Wednesday, December 25, 2013

"From Enemy Territory" by Mladen Vuksanovic [4]

Recollections of Jadranka Vuksanovic
Vuksanovic's wife Jadranka left for the city on April 29th for what was supposed to be a two-day trip to visit their daughter and bring their son his papers so that he could leave the city. As noted already, those plans didn't work out as the bridge in Brcko--the last way out of the city--was destroyed the next day. In the end, Jadranka's two-day stay turned into a stay of over two weeks. This brief section is her "recollections" of that stay. Although written as a diary, with almost daily entries, it's not clear whether she actually kept this diary live or wrote it upon returning to Pale at the request of her husband. At any rate, if it is the latter she must have done so almost immediately; this section certainly has the feel for mundane day-to-day details that a more polished memoir might lack.

Mladen Vuksanovic's diary is written entirely from Pale and the perspective of being behind the Bosnian Serb lines; the terror being inflicted on Sarajevo can only be surmised. Therefore, the decision to insert Jadranka's recollections in the heart of the text is more than a desire to share his wife's experiences or to keep her "with him" in the narrative. Her experience of being jumpy from incoming sniper fire, hiding from bombardment in basements, growing quickly all-too used to the experience of hearing exploding ordnance all serve as a sharp contrast to the creeping horror that his diary recounts. This is more elemental stuff--underscored by the degree to which her account becomes a record of the efforts taken to acquire bread. Some days, the only "news" she has is "bought bread."

She also notes the sadistic nature of the bombing, which occurs at irregular frequencies seemingly designed to taunt the residents of Sarajevo; sometimes at predictable intervals, otherwise oddly quiet when one has grown to expect shelling. She witnesses an ambush of retreating soldiers. She sees an incident which might have been a settling of an old feud with the war as an excuse. And there is the surreal experience of being able to come and go because of her Serb surname--at the end, she is able to leave the city and rides back into Pale with her daughter (the son was left behind, waiting for the Jewish Community to arrange for a excavation) on a truck loaded with young Serb soldiers. Another reminder of how fratricidal and bizarrely intimate the war was.

They return to Pale on May 16. Now that his wife's narrative has rejoined his, Mladen Vuksanovic picks up from there

Sunday, December 15, 2013

"From Enemy Territory" by Mladen Vuksanovic [3]

Pale Diary - 5 April to 16 May 1992

This first section of the diary covers the period from the beginning of Vuksanovic's confinement to Pale and increasingly to his house, to the reunion with his wife (who left for Sarajevo on April 29 in order to help their children--still stuck in the city--get out) on May 16. The text of the diary is largely unedited and only annotated with occasional footnotes to explain references in the original which would not be clear to the general reader.

As a result, the text is somewhat impressionistic, referring to immediate circumstances, events, observations and conversations; sometimes giving a reaction, sometimes not. Vuksanovic never dwells on any one incident or observation for more than a paragraph. I suspect this is partially because the slow-motion horror is too much to bear.

Several motifs develop over these fifty-plus pages. The craven and criminal nature of the local authorities of Pale in action; whatever their rhetoric, and whatever is actually going on on the "front lines" (Vuksanovic reminds the reader how absurd the very idea of a "front line" in a multi-ethnic city suddenly wrenched along crudely nationalist lines), the reality on the streets of Pale are stolen cars without plates and shuttered homes waiting to be looted.

Another motif are the many personal betrayals and friends and colleagues suddenly reveal themselves as arch-nationalists firmly committed to an insane cause; a cause that commits them to destroying their own city and murdering their own friends. It's one thing to study the rise of nationalism and xenophobia in the abstract; Vuksanovic illustrates what is it like to experience that process on the personal level.

I used the phrase "slow-motion horror" above, and that is as close as I can come to explaining the overall feel of this section. Vuksanovic is not in Sarajevo, experiencing the bombing, the snipers, the growing desperation firsthand. Instead, he experiences the war through his radio, through reports from passers-by and neighbors, and most surreal of all through his telephone connection to Sarajevo, which is still working through the entire war. Nothing can illustrate how perverse a reversal of the normal order this war is better than the frequent references to his use of the telephone to call people he knows in the city a few kilometers away; people who are being attacked daily by the same soldiers Vuksanovic can see walking by his house in broad daylight. The Bosnian Serb government is not unaware of this connection--rather than shut down all telephone lines, they subject phone users to a constant barrage of nationalist music and radio broadcasts, so that both parties must listen and talk over this Orwellian audio backdrop.

Vuksanovic does not try to analyze the growing horror or to rationalize it in the larger context of politics and history. He simply expresses disgust and a growing fear that he has damned his family by not acting sooner to get his children out of the Old City. When this section ends, his wife and daughter have finally made it to the family home to join him--the son stayed behind for fear that he would certainly be drafted into military service if he was found. Vuksanovic notes that he has asked his wife to record her impressions of her two weeks in the Old City; those impressions form the next section of the book.