Treading Water at the Shark Café: A Memoir of the Yugoslav Wars

By Lyndon Back. Open Books Press, 2018. 248 pages. $17.95/paperback; $3.99/eBook.

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In the early 1990s, Lyndon Back was living in the Philadelphia suburbs and working as director of planned giving for American Friends Service Committee. An avid follower of news, she was absorbed in following the fighting and suffering in the civil wars that were tearing Yugoslavia apart. For Back, as for many others, it was hard to understand why centuries-long neighbors abruptly turned violently on each other.

And then, in the fall of 1993, she watched on TV in horror as Stari Most, a bridge over a chasm in Mostar that divided the Christian and Muslim sectors of that town, was shelled, exploded, and vanished as people cheered. This beautiful, graceful, and fragile architectural treasure had survived for half a millennium and was gone in an instant.

Back was devastated. Seeking a place to put her energies, she joined the Community of Bosnia Foundation, which set about educating people about the religion of Islam. By 1995, as Muslims were experiencing genocide, this local group had taken on the task of bringing Bosnian Muslim high school students to Philadelphia for a respite from the conflict.

Support work for these students evolved into full-fledged sponsorship, and in the process, Lyn befriended high school students from across the ethnic divides. In particular, she was drawn to two girls: a Muslim from Bosnia and an Orthodox Christian from Serbia. She was touched to see the two befriend and lend moral support to each other as they encountered the reality of high school in America. Lyn also observed that students of all the major groups—Bosnian Muslims, Orthodox Serbs, and Croatian Catholics—were experiencing isolation and prejudice in this country, as at home.

Many years before, as a child, Back had been taught about children in Germany who were suffering at the end of World War II, and at that time she had wondered if she could come to the aid of suffering people and act as bravely as some conscientious objectors she had heard about had done. Now, a half-century later, she was ready. She sought to educate and prepare herself, and eventually to travel to the former Yugoslavia to visit her new contacts there. In the process she abandoned a secure career, which puzzled relatives and friends who thought she had come unhinged.

Luckily for us, Back had acquired the habit of journaling, and as a result we have this careful record and narrative of a self-driven peacemaker bravely traversing territories—Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Vojvodina, Republika Srpska, and Kosovo—that appeared in the news in nightmarish headlines. Back was led by providence to wander among the homes of students, their families, and chance acquaintances. Meanwhile, on top of this personal web, she followed the strands of international non-governmental organizations and their mixed crews of staff and volunteers who were doing their best to minister to the needs of harassed populations.

What she experienced was a terrain filled with chilling encounters with the official world, alternating with heartwarming respites in intimate family circles. She received a hands-on education in dealing with the bureaucracy of refugees and immigration. And she was able to observe close-up how participants in movements struggled to maintain or restore civility while contending everywhere with nationalist loyalties. Even for the devotees to nonviolence, it was a constant struggle to keep faith.

The years of the Yugoslav Wars were deep soil for understanding how to coexist peacefully where distinct cultures have intermingled for generations on the same territory. Back was not alone; others in the nonviolence movement gravitated there. For a parallel portrayal by another activist, see passages in David Hartsough’s Waging Peace: Global Adventures of a Lifelong Activist, published in 2014. Back and Hartsough moved around contemporaneously and were engaged in compatible activist work on the same landscape, but these two apparently did not meet.

Lyndon Back’s Treading Water at the Shark Café is an engaging, exquisitely documented, and touching account of a deeply personal journey.

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