The Stone Fields: Love and Death in the Balkans

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9780312424398: The Stone Fields: Love and Death in the Balkans

When she was twenty-three years old, Courtney Angela Brkic joined a UN-contracted forensic team in eastern Bosnia. Unlike many aid workers, Brkic was drawn there by her family history, and although fluent in the language, she was advised to avoid letting local workers discover her ethnicity. Her passionate narrative of establishing a morgue in a small town and excavating graves at Srebenica is braided with her family's remarkable history in what was once Yugoslavia. The Stone Fields, deeply personal and wise, asks what it takes to prevent the violent loss of life, and what we are willing to risk in the process.

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About the Author:

Courtney Angela Brkic is the author of Stillness, for which she won the prestigious Whiting Award and The Stone Fields. She has worked for the United Nations War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague and for Physicians for Human Rights. She lives in Ohio.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

The Stone Fields
TUZLA1996Wind carries the sudden smell of burning From the charred ruin of my village; The smell from which all memory rises: All weddings, harvests, dances, and celebrations, All funerals, lamentations, and dirges; All which life sowed and death took away. 
--Ivan Goran Kovai, The Pit, Stanza XIN 1995 I had brought my field boots with me from America to Croatia. They were thick leather, reached mid-calf, and had steel plates over the toes so that I would not accidentally remove part of my foot with a sharpened shovel. Red Virginia dirt was still wedged in the tread when I reached Zagreb, two months after the war ended.The boots were comfortable in winter and unbearable in summer, but during my months of work as a field archaeologist in America I wore them constantly, plagued by memories of the snake that passed over my foot in the woods outside Baltimore in a burst of clay-colored red, as if the ground itself had grown a living and mobile appendage. A colleague behind me had yelled while I stood dumbstruck, watching the rustling of the high grass into which the snake disappeared. Later I wondered whether I had imagined its length or the dark hourglass markings of its back. Copperhead venom is unpleasant, I have sincebeen told, causing fever, night sweats, and hallucinations, but rarely death.The boots were also put to good use in Croatia, though for less openly pernicious reasons. I had worn them to tramp through the yards of several refugee camps, mud rising to my ankles. The camps were scattered throughout the country, and housed displaced persons from occupied areas of Croatia, as well as refugees from neighboring Bosnia-Herzegovina. Invariably, the camps seemed to occupy haphazard spaces: former army barracks or unused buildings in factory complexes.Regardless of how many socks I wore, my feet often cramped from the cold that followed me indoors. I never mentioned my discomfort to anyone, my sense that cold stuck like shadow to the edges of refugee rooms, but more than one elderly woman sensed it in their young interrogator. They made gifts of thick woolen socks that they had knitted themselves after the dishes were washed and the grandchildren asleep, while the late news hummed from the radio. I imagined these women, intent on the length that grew from their knitting needles as they listened with half an ear to news of the war's end. In most cases, the fact that it had ended meant nothing, and they knew that they would not be returning home.I had been conducting research on women in the war-affected population: Slavonians exiled from the sunflower fields of their girlhoods; Bosnian countrywomen who fed me bitter coffee and syrupy desserts; educated urbanites, whose diplomas and certificates were reduced to a fine pulp beneath the wreckage of their homes and apartment buildings.I even visited a camp erected exclusively for children by a Japanese humanitarian organization. Each neatly constructedhouse sheltered several children and an adopted mother. Almost normal conditions prevailed, except that a war had taken place and, in addition to rainbows and flowers, the children there drew pictures of bombs, men wielding machine guns, and parents who were bleeding to death.In the beginning, I had gone to the camps with questionnaires. I was ashamed of my handwriting when I sat with my subjects in their rooms or refugee-center kitchens, taking notes as they spoke. My cramped penmanship, never neat or pretty, had been the target of grammar school teachers who made me crumple up countless sheets of paper and start over, only to produce the same erratic scrawl. The women eyed my notes but said nothing.Some of my conversations with them were superficial, and I used the questionnaires as a mat on which to place my coffee. But some women insisted that I turn on my tape recorder and write down every word. They would look anxiously over my shoulder, as if making sure that I transcribed everything correctly.One woman from a village near Derventa told me the names of the men who had burned down her house as she stood in the front yard."And they were wearing uniforms."I wrote it down."And they killed my son. And all of our animals."I looked at her."Write it. I want you to put all of it in there." 
 
THE BOOTS' PROPERTIES changed with time. In America they had been new and supple, smelling of leather and the sassafrasroot that perfumes the underground of mid-Atlantic woods. It was enough to smell the acrid rubber soles to remember the sweltering heat of West Virginia, where I had been working in the months following my college graduation. But in Croatia they dulled and took on the smell of the oak armoire in which I kept them. With the exception of my single visit to the children's village, which was surrounded by grass and flowering bushes, there always seemed to be an abundance of clay stuck to these boots after refugee visits. What little remained of the Virginia dirt was displaced and deposited into those vast fields of churned ground.War had begun in Croatia following the republic's 1991 declaration of independence from Yugoslavia, when the Yugoslav People's Army (JNA) and Serb paramilitary troops responded by attacking Croatia's civilian population. The following year, war began under similar circumstances in Bosnia-Herzegovina, a country with a mixed Muslim, Serb, and Croat population. An initial united Muslim-Croat defense all but disintegrated when the two groups began fighting each other. Croats in Bosnia-Herzegovina wished to annex themselves to Croatia proper, but a Muslim-Croat cease-fire was declared in 1994. Relations between the two ethnic groups had improved, but were far from friendly. The 1995 Dayton Peace Accords effectively ended the war, dividing Bosnia-Herzegovina into two parts: a Muslim-Croat Federation and the Serb "entity" of Republika Srpska.A year after my research in Croatia, I went to Bosnia as an archaeologist, and then the boots would take on the smell of death. Not the natural mustiness of a swept graveyard with its decomposing flower arrangements, but the stale odor of chaoticburial, the smell of the morgue with its splattered concrete floors, and the iciness of refrigerated containers that transported the bodies, like strange air-conditioned buses of death. Microscopic pieces from all those places became embedded in the soles like fossils in a strata of rock from the Pleistocene: some strands of hair, fibers from a hand-sewn shirt, powdered bone. Regardless of how much I wore the boots after that month in Bosnia, or with what force I banged them against a wall or sunbaked ground, that last assignment made the properties of these boots suddenly immutable, residue of the graves trapped in them as if in amber. 
 
I LEFT ZAGREB on a C-130 transport plane at the beginning of July 1996 to join a Physicians for Human Rights forensic team already working in Bosnia. The sun's fiery reflection on the metal of the fuselage burned my eyes on the tarmac of Pleso Airport, and as we taxied down the runway, I pictured the wings in the cloudless blue sky that was forecast for the trip to Tuzla. I imagined the patchwork of fields and hills under the belly of the plane. From such heights it would be impossible to see the burned-out buildings or the schools that were filled with broken glass. It would be impossible to see the thousands of makeshift graveyards that dotted the landscape.In my childhood I had traveled through Bosnia several times by car. We would make hot summertime pilgrimages to Sarajevo to visit my great-aunt Ana, but I remembered little of those trips. I could recall green, wooded hills that bore a striking resemblance to the foothills of Appalachia, and children on the roadside who sold wild strawberries on pieces of bark. Afterthe mountains came endless miles of farmland and then, suddenly, a sweltering city in which my elderly aunt rushed out to meet our dust-caked car with shouts, tears, and wildly gesticulating hands. She had lived in the Marin Dvor neighborhood of Sarajevo, and I remembered a catfish that swam in a plastic tub in her kitchen.When I turned seven, she gave me a pair of deep purple embroidered slippers trimmed with sequins. They were a prize that accompanied us back to America, packed carefully in our luggage so that they would lose none of their gaudy splendor.I thought of those slippers in the airplane on the way to Tuzla, and I scanned the inside of the plane, seeking an example of their deep color. But the palette of drab shades surrounding me did not extend past olive and brown, and I soon gave up. The slippers had faded over time, I remembered, losing their brilliant color and a good many sequins as well.I disliked flying and would have preferred going to Tuzla by ground transport, even if that meant looking at the destruction of places I vaguely remembered. Flying over Bosnia seemed unnatural to me, and to distract myself from the roaring sound of the plane, I thought of how I would describe the interior to my younger brother, Andrew. It was my first time on a noncommercial flight, and I craned my head to examine the metal interior with its assortment of cables and straps. The passengers were buckled into seats along the edges, and a hatch in the rear could open and be lowered onto the ground. Someone had explained to me that entire tanks could be transported in these flying giants.We landed first in Sarajevo and learned on the tarmac that it would be ten minutes until takeoff for Tuzla, a small city locatedabout 80 miles north of the Bosnian capital. I unbuckled my safety belt and looked out of the tiny circular window behind me. I recognized Sarajevo Airport, not from early childhood memory, but from seeing its ske...

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