Surviving Peace: A Political Memoir is described by author and feminist Kathleen Barry as a deeply human narrative set within the growing body of feminist writings on war.
Olivera Simić tells the story of her life which changed irrevocably after the death of the former Yugoslavian President, Josip Tito when she was just seven years old. ‘I was proud to be a Yugoslavian girl and belonged to what I regarded as a heterogeneous multicultural, multilingual and multi-religious community,’ writes Simić. The author’s experience of growing up in a typical Yugoslavian family, is one of the areas of her remarkable life, that is covered in Surviving Peace. Even now, and decades since the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia was split apart, when the human rights activist, feminist and academic is asked where she is from, she replies, Yugoslavia.
Olivera writes about the war crimes committed by the Serbs to the immense dismay of her fiercely proud and increasingly nationalistic Serbian father. Simić and her father are both ‘obsessed with the war, Srebrenica and the dead.’ Her father refuses to believe that the genocide happened, while his activist daughter continues to dig up all she can about the horrible events of July 1995 when the Serbian army killed Bosnian Muslims in the town of Srebrenica.
To understand this memoir it helps to have an understanding of Yugoslavia and the irrevocable disruption to its successful existence that came after the death of President Tito. Consisting of six republics: Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia, Montenegro, Macedonia, and Slovenia, Yugoslavia was held together by the dictator Josip Tito, a man much regarded for his ability to unite the many ethnicities and religions that existed in the federation. After Tito’s death in 1980, ambitious politicians such as Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia and Franjo Tudjman of Croatia stepped in to fill the power void left by Tito and one by one the republics began to assert their independence. Slovenia became the first Yugoslavian republic to have free elections and in 1991 declared its independence. When Bosnia and Herzegovina declared independence from Yugoslavia, the Bosnian war began, accompanied by the ethnic cleansing of Bosniaks and Croats and resulting in a three-way war between Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats. This is the ugly background to Olivera Simić’s story, Surviving Peace: A Political Memoir.
Prior to the Bosnian war, inter-ethnic relations were stable, and held in check by the firm dictator’s rule and as the author testifies, the former socialist Yugoslavia was a happy and harmonious place in which to reside; simple and communal and offering free education and medical care. But when the war began in 1992, families became divided, good friends became enemies, and common languages were no longer spoken. And just as the former states of Yugoslavia forged their independence and new identities, Simić’s life began to change. Originally a Bosnian woman, she became a Serb woman, wearing a label that as she explains is an ‘alien, ethnic identity…a key feature of my being’ and which she claims makes it very difficult for her to write about the crimes committed by her people, the ‘Serbs’.
But, write she does, for she considers she has ‘a moral responsibility’ to write believing that she can correct some of the harm done by the telling of the stories of war. ‘I feel compelled to write, and I treasure the refuge that writing brings me,’ writes Simić. However ‘speaking up comes at a cost’ a point not lost on the author who finds opposition to her writing not only from her father but also from her brother. In 1992 when he was only 20 years old, Simić’s brother was drafted by the Serb army, an experience, according to Simić that changed him for ever. Rather than deserting the army like many of his friends for he feared that his family would come to harm, he remained in the army, fought on the front line, and saw many of his friends killed. While he is angry at his sister for her writing, he is silent about his war experiences, and fiercely hides his war trauma.
As I read Surviving Peace, I am also aware that although the wars in the Balkans are over for the time being, our world still faces many unsolved armed conflicts and it’s the populations of these warring countries who will, like the Bosnians, the Croats and the Serbs, be made to suffer, and who will have to find a way to survive peace. For this author, finding a place in peacetime is a challenge. In discussing her feelings about the end of the Bosnian war, Simić writes: ‘Instead of bringing me peace, the end of the war has produced an inner war that I struggle with every day’. For as well as this account being one of survival in wartime, Surviving Peace is a memoir in which the author acknowledges the many difficulties that come with being a post-conflict survivor. Simić documents her personal struggle as she tries to come to terms with the many traumas she endured and which followed her as surely as she traversed her way across four continents. At one point in her story, Simić admits to being a patient in a psychiatric ward after she had reached a state of ‘stupor’ descending ‘in a state of inertia and lethargy’.
Olivera Simić has had a remarkable life so far and documents her many life events and traumas in Surviving Peace: A Political Memoir, beginning when she was the seven-year old girl and experiencing the end of her simple, harmonious life. Simić is now an author, a feminist, a human rights activist and an academic. She lives in Australia and works at the Griffith Law School.
Surviving Peace: A Political Memoir is published by Spinifex Press and is due for release in August 2014