Picks and Pans Review: The Balkan Express: Fragments from the Other Side of War

updated 08/09/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/09/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Slavenka Drakulic

This book by a Croatian journalist charts how the ethnic war in the former Yugoslavia forever changed a single life—her own. Drakulic, author of the novel Holograms of Fear and the acclaimed memoir How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed, made headlines last autumn when she reported on the systematic rape of roughly 13,000 Muslim and Croatian women by Serbian soldiers. In The Balkan Express she is a witness as the war waged by Serbian forces slowly approaches and engulfs her home town of Zagreb in the winter of 1991-92.

In 18 taut essays, Drakulic illustrates how a person who hardly gave a thought to the differences between Serbs, Muslims and Croats becomes caught up in an ethnic conflict: The author's college-age daughter flees the country after their home is shelled. Drakulic's mother, cut off from her pension money, worries about surviving food shortages.

The most powerful section, "What Ivan Said," is a simple conversation between Drakulic and a 19-year-old Croatian soldier who defended the city of Vukovar before it fell to the Serbs. He calmly describes seeing a young neighbor burn to death after a shell hit his car, cleaning up heaps of corpses after sniper attacks and watching a Serbian fighter being beaten to death by Croatian soldiers.

Drakulic ruefully concludes that in Yugoslavia—the most "open" of the former Communist nations—a complacent citizenry was unprepared for independence: "We didn't build an underground of people with liberal, democratic values...because the repression was not hard enough to produce the need for it." Those who seek a factual, chronological account of who did what to whom will not be enlightened by The Balkan Express. It is, however, a powerful reminder of the human cost of this mad conflict. (Norton, $19.95)

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