Chapter One: The Tunnel
Sarajevo – May 1992
The six other passengers in the truck are silent, though Nermina feels the shudders of the old woman pressed to her right side and knows she is crying. The little boy Esmer sleeps, his head nested against Nermina’s shoulder, his breath and body warming her. At first the circuitous route makes no sense to her. Three additional trucks in their convoy, their headlights off, crawl behind one another in a hideous steel caterpillar. She hears a shout from the driver in the truck ahead, and their own vehicle rolls to a creaky halt. This is the third such stop in as many hours. Their driver—a grim man who could be twenty-five or fifty—told them that traveling through the mountains on unmarked roads is the only way they’ll escape Serbian gunfire. By now Nermina understands that the presence of the white UN vehicles throughout Sarajevo will do little to stave off the siege; only these men who drive the trucks—Bosnian Muslims and Croats—have a chance of delivering Nermina and the others to the relative safety of the airport tunnel.
But the mountain roads have proven treacherous. Rocks cut into the trucks’ thick tires and have now punctured the oil pan of the truck ahead. She hears the men whispering terse instructions to one another. They’ll have to improvise a repair, since they used the only spare parts that the caravan carried the last time they broke down. Along with the others, Nermina dutifully climbs out at the driver’s order. Her body feels bruised and sore from the truck’s constant jerking and lunging. The women take advantage of the stop, squatting in the dark to relieve themselves while one of the men keeps watch. The old woman holds tight to Nermina, clutching at her sweater, while Esmer’s small hand grips her own. Exhaust fumes from the truck announce the temporary fix, and they all clamber back inside.
Once they are in motion again, Nermina’s mind begins to race; she is too exhausted to stop their chaotic dance, and the images of the past weeks and months flash by one after the other. As the convoy comes to yet another stop, her heart pounds inside her chest. She looks down at the black mirror of water below them, the narrow bridge that seems scarcely able to support the weight of their truck, let alone the others behind them. She thinks of her father, the last time she saw him alive. She remembers how he forced the cash into her hands, the emptiness in his eyes. They reflected her own weariness, a sorrow that still hasn’t reached its full power. He pushed her away—had she been a parent she would have done the same—but she felt only the ruthless cruelty of this action like a slap.
The truck crawls across the rickety wooden bridge, and the fear that overtook Nermina just moments before now folds into her general state of tense exhaustion. And then, as the truck’s engine whines into its lowest gear while they climb another ridge, a flash of light streaks across the night sky. In the distance, Nermina sees fire leaping against the darkness. “Dobrinja,” the driver whispers. “They’ve taken Dobrinja.”
Nermina remembers the house and her room. Her face crumbles. Mirsad, she mouths, seeing again the blazing office tower. They took my brother too.
The trucks near a low stone house, and their driver, cigarette dangling from clenched lips, jumps from the cab. He hisses at his passengers to wait and then, a second later, to gather up their belongings. No other instructions come for what seems a very long time. Then suddenly they’re all scuttling through a low entryway, the driver aiming a weak stream of light ahead of them from his flashlight. They walk along a set of railway tracks, each—even little Esmer—carrying his own load, no one speaking a word except for the driver’s hushed instructions.
And then Nermina realizes that they’re climbing a set of cement stairs. And the stairs deliver them into the bombed-out airport, which still maintains one small terminal. Two uniformed UN officers hurry them through a corridor that reeks of urine and smoke. She hears a brusque conversation between their driver and the uniformed Americans. A misunderstanding? A mistake? Nermina hears the Americans’ terse words, words her brain is too rattled to decipher, and then she’s carried along with the others in a rush of movement. The old woman clutches again at Nermina’s arm and torso, and she fights the urge to push her away. Another UN peacekeeper—British this time—motions the group across the tarmac and onto the steps of the plane. With Esmer pressing against her leg and the woman grasping her arm through her sweater, Nermina cares only about getting aboard. She feels the collective tension of all of them now, a great wave of fear and exhaustion, but also a flicker of hope. If she can make this first, most critical leg of the journey, the war will be behind her. Her lips form a grim smile. She sees her father’s face, determined, prideful. “I’m getting you out,” he said. “There’s nothing here for you now.” She pats her side and feels the thick envelope, which was even thicker before she boarded the truck.
Now they’re buckled into their seats, and the jet’s engines drown out her thoughts. But once they’re in the air, the old woman asks timidly, “Do you have people in London?” In the dim light of the cabin, Nermina sees the dark circles above the woman’s hollow cheeks—she appears to be starving—and swallows the bitter taste of guilt for the harsh feelings she experienced earlier. She runs her hand softly over Esmer’s jet-black hair. The child fell asleep again as soon as the plane lifted off. She hears her father’s instructions once more: “First Ancona, then London, then Portland, Oregon. America.”
“No, no one there,” Nermina murmurs.
“Where then?” The woman’s expression eases ever so slightly.
“I’m continuing on to the United States, where I have some friends.” She hears the artificial cheerfulness she’s used so often with Esmer in recent weeks. She feels that she might laugh, or perhaps cry. “And you?” she asks, as though making polite conversation at a party.
“London,” the old woman says. “My niece will meet me in London.”
“Good,” says Nermina. She pats the old woman’s hand, the skin worn like the hospital linens they used during those long weeks without laundering, and looks into her wrinkled face. Then she sees her mother’s face, bruised and beaten. Her parents will never grow old together. This, too, the soldiers have stolen.
Chapter Two: Dobrinja
Her father slammed his hand down on the table. Four salad plates rattled atop the dinner plates beneath. Nermina flinched. Everything was changing. Her family was being impossible, her father—Suljo—behaving the worst. She sought her mother’s eyes, but no sooner had Nermina registered Zulfeta’s still-placid look than her older brother Mirsad nearly overturned his chair getting up.
“Sit down,” said Suljo, the hard edge of his voice as forceful as his palm on the table a moment before. “We’re not done here.”
Mirsad gripped the top of the chair in front of him. Nermina feared he might leap across the table and shake their father senseless. She knew—they all knew—that war was coming, but her father continued to deny it. Even now. Nermina stared down at her salad greens and counted three breaths, tracing the delicate gold-painted edge of the plate. Again she sought her mother’s eyes. Again her mother cast them down. The light from the chandelier cast dark circles, paling the smooth planes of her face.
Still standing—though a bit unsteadily, Nermina thought—Mirsad faced their father. “I’m an adult,” he said. “I want to fight, and I don’t need your permission—”
“We were having a discussion,” Suljo broke in. “That’s all. And you—sit, please—were making no sense.” He leaned back in the heavy upholstered chair and chose the smaller silver fork from his place setting.
“I am making sense,” Mirsad said. “You’re just not listening.” He slid his lean body back into the chair beside Nermina’s. She followed her brother’s glare. It seemed to Nermina that they’d argued about the possibility of a coming war a million times, but in this regard Nermina didn’t disagree with her parents. Like her, Mirsad was a child of privilege. He shouldn’t be expected to fight. And even if he were, their father’s connections and status would assure his exemption. Their mother’s hand, with its glossy-red manicured nails, perfect ovals, now rested on their father’s.
Mirsad shook his head. “It’s the educated, the wealthy,” he stammered. “Us. It’s people just like us Milosevic wants dead.”
Their father’s face remained impassive. He’d regained his regal composure and now tilted his head to the side, the full shock of gray hair, as always, meticulously groomed. “It’s not our war, though,” he said.
“Why? Because we’re not Croats?” Mirsad shot back. “The Serbs hate us just as much as them. We’re next. You only have to look as far as Croatia to see that. Of course it’s our war.”
Nermina’s pulse quickened as Mirsad glared into their mother’s face, and then the heat of his gaze shifted to her. We’ve both failed him, Nermina thought.
“The strength of the Republics of Yugoslavia is in bratvo i jedinstvo,” Suljo said. “This is where our hope has always been, and this is where it must remain. This is our safeguard.”
“No,” said Mirsad. He flattened his hands on the starched white damask, and Nermina saw how they trembled. “Brotherhood and Unity,” Mirsad chided their father. “That’s the old Bosnia. Can’t you see? It’s over. Slovenia’s independent. Macedonia—”
“With Tito, we were one people—” Suljo began.
“Tito’s dead, Papa! That was a long time ago.”
Mirsad slammed his hand down on the table and then withdrew it, as though from a searing stovetop. Again Nermina flinched. She remembered when she and Mirsad had been little—even teenagers—how they’d both worshipped their father. She remembered the circle of men that had seemed always to surround him. “Listen to Suljo Begonivic,” they would say. “Suljo will know the answer.” Nermina had always believed that her father’s authoritative baritone—forceful yet still melodic—was the source of his influence. But now this same voice grated on her. She patted her fingers, damp with perspiration, on the linen napkin in her lap.
“You were only a child then. You don’t remember,” said Suljo.
Mirsad’s fingertips found the pulse at his temple, touched the tender spot as their mother always had. “But I’m not a child now,” he said. “That’s my point. And I see what you can’t. What you won’t. Bosnia’s next.”
Suljo shook his head. He shifted his gaze from his son, leveling it on Nermina, and smoothed the neatly trimmed mustache that was the same silver as his hair. “So your brother is suddenly an expert,” he said, his voice rising and falling rhythmically. “He knows more than his father now. He wants to join the fundamentalists. He wants to be a soldier. What do you think about that, Nermina?” He might have been asking whether she favored coffee or tea.
Nermina reached for Mirsad’s hand, entwined her slender fingers with his own as they’d done when they were children racing into the surf.
“She doesn’t need to answer you,” Mirsad said. “This isn’t about her.”
Then Nermina met her father’s gray eyes. “I don’t want him to fight,” she said, “but I can understand why he’d want to. In Vukovar, hundreds were murdered…” She paused, lowered her eyes. “I’m sorry, Tata, but it’s true.”
“That would never happen in Bosnia,” Suljo answered, his voice low and somber. “Zulfeta, speak to your daughter. She’s gotten herself hysterical for no reason.” He sent a withering look toward Mirsad. “Your son has spoiled our dinner.”
Zulfeta withdrew her hand from Suljo’s—Nermina saw how the gold bangles at her wrist caught the light from above—and turned to face her husband. “Neither of them is a child anymore,” she said
Nermina drew in a sharp breath. She understood that this was true, but at that moment she wished it were not.
Two months later, Nermina understood a great deal more. She rinsed off her breakfast plate in the sink and stacked it among the others in the dishwasher. Through the kitchen window, she made out the ridgeline where terracotta rooftops emerged from the early morning mist. She’d grown sentimental about her life in Dobrinja, knowing now how soon she’d have to leave it. She remembered her father’s pride when he’d first moved them here—a brand new house, a pristine suburb, a world away from the bustle and grit of the city.
In the dining room she kissed her father’s cheek. He smiled up at her, but Nermina saw that this came with great effort.
“Take care, and remember to call us when you arrive,” he said.
She waited for him to crease his newspaper and tuck it beneath his breakfast plate, just as he’d done for as long as she could remember. Since Mirsad’s exodus to his own flat in the city, Nermina had felt a renewed ease with her father, the absence of daily bickering between him and Mirsad a reprieve, if only temporary. Like Mirsad, Nermina still hit the brick wall of their father’s obstinacy. But, unlike her brother, she’d given up trying to change his views.
Yet, despite his public declarations of Bosnia’s invincibility, Nermina knew her father was gravely worried. And she knew that—behind his bluster—at the heart of this worry lay those he loved. She imagined him in his rounds at Kosevo Hospital, calculating the distance between each of them. Her mother, a gynecologist, shuttled among three medical clinics in Sarajevo. Mirsad worked in a financial firm at the city’s center. Nermina spent five days a week in classes at the university. To her surprise, it was her father who first gave voice to the potential danger of her commute into the city, and it was she, Nermina, who defiantly refused to consider taking a leave from her program.
Now Nermina watched as Suljo stroked his wide mustache. She registered his stern look, taking in almost for the first time the gravity of his instructions as she bundled her waist-length hair beneath a woolen hat and wound her scarf twice around her slender neck.
“Your mother and I must always know where you are,” he said with even more severity.
“I understand, Tata.” Nermina placed a kiss on each side of her father’s stoic face.
Then she walked the few short blocks to the trolley and, after several stops, exited at the station, where she waited with several other passengers for the bus that would deliver her to the university.
Chapter Three: Nermina’s Test
Sarajevo – April 5, 1992
Nermina looked down from her brother’s sixth-floor flat onto the Miljacka River, gray and muddy like the rest of the city today. She peered beyond the wrought-iron fence of the narrow terrace and saw the stone walls along the river glistening beneath globed street lights. An old man, bearded and wearing a long, loose-fitting white tunic and trousers, turned a crank that slowly raised a red awning covered with the familiar Coca Cola logo. He propped open the café door with a stick and proceeded to carry out, in stacks of three, twenty-four chairs. The slate roofs of the houses that clung to the hills beyond the river—a collage of salmon, ochre, and brown—were slick with rain. Nermina wondered at the old man’s faith that the weather would clear, that the thick cumulus clouds would give way to bright azure, a color she had been dreaming about since she noticed the first crocus flowers pushing their way through the molting leaves along the riverbank.
Nermina felt the tightness in her jaw and realized she’d been standing silently at the window for several minutes. It hadn’t been her choice to leave her parents’ home, but now that she had, she felt an almost manic determination to go about her life as though nothing had changed. Some days, like this one, were more difficult than others. Tracing a series of loops with her finger in the misty film on the window, her heart quickened as she recalled the uncharacteristic quiver in her father’s deep baritone. Was it patriotism or pure stubbornness that had allowed him to remain optimistic for so long? She would not permit herself to use the word “stupidity,” though it had crossed her mind more than once.
Nermina turned abruptly from the window when she heard Mirsad’s quick steps in the hallway. She smiled at the slim young man, freshly showered and smartly dressed in a suit and tie. “I was just watching the river,” she said.
He brushed each of her cheeks with a brotherly kiss. “It’s pretty from here, isn’t it?”
“Yes, but in the rain today it makes me sad.”
Mirsad ran a hand through his thick brown hair, which he now wore in a short, stylish cut, a change Nermina attributed to his move into the city. He looked steadily at his sister, his eyes shaded with long, dark lashes that he had been teased for as a boy. “Don’t be sad,” he said. “I’ve asked Tatjana and Kamal and some others to come celebrate with us. What do you think? Will you join us?”
Gathering herself, Nermina said, “How sweet of all of you to celebrate the outcome of my exams. I intend to do quite well today, you know.”
Impulsively she hugged her brother, inhaling the citrus-sweet aroma of his cologne. But Mirsad’s handsome face registered embarrassment, and he stood motionless when his sister held him at arm’s length.
“I’m only teasing,” Nermina said, the false brightness drained from her voice. She dropped her hands from his shoulders and held his gaze, reading his face more closely. She saw how the purpled vein pulsed beneath the skin at his temple and resisted the urge to touch this tell-tale sign of his moods.
“I know what you think,” said Mirsad, “but I need to do this. I can’t just sit here and wait like a coward.”
At first Nermina had been angry, then frightened, when Mirsad revealed his determination to join Itzbegovic’s Muslim Patriotic League. Now she was far from resigned, though she knew her brother’s mind was set. “Does Papa know?” she asked.
“Of course he doesn’t know. You think I’m crazy?”
“I don’t know what to think.”
Mirsad broke free of his sister’s gaze and paced for several steps before turning to face her again. “Look, I agree with Papa—Bosnia’s independence is a wonderful thing. But what exactly does it mean? Does he really think that if we all just wave the flag around, the Serbs will let us go about our business?”
“Of course not. I’m here, aren’t I? Papa was worried enough to have me stay with you.” Nermina splayed her fingers against the cold glass of the window, leaving an imprint of her hand. “I’m really not sure what he thinks. Maybe what’s happening in Mostar now won’t happen here in Sarajevo…”
“I love you, malo sestra, and I don’t want to frighten you unnecessarily, but none of us knows what will happen next.” He plunged his hands into his pockets and looked down at the colorful, woven rug that Nermina remembered from the sunny back room of their childhood home. She and Mirsad had spent countless hours sitting cross-legged on that rug, playing card games in which Nermina was rarely the winner.
“I’m not frightened,” she said. “I just don’t want you to do anything careless.”
Mirsad drew back and straightened his tie, a gesture she found endearing and yes, now that she thought about it, comforting. Her brother had grown into a competent young man. No matter what, she told herself, he would know how to take care of himself, and to take care of her.
A newly arrived refugee in Portland, Oregon, Nermina Begonivic bears a cloak of shame and anguish that threatens to crush her. Only months before, her worst fear was falling short of a perfect score on her midterm exams in medical school. But when the Balkan War reaches Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1992, her family is among the first to perish.
In America, Nermina embarks on a single-minded quest to recreate the family she has lost. She chooses Carl, a good-looking but imperceptive drifter, to become the unwitting father of a daughter whom Nermina names Atika. For sixteen years Nermina conceals her secret, but when Carl reappears in Portland, they must both face their demons.
The novel is structured in alternating chapters that move between the United States and the Balkans, dipping deep into the pasts of both Carl and Nermina as well as offering the perspectives of two other characters, Atika and Carl’s brother, Jeff. Several chapters have been published as self-contained short stories.
A research interest in war-related trauma, along with my experience of facilitating narrative workshops for veterans and military families, developed into the writing of Nermina’s Chance
. One key element of my research was a series of Skype interviews I undertook with the Bosnian journalist Zrinka Bralo; in part, I modeled my protagonist’s story on Ms. Bralo’s personal experience as a TV reporter during the initial siege of Sarajevo. An advocate of my project since the outset, Ms. Bralo now leads the UK-based Women’s Refugee Commission
I believe that Nermina’s Chance will resonate with readers concerned by the escalating refugee crisis that is unfolding throughout the world. While each of the characters in my book is deeply flawed, their common humanity and their overwhelming desire to connect in meaningful ways make it possible for them to recreate the essence of family.
Dina Greenberg has had work published in Bellevue Literary Review, Gemini Magazine, Tahoma Literary Review, Wilderness House Literary Review, and Barely South, among others. Her hybrid prose poetry / creative nonfiction is forthcoming in Pembroke Magazine, Split Rock Review, and The Medical Literary Messenger. Dina earned an MFA in Fiction from the University of North Carolina Wilmington, where she served as managing editor for the literary journal Chautauqua. Currently she enjoys the privilege of teaching creative writing to a multi-generational cohort of students at the Cameron Art Museum in Wilmington, NC. Read more of her work at dinagreenberg.com.
Embark, Issue 7, January 2019