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DIGGING IN THE DIRT 


In July of 1995, an army of Bosnian Serbs overwhelmed the thinly armed resistance of Srebrenica and overtook the town. During its fall, Gen. Ratko Mladic is alleged to have said, "It is going to be a feast. There will be blood up to your knees." And indeed he was right. Over the next five days, the Serb army separated Muslim men from women and systematically murdered more than 7,000 people. Some were forced to dig their own graves before being shot and pushed in. Reading about this massacre now, it is impossible not to be outraged. What about the U.N. peacekeepers? What happened to the survivors?

These are the questions Courtney Angela Brkic had in mind when she signed on to help a forensic team digging up mass graves in eastern Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1996. It was a logical career move – Brkic had experience as an archaeologist and spoke Croatian. But it would be an emotionally charged experience, as Brkic's father grew up in Sarajevo during the German siege of World War II. As she writes in her heartbreaking memoir, The Stone Fields, some of the victims they would unearth could have been distant cousins. Even scarier, some of the local workers they hired may have been the perpetrators.

By switching back and forth between descriptions of her dig and the story of her father's family, The Stone Fields gives this massacre a terrible but elegant third dimension. In the late '30s, Brkic's grandmother came to Sarajevo a widowed mother of two children, and fell in love with a Jewish man. They nearly survived the Nazi siege, but they were informed upon and sent to concentration camps where the treatment of Jews mirrored the treatment of non-Serbs in Srebrenica: They were murdered.

This mixture of personal memoir and firsthand reportage makes The Stone Fields one of the best introductions to this bloody (and underdocumented) war, along with the graphic novels of Joe Sacco and the stories of Aleksandar Hemon. Every page has a detail that can rip your heart out. One chapter introduces a Muslim teenager who helps out by washing the bodies of victims, hoping to find his family. Another describes a family friend of the Brkic's who has a strange souvenir from the war: an unexploded shell. Brkic worries it will go off. "It could," the man responds, "but it probably won't.

"Besides," he continues, "you'd be amazed what you get used to living with."

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