Living in Bosnia means I live with the constant reminder of what war can do to people. My family, the one I married into, suffered great losses. My husband lost his brother and father, whose remains were later found in one of the many mass graves. My sister in-law lost her husband, and has a child who suffered irreversible brain damage due to the forced evacuation of their village in the extreme heat of summer. I can’t even name all the extended family members who were lost during that time because there were just too many.
Having living references was both a blessing and a curse. I’ve heard quite a few stories of what happened during the war. My husband’s family is from a small village outside Srebrenica where one of the war’s largest acts of genocide took place. They lived through a hell that I can’t even imagine, so it was hard to ask them to talk of the darker times. I didn’t want to dredge up memories for any of them, but I wanted Kamal’s flashbacks to the war to feel authentic. Thankfully, they opened up to me; I think, because like everyone, they want their stories to be shared.
I listened, I took notes, and I cried along with them as they told their tales, then I decided I couldn’t use their experiences as fodder for my fiction. All of Kamal’s flashbacks are made up. They are a mash-up of the stories I heard from the various people who agreed to talk to me. Though none are word for word retellings, they all stem from true life events. There were people who walked through the mountains from their enclave to Tuzla, and many who never made it. There were men who fled from the factory where they were told they needed to gather to get on buses, and who then hid in the woods for up to a month afterward. Teenage boys were taken from their mothers and put with the men, who were then lead out into a field and shot before being tossed into a mass grave. And finally, there was indeed a baby who was born and died in that factory, though I don’t know the exact circumstances.
I learned that people handle the stress of war differently. On some level, I knew this; I only had to look at how it drove my mother in law to the edge of insanity. How she saves everything, and would probably be living in a situation worse than the worst person on that television show, Hoarders, if we didn’t actively intervene. Or how my sister in law still can’t bring herself to date someone, still mourning the loss of her first love. Or how some of the strongest men I’ve ever met wake up screaming and fighting something that isn’t there, because the war still rages on in their minds.
War is ugly. War doesn’t just kill people—it kills hopes and dreams and souls.