‘Writing about Sarajevo: life under siege, art on fire’, Priscilla Morris, The Irish Times, 17 Oct 2022. About the family stories behind Black Butterflies. See below for full article.
‘Black Butterflies by Priscilla Morris review – the siege of Sarajevo comes to life’, Phil Baker, The Sunday Times, 3 Jul 2022. Also titled: ‘Starving artists under siege in Europe’s most recent war’. See below for newspaper review.
‘Priscilla Morris’s Black Butterflies is a timely love letter to war-torn Sarajevo’, Estelle Birdy, Sunday Independent, 5 June 2022. Also titled: ‘Love letter to the shattered city of Sarajevo’. See below for newspaper review.
THE IRISH TIMES
Writing about Sarajevo: Life under siege, art on fire
Black Butterflies author and UCD creative writing lecturer Priscilla Morris writes about the family stories that inspired her Sarajevo novel. The Siege of Sarajevo started 30 years ago.
Mon Oct 17 2022
Three decades ago in August 1992, Bosnian Serb nationalists fired incendiary shells at Sarajevo’s old Town Hall, home to the National and University Library of Bosnia. Over 1.5 million books blazed. Flames streamed out of tall gridded windows. On the top floor, my great-uncle Dobri’s studio, one of three artists’ ateliers, burned. When he visited some days later, he stared up through the blackened facade to the sky where his studio had once been. Experiencing the loss as a form of death, he thought he would never paint again.
Dobrivoje (Dobri) Beljkašić was a landscape painter renowned for painting Bosnia’s Ottoman bridges. Like the men in the hills encircling Sarajevo, he was a Bosnian Serb, but not a nationalist. The Sarajevo he knew and loved was one where different nationalities lived and worked peaceably side by side.
My grandparents, meanwhile, did not dare leave their flat in the new part of Sarajevo. My grandmother became an expert in trapping pigeons to eat, and making nettle soup. My grandfather, a huge ex-wrestler, deflated like a punctured beachball.
In London, we — my younger sisters, Mum and Dad and I (aged 19) — watched the news anxiously each night, scanning faces for a glimpse of a relative.
The Bosnian capital had been under siege for five months. The head Post Office and telephone exchange were blown up in May, making communication with my Mum’s parents impossible. No one could leave the city, the gas, electricity and water supplies had been cut, and relief food was flown in to keep the mixed population of Muslims, Serbs and Croats alive. People of all nationalities were shot at by snipers as they crossed the street, while the ‘men in the hills’ shelled homes, hospitals, mosques and churches.
My mother left Sarajevo in 1968, studied in Paris, then met my English father while waitressing on the King’s Road and settled down in England. Childhood summers were spent in Sarajevo and the surrounding mountains. Riding the children’s train at Sarajevo Zoo, laughing aunts and uncles, sitting cross-legged on a pile of Turkish rugs in the Muslim marketplace, dipping a sly finger into my grandmother’s syrupy baklava, swimming in rivers, traipsing through forests on the look out for bears. These were my idealised memories.
It was painful to equate them with the shocking images on the BBC. The TV version of Sarajevo seemed a horrific distortion. A lie. My guttural response was desperate sadness, which often flipped into anger. Mentally, I felt blocked, extremely puzzled and anxious, as if there was something logical I could not grasp, that, once understood, would make everything click into place.
In early 1993, after 10 months of next-to-no communication from my grandparents, my accountant father bought a flak jacket, flew out to Split, and hitched his way into Sarajevo. He gained entry with a Times press pass. The deal was that he would publish the journal of his rescue trip. His parents-in-law were alive, thank God. They opened a hoarded-away bottle of whiskey and invited the neighbours over to celebrate. When my father visited my mother’s Muslim aunt the next day, she couldn’t stop crying. Her brother had been killed by a sniper the week before.
In London, our home swelled with refugee relatives. Gaunt, chain-smoking, they jumped each time a door slammed.
It took a depressing three weeks to arrange the paperwork for my grandparents to leave. They left via Belgrade, the only possible route for my Bosnian Serb grandfather. Returning via Muslim-and-Croat-controlled territory might have got him killed.
In London, our home swelled with refugee relatives. Gaunt, chain-smoking, they jumped each time a door slammed. They stayed a few nights, or sometimes weeks, before moving on.
I started university in late 1993. At some point, my grandparents moved into an ex-council flat in a high-rise. Whereas my grandmother strove to adjust, attending English lessons for refugees, my grandfather refused to learn. I remember the flat being perpetually dark because he insisted the curtains were drawn. My grandmother would be working on one of the multi-piece jigsaws that covered almost every surface, while my grandfather lay in bed, whistling when he wanted a glass of water.
When he died a few years later, my grandmother opened the curtains, bought a budgie and proudly hung the E that she got in her English classes on the wall. She asked friends round for coffee and baklava.
His incense-filled funeral at the Serbian Orthodox Church in Notting Hill raked up my confusion and pain about the war. On top of this, I hadn’t liked my grandfather. He was an aggressive man and a pro-Serb nationalist.
After we’d knelt to kiss his coffin, my mother pointed out an old man who sat a few rows behind. He wore a multi-coloured checked shirt and had a daffodil in his lapel. My great-uncle Dobri. My mother whispered how his studio burnt down in the famous library fire and how he, his wife and mother-in-law managed to leave Sarajevo on a Red Cross Convoy a few months later. Sadly, his mother-in-law did not survive the journey. They now live in Bristol with their daughter and English son-in-law. After not painting for a year, he’d begun to heal. Inspired by the gentle landscape of the West of England, he had returned to brushes and paint. Bridges. The Avebury Stones. Cheddar Gorge.
The contrast with my grandfather could not have been greater. Sharing a car with Dobri in the funeral procession to Putney Vale Cemetery, he offered round a hip flask and told me more of his story. He’d felt like ‘a new-born baby’ that spring. He’d recently become the oldest member of a Bristol arts club. I was thrilled. Here was something good to hold onto. The beginnings of a novel started to thrum inside me.
THE SUNDAY TIMES