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Surviving Peace, by Olivia Simic.

July 16, 2014

Surviving Peace: A Political Memoir, by Olivera Simic.  Spinifex Press (2014), Paperback, 188 pages.

AUSTRALIAN WOMEN WRITERS

A powerful account by a woman from the former Yugoslavia of the long-term impact of the Bosnian War of the 1990s on her personally and on her people.

In telling her own story and the stories of others about the Bosnian War, Olivera Simic advocates for peace. She believes that war can never be an effective response to violence. Not only are human beings killed and maimed during the war itself, but the social and personal destruction continues after the fighting stops. “Surviving the peace” can be as difficult as war itself, as she shows us in this book.  Calling her book a “political memoir,” Simic is not writing about politics but raising issues about the impact of the public, political actions such as wars have on private lives.

Simic grew up in Banja Luka, a large town in Yugoslavia, governed by the Communist leader, Tito. Whatever problems people had under Communism, the country was peaceful, health care and education were available, and ethnic identities were absorbed in communal national identity. Until after Tito died in 1980, she was not aware that she was Serbian or that her close friends belonged to other groups. When war broke out in 1992, she was nineteen. Then ethnicity became a matter of life and death; friends left to avoid the ethnic cleansing. Simic attended law school in Serbia and endured the NATO bombings there. Although she did not identify with the Serbian cause, her name defined her as a Serb. After the war ended in 1999, she studied in London and Costa Rica, but she was unable to find work when she returned to her home country. Now teaching in law school in Australia and working to advocate for human rights, she has written this book as an exploration of what happens to victims and survivors of war. Hers is not a chronological narrative, but a mix of her personal story with more general analysis of what war destroys.

The signing of the peace treaty ending the war in Bosnia left the region divided and suffering. The war tore apart multi-ethnic communities of people and forced them to accept new identities based only on their ethnicity. As Simic makes clear, such division is simplistic and destructive. To divide a region that has been one nation into states defined by ethnicity sharpens the hatred among them. Ethnicity is only one aspect of who a person is. We need to see each other as multi-faceted and to understand the universal humanity that runs through us all.  Qurratulain Hyder tells the same story in her fine novel, My Temples, Too, about the Partition of India and Pakistan.

Simic challenges the claim that Yugoslavia and the Balkans have been involved in constant warfare as a myth devised by the international community. While the region has experienced a series of wars, at a daily level, ordinary people from the different ethnic groups had learned to live with each other, marrying and being friends. One of the most insightful sections of the book was about how languages of the various ethnicities had blended in Yugoslavia into an inclusive Serbo-Croatian speech. After the country was divided, each has sought to “purify” its language of words that originated with other ethnicities.

Another issue that Simic discusses is the way in which each ethnic group has its own version of truth about what has happened in the region. Her father seldom sees or hears anyone but other Serbians. In his isolation, he is convinced that only the Serbs have suffered and he denies major historical facts such as the Serbian massacre of Bosnians at Srebrennica. All her family disapprove of Simic’s professional interests in such complex questions as why the Serbians committed atrocities allegedly in defense of women like herself. Facing the shared reality of what happened is, for Simic, an essential part of healing from the war. We cannot escape the past by denying its reality.

While Simic now lives in Australia, she returns to the former Yugoslavia on yearly visits to her parents and friends. She reports on the desperate conditions that now exist there. The economy is in dire straits and about half the population is unemployed. Even her friends who trained as professionals are grateful for temporary, low paying work. Hopelessness is wide-spread. People who remained are often full of anger. Those like herself who left and lived as exiles had no sense of belonging anywhere.

For me, the most moving parts of Simic’s book are those which focus on her own post-traumatic stress syndrome. Although her symptoms were classic, she struggled to ignore them; it was difficult to even admit that she had suffered from her experience in the war zone. She believed that PTSD was only for combatants and discounted her own pain as minor. Finally she broke down and began the process of learning to deal with the intrusions of the past into her present life. Dealing with PTSD is an ongoing process in her life, as it is in lives of many survivors of tragic situations. Only within the context of her PTSD is she able to write about the 78 days and nights of NATO bombing of her city.

I was impressed with Simic, and although I have not lived through the same trauma of war in my country, I agree with her assessment of its over-looked costs. We need people like her to make us face what we would like to forget. I also appreciated her insistence on blending the “objectivity” of academia with her own emotional response to what happened. She is not primarily concerned with the battlefield, but with the women whose lives war interrupted. As she points out, war, like so much else in life affects people differently depending on our gender.

Living in a country that fights only in other people’s lands, I had never read about war invading women’s lives until I started to read more globally. I am grateful for the authors who have expanded my understanding. See below.  Yvonne at Stumblingpast has just posted a wonderful piece about “War and Gender” that expands some of the points that Simic makes. Check it out.

While this is an important book that should be widely read, it has flaws. In her generalizations about the impact of war, Simic is sometimes unclear and repetitive. I wished she had included more about her own research, especially about what can be done to mitigate the social and personal problems. The listing of her other publications in the bibliography indicates that she has considered such issues. Adding her findings about what can be done would have strengthened the book and made it less grim.

I have only presented a sampling of Simic’s observations and experiences. You need to read it to gain her full picture. I strongly recommend you do.

Thanks to Spinifex Press for sending me a copy of Surviving the Peace to review.

 

Here are a few books that have also taught me about women living in war zone.  See my reviews.

My Temples, Too, by Qurratulain Hyder.

Half of a Yellow Sun, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

A Golden Age: A Novel, by Tahmima Anam.

Memory of Love, by Aminatta Forma.

 

One Comment leave one →
  1. July 16, 2014 5:07 pm

    I wish I had time to read this book. It is insights like these that help us gain more understanding of the plight of those who participated in WWI. The psychological ploys that the combatants used to survive what must have been an existential crisis that they faced is something that I have to be mindful of while reading their diaries.

    When I did nationalism as a university history subject we had a lecture about the Balkan issue and how it emerged. Of course such a complex issue needs a whole book, not just one lecture. However, I remember now, several years later, that it was evident through this lecture that the people living in the Balkan people were one people with a complex history of changing borders, overlords etc. In one sense there is too much history. They are trapped by it.

    Thank you for this review Marilyn, and thanks for the mention. This is a rivetting topic and as you point out, very relevant today.

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