A human face for the Bosnian war

THE war in Bosnia is about everyday people: their struggles, their losses, their search for peace. Brian Hall, in ``The Impossible Country: A Journey Through the last days of Yugoslavia,'' humanizes the story we see played out daily of the complicated situation in Bosnia-Herzegovina and introduces the people from the region as ordinary folks, not stereotypes.

Hall, a novelist and travel writer, takes his readers on a guided tour through the last days of Yugoslavia - when it was on the brink of breaking up and its people began listening to the would-be leaders' propaganda.

In addition to leaders such as Serbia's Slobodan Milosevic and Bosnia's Alija Izetbegovic, Hall introduces many ordinary people he meets on his extensive rail and bus travels throughout the Yugoslav republics in 1991 and his previous trips there. He set out to ``concentrate ... on the individuals I met - how they behaved in what was left of their normal lives.... I wanted to present them as whole, irreducible, even while they turned each other into caricatures, monsters.'' And he aptly accomplishes this.

Readers become acquainted with his friends in Zagreb, Sarajevo, and Belgrade. Hall deftly shows the breakup of society through their views. Once able to celebrate their multiculturalism, they resort to discussing ethnic differences. Benjamin, Miroslav, and Branko, for example, resided in Sarajevo in 1990. Benjamin is a Muslim, Miroslav a Croat, and Branko a Serb. Hall writes that the trio all had grown up in Sarajevo and ``could talk about anything to each other,'' according to Benjamin. But when he returned in 1991, Branko had left the group, while the other two dwell on their differences.

Hall gently weaves in the history and culture of the area during his travels - a tour of a Turkish-style home in Mostar, cherry picking with a Muslim friend in a tiny village nearby. He writes in an easy-to-read style. It's explanatory and poetic, while not too flowery. He describes the famous bridge at Mostar that was destroyed by Croat shelling: ``It had the delicacy and simplicity of many Turkish bridges, plus the drama.... It had stood for centuries, surviving several earthquakes that devastated the town, and yet it seemed as light as origami.''

He visits the pits near Prebilovci where once a village of 1,000 people thrived. It no longer exists. Its Serb inhabitants were slaughtered and tossed into the pit by the Croat fascist Ustashe in 1941. In 1961, the government raised a memorial at the site and sealed the pit with cement.

Hall does not attempt to lay blame or pose solutions. He keeps his opinion almost entirely out of the narrative. With the failure of so many international peace plans, one can understand why. Still, with his experience, knowledge, and familiarity with the people in the region, it would have been nice to hear his views.

Hall concludes his book with an anecdote about a neighbor in Ithaca, N. Y. The neighbor is a Serb; his wife is a Slovene. He thinks the division of Bosnia along ethnic lines is a big mistake, but says if they must divide it, they should divide it into four parts: for Serbs, Croats, Muslims - and a fourth for those who would still like to live together.

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