Balkan Express: Fragments from the Other Side of War by Slavenka Drakulić - review by Toby Litt

Toby Litt

Runaway Train

Balkan Express: Fragments from the Other Side of War


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Slavenka Drakulić is a Croat. ‘Two years ago, if you mentioned that you came from Croatia (which you probably wouldn’t mention anyway, because you knew it wouldn’t make sense to a foreigner) people would look at you in bewilderment repeating the unknown name with a question mark…’ Things are completely different now. ‘…whereas before, I was defined by my education, my job, my ideas, my character – and, yes, my nationality too – now I feel stripped of all that. I am nobody because I am not a person any more. I am one of 4.5 million Croats.’

Not the least of Slavenka Drakulić’s achievements in Balkan Express is to have illustrated how war – by altering the way one regards oneself and the way one is regarded by other people – totally changes one’s identity. We, in England, are not immune to this change: I would have read this book, and you this review, quite differently had Slavenka Drakulić been a Serb. (It is even doubtful whether a book giving a Serbian account of the war would, at this time, be published.)

Balkan Express takes the form of a series of articles, written between April 1991 and June 1992 at the rate of about one a month. At no point in the book does Drakulić attempt an objective history of the war. Instead, she writes anecdotally, in the first person, often in the present tense. On occasion, the effect is rather of Camus’s The Plague rewritten by Timothy Garton Ash; but, for the most part, the book succeeds, like no other, in taking us inside this abysmal war.

Drakulić’s favourite device is to introduce us to a person and let them tell us their story. We meet her mother, sick with worry that her husband’s grave will be vandalised because it is decorated with a communist star; Ivan, an eighteen-year-old soldier who has already killed a man, one of the very last people to get out of Vukovar; M, an actress who, because she gave a single performance in Belgrade, the ‘capital of the enemy state’, was forced by a vicious and totally unopposed hate-campaign to leave her homeland.

The monstrous arrogance of the Croatian President, Franjo Tudjman, is illustrated by a single incident, witnessed first-hand. Drakulić spots him drinking coffee in a posh Zagreb cafe. (Cappuccino, probably, or perhaps espresso: only barbaric un-European Serbs drink Turkish coffee.) Down the street there is a protest meeting of refugees, survivors from the devastated Vukovar. When he has finished his coffee, President Tudjman walks past them without a word.

Although Slavenka Drakulić’s last book, How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed, was widely regarded as a feminist statement, sexual politics, in this sense, hardly enter Balkan Express at all. In this war, as in most, women don’t get drafted. ‘They get killed, but they are not expected to fight … At bottom, war is a man’s game.’

Even so, Drakulić does not blame the war solely on men. Women participate. ‘Not as women, but as citizens. As citizens they contribute, support, hail, exercise orders, help and work for war – or they protest, boycott, withdraw support, lobby and work against it. This is where our responsibility lies and we cannot be excused.’

Although she prefers to avoid abstraction and generalisation, Drakulić does attempt to answer the overriding question: Why Yugoslavia? ‘For me … the answer is so simple that I’m almost ashamed of it: we traded our freedom for Italian shoes.’ In other words, Yugoslavia descended into civil war not despite being, but because it was the most liberal and Westernised of East European countries:

‘We didn’t build a political underground of people with liberal democratic values ready to take over the government; not because it was impossible, but on the contrary, because the repression was not hard enough to produce the need for it.’ Yugoslavia’s Western values have returned, terribly transformed.

As Drakulić writes in ‘A Letter to My Daughter’, addressing her child as the representative of a whole generation, ‘You no longer watch Apocalypse Now, you live it.’

Balkan Express is a book packed with terrible details, of which the President’s likely choice of coffee is only one example. By looking at this war so unflinchingly and so minutely, Slavenka Drakulić has – without uttering a single word of direct protest – made the strongest condemnation of it that could possibly be imagined.

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