By Chet Yarbrough
Girl at War – A Novel
By Sara Novic
Narrated by : Julia Whelan
Sara Novic (American author, translator,and professor of creative writing at Stockton University.)
Sara Novic writes of war in Croatia that is tentatively settled by the dismantling of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s. Yugoslavia’s splits into 6 ethnic territories–Bosnia/Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Slovenia, and Serbia.
In a personal 22-day visit to five of the six countries, a Croatian guide tells our small group of travelers that he does not offer a trip to Serbia. (Our trip was in October 2o17. The guides’ name is not given for obvious reasons.) He explains his father was killed by Serbian soldiers in the Croatian war.
A little history gives perspective to our guide’s and Novic’s story. After WWII, Yugoslavia is set up as a federation of six republics to be ruled by one leader, Josip Broz Tito.
Josip Broz Tito (Yugoslavian ruler 1953-1980, died in May of 1980.)
Though Tito is considered a dictator, under his rule the six ethnic republics experience a period of strong economic growth and relative political stability.
In having dinner with a family in Bosnia/Herzegovina, a grandmother says she misses Tito’s government. She felt life was better with Tito as leader of the six territories.
Mass grave in Croatia in 1991.
Novic’s story is of a 10-year-old girl who loses her mother and father when stopped at a Serbian check point in the early 1990s. The Serbian army gathers a group of Croatians, lines them up in a circle around a pit, and shoots them one by one.
Serbian soldiers murder every adult and child, each of which fall into their grave. The father tells his 10-year-old daughter to hold his hand and fall into the pit when he is the next to be shot. She plays dead as the Serbs complete their circle of horror. She escapes the pit before bulldozers cover the dead and dying.
Croatian Defense Force fighting in the Croatian War of Independence.
The orphaned girl runs from the scene. She finds refuge among a group of resisters. She is recruited by fellow Croatians who have gathered to fight for independence of their country.
She becomes a soldier for a short time before finding her way back to her abandoned home. With the help of her godfather’s family, she is illegally aided by a UN representative who smuggles her to America. She is adopted by an American family, goes to college, and eventually returns to Croatia.
On return to Croatia, she renews acquaintances and finds the place where she had taken refuge after her parent’s murder. The mass grave is near where she had found refuge ten years earlier.
This is not our guide’s story, but his story reinforces Novic’s picture of Serbia’s and Croatia’s conflict. Our guide explains how the United Nations helped Croatia survive the 1991-1995 war. Interestingly, the guide denigrated America’s role in the war. In his opinion, America stood on the sidelines when Serbs were perpetrating mass killings.
Novic’s story is well written. It clearly reinforces our guide’s perception of what happened in Croatia. The concerning part of the story is its analogous relationship to America’s intervention in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. What happened in the Serbia-Croatian conflict is being replayed in the Russia-Ukraine war today.
The troubling issue with all international conflicts is where the line is to be drawn between being “helpful Hannah’s” and exemplars of good and responsible behavior. Today, NATO’s Western Alliance is struggling with the line to be drawn in Ukraine.