By Kevin O’Sullivan
‘B – That means the clothes have a matching set of bones, a skull and teeth. There is an entire Body. BP – There is no complete set, but there are some bones. Body Parts. A – Clothing only, maybe some objects (Artefacts). No bones.’
I once asked students in a European history class if they could tell me what had happened in Srebrenica in the 1990s. Blank faces, until one student interrupted to tell me that I was probably thinking of the Second World War. I nearly fell from my chair. With Kosovo celebrating the first anniversary of its declaration of independence (and all its attendant difficulties) this year, Montenegro establishing itself as a state, Croatia continuing its path towards EU membership, and Slovenia cementing its role at the heart of Europe, had today’s generation of students already forgotten what had happened just over a decade earlier, when the Balkans dominated news headlines and images of Muslim men, little more than skin and bone, stared out from behind the fences of Omarska concentration camp into Western living rooms?
Wojciech Tochman, a Polish journalist who had been in Sarajevo during the siege on that city in 1992, returned to Bosnia in the early part of the twenty-first century to follow a number of Muslim women as they searched for lost husbands, daughters and sons amid the bones dug from unmarked graves across the country. In Like Eating a Stone we are introduced to Mother Mejra, looking for her daughter Edna and son Edvin; to Jasna, who lost her husband and two young children; to Dr Ewa Klonowski who finds, sorts and identifies the bodies; and to others who search for solace from the opportunity to bury their loved ones. The stories are striking, framed by Tochman’s superb use of language (thanks, no doubt, to Antonia Lloyd-James’s translation skills): short, to the point, but with an excellent gift for observation. There is a beauty in the simplicity of his language – ‘The children are making noise, the women are hanging out the washing, and the men are sifting sand’ – that makes the horrific stories of war he recounts all the more vivid and moving.
The book is very definitely a work of witness rather than of history, but it is no less powerful for that. Tochman also reminds us of the other side of the conflict. The book’s cover contains a striking photograph of a Bosnian-Serb child living in a former Muslim family’s home in Nevesinje, behind whom a bare wall contains only a clock and a small picture of the infamous local Serb leader Radovan Karadžić. The Bosnian-Serb women living in poverty in the grey barracks at the edge of Sokolac wonder why their sons ‘died for empty cooking pots’ rather than a united Serbia: ‘That was what we fought for, that was what our Karadžić fought for.’
These attempts to come to terms with the war, to re-build lives, the search for family members and friends who died, and, in Tochman’s concluding chapter, the re-burial of 282 victims from Srebrenica on a blazing hot day in July 2003, are a reminder of what we should not forget, from Bosnia to Rwanda to South Africa to Northern Ireland: the difficulty of picking up the pieces and rebuilding neighbourhoods and societies after the arms have been laid to rest. If you have even the slightest interest in what happened in Bosnia in the 1990s, in the fallibility of human nature, or how mind and body copes with conflict and its aftermath, read this book.