The following is from Sara Nović's debut novel, Girl at War. Nović was born in 1987 and has lived in the US and Croatia. She is a graduate of the MFA program at Columbia University, where she studied fiction and translation. She is the fiction editor at Blunderbuss Magazine and teaches writing at the Fashion Institute of Technology and Columbia University.
In the summer of 1991 ten-year-old Ana is a carefree tomboy living with her family in a small apartment in Zagreb, the Croatian capital. When Croatia declares independence from Yugoslavia, Ana’s world is on the brink of a radical and violent collapse, but she doesn’t know it at first. In part due to the complexity of battle in a modern urban landscape, the war starts off slowly for the people of Zagreb, coming in fits and starts, and waged by the most unlikely players. While distinctive ethnic factors were actively repressed in the Socialist Republic of Yugoslavia, its dissolution gives rise to tensions between friends and neighbors who had lived alongside one another for years, leaving Ana, her best friend Luka, and their schoolmates desperate to parse out whose side is whose, and why. –Sara Nović
“Which color are we again?” I stood behind my father, resting my chin on his shoulder as he read the newspaper, and pointed to a map of Croatia splashed with red and blue dots indicating the opposing armies. He’d already told me once but I couldn’t keep it straight.
“Blue,” my father said. “The Croatian National Guard. The police.”
“And the red ones?”
“Jugoslavenska Narodna Armija. The JNA.”
I didn’t understand why the Yugoslav National Army would want to attack Croatia, which was full of Yugoslavian people, but when I asked my father he just sighed and closed the paper. In the process I glimpsed the front page, a photo of men waving chain saws and skull-emblazoned flags. They had felled a tree across a road, blocking passage in both directions; the headline tree trunk revolution! ran across the bottom of the page in fat black type.
“Who are they?” I asked my father. The men were bearded and wearing mismatched uniforms. In all the military parades, I had never seen JNA soldiers carrying pirate flags.
“Četniks,” he said, folding the paper and tucking it on a shelf above the television, out of my reach.
“What are they doing with the trees? And why do they have beards if they’re in the army?”
I knew the beards were important because I’d noticed all the shaving. Across the city, men with more than two days’ stubble were eyed suspiciously by their clean-shaven counterparts. The week before, my best friend Luka’s father had shaved off the beard he’d worn since before Luka and I were born. Unable to part with it completely, he’d left his mustache, but the effect was mostly comical; the bushy whiskers atop his upper lip were a specter of the face we’d known, and left him looking perpetually forlorn.
“They’re Orthodox. In their church men grow beards when they’re in mourning.”
“What are they sad about?”
“They’re waiting for the Serb king to be returned to his throne.”
“We don’t even have a king.”
“That’s enough, Ana,” my father said to me.
I wanted to know more—what a beard had to do with being sad, why the Serbs had both the JNA and the Četniks on their side and we only had the old police force, but my mother set a knife and a bowl of unpeeled potatoes in front of me before I could bring it up.
Amid the disorder, Luka analyzed. It had always been his habit to ask me questions I couldn’t answer, hypotheticals that supplied our bike rides with endless conversation. We used to speak mostly of outer space, how it was possible that a star was already dead by the time we saw it shooting, why airplanes and birds stayed up and we stayed down, and whether or not, on the moon, you’d have to drink everything from a straw. But now his investigative attentions had turned exclusively to the war—what did Milošević mean when he said the country needed to be cleansed, and how was a war supposed to help when the explosions were making such a big mess? Why did the water keep running out if the pipes were underground, and if the bombings were breaking the pipes, were we any safer in the shelters than in our houses?
I’d always loved Luka’s inquiries, and that he trusted my opinion. With other friends, the boys at school, he usually just kept quiet. And given the grown-ups’ penchant for evading my questions, it was a relief to have someone who’d talk about it all. But the moon was far away, and now that he was dissecting issues so close to home I found my head aching with the idea that all the familiar faces and parts of the city were pieces of a puzzle I couldn’t fit together.
“What if we die in an air raid?” he said one afternoon.
“Well they haven’t actually blown any buildings up yet,” I reasoned.
“But what if they do, and one of us dies?”
Somehow, the prospect of just him dying was a scarier place than I’d allowed my imagination to go thus far. I felt sweaty and nervous, unzipped my jacket. I was so rarely angry with him I almost didn’t recognize the feeling.
“You’re not going to die,” I said. “So you can just forget about it.” I took a sharp turn and left him there alone in the Trg, where the refugees were untangling their belongings and getting ready to make their next move.
We entered an era of false alarms. Air raid warnings and pre–air raid warnings. Whenever police reconnaissance spotted Serb planes approaching the city, a strip of alert text ribboned its way across the top of the television screen. No siren sounded, no one ran to the shelters, but those who’d seen the warning would poke their heads out into the hallway and begin the Call: “Zamračenje, zamračenje!” It drifted down the stairwells, across clotheslines to neighboring buildings, through the streets, the air humming with the foreboding murmur—“darken it.”
We pulled the blinds over our taped-up panes, secured strips of black cloth atop the shades. Sitting on the floor in the dark I wasn’t afraid; the feeling was more like expectation during a particularly intense round of hide-and-seek.
“Something’s wrong with her,” my mother said, one night when we were squatting beneath the windowsill. My baby sister Rahela cried, was still crying, it seemed, from a spell she’d begun a few days earlier.
“Maybe she’s afraid of the dark,” I said, though I knew that wasn’t it.
“I’m taking her to the doctor.”
“She’s fine,” my father said in a way that ended the discussion.
A Serbian man who lived in our building refused to pull down his shades. He turned on all the lights in his flat and, through the most impressive of boom boxes, blasted cassettes of garish orchestral music that had been popular during the height of communism. At night, families took turns begging him to turn out his lights. They asked him to have a heart and help them protect their children. When that didn’t work they appealed to logic, reasoning that if the apartment building was bombed, he would surely die in the explosion as well. He seemed willing to make the sacrifice.
On weekends when he was in the car park working on his broken Jugo, we lurked around the lot and stole his tools when he wasn’t looking. Some mornings before school we’d gather in the hallway outside his flat. We’d buzz his doorbell again and again, and run when we heard him pad toward the door.
The refugee kids showed up at school a few weeks after their arrival in the city. With no record of their academic skills, the teachers tried to divide them among the classes as evenly as possible. Our class got two boys who looked close enough to our age to blend in. They were from Vukovar and spoke with funny accents.
Vukovar was a small city a few hours away and had never meant much to me during peacetime, but now it was always in the news. In Vukovar people were disappearing. People were being forced at gunpoint to march east; people were becoming hemic vapor amid the nighttime explosions. The boys had walked all the way to Zagreb and they didn’t like to talk about it. Even after they settled in they were always a little dirtier, the circles beneath their eyes a little darker than ours, and we treated them with a distant curiosity.
They were living in a warehouse we’d referred to before as Sahara because of its desertedness; it was where the older kids used to go to talk and smoke and kiss in the dark. Rumors swelled: people were sleeping on the floor and there was only one bathroom, or maybe not even any bathroom, and definitely no toilet paper. Luka and I tried to sneak in a few times, but a soldier was checking refugees’ documents at the door.
Soon they were checking IDs at the front of my apartment building, too. Families in the building alternated sending an adult down in five-hour shifts to guard the door, an attempt to prevent some Četnik from coming in and blowing himself up. One night there was an argument; the men outside were yelling so loudly we could hear it through the window. The guard didn’t want to let the Serbian man back in.
“You’re an animal! You’re trying to get our children killed!” the doorman screamed.
“I’m doing nothing of the sort.”
“Then turn your fucking lights out during the blackout!”
“I’ll turn your lights out, you filthy Muslim!” said the Serb, followed by more shouting and grunting.
My father opened our window and stuck his head out. “You’re both animals!” he said. “We’re trying to get some sleep up here!”
“Will you have to go to the army someday?” I asked my father.
“I’m not a policeman,” he said.
“Stjepan’s dad isn’t either, and he had to go.”
My father sighed and rubbed his forehead. “Let’s get you back in bed.” He scooped me up with a deft swing of his arm and plopped me on the couch.
“The truth is, I’m embarrassed. But I’m not allowed to be in the army. Because of my eye.”
My father had a crooked eye and couldn’t tell near from far. Even when driving he’d sometimes close the bad eye and squint the other, guessing his distance from cars and hoping for the best. He’d learned to make do this way, and liked to brag that he’d never had an accident. But the police-turned-army were harder to convince that hoping for the best was an effective methodology, particularly when grenades were involved.
“At least for now. Maybe, if forces are down, I could be a radio operator or a mechanic. Not a real soldier, though.”
“That’s not embarrassing,” I said. “You can’t help it.”
“But it’d be better if I could protect the country, no?”
“I’m glad you can’t go.”
My father bent to kiss my forehead. “Well, I would miss you, I suppose.” The lights flickered, then went out. “All right, all right, she’s going to bed!” he said to the ceiling, and I giggled. He went into the kitchen and I heard him bumping around in search of matches.
“In the top drawer by the sink,” I called. I switched off the lamp in case the electricity came back in the middle of the night, and willed myself to sleep amid the sudden silence of our flat.
As a side effect of modern warfare, we had the peculiar privilege of watching the destruction of our country on television. There were only two channels, and with tank and trench battles happening across the eastern counties and JNA ground troops within a hundred kilometers of Zagreb, both were devoted to public service announcements, news reports, or political satire, a burgeoning genre now that the secret police were no longer a concern. The anxiety that arose from being away from the television, the radio, our friends’ latest updates, from not knowing, panged our stomachs like a physical hunger. The news became the backdrop to all our meals, so much so that televisions lingered in the kitchens of Croatian households long after the war was over.
My mother taught English at the technical high school, and she and I arrived home from our respective schools around the same time. I dirt-streaked and she fatigue-stricken and carrying Rahela, who spent the school days with the old woman across the hall. We’d turn on the news and my mother would hand Rahela off to me while she wielded her wooden spoon to create another meal from water and carrots and chunks of chicken carcass. I’d sit at the kitchen table with Rahela on my lap and tell them both what I’d learned that day. My parents were strict about school—my mother because she had been to college and my father because he hadn’t—and my mother would interject questions about my times tables or spelling words, little quizzes after which she sometimes rewarded me with a bit of sweet bread she hid in the cabinet under the sink.
One afternoon an extra-large block of special report text caught my attention and I let my account of the day’s lessons trail off and turned up the television. The reporter, pressing on her earpiece, announced there was breaking news, uncut footage from the southern front in Šibenik. My mother darted away from the stove and stood behind me to watch:
An unsteady cameraman jumped a ledge to get a better view as a Serbian plane spiraled toward the sea, its engine on fire and blending with the late September sunset. Then to the right, a second plane ignited in midair. The cameraman spun around to reveal a Croatian antiaircraft soldier pointing incredulously at his handiwork saying, “Oba dva! Oba su pala!” Both of them! They both fell!
The oba su pala footage played on both television channels for the remainder of the day, and continuously throughout the war. “Oba su pala” became a rallying cry, and whenever it appeared on TV, or when someone yelled it on the street or through the walls at the Serb upstairs, we were reminded that we were outnumbered, outweaponed, and we were winning.
That first time we saw it, my mother and I together, she patted my shoulder because these men were protecting Croatia and the fighting didn’t look too dangerous. She smiled and the soup steamed, and even Rahela wasn’t crying for once, and I allowed myself to slide into the fantasy I recognized as such even while my mind was still spinning it—that there in the flat, with my family, I was safe.
From GIRL AT WAR. Reprinted by arrangement with The Wylie Agency, to be published by Random House. Copyright © 2015 by Sara Nović.