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Bosnia's victims 20 years on:
SURVIVORS OF A NIGHTMARE WITH NO RECKONING
It was fired in Sarajevo, where on Friday – also the city's day of liberation from fascism in 1945 – tens of thousands of citizens walked in silence along the length of an extraordinary installation: 11,541 red chairs, each representing a life lost during the siege of the city between 1992 and 1996. The monument was the work of Haris Pasovic, famous for producing Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot with Susan Sontag during the siege. The crowds filed past the representation of a river of blood in muffled silence, placing flowers and sometimes scrawled names, weeping openly when passing the 1,000 or so tiny seats commemorating the city's murdered children.
But 90% of the 100,000 killed in Bosnia's war were lives lost beyond the infamous siege of the capital, in places the world has long forgotten: Visegrad, Foca, Vlasenica, Prijedor… and, of course, Srebrenica. It was in the rural reaches that two million people would be burned out of their homes over the three bloody years to follow.
Within three months of this weekend in 1992 the Bosnian Serbs had unleashed a hurricane of violence across the land, putting Muslim and Croat villages and towns to the torch. It was my accursed honour, along with Penny Marshall of ITN, to stumble into and reveal the existence of concentration camps in the far north-west of Bosnia, Omarska and Trnopolje, into which thousands of non-Serbs were corralled to be killed, tortured, raped – and the survivors deported.
I kept in touch with those who survived and those who were bereaved by the camps and, in time, their children, over the 20 years. They were shattered and scattered across Europe and the US; scattered in history too, for the narrative of what happened was never given back to them; there has been no reckoning in Bosnia, no real calling to account beyond judgments at the tribunal in The Hague. And certainly no "closure", to use that ghastly term.
I watched them rebuild their lives, or try to, and even their incinerated houses. I went to weddings at which one refugee child from Switzerland would marry another from Missouri, their parents having been neighbours once, so that the villages lived on, but in far-flung exile. And last year, for a book, I toured this diaspora, across Europe and the US, to measure the reckoning.
"Reconciliation" and "post-conflict resolution" are buzzwords these days and a lucrative industry for the colonial international strata that still live, on tax-free salaries, in Sarajevo. But these words – reconciliation and resolution – are also lies, for what I found, in the absence of reckoning for these refugees and survivors, was post-conflict irresolution. Open wounds and nightmares that deepen with time, redeemed – if at all – not by any fantasy of reconciliation, but strength of will, family, alcohol and laughter among those who call themselves "the limbo people".
'I am a man who laughs. This is what saved my life – silly jokes'
Who could forget the image of Fikret Akic behind the barbed-wire fence at Trnopolje? He had been transferred that morning from another camp, Keraterm.
I met Fikret again in Slovenia in 1993. He said he had been "talking to trees – people wondered, what kind of a man wants trees for friends?"
His life became a tribulation, and a survival of sorts – an industrial accident working at an abattoir in Denmark, then finding a wife – "I woke up one morning and I was married" – and having three children.
I also met him several times again at the annual Omarska commemorations. Fikret was each time more the jester, the man of defiance and hollow humour, the humble sage.
In 2008, he took me to the foundations of his childhood home in Alici, far above Kozarac. And he promised me he would rebuild it.
Last year Fikret greeted me with the words: "I have not been sleeping, Eddie!". Not only had he started work on his childhood home, for his mother, but he had also built another in town for his own family. Only there was a terrible cruelty of fate: his younger brother had suddenly flipped. He had woken up one morning, talking about the camps, and has never stopped doing so since. Their mother is therefore obliged to spend much of her time caring for him at a mental hospital in Denmark.
I asked Fikret: So how did you make it, how did you survive?
He answers with care: "Two things. One: I am a man who laughs. And this is what saved my life. I survived because of silly jokes that are more sad than funny. But if I hadn't learned to laugh at all, I wouldn't have made it. We are funny people in Bosnia, and that is how we have survived."
And the other thing that stood between you and despair?
He swept his arm across the valley below: "This place. Out here in the vukojebina" – a Bosnian term for the wild, literally, "where the wolves fuck". "If it wasn't for this place, I'd be long dead."
'I feel a need to keep my Bosnian self alive, keep the culture alive'
AZRA BLAZEVIC AND EDINA STRIKOVIC: Then a family in Trnopolje; now living in St Louis, Missouri, and Germany
In the Trnopolje camp, Azra Blazevic toiled as best she could in a supposed "medical centre", to treat those brought in after beatings by camp guards. Off-camera, Azra said: "It's as bad as you fear. They kill, they torture … take this." And she slipped us a roll of undeveloped film. It contained horrific images of emaciation and of torsos beaten black and blue.
Four years later, the time came to testify at The Hague war crimes tribunal against its first defendant, Dusko Tadic, who had toured the camps, killing and beating at will. Witnesses arrived at the Bel Air hotel in the heart of the Dutch seat of government and I noticed a woman with a more collected demeanour than the others. Azra, I thought to myself, Azra from Trnopolje, here? "Yes," she said, "it's me."
From the witness box, Azra Blazevic began to recount the story of life in the camp and of the mass rape of young girls, a theme which had eluded us in 1992.
She now lives in the US. On Easter morning 2011, my train from Kansas City pulled into a halt called Kirkwood and there was Azra. In the US, she says, "people love the idea of progress – it makes people happy if things are supposedly getting better in the world, they like happy endings. I was kindly invited to a Christmas party recently, and someone asked: 'What happened in Bosnia?' I said: 'Do you really want me to tell you in five minutes over Christmas crackers?'"
Touring the US, Bosnia and Europe talking to the survivors, I travelled with Edina Strikovic, Azra's daughter, who had been a child prisoner when I had first met her. Edina, raised in Germany and the US, talked about a life made up of "leaving home to go home. You are always living in limbo. I feel a need to keep my Bosnian self alive, to keep the culture alive as well as the memory, an imperative – personal and generational. My parents' generation are on their own; they've survived, but they're still in limbo."
'They never took my pride. Not even with sexual assault. I was an object'
JADRANKA CIGELJ: Then a prisoner in the Omarska camp; now living in Zagreb
The use of rape as a means of brutalisation in Omarska was not widely known until a film was made in 1996 entitled Calling the Ghosts in which two women, Jadranka Cigelj and Nusreta Sivac, talked for the first time about sexual abuse in the camp.
The women told how they would be summoned from their sleeping quarters to one of two larger rooms at the end of the corridor and there violated, usually on a mat on the floor.
What emerged was a grotesque hierarchy perceived by the violators to equate rank among the women with rank within the camp command: the commander of Omarska, Zeljko Mejakic, had made it his business to "have" a woman called Jadranka Cigelj, as the senior official in the arch-enemy Croatian nationalist party.
I came to know Jadranka in New York, but she now lives in Zagreb.
"At night, the guards would come to the doors of our quarters, call us out and take us away," she said. One night at about 9.30, the door opened and there was the commander of the guards, Zeljko Mejakic, and he called my family name.
"I followed him and went into the room where he led me. There were six or seven men there. First they insulted me – then Mejakic ordered me to lie on the floor and took his liberties with me.
"This went on for four hours, after which I was taken back to the room. I didn't tell anyone what had happened to me, and nobody asked – it was an unspoken rule, that we not share what had happened to us during these intervals."
Last summer, a train from Zagreb arrived at Prijedor station. As it pulled away, Cigelj picked her way across the tracks and out into the town where she grew up and from which she was taken to Omarska. She stood out immediately: elegantly dressed and carefully made up, an apparent outsider in tatty Prijedor, not someone retracing her life here and its abrupt end.
Jadranka was visiting her best friend in the camp, Hasiba, or "Biba", Harambasic. There followed an extraordinary, entirely unsolicited exchange, as dusk fell. "What they did to me was the worst thing they could do," said Biba.
"My pride was not taken from me by the abuse and physical hardship. But when they sexually violated me, they took the last of my pride. When they did that to me, I thought to myself: 'I'm done. I'm dead inside'."
Jadranka replied softly: "That's not how it was for me. They never took my pride. Not even with 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. If I had let him do it for a piece of bread, that would have taken my pride. But by force, no."
Jadranka adds: "This was my offence," and she pulls out an identity card from the period: a haughty face, high cheekbones, jet black hair and very beautiful.
"Six months after that picture was taken, I was in Omarska. I was attractive, divorced, intelligent and successful — GUILTY!"
'It was a different kind of screaming: a man who knows it won't stop'
SATKO MUJAGIC: Then a prisoner in Omarska; now living in the Netherlands
At the war crimes tribunal in The Hague, witnesses testified to horrific episodes of torture in Omarska such as when one prisoner was forced to bite off the testicles of another, called Emir Karabasic, while the guards whooped. Satko Mujagic had been the boyfriend of Karabasic's niece.
He told me that two days before this, "Emir was in our room, beaten so bad he couldn't walk and seemed to know something awful was going to happen. There was a man with us called Hamdija, who asked Emir: 'What have they done to you?' and Emir replied: 'Nothing compared to what they'll do next'. A prisoner gave him a jacket, saying 'that'll protect you a bit', but Emir said: 'I won't need anything any more'.
"We heard the song they played while they were doing what they did: it was famous, by Sinan Sakic, called 'Pusti Me Da Zivim' – Let Me Live. He was screaming for 35 minutes, and we sat upstairs and listened. It's a different kind of screaming from a normal beating, the screaming of a man who knows that it's not going to stop, and it's only a matter of minutes before you depart this life. You can't reproduce it and you don't hear it in any other circumstances."
Satko now lives in the Netherlands. He picked up Dutch quickly, playing basketball; as early as 1994, he had enrolled to study law at the University of Amsterdam.
"But there were moments: I turned 21 in Haarlem and held a party at an asylum seekers' centre. And while other people would have celebrated their 21st birthday happily, I ended up running down the road at 3am, naked from the waist up, screaming and crying."
At another party, Satko met his former sweetheart again: "And she asked me what had happened to her uncle. All I could say was: 'He's dead'. And I ran to the lavatory, and cried and howled – 'Why? Why?' – and she was banging on the door: 'Satko, what's happening?' It was 90 minutes before I could open the door."
'What happened to me all that time in the camp that I felt no pain?'
DZEMAL PARATUSIC: Then a prisoner in Omarska; now living in Borehamwood, Hertfordshire
Under the guns of their captors, the prisoners in Omarska were too scared to talk – apart from one emaciated man seated at a table who looked up and said: "I don't want to tell any lies, but cannot tell the truth." His name was Dzemal Paratusic. For years afterwards I worried that our conversation could have cost him his life.
Then, in 2004, during a meeting about Bosnia at Westminster University in London, Dzemal walked in: I nearly fell off my chair.
He had been among the first 68 Omarska survivors to be evacuated after we found the camp, and was granted asylum in Britain.
Dzemal had worked in the steel industry, all over Yugoslavia. Now living in Borehamwood, Hertfordshire, he found a full-time job with the county council as a driver-attendant working with disabled people.
At the end of the war, the surviving population of Dzemal's village of Kozarac was scattered all over Europe and the world. His childhood home, where his father was murdered and from where his mother was expelled, remains in ruins. "I want to rebuild that house," he said. "I want my mother to see it; and I'd like to live up there myself one day – away from everyone, and everything, surrounded only by nature."
Last year, I returned to Borehamwood, to talk to Dzemal about surviving and reckoning with the legacy of the camps.
"Problems started when I went back to Omarska for the commemoration in 2009: flashbacks, impossible to sleep – I sleep for about an hour each night, then into a sleep again in the morning and, in that time, I am back in the camp … I often ask myself: what was happening to me all that time in the camp that I felt no pain? What can it have done to my body and my head? And suddenly, further down the line, something goes wrong – and I'm not the first, or the last."
The War is Dead, Long Live the War, by Ed Vulliamy, is published this month by The Bodley Head. Vulliamy will be discussing the book and the Bosnian war at the Bristol Festival of Ideas, in association with the Observer, on 13 May.
BOSNIAN WAR: KEY DATES
Croat and Muslim nationalists in Bosnia-Herzegovina, a republic in the former Yugoslavia, win an independence referendum. Serb nationalists are incensed because the constitution says major decisions must be reached by a consensus of the three ethnic groups.
War breaks out and the Serbs take control of more than half of Bosnia, shooting civilians in the street and forcing people out their homes because of their ethnicity. The term "ethnic cleansing" – also rampant in Muslim and Croat-controlled areas – enters the world's consciousness. Under the command of Radovan Karadzic, Bosnian Serbs lay siege to Muslim-controlled Sarajevo.
Croats begin "ethnic cleansing" against Muslims; 2,000 Muslim Bosnian civilians vanish, or are killed, in a year.
The Croatian Defence Army attacks the town of Mostar, which leads to much of its destruction. The Old Bridge, which had been a symbol of Bosnia's cultural diversity, is destroyed.
The world is outraged when a mortar shell strikes a Sarajevo market, killing 68. Nato becomes actively involved, ordering a ceasefire in Sarajevo, brokering a peace deal between Croats and Muslims, and attacking Serb airfields and tanks.
Srebrenica is overrun by Bosnian Serb forces under General Ratko Mladic; 8,000 men and boys are slaughtered despite the presence of UN troops. Mass rape of Muslim women continues.
14 December 1995
The Dayton peace agreement is signed in Paris, creating two entities of equal size, one for Bosnian Muslims and Croats, the other for Serbs. An international peacekeeping force is deployed. An estimated 100,000 people were killed during the war.