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Excellent, heart-wrenching account of Bosnian war

Goodbye Sarajevo: A True Story of Courage, Love and Survival

Atka Reid & Hana Schofield

Bloomsbury, €22.45

Towards the end of this story, 14-year-old Hana sees her dad after two years of separation. Even though she is thrilled that he, her mother and her nine siblings have all, somewhat miraculously, escaped the besieged Sarajevo, the lines on her father's face are so deep, his eyes sunken and he looks so worn and thin, that she bursts into tears. "I know we don't look the best," he tells her, "but we are alive."

Scenes of this intensity are common in Goodbye Sarajevo, a memoir of the Bosnian war by two sisters Atka Reid and Hana Schofield (each is now married). It is excellent and (I warn you) heart-wrenching. When the siege of Sarajevo began, Hana and her sister, Nadia, were able to flee the city on a UN bus, while Atka, who was 21, stayed at home and took care of her brothers and sisters, her two grandmothers and her dad. Hana and Nadia made their way to Croatia, where they lived in relative safety but entirely alone, while their family remained trapped in a city that was pummelled daily by sniper-fire and bombs.

Goodbye Sarajevo is a disturbing book, not just because of what this family suffered and the beautifully measured account that Atka and Hana give, but because, in many ways, they were the lucky ones. Although their lives were devastated by the conflict, what other people endured was much worse. There are hints of this when the younger girls visit a women's hospital in Zagreb. Hana overhears her mother counselling a girl from a village who had become pregnant after being gang-raped in public by a group of Chetnik soldiers. The soldiers joked that they were spreading the Serb seed. The sisters also meet an elderly woman who tells how the Chetniks came to her village and took away the men, including her husband and two sons.

The anecdotes in Goodbye Sarajevo constantly remind you of just how ordinary and unprepared for war these people were, and how terrible the events that they had to face. The sisters listen to U2 and The Beatles; Hana gets straight As in her new school in Croatia; and left alone without parental support, the 15-year-old Nadia becomes pregnant. At the same time, Nadia's boyfriend is killed by a sniper, and she tries to commit suicide. Their uncle is hit by a bomb while queuing for bread. Their brother watches his best friend die.

The Bosnian war is recent (1992-95) and in an era of The Simpsons and satellite TV, its victims are stunned by the brutality of what happens to them. When an old woman tells Atka she's saving wood for the winters to come, Atka says that she doesn't think that the war could last another winter. "Oh, you young people, you think you know everything," the old lady replied. "That's what they said about the Second World War, but look how long that dragged on."

As time goes by, luminaries converge in Sarajevo to document the conflict. The late American cultural commentator Susan Sontag makes an unexpected appearance, visiting Sarajevo to direct a production of Waiting for Godot, in an attempt to direct attention to the city's plight.

But the difference in status between the foreigners and the native Sarajevans is striking. A group of naive German photography students flies in to record some of the action, only to get stuck there when the violence increases and the airport shuts. "It made me angry to think how easy it was for these foreign students to fly in with the UN while there were so many wounded in the city who couldn't be evacuated," Atka observes.

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As for the UN, it seems to have done as much harm as good by its presence. Locals dubbed the organisation the Useless Nations. Its main job was to guard the airport runway, which happened to be the only escape route out of Sarajevo. Fugitives who survived the Serb snipers and managed to cross it were often confronted by UN soldiers, who would turn them back unless they could provide proof of sponsorship from abroad. One of the sad stories in this book is that of a man whose baby had contracted meningitis. Over three nights, he tried to cross the runway with the baby, only to have the UN turn him back each time. On the fourth night, he managed to slip across, but by the time he reached a hospital, the baby was dead.

Goodbye Sarajevo alternately gives the sisters' stories. Half of the chapters tell about Atka as she braves bombs, works in a makeshift radio station and falls in love with a New Zealand war photographer; in the others, Hana gives her side, living in relative safety with her sister in Croatia, but without parents, encountering the new experience of having people look down on her because she is a refugee. Each tale is strong enough to balance the other. Sometimes the narrative is a little wooden -- perhaps because it is written in the authors' second language, or because the events are hard to convey with ordinary words.

The sister's accounts of bombs and shrapnel and the journalists who risk their lives to relay reports to the rest of the world are still all too familiar to us. What's most surprising about this book is the tales of humanity and humour -- the musician who, after 22 people were killed queuing for bread, set up his cello and played in the deserted streets for 22 days to commemorate them; or the swearing, smoking, young DJ, who on the first day of the siege when the shelling began, blasted a John Lennon song out his window on to the main square: Give Peace a Chance.

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