Central Bosnia, 1995
Marc stopped the truck, with no explanation.
“Give me the binoculars.”
Maud took them out of the glove compartment and handed them over. He got out and stood at the edge of the road. She watched as he stared for a long time at the horizon.
Suppressing her pain, she managed to sit up and wipe the condensation from the windshield. From where they had stopped you could see a vast panorama, and if the weather had been better, they might have been able to see all the way to the Adriatic. With the falling snow they could still see most of the high plateau they had crossed. Without binoculars Maud could make out only a white expanse for miles around. Sometimes the road dipped into a hollow, and then it rose up again. They were stopped on a high point. To the south, the ruined towers of a medieval castle stood out against a leaden cloud filled with snow. Marc came back and tossed the binoculars onto the dashboard. More tense than ever, he turned the key in the ignition.
“What did you see?”
“They’ve been through here.”
Set during the Bosnian War in 1995, Checkpoint follows the fortunes of five French aid workers. The youngest, 21-year-old Maud, the lone female in the group, has cut her hair short and wears shapeless clothes, in an attempt to be taken seriously and to repel any unwanted advances. Lionel, the leader of the mission, lacks confidence and smokes weed from morning to night. Former soldiers, Alex and Marc, recruited because convoy drivers are in short supply, have their own secret agendas. Vauthier is the most sinister and repugnant member, hired for his skill as a mechanic, who the others suspect of being a spy: “He always looked as if he were in a bad mood, probably because of his thin lips and drooping eyelids. But his little black eyes were in constant movement searching everywhere, and they were all wary of him.”
The tensions between Vauthier and the two soldiers threaten to derail the mission and reach crisis point, when it transpires that Alex has spiked the load with construction explosives for extracting coal. His objective is to help a group of refugees hiding in a mine – the explosives will stop the tunnels from flooding and help preserve their industry. It is Maud who manages to persuade the other volunteers that it is a worthwhile endeavor, and “the most useful thing we can give these people.” But there are further revelations to come. The soldiers at each checkpoint become increasingly menacing, and they are all shocked to witness the aftermath of a brutal massacre of women and children.
On the damp earth there were fifty bodies or more, lying in grotesque positions. Their arms and legs were twisted, their heads lay at a painful angle from their necks, some had their faces in the mud. On the gray mass of bodies, most of which were clothed in dull, drab garments, the only color was that of blood.
Jean-Christophe Rufin’s literary thriller, expertly rendered by translator Alison Anderson, has a filmic quality to it. The frequent plot twists keep the reader guessing until the end, but this is at the expense of robust characterization. Vauthier, in particularly, remains a shadowy figure whose visceral hatred for Marc is never fully explained. Their backgrounds and reasons for joining the mission are revealed through passages of clunky exposition: We learn that Maud is a risk-taker, when she recalls a childhood memory of jumping off the adult diving board and fracturing her vertebra. Alex’s feelings of alienation are a result of his mixed race background and the reason why he falls for a young Bosnian refugee ostracized because of her ethnicity. Marc’s tough exterior is down to being a “war orphan” and bullied at school. At times, Rufin’s characters feel too simplistic, their motivations implausible, and this makes it difficult for us to feel sympathy for any of them.
In the novel’s second half, the pace never lets up and Rufin raises some interesting questions about the limitations of humanitarian aid. As a founder of Doctors Without Borders, Rufin clearly wants to lift the lid on this world. He understands the futility of taking chocolate and clothing through a war scorched land when another form of international intervention is desperately needed to halt the bloodshed. The Bosnian War may be long over, but Rufin’s concerns remain just as relevant today.