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A stillness full of stories

War lingers in the soul of Bosnia-Herzegovina. A young writer listens to its whispers.

June 08, 2003|Louise Steinman | Special to The Times

New York — In the acknowledgments to her haunting first book, "Stillness: And Other Stories," Courtney Angela Brkic thanks her parents, who "understood my restless nature but let me wander." We're talking a lot of understanding and a lot of wandering. Brkic (BUR-kitch), now 30, was only 23 when she worked as a forensic archeologist in Bosnia, helping to exhume the dead.

All the stories in "Stillness" connect to the war in the former Yugoslavia, but each refracts the tragedy through a different lens. Among the protagonists are a starving wolf in the Sarajevo zoo; a pregnant Muslim woman who endured the rape camps; an adulterous world-weary diplomat; a mercenary from Boston; an old Croatian woman exiled from her village; the father of a missing son. They are drawn from her experiences, from stories of friends in Bosnia, from stories of women she interviewed there. As well, they are drawn from her family's history in Bosnia-Herzegovina in World War II.

Brkic grew up in the Washington, D.C., area, and her family frequently traveled to Yugoslavia to visit relatives. "I remember a Bosnia-Herzegovina that most people in the world will never know," she wrote in a 1995 essay. "I remember the minarets of Sarajevo's Begova Mosque, and the black birds that drove around them in the grayness of sky." The place is deep in her soul.

During the war years in Bosnia, Brkic, agonized, followed the news from the safety of America. "I remember the days that led up to the Srebrenica massacre," she says. "I remember the massacre that went on for days ... and I remember how they were immediately able to pick out mass grave sites .... I was beside myself with anger."

In 1995, Brkic received a Fulbright grant to go to Croatia to study women in the war-affected population, and how rape had been used as a means of ethnic cleansing.

She interviewed hundreds of women. They "were not really so different from me," she says. "I began to realize ... how many lives had been destroyed. They had lost their homes, their histories and their loved ones. As long as the dead have names, though, it's somehow manageable. You feel each death, each casualty, by his/her name. It's when the deaths happen in such speeds and numbers that you no longer know them by name that it gets truly difficult, that the sheer degree of killing gets to you."

The interviewees -- displaced Croatians and Muslim refugees -- were bemused by the fact that Brkic's father was a Yugoslav exile (he had escaped to Germany in 1959 and received political asylum) and that his daughter had returned. Most of all, she says, they were relieved to have a witness recording what had happened.

'A little mad'

Early in the project she came to an important realization: "You couldn't separate out one aspect of the war. You couldn't analyze what the women had gone through as far as the rapes without looking at the aspect of missing persons, which is a huge and devastating part of the war."

In the heartbreaking story "Suspension," each year a mother marks the birthday of her missing son, cooking his favorite dishes. Every night, she draws an extra chair to the dinner table. Her husband is "wordless in the face of her delusions. She talks of the boy as if she has proof that he is alive in some camp or prison. It drives him a little mad."

To grasp Brkic's passion on the subject of missing persons, you have to look to her family's experience in World War II.

Brkic's grandmother, Andjelka Brkic, was from a tiny village in Herzegovina, "right over the border from Croatia." Widowed at 21 and with two young sons, she moved to Sarajevo in the early 1930s, where she met Josef Finzi, a Jew, and fell in love. They lived together and he was a father to her boys.

Josef was picked up in 1942. Andjelka was jailed for sheltering a Jew but was released because -- by a miracle -- the investigating detective was a man from her village. "We know now that Josef died in the camps," Brkic says soberly. "My grandmother waited for him for years."

During her Fulbright year in Croatia, Brkic saw small children living as displaced people. "I could see my father in them. That aspect of the missing was the hardest thing for me. My family had gone through those things 56 years before. It's such a senseless, stupid thing to go through, and to see it repeated."

After her fellowship year ended, Brkic offered her services as an archeologist in Bosnia. It was 1996, six months after the siege of Sarajevo had ended. She sent her resume to Physicians for Human Rights, an organization then sending people to Bosnia in conjunction with the U.N. Her qualifications included an undergraduate degree in archeology. Most important, perhaps, she spoke the language.

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