijan Brkic, and had two sons by him, first Bero (the author's father) and then Zoran. When the boys were still very young, Marijan died of stomach typhoid. In 1933 his widow took her children from the countryside to Sarajevo, "where Muslims, Serbs, Croats, Jews, Czechs, Germans, and many other communities lived side by side." There she met and fell in love with Josef Finci, a Jew. "He was from a privileged family and had never known hunger. His family belonged to Sarajevo's tightly knit Sephardic community, and she knew a Catholic wife would be unacceptable, much less a widowed mother of two small sons." They had a passionate affair. He was kind to her sons, who clearly loved him, though they didn't fully understand everything:
"They did understand the need for quiet, however: the need to avoid any and all notice, to shy away from drawing attention to their family's situation, in which their mother loved a Jew. That was how the world would look at it now, she thought glumly, how it had perhaps always looked at it, and she had been fooling herself all along to think the world capable of more than what its shriveled, black heart could manage." The rest of the story is inexpressibly sad and appallingly banal. The Germans occupied Sarajevo, and the Jews were rounded up. Andelka managed to hide Josef for a time, but a neighbor snitched on them. He was taken to a camp, and she never saw him again. Like the women of Srebrenica, she plunged into denial, stubbornly anticipating and awaiting his return. Finally she learned that he had been killed in the camp.
There are respects in which the story of Andelka and Josef is more moving than that of all the unknown victims of "ethnic cleansing" at Srebrenica; it is easier to become emotionally involved with a small cast of characters whom one comes to know than with a large one to which names cannot be attached. Either way, though, the story is the same. Courtney Angela Brkic tells it sensitively, sparely and with quiet passion. •
Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.