The Stone Fields: Love and Death in the Balkans

Paperback | August 1, 2005

byCourtney Angela Brkic

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When she was twenty-three years old, Courtney Angela Brkic joined a UN-contracted forensic team in eastern Bosnia. Unlike many aid workers, Brkic was drawn there by her family history, and although fluent in the language, she was advised to avoid letting local workers discover her ethnicity. Her passionate narrative of establishing a morgue in a small town and excavating graves at Srebenica is braided with her family's remarkable history in what was once Yugoslavia. The Stone Fields, deeply personal and wise, asks what it takes to prevent the violent loss of life, and what we are willing to risk in the process.

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When she was twenty-three years old, Courtney Angela Brkic joined a UN-contracted forensic team in eastern Bosnia. Unlike many aid workers, Brkic was drawn there by her family history, and although fluent in the language, she was advised to avoid letting local workers discover her ethnicity. Her passionate narrative of establishing a m...

Courtney Angela Brkic is the author of Stillness, for which she won the prestigious Whiting Award and The Stone Fields. She has worked for the United Nations War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague and for Physicians for Human Rights. She lives in Ohio.

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Stillness: And Other Stories
Stillness: And Other Stories

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Format:PaperbackDimensions:336 pages, 8.25 × 5.5 × 0.75 inPublished:August 1, 2005Publisher:PicadorLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:0312424396

ISBN - 13:9780312424398

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The Stone FieldsTUZLA1996Wind carries the sudden smell of burning From the charred ruin of my village; The smell from which all memory rises: All weddings, harvests, dances, and celebrations, All funerals, lamentations, and dirges; All which life sowed and death took away. --Ivan Goran Kovai, The Pit, Stanza XIN 1995 I had brought my field boots with me from America to Croatia. They were thick leather, reached mid-calf, and had steel plates over the toes so that I would not accidentally remove part of my foot with a sharpened shovel. Red Virginia dirt was still wedged in the tread when I reached Zagreb, two months after the war ended.The boots were comfortable in winter and unbearable in summer, but during my months of work as a field archaeologist in America I wore them constantly, plagued by memories of the snake that passed over my foot in the woods outside Baltimore in a burst of clay-colored red, as if the ground itself had grown a living and mobile appendage. A colleague behind me had yelled while I stood dumbstruck, watching the rustling of the high grass into which the snake disappeared. Later I wondered whether I had imagined its length or the dark hourglass markings of its back. Copperhead venom is unpleasant, I have sincebeen told, causing fever, night sweats, and hallucinations, but rarely death.The boots were also put to good use in Croatia, though for less openly pernicious reasons. I had worn them to tramp through the yards of several refugee camps, mud rising to my ankles. The camps were scattered throughout the country, and housed displaced persons from occupied areas of Croatia, as well as refugees from neighboring Bosnia-Herzegovina. Invariably, the camps seemed to occupy haphazard spaces: former army barracks or unused buildings in factory complexes.Regardless of how many socks I wore, my feet often cramped from the cold that followed me indoors. I never mentioned my discomfort to anyone, my sense that cold stuck like shadow to the edges of refugee rooms, but more than one elderly woman sensed it in their young interrogator. They made gifts of thick woolen socks that they had knitted themselves after the dishes were washed and the grandchildren asleep, while the late news hummed from the radio. I imagined these women, intent on the length that grew from their knitting needles as they listened with half an ear to news of the war's end. In most cases, the fact that it had ended meant nothing, and they knew that they would not be returning home.I had been conducting research on women in the war-affected population: Slavonians exiled from the sunflower fields of their girlhoods; Bosnian countrywomen who fed me bitter coffee and syrupy desserts; educated urbanites, whose diplomas and certificates were reduced to a fine pulp beneath the wreckage of their homes and apartment buildings.I even visited a camp erected exclusively for children by a Japanese humanitarian organization. Each neatly constructedhouse sheltered several children and an adopted mother. Almost normal conditions prevailed, except that a war had taken place and, in addition to rainbows and flowers, the children there drew pictures of bombs, men wielding machine guns, and parents who were bleeding to death.In the beginning, I had gone to the camps with questionnaires. I was ashamed of my handwriting when I sat with my subjects in their rooms or refugee-center kitchens, taking notes as they spoke. My cramped penmanship, never neat or pretty, had been the target of grammar school teachers who made me crumple up countless sheets of paper and start over, only to produce the same erratic scrawl. The women eyed my notes but said nothing.Some of my conversations with them were superficial, and I used the questionnaires as a mat on which to place my coffee. But some women insisted that I turn on my tape recorder and write down every word. They would look anxiously over my shoulder, as if making sure that I transcribed everything correctly.One woman from a village near Derventa told me the names of the men who had burned down her house as she stood in the front yard."And they were wearing uniforms."I wrote it down."And they killed my son. And all of our animals."I looked at her."Write it. I want you to put all of it in there."  THE BOOTS' PROPERTIES changed with time. In America they had been new and supple, smelling of leather and the sassafrasroot that perfumes the underground of mid-Atlantic woods. It was enough to smell the acrid rubber soles to remember the sweltering heat of West Virginia, where I had been working in the months following my college graduation. But in Croatia they dulled and took on the smell of the oak armoire in which I kept them. With the exception of my single visit to the children's village, which was surrounded by grass and flowering bushes, there always seemed to be an abundance of clay stuck to these boots after refugee visits. What little remained of the Virginia dirt was displaced and deposited into those vast fields of churned ground.War had begun in Croatia following the republic's 1991 declaration of independence from Yugoslavia, when the Yugoslav People's Army (JNA) and Serb paramilitary troops responded by attacking Croatia's civilian population. The following year, war began under similar circumstances in Bosnia-Herzegovina, a country with a mixed Muslim, Serb, and Croat population. An initial united Muslim-Croat defense all but disintegrated when the two groups began fighting each other. Croats in Bosnia-Herzegovina wished to annex themselves to Croatia proper, but a Muslim-Croat cease-fire was declared in 1994. Relations between the two ethnic groups had improved, but were far from friendly. The 1995 Dayton Peace Accords effectively ended the war, dividing Bosnia-Herzegovina into two parts: a Muslim-Croat Federation and the Serb "entity" of Republika Srpska.A year after my research in Croatia, I went to Bosnia as an archaeologist, and then the boots would take on the smell of death. Not the natural mustiness of a swept graveyard with its decomposing flower arrangements, but the stale odor of chaoticburial, the smell of the morgue with its splattered concrete floors, and the iciness of refrigerated containers that transported the bodies, like strange air-conditioned buses of death. Microscopic pieces from all those places became embedded in the soles like fossils in a strata of rock from the Pleistocene: some strands of hair, fibers from a hand-sewn shirt, powdered bone. Regardless of how much I wore the boots after that month in Bosnia, or with what force I banged them against a wall or sunbaked ground, that last assignment made the properties of these boots suddenly immutable, residue of the graves trapped in them as if in amber.  I LEFT ZAGREB on a C-130 transport plane at the beginning of July 1996 to join a Physicians for Human Rights forensic team already working in Bosnia. The sun's fiery reflection on the metal of the fuselage burned my eyes on the tarmac of Pleso Airport, and as we taxied down the runway, I pictured the wings in the cloudless blue sky that was forecast for the trip to Tuzla. I imagined the patchwork of fields and hills under the belly of the plane. From such heights it would be impossible to see the burned-out buildings or the schools that were filled with broken glass. It would be impossible to see the thousands of makeshift graveyards that dotted the landscape.In my childhood I had traveled through Bosnia several times by car. We would make hot summertime pilgrimages to Sarajevo to visit my great-aunt Ana, but I remembered little of those trips. I could recall green, wooded hills that bore a striking resemblance to the foothills of Appalachia, and children on the roadside who sold wild strawberries on pieces of bark. Afterthe mountains came endless miles of farmland and then, suddenly, a sweltering city in which my elderly aunt rushed out to meet our dust-caked car with shouts, tears, and wildly gesticulating hands. She had lived in the Marin Dvor neighborhood of Sarajevo, and I remembered a catfish that swam in a plastic tub in her kitchen.When I turned seven, she gave me a pair of deep purple embroidered slippers trimmed with sequins. They were a prize that accompanied us back to America, packed carefully in our luggage so that they would lose none of their gaudy splendor.I thought of those slippers in the airplane on the way to Tuzla, and I scanned the inside of the plane, seeking an example of their deep color. But the palette of drab shades surrounding me did not extend past olive and brown, and I soon gave up. The slippers had faded over time, I remembered, losing their brilliant color and a good many sequins as well.I disliked flying and would have preferred going to Tuzla by ground transport, even if that meant looking at the destruction of places I vaguely remembered. Flying over Bosnia seemed unnatural to me, and to distract myself from the roaring sound of the plane, I thought of how I would describe the interior to my younger brother, Andrew. It was my first time on a noncommercial flight, and I craned my head to examine the metal interior with its assortment of cables and straps. The passengers were buckled into seats along the edges, and a hatch in the rear could open and be lowered onto the ground. Someone had explained to me that entire tanks could be transported in these flying giants.We landed first in Sarajevo and learned on the tarmac that it would be ten minutes until takeoff for Tuzla, a small city locatedabout 80 miles north of the Bosnian capital. I unbuckled my safety belt and looked out of the tiny circular window behind me. I recognized Sarajevo Airport, not from early childhood memory, but from seeing its skeleton on the news so often in recent years. The buildings were pockmarked and cratered from shelling and gunfire, and I remembered what one refugee had told me in Croatia months before. We had been sitting in the kitchen of a women's center, drinking coffee. In 1993 she had attended a conference somewhere in Europe, escaping Sarajevo by traversing a tunnel directly under the airport tarmac. The ceiling was so low that you had to walk hunched over for hundreds of yards through the mud.Was it possible to hear the sound of shelling, I had wondered, when you were in the subterranean passage, crouched in the filth and cold, listening to reverberations, the wall trembling, and the rats screaming in alarm on all sides? Or was it the silence that filled your ears, uncomfortably, trying to push out into the darkness?  WHEN WE ARRIVED in Tuzla that evening, we held an impromptu meeting to discuss setting up the morgue in Kalesija, about twenty miles away from our base house. A building had been secured, and some preliminary work by engineers was already under way. The pathologists with whom I arrived were to set up the inside of the morgue. I would stay with them for the first few days, until transportation could be arranged to the graves, where the anthropologists and archaeologists were working.A town on the edge of Bosnian Federation territory, Kalesijawas just a few miles from Republika Srpska, the Serbian entity from which non-Serbs had been completely expelled. It had been under Serbian occupation until 1993, when a Bosnian Army offensive took it back. Many buildings in the town were destroyed, and those that remained were covered with holes and craters. The destruction on the road from Tuzla increases exponentially in the direction of Kalesija; the town sat squarely on what had been the front line.The structure that had been selected for the morgue was once a garment factory. Chosen because of its inaccessibility from the road and its distance from Tuzla, it was a huge building with a guard shack and an external gate that locked. In maintaining the integrity of our investigations, we had to make sure that the "chain of evidence" was unbroken; remains would be padlocked into a freezer each evening and possessions kept under lock and key. Access to this evidence would be limited because otherwise, the strength of our case could be undermined and the guilty could go free.Many of the mothers and wives of victims from the 1995 Srebrenica massacre were living as displaced persons in Tuzla, half an hour away by car. We expected that they would eventually come to the factory and stand at the chain-link fence, hoping to catch sight of something familiar.  OUR BASE HOUSE was not far from the center of Tuzla and had several large rooms where crew members slept. There was a living room, a terrace, and a two-tiered porch that admitted a soft breeze in the tight calm of summer.A young dark-haired woman emerged when I arrived withmy travel companions--two pathologists, an X-ray technician, an autopsy technician, and an evidence custodian. Her name was Jadranka, and she spoke only a few words of English. Her mouth stretched into a wide grin when she realized I could understand her. She had been hired, she explained to me, to clean and cook for the crew members.She led us upstairs, and I chose a room with a cot positioned beneath a window. I lowered my bag onto the bed and then straightened as Tim, the evidence custodian, knocked on the door. The others were behind him."Let's go look around," he suggested, and we made our way through the house as if we were vacationers inspecting a beach-front bungalow we might be renting.In the bathroom, he turned the tap, but no water came out. He stared at it blankly."Redukcija," I explained to him. "The water only runs two hours out of the day." That was one of the first things Jadranka had told me, pointing into the kitchen, where dozens of plastic bottles filled with water stood like soldiers at the ready."Which two hours?" he asked."No one seems to know," I replied, making a face.Jadranka had thrown her arms up in exasperation. "It comes and it goes," she told me. "Mostly, it doesn't even do that."  IN ADDITION TO SERVING as our living quarters, the base house would also function as a center for the database project. Survivors of the Srebrenica massacre would be interviewed about their missing family members, eventually providing DNA samples for genetic comparison with remains recoveredfrom the mass graves, several of which were visible on satellite photographs almost immediately following the massacre.There had been little television footage of the 1995 fall of Srebrenica, in which more than seven thousand people had disappeared. Reporters had not been able to gain access to the enclave, and the Dutch peacekeepers who guarded it had been ordered into a compound where they could hear unspecified screams and gunshots coming from the town. They had gone meekly, unable in the end even to provide testimonies regarding the fate of the town, which had been flooded with refugees in preceding months to a point well past bursting. The truth was in the ground, however, and the satellite photographs showed the scars of freshly turned earth in pastures and soccer fields.The search for interpreters and interviewers to canvass refugee camps and centers was already under way in Tuzla. The work would be similar to my own interviews with refugee women in Croatia the year before, and I had the strange sensation that mine was a two-tiered process of discovery, before-and-after photographs that would together provide a more accurate portrait of the war than either one taken singly. There was also something oddly unsettling in the knowledge that our living quarters would also serve as this project's headquarters. The practical work of excavating the remains and autopsying them fell to the forensic team, and while we spent our days in the field, the place where we slept would be used for organizing and collecting information from survivors, and for documenting the last-known contact with the missing. It seemed as if we stood at opposite sides of a long, dark tunnel. A sad parade of mothers, wives, and daughters would provide information about their men: their age, where they were last seen, whatthey had been wearing. Then there was the dark, unknown transition into death. And there we were, the first to touch the bodies of their men when they emerged on the other end into the light of day, almost exactly one year later.In the end, we did not have much contact with either the interviewers or the survivors, for which I was grateful. But their traces would be there when we returned after a day of work at the morgue: shallow coffee cups, rinsed and laid upside down on a towel to dry, and the faint smell of cigarettes in the air.  THERE IS A COMMON DENOMINATOR in refugee populations worldwide. I knew it before ever setting eyes on the women of Srebrenica that summer, not one of whom had been among the women I interviewed in Croatia the year before. In the ranks of exile, there are women who listen each evening for a telltale sound coming from the hall outside their drafty rooms that says their husbands and children have returned, Lazarus-like. These women wait first one year, then another. They grow old in their waiting, each year like a ball of noxious mercury that combines with another, so that the passage of time is fluid and indistinct. They reject conflicting reports of massacres and the conventional wisdom that all is lost.In Croatian refugee camps, I had come to understand their need to find plausible explanations. Sometimes they held on to the belief that their husbands and sons were clinging to life in a distant prison cell or concentration camp. Was it blindness or optimism that convinced them of this? Would I hold out the same hope in their position?One woman I knew constructed an elaborate fantasy inwhich every time the phone rang and there was silence on the other side, she believed that it was her son telephoning. That he escaped periodically from his cell to call her, but could not talk into the receiver for fear of drawing the attention of the guards."He wants me to know that he's still alive," she insisted.I couldn't meet her eyes. The telecommunications system in Zagreb was not the best, and dead lines were common. "What do you do when that happens?" I asked her."Oh, I tell him, 'Son, I know it's you. I love you. Come back to me when you can. I'm waiting for you.'"The woman was Slavonian, but her husband, dead since the war, was from my grandmother's village in Herzegovina, and she evinced a certain affection for me. My father was born in Rakitno, I told her, but he grew up in Sarajevo and moved to America years ago. "He is well citified," I told her with a grin."Blood is blood," she responded with a slight shake of her head. "My husband carried the limestone dust of his childhood on his shoes until the day he died."I was struck by the strange poetry of those words, as well as by their sad finality. I knew what she meant. My elderly aunts had lived in Zagreb for almost fifty years, but Herzegovina was evident in them from their clipped manner of speech to the tough-leafed raštika they ate. More than that, Herzegovina affected the way they walked through life--like warriors ready to do battle at the merest challenge.My father never wholly lost those traits himself, and I believe that they have been passed down to me like some strange genetic coding. I told her of my theory, and she slapped the palm of her hand against her leg in agreement. Her son was the same, she said. More Hercegovac than was good for him.To be sa krša has a specific meaning. To be from karst is to hail from one of the mountain regions, from an expanse of wind-scarred Dinaric stone where nothing grows."Don't listen to what these Zagrepani tell you," she told me, wagging her finger.Hardheaded, the city folk of Zagreb would say, joking that the heads of Hercegovci were shaped like square stones. From the vukojebina, others would state derisively, after learning our background. From where the wolves fuck.I had learned the last phrase the day before, and loosened by the tumbler of šljivovica the woman had set before me, I was persuaded to repeat it, embarrassed enough that I could not look at her directly.She grinned broadly at the vulgarity and lowered her eyes to the backs of her hands, twin constellations of liver spots and scars."To my son," she told me in a near whisper after a moment of silence, lifting her own glass to touch it with mine. "To my little wolf."  IN ADDITION TO MY AUNT ANA, her catfish, and the gaudy slippers I had worn even when my feet outgrew them and my heels hung from their backs, I had other memories of Bosnia. But they were so mixed up with things I had read and heard that it was hard to separate the real from the imagined. I had never before been in Tuzla, but several times that first day, I seemed to catch sight of a face or a building that was more than just fleetingly familiar.The things I knew are gone, I mouthed in my dark room on the night of my arrival. I already knew this from five years ofwatching war footage, and everything I saw on that first day confirmed it: the ghost towns with their toppled minarets, the strange silence on the roads, and the old faces of the neighbor's children who had been playing in the parking spaces as we pulled up to the base house.I reached the battleground when the war had receded to a stalemate and an uneasy peace reigned. The battle lines had been drawn with blood, melted by rain, and redrawn, and now the heavy air was completely still. I would smear the barely visible markings with my boots and bring the dead to the surface with my gloved hands. Birds would sing from trees, and the bright disk of the sun overhead would cast diagonal light through mutilated architecture. The dead left strange gouged holes in the landscape.Some of them lay just below the surface, and in the coming weeks we were able to spy the clean whiteness of their bones in the yellow-green of a dry summer field. Other bodies hovered deeper in the dark, blood-saturated soil, and we needed heavy machinery, picks, and shovels to pull them out. Once out in the glaring sunshine, the twisted figures lay covered in plastic until we carried them up an embankment and down into the next field, where a refrigerated container admitted us into its grim, icy depths.And all the time, whether I slept, worked, or searched for things I could remember, I was conscious of the people who were waiting for their missing. We looked not only at what the physical remains could tell us; we also scoured pockets for scraps of paper or objects that would help identify them. Such finds were rare, and it was hypothesized that the victims had been searched before execution and their possessions removed.We paid special attention to the things we did find--hand--sewn clothing, charms, and the odd scrap of food--hoping that there would he someone left who recognized these objects.  IN THE MIDDLE of the first night, a strange wind rose from out of nowhere. When I groped my way to the blinds and opened them, I watched debris from the street blow into a skittering funnel. Somebody in another part of the house muttered in his sleep, and I could feel my heart contract. Tiny bumps rose on my forearms, and I rubbed them before returning to bed.  MY FATHER DID NOT KNOW that I had come to Bosnia, and the knowledge would have eaten away at him. I have been a largely obedient daughter, but I lied to him about my movements that summer, trying to convince myself that it would be all right in the end. Since childhood I have been accused of having an outrageous imagination and a fierce, dark temperament. It was obvious that he should expect this type of thing.He thought I was safely ensconced in an air-conditioned office somewhere in western Slavonia, poring over topographic maps and following field developments from a distance, only venturing out occasionally from behind the armor of a large, sturdy desk."Be careful where you step," he told me solemnly when I'd last telephoned him from Zagreb.Mines were still a problem in much of Croatia. After the war, families returning to their ruined homes in formerly occupiedareas found limited space in which they could safely maneuver. Rarely a month went by in which a child did not run through his former hunting ground of garden, orchard, or field and step on one of those sleeping executioners. Some houses had even been deliberately rigged with explosives.But Bosnia was an even more complicated patchwork of mined areas and border crossings. Its citizens were in a tenuous position--the right to pass between Republika Srpska and Muslim-Croat Federation territory, which was supposedly ensured in the provision for free movement, existed in name alone. Usually, only vehicles from SFOR (the Stabilization Force), the UN, and international organizations made the trip back and forth, especially into Serbian-held areas.A number of Bosnian refugees were prevented from returning to occupied areas by ugly, gun-wielding mobs, and several UN personnel were taken hostage that summer in Višegrad."I'll be careful," I had told my father, trying to reassure him.After his escape from Yugoslavia in 1959, he had stifled nostalgia for his past. He started his new life with a sense of pride and relief, considering his native country a closed chapter. And yet he was unable to fully sever his ties. Each time he cut the threads, they regrew with alarming precision. He missed his family and his language. He would feel suddenly displaced and long for the place of his birth. Although we visited every few years, American passports tucked safely into my mother's purse, my father returned like a boomerang, unavoidably attracted to its hurler.Those visits form a collage of my earliest memories: Walking on Zagreb's Zrinjevac Square in the evening, being forced out of my grimy tomboy shorts and into lace-trimmed dresses,and a cake my aunt Ljubica made for my birthday. The fat catfish my aunt Ana kept in a plastic tub in her Sarajevo apartment, and the way it swam slowly from side to side, bumping its nose with a low tharrump against the plastic. The sequined Turkish slippers and her tears when we left. Most of all, though, I remember our trips to the Adriatic Sea: the feel of smooth stones underfoot and the smell of pine trees; the red glass earrings I was allowed to select from the tables of summer markets, which would pinch my ears before I promptly lost one or both.  I AWOKE WITH A START at 6 a.m. I did not know where I was. A rooster was crowing outside my window, and sunlight bled through the window shades. I had been dreaming that I was searching feverishly for one of those earrings, scrabbling in all the crevices of the poorly lit place where I found myself. In the dream, my father sat on the empty cot across the room, watching my search and looking at me in some distress. "I left so my children could be safe," he said. When I opened my eyes, I was alone in my room in the base house in Tuzla. But the words rang in my ears after I had swung my legs over the cot's side and begun to dress.In the bathroom, water ran from the taps in a slow trickle, and bent over the bathtub, I washed my hair. The water was ice-cold, and I shivered even as I toweled my hair dry and slipped a sweatshirt over my head. I looked in the mirror over the sink while I brushed the tangles from my hair, noting how pale I was beneath my summer skin, as if my face were on the verge of outgrowing me.An hour later we piled into a white UN vehicle to make thetwenty-five-minute drive to the morgue. The team members were uniformly silent, looking out the windows at the passing countryside and at vegetation so wild and thick that it seemed it might overtake roofs and walls. The scarred shells of buildings, however, could not be hidden.When I worked in West Virginia the previous summer, we battled underbrush with machetes. We found entire houses and lines of abandoned cars that had been eaten alive by ravenous green kudzu and jewelweed. I imagined how quickly those plants would cover everything, but the remnants of the ghost towns would still be there underneath, like traces of a forgotten civilization, waiting for winter to burn the coiling vines with frost. Waiting for the leaves to die in order to push their scarred faces stubbornly into the world again.Several miles from Republika Srpska, we passed a mosque that had been mined from the inside, the minaret destroyed and tilting crazily. It looked as if it had been snapped off and then redeposited into the building like a straw, and I watched Dr. Peerwani, one of the pathologists, considering it. His assistant had told me that he was a devout Muslim. He muttered something under his breath and shook his head.The war had meant indiscriminate destruction. Schools, hospitals, and religious structures had all been targets of shelling, bombs, and fire. Mines were placed at the four corners of a church, or explosives at the base of a minaret. In the past several years I had stood in a number of destroyed churches, always with the same feeling in my stomach, imagining the shadows of prayers that still spun in the ruined holy places. Those responsible had decided that it was not enough to remove their former neighbors through evictions and executions. They had been compelled to remove any physical reminder of them.Some of the crew wanted photographs of the mosque, and we pulled over onto the shoulder, stones hitting the car's undercarriage like popping corn. We all got out, careful to stay on the road. I stood behind them, leaning against the door and watching the group talking and taking pictures. Pedestrians walked past with unreadable expressions, women clad in dimije--baggy trousers common to eastern Bosnia--with children on their hips, and men with sharply planed faces. They were accustomed to foreign faces and strangers taking photographs. They were also used to people getting back into their official vehicles and leaving without a backward glance. I was familiar with their expressions: hate sucked out into the white void, rage fed by powerlessness.  GEOFF, A BIG BEAR OF A MAN from Manchester, England, was setting up the morgue at the garment factory. He had outfitted it with electricity and arranged for the delivery of refrigerated containers for the bodies and a container with showers for our team. Hot water, I soon learned, was a godsend and an unspeakable luxury at the end of a day among decomposing bodies and clustering flies. The conditions were primitive: there were no windows in the building, and the floor was filthy cement.An X-ray room was set up in the back of the building, where there had once been a factory mess hall. Some of us jumped over the counter and walked around the kitchen. Like children playing house."The cupboards are bare," someone intoned, like Mother Hubbard.In the main hall, we set out metal examining tables, tools, and stretchers. A passageway on one side would be used as awaiting room for bodies to be autopsied. We could line the body bags up on stretchers, six at a time.There was an inherent strangeness to those preparations. Getting ready for the dead was obscenely reminiscent of planning a child's birthday party. Everything had to be organized and readied, from the protective blue jumpsuits to the plastic jugs of soap that would be used for washing the clothes removed from the corpses. On that first day, the building was transformed from a ruined structure into a credible morgue, despite the black cables that hung from the ceiling and between exposed pipes like lifeless snakes.Sewing machines and metal ironing boards were piled with debris in the corner of the room where autopsies would be performed. We examined everything carefully, as if we expected the cables to suddenly lower and crawl through our hair and the sewing machines to start whirring, handled by a hundred sets of ghostly hands.That night, we explored the center of Tuzla. The cafés were crowded with people, smoking and laughing and listening to music. Many were not Bosnian, however, and I could hear snatches of French, Dutch, and German coming from tables around ours.On the mile-long walk back to the house, I fell into conversation with Nizam Peerwani.He tilted his head to one side. "You're Croatian?" He had heard me speaking with Jadranka earlier in the day.I nodded. "My father is."His sister-in-law, he told me, was a Croat from Derventa, a town in western Bosnia. She and her daughters had left just in time, in early 1992, coming to Texas as refugees. I looked athim carefully. My best friend, a nurse, had been in Derventa as it was falling. She had described the flatbed trucks that had taken some women and children out of the town. People had been crushed to death under the weight of other bodies.There was something in the earnest way Dr. Peerwani talked about them that distinguished him from the rest of the team. For most of the others, there was no personal dimension to the work, and there were no Bosnian or Croatian team members. I had been told that several students in the field were completing graduate work in forensic anthropology.The pathologists were slated to come in shifts to Bosnia, leaving behind their examining offices in a variety of countries, including the United States, England, and Sri Lanka. They would do shorter stints than the anthropologists, many of whom had worked all over the world: in Rwanda, Chile, Guatemala. Bosnia was just one stop along the way, and I remained quiet while listening to them describe projects in other countries.Dr. Peerwani told me that it had been hard for his sister-in-law and her children to acclimate to America. Texas was certainly different from anything they knew. But with time, they had grown accustomed to American life, and both girls were enrolled in school."Do you know how lucky they are?" I blurted out, thinking of the women I had met from Derventa. My year of research had ensured that certain place-names would send chills down my back: Derventa, Brko, Zvornik."Yes, I know." He looked at me suddenly. "I have to tell you that if my daughter said she wanted to do what you are going to do here, I wouldn't be happy about it. You're awfully young."I shrugged uncomfortably, admitting after a minute of awkward silence that my father did not know where I was. I was afraid because there was a lot of media coverage of the graves, and dismayed, I had watched CNN close-ups of crew members in the days before my arrival. I could imagine him coming in from a walk with the dog, putting on his slippers, and turning on the television to see the top of my head.Dr. Peerwani looked at me intently. "You'll have to pull your own weight and do as much as anyone else. You decided to be here, and we need the hands."I nodded. At twenty-three, I was the youngest, and the only woman among the initial group of six. I had already fallen into the role of little sister, and I knew that the others felt protective of me. They had suggested that I stay at the base as a translator and not go out into the graves."But," I told them, "that's the whole reason I'm here.""Why is it that you came here?" Dr. Peerwani asked, suddenly curious. We had reached the house's front steps, and the others had gone inside.I was at a loss."Are you looking for something?" His eyes were still twinkling, but they did not leave my face."Maybe." I hesitated. I was not seeking experience or adventure. Part of me did not even know why I had come. "Maybe I came to be a witness. I spent a year documenting wives and mothers ..."It was the closing of the circle. I had spent so much time looking at it from the other side. Now I would see what had happened to their men."Do you think that if you see what became of them, it will help you to understand?"I did not know how to answer him."It won't."  WHEN I ENTERED THE HOUSE, Jadranka was tidying up the kitchen. Her husband, Nedim, sat on the wall of the kitchen terrace. They were both about my age, Tuzlani by birth. When the war started, the university closed, and Nedim found work as a driver in one of the international humanitarian organizations that used Tuzla as a base of operations. It would be closing down shortly, however, and he was getting nervous about what he would do for money when they left town."Would you go back to school?" I asked.He shrugged. It would be strange to go back to school after four difficult years, he said. He slipped his hand into Jadranka's. She had a sad smile and soft brown eyes. "I used to worry about him," she told me. "They'd send him out on errands, and shells would be falling all over the place."Nedim shrugged again and smiled at her. "And not one of them hit. They were scared off by your worrying."After the first few times out, he had learned to bring cassettes with him. When the shelling started, he would slip one into the tape deck and turn the volume to full blast. "It made it easier," he said with a grin. "I was a less nervous driver, and the shelling was just one more part of the general acoustics." He paused and shrugged. "It's over now. I'll tell my children about it one day.""Do you have children?" I asked."No," Nedim said, suddenly shy. "Not yet."I had met dozens of couples who had waited for the end of the war before embarking on the business of baby making.They had delayed diapers and baby strollers in the hope of some safer time. I had met others who had refused to wait, bringing their children into an unsafe world, determining that they had no faith in a hypothetical future."What was the use of waiting?" a friend from Croatia had once asked me. I remembered too late that she had had a miscarriage during the war, before giving birth to a healthy daughter. "Women have babies in all sorts of impossible conditions," she told me. "The war might never have ended."  THE NEXT DAY, the bodies came.The first black bag I unzipped was not a terrible shock, because I had been prepared by Dr. Peerwani's assistant, Ron. Still, there was an odd feeling at the pit of my stomach when I looked at the matter that had been a man almost exactly one year before. Charcoal lamps and a citronella candle were immediately lighted to keep the smell bearable and the flies away, but lamps and candles did not even partly succeed at driving off the misery of that place.The bodies were X-rayed before examination so that the technician, Cyril, could pinpoint the location of bullets--dense spots among all that bone and soft matter. He removed them as evidence, so they would not be overlooked in the examination. Sometimes, though, the bullets had buried themselves, fusing in half-melted shapes to the white bone, and they were not easily dislodged.When we placed a body on one of the examining tables, we removed the clothing and sent it outside to be washed. Personal effects were gathered and bagged. We reached into pocketsfor heels of bread, photographs, a plastic bag of coarse salt. The people who owned these objects lay quietly as we pored over them, turning them this way and that, muttering under our breath. We kept up a steady dialogue, noting each item, guessing its purpose.The bones were then removed. Because the flesh was badly decomposed, it was in the bones that most pertinent information was stored. Removing them was like pulling sticks from wet ground, and the pathologists made sure that everything was accounted for, down to the smallest stray metacarpal bone. But the burial had been haphazard, and the bodies at the top of the grave were fully decomposed. The excavators in the field had often been unsure where one man ended and the next began.That day, I learned preliminary ways to classify remains. It is possible to estimate age by the wear on teeth, by the degree of bone fusion at the top of the femur and humerus. Some of the teeth were new and pearly; others were worn down by years of use and yellowed from tobacco. It is also possible to detect youth in the pelvis: in young bones, the surface of one critical area is billowy, like thick, cottony clouds.Dr. Peerwani showed me how to distinguish an entry gunshot wound from an exit wound, holding a cranium gingerly in his hand and pointing to the two holes and the distinctive beveling of their edges. He replaced the cranium on the table, and we both stood a moment looking at it. I imagined the revolution of that bullet, the moment of impact, and the point at which the bullet had pierced the rear plates of the head, ripping a hole that caused the bone sutures to come slightly apart. This had been a young man, Dr. Peerwani said, pointing to the billows of his pelvis. He had been shot from behind.By the end of the day, I was aware that I had crossed an invisible border. As we locked the freezer and washed the equipment in soapy water, I was unsure when that moment had been. I knew that I had become suddenly quiet around midday, unable to do more than watch with large, grim eyes and follow the pathologists' instructions. I sensed that I moved very slowly, almost lumbering, as if I were walking through a viscous substance other than air.Standing over the washtubs, I realized that I had not seen my hands since that morning. They were covered in double layers of latex gloves, and I stopped what I was doing to look at them, dumbfounded. I peeled the gloves away and held them, palms down, looking at the white half-moons of my nails as if aware of their existence for the first time.Dr. Peerwani appeared at my side, and he too looked at my hands. He cleared his throat, and I jumped a little, making them into fists. "Why don't you go have a shower?" he suggested, and I nodded gratefully, turning away from the autopsy hall.Ron warned me, "Start it cold. That way you wash off the mess without opening your pores. If your pores open, and the smell creeps in, it'll follow you around for days."I had a terrible stomachache that evening. I admitted to Dr. Peerwani on the drive back to Tuzla that I had breathed through my mouth all day, afraid of letting that smell into my nose.He shook his head. "Don't do that. You don't want that bad air going through your mouth. It'll go straight to your stomach. Just breathe normally, and you'll get used to it."After returning from Kalesija, I collapsed on my cot. Ilooked up at the ceiling, picturing the refrigerated container and its piles of bodies. I remembered the days leading up to the fall of Srebrenica--I had been in Huntington, West Virginia--and I remembered the face of a television reporter, his voice hushed as he described the buildup to the city's final defeat. He had referred to world leaders as powerless.I had come in from surveying, hot and sunburned after a day beneath heavy West Virginia air. I had managed to put the war out of my mind for the duration of the workday, but there was something about the announcer's tone that made me drop my gear in the doorway and crawl sickly and sweaty beneath the acrylic cover on the bed. I slept an ugly sleep, and by morning Srebrenica had fallen.Falling asleep in Tuzla, the image of the first open body bag on a gumey came into my head. Nizam Peerwani had been watching my face for a reaction, concerned and yet removed, wondering if I would be able to stand it.After a while he had cleared his throat. "If you left this in the sun for a few days--two, maybe three--it would become earth. No more flies. No smell. Just clean earth."My eyes had filled with tears. "Thank you," I told him.His words helped me through the following weeks.  WE DID NOT HAVE A SUPPLY of drinking water at the morgue, and the next day an SFOR base nearby offered to give us as many bottles as we could carry. There was also a PX, which sold telephone cards. Looking at the display, I felt a sudden need to hear my parents' voices, and I bought a card, wandering outside to find a telephone.My mother answered, her voice so soft and gentle that I felt as if my chest were a dam that suddenly cracked lengthwise. Unlike my father, she knew where I was. She lowered her voice still further to ask, "Is everything all right?"I wanted to tell her of the threshold I had passed the day before, and the fact that nothing would ever be the same again. My mouth opened and closed like a fish's, but no sound came out."Love?" her English voice asked from our kitchen in Virginia.I could look at the sky or a newspaper, but it would be different now, as if all the colors, or my perception of them, had shifted overnight. In the end, making my voice light, I said, "Everything's fine." And then I asked, "How's Dad?"My father had been nervous when I returned to Croatia the year before, though by then the war was over."Be careful," he had told me at the airport as my mother hugged me good-bye. And then, "We almost lost you once."They hadn't really, I protested on more than one occasion, but he had been adamant.On a sunny autumn day in 1993, I was traveling to Croatia's Adriatic coast when my train was shelled from occupied "Krajina" territory. At first we could hear mortars in the distance, and then shells began to fall with roars around the train.The train had been filled with Croatian soldiers, and they herded us to an abandoned depot. They set up a command on the first floor but ushered us into the cellar. We could hear them walking around and shouting to one another. My friend Tia and I were pushed by the throng of other passengers into a section that had once been a large coal box. It was filthy, andthe entire cellar contained the strange, rank smell of fear, which nauseated me.The electricity had gone out. After the first couple of hours I had to urinate. If I don't pee, I'll go crazy, I thought in the blackness. I repeated this aloud to Tia, who was standing next to me."You're out of your mind," she said. "Peeing is the last thing on my mind."But I had to. I ran up the wooden steps, almost laughing. I was far from hysterical, though, because my need seemed to have made me human again. A woman at the top of the stairs grabbed my arms as I thundered out of the cellar, blind as a newborn kitten."I have to go to the bathroom," I explained, grimacing.She laughed and pointed the way to the outhouse. I ran the ten yards, out into the gray air, out into the smell of metal, and it was relief as I'd never before known it. My abdomen shuddered; then the outhouse rocked as a shell landed nearby. I ran back to the building unburdened and strangely fearless.One of the soldiers saw my face and smiled. "Where have you been, little one?"I was at an uncharacteristic loss for words. Instead, I found my bag by the cellar door and brought out the food that my aunts had packed for me that morning. Country bread and butter, tomatoes sweeter than fruit. He refused the bread, but his eyes fixed on the tomatoes."So long since I had a tomato," he sighed, accepting one. The skin of my hand was soot-blackened from the cellar. He took the tomato in his teeth and smiled. He was from around Plitvice, he told me, where his family had owned a house witha large garden. It was under occupation now, and I could almost sense a memory unfolding in him: his mother and her vegetable garden, the house that lay in splinters.Outside, the shelling was abating, like thunder from a receding storm, black clouds moving to terrorize another location.The soldier wanted to know what kind of a garden my mother had in America. "Do you grow tomatoes? Do you work in the garden with your mother?"He looked at the grit under his nails, the mica shining like a salting of stars. "Everything's fucked up, do you know that? Everything." But the tomato was wet and sweet, and he sat with me a little while longer.  A SHORT TIME after returning to the cellar, I learned that an eleven-year-old had been killed near the depot. I shuddered when this piece of information went from one person to the next in the underground space, realizing that I had, with a certainty, heard the shell that killed him. He had taken shelter under a pear tree with his family's cows and was waiting out the artillery attack."He could see the train," the soldiers told us when we emerged, finally, into the evening light. "He was aiming for the train from a kilometer or two away."He? I wanted to ask. At first I thought they were talking about the boy, and then I realized they meant the person who had been firing at us. I imagined him standing on a hill, looking at us through binoculars. He smelled of brandy and had a huge scraggly beard. He was the stuff of nightmares, the killer of eleven-year-old boys.In the weeks that followed, I found myself talking aboutthat day repeatedly, needing to tell my parents each new detail I remembered, craving to unload the desperation I had felt in that place. So intent was I on this unburdening that I would call them in the morning, realizing only belatedly from their groggy voices that it was the middle of the night in America. In the end, I think their trauma was greater than my own.Now, at the SFOR base, I stood in something like a phone booth to call my parents. The door was glass, and I could see the Bosnian hills that rose behind the base, and the high barbed wire that tied it in. My mother's voice had almost made me cry, but when my father's voice came on the line, I held my emotions in check and told him rather glibly about my fictional work in western Slavonia.When he hung up, I stayed a moment longer on the telephone, listening to the hum that still existed on the line, an entire dialogue of the unsaid.  IT WAS NOT THE IDEA OF DYING that filled me with blind panic that day in the depot's cellar, but the idea of dying there, of being buried alive with all those unknown people. It was the fact that my parents would not know, that it might take days for the news to reach them. I imagined an incendiary device crashing through ceiling and floor, incinerating everything in its path, and leaving not one splinter of evidence behind. They might never learn what had truly happened to me. I could imagine them searching hospital wards and mental asylums, wondering what had become of me, inventing realities in which I somehow thrived but was prevented from returning to them by an amnesiac state.They would not even be certain under which name to look,if a name could miraculously survive. Names seem to be among the first casualties of war. The year before, I had started going by my middle name, Angela. My aunts always considered my first name an impossible act of verbal acrobatics, and so I had switched. I had been given the name for my grandmother, Anelka. And all the time they worried about which name to look for, I would be a sooty stain in the wreck of an abandoned railway building.My father had been troubled when I started responding to the name Angela. I think it seemed to him a rejection of the safe life he had created for us in America. "She had such a hard life, your grandmother," he had told me tightly.When we were evacuated from that train, I had grabbed a book from my backpack for some reason. In the cellar, I tore out a page at the end and filled it with a letter to my parents and my brother, apologizing for this predicament. When the shelling seemed to abate suddenly in the early afternoon, I rolled it into a thin cigarette and rushed outside to stick it in a crack of the building's exterior wall.Why I thought a piece of flammable paper would survive what my teeth would not, I am unsure. I only know that I retreated into the cellar again, satisfied. When the shelling stopped, I covertly removed the scrap of paper and destroyed it.I had signed it "Courtney Angela." In case one name was burned away, the other might survive.THE STONE FIELDS. Copyright © 2004 by Courtney Angela Brkic. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address Picador, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.

Editorial Reviews

"Brkic digs for sometimes distant, sometimes recent history, putting her findings into beautiful and poetic language that conjures up lively imagery." -San Francisco Chronicle"Written with lyrical precision." -Richard Eder, The New York Times"Brkic is a talented writer...[and] her talent with the language of fiction brings on a nonfiction narrative with true softness....Exquisite." -Peter Maass, Los Angeles Times Book Review"Brkic tells [her story] sensitively, sparely and with quiet passion." -Jonathan Yardley, The Washington Post Book World