Between April 1992 and February 1996, the Bosnian capital, Sarajevo, was under the longest siege in recent history. The city was surrounded by Serb forces whose objective was to prevent Bosnia from becoming an independent state; for four years sniper fire and heavy shelling were daily occurrences for the city’s people, and at least 10,000 civilians had been killed by the time the siege ended.
Much has been written about the siege, but in Goodbye Sarajevo we find a unique account from two writers who witnessed the event from very different perspectives; the book thus provides insight into situations in both Sarajevo itself, and other regions of former Yugoslavia. Atka Reid and Hana Schofield are sisters who were separated during the early stages of the siege when 12-year-old Hana left as a refugee with two other sisters. Atka, aged 21, remained behind to assist with looking after the rest of the family. The family is the focal point of the book – there are nine children, plus parents and grandparents, and the large size of the family means that the risk that one of them may be killed in the siege is all the greater.
The story alternates between the two writers: Atka describes the situation in Sarajevo, while Hana recounts the experiences of a refugee. Connecting the two narratives is the problem of communication. During the siege, Sarajevo was largely without electricity, water or telephone connections. Atka finds work as an interpreter, and is able to access phones on occasion, but sometimes messages from Bosnia to Croatia have to be routed via far more distant countries. Letters can be dispatched by journalists, but these missives take weeks to reach their destinations, so news of a family member’s death may not arrive for some time.
From an outsider’s perspective, it’s all too easy to regard all of the former Yugoslavia in the same way, and to perceive the conflict as something that enveloped the whole region. Indeed, the whole of the Balkans are often thought of as being particularly prone to war. In fact, there were areas where life was able to go on as normal, and refugees did not have to travel too far in order to reach safety. Hana spends most of her time as a refugee in Zagreb, where she enrolls in a local school and excels academically. However it’s clear that she is more fortunate than many Bosnian refugees.
Atka also has more opportunities than many Sarajevans, largely due to her knowledge of English. She is able to provide an income for the family by working first at a radio station, and then as a ‘fixer’ for a photojournalist from New Zealand, Andrew, using her local knowledge to help with the practicalities of his work. But before too long they form a relationship, and Goodbye Sarajevo becomes not only a war story, but also a love story. The backdrop of conflict makes this a rather awkward development, though it is presented as unavoidable. Atka’s relationship with Andrew means that she seems to be pulled away from her family, leaving them more vulnerable.
Despite the narrative’s personal focus, the absurdities and atrocities of war are never relegated to the background. The family’s eldest son is closest to these: he is carrying out military service in the Yugoslav army when war breaks out, and ends up becoming part of the Serbian forces that are fighting against his people. In Sarajevo there are frequent horrific episodes: death and injury become daily occurrences. Perhaps most appalling is the description of a funeral that has to be cut short because the mourners are being fired on.
There are remarkable and even surreal elements too, which contrast with the horrors of war. At one point, Hana and Atka’s father arranges a family photograph that can be sent as an accompaniment to the requests for aid that he prolifically produces. He sets out to borrow some traditional dress from the city museum and ends up dressing in the clothes of the Austro-Hungarian archduke Franz Ferdinand. On another occasion, Atka meets an American writer referred to only as Susan. But the description of her distinctive hair and the fact that she is in Sarajevo to direct a production of Waiting for Godot makes it clear that this is Susan Sontag.
It’s apparent from reading the authors’ biographies that they will both escape Sarajevo and move to New Zealand before the end of the war. They certainly had good fortune on their sides, but the challenges they faced while Sarajevo was under siege are a reminder of how debilitating war is for those whose lives are blighted by it. Portraying the both travails and the good luck of its narrators in equal measure, Goodbye Sarajevo is both a valuable account of the conflict in former Yugoslavia and an extraordinary story in its own right.