This review was excerpted in The Economist of July 7, 2005. The following is the complete text:
Books on Bosnia: From Srebrenica to the Middle Ages
by Tim Judah
14 July 2005
A small British publisher teams up with the London-based Bosnian Institute to produce four valuable books on Bosnia.
Postcards From the Grave, by Emir Suljagic. Translated by Lejla Haveric. Saqi / The Bosnian Institute. 240 pages, $24.95. To be published in America in September.
Raw Memory: Prijedor, Laboratory of Ethnic Cleansing, by Isabelle Wesselingh and Arnaud Vaulerin. Translated by John Howe. Saqi / The Bosnian Institute. 292 pages, $27.50. To be published in America in August.
Bosnians, by Paul Lowe. Saqi / The Bosnian Institute. 172 pages, $35.00.
Sarajevo Rose: A Balkan Jewish Notebook, by Stephen Schwartz. Saqi/ The Bosnian Institute. 288 pages, $30.00.
"I survived." The first sentence of Emir Suljagic's memoir of life in besieged Srebrenica could hardly be more succinct. "My name could have been anything, Muhamed, Ibrahim or Isak, it does not matter. I survived and many did not." Millions of words have been written about Srebrenica in the last 10 years, many of them this week, the 10th anniversary of its fall. In years to come, they will be forgotten, but this book will stand the test of time.
What is especially important about Postcards From the Grave, though, is that it is the first book published in English by a Bosnian who survived the siege and its aftermath. Today, Suljagic is a journalist in Sarajevo.
At the beginning of the Bosnian war in 1992, 17-year-old schoolboy Suljagic was forced to flee Serbian paramilitaries and ethnic cleansers into the eastern Bosnian town of Srebrenica. He taught himself English and secured a job with the UN as a translator. On his first day in town he says that he felt "a deep inner drive to survive." It was thanks to this, and his job then, that when in July 1995, the besieged enclave fell and Serb forces under General Ratko Mladic proceeded to slaughter some 8,000 of Suljagic's fellow Bosnian Muslim (now called Bosniaks) men and boys, he survived.
One of the most chilling events that Suljagic writes about takes place just after Srebrenica has fallen. A Serbian soldier asks for Suljagic's identity card, which gets passed up a chain until it reaches General Mladic himself. The general asks him if he was ever a soldier, which he says he was not. He explains that he was translating for the UN. Mladic then tells him he can go. To this day, that moment has remained with Suljagic to torture him.
"I survived because Mladic felt like God that day," writes Suljagic. "He had absolute power to decide over life and death. I used to dream about him for months, reliving the encounter all over again…. I feared I would go mad trying to explain to myself why he spared me, who was just as insignificant to him as my friends must have been whose execution he ordered. I never found an answer."
"HUNGER COMPLETELY CHANGED ME"
Ten years after the massacre and 60 years after the liberation of Auschwitz, what is most alarming is to recognize in Suljagic's words the syndrome of survivor's guilt, which was identified after the war among Holocaust survivors.
Some of Suljagic's story is intensely personal. "I noticed that hunger had completely altered my personality," he writes, "from a boy who before the war used to be shy and reserved, I had become aggressive and unscrupulous. What I saw scared me, but I quickly realised that it was a matter of survival."
Some parts of the book are graphic, but shine a lurid spotlight on the behavior of UN troops, in a way, which is rarely, if ever, done. "Me suck you dick!" was he says, part of the limited English repertoire of some of the desperate girls selling themselves to Dutch troops. To begin with, to perform this particular act, the soldier would part the wire of the UN compound fence as much as possible so the girl could stick her head in. But still, afterwards, the girl would sometimes be left with her face covered in blood from scratches made by the wire. Later, soldiers would pull back the gap in the fence enough for a girl to enter, after which Suljagic says, several of the soldiers "would then have sex with the … girl against a wall, quickly, like animals, one after another."
Events and scenes described are very focused. Suljagic tells us how the defense of the town was organized and his admiration, if not liking, for Naser Oric, its military leader. Then comes his disappointment on later discovering that Oric doubled up as Srebrenica's mafia boss. But Suljagic's story is by no means a self-pitying tale of passive victims, betrayed only by the outside world. He gives us the full story, or at least one suspects the fullest one he can to date, without getting a bullet in the head.
At one point he describes how, rushing forward to get humanitarian aid dropped by air over the enclave, his uncle is shot dead by another man. Nothing happened to the killer, though, because he was related to the president of the municipality. "There were no laws and public authority was based on mutual balance of power." Even today, says Suljagic there is "no point" in naming the killer. Another man is murdered after leading a protest against the theft of aid by local officials.
One doubt that nags Suljagic is whether Bosniaks from the enclave ever committed war crimes against Serbs. It is very brave of him to even raise this question in view of what happened after the siege and some will doubtless be angry with him. "We gloated over the news of a massacre of civilians," he writes. "Even if we did not think it was Serb propaganda, our positions were so different that even crime was defined in a different manner. We preferred to believe those who had participated in the battle, who said that when the village was attacked in the early morning civilians ran out of their houses mingling with our soldiers and civilians."
In this way, says Suljagic, those who participated in raids explained how civilians were killed. Although there was no sympathy in
Srebrenica for those who died, he writes, "No matter what," such were "stains" on what were otherwise "irreproachable" victories.
One of the most moving scenes in the book describes how people would come from across the enclave to get an opportunity to speak on the town's ham radio to family and friends elsewhere. "No one ever said: 'I love you.' Never did an open love declaration pass through those wires, aerials and cables. And yet nowhere and never had there been more love concentrated on one spot than in that half-dark, grey room with bars on the windows."
With luck Suljagic's tale will reach a wide audience. It deserves to, although his editors might have put in one or two more pointers for those not so well acquainted with the characters and places of the Bosnian war. Above all though, what could have been just an angry stream of consciousness is actually beautifully written and unmarred by rancor. Indeed, Suljagic writes not just with skill, but at the same time and for those who are interested, gives us much factual detail not just about life under siege but also information that will doubtless be repeated in histories yet to be written.
The anniversary of the fall of Srebrenica has proved a good excuse for publishers, or at least Saqi and their partners, London's Bosnian Institute, to publish not just Suljagic's book but also several others.
COMMUTING VIA PRISON CAMP
Raw Memory is a book by two French journalists, Isabelle Wesselingh and Arnaud Vaulerin. It reminds us, in a timely fashion, that Srebrenica, rather like Auschwitz, was not the only crime. For many years Wesselingh covered the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal in The Hague for the French news agency AFP; Vaulerin works for the French daily Liberation and has covered Balkan affairs.
Their excellent book focuses on the ethnic cleansing of Bosniaks in the northern town of Prijedor in 1992. Taking the story forward, it also shows how the work of the war crimes tribunal in later removing key ethnic cleansers has opened the way to a return home for many Bosniaks. The book does a good job of invigorating what could be a rather dry recounting of events by focusing on extraordinary characters like Muharem Muselovic. He survived 68 days in the notorious Bosnian Serb Omarska camp, which he now passes every time he drives from Prijedor to Banja Luka to take up his seat as a Bosniak member of the assembly of Republika Srpska, the predominantly Serbian part of Bosnia.
BOSNIANS OR BOSNIAKS?
Paul Lowe's photo book, Bosnians, is a collection of fine pictures taken both during the war and afterwards, some in Srebrenica. Here are moments of terror and tragedy but love and laughter too. In these pictures we can relive once familiar images of Sarajevo under siege and the rigors of wartime life. A shame though that Lowe's Bosnians are all, bar one or two, on the Bosniak side of the lines, both during and after the war. If Lowe had been a Bosniak this would have been understandable, but he is not. Indeed it is a shame that the only picture of ordinary Bosnian Serbs seems to have been chosen deliberately to cast them in a bad light. It shows people looking at an outdoor stand selling pictures of General Mladic, Slobodan Milosevic, Bosnian Serb wartime leader Radovan Karadzic and Draza Mihailovic, the World War II Royalist Chetnik leader – next to images of Orthodox saints.
The moving essay contributed to the book by BBC journalist Allan Little provides a clue to this imbalance, if one reads between the lines. He seeks to explain why he and so many other foreign journalists became "enfolded" by a war "which was not ours" – in other words by the Bosniak cause. Then, when it ended, he admits to harboring an awful inner doubt: "Did I miss my war? Was I – the thought horrified me – somehow sorry it was over?"
JEWS OF THE BALKANS
Finally to a book that, unlike the others, whose theme is survival and triumph over adversity, tells of a community that has all but vanished from Bosnia now. Sarajevo Rose comprises essays by American poet and writer Stephen Schwartz. His subject is country's (once) fourth great nation after its Bosniaks, Serbs, and Croats, its Jews. Schwartz's book contains extraordinary and fascinating long-lost tales of Bosnia's Jews, many of whom came to the country after being expelled from Christian Spain in 1492. Included are fascinating documents that testify to an era long gone, such as the 1819 petition of 249 Sarajevo notables to the Ottoman Sultan, many of them preachers in mosques, complaining about an outburst of persecution of Sarajevo's Jews.
Schwartz does not limit himself to Bosnia. He writes of the Jews of both Albania and Kosovo (communities which no longer exist) and also wanders as far afield as Romania. He is an ardent pilgrim tracking down shrines and cemeteries. Here are pictures of a Jewish gravestone in Pristina, the capital of Kosovo, and the tomb in Stolac in Hercegovina, once the site of Bosnian Jewish pilgrimages, of Rabbi Danon. The rabbi died there in 1830, while at a coffee house on the way to Dubrovnik to catch a ship to the Holy Land.
Perhaps the most extraordinary part of the book is Schwartz's hunt for the tomb of the "false messiah," Sabbetai Zvi, who, after inspiring a mass movement of Jews who believed him to be the messiah, then converted to Islam, or at least told the Ottomans that he had. They then exiled him to Ulcinj, where he apparently died in 1676. Ulcinj today is an Albanian inhabited port and holiday resort in Montenegro, close to the border of Albania. It has, notes Schwartz, no known historical Jewish links. Nevertheless sleuth Schwartz tracks down a turbe (a tomb cum shrine) in Ulcinj believed by some to be Zvi's last resting place. The guardian of the turbe is an 80-year-old man called Qazim Mani, "the proprietor of a successful hardware and paint store" who unfortunately repudiates "any association of the turbe with a Jew," claiming it instead as the tomb of a Muslim Albanian called Murat Dede, about whom he professes to know absolutely nothing. Thus, concludes the sorrowful Schwartz, "the question of who is actually buried in the turbe … is, then, unresolved." One suspects however that, as far as he is concerned, this is not the end of the story.
Schwartz has written a quite special book. It is a pity then that he sometimes rants, angry at Bosnia's wartime fate. Serbs, for example, are generally dismissed (if mentioned at all) as just "Chetniks," in the parlance of wartime Sarajevo. One might also have hoped for something of a stricter editorial hand in keeping the irrepressible author from sometimes rambling far from his original topics and thinning out the sometimes densely academic tone of his inquiry. Overall, though, Schwartz has written a book that nobody else has and that is a fine achievement in an ever more crowded market.
Tim Judah is the author of The Serbs: History, Myth & the Destruction of Yugoslavia and Kosovo: War and Revenge, and a long-time contributor to TOL and its print predecessor Transitions.
Related Topics: Albanian Muslims, Balkan Muslims, Bektashi Sufis, Bosnian Muslims, European Muslims, Muslim-Jewish Relations, Sephardic Judaism
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