When I was 21, I applied to be part of a summer mission to Zagreb, Croatia. Along with a handful of other college students and staff with Cru, I would be part of a group interacting over issues of faith and hope with Croatian college students.
It was 1995; Croatia had declared their independence in 1991 near the outset of a war fought largely along ethnic lines. What had once been the nation of Yugoslavia had been carved up into several autonomous countries in the years of 1991 and 1992; by 2006, seven independent nations comprised the former Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.
Accounts of this war (the Croatian War of Independence) indicate that it ended in 1995–the same year I planned to travel there. In May of 1995, our ministry team’s plans abruptly pivoted. A bomb had exploded in Zagreb, the city where we were to go.
Instead of journeying to Croatia’s capital city, our small team joined a large team in a resort town in Hungary–holding English language camps for high school and college students as we also spoke to them about knowing God in a personal relationship.
But later, I did get the opportunity to see Zagreb. In the summer of 1997–during my year serving in Romania–one of my teammates and I took a train there for a long weekend. Our Romanian teammate had gone to help with English language camps conducted by her church. Our team leader had already returned to the States, preparing for his next assignment. So we went, just the 2 of us–one woman, one man–which was technically, probably against the rules. We had considered taking a train to Sofia, Bulgaria–the nation south of Romania–but that ride would have taken 25 hours one way.
That detour that directed our team in 1995 to Hungary also, ultimately, sent me to Romania. Since we couldn’t pursue ministry in Zagreb that summer, my university’s Cru partnership switched from Croatia to Romania (along with the Cru ministries at several other colleges in the Southeast).
So, in an indirect, mysterious kind of way, Croatia itself has played a significant part in my life. Our short visit there–when I wore the new brown leather clogs I’d bought at a market in Romania–barely broke ground in delving into the city of Zagreb. But it left me with vivid memories: my first experience staying at a youth hostel, where I shared a room with multiple women I didn’t know; meeting an Australian young woman about my age named Alison who was one of those roommates (Alison with one L instead of my 2). We had a long talk over tea one afternoon about spirituality and being a “good person.” I remember the Bad Blue Boys celebrating in the streets after Zagreb’s win in a soccer game one night while we were there, their cheers and singing wafting through the open window of our hostel room. Phil, my teammate, gave me a pair of his socks to help prevent more blisters from those new clogs and was gracious enough not to ask for them back.
I never felt any fear about visiting Zagreb two years after the bomb that prevented our team from spending our summer there, where we’d have sought to meet students and learn about their lives and their history while we shared about the peace that we experience in Jesus. But one short weekend was nowhere near enough time to begin to understand Croatian history, customs, life.
Unlike that quick trip, the novel I finished reading this week, Girl at War by Sara Novic, afforded me a long look at the history of this recent war in Croatia–and how it shattered families and lives. The names of the towns that made their way into the story–Split, a city on the coast of the Adriatic; Dubrovnik; and of course Zagreb–as well as other countries, such as Slovenia and even Romania, all struck familiar chords with me. My friend Anne served in Slovenia–another former Yugoslavian country–while I served in Romania. And Serbia bordered Romania on the west, not far from Timisoara–the city where I lived. Reading this book, the story of Ana and her loss, her fighting, her survival, gave substance and shape and reality to my comprehension of the country where I’d assumed I’d spend the summer when I was 21 years old.
Genocide, ethnic cleansing, power and money: all facets of this war that started right around the time I turned 17. I’ve never lived through anything like that, not even anything that comes close, but I feel I brushed up against it in 1995, and then again in 1997. Then in 1999, I listened to a voicemail message in my apartment late one night asking me to consider joining another year-long ministry team in Pristina, Kosovo–a “partially recognized” state within the nation of Serbia. I declined, because I’d just started my time working with students at Mississippi State.
In 1991, I had probably never heard of Croatia. Over the years, it’s strangely held sway over me. Maybe I’ll visit Zagreb again one day, maybe for longer than a weekend. But maybe not. But Girl at War gave me the glimpses of Croatia and their war of independence that I’d so long needed to gaze upon.
So that’s what makes Girl at War my favorite book of 2017 so far. What about you? Which books have taken you back to your own life-defining moments?