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The River Runs Salt, Runs Sweet: A Memoir of Visegrad, Bosnia Paperback – 23 Oct 2003


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Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

From the first chapter:

CHAPTER ONE
When I think of Visegrad, of how it was when I was fifteen, I keep returning to memories of the rivers. My town was bounded by rivers--the Rzav on one side of the valley, the colder, deeper Drina on the other.

I grew up swimming in the rivers. In summer, the banks of the Rzav were our beach, the place where young people went to hang out. At the end of summer, there were races across the Drina, with medals for the winners. The whole town would turn out to cheer. And all year round, people in Visegrad gathered in the cafés to talk about life and about each other. You could always go into one of the cafés, find people you knew, and pass an hour talking to them. In Visegrad, it was hard to be lonely. Even if you didn't want to talk, you might sit and watch the water flow by, keeping company with the Drina.

But not all memories of the Drina are good ones.

One cold day in October, at four o'clock, almost everyone in my family was all home from school or work, having lunch. My five-year-old brother, Dervis, came into the house. His face was red, and he was very excitedly trying to tell us all something, but he didn't know quite what to say. "Mama, mama, look how cold it is outside! And Bojan is swimming!"

Bojan was the younger brother of my friend, Dragana. He was my brother's age, but he was a lot noisier than my brother, or any other little boy, for that matter. When he was in front of our building, even from inside the apartment you could hear him. But he always had a smile, which made it easy to forgive him for being so loud.

Bojan's father had always been afraid for his son. Two times, Bojan had almost died. The first time, his father had almost killed him. It happened right in front of our building. His father was a bus driver, and as he drove his bus up our street one day he saw a big cardboard box in the road. Just before the bus got to it, the box moved. Bojan's father stood on the brakes, got out, and checked to see what was inside. He expected to find a stray dog. Instead, it was his son.

The second time, Bojan and his father had been fishing. They were in a boat on the Drina. When Bojan's father turned away from him for a moment, Bojan jumped out over the other side. The Drina is big, and the current is fast, and if Bojan's father had not seen where his son had gone in, he might have lost sight of him as he sank. As it was, the boy almost drowned.

In Bosnia, we always believed that tempting fate for a third time was unlucky.

So there was my brother, trying to explain something about Bojan, and we weren't understanding. "Dervis," my mother said, "Where is Bojan? What is he doing?"

"He is swimming, mama! In the Drina. We were leaving the Sports Center to come home, and he was on the side of the bridge. He fell in the river. It's cold and he's swimming!"

My poor brother. He knew it wasn't a good idea to swim when it was so cold, but he didn't understand how much trouble Bojan was really in. He didn't understand that his friend could die. He was still talking about swimming in the cold weather when we left the apartment.

We were at the bridge in moments. Nearly all of Visegrad was already there. I looked for Bojan on the surface of the river. He wasn't there, but I saw his sister, Dragana, swimming against the current and looking for him.
Bojan's mother was there, too.

"Dragana!" she called out. "There! Look there! You have to find him. He is still alive. Bojan, Bojan, my son, where are you?" And sometimes when she cried out, it was without words. Every time she cried out like that, wordlessly, with a mother's fear, the sound cut me like a knife.

Dragana shouted, "I can't find him! Bojan! Bojan!"

It had already been quite some time since Bojan had disappeared. From the shore, people called advice to Dragana and her mother--look here, tell her to try over there, dive deeper. But nobody was jumping into the river to help. They were all afraid to because the Drina was so cold in October.

"Dragana," I shouted, "get out, please!" I was afraid for her. Her face looked gray with cold.

Her cousins were shouting for her to get out, too. "You'll get sick! It's too cold!"

She wouldn't listen. She wasn't going to give up on her brother.

Her cousins should be helping her, I thought. It wasn't enough to shout from the side of the river. They should get into the water and help her look. All these words weren't doing her any good.

I didn't think it was possible that Bojan could still be alive, and the longer Dragana stayed in the river, the more I was afraid for her. I felt weak, and I was wet with perspiration. All my energy went into holding myself upright, but it was hard, knowing that my friend was in that cold river and that her little brother was at the bottom of it.

That was the first time I ever hated our river.

The Drina is where I met Suljo, so you could say I also fell in love in the river....

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Amazon.com: HASH(0x16c3439c) out of 5 stars 10 reviews
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0x8e0d8bd0) out of 5 stars Emotionally Powerful Book for the Classroom 15 Mar. 2007
By L. Thomas Deaver - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
This is the best account of the effects of war on a normal civilian that I have ever read and I've read hundreds of accounts on war! While "Anne Frank's Diary" and other accounts might be more detailed or more literary, they often fail to set the stage moving from "normality" to the realities of war and don't capture the many varied experiences of civilians such as staying in your home, fleeing as a refugee, and undergoing a siege unlike "River Runs Salt, Runs Sweet."

This is a first person memoir of Jasmina Dervisevic-Cesic and her experiences immediately before and during the Bosnian War. The tone of the writing is matter-of-fact and does not sensationalize; it is this matter-of-fact tone that gives so much power to the story as it describes the disintegration of Jasmina's town and life. If it used sensationalized facts or powerful rhetoric it might be considered more literary, but it would lose much of its value as a dispassionate account.

The story begins when Jasmina is 15 in the peaceful town of Visegrad, Bosnia. Moslems and Serbs live peacefully together. Her life was that of a typical teenage girl concerned with school, boys, family, and friends. She meets her future husband, Suljo, while swimming in the Drina River flowing through Visegrad. Suljo serves his conscription time in the Yugoslav Army and then leaves for work in France. During this time, the peaceful world of Visegrad begins to unravel. Like all wars, it begins in small ways and in some distant place. First Jasmina notices more Chetniks, radicalized Serbs, on the streets of Belgrade while visiting there - it unsettled her but was of no major concern to her life. Then Croatia declares independence and the Yugoslav Army goes to war to prevent their independence.

Jasmina describes it as a "television war" and again it didn't seem to have a direct impact on her life in Visegrad. This is so typical of normal human behavior that they aren't concerned with things that don't directly affect them and it gives Jasmina's account credibility. Then boys from Visegrad serving in the Yugoslav Army begin to lose contact with family members, and the people in the town become involved. Serbs in the town send their children to Serbia or leave as a family altogether. But life goes on for most people - friends got married and parties were important. Suljo returns home from France and proposes to Jasmina. They get married and honeymoon in Sarajevo. Their happy new marriage life is interrupted when the Yugoslav Army and Serb militia begin shooting into a nearby village. Now, war is something that can't be ignored. Young men leave to help the village and refugees flee it. In one event after another, Jasmina shares her experiences of war; horrors, amazing kindnesses, fear, continual uncertainty, rumors flying all over the place, sacrifices, sudden death, desperate shortages of everything from food to electricity, and personal tragedy.

She details her experiences in Sarajevo during its siege. While the events in Sarajevo are not as harrowing of those in Leningrad during the 911 days of siege where over 1 million died, the events in Sarajevo are horrible just the same and far more recent than World War II. Her incredible struggle to escape the war-torn city will leave a lasting impression. Somehow Jasmina manages not to let bitterness rule her nor overwhelm her narrative, though it does escape sometimes like when she talks of the UN inactions in Bosnia and a few times when she speaks of her complacent Serb neighbors. And, yes, she is a Bosnian Muslim. This only adds to the value of the book as a humanization of Muslims that is particularly important post-9/11. The memoir is about as unbiased as you could expect any human to be who experienced a war first hand. And it will leave you amazed at the strength of a normal person in the face of incredible loss.

Topics discussed; war, death, sacrifice, radicalization of a society, genocide, rape camps, suffering, perseverance, disability, and survival.

I highly recommend this book for classroom discussion over "Anne Frank's Diary" or other historical accounts of war, because modern students will see World War II and Vietnam as ancient history but they just might remember the Bosnian War. I looked for Iraq War civilian memoirs but they just haven't emerged yet. Many Americans experience so much as just distant "television wars" - and this can make it human. I suspect many males will want more of an account of war from the soldier's perspective, but this is a powerful, real story that will grab them if they continue reading. For reluctant male readers, I challenge them to see if they could survive what Jasmina did. Women will more quickly relate to Jasmina. It is highly suitable to classroom instruction and would be great for the foundation of a unit on memoirs and war. Highly recommended for ages 13 and up, but enjoyable to the adult as well, due to nature of topics.
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0x8ff25b28) out of 5 stars A clear-eyed look at the worst, and best, of human nature 30 May 2004
By Susan O'Neill - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
"How do we suvive the things that happen to us, these horrible things? By taking this moment, and then the next one, one at a time. By telling our truth without being broken to pieces by the difference between what our lives once were and what they had become."
--from "The River Runs Salt, Runs Sweet"
This memoir of a Bosnian girl who comes of age during the disintegration of Yugoslavia is a fascinating story but, even more, it is an important piece of literature, in the tradition of Anne Frank: Diary of a Young Girl, and When Heaven and Earth Changed Places. The telling is simple and straightforward, but the messages, like the war itself, are complex. Through Jasmina's eyes, we see not only the loss and horror of war, but we feel the spirit of cooperation fostered by it, and the live-in-the-moment adrenaline rush. We watch children who grew up as friends turn away from each other to take sides based on hostilities perpetrated long before they were born. We view both the Serbs and the UN peacekeeping forces as obstacles in a very real human "video game." We see the frustration of those who must deal with unnecessary bureaucracy in order to secure necessary help and care. We witness wartime medical care at its most barbaric, and are given rare insight into the human ability to survive.
The River Runs Salt, Runs Sweet is an excellent depiction of an ordinary life blown apart by political and cultural violence. We in the US can talk political theory and debate the merits of waging war while we relax, clean, warm and well-fed, in front of the TV, at a safe distance from the consequences of what governments actually do. But only those who live the disruption, confusion and destruction, the great discomfort and crushing losses and, yes, the fierce comradery, know what war really is. Jasmina Dervisevic-Cesic gives us a gift of first-hand witness; she re-lives her experience on paper here for us with enormous bravery, a measure of anger, and a river of hard-won wisdom. This is history at ground level, immediate and affecting. It is a clear-eyed look into the worst, and the best, of human nature. Teenagers will relate to it because of the youth of the narrator, but readers of all ages will gain a fresh, insider perspective into the surprisingly familiar culture and baffling political morass that was the dying Yugoslavia. Jasmina tells her truth with skill; we stand to gain much, on a human scale, by listening.
Susan O'Neill
Author
Don't Mean Nothing: Short Stories of Viet Nam
6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0x9033421c) out of 5 stars An inspirational book in every way 3 Dec. 2003
By ALHAMD ALKHAYAT - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
I bought the book expecting to learn about how war effects civilians but I ended up with so much more. This book is an incredible inspiration for how life's trials can be overcome. The story about a girl coming of age in Bosnia during the conflict is both sweet, alarming, and absolutely captivating. I couldn't put it down and read it in one night. I recommend this book to anyone, not only as a gripping and excellent read, but as an inspiration that will last a lifetime.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0x8e8fd024) out of 5 stars An easy read about a difficult subject 28 July 2010
By John A Cook - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
This book was an incredibly powerful personalization of the conflict in the Balkans. I bought it for a college history class thinking that it looked interesting and it turned out to be so much more. I read the book cover to cover in one sitting and could think of nothing else. It is a smooth and easy read and moves quickly enough to keep you interested but slowly enough to give you the full picture.

The book delves deep into the authors experience during the Balkan conflict and her vivid descriptions created a much better and more personal description than any other style of factual book ever could. Many of the other books I had read on the subject were very dry and gave little weight to anything except facts while this one gives much weight to experiences.

I would highly recommened this book both as a scholarly resource and as just a great read. I highly recommend reading it if you are reading one of the many books by scholars or journalists on the era - the contrast in experiences is astounding and this book puts it better than any other I have found.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0x8e0d8b70) out of 5 stars I know the family so my review may be biased ... 4 July 2014
By Mike - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I know the family so my review may be biased....
If you want to know first hand the plight of oppressed peoples of the world.
Read it.
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