A Bosnian family history
‘A scenery of destruction and human failing’, writes Alfred van Cleef about Republika Srpska, one of the two political entities that make up Bosnia and Herzegovina following the war in former Yugoslavia. For some twenty years the author was close to a Bosnian family from that region, and in Lost World he records their trials and tribulations.
In 1993, Van Cleef met Hamdo Berberovic, a Bosnian refugee living in the Netherlands, who had survived three Serbian-led concentration camps, including the notorious Omarska. Van Cleef had in-depth conversations with him and with his brothers Senad and Hilmija, winning their trust. He is now able to describe their experiences through their eyes.
Lost World is an important book, not least because the author was involved with the family at its centre for so many years. What does enduring so many atrocities do to people? Can they ever find a new way forward? Why did the most pacifist member of the family stay in Bosnia to fight for the unity of his country? One of the most moving passages in the book begins when Hilmija’s wife, who has ended up in Sweden, gives the author a letter for her husband. He takes it to the city of Travnik, where the situation is far from safe. ‘Always be aware what kind of country you’re in,’ he is told. ‘Here the kalashnikov talks.’ Nevertheless, Van Cleef manages to find Hilmija. The reader has already seen a great deal of killing and suffering and watched friends and colleagues imprison and mistreat each other. The humanity expressed in the letter brings home all the rising tension and profound emotions in the book.
Van Cleef is a journalist with the style of a literary author. ‘The snow-covered mountaintops refuse to acknowledge the war,’ he writes. He sees someone using a bullet hole as an ashtray and notices men on crutches in every village. In 2013 a survivor of the Omarska camp tells him that ‘a bad soul feels good amid evil’.
Even as the ashes of the war in Bosnia still smoulder, new ‘brother-shoots-brother wars’ are going on elsewhere. Readers of this book will see reports of those wars in a new light. Lost World is a universal story about the futility of war and the resilience of human beings. After great sacrifices – their father kills himself – the Berberovic brothers become successful immigrants in Sweden and the Netherlands.
- The descriptions are all the more harrowing because these matters are still unresolved.
- Based on oral history, this account straddles the borderline between journalism and literature.