Olivera Simić, Surviving peace: A political memoir (Review)
I hadn’t heard of Olivera Simić when Spinifex Press offered me her book, Surviving peace: a political memoir, to review, but her subject matter – the Bosnian war, to put it broadly – was of particular interest to me, so I said yes. You see, I worked for several years with a woman who, like Simić, was also “survivor” of that war, and while she’d talked a little about it, I was hoping this book would fill in some of the gaps. It sure did – and then some.
Simić was born in the former Yugoslavia, and lived through the Yugoslav Wars (1991-1999). She was nineteen years old and living in Banja Luka in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) when the Bosnian War (1992-1995) broke out. To keep her safe, her parents sent her to friends in Serbia for the duration of the war. She was living in Serbia* in 1999 when NATO bombed it – Operation Merciful Angel** (really!) – as part of the Kosovo War (1998-1999). These aren’t her only traumatic experiences, but I won’t give her whole biography here.
According to her Spinifex author page, Simić is now “a feminist, human rights activist and academic at the Griffith Law School, Australia”. She teaches international law and transitional justice, suggesting that her personal experience of war and peace is underpinned by thorough academic grounding. The book has an extensive bibliography, which not only substantiates her arguments, but provides an excellent resource, both fiction and non-fiction works, for further reading on the subject.
So, how does an academic, working in an area in which she has been personally involved, write and teach about it? Surviving peace is described as a memoir so, as she says in her Preface, “the personal ‘insider’ perspective assumes the lead” in this book, but she also wants to increase understanding of war trauma and its impact on people’s lives. She’s a feminist, and brings a feminist sensibility to her academic work, one which accepts that personal experiences provide legitimate evidence in research. She believes, as I do, that there is no such thing as “objective knowledge”. Consequently, this “memoir” can also work as a scholarly study of the consequences of war, of the challenge of living post-conflict, of, as she describes it, surviving peace.
One of the features that makes this book more than “just” a memoir, is that it’s not told in a simple linear chronology. She does start with the beginning of the war in 1992, and end pretty much with the present, but in between she structures the book more thematically, so I’ll do that too, roughly aligned with her themes.
Where are you from?
In Chapter One Simić describes how within a decade of Tito’s death, Yugoslavia had changed from a place of “collective identity” in which ethnicity was not an issue to being an ethnically divided society that descended into war and genocide. She now “identifies”, reluctantly, as a Serb (Bosnian Serb/Orthodox Christian), formally separated from her old compatriots, Bosniaks (Muslims) and Croats (Roman Catholics). “The war”, she says,”erased my country, my language, my youth”. Her discussion of how language has played out in this breakdown of society is fascinating – but her description of the impact of having an identity “forcibly attached” to her, is painful:
The ethnic identity that I have been reduced to in peacetime has become a chain around my neck that threatens to choke me. It determines everything I do, say and write … Every time someone starts to enquire about my ‘ethnic identity’ I find myself walking a minefield of people’s judgements and closed-mindedness.
Of course, she’s not the only one caught in this trap – and she supports her discussion of the issue with academic writings and the personal experiences of others. Later in the book she describes how her father changed from communist to “ultra-right nationalist”. He now mixes only with Serbs, and has “nothing to discuss” with Bosniaks and Croats, among whom he’d had close friends pre-war. It’s impossible not to generalise, and draw truths, from the “stories” she tells, truths about constructing ethnicity which extend far beyond Bosnia and the Balkans.
Speaking the truth – and moral responsibility
In Chapter Two, titled “Traitor or truthseeker”, Simić discusses why she is driven to write about atrocities – particularly the Srebrenica massacre – committed in “my name” by her people. It has brought her into direct conflict with her father. “Truth” she shows is a relative thing – if we didn’t know it before. Each ethnic group has its own truths about what happened, making it “almost impossible to have respectful conversations about politics and war in today’s BiH”.
I found this section particularly interesting, because its generalities extended, for me anyhow, beyond the Bosnian War to indigenous relations in Australia. She discusses her feelings of “moral responsibility” for acts committed in her name, and argues
Of course, I cannot be held accountable for atrocities perpetrated by members of my ethnic group; that is their burden. However, I can and do feel a responsibility to demand justice and examine crimes committed by ‘my clan’.
That makes perfect sense to me. Simić quotes Hannah Arendt as saying that every government should assume “political responsibility for the deeds and misdeeds of its predecessors, and every nation, for the deeds and misdeeds of the past”. She also quotes Bernard Schlink (of The reader) who wrote that the past can “cast a long shadow over the present, infecting later generations with a sense of guilt, responsibility and self-questioning”. Oh yes! I do hope we here in Australia are finally recognising this … (Interestingly, she also raises the issue of survivors feeling they have sole ownership of their experience and that only they have the right to talk about it. This reminded me of our discussion on this blog earlier this year about whether white writers can write indigenous characters.)
Simić talks of “dirty peace”, which she defines as a time when killings have stopped but ‘war’ is still being fought. In BiH, for example, those who speak uncomfortable truths – and she gives examples – are ostracised and threatened. She talks about forgiveness (which I discussed earlier this year in another post) and argues that real peace is unlikely to be achieved until once-warring parties can sympathise with each other. Reconciliation, she says, means something more than simple co-existence.
“The answer to violence can never be more violence”
Simić is a pacifist and abhors violence. She details in the memoir her own painful experience of post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD). It is the most personal, intimate part of the book. Her PTSD primarily stemmed from her experience, as a civilian, of the NATO bombing. She is particularly bitter about NATO’s actions. She discusses it at some length, including both her personal experience, and the “facts”. She doesn’t excuse what the Serbs did in Kosovo, but argues “there must be other ways”. What those other ways might be, however, is not the subject of this book.
Her discussion of modern warfare, in fact, is chilling – and reminded me of Andrew Croome’s inspiration for his novel Midnight empire. The more remotely war is conducted, the easier it is for those conducting it to not see the real people, real lives, being affected. In this new warfare, the number of “ungrievable lives”*** multiplies.
The ramifications of war, then, are enormous, besides the loss of life and destruction that occur during the violence, besides the PTSD suffered by combatants and civilians afterwards. She writes of her own life as a refugee, of dislocation in the lives of others, of a “peace” that for many is no life at all. Some of this she conveys in Chapter Four through letters between three women, including herself, which bear direct witness to violence and its aftermath.
Incorporating truth into history
You’ve probably gathered by now that I found this a deeply engrossing book. It is unapologetically written from the point of view of a survivor. Quoting academic Elizabeth Porter, Simić believes that stories provide the basis for incorporating truth into history. I like this because for me history is more than facts and events, more than great men and their actions. It comprises the truths drawn out of – generalised from – people’s lived experiences. Nonetheless, there were times when I wondered if Simić were pushing her personal barrow a little too far, but then remembered that this is, first, a memoir.
I’m never one to say you must read a book. However, if the subject interests you, then Surviving peace would be well worth adding to your pile!
(Review copy courtesy Spinifex Press)
* I mistakenly wrote Sarajevo in my original version of this post.
** The name reported to Simic by a pilot, but this name, used briefly in Yugoslavia, was a misnomer.
*** Janet Butler’s term for whole populations “barely considered as human” by those conducting or reporting on war.