Unsettled views of the former Yugoslavia

20th October 1995 at 01:00
Children of Atlantis: Voices from the former Yugoslavia, Edited by Zdenko Lesic, Oxford University Press #163;7.99 - 1 85866 041 6.

Atlantis, according to legend, was a very rich land,with an advanced population living in a perfect environment. But Atlantis disappeared in a sudden earthquake and its culture was lost forever. Yugoslavia was never such a country and its children were not "Children of Atlantis". The disappearance of Yugoslavia was slow and deliberate and is still very painful.

To give such a title to this book, or any book about Yugoslav children is horribly misleading. To a person who merely feels sympathy it might present a wrong picture. The book is made up of essays by the so-called "Children of Atlantis", who are in fact students. This does not do justice to the many different destinies experienced by inhabitants of the former Yugoslavia, especially Bosnia.

Open Society, by recognising the problem of refugees seeking further education, gave them an opportunity to receive a scholarship. To apply for a grant, students had to write an essay stimulated by two questions: what were the circumstances of their departure? And what were the chances of return? Immediately, students recognised that they were more likely to get the grant if they were apolitical and non-judgmental. You only have to look at the news to realise that to be apolitical and non-judgemental in the Bosnian conflict is very difficult, especially for the young. But it seemed to be what the sponsors were looking for and it must have been difficult to put forward a true view when the scholarship was on the line. The result contains an element of truth, but there are also lies and false hopes.

The selection of people is not representative. The essays are mostly from middle or upper class people from larger towns. It seems almost insolent to try to present a collective picture of feelings by means of these essays. If the book included contributions from a wider circle, from people with harsher experience and from a wider range of backgrounds, perhaps it would not only be closer to the truth, but more interesting.

In the introduction, the editor makes a reference to the "sudden loss of country". In fact, many people do not feel that a country was lost. Bosnia and Croatia are independent states, recognised by the European Union and Yugonostalgia is very rare. People feel bitterness over the war, not the break up, which started long ago.

Not to be too harsh on the book, it does have some touching pieces of work, which could easily make a reader sympathise. Most of the writers have lost their homes, many fear they will never see their parents again, some of them know they never will.

"My father was killed," says one student, "I have to use an artificial arm," says another. Even if some of the details are distorted, the fact remains; young people had to leave the life they knew and loved due to a destructive war.

I find quite amusing the editor's attempt to conceal the religious affiliations of the students. Names are not given, only initials, but more than once I came across a student clearly stating his or her religion. "Suddenly we lost our Serb friends because being Muslim we were regarded as their enemies. "

The book demonstrates that to publish something involving children of war cannot be done carelessly; it requires thought. And this book will not necessarily provide a better understanding of the Bosnian conflict.

After a while it becomes quite tedious. As one student says: "All our stories will be alike". My story would be similar too. I am now 16 and after three years in an English school have just completed my GCSEs. This was not what I thought would happen three years ago. I did not expect the war. However, I understand more now, and am no longer apolitical.

Belma Obraliya left former Yugoslavia three years ago. She gained four As in GCSEs this year, including English.

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