In Nermina’s Chance, forthcoming from Atmosphere Press, Dina Greenberg describes the flight of a young woman from Bosnia circa 1992. Novelist Clyde Edgerton said of the novel, “Rarely does a story blend so meaningfully the horrors of war, the possibilities and limits of love, and the human need for family. If you give Nermina’s Chance a chance, you will soon be turning the last page.”
From Nermina’s Chance:
CHAPTER 1 THE TUNNEL
Sarajevo — May 1992
The six other passengers in the truck are silent, though Nermina feels the shudders of the old woman pressed to her right side and knows she is crying. The little boy Esmer sleeps, his head nested against Nermina’s shoulder, his breath and body warming her. At first, the circuitous route made no sense to her. Three additional trucks in their convoy, their headlights off, crawl behind one another in a hideous steel caterpillar. She hears a shout from the driver in the truck ahead of them, and their own vehicle rolls to a creaky halt. This is the third such stop in as many hours. Their driver—a grim man who could be twenty-five or fifty—had told them that traveling through the mountains on unmarked roads is the only way they’d escape Serbian gunfire. By now Nermina understands the presence of the white UN vehicles throughout Sarajevo will do little to stave off the siege; only these men who drive the trucks—Bosnian Muslims and Croats—have a chance of delivering Nermina and the others to the relative safety of the airport tunnel.
But the mountain roads have proven treacherous. Rocks cut into the trucks’ thick tires and have now punctured the oil pan of the truck ahead. She hears the men whispering terse instructions to one another. They’ll have to improvise a repair now since they’ve depleted the only spare parts the caravan carried the last time they’d broken down. Along with the others, Nermina dutifully climbs out at the driver’s order. Her body feels bruised and sore from the truck’s constant jerking and lunging. The women take advantage of the stop, though, each squatting in the dark to relieve themselves while one of the men keeps watch. The old woman holds tight to Nermina, clutching at her sweater, while Esmer’s small hand grips her own. Exhaust fumes from the truck announce the temporary fix and they all clamber back inside.
Once they are in motion again, Nermina’s mind begins to race; too exhausted to stop their chaotic dance, she sees the images of the past weeks and months flash one after the other. But now as the convoy comes to yet another stop, her heart pounds harder inside her chest. She looks down at the black mirror of water below them, the narrow bridge that seems unlikely to support the weight of their truck, let alone the others behind them. She thinks of her father, the last time she’d seen him alive. She remembers how he’d forced the cash into her hands, the emptiness in his eyes. They reflected her own weariness, a sorrow that still hasn’t reached its full power. He’d pushed her away—had she been a parent she would have done the same—but she’d felt only the ruthless cruelty of this action like a slap.
The truck crawls across the rickety wooden bridge and the fear that had overtaken Nermina just moments before now folds into her general state of tense exhaustion. And then as the truck’s engine whines into its lowest gear as they climb yet another ridge, a flash of light streaks across the night sky. In the distance, Nermina sees fire leaping against the darkness. “Dobrinja,” the driver whispers. “They’ve taken Dobrinja.” She remembers the house and her room. Her face crumbles. Mirsad, she mouths, seeing again the blazing office tower. They took my brother, too.
The trucks near a low stone house and the driver, cigarette dangling from clenched lips, jumps from the cab. He hisses at his passengers to wait and then a second later to gather up their belongings. No other instructions come for what seems a very long time. And then suddenly they’re all scuttling through a low entryway, the driver aiming a weak stream of light ahead of them from his flashlight. They walk along a set of railway tracks, each—even little Esmer—carrying his own load, no one speaking a word except for the driver’s hushed instructions.
And then Nermina realizes they’re climbing a set of cement stairs. And the stairs deliver them into the bombed- out airport that still holds a small terminal. Two uniformed UN officers hurry them through a short corridor that reeks of urine and smoke. She hears a brusque conversation between their driver and the uniformed Americans. A misunderstanding? A mistake? Nermina hears the Americans’ terse words, words her brain is too rattled to decipher, and then she’s carried along with the others in another rush of movement. The old woman clutches again at Nermina’s arm and torso and she fights the urge to push her away. Another UN peacekeeper—British this time—motions the group across the tarmac and onto the steps of the plane. With Esmer pressing against her leg and the woman grasping the flesh of Nermina’s arm through her sweater, she cares only about getting aboard. She feels the collective tension of all of them now, a great wave of fear and exhaustion, but also a flicker of hope. If she can make this first, most critical leg of the journey, the war will be behind her. Her lips form a grim smile. She sees her father’s face, determined, prideful. “I’m getting you out,” he’d said. “There’s nothing here for you now.” She pats her side, feels the thick envelope, which had been even thicker before she’d boarded the truck.
Now they’re buckled into their seats, and the jet’s engines drown out her thoughts. But once they’re in the air, the old woman asks timidly: “Do you have people in London?” In the dim light of the cabin, Nermina sees how dark circles spread above the woman’s hollow cheeks—she appears to be starving—and she swallows the bitter taste of guilt for the harsh feelings she’d had earlier. She runs her hand softly over Esmer’s jet-black hair. The child had fallen asleep again as soon as the plane lifted off. She hears her father’s instructions once more: “First Ancona, then London, then Portland, Oregon. America.”
“No, no one there,” Nermina murmurs.
“Where then?” The woman’s expression eases ever so slightly.
“I’m continuing on to the United States where I have some friends.” She hears the artificial cheerfulness she’d used so often with Esmer in recent weeks. She feels she might laugh or perhaps she will cry. “And you?” Nermina asks then, as though she were making polite conversation at a party.
“London,” the old woman says. “My niece will meet me in London.”
“Good,” says Nermina. She pats the old woman’s hand, the skin worn like the hospital linens they’d used those long weeks without laundering, and looks into her wrinkled face. She sees her mother’s face then, bruised and beaten. Her parents would never grow old together. This, too, the soldiers have stolen.
© Dina Greenberg 2021
Nominated for The Pushcart Prize, Best Small Fictions, and The Millions, Dina Greenberg’s poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction have appeared widely in such journals as Bellevue Literary Review, Pembroke Magazine, Split Rock Review, Tahoma Literary Review, Barely South, and Wilderness House Literary Review. Dina earned an MFA in fiction from the University of North Carolina Wilmington, where she served as managing editor for the literary journal Chautauqua. She teaches creative writing at the Cameron Art Museum and provides one-on-one writing coaching for victims of trauma. Her work leading creative writing workshops for combat veterans resulted in writing Nermina’s Chance, her debut novel. Find her at dinagreenberg.com.
Photo by Belinda Keller.
Cover by Kevin Stone