When Francois Voltaire stated, “every person is guilty of all the good he didn’t do”, he did not have someone like Trysta Montgomery (Australian humanitarian aid worker) in mind. Although a fictional character in Mishka Gora’s debut novel “Fragments of War” Trysta, who to my mind represents the multitude of humanitarian aid workers in war zones across the world, epitomises concern for and selfless dedication to the wellbeing of innocent victims and imminent innocent victims caught amidst brutal wars that weave deeply ethnic cleansing into their combat strategy.
Mishka Gora’s pungent novel, most aptly titled “Fragments of War” (ISBN 1 4791 1141 4), launched on 7 September 2012, is mainly set in Croatia (although delivering fragments of gut-wrenching brutality in Bosnia as well) during the 1990’s war of Serb-led Yugoslav Peoples’ Army and rebel Serb aggression against Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. Although the characters in this novel are fictitious their stories, their experiences, their encounters, their heartbreaks and frequent sighs of helplessness in the face of human brutality and misery reflect the true and intense realities of that war.
Mishka Gora’s abundant use of dialogue achieves verisimilitude, real life-likeness. Her own personal experiences in the active role as an Australian humanitarian aid worker in Croatia during the war within which the marrow of “Fragments of War” is drawn undoubtedly contributed, with stark reality and untainted truth, to the body of text cemented on the book’s pages. Being a historian and academic she possesses the essential professional story telling skill which arouses the senses to feel and see the reality that once was, no matter how unforgiving or unforgivable that reality might have been.
Using this mise en scène as the spine of her plot, Mishka Gora has through moments and occasions, through fragments of Trysta’s otherwise continuous humanitarian aid work during the time encapsulated by the plot, constructed an amazingly rich, emotionally detailed portrait of human nature that addresses several perennial themes — truth telling, altruism, camaraderie, compassion but also ethnically charged brutality— while reaching outward to show snippets of a horrendous and merciless existence that befell the innocent and exploring the relationship between time past and time present; the burden of history that breathed with political misconstruction weighing down as likely culprits for ethnic conflicts that jump at us as seemingly endemic ethnic hatreds, when the truth lies elsewhere.
At the launch of her novel Mishka Gora said: “For me, writing Fragments of War was an act of truth telling, dictated by my conscience and motivated by an almost desperate need to ensure my children do not grow up surrounded by lies. My articles about the Gotovina et al. case at the ICTY have been my humble effort to expose the deplorable injustice being carried out against Croatia and its generals, but it became clear to me that there were pieces missing, that this wasn’t something to be comprehended in isolation”.
Mishka Gora at the launch of her novel radiated her hopes that her book will enable the readers to make sense of the conflict in the former Yugoslavia not only in terms of what really happened but also with regard to the human experience of war.
“Fragments of War” achieves this not only through its written story telling and flashbacks into World War II and more recent history through a number of inserted vignettes but also by Mishka Gora’s skilful writing that compels and jolts the reader’s mind into imagining vivid details of the horror that Serb aggression against Croatia was before August 1995 – before Operation Storm that liberated Serb-occupied Croatian territory. Hence, “Fragments of War” not only tells the story of the goodness practiced by and perilous dangers faced by humanitarian aid workers in a war zone but it also creates the platform for the reader to vivify in his or her mind the sharp awareness, factual details of the conflict where the Serbs engaged in profound brutality against non-Serbs in order to usurp land that rightfully was the land within the sovereign state of Croatia.
The importance of the overarching brutality that occurred before the Operation Storm in 1995, which pushed the Croatian people into the self-preservation mode (using Operation Storm as liberating tool) cannot be underestimated nor left untold. Mishka Gora has recognised this crucial aspect of human right to self-preservation and presented with her book a multitude of fragments that amount to a genuine historical and factual accounts of terror that preceded Croatia’s absolute need to defend itself, even though the book is classified as literary fiction. This righteous motive to tell the truth even via fictional characters and narration is well defined in Mishka Gora’s own words at the launch of her book: “As a historian, I recognised that there were fundamental misunderstandings about the 1990s war in Croatia and Bosnia (and the history of the entire region). I also realised that, as an independent eyewitness with no connections to the former Yugoslavia, I was in a unique position to share my firsthand experiences and put them in a historical context”.
On its most fundamental level “Fragments of War” recounts Trysta’s (humanitarian aid workers’) daily tasks and heartbreaking encounters within refugee camps in Croatia (Dalmatia and Vukovar) that bore the material and emotional support of both Croatian and Bosnian Muslim refugees and displaced persons, running in their hundreds of thousands but also the crime sprees of Serb rebel and Yugoslav People’s Army that included armed looting of humanitarian aid convoys intended for refugees, rape camps and murderous pursuits where human lives and freedom held no value to the aggressor.
Within the pages of “Fragments of War” the reader sees that the humanitarian aid workers were there to pick up the pieces and salvage as much of human resemblance of victims as possible in the aftermath of Serb crime sprees. The humanitarian aid workers were there to capture and soothe the painful fallout from victims’ minds and hearts. The humanitarian aid workers were there to face head-on the uncontrollable but beyond foreigner’s understanding the sheer hatred that poured into killing fields because of ethnicity:
“The piles of amputated limbs and…and…blood-soaked bandages were … they were … over six feet high,” he stammered looking up. “There were these gigantic mounds of limbs out the back of the hospital”, he went off in a far-off tone, his eyes glazed as if the blood-soaked mounds were in front of him. “And there was blood everywhere. It was like something out of the War of Secession. I was a nineteenth-century surgeon for a day. All the procedures I’d learnt in college were meaningless. I felt more like a butcher than a doctor.” (page 83)
“I was beginning to feel giddy and jittery. I did not however complain. Even the thought of asking when our next meal might be seemed obscene in the context of mass graves, concentration camps, and starving refugees…” (page 159)
“I’m a Serb, Karin. My people did this. They massacred women and children, and they took pleasure in it. I am ashamed to be a Serb and you should be ashamed to even know me.
But you fought on the Croatian side, didn’t you?!
Yes many of us did – perhaps even one hundred chose to fight – and thousands more women and children stayed through the bombardment in solidarity with us… Oh, there were plenty of Serbs who happened to live there, but they weren’t real Vukovarans. A real Vukovaran couldn’t have allowed that to happen to his home, even if he did believe in Yugoslavia. You can’t destroy Vukovar and not destroy Yugoslavia, that’s what they don’t get. They’ve destroyed what they said they’re fighting for.” (page172)
“Thank-you,” Samir replied with a polite bow of his head. And I hope the darkness here does not follow you.
Tears welled in my eyes. It was a struggle to stand. I could not break eye contact with him. It was as if he were looking inside my soul and giving me the strength to walk out of there. But I didn’t want to leave. I didn’t want to leave Samir or anyone else behind.
Go, he said closing his eyes. Tell your countrymen what we have been reduced to. Warn them that it can happen anywhere.” (page 303)
Friedrich Nietzsche once said “there is nothing more necessary than truth, and in comparison with it everything else has only secondary value. This absolute will to truth: what is it? Is it the will to not allow ourselves to be deceived? Is it the will not to deceive? One does not want to be deceived, under the supposition that it is injurious, dangerous, or fatal to be deceived”.
Indeed, “Fragments of War” not only serves as testament of truth but also the will not to allow the world to be deceived due to lack of accounts of the truth, due to lack of care for the truth – for there cannot be versions of truth when it comes to crimes. There is only one truth and any version of it that strays from absolute fact is not the truth, it’s more likely than not an excuse to justify the unjustifiable.
Mishka Gora’s book is a significant contribution to truth and it’s poised to touch hearts deeply and to stir minds into a better world where facing the truth may pave the way for redemption and forgiveness to even the cruelest ethnically wired warmongers.
The psychological nuances that may prevent realisation of truth can perhaps be found on page 316 of “Fragments of War”:
“They are monsters, but not through and through. It’s just not that black and white. Everyone back home seems to think that genocidal maniacs and murderers and rapists will actually appear evil … and that’s how they get away with it. We’ve seen the pictures of Vukovar and the concentration camps and the refugees, and we know these terrible things have happened, but we can’t differentiate between a Serb, a Croat, and a Muslim.
But you know the difference, Radenko murmured, kissing my forehead tenderly. You can tell them the truth.
I’m not sure they will want to know the truth, I whispered back, trying not to cry. I think they would rather believe the lies”.
It is hereto most fitting that Mishka Gora launched “Fragments of War” on the feast day of Blessed Cardinal Aloysius Stepinac who is often vilified as a Nazi collaborator, despite indisputable evidence to the contrary.
Ina Vukic, Prof. (Zgb); B.A., M.A.Ps. (Syd)/ 9 September 2012