“King of Tuzla” follows the Dutch Tijmen Klein Gildekamp as he’s posted in the former Yugoslavia as part of the UN Peacekeeping Force. Initially his time is spent between barracks and on the road, contrasting the boredom of sleeping, exercising and watching games of Trivial Pursuit with the difficulty of getting about due to potholes and craters in the road, unofficial roadblocks, UN trucks being surrounded by civilians eager for things to sell on the black market or children after sweets and some enclaves refusing entry to UN personnel. Some enterprising villagers have even built wooden platforms alongside the road to ease access to UN vehicles.
Tijmen is a neutral observer. He notices the wood has been removed from the football stadium and that women seem to get the heavy job of carting firewood around, watches children play at war with wooden guns despite the real thing happening all around them, notes that it’s very difficult to tell when a child is with an adult whether that adult is parent or grandparent. He seems to feel more for the partial demolition of the ice rink where Katarina Witt won the Ladies’ Figure Skating Winter Olympic Gold in 1984. That’s not say he’s unaware of the atrocities happening around him. “The youngest girls were picked out and taken to the woods. ‘If you cry, we’ll finish you off right away,’ said the Četniks. Hours later the girls came back, their faces black and blue. They did not cry but were deathly still. Yes, they were deathly still. Some could scarcely stand up.” That ‘deathly’ isn’t really needed but the ‘still’ is well-judged. It is more chilling that the girls aren’t crying, wailing or stamping their feet. They have learnt that survival isn’t always the least worst option.
But he doesn’t want to be neutral and distant. Although the UN troops are strictly forbidden from fraternising with the locals – Tijmen has a “knot in his stomach when he heard that word. ‘Locals’ it sounded like a type of animal.” He imagines what war is like for the civilians, “how they bought candles in the market to light their cellars, how they boiled the polluted water to purify it, how they told their children about the war that would end one day…” Tijmen is frustrated and grows more frustrated as his company is moved to Tuzla, “This was the area where the different population groups overlapped like different geological strata. It was the land of popes, the mullahs and rabbis, the Christians, the Muslims, the Jews and the gypsies… the land of the centuries-old struggle between Turks, Hungarians, Austrians and Germans.”
This then is a soldier’s view of civilians affected by war; civilians who are not directly involved but nonetheless suffer war continuing around them as they merely try to survive. As Srebrenica falls, Tijmen acknowledges the irony that securing the air base means keeping the locals out so aid can get through. He notes too that the Serbs, although shelling the base, are not shelling the actual runway. Tijmen daydreams of his own funeral and starts keeping a journal of stories imagined by watching the civilian workers on the base, a young cleaner returning to her lover, another cleaner stealing a loaf or a few apples to feed her family. Death comes closer too, a patrol stops to bury a family caught in a roadside grenade, and is no longer the abstract of statistics but individuals who weren’t even targets. Reports of abuses of prisoners start coming in, though battle-weary and focused on keeping the air base secure, Tijmen records but doesn’t react. But that’s not say it hasn’t had an impact. Tijmen begins to conclude he has squandered his own talent as a soldier and wasted his life by putting it off.
“The King of Tuzla” doesn’t have the barbed wit of irony running through it, but it’s not that type of book. Tijmen joined up as a teen thinking it would make a difference and this was what he wanted to do: he goes to assist others and finds himself. It’s a neat novella rather than a sprawl of a novel and stronger for that. In “King of Tuzla” Arnold Jansen op de Haar has successfully used fiction to tell a greater truth.
Publisher’s website: Holland Park Press