Trapped in Sarajevo

by Doris Akrap

Nonstop (Issue III/2019)

These days everybody talks about a united Europe as a concept to stem the nationalistic and chauvinistic tendencies of various societies within the continent. But anybody who reads the novel, Two Years of Night (in German, Zwei Jahre Nacht – the book is yet to be translated into English) will no longer see that utopian ideal in such rosy colours.  Author Damir Ovcina details the helplessness, desolation and disillusionment of an 18-year-old man living in a Sarajevo apartment near the front, during the 1,425-day-long siege of the Bosnian city between 1992 and 1996.

Nobody came to help him, or the others trapped there. Europeans observed the longest siege they had known in the 20th century, watching on as a multi-national city was ethnically cleansed. It is estimated that around 11,000 people died.

The Bosnian author Ovcina, who was born in Sarajevo in 1973, experienced this first-hand. During the siege he was trapped in the neighbourhood of Grbavica. It’s a district near central Sarajevo that was reduced to rubble by the fighting. Hundreds of apartments and the football stadium were burned to the ground, homes were plundered and everything that moved was shot. In Grbavica, Serbian soldiers, militias and criminals tortured, beat, raped, tormented and murdered thousands of the inhabitants – they considered “the Muslims” their enemies.

It is during this period, that Ovcina’s story takes place. The teenage protagonist of his book doesn’t actually even live here. He is here because he needed some time away after the death of his mother. But when he tries to leave that evening to return to his father’s side, he is stopped by Serbian soldiers who refuse to let him out of the neighbourhood. What starts as an overnight stay in an abandoned apartment becomes a four-year-long imprisonment. During this time, the book’s hero has no idea where his father is or whether he himself will survive the massacre of the city’s people. For months he is forced to work as part of a battalion that drags corpses, refrigerators and ovens out of the apartments of those who have been murdered and others who have fled. The dead bodies are buried under trees or on streets, and the household goods are given to dealers, or to neighbours who just happen to have the right family name.

In the original Bosnian, Ovcina’s novel was called “The time I was Hodja”. The title plays with the name hodja – also Khawaja in English – which is given to the boy by his Serbian tormentors. The word means a “master” or “teacher” among local Muslims. Drunk and stoned, the Serbians try to force the Hodja to pray for them. But this Hodja is no religious teacher. He is a totally average, secular European teenager, who doesn’t have any religion but who has been mistaken for a Bosnian Muslim because of a name – a name “that isn’t to be recommended in this neighbourhood in these days.”

He is forced to sing folk songs to his oppressors while a Muslim woman is raped and only survives by becoming a murderer himself, shooting the three Serbian soldiers. This forces him into hiding and he spends the next three years in a single abandoned house, where he has been able to find shelter, thanks to help from a local teacher.

Throughout the whole book, nobody is ever called by their name. We never learn the first or family names of our protagonist nor most of the other characters. The absence of nomenclature underlines the existential role that names played in the bloody conflict in the former Yugoslavia. Often it was names which sent a clear signal of whether someone had a Serbian, Muslim or Croat heritage. In effect, it was names that decided whether you escaped with your life amid the ethnic cleansing.

A piano player, who is forced to carry corpses alongside the book’s main character, tells the protagonist to write down in detail everything that he sees, hears, smells, tastes and experiences. “Colours, people, numbers, hours, days – all of these things that we could never have imagined.” And the book’s protagonist does as the pianist suggests.

In the unadorned style of a news agency or a telegram, he tells of the same things – movements, people - happening over and over again, often without verbs or adjectives. He does this for years, recording the names of streets, car brands, radio stations, margarine, toothpaste or oven manufacturers, the movements of tanks, ambulances or white VW Golfs, the smell of herbal tea, the frequent shootings at the other end of the street. He does this in such tremendously minute detail over 750 pages that the book is both torturous and gripping. When you do put it down you feel as though you are repeating the mistake that Europe made back then: That is, closing your eyes to the years when some European citizens spent day after day moving corpses and searching for food.

Ovcina’s novel is the chronology of an urbanicide. But it is also the story of ethnic cleansing in a European metropolis, in which the protagonist is forced to play an unwilling part. He must remove the dead and the traces of former inhabitants from apartments they are no longer allowed to live in. Two Years of Night shows us that genocide in the former Yugoslavia didn’t just happen in distant villages, the names of which none of us know. The novel forces us to become witnesses to one of the bloodiest European tragedies since the last world war. And it does so in such a captivating way that one can easily place this novel alongside some of the greatest European novels ever written.

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