Bereaved, disillusioned and heartbroken at the age of 24, Bill Carter in the early ’90s felt the pull of besieged Sarajevo – a city whose devastation matched his own. Rejected by various NGOs, he hitched a ride with the less ‘official’ Serious Road Trip, a group dedicated to delivering aid to Bosnia and partying hard while they’re about it. Together, they made the perilous trip through some of the most violent parts of Yugoslavia. Once ‘safely’ installed in Sarajevo, Carter spent years with the SRT’s eccentric crew members in their ravaged offices on the 7th floor of a burnt-out towerblock. Though Sarajevo became his spiritual home for the darkest of reasons, Carter gradually learned that the city’s population were not the walking wounded but dignified men and women with indomitable resolve and constant humour.
Part of the charm of Fools Rush In, Carter’s freewheeling memoir of the time, lies in his weaving of the misfit characters he meets into the narrative whilst simultaneously filling in the dark past events which have led him here. In and around the parallel storylines is the comic theatre of the Sarajevo community, featuring an eclectic and bizarre assortment of characters: poets, singers, writers, philosophers, artists and warlords – all going about their everyday lives dodging snipers’ bullets. The inanities of existence play out against the constant awareness of death. Though marketed as a chronicle of the Bosnian war, Fools Rush In is much more than this. It is about loss and bereavement: the loss of childhood, of love, humanity, identity, of one’s purpose in life. It’s also about the void which compels us to search, to seek spiritual truths in order to fill that void.
What gives the book its haunting quality is Carter’s assured sense of destiny, which he drives home to us by littering the narrative with clues half-observed, later to be brutally realised when least expected. The prologue’s a great example of this – with emotional detachment the author describes his early life under the tyranny of a violent father. A crippling portrait of family life against the climate of anxiety which shaped him, it’s an eerie fore-shadowing of events to come. In his brother’s dread when Bill breaks a window, the latter’s sense of imminent horrors at his father’s hands is palpable. The precariousness of his mother‘s existence, her attempts to remain invisible to avoid her husband’s temper, is poignant too – both giving a sense of the dark side of the human condition, and its cost to the victim. It’s a tragedy will which play itself out again and again in this book: the profound sense of suffering amidst the heinous, random cruelties of war – and gradually, its redemption.
In a recent interview Carter reflected on his experiences:
“Seeing people die, children having their heads blown off. On peaceful day, listening to a friend’s story. Playing football. The things that haunt you are not those things – the evil that men do. The part that is hurtful is the absolute goodness of people, which was utterly overwhelming. That gift, that ability to give. That generosity which gives great hope”.
Part of that generosity comes late in the book, as we see miracles happen and deep new friendships form. The band U2 play a particularly bizarre part in this, in a spiralling stranger-than-fiction turn of events which, it’s suggested, may have had its own effect on the history of the conflict.
Although the book has become something of a historical piece in itself, it’s the utterly raw and personal depiction of the siege which leaves an indelible mark. Fools Rush In reminds us that, though painful, the journey can lead to new discoveries, extraordinary experiences creating new life inside us: that our ability to grow and learn is still pulsing, even amidst the most tragic, isolating of blows. It’s to Bill Carter’s great credit that he’s preserved this transformation so vividly – capturing, on the way, that little bit of Sarajevan magic, which like a balm to all coping with loss and bereavement, can save us too.
Bill Carter’s Fools Rush In is available from Amazon.co.uk, priced £8.99 in paperback, and £4.99 on Kindle. It is also available from Amazon.com, at $13.44 (Kindle $7.54).