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Searching for Sofia: A Balkan Odyssey

by John Nadler

As a news editor in Ottawa and Vancouver newsrooms at the time when stories about the Balkans were the top foreign news of the day, I always instructed other editors to wait, no matter what time he filed, for journalist John Nadler’s reports from the region. His missives on the conflict were always the most compelling and astute. Nadler, a correspondent for CanWest Newspapers, has taken that rich understanding of the former Yugoslavia and combined it with the engaging and true story of trying to find the lost love of his friend Gjorg, a young Kosovar who dared to fall in love with a Serbian woman.

If you’re thinking Romeo and Juliet, think again. Nadler admits at first that this is the story he was intending to write (and the book is promoted as such), but Searching for Sofia becomes more about his journey into the heart of Yugoslavia, an imperfect and violent country where almost unimaginable hatred is a fact of life and nothing ever comes easily.

To find Sofia, Nadler must first track down her father, Momo, who stands accused of orchestrating a massacre. To get information about Momo, Nadler meets with an odd assortment of criminals and soldiers, who speak brazenly and matter-of-factly about how to survive. These include Dragan, a car thief who doesn’t want to become too wealthy or he will become a target, and the police officer who describes in graphic detail how he beat homosexuals and then boasts about his people’s 600-year history as “warriors.”

Along for the ride are Sasha and Zoran, Nadler’s translators and “fixers” (people who help journalists find people to interview), Gjorg, and Boris, a former member of the paramilitary who fought in Kosovo. These are glorious characters – passionate, flawed, and, despite their youth, incredible survivors.

As he does in his journalism, Nadler wonderfully mixes the dense, complicated political history of the region with the personal stories of war and its aftermath. And though that history includes ethnic cleansing, paramilitary punks, corrupt leaders, and petty criminals and their victims, Nadler refrains from explicit condemnation. It is a remarkably brave and endearing approach.