Here I Was Born, Here I Died - On Tochman's Like Eating a Stone
#language & literature
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Wojciech Tochman's Jakbyś kamień jadła / Like Eating a Stone is a powerful reportage on people for whom the war will never come to an end - the families of war-torn Bosnia
Tochman visited Bosnia for the first time with a relief convoy organised by Janina Ochojska. It was the end of December 1992. The first year of the war. The road led through villages where houses and temples were destroyed. No traces of a human being. Mostar seen through the truck's widow seemed unreal and dreadful. Just before Sarajevo drunk Serbian soldiers stopped the convoy. They kept on laughing, then shouting. Finally, they took part of the goods and let them go.
In a hospital, an anaesthetist said that they need "antibiotics, band aids, beds, crutches, artificial limbs, wheelchairs and coffins". Hungry and scared people wandered around the ruins and bullet-ridden walls. Shooting was heard all the time.
We have also seen journalists: reporters, photo reporters, cameramen on the streets. Writers and filmmakers kept on arriving as well. They used to walk in groups or on their own. They spoke many languages. (...) Thousands of dispatches, reportage pieces, exhibitions, books, albums, documentary and feature films about the war in Bosnia were created. Yet, when the war was over (or as some believe temporarily paused), the reporters packed their cameras and immediately left for other wars.
And this was the exact moment when Wojciech Tochman decided to return to Bosnia. He arrived when the fights ceased and people in Sarajevo were able to cross a street without the fear of being some sniper's target. However, the wounds were still fresh, the memories of massacres alive. The fate of the lost was unknown. For those who survived the war was still there. And it will never come to an end. But who cares? The world has paid enough attention to the Balkans. It has had enough of mass killings, rapes, conflagrations. Enough. Julia Hartwig's words come to mind: "They were able to survive through it, and you cannot stand listening to it?"
One of the protagonists of the account Like Eating a Stone is anthropologist and medical doctor Ewa Klonowski, who emigrated from Poland after the introduction of the martial law and settled in Reykjavik. There, she worked on cases of establishing paternity because it was impossible for her to devote herself to what she is really passionate about, namely bones. And suddenly the politicians and history made it possible for her to apply her knowledge and skills. Doctor Ewa says that she loves bones because everything is written on them.
"I can tell the nationality by looking at bones. A thighbone of a Muslim is bow-shaped because the Muslims squat. The same is true for the Japanese because they often kneel."
Wojciech Tochman narrates stories of women who lost husbands, sons and daughters at war. Among them Edna, who was interrogated at a Militia station by Nebojša B., her ex-boyfriend. By the end of the interrogation, the girl nearly died. He portrays Kiram who was in Srebrenica. After the city had yielded, its people left for Potočari. They counted on the Dutch soldiers to help them. In Potočari women are children were directed to the right, men to the left.
It was decided by use of a string which was hung at 150 cm (some say 140 cm or 160 cm) whether a boy was still a child or already a man. If a boy was higher than 150 cm, he was taken away from his mother.
The book also tells the story of Hasan who was caught in a Serbian trap. He decided not to be captured alive. He knew that the Serbs crucify the captured. He bent, armed a grenade and pressed it against his belly. And there is also Jasna who drives with Tochman through a town of Nevesinje and says: "Here I was born, here I died". The Serbs killed her husband and two children.
The reporter draws a portrayal of victims and perpetrators. The Serbs sit by wooden walls, they drink coffee, then homemade rakija. They wear patched-up trousers and stretched T-shirts. Their shoes are worn out. They disappear as soon as they see journalists. After all, their photo may be later seen by victims who survived. What if they denounce them to the International Court?
Serbian men fear that the Muslim women may recognized them. They, like nobody else, remember their faces, odour and force.
Like Eating a Stone is Tochman's outstanding achievement. Its pages are filled with fear, despair and pain. The author writes in a highly austere style. Each sentence is cleansed from any redundancies. Cleansed to the bone.
Author: Bartosz Marzec, November 2010.
- Wojciech Tochman
Jakbyś kamień jadła / Like Eating a Stone: Surviving the Past in Bosnia
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