There are wars going on every day around the world, dozens of them, the majority “civil” wars fuelled as much by racial, ethnic, or religious animosities as by ideological fervour. Most of the victims are civilians, a modern achievement. Syria is the current case study, daily television bulletins showing — between displays of firepower and political rhetoric — those all too familiar glimpses of anguished faces, bloodied corpses, ruined houses and burning buildings.
All wars are hellish for the people who live through them, but officially there is a hierarchy. At the height of the siege of Sarajevo, during the Balkan wars of the 1990s, a UN official arriving in the city told foreign journalists demanding to know what the international powers were going to do about it that there were “13 other places worse than Sarajevo”. The official view that the city was “only the 14th worst place in the world” became part of the black humour running through the engaging 1997 British movie, Welcome to Sarajevo. The journos for their part, like the locals, were convinced it was the most dangerous place on Earth — as an eventual tally of more than 10,000 dead and 60,000 injured tends to confirm.
By now, most of us have forgotten all about that, but those who endured the nearly four years of living under shelling, mortar attacks and sniper fire from Serb forces have surely not forgotten. Even those who managed to get out of the blockaded city and find safety could hardly forget their personal taste of hell — as well as the goodness and generosity that the war brought out and that made it bearable. Just as those responsible for the crimes committed during the war are still going through the mills of justice at The Hague, so those who survived are still telling their stories.
Among them are two sisters, Atka Reid and Hana Schofield, daughters of the Kafedzic family, whose memoir, Goodbye Sarajevo, was published last year. Their story begins in May 1992 as 21-year-old Atka is putting 12-year-old Hana and another sister (Nadia, 14) on one of the last buses to leave the embattled city under UN protection. Their mother and another sister, Lela, are trapped outside the city because of the mother’s humanitarian work. Their brother, drafted into the Yugoslav People’s Army, since taken over by the Serbs, is trying to escape from it. They won’t hear from him again for months.
Atka returns to the family home to care for her five younger siblings. Her father pursues a doomed campaign of writing letters to world leaders explaining why they must intervene in Sarajevo (it took until February 1994 for the UN to authorise air strikes against Serb positions and until July 1995 for the first strikes to occur), while her maternal grandmother proves a tower of moral strength, thanks mainly to her religious faith.
Writing alternately, the two sisters tell of their different experiences.
Atka writes of life reduced to subsistence level — running under threat of sniper fire to fetch water in plastic jerry cans, cooking without power, queuing for bread and rice, burning doors and old jeans for warmth — and all with only occasional communication by satellite phone with the scattered members of the family. Two uncles and many friends are killed; a young cousin loses a leg; another three fingers. Death and maiming are daily realities and people standing in a food queue are gunned down.
Hana and Nadia meanwhile are on the move in Croatia, going from refugee centre to family friend, to distant relation, to complete strangers, afraid of imposing on people, suffering the odd nasty jibe, pining for their own family, and uncertain when they are going to hear from any of them. Eventually their mother and sister Lela arrive, and while the mother takes her life in her hands to return to Sarajevo, the three girls settle in a tiny house in Zagreb where the older girls work long hours at restaurants to pay the rent and Hana goes to school.
But Goodbye Sarajevo is not an unrelieved chronicle of misery. Far from it. The narrative for the most part is matter-of-fact and the positive spirit of the sisters shines through as they deliberately lighten the tone with humorous and homely anecdotes, such as Atka tricking her little brothers into believing that their second helping of rice is actually a delicious treat; and making jam from an unexpectedly good crop on their plum tree.
Two things stand out: the kindness of strangers, and the strength that comes from a united family — united in spirit, if not in one place.
The kindness of strangers: The house that Hana and her two sisters occupy in Zagreb (thanks to help from a relative) belongs to the family next door. Over the many months that the girls live there the landlords prove themselves generous and supportive friends, making theirs a second home for the young refugees, especially Hana who shares a room with the daughter of the household. When her sister Nadia falls pregnant the mother arranges for her to have the baby in a home run by Catholic nuns. At school, Hana is accepted by both students and teachers and makes close friends.
Then there is the Reid family. In Sarajevo, Atka begins working as a reporter for a local radio station and an interpreter for the foreign press. In this way she meets Andrew Reid, a New Zealand photo journalist working for a Paris-based news service. They fall in love, “marry” informally and Atka is persuaded to leave Sarajevo with him on one of his trips out of the besieged city. Later, a complicated pregnancy sees the couple travelling to New Zealand to stay with Andrew’s parents, Bill and Rose, and eventually get medical treatment for the baby and Atka. Thanks to the Reids’ persistent efforts, the rest of Atka’s family are accepted as immigrants and arrive in New Zealand in 1994.
Family strength: While a large, close family potentially creates more opportunities for loss and grief, for Atka and Hana it provided focus beyond their own safety and happiness and a reason for “being brave”. Obviously, they had their moments of darkness and weakness, and anxiety was never far away, but the hope of being reunited with all the others, which is the common thread of their dual narrative, buoyed them up and kept them strong for the others. Was it just luck that they all survived, or was it some kind of reward from on high for their constancy?
Finally, a word about war reporters, photographers and television crews, whose job makes them the interface between those afflicted by war and those observing it from afar. They may have a tendency, like Atka’s Andrew, to beat themselves up from time to time for being parasitic on other people’s misery, but they also — if one can believe the stories and films — find themselves personally challenged by that misery to help, however they can.
Andrew Reid fell in love, so he was helping himself by rescuing Atka, but he knew that he was thereby committed to helping her whole family, which he did. In Welcome to Sarajevo the fictionalised ITN reporter Michael Henderson fights bureaucracy, Chetnik terrorists and even his own bosses to bring the plight of 200 children in an orphanage on the front lines to the attention of the world and to rescue one of them in particular, a young Bosnian girl, who has wrung from him a promise that he will get her out of there. He and his wife end up adopting her.
It’s not Ten Days That Shook The World (and, thank goodness, the cause is completely different) but Welcome to Sarajevo is a great little movie about war and journalism — and a fitting companion piece to Goodbye Sarajevo if you have not seen it.
Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet.
Goodbye Sarajevo, by Atka Reid and Hana Schofield, was published by Bloomsbury in 2011 and is available from a limited number of booksellers, including Barnes & Noble in the UK and Whitcoulls in New Zealand. It is available only in digital form on Amazon.