In Her Footsteps
by COURTNEY ANGELA BRKIC
American-born daughter of a Croatian immigrant
The link below is to a short piece by Courtney Angela Brkic which
appeared today July 11th 2004 in the New York Times.
Very touching, searching for truth and deeper emotions in all of us. Amazingly honest.
Bravo Angela. We are all better because of you and your footsteps.
In Her Footsteps
By COURTNEY ANGELA BRKIC
Published: July 11, 2004
he first thing I noticed about Judy was her flaming red hair. It must have made her a tempting target for snipers as a front-line nurse in Croatia and Bosnia. Her New Jersey accent drew attention, too, in Zagreb, where our paths crossed two months after the war ended in 1995. I was the American-born daughter of a Croatian immigrant, in Zagreb researching its war-affected population. Judy was a veteran of that war.
''For real?'' I asked, completely thrown by this information.
''For real,'' she responded in her indomitable accent.
I told my family and friends in Zagreb about her. ''An American nurse?'' they asked skeptically. ''Are you sure?'' They looked at me as if I had announced seeing a yeti in the city center.
Finally, one of my aunts decided: ''She must have roots here. Her parents are from Croatia -- that must be it.''
Ancestry, however, had nothing to do with it. ''Nope,'' she told me over dinner, lighting a cigarette and exhaling with an amused expression. ''My mother's family was Lithuanian.''
Judy had followed the beginning of the war in 1991 from America, including the attacks on Osijek and Vukovar, towns laid to waste by the Yugoslav National Army and paramilitary groups. Later, she watched footage of Vukovar falling after a vicious three-month siege. Exhausted civilians emerged from their cellars to detainments, expulsions and summary executions. When she saw the bewildered faces of people forced to leave the city in columns, something snapped in her. She had wanted to volunteer in Afghanistan during the 1980's. Then a recent graduate of nursing school, she was dissuaded by her lack of professional experience and the reactions of horrified family. But she was adamant about Croatia: ''I allowed myself to be talked out of Afghanistan, but not this time.''
A few weeks after the fall of Vukovar, she was attending to the wounded and dying and roaring around in a shrapnel-peppered ambulance. Off-duty, she lived with a family in Slavonski Brod, a city where mortars fell more regularly than rain and civilian casualties remained disturbingly high. To say that I was in awe of her would be an understatement. She was 36. I was 23, but I felt like a child beside her. She was the heroine of books I had read, movies I had seen. I had a secret wish to be her.
Judy has a photo album of her days at war, which she showed me soon after we met. She identified the faces the following way: ''He died in February'' or ''A shell fell on him.''
There were two pictures of the same man. ''That's him?'' I asked, looking from the handsome face to the headless torso.
''Yup,'' she said. She would come off the front line after two-week rotations so covered in blood and dirt that gallons of hot water couldn't wash it all away. ''A filth you cannot imagine,'' she said.
Judy had been part of a small but fierce contingent rushing to the country's aid, even as others rushed to get out. Some Croatian parents sent their draft-age sons to live with relatives abroad or to study at foreign universities. My father worked tirelessly to raise awareness of the war in America, but he couldn't deny a certain relief that my brother and I were safe.
While Judy was on the front line in the early 90's, I was at William and Mary. I worried about relatives in Croatia and on most weekends returned home to Arlington, Va., where my father listened to nightly radio reports, tracking towns as they fell. But like other college sophomores, I lived in a separate reality. It did not occur to me to join the war. Had I been older and a nurse, it still wouldn't have. The war was happening over there, and though outraged, I was removed from it. Meeting a nurse who had left her own comfortable American life shamed me.
People say there is an intensity to front-line life that cannot be matched. I wouldn't know. My only experience with war was during a 1993 visit to Croatia, when mortars were fired at a train I was traveling in. Passengers were evacuated to a filthy basement; the only emotion I can remember feeling was terror.
And yet Judy's stories obsessed me. I was tired of listening and longed for action. A year after the war, I joined an international forensic team excavating mass graves in the ethnically cleansed territory of Republika Srpska. I spent much of 1996 interviewing refugee women with missing family members, and their stories had convinced me of the importance of this work. But if I'm honest with myself, I can pinpoint another of my motivations for going: I wanted desperately to be Judy's equal. So I exhumed bodies and assisted in autopsies in Bosnia. I went through the pockets of countless dead men, hoping their scant possessions -- half-destroyed Polaroid pictures, heels of bread, waterlogged letters -- would help identify them. But I lacked the detachment of a scientist or the fearlessness of a combat nurse. I lasted roughly a month.
Courtney Angela Brkic is the author of ''Stillness,'' a collection of short stories, and ''The Stone Fields: An Epitaph for the Living,'' a memoir to be published next month.