Book review: The Longest Winter by Kevin Sullivan

The Siege of Sarajevo, which lasted 1,425 days from April 1992 to February 1996, was the longest siege of a capital city in the history of modern warfare and one of the cruellest events in the vicious war in Bosnia'¦
The Longest Winter byKevin SullivanThe Longest Winter byKevin Sullivan
The Longest Winter byKevin Sullivan

The siege, in which the Bosnian Serbs encircled the city and assaulted it with artillery, tanks and small arms, lasted three times longer than the Battle of Stalingrad and more than a year longer than the Siege of Leningrad, and killed a total of 13,952 people.

Journalist Kevin Sullivan was reporting on the Bosnian war when he was seriously wounded in a land mine explosion in Sarajevo in early 1993 and it was while he was recovering from his injuries that he wrote an early draft of his inspirational debut novel The Longest Winter.

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Based on Sullivan’s first-hand experiences of the fighting around Sarajevo, conditions inside the city during the siege and his natural affection for the place that is now his home, this moving and grittily authentic story of bravery, compassion, humanity and inhumanity is a remarkable achievement.

Terry Barnes knows immediately that she is out of her depth and her comfort zone when she makes a bumpy landing on a flight from the UK to Sarajevo where the city is in the midst of a devastating siege.

Her mission is to help evacuate eight-year-old Miro, a boy with a serious heart condition who will die without the urgent surgery he can get in London. It’s a freezing cold winter in Sarajevo and all around her is a terrifying landscape of burned out roofless buildings, shell holes filled with black water and ice, and the constant menace of ruthless snipers.

In wartime, some people discover they are cowards and others discover that they have hitherto unknown stores of resilience and bravery.

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And amid the devastation of besieged Sarajevo, Terry meets Brad, an American journalist desperately trying to save his reputation following the disasters of his last posting, and Milena, a beautiful young woman from eastern Bosnia who has fled from her home and her husband, seeking refuge from betrayal.

In the aftermath of the assassination of a government minister, three life stories are intertwined in a dramatic quest for redemption...

The Longest Winter takes us into the heart of war-torn Sarajevo, a city where chaos reigns both on the streets and behind the closed doors of the bureaucrats. As officials struggle to impose some kind of order, the people dodge sniper bullets, try to survive with little water and meagre food supplies and risk death on a daily basis.

Into this powerfully portrayed maelstrom comes naïve young doctor Terry Barnes, a medic with no conflict training who must use her steely reserves and determination to rescue a child sick, organise a mercy flight to safety… and help provide him with the gift of life.

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Her seemingly impossible mission sets her on a collision course with those remarkable souls who would help her, and those who would carelessly and coldly see her as just another victim of war.

This a heartbreaking, disturbing story set in a world that is thankfully unrecognisable to most of us, but one it is important that we learn about. War, Sullivan tells us is brutal – particularly when that war is between fellow countrymen – but there is also hope here, not least in the bravery of people who risk their lives for others and never allow evil to defeat them.

(Twenty7, paperback, £7.99)