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Evading War Guilt

David Ralph

The War is Dead, Long Live the War: Bosnia – The Reckoning, by Ed Vulliamy, 354 pp, £20, The Bodley Head, ISBN: 978-1847921949

On a trip this August from Dubrovnik in Croatia to Mostar in Bosnia I passed briefly through the seaside town of Neum, situated along a jaw-droppingly beautiful cliff-front of the Adriatic sea. Neum’s geography is peculiar: it lies smack in the middle of Bosnia’s twenty-kilometre stretch of the Dalmatian coastline, splitting Croatia into two non-contiguous parts. The remainder of Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) is effectively landlocked between neighbours Croatia and Serbia.

A few minutes previously we had passed by bus over the Croatian-Bosnian border; aloft the border hut at the checkpoint the six white lilies on the Bosnian flag rippled gently. But in and around Neum the Croatian flag – a red-and-white chequered shield – adorned most rooftops, while the front gates to roadside houses were pointedly painted in alternating red and white stripes. Passing road signs, written first in Bosnian, then italicised in Croatian – two highly similar registers of Serbo-Croatian – were frequently vandalised; the Bosnian would be graffitied over leaving only the Croatian register legible. The population of Neum is 95 per cent Bosnian-Croat, I later learned; though it lies within BiH territory, political allegiances clearly lie with Croatia’s capital, Zagreb, to the north, not to the east in Sarajevo. The erasure of the Bosnia register from the road signs was most likely the handiwork of bored local teenagers.

Ed Vulliamy’s new book, The War is Dead, Long Live the War: Bosnia – The Reckoning, deals principally with a far more sinister but clearly related form of erasure: the attempted removal of the Bosnian Muslim community from Serb-dominated regions of BiH during the Yugoslav wars of 1992-1995, and the subsequent, peacetime attempts at erasing the history of that war and denying the survivors their history, their past.

Vulliamy’s engagement with Bosnia started with an accident of geography. As Italian correspondent for The Guardian in the early 1990s, his brief in Rome also involved “keeping an eye” on nearby Yugoslavia, where separatist rumours among the various nations making up the federation were gathering pace following the fall of the Berlin Wall. What transpired as first Slovenia’s then Croatia’s secessionist claims advanced, as we now know, was “the worst carnage to blight Europe since the fall of the Third Reich”. Vulliamy spend the years 1992-1995 immersed in reporting the Balkan wars.

The pivotal date for him throughout all this reportage, as he makes clear in the book’s prologue, was lunchtime, August 5th, 1992, when along with Penny Marshall from ITN and Ian Williams from Channel 4 he visited Omarska concentration camp, in northeast Bosnia. Vulliamy had gained approval from Dr Radovan Karadžić, to visit what the Bosnian Serb leader had called a mere “collection centre”; emerging from a hangar Vulliamy watched skeletal, shaven-headed men make their way at gunpoint across the tarmac yard and into the canteen, where he tried to interview some of the prisoners.

Most of the men were horribly thin and raw-boned, some almost cadaverous, with dry skin like parchment folded around the bones of their stick-like arms. Their faces were lantern-jawed, and their bulbous eyes had either the empty stare of the prisoner fearing the next blow, or else were piercing, as though they had some terrible secret to impart but dared not speak. Amid the silence, one emaciated man summoned the courage to speak up: “I don’t want to tell any lies, but cannot tell the truth,” Džemal Paratušić told Vulliamy. The visit to Omarska lasted just a few minutes before armed guards bundled the reporters out of the grounds. Then they were escorted to Trnopolje, another camp; from behind a barbed-wire fence more skeletal, shaven-headed men approached. There, Fikret Alić spoke with the journalists from behind the wire; his sunken, “xylophone ribcage” and wraith-like mien became the iconic image of the Balkan wars.

By his own admission, Vulliamy was content living la dolce vita as a foreign correspondent in Rome. His overnight conversion to war reporter in Bosnia changed all that; he has now chronicled the Balkan wars and their aftermath for two decades, has travelled all over Europe and the US meeting survivors of the camps, has been back to Bosnia “countless times”, and has testified on seven occasions at trials of indicted war criminals in The Hague. His book chronicles the war’s legacy, the camp survivors’ journey over the last twenty years, as well as Vulliamy’s own. First, though, he gives readers a recap of the Balkan wars.

As late as March 1st, 1992, after a referendum for Bosnian independence from Yugoslavia was supported by a 99.7 per cent majority, Bosnian president Alija Izetbegović could still declare that “there will be no war” in Bosnia. Within weeks of this statement, its patent absurdity had been savagely exposed, as Bosnian Serbs laid waste to vast swathes of eastern rural Bosnia, emptying towns, villages and hamlets of their Muslim population. The violence was barbaric. Whole families were locked in their houses and incinerated alive. Thousands were lined up on bridges, shot in the stomach and dumped in rivers. Tens of thousands were forcibly deported or fled, now refugees in their own country. Special camps for the systematic rape of young Bosnian girls and women were established by Bosnian Serb soldiers. Dr Radovan Karadžić voluntarily called the purge “ethnic cleansing”. General Ratko Mladić’s forces surrounded Mostar and Sarajevo, laying siege to the beleaguered cities. In recounting all this, however, Vulliamy does not dwell gratuitously on the raw material of the war, on what went on in the camps. Only occasionally, and only when necessary to the narrative, are we given details of rapes, executions, beatings, murders. At one point we learn of a Bosniak prisoner forced to grease up another inmate and bite off his testicles, in the name of entertainment for the onlooking drunken Serb guards. At another we learn of a woman so violently raped that rather than allow the other guards queuing up to violate her, she jumped to her death out of the window of the hotel where she was kept. (Incidents like these are so graphic, so shocking, that I found myself having to put the book down mid-passage on occasion, steel myself, then resume reading some time later.)

This war was the crumbling Yugoslavia’s third in under a year. The first was in Slovenia, begun when the Slovenes declared independence on June 27th, 1990. The Yugoslavia People’s Army attacked Ljubljana, but ten days later the Brijuni Accord was signed, granting Slovenia independence from the Yugoslav federation. This successful secession galvanised Croatian ambitions for independence, however. And soon afterwards, a second, far more ferocious war erupted, with the Serb-dominated Yugoslav Peoples’ Army this time being supported by Serb paramilitaries and facing off against Croatian forces in Croatian Krajina, a region inside Croatian territory but with a large Serb population. Here, in a precursor to what would happen on a much larger scale some months later in eastern Bosnia, Croatian Serbs carried out a pogrom against Croatian civilians, most notoriously in Vukovar, a once elegant town on the Danube the Serbs crowed about “liberating” after they had reduced it to blasted rubble. (Misha Glenny, BBC Central European correspondent during the Yugoslav wars, reports in his excellent The Fall of Yugoslavia just how wanton, how senseless the violence in Vukovar was: the Serbs not only killed all the human inhabitants of the town, they also killed all its animals after they overran it. Pigs’ throats were slit; chickens were shot up with rounds of bullets; horses were decapitated; dogs were impaled on fence-posts.)

The breakup of Yugoslavia was a cause of major concern to Serbia, which dominated the federation politically, economically, demographically, and, most importantly, militarily. Unwilling to accept a rump Yugoslav state without Slovenia and Croatia, Serbs articulated a plan to carve out a Greater Serbia in 1986, in the SANU Memorandum. The paper, drawn up by professors in Belgrade, argued that the power-sharing agreements created by Marshal Tito were an insult to the Serbian narod or people, that Yugoslavia should be dissolved and the maps redrawn around Serbia to include all the territory of Macedonia, Montenegro, Bosnia, Kosovo and Croatia where ethnic Serbs lived. Slobodan Milosevic seized on this idea of a Greater Serbia when he gained control of the Serbian Socialist Party in 1989, replacing the Marxist intellectual framework of the party with a fervent ethnic nationalism. Milošević’s rhetoric made abundant references to a “Celestial Serbia” – a programme that involved the gathering of all Serbs under the banner of one nation. And this idea, still represented on the coat of arms in the centre of the present-day Serbian flag, was expressed in the symbol of four Cyrillic “S” letters on a Serbian cross: Samo sloga Srbina sprasava (Only Unity Can Save the Serbs).

Milosevic’s attempt to unify the Serbs in the Croatian Krajina was halted by the arrival of a United Nations Protection Force, Unprofor, in January 1992. But if the Serb forces were temporarily stilled in Croatia, they were only just beginning on the Bosnian front. Soon, taking their place alongside the likes of Vukovar on the Danube, the war’s sorry lexicon would expand to include other place-names that to this day are synonymous with Milošević’s genocidal mania: Višegrad, Foča, Zvornik, and, most notoriously of all, Srebrenica, where, over the course of six days in July 1995, some 8,000 Muslim boys and men were massacred, under the nose of a Dutch Unprofor base.

In this opening overview of the Balkan wars, Vulliamy reserves especial scorn for the international community’s response to the conflict. British and French diplomats successfully peddled the doctrine of “moral equivalence” – that is, all parties (Croats, Serbs, Muslims) were to be seen as equal combatants, despite the fact that at the time Serbia had the fourth largest army in Europe. This “calculated neutrality” for a long time prevented military intervention from outside and in diplomatic circles and certain media accounts the Balkan wars became a sort of victimless crime, in which everyone was equally guilty, equally blameless. This stance suited the Serbs perfectly, and accords with subsequent Serbian accounts of the war. Three days before the butchering at Srebrenica, General Mladić dined on a lunch of suckling pig and roast lamb with Unprofor general Bernard Janvier. At that lunch, Janvier promised Mladić that there would be no intervention by Unprofor forces in and around Srebrenica.

Finally the US did intervene, and pushed through Nato-approval of limited air strikes on Serbian strongholds in the Croatian Krajina. With Nato backing, an alliance of Croatian and Bosnian forces pushed out the Serb occupiers and made their way up through the Krajina, on towards Prijedor, in northwestern Bosnia. And then, US special envoy to Bosnia Richard Holbrooke halted their advance. Determined to stop the war as soon as possible, in Dayton, Ohio in December 1995 Holbrooke secured the agreement of the Croatian, Serbian and Bosnian presidents to sign a peace plan. In what became known as the Dayton Accords – which are still in place today – Bosnia was effectively cantonised into two entities: a “federation” which Bosnian Croats and Bosnian Muslims – who by this stage had begun a separate sectarian war against one another – were expected to share; and Republika Srpska, Serb Republic, which granted Bosnian Serbs 49 per cent of Bosnia’s territory. Prior to Dayton, Bosnian Serbs controlled 46 per cent of Bosnia and Herzegovina. “Rarely in European history,” writes Vulliamy, “has the palm of mass murder been so bountifully greased at the negotiating table.”

Clearly atrocities were committed on all sides. After Vulliamy and his colleagues reported what they witnessed inside Omarska and Trnopolje, the world’s media predictably descended to recycle the story. But Vulliamy had already left this dismal pocket of scorched northern Bosnia; he was busy taking up a challenge posed to him by Dr Karadžić: to go and see for himself camps run by Croat/Bosniak militias in Croatia. Vulliamy found prisoners, men and women, held in similarly appalling conditions in Croat/Bosniak-controlled Dretelj and Celebiči, and duly reported the facts.

However, there can be no argument over which “side” (it is not even the right word) unleashed the violence, and there is certainly no balance in the numbers of dead. For all the arguments posited to the contrary by the Bosnian Serbs and their supporters in the West, it is beyond doubt and forensically proven by the contents of mass graves that the vast majority of the 70,000 killed and the 30,000 still missing presumed dead at the end of the war in 1995 were Bosniaks. And Vulliamy, accused by certain colleagues of professional treason for testifying at The Hague (reporters should be neutral, mere recorders of facts not evaluators of them, runs their jaded critique), makes no apologies for the stance he took:

Objectivity is fact-specific, and reporters must always be objective: we cannot and should not distort the facts. Neutrality, however is something else ... There are moments in history when neutrality is not neutral, but complicit in the crime. Between camp guard and inmate, raped woman and the beast raping her, I do not wish to be neutral.

The end of the war, peacetime, occupies the bulk of Vulliamy’s narrative throughout the remainder of the book. And as the subtitle suggests, reckoning is a central concept through which he attempts to comprehend the war’s aftermath. For the perpetrator of an atrocity, reckoning entails a process of staring in the mirror, of admission and self-disclosure. It is a means of self-liberation through tearing off the masks that justified what was done, and making amends.

But not only perpetrators must reckon with their past actions; so must the victims:

Reckoning accordingly liberates the survivors within history, opening the way for potential – but by no means inevitable – reconciliation and resolution. Reckoning gives the victim back something of what was taken; of course that excludes the dead, but reckoning can give their loss a name and a place in history, through recognition of what was done.

As an exemplar of properly reckoned-with history, Vulliamy cites modern Germans’ engagement with the Holocaust: “It is not the Jews who built the museums at Dachau or the monuments in Berlin; it is the Germans.” What we have today in Bosnia, Vulliamy shows, is a comprehensive unreckoning. With a few honourable exceptions, “the society of Serbs – and Bosnian Serbs in particular – cannot be said to have reckoned with what it has done”. Shortly after the end of the war, in February 1996, Vulliamy returned to Omarska, to be met with a stony silence from the Bosnian Serb guards who stopped him at the gates. “Nothing happened here,” one of them told him. “Iron ore was processed here until the end of 1992, so how could there have been any kind of camp in the August of that year? I should know. I was here ... There was no camp here at all. There was no camp – ever.”

This brazen, mulish denial continues, unalloyed and unreconstructed, to this day. Since 1997, survivors congregate on the grounds of Omarska every August 6th to commemorate those who died there. In response, local Serbs carefully plan wedding celebrations for this date, waving their Cyrillic “S” flags and hooting car horns as mourners make their way up to the camp. Bosnian Serb authorities have ferociously resisted all attempts to erect a monument at the site. In 2004 the iron ore mine at Omarska was purchased by Britain’s richest man, Lakshmi Mittal, owner of the world’s largest steel company, ArcelorMittal. The new owners were initially receptive to the idea of commemorating the dead, but opposition by local politicians in Prijedor – the district’s capital – grew insurmountable. Omarska has been refurbished and the mine is functioning again; meanwhile, the site where hundreds of Bosniaks were killed in an orgy of violence remains unmarked. ArcelorMittal spokesperson Paul Weigh openly told Vulliamy, “We’re in a very difficult situation. The area is largely populated by Serbs. These are the people we are currently dealing with, and we do not want to do anything to antagonise them.” Spitefully, strategically, the Bosnian Serbs have erected monuments outside the camp at Trnopolje, overlooking the bridge in Višegrad, and in the centre of town in Foča – monuments not to the thousands of raped and murdered Bosniaks in these places, but to the few fallen Serbs, most of whom died in active service. Even the Bosnian Serbs’ educational curriculum is twisted with this logic of denial: Milan Jovanović, head teacher at a Srebrenica high school, explained to Vulliamy: “We are not sure what happened in 1995 and The Hague has not yet finished with its cases. We are waiting for history to establish what happened before we teach it. And I will not talk politics.”

Outside Serbia, a pernicious revisionism of the historical record has become iconoclastically voguish among a particular intellectual set in the West, which strives to cast doubt on the existence of Serb-run camps during the war in Bosnia. With what Vulliamy sees as a “calculated myopia” similar to that cultivated by Holocaust-deniers, the magazine Living Marxism in Britain repeated an argument first put forth by German journalist Thomas Deichmann in an article called “The Picture that Fooled the World”; the picture Living Marxism referred to is that of Firket Alić, the man with the xylophone ribcage behind the barbed-wire fence in Trnopolje. Living Marxism argued that ITN’s footage of the camp was deliberately staged, designed to evoke in viewers scenes reminiscent of Nazi-style concentration camps, when in fact, approvingly quoting Deichmann, it was “not a prison, and certainly not a ‘concentration camp’, but a collection centre for refugees, many of whom went there seeking safety and could leave again if they wished”. When ITN sued for libel, several leading writers and intellectuals – including Doris Lessing, Harold Evans, Paul Theroux, Fay Weldon, Noam Chomsky – signed a petition supporting Living Marxism. ITN won its case; paying the legal bill forced the magazine out of business.

In this context, unsurprisingly, a proper reckoning with the past has been difficult for both camp survivors and the huge Bosnian diaspora that resulted from the upheaval of the war. Vulliamy meets dozens of those now living overseas, travelling all over Europe and the US in the process. We hear from Šerif Velić, an Omarska survivor living in Sweden but back for the summer in his native village of Kevljani, where he has rebuilt his original home. He palpably feels the lack of remorse of his Serb neighbours: “I still feel the hostility, every day. A look, a glance, a push out of the way ... The drama continues, every day, a reminder of how much they hate us.” Vulliamy meets Edin Kararić in his home in Chorneywood, northwest London. Kararić has problems sleeping; his psychiatrist tells him that the Holocaust survivors who did not kill themselves once free were the ones who were able to forget their dreams. “The ones who do,” Kararić tells Vulliamy, “who live through it all again and remember when they wake up, are the ones in trouble.” “WHY can’t they admit what they did?” asks Kararić. He continues:

We’re talking about the first concentration camps since the Second World War, 100,000 people killed and 35 per cent of Kozarac killed, 1.7 million people deported. So what are we supposed to do? We go to Omarska, we cry our eyes out. Then we go back to Kozarac and drink ourselves stupid and listen to some half-naked girl singing.

Then there’s elegant, remarkable Jadranka Cigelj, who arrives in her home town of Prijedor, off the train from Zagreb, to meet Vulliamy. The two wander the streets, until she guides him to the front door of the apartment where she was born. A Serb family now lives in the apartment, having seized the property after Cigelj was transported to Omarska in 1992, where she was violated repeatedly. But, says Cigelj, “They never took my pride. Not even in sexual assault. I was an object, not a subject, and the subject kept her pride. Pride is looking straight at your violator, so that he knows what he has done, and what he is.” Still, despite her defiance, there can be no homecoming here. Cigelj discusses visiting Dachau, and how the Germans have “closed the book on what they did”. She continues:

And there’s nothing like that going on in this place! It’s a psychosis, building all these monuments to the side that committed the crimes! It’s the kind of arrogance that only comes from small people, for whom everything has to be Serbian, whether it’s a sausage or God – who apparently is a Serb.

In Taloviči, still war-scarred, a poor rural hamlet in eastern Republika Srpska, Vulliamy visits an impoverished Bosniak family, the Talovićs. With nowhere else to go after the war, Sevko and Mina Talović are one of six families to have tentatively rebuilt their home here after it was hit by Serb shelling in 1992. Life is tough. They subsist on collecting, then dismantling old machinery and selling the metal for scrap in Sarajevo. The main economic driver in the area, a bauxite mine in the nearby town of Milici, employs only Serbs. But something else, something more terrible than Serb taunts and economic discrimination, haunts the Talovićs. Their nephew Sulejman Talović died in a shootout in February 2007 with police after he opened fire and killed five innocent people in a shopping mall in Salt Lake City, Utah, where he had moved with his parents as a refugee in 1998. Could Sulejman’s atrocious actions have been partially touched off by what he saw as a child during the war? Could the unresolved trauma of witnessing amputations on injured women and children with only a swig of rakija as anaesthetic have somehow triggered this moment of unprovoked, merciless violence? All the Talović family Vulliamy interviewed – both in Utah and Taloviči – were keen to dismiss this as an explanation; instead, they mourn for their lost relative – “Sulejman should be here, coming to play football with us now,” says his cousin Mujo – while trying to live with the shame of what he has done. More non-resolution, more unreckoning.

But perhaps the most searing, rawest expression of this unreckoning is among the families of those persons missing presumed dead. Forty thousand people remained unaccounted for at the end of the war in 1995. Of this figure, thirty thousand had gone missing in Bosnia, most of them Bosniaks. To date, approximately twenty thousand bodies have been recovered from mass graves throughout Bosnia, led by teams of forensic scientists working with the International Commission for Missing Persons (ICMP) in Sarajevo. DNA samples are taken from exhumed remains in an effort to genetically match them with families who have registered missing members. However, identifying the dead, even with the latest DNA-testing technology, is not always possible. Investigators are sometimes reluctant to contact families as they may have only partially recovered an individual’s remains – a result of the Serb policy in certain areas of unearthing mass graves, then transporting the bodies to other, more remote locations and reinterring the victims in the hope that the new graves will not be found. In this process, of course, skeletons break up, and victims’ bones are scattered beneath the soil at different locations. Amor Mašović, head of the Commission for Missing Persons in Sarajevo, explained to Vulliamy how the Commission is often

left with a dilemma: we may only have someone’s forearm, and maybe we can find out the name of that forearm, but we don’t have the nerve to say to the family, “We have found your son.” How can you hand over to a mother a son represented by a forearm?

The biggest obstacle, however, is getting local Serbs – who plotted and dug the burial sites, then dumped the bodies – to cooperate with the ICMP’s work in helping them locate as yet unidentified mass graves. “There is so much resistance to what we are doing,” Zlatan Ališić of the ICMP told Vulliamy, “that many people who were mobilized by their own authorities to bury the dead are now too scared of their own community to come forward and help, even if they wanted to.” And this conspiracy of silence among the Serb population creates, Vulliamy argues, the worst possible form of unreckoning for Bosniaks with family members still missing:

If there is one human need even more primal than commemoration of the dead, it is burial – something elemental, alongside the erection of monuments, that humankind has done since the dawn of its existence. Accordingly, the search for the missing, so that their remains can be given back to their families for proper interment, is germinal to the reckoning – an absolute precondition.

In addition to his writing, Vulliamy regularly gives public talks on the Balkan wars throughout the US and Europe. Together with acclaimed novelist and essayist Dubravka Ugrešić (who only hesitatingly calls herself Croatian), he spoke about the war’s aftermath at the Samuel Beckett Theatre as part of the Dublin Writers’ Festival in July this year. With his tattoos, black leather waistcoat and alligator-skin cowboy boots, Vulliamy has the air of slightly road-worn rock star; but as soon as his gravelly voice broke the silence in the packed auditorium, his wit, intelligence and passion were immediately evident. He convincingly argued that, despite the ocean of platitudes on post-conflict resolution, peace and reconciliation, and that “glib term imposed by politics, psychotherapy and the news”, closure, in the post-Dayton world there is no such thing for most Bosniaks. During the question and answer session, Bosniaks in the audience evacuated to Ireland as refugees and now living in Dublin for almost twenty years explained how they live on, like many of the diasporians interviewed in Vulliamy’s book, in a sort of half-life, wanting to go home, knowing full well there is no home to go back to. It was obvious from their tone they were very grateful to Vulliamy for his thorough reportage of the war, and for his continued engagement with its legacy. The War is Dead, Long Live the War is essential reading for those wanting to better understand how these people live.

David Ralph is a freelance journalist and researcher. He lives in Dublin.