Five French humanitarians set out to Central Bosnia to bring aid to women and children trapped in an occupied town of Kakanj.
You would think the most dangerous thing on their journey would be passing the various checkpoints manned by paramilitaries and professional armies. Think again.
Each of the five people in the two-truck convoy has their own hidden agenda. They paint an unexpected picture of humanitarianism. Most of them are not the benevolent good-doers with honest intentions we imagine all humanitarians to be.
Lionel is in love with Maud, the only girl in the convoy. Alex wants to help his fiancé, one of the women trapped inside the occupied territory. Marc, an ex-UN peace corp member, wants to put an end to the fighting, whatever the cost. Vaulthier’s goal is to stop Marc.
The author, Jean-Christophe Rufin is a French medical doctor, a humanitarian, a diplomat and one of the founders of Doctors Without Borders. Having seen first hand the repercussions of the non-involvement policy UN practiced in the Balkan region back in the nineties’ war, his account of the events, the atmosphere and the motivations of all the belligerent parties are surprisingly accurate.
As a reader:
It is a multi-faceted novel, and the best part is that the layers are so skillfully interwoven, that the readers don’t have to exert themselves to keep track of the many different issues the author addresses.
The first layer is the series of events that take place in the two trucks that constitute the humanitarian convoy. These events are overshadowed by the complicated interpersonal dynamics and each character’s hidden agenda.
Another layer that Rufin addresses is feminism. Told from Maud’s point of view, Rufin is probably more efficient at discussing this topic than most female writers.
That micro-cosmos of the two trucks is set against the backdrop of a multi-national war in Bosnia. As a native Croat, and a person who lived through the wars in Balkans in the nineties, I wasn’t expecting Rufin to paint such a realistic picture of what had happened back then. But his account of the atmosphere and reasons behind the conflict is suprisingly to the point.
However, the multi-national conflict backdrop is only a backdrop in itself. At the very heart of the novel is the author’s philosophical questioning of the very basis of humanitarianism—is aiding the civilians with an occasional delivery of food, clothes, and medicines really the most humanitarian thing to do? Wouldn’t taking up arms against the oppressor to stop the suffering of the oppressed be a more humanitarian thing to do? Isn’t standing by, watching entire nations be erased from the face of the Earth, a crime in itself?
As a child of war, I remember thinking that, if we could only get the word out, tell the world what was happening, the world would help us. It took me a while to understand the world knew and chose to do nothing, just as we’re watching conflicts happen right now and not doing anything to stop them.
This theme feels very current in view of the ongoing humanitarian disasters in Syria, Yemen, and many other countries in the Middle East and Africa. The entire idea of international political (think UN) and humanitarian organizations is questionable if we’re still allowing things like this to happen before our very eyes while we do nothing.
As a writer:
I was blown away by how skillfully Rufin has interwoven different aspects of his story.
The story flows quite naturally, and the backdrop of both war and questioning the humanitarianism as a concept is shown entirely from the perspective of the five characters driving in the two-truck convoy.
I recommend reading this book if you’re a writer struggling with:
- how to avoid info-dumping
- how to make a multi-layered story
- how to show instead of tell