‘Ten Thousand Shells & Counting’: What the war will look like when it lands in your neighborhood
One of the gifts of living in a city such as Cambridge is meeting the people contributing its cosmopolitanism: the 29 percent of residents who are foreign-born, those speaking some 60 non-English languages at home, and those whose origin stories make you think about how dull – maybe blissfully so – your own life has been. These cities have residents who’ve fled repressive regimes and, in the case of Somerville’s Nadija Mujagić, at least one who came of age in the middle of a war.
That description is almost too precise. Mujagić describes in her newly published “Ten Thousand Shells & Counting: A Memoir,” her experiences in Sarajevo during the 1992-1995 war that tore the former Yugoslavia apart. Perhaps unintentionally, her book is in two terrifying parts, and the first has power because it describes a deadly conflict that doesn’t take place somewhere, or over there, or even around a corner: Overnight, Mujagić and her family are being shelled and shot at, and the violence is coming quite literally from across the street. Again and again “Ten Thousand Shells” describes an incomprehensibly intimate violence: The apartment unit two doors away burns down. Mujagić’s family puts a plank across their front door to keep out marauders. The local youth club becomes a hospital emergency room. The neighborhood becomes a war zone “in a matter of hours.”
The menace arrives unsubtly, but so humdrum is life in this suburb that when Yugoslav tanks roll into the airport her apartment overlooks, young Nadija and a friend wave to them and walk across the street to see them up close. Inside are Serbs simply awaiting the signal to start killing.
Even in peacetime, her family lives in quarters cramped enough that many Americans would find them claustrophobic, but as rapacious Serbs assault, the scale manages to shrink again. The electricity cuts out, the plumbing stops flowing and there’s no fresh food. They’re quickly boiling batteries to keep a radio working and brushing their teeth with salt.
That’s where the second phase of the memoir’s horror takes root, describing matter-of-factly how violence dismantles mundanity. Hiding from bullets and falling bombs in blacked out quarters, family members behave selfishly, snarl at each other. Among them, you cut hair, you try on religion, you try to join the Army, you see your brother-in-law inviting a friend to jump repeatedly on his leg until it breaks so he can avoid deployment away from your pregnant sister. You realize with a shock that your Serb neighbor agrees you should be wiped from the Earth. The center does not hold.
The cause was a bilious nationalism whipped up out of the fracturing of a multiethnic, cobbled-together country with a history so complicated even the author deems it too much to go into – but as a resident of the United States since 1997, she recognizes that it’s not so unimaginable for this multiethnic, cobbled-together country to go the same route. “The book is somewhat timely,” Mujagić says, “as it generally describes what happens when extreme nationalism leads to a war.”
This one is a muddle, among Muslims and Croats and Serbs filtered through religion, geography and ginned-up pretexts for paranoia and violence. “It couldn’t have been a holy war,” Mujagić reflects. “The idea that Muslims wanted Bosnia for themselves was never mentioned by my parents at home or by any other Muslims we knew … No one had heard of such an idea until a Serbian politician invented it.” The surreality of a pointless war is reflected in Mujagić’s writing, though it isn’t always clear it’s intentional. Individuals’ behavior and day-to-day events can appear as mysterious as the war itself (as in a late recounting of “red dots all over my face” that are never mentioned again or explained), and the arbitrariness and occasional typos suggest a need for more rigorous editing. There are structural questions about this war diary that raise the same question, as in a flashback to a neighbor’s death from the first day the enemy crossed the street to occupy the neighborhood, screaming to “Get out of the building right now!” Surely this would have been more chilling, more dramatically effective, as a detail delivered contemporaneously, in the earliest chapters?
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But those edits might also have drained a priceless authenticity. For the young, bullied Nadija, “every school day was a butchering day,” because she was “not popular among friends.” There’s an intense humanity in these phrasings in a late-adopted language that I wouldn’t trade for anything, especially at a time it’s so hard to sit across a table from a stranger and hear them speak from the heart.
There’s also what I first considered an unfulfilled suggestion in “Ten Thousand Shells,” the cover of which shows young Nadija with a friend in the woods, playing solemnly with ordinance as big as they are as they kneel to heft it. Consider it the result of a reader who grew up in the era of “Red Dawn,” with Patrick Swayze, C. Thomas Howell, Lea Thompson and Jennifer Grey becoming guerrilla fighters against invading Soviets. The truth is, there’s no particular reason to expect a teen caught in conflict to rack up her own kills or join the underground except for a Hollywood expectation, and about halfway through the book one begins to suspect it’s not going to be fulfilled. By the time you reach a chapter titled “Volleyball” well past the book’s midway point, it’s pretty clear: Rambo, this isn’t. (I would have skipped the war aphorisms tacked on to each chapter; “Volleyball” as a chapter heading is followed with Gilbert Parker’s musing that “War is cruelty, and none can make it gentle,” which is funny, rather than poignant, as a juxtaposition.)
But passage out of the period Mujagić shares with us – and firsthand accounts of this kind from the Bosnian war are rare – is accomplished via several pages of casually composed black and white photos. They were clearly not taken with any more thought about posterity than the author had as a girl growing up on a “street named after Georgi Dimitrov, a person whose identity or credentials none of us cared to learn.” Nadija doesn’t keep a record, like Anne Frank; her childhood diary is left behind, discovered in the ruins of the apartment she’s allowed to visit after years of enemy occupation have ended. The message of “Ten Thousand Shells” is not that war brings out the extraordinary in people, who just want to eat, and date, and play volleyball, but that it obliterates the ordinary. And if you’re lucky, you survive and have years to repair your PTSD, maybe by talking to strangers through a narrative where every page warns: This is what it will look like when it happens here.
“Ten Thousand Shells & Counting: A Memoir” is available on Bookshop.