The 46-month siege of Sarajevo in Bosnia in the 1990s caused more than 10,000 deaths.
The authors of this book are Sarajevans who survived those grim years. Hana was 12 when her sister Atka, 21, placed her and sister Nadia, 14, on a refugee bus taking children and women from the embattled city. Atka stayed to look after her five youngest siblings, as their mother's humanitarian work had trapped her and another sister, Lela, outside Sarajevo.
Readers who have been horrified at fictional depictions of similar situations – for example, Helen Dunmore's The Siege, set in 1941 Leningrad – may observe that human nature has not improved much in the intervening decades. Those trapped in Sarajevo endured a hellish ordeal – relentless bombardment by shells and mortars; sniper attacks; desperate food shortages; lack of electricity and phones; rapidly diminishing wood supplies (most families burnt doors and clothes for heat); and daily deaths.
But Goodbye Sarajevo is a testament to the human spirit and the kindness of strangers. Writing alternate chapters, Hana portrays the stressful search for her family's safety in Croatia. Refugee centres are over-burdened, she has an ever-present fear of imposing on people, and meets occasional sniping prejudice, which bruises. Atka, meanwhile, works at a local radio station and finds work translating and helping foreign journalists.
The sisters' intelligence and positivity radiates through the pages while they relate experiences that would fell those twice their age: two uncles and many friends are killed; a young cousin loses a leg; another, three fingers. Their elder brother's whereabouts are unknown for months because he was conscripted into the Yugoslav army before the siege and, when the army was taken over by Serbs using it to fight Bosnians, he escaped into hiding. The UN and Nato's refusal to intervene in a meaningful way, or to lift the arms embargo so those in Sarajevo could fight back, is shameful. (One thanks common sense that the same stance was not taken on Libya.)
The authors are aware that unleavened misery makes for heavy reading, and include some light-hearted anecdotes. The ones concerning the young siblings are charming – when Atka returns to find them unusually happy, for example, as they've gobbled up next week's rations; or when one asks if Snow White's grumpy dwarves are Chetniks. Other stories, such as Atka's pedestrian (if you'll pardon the oxymoron) driving escapades, travel less well.
Details of the tensions between Hana, Nadia and Lela, or the resentment they felt at their busy or absent mother would have aided character development. Emphasis on the blondness or blue eyes of family members and of their previous affluence is unnecessary: ethnic cleansing is (and I use this red top-abused word rarely) evil, whether the victims are photogenic, wealthy and liberal or plain, poor and devout. Still, it's hard to fault a sparky memoir of survival written by such driven and inspirational women.