Posts Tagged ‘bosnia’

“The writer cannot afford to wait for experience to come to him; he must go out in search of it.”

W. Somerset Maugham said that.  While I never knew much about his personal life, for me it was obvious in his novels and short stories that this was a man who had traveled widely to exotic places and met countless fascinating people.

When it comes to my own life, I’m a slacker compared to Maugham.  I’ve experienced only a fraction of the adventures I’ve craved, not only as a writer but as a human being.


One of my darker experiences was my trip to Serbia and Bosnia several years ago.  A small portion of what I saw and heard there shows up in a scene in The Compass Master.  I also named a minor character after someone I met in the Bosnian town of Tuzla.  In Compass I simply call him Hasan, and as a character he’s different from the real-life inspiration.  My fictional Hasan lives in Sarajevo and has a happier ending to his war experience because Layla saved him and his brother.

I mention the real-life Hasan because a couple days ago his name and story came back into my life like a bolt of thunder.  I was reading the Washington Post online when I found an editorial from July 11.  “15 years after the Srebrenica massacre, a survivor buries his family.”  By Hasan Nuhanovic.

Even before I read the name I knew this was “my” Hasan.  I knew it the moment I saw that this was someone who had survived the massacre that slaughtered his family, and that he had been working as a translator for the useless and cowardly Dutch peacekeeping soldiers who had been charged with protecting the civilians of the town of Srebrenica.  I knew it because the Hasan I met years ago was obsessed with discovering what had happened to his father and mother and brother, who disappeared during the massacre.  He told me about them and about the nightmare they all went through in the months leading up to it.  He told every foreigner like me that he ever met, every reporter, every government official, everyone and anyone who would listen.  Hasan was the kind of person who had survived an experience so horrific his own life was on hold and his future didn’t exist because he was still trapped in the pain of the past.

I’d really appreciate it if, for Hasan’s sake, you read the brief account of his story.

b&w ruins

As strange as it may sound, I found myself relieved to read Hasan’s editorial.  For years I’ve wondered if his family had ever been found.  Now at last the few bones of his father, mother and brother have been identified.  For Hasan’s sake I’m glad.  I’m also glad that he mentioned having a daughter, because this means he might have married the girlfriend he had when I met him; she had been serious about him even while he insisted he couldn’t contemplate marriage until he found his family.  If he now has a child then Hasan was able to pull himself out of the past long enough to create a future

You know that this blog has been about my plan to acquire Layla’s cat burglar/ adventurer/ scholar skills and at least some of her experiences.  Most of the time this means I have light-hearted forays into fun stuff like skydiving, parkour, lock picking, climbing, and so on.  In all honesty, there’ve been a couple times when I felt a little full of myself, like “ain’t I so cool?” because of what I’m doing.  But whenever you get like that life is sure to straighten you out.  Life has done it to me yet again by sending me Hasan.  What you’re doing is just fiction, life is reminding me.  Hasan is the reality.

In the coming weeks and months I’ll keep doing my Layla self-education.  But from now on I’m going to stay humble about it.

The Day I Was a Spy

on September 30, 2009 in Misc 9 Comments »

Several years ago the police chief in a small town in Bosnia accused me of being a spy.

I’m telling you this story because a couple nights ago a friend pointed out that I don’t have to become completely like Layla since in many ways (more than I myself can see) she believes I modeled Layla after me.  She’s probably right.  Certainly I’ve given Layla a couple of my personal adventures along with what was in me that got me through them.

The spy incident happened in the town of Olovo where I spent two hours in a dingy room on the second floor of the police station fighting to convince the police chief I was innocent.  A local teacher served as our translator.  His grim expression told me he was on the police chief’s side.  Beyond a window loomed a neighboring building, its walls pockmarked with shell and bullet holes.  The war in Bosnia had been over for some time, but the scars it had seared into its people and their country lived on.

The police chief couldn’t understand why I had flown into Belgrade in the neighboring enemy nation of Serbia instead of into the Bosnian city of Sarajevo.  He didn’t believe me when I said I was a writer and driving through both countries because I wished to see both of them.  No innocent traveler, he insisted, would rent a car in Belgrade.  How did I get into Bosnia?  Why didn’t my passport show my entry into his country?  Where was my visa?  He scoffed when I said no one in Belgrade would give me one.

Finally, after two painful hours during which I argued, pleaded, demanded and protested, I remembered a small scrap of paper in my wallet.  I pulled it out and handed it to him.


The police chief stared at it.  He sneered.  He shrugged and grumbled.  And a few minutes later, after I agreed to hand over the film in my camera, he let me go.

That scrap of paper saved me because it proved not only that I had crossed the Serbian/Bosnian border where I said I had, I had also bribed the Serb soldiers guarding it.  No visa! one of the soldiers had yelled at me after examining my passport.  I pulled out my wallet and said I’m so sorry — how much do they cost?  That’s when the soldiers turned friendly and happily charged me about four times a visa’s usual price.  Then in a shadow play that they were acting officially, one of them stamped a scrap of paper and gave it to me as a receipt.  If I had been a spy for the Serbs, those soldiers would have let me pass for free. The police chief knew this.

In my original manuscript of The Compass Master I gave my experience at the border and in the police station to Layla Daltry.  For the purpose of story development I had also added a rare medieval book that was hidden in the trunk of Layla’s car; she had been hired by its owner to retrieve it from an occupied town and return it to him.  I loved this scene, I really did.  But my agent correctly declared that it didn’t completely fit in with the rest of The Compass Master.  And so — and this hurt me — I cut it out and rewrote chapter four which was also set in Bosnia and moved it up to replace chapter two.

Anyway, I’ve kept a copy of the original scene and plan to use it in a future book about Layla.  Having lived through the story, I know it’s good enough to keep around.