When I think back to the years 1992-1994, I was in high school and worried about boys and where I should apply to college. Being a teenager, I, like so many other teens, would melodramatically label our lives as “hellish” since we were going through that typical adolescent rebellion and complaining about too much homework. Add to that the acne and one can see what a “nightmare” it all was.
Yet upon reading Savo Heleta’s memoir, Not My Turn to Die: Memoirs of a Broken Childhood in Bosnia, one can see how silly such labels as “hellish” and “nightmare” are by comparison. Set in 1992-1994, Heleta addresses those years where he lived in a Muslim occupied part of Bosnia as a young boy. As life outside began to grow more dangerous, he and his parents, along with his younger sister, are forced into hiding. There he talks about living in isolation, without food or immediate comfort, and the attitudes needed for one desperate to survive.
The story is told in a very straightforward, matter of fact approach. The narrative moves quickly, yet the pages aren’t filled with rhapsodizing, poetic prose, but is spare in its manner, and the dialogue serves more as an exchange of information rather than the development of character quirks. Yet, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, since the book does provide readers with a first hand account of what went on during those times, and certainly for that purpose, the book succeeds.
Because those years are not that long ago, most of us have a vivid memory of what those times were like. I recall hearing about the struggles going on in Bosnia, but to me then, it was more of an abstraction, since I was too busy with my own adolescence to really take it all in. Now, after reading this, I clearly was in my own little American bubble, as we often are.
Heleta speaks about the Muslims he grew up around who suddenly began viewing him and his family as “the enemy,” in addition to a simple thing like obtaining drinking water from a well, which would turn into running from sniper fire. Even the food packages that were dropped from the sky, Heleta discusses one scene where he was told that one of the large bags had fallen onto a family and killed them—causing their blood to be mixed with the flour. Even the sounds of bombs and machine guns going off became a part of their everyday lives, and like so many Serbs, they worried instead about how they were going to get their next meal. Add to that fact that all members of the family—his parents especially, were losing weight at a rapid pace. In one scene, Heleta talks about his father developing a fever and how upon changing him, he noticed that looked like those images he’d seen from the Concentration Camps so many years before.
Yet despite these horrific events, his family does arrive at freedom—they are able to escape by swimming two miles down a river until they reach the side where the Serbs are, and just by chance, one of the men who found them just so happened to know his father’s voice. Also, Heleta is eventually able to come to the United States, and also earn his college degree, despite his early struggle with English. But most importantly, he has a resolution of peace, and shows it when he is later faced with a man who terrorized his family. Tempted to kill him, he declines, and instead just wants to move on with his life.
Many of the events described in this book are not far off from what many experienced during the major World Wars: killing, hunger, living in hiding, horrible sanitation, and humiliation just to name a few. Not My Turn to Die: Memoirs of a Broken Childhood in Bosnia is a book that you will likely read through quickly. I did so in just two sittings, and it’s a story for anyone interested in this violent time that many have overlooked. After all, what better history lesson is there then a first hand account?
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Blogcritics website.]
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