Lesleyanne Ryan’s Braco is a very tightly focused story about a sprawling and complex series of events — the civil war in the former Yugoslavia. Ryan herself spent time there as a Canadian peacekeeper in the mid-1990s: all these years later, she’s written a novel to try to make sense of the horrific events she witnessed there. Braco doesn’t attempt to tell the whole story of the war but rather focuses on a handful of characters during the five days after the fall of Srebernica, all in some way connected to the central character Atif, a Muslim boy who is fleeing with his family to the safety of a refugee camp.
I often tell students in my World History class that the early 1990s were an amazing time to be alive. With the end of Soviet communism, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the release of Nelson Mandela and the end of apartheid in South Africa, it really felt, albeit very briefly, as if humanity were getting its collective act together, as if problems that had plagued the world for decades could be resolved overnight through simple acts of courage and vision. Of course my students all grew up in the post 9/11 era when this seems like an obvious misunderstanding, but even before the 9/11 attacks, I tell them, two major events of the mid-90s made it obvious that any old problems we managed to solve would simply be replaced with new ones. One was the Rwandan genocide and the other the civil war in the former Yugoslavia. Of the two, the Balkan war probably hit closer to home for many of us because we think of Europeans as being more “like us” — I had Yugoslavian friends in college, had travelled through there briefly in 87 while backpacking in Europe, etc. Also, of course, many Canadian peacekeepers like Ryan served there, making the horrors there seem a little more real, though still beyond imagination, to those of us at home.
The perspectives in this book include those of a Serb soldier, a Bosnian soldier, a Dutch peacekeeper, a Canadian photographer, fourteen-year-old refugee Atif, and Atif’s mother. Atif is fleeing to safety with his mother and little sister, but he is advised to separate from the group and try to make his way to safety alone because men, including old men and boys younger than Atif, are being pulled from the refugee camps and buses by Serb soldiers — allegedy to be tried as war criminals, but in many cases to be summarily shot. The small human drama — whether Atif, one boy out of thousands, will be safely reunited with his family? — is set against the backdrop of the much larger conflict. Will the rest of the world intervene to stop the atrocities? What kind of intervention is needed, or appropriate, in a civil war where it’s not always easy to tell “good guys” from “bad guys”? How do humans survive and cling to their humanity in the midst of appalling violence — whether they are the victims, the perpetrators, the rescuers or the recorders? Every character in this short, powerful novel struggles with these questions. Ryan could not have chosen a better lens through which to focus the story of a conflict that was then, and 20 years later remains, so complex that many people in North America, hearing about it on the news, never fully grasped “what was going on over there.” Putting a human face — Atif’s face — on the war makes it real and unforgettable.