From journalist John Nadler comes a real-life Romeo and Juliet story set in war-torn Kosovo.
Nadler has stumbled upon a bitter epic romance in the ashes of inter-ethnic strife in the former Yugoslavia. The cast: a pair of star-cross'd lovers, a young Kosovar man and a Serb woman; the girl's father, a local militiaman who is determined to crush the relationship; and a war correspondent in the role of Friar Lawrence, entrusted with the commission of reuniting the lovers.
Gjorg escapes the slaughter of his village by feigning death and fleeing while Serb troops invade his town. His fianc?e Sofia disappears -- whisked away to Serbia, Gjorg believes, by her father, who is later implicated in a massacre. Gjorg, languishing in nato-held Kosovo, despairs of ever seeing his Sofia again. Until Nadler agrees to help find her.
Always just a step behind, Nadler follows Sofia's trail from her village through the flashpoints and tinderboxes of the Balkans: Mitrovica, the Presovo Valley, Macedonia, and, finally, Belgrade. He witnesses the sickening decay of Yugoslavia -- once a dynamic, cosmopolitan and prosperous nation -- manifested in the endemic suspicion, the burnt and shell-pocked buildings, the ravaged communities, and the broken lives.
Searching for Sofia is a Balkan odyssey, a quest through dangerous terrain for an ever-elusive goal, a campaign for justice and, ultimately, an exploration, through the eyes of its victims, of the madness of internecine war.
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July 26, 2011
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Excerpt from Searching for Sofia by John Nadler
Memory tells us not what we choose but what it pleases. -- Montaigne
Prologue -- Crossing the Ibar
I sat on the ground cross-legged in front of the Albanian boy Gjorg. A war had just ended; Gjorg's house lay in ruins off to the side; and an onerous Balkan sun pressed down on us. But Gjorg had not sat me down on the cool grass of his farm in central Kosovo to escape the heat.
Gjorg wanted to tell me something, I was certain of it. I hadn't known Gjorg for long. But the fateful circumstances of our meeting had created an understanding and intimacy between us, and I knew when something was on his mind. Today Gjorg made no secret of it. He stared at his hands, plucked grass from the ground, and gazed out at the fields that stretched like a warped chessboard across the Drenica Valley before turning to me and declaring:
"I want to find Sofia."
I was astonished and speechless. Just the fact that Gjorg had uttered Sofia's name in my presence -- easily, and without prompting -- was startling. Yes, I had known about Sofia for as long as I knew Gjorg. Sofia was the first secret Gjorg had shared with me after we met in the refugee city behind rebel lines in August 1998. But that had been a year ago. An eternity had passed since then, and in that time I thought that Gjorg had given up on Sofia. In fact, he had told me she was dead to him. But now he was telling me he was changing his mind.
"I tried to find her before," Gjorg said. "Before, when you and I met. But it was hard."
I knew how hard it was for Gjorg, and that is what astonished me. Gjorg had been displaced for months before and during the war, that period known as the NATO air strikes against Yugoslavia, only to return home to a devastating revelation. A massacre had occurred in his village, and his fianc?e Sofia -- yes, gentle Sofia -- was implicated as an accessory in the high crime of being her father's daughter.
"I believed I would never see Sofia again," Gjorg said, staring north as if fixing his gaze on the very horizon Sofia was lost in. "I tried to forget about her. But now everything has changed. I want her back . . ."
Before I could figure out exactly what had changed, Gjorg asked the question.
"Will you help me find her . . . Will you do this?"
Standing at the bridge over the Ibar River in the city of Kosovska Mitrovica, I went over this conversation again and again, replaying it in my mind like a video on an endless loop.
Will you help me find her? Will you do this?
Will I? . . . I didn't have an answer.
Standing near the bridge, I gazed through the razor wire of the French army checkpoint, and stared into the river's waters. The Ibar was a fitting metaphor for Sofia's disappearance. Down below, eddies grew, swirled, and disappeared like faces in a mob. The water passed like moments. Every ripple glimpsed was instantly gone -- like Gjorg's innocence, like the dead in Gjorg's village, like Sofia.
Like me, these waters had travelled far to get here. The Ibar rose from mountains in eastern Kosovo, and snaked endless kilometres before passing under this bridge. My work as a journalist had brought me to Kosovo. But I had come to the Ibar for a different reason. My destination was the last place Gjorg had seen Sofia before she vanished, the ethnic-Serb enclave on the far bank.
I mounted the bridge, showed my credentials to the French peacekeepers, and seconds later set foot on the hot concrete of north Mitrovica. This was where Gjorg had met Sofia in 1994. It was the place where they had spent three passionate and perilous years together. This is where they feared Sofia's father and awaited the war.
Sofia had been here once, but I held no illusions that I would find her that day. I was certain she was long gone. Instead, I had come today to inspect the place where their relationship had begun, and to decide whether I would honour my new friend's request to find the missing girl.
North Mitrovica. If setting truly dictates character, the romance between Sofia and Gjorg was more complicated than I had imagined, because Mitrovica's complexities defied easy comprehension. The Dolce Vita off to my left was a case in point. The Dolce Vita was a caf?. But if you believed the rumours, the Dolce Vita was really a hangout for war criminals, plain-clothes cops, and racist ruffians who fuelled bad ideas with caffeine and rakija plum brandy.
On this day the Dolce Vita was quiet. The only man in sight was a severe character with the heft of a TV wrestler who sat in a chair in the middle of a nearby square. I guessed this man belonged to the Bridge Guard, a cryptic corps of locals who stood vigil near Mitrovica's bridges and radioed for reinforcements (a mob) if any persona non grata (an Albanian) attempted to cross the bridge into their part of town.
Ironically, except for a few kids skipping rope and an arthritic dog that woofed at me from the shadows, there was no sign of a mob anywhere, which made north Mitrovica distinct from the southern half of the city. Stepping off the bus in south Mitrovica thirty minutes before and making my way on foot to the bridge, I had waded through a sea of people -- women clad in head scarves, walking arm in arm with their daughters, men strolling and smoking, and sitting and smoking; and smells -- boiling coffee, frying qebaps; and sounds -- cries of sellers, prayers echoing from minarets.