At the launch reading for ‘Beetle’ at Keat’s House in London late last year, someone asked me why I’d written a collection of poetry, mostly about war, mostly set in Bosnia. Why choose Bosnia? Why now?
To answer, I went back to a cold sunny morning in early Spring in 2006, and to a dusty mining town called Prijedor, in northern Republika Srpska, Bosnia, about half an hour from the Croatian border. I stepped out of my car into a cold north wind, in front of a high wire fence surrounding a compound of unremarkable single rise buildings. At the far end of the compound, set slightly apart from the others, was a white wooden shed. On 5 August 1992, Guardian reporter Ed Vulliamy saw the same sight, when he and colleague drove up to the Omarska concentration camp. The following day the world saw it too. The shed – an unremarkable tool shed by all accounts – served as the torture chamber for the camp. It was the sight of unspeakable atrocities by the Bosnian Serb guards against their Bosnian Muslim prisoners, many of whom came from villages minutes away. And there it still was, years later. The same white wooden shed.
I met a lot of people with different stories about what happened during the war. In my two years in Republika Srpska, I met some wonderful people, and some people who almost certainly had blood on their hands. All had stories to tell. Some were personal histories. Some were hearsay. Some were outright lies. Many were steeped in national myth, or past slights, or past atrocities serving as justification. Others came from a place of regret, of sorrow. A few – surprisingly few – were steeped in shame.
But none of them explained fully how that white shed came to be. My time in Bosnia affected me deeply. It made me realise how fragile civilisation is. Whether in Bosnia, Afghanistan, or the Canadian wilderness a matter of minutes away from where I currently live.
I wanted to explore that fragility. How some decide to kill, and others to save life. How some, like Hasan in the book, do both. How friendships are made and broken. How the power of imagination can be used for good or ill. Everything to do with the war in Bosnia is inevitably political, and I didn’t want to get entangled in that, so I made the friends from a variety of ethnic backgrounds. Writing it in poetry helped give history, myth and imagination – literally – voices of their own, to help me make sense of the journey of each of the characters.
And the white shed at Omarska? Nothing can ever excuse or justify it. But answers as to why are to be found, I think, in the interplay of personal history, moral choice, circumstance and national myth. We are all our histories, but nowhere more so than in the Balkans. And this matters, because Bosnia & Herzegovina, to give it its full name, was – on the surface – one of Europe’s most successfully multi-cultural polities. In that sense, we should all care to understand Bosnia, even twenty years after the war. Because we are all, in some sense, Bosnian.