Revisiting the dogs of war
A fine book on the Yugoslav conflict brings its personalities, tragedies and abominations painfully to life.
By LARA MARLOWE
The Irish Times
February 28, 2004
Originally published at http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/weekend/2004/0228/1077098569589.html
Madness Visible: A Memoir of War
By Janine di Giovanni, Bloomsbury, 285pp. £ 16.99
Lt Col Bozidar Popovic was proud of his prison camp. The Serb officer displayed his 3,640 Muslim prisoners like trophies when I visited Manjaca, in the mountains of Bosnia, with a delegation from the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe late in the summer of 1992.
The Muslims sat lined up with their bedding, on the ground in the cattle-sheds where they were held. The former dairy farm was surrounded by barbed wire, Alsatian guard dogs, watchtowers and minefields. As Popovic led us between rows of prisoners, the emaciated men stared up with a look of unspeakable suffering. Col Popovic boasted, blatantly falsely, that he respected every article of the Geneva Convention.
Janine di Giovanni's fine book on the Yugoslav wars brings the personalities, tragedies and abominations of the conflict painfully to life. To read it was to revisit the "ethnically cleansed" countryside of Bosnia in 1992, the siege of Sarajevo, and the refugee home in Mostar where I interviewed survivors of the Serbian rape camp at Foca, Pristina as the Serbs fled advancing NATO forces in June 1999. When di Giovanni interviewed Bosnian Serb officials who were shelling Sarajevo, she came away feeling much as I did during that tour of Serb-run prison camps.
"We sat with them, uneasy to be sharing a drink or a table with
the killers of Sarajevo," she writes. "But it was also compulsive,
in a sick way. As vile as they were, you couldn't help having a
grudging respect for their tenacity and the simple fact that they
just did not care what the world thought of them."
Di Giovanni doesn't go as far as the late American journalist,
Martha Gellhorn, in condemning "that objectivity shit", but she lays
waste to the US journalism-school notion that victim and executioner
deserve equal time.
"We were guilty, we knew, of perhaps covering one side of the war,"
she writes of the slaughter of the Bosnian Muslims. "But for us there
was only one side: the side that was getting pounded, that was being
strangled slowly, turning blue and purple . . ."
Her post-war interview with Zlatko, a half-Muslim, half-Croatian
stonemason from the north-western Bosnian town of Kozarac, is a chilling
account of Bosnian Serb brutality. Sitting in the abandoned field where
his house once stood, Zlatko parts his hair to show di Giovanni the
Orthodox cross that Serb soldiers seared into his scalp.
After severe beatings at the Prijedor police station, Zlatko was
transferred to the Omarska prison camp, where he was ordered to collect
bodies in a room above the canteen.
"Sometimes their heads were split open like watermelons and their brains
spilled out over the floor," di Giovanni recounts. "Sometimes their
faces were mashed like potatoes, so that you could not tell if they had
flat or big noses or a chin. Zlatko kept heaving, puking up his empty
guts, after he carried each body to the fire to be burnt."
Fortunately, there are a few good Serbs to relieve the dark portrayal of
the main culprits of the Yugoslav wars. Zeljko Kopanja, the Bosnian Serb
editor of Nezavisne Novine newspaper in Banja Luka, is the most heroic,
and an example of what happened to those who spoke out against the
atrocities. On Kopanja's 45th birthday in 1999, his legs were blown off
by a car-bomb. But he returned to journalism and told di Giovanni that
the new baby he and his wife had after the attack was a sign of hope and
"It would be a disaster if I gave up the fight for which I sacrificed
my legs," he said.
Di Giovanni is at her best describing individual lives. Her profile
of Nikola Koljevic, the Bosnian Serb Shakespearean scholar who planned
the siege of Sarajevo and later committed suicide is a small masterpiece,
nearly equalled by her portrait of Biljana Plavsic, the former Bosnian
Serb president who was embraced by the West after approving the war crimes
which eventually led to her conviction by the International Criminal
Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia at The Hague.
The most moving stories are those of ordinary people, such as
di Giovanni's Kosovar interpreter, Suzanna. The young woman was in a
café in Pristina when Serbs sprayed the place with automatic weapon fire,
killing her best friend and wounding Suzanna. She left hospital as the
NATO bombardment started and joined the Kosovar exodus, only to be
separated from her family in the confusion.
On her way to Tirana, Suzanna was taken off a bus and gang-raped
by Albanians posing as policemen. With all she has been through, it's
not surprising that Suzanna shows no fear when she and di Giovanni
are caught in NATO's erroneous bombing of a KLA base. In another context,
di Giovanni quotes a Bosnian poet who told her that "it was possible to
kill a person psychologically without actually killing them".
Di Giovanni's is possibly the best journalist's book to come out
of former Yugoslavia. Michael Ignatieff's novel about a US television
correspondent caught up in the war, Charlie Johnson in the Flames,
is more tightly written, but di Giovanni's truth is more powerful than
his fiction. Madness Visible sometimes has the sewn-together feeling
of assembled newspaper articles, and the potted histories of Kosovo
and Montenegro are not really necessary.
But di Giovanni manages to convey the fear, boredom, and slivovica-soaked
horror of the Yugoslav wars as few have done. Though her meditations
are insightful, often poignant, ultimately there's still no answer as to
why more than 250,000 people were killed, in Europe, at the end of the
Lara Marlowe is a Paris-based foreign correspondent for The Irish Times. She reported extensively from the former Yugoslavia throughout the 1990s and covered NATO's bombardment of Serbia for this newspaper.