'Witness,' to a family and a doomed nation

August 15, 2004|By Mike Leary | Mike Leary,Sun Staff

The Stone Fields: An Epitaph for the Living, by Courtney Angela Brkic. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 320 pages. $24.

"In a particularly harsh section of that rocky earth called Herzegovina," a young mother who has already lost two infants shortly after birth places her hand on her stomach and fervently implores her unborn child, "You must live. You must."

In this scene, imagined by the author in a memoir where the beauty of the writing only heightens the sadness and horror of the story, Courtney Angela Brkic describes the impending birth of her father in a place where human life is clearly precious but has been spent with terrible profligacy in the ensuing years.

The Stone Fields is at once the story of Brkic and her family -- principally her seemingly indomitable grandmother Andelka and her stubborn but mercurial father Bero, who flees to America -- and also the story of the doomed country of Yugoslavia. A state born from the wreckage of the Austro-Hungarian empire after World War I, it endured the depredations of the Nazis and their puppets and the stifling grip of communism only to be torn apart by ethnic hatreds as the 21st century approached.

Brkic, for reasons she cannot entirely fathom but which also seem quite obvious given her interest since childhood in her family's past, becomes an actor in the story when she arrives in 1996 as a young archaeologist to exhume victims of the previous year's massacre of 7,000 Bosnian Muslims by Serbian militiamen.

"Maybe I came to be a witness," she tells an inquisitive pathologist at the morgue in Tuzla. Later, she observes that "accurate memory ... is the last defense of any logical mind."

In her student days, Brkic had excavated a burial site at a Dutch colonial house on Maryland's Eastern Shore. This time, the dead had been in the ground barely a year, and many were not wholly decomposed. She took care, as her co-workers advised, to avoid looking at faces and hands -- evidence that these were once people not so different from her. Her family history provided clues that could explain their deaths.

Her father, Bero, had been born in a remote village because that was where her grandfather, who would soon die of typhoid, had been exiled for political activity. Andelka's Jewish lover in wartime Sara-jevo had been rounded up and sent to a concentration camp where he was machine-gunned to death, and she was imprisoned for sheltering him.

At age 15, Bero was forcibly enlisted by the partisans in the war's waning days for duty at the front, but escaped while many of his young comrades died. Later, at university, his roommate was rounded up for running afoul of the prevailing political orthodoxy and interned.

No wonder there were times when her father, even after finding a refuge in America, veered into dark moods. He became, one of her aunts said, "hot and unthinking, and filled with rage."

But those moods were transitory, the sudden weakness of a survivor of Yugoslavia who, Brkic writes, learned to live like "the brush that clings to the rocky ground."

Mike Leary, the Sun's national editor, was the European correspondent for the Philadelphia Inquirer from 1987-1990.

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