(E) Texture of my life changed permanently... Angela Brkic
Texture of my life changed permanently... Angela Brkic
Courtney Angela Brkic
By THE JOURNAL NEWS
(Original publication: October 10, 2004)
"The Stone Fields: An Epitaph for the Living," by Courtney Angela Brkic (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $24)
What compelled you, at the age of 24, to spend months excavating corpses of executed civilians from mass graves in Bosnia? Not exactly a common post-college choice.
Why I went is a very complicated question and one that I'm still answering, in a way. The largest reason is that I believed, down to the bottom of my soul, in the right of those individuals (who had been murdered and left without their names and histories in that grave) to be identified and receive proper treatment in death. Together with that, I believed in the right of their families to know what had happened to them. For me, the worst is the idea of simply not knowing, of living through days, months and years, and never knowing for sure.
But it's more complicated than that, as well. I was very young. Though it sounds like I am now the worst cynic, I believed then that the world was a better place than it actually was, and that, somehow, there would be justice in the end. I haven't lost that feeling entirely, but I know one thing now: There is no war crimes tribunal in the world, no reparations, and certainly no book, which can bring the dead back.
How did the fact that this is where your family was from â€” that this was a place you'd spent childhood vacations â€” affect your decision to go, and your reaction to what you saw?
It had a huge effect â€” I had a history there. Part of my childhood had been spent there, in the form of childhood summers, and we still had family living in Croatia and in Bosnia-Herzegovina, though not in eastern Bosnia, where I ended up working. Although my family lived in America, we remained very attached to "back there." During the war, we were worried about our family, and the war was a personal thing.
Also, when you know a place before a war, you always have an image of that place before war. It's very different for people who come in to report or work or lend aid because of that war â€” they don't understand what it was. The world's impression of Bosnia, for example, is the war. This is, obviously, understandable. At the same time, it's a terrible shame. Very few people realize that the same Sarajevo that's become synonymous with Sniper Alley and the Marketplace Massacre was also a beautiful city, that it actually had electrical streetcars before Vienna.
You write about your colleagues sometimes chastising you for being "too close" to the work, for not being able to put it aside after hours when everyone else seemed to just want a break from it.
In some ways, I was a lousy candidate for forensic archeology in this part of the world. One, I have a link to that geography. Two, things hit me hard. Both factors meant that I internalized what I saw to a very large extent. A certain "removal" from that work is, I believe, necessary to surviving it, and I managed it only in the beginning.
Before working for (Physicians for Human Rights), I had spent a year interviewing many women with missing husbands and/or sons. Members of my own family had been in harm's way during the war, and I was bitter about that fact. And then there was the matter of history â€” members of my extended family who had disappeared/been killed during the Second World War, something which had happened years before I was born but which affected me greatly. In a way, the dead were not faceless for me, and this is a drawback in that line of work. The team with which I worked (though not the leadership) was, at every turn, supportive. The situation became problematic, I think, because my lack of removal began to get to the people with whom I was working.
But there is a flip side to this. A friend of mine in Zagreb, a university professor named Ljubica Butula, lost her son in the war in Croatia. They had been living in America, but when the war started they went back. He joined the army and was killed behind Zadar. For years, she did not know what had happened to him. She searched, she marched, she wrote letters, she became an activist. Finally, she learned that he had been executed and buried haphazardly. He was exhumed, and she was able to give him a proper burial. When I came back from Bosnia, I remember feeling ashamed when I saw her. I told her, "I couldn't do it. I was too emotional. I didn't see bodies of men; I saw men." She patted my hand and told me that was not a negative thing.
So, as you can see, there is a lot of gray to the issue of being "too close."
How do you ever return to "regular" life after an experience like yours?
In a way, I think I never did return to regular life. After Bosnia, the texture of my life changed permanently, but that's not necessarily a negative thing. I have a much clearer sense of what is important to me â€” my family, above everything â€” and what isn't. It was difficult when I came back to the States in 1998, particularly in terms of relating to people, particularly to people my age. But I've carved out a life for myself, and it's on my own terms. And Bosnia is present in a lot of what I do and a lot of what I am.
I've actually found a good outlet in teaching literature and creative writing. I'm lucky to have students who are concerned about the world in which they live, who care about making it a better place, about justice. It gives me hope.