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Rizvanovici, Bosnia: Gnashing

Prijedor - vandalised list of the dead - flickr-Alihodza
Vandalised list of the dead in Prijedor. Photo: flickr/Alihodza

For us at ESI, Bosnia is a special place. It is where we started. Over the last few years we have consistently argued that things at grass-root level in Bosnia are far better than the news headlines would have you believe. Look here for example for the report we made with our colleagues at Populari in Sarajevo on Doboj in December 2007. In it we talk about refugee returns and how, for example, in that area segregated education has begun to crumble. And yet, for all its progress, we would never seek to minimise the deep scars inflicted on Bosnia and its people by the war of 1992 to 1995. Like Eating a Stone is a book of reportage by the Polish journalist Wojciech Tochman which was published first as a series of articles and then as a book in Poland in 2003 and finally in English in 2008. In it Tochman travels with and visits survivors from the war, especially women whose men were captured and killed during the war. He also spends time with Ewa Klonowski, a Polish forensic scientist working in the country. "She has dug up some two thousand bodies," writes Tochman. "She has fished them out of wells, recovered them from caves, and dug them out of rubbish dumps or from under piles of pig bones." Most of this short book is arranged as a series of equally short pieces of reportage which can be read and understood by themselves or one can just chose to dip in and out the book. Here is a particularly moving example from the chapter entitled "The Return", which is about Bosniak women who have lost their husbands but who have gone back to the village of Rizvanovici, near Prijedor, now in the Republika Srpska from which they were ethnically cleansed during the summer of 1992. It is simply called "Gnashing".

We are drinking coffee at Halima's house (she is forty-two).

            'I have got used to it now', she says. 'I have a wash and get into bed. When I feel cold, I reach for that red blanket. I fall asleep without any difficulty, straight off, worn out by the long day.

            'Sometimes he visits me. I don't like those visits. What does he come for? I know he'll be gone very soon. I know that from the beginning. I turn over to face the wall.

            'Go away, I say, go back where you came from. I'll wake up in a moment.

            'He doesn't listen. He sits here, on the sofa bed, at the foot. He smiles. He doesn't even embrace me. If only he'd explain what happened. Where did he go to that day?

            'If only he'd ask about the child.

            'I could talk and talk, without stopping. About how I cleared bushes, for example. I ruined my hands that time, and my back.

            'Nothing. He is silent, like a stone. He just stares, as if he knows everything. Sometimes I feel angry with him just for leaving me like that.

            'Just then our son might come in from the other room (at two or three in the morning?), take another blanket from the armchair and cover me with it.

            'I get up with the sun.

            '"Same thing again, Mama," says my son. "You were gnashing your teeth in the night again."

            "'Was I crunching again? Sorry."

            "'As if you were eating a stone."

'I drink some coffee, open a window and look out. The world is still there.'

Like Eating a Stone: Surviving the Past in Bosnia. Wojciech Tochman. Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones. 2008.
[pp.  119-120 / Portobello Books]

January 2009
Tim Judah

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