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Still trapped by the siege of Sarajevo

A tunnel in Sarajevo which was used during the siege of the city - Credit: Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

A brilliant new novel shows how the city’s traumatic past still has a powerful hold on Europe, three decades on.

A few years ago I emerged from the mouth of a tunnel onto scrubby ground next to a house just outside Sarajevo airport.

The sunshine after the darkness had me screwing up my eyes, my big toe thrummed gently, having thudded accidentally against one of the metal tracks that ran along the tunnel’s length, and I stretched my back to atone for the half crouch I’d employed to avoid banging my head on the joists helping keep the tons of earth above from crashing down.

It was dark, claustrophobic and clammy down there and my stomach was still knotted with anxiety even though I was relieved to be out. I’d only been down there for 10 minutes, there was only about 20 yards of tunnel to explore and what I’d experienced was a museum – and that was bad enough.

During the three-and-a-half year siege of Sarajevo during the Balkan wars of the 1990s the 800-metre tunnel had been a lifeline to those trapped in the city by the Serb forces in the surrounding hills, allowing supplies of food, cigarettes and weapons in, and thousands of people out.

Inside the house whose garage concealed this end of the tunnel was an exhibition of siege artefacts viewed while a video played on an old television in the corner, showing bleached VHS footage of nervous people shuffling through and emerging from the tunnel, occasionally glancing at the camera with haunted eyes, aware that random death could still land on them at any moment, not daring to hope quite yet.

“The Serbs knew it was somewhere near here, but they never found it. They’d send shells in this direction but the tunnel never closed,” Edis Kolar, whose family home includes the museum and tunnel entrance, told me. He indicated a bare patch of dirt a few yards from the tunnel entrance. “A shell landed here and killed nine people.”

Physical evidence of the siege, which began 30 years ago next year, is still visible across the city, from bullet-strafed building facades to gravestones incongruously placed in public parks to ‘Sarajevo roses’, where instead of repairing the gouges in the pavement left by exploding mortar shells the people of Sarajevo chose to fill them instead with red rubber, creating a permanent reminder.

The biggest legacy of the siege is entirely invisible. It’s in the memories of those who lived through it and who still carry the trauma of hunger, deprivation, constant shelling and the risk of sniper fire, when something as simple as crossing a street required a breathless, headlong sprint between the shelter of buildings.

It was a time when boundaries were contracted to the point where even rooms in people’s homes became out of bounds because they were in sight of snipers lurking invisibly in the surrounding landscape.

For most of us that constant level of anxiety and trauma is unimaginable, a claustrophobia forged by walls tangible and intangible, when even the simplest everyday tasks involve risking sudden, random death just by crossing a road, queuing for bread, shopping in a market.

The febrile legacy of this intense trauma is captured perfectly in Asylum Road, the new novel by Olivia Sudjic that arrives following the success of her 2017 debut Sympathy. We are transplanted into the world of Anya, evacuated from Sarajevo as a young girl along with her brother, leaving their parents and older sister to ride out the siege in the family’s cramped apartment.

We’re not told whether Anya escaped the city through the lifeline under the airport but the one thing she retains is a deep-set fear of tunnels. The book opens with Anya and her boyfriend Luke driving from their London home to France through the Channel tunnel.

Her anxiety reminds her of their first date, at the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympic Games, when Anya had walked from south of the river, following a map on her phone, not realising that the river crossing was not a bridge but a foot tunnel, “designed to curve so you couldn’t see the light at the end – so horses wouldn’t bolt. As the ceremony began he asked if I wanted his sweater, he could see how badly I was shivering”.

Later in the trip Anya accepts Luke’s marriage proposal, setting in motion the events of an intense, deeply thought-provoking novel at the centre of which Anya is a heartbreakingly vulnerable focus.

Despite her disadvantaged start in Britain – she grew up a refugee living with an aunt in Glasgow – Anya has managed to gain a Cambridge degree and embark on a PhD, but her intellect is hemmed in by a chronic lack of self-esteem.

Sudjic is skilful enough not to impose set-piece throwbacks to Anya’s experience of the siege, instead she inserts brief flashes and hints, passing references to time spent in a basement, tiny insights to the trauma humming away at the core of Anya’s being like an idling car engine waiting to be thrown into gear.

The claustrophobia of the siege causes Anya to pull her entire presence tighter into herself, going out of her way to take up as little space in the world as she can. In a novel of boundaries Anya’s are compressed so tightly it’s a wonder she can breathe and we glimpse her vulnerability in a succession of asides.

When a seat she reserves on a train turns out to be not what she’d booked Anya is reluctant to move to a vacant alternative because “I couldn’t bear the shame of being told to move if I’d taken a place that didn’t belong to me”.

Luke would tease her about how in the flat they shared she couldn’t bring herself even to use items she owned, as if “preferring to keep them for a future date”. When she chooses a restaurant to meet a friend just arrived from Belgrade, the friend immediately moves them to a bar of her choosing instead, imposing herself on London within hours of arrival in a way Anya never had.

Having been formed by a conflict that sought to impose physical borders along ethnic lines – enclaves from which one nationality could be removed or exterminated in the name of the comfort and superiority that being with their own kind provides another – Anya cannot claim even a small place for herself in the world.

Her torment is put into context by the two journeys that comprise the core of the narrative, to their respective families after the engagement. First there’s a visit to Luke’s parents in Cornwall. Ardent Brexiters and enthusiastic Cornish nationalists, the couple rail against people with second homes in the county despite the fact that’s exactly how they both arrived in the first place.

Their status as assimilated outsiders makes them uber-Cornish, effectively being more Cornish than the Cornish themselves. At mealtimes napkins are put out with Cornish words on them while a prominently displayed family photograph is staged by a monument to Dolly Pentreath, the last known native speaker of the Cornish language who died at the end of the 18th century.

This desire to be associated with an identity that’s not innately their own, expressed through trinkets and trappings, napkins and monuments, is in marked contrast to the conflict that defines Anya (and is mirrored subtly later in the book when Luke is attracted by Bosnian market stalls selling souvenir bullet casings and shrapnel).

It’s also beautifully summed up when Luke’s mother walks into their room unannounced, prompting Anya to drily observe: “She was the kind of mother who refused to knock. A fan of borders but not boundaries.”

The visit to Anya’s family is excruciating to witness. Crammed awkwardly into the tiny Sarajevo apartment, conversation revolves around Anya’s mother’s dementia that means she believes the siege is still on, that nobody should go outside or stand near the window, and that Luke is a journalist from CNN covering the war.

Here the hairline cracks in Anya’s key relationships, with Luke, with her sister and with her parents, begin to widen as words remain unspoken, and the silence between the lines simmers almost tangibly. Any emotional anchors remaining in Anya’s being are quietly working their way loose.

Olivia Sudjic, on the day of the 2016 Brexit referendum, outside a London polling station, urging people to vote remain – Credit: AFP via Getty Images

Asylum Road is a towering novel, perfectly paced, its points subtly expressed, its prose often deliberately disjointed as it builds towards a shockingly dramatic climax. In Anya, Sudjic has created an unforgettable, tragic character whose traumatic formative years leave her almost apologising for her own existence.

When a friend asks how things had gone in Sarajevo with her family she immediately talks about Luke’s reaction. “I meant how was it for you with them?”, says the friend after a pause.

When Luke, outwardly sympathetic but actually manipulative, hints at a possible watershed moment in their relationship, Anya immediately tries to gently ease him into saying something she knows she doesn’t remotely want to hear.

“This was how I’d made most of my friends,” Anya says of the few tenuous associations she’d formed, “uniting with outsiders via a shared sense of exclusion. It could feel heady at first but that quickly turned to bitterness if they managed to assimilate.”

The Balkan wars, despite taking place on the same continent as us and within the living memory of many of us, have faded into the background of our consciousness.

They happened just before the introduction of the rolling news coverage that brought the dramatic, pin sharp images of the first Gulf War into our living rooms, drawing Baghdad closer to us than Bihać.

It was a complex, internecine war, difficult for the uninitiated to tell the good guys from the bad without an effort few were prepared to make. The siege of Sarajevo captured some international attention and elicited a certain amount of sympathy, but as one of the characters in Asylum Road asks, “We’re supposed to be grateful that they tuned in to watch us dying?”

To walk among the Sarajevo roses and spend a few minutes in a truncated tunnel museum can only give the barest hint of what that city and the region as a whole went through. Countless thousands are still living with its legacy, in Sarajevo itself and beyond, a traumatised loneliness heightened in the souls of the displaced.

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