Bound In Strife : Two...

I have to admit that in the four years since the war in the Balkans began, I have slowly developed an aversion to reading books on the topic. Perhaps I just got tired of them, of words in general--mine as a skeptical Croatian writer as well as someone else's. At a certain point you feel saturated by words, you feel that nothing more could be written on--or read about--the war.

After such poignant lamentations for Bosnia (and for civilization) as Roy Gutman's "A Witness to Genocide," Zlatko Dizdarevic's "Sarajevo: A War Journal" and Noel Malcolm's "Bosnia: A Short History," one wonders: Are there surprises to come in these genres? Even a surrealistic "Survival Guide for Sarajevo" has been published, which includes recipes for how to bake a cake without flour, or listen to the radio when there is no electricity.

I thus thought twice before I decided to read two of the latest books on the war in the Balkans: David Rieff's "Slaughterhouse" and Tom Gjelten's "Sarajevo Daily." Both authors are known for writing and reporting that one can trust. But for this very reason I felt nervous: I knew that I would not forgive them for their mistakes.

Media coverage at the beginning of the war was understandably confused. Should it be marginalized because it was only a civil conflict? Or was the Serbian aggression--first in Slovenia, then in Croatia and finally in Bosnia--a menacing precedent for the other post-Communist countries, a prelude to the Apocalypse? It took some time until the world understood who the Croats, Serbs and Muslims are and learned how to pronounce their strange names. It took some more time until Sarajevo became a sad metaphor for the war in Bosnia.

Today, I can say that reports from the war zone have generally been fair and accurate. Yet, one thing often has been missing: context. People have been able to see (through the lens of CNN) but not to understand.

Without a clearly established context as well as a background to the war, all news and political analysis easily gets lost or simplified in spite of good reporting. It was only too easy to perpetuate cliches about "ancient hatreds," "tribal mentalities" and a thirst for blood afflicting every second or third generation; or to support myths about "Muslim fundamentalism" and "Serbian heroism." The cliches implied that nothing could be done anyway: that the violence is but a form of congenital madness endemic to the region.

This kind of biologism proved to be an especially useful justification for a noninterventionist policy. Somehow, along the way, the fact that those madmen had lived together in peace for almost 50 years was quickly forgotten, or was simply explained by the iron grip that President Josip Broz Tito held over the nationalisms of Yugoslavia since founding the republic in 1945. The result was that the war, and especially its beginning, got even more obscured and therefore difficult to understand.

But in my view, the war is not difficult to understand at all: There existed a Serbian political elite determined to start a war; it controlled the powerful Yugoslav Federal Army (JNA); it controlled the media and it had four years of systematic nationalist propaganda behind it. This is all it takes to start a war. If there is one thing that I have witnessed, it is how easy it is to start a war.

The important thing to understand--and both Rieff and Gjelten make no mistake here--is that the war descended upon people in Yugoslavia. Ironically, it was conceived at the very top, as everything under communism was, and it then worked its way down, until there was mass bloodshed: the point of no return.

That blood fell on fertile soil. Yugoslavia had a long history of clashes and dormant nationalism. But it also lacked any institutions of civic society, which proved to be fatal. The notorious history of conflicts in the Balkans that almost every writer refers to started to play an important role only after war had already broken out, when the history was misused for propaganda, to keep the war going on.

It is important to understand that nationalism did not produce this war; on the contrary, the war, the politicians' war, triggered the violent nationalism we are now witnessing.

When I started to read "Slaughterhouse," I was shocked by its emotional tone and its bitterness. David Rieff's book is indeed a very bitter one. He starts his book at the end: The war in Bosnia is over, he says. Even if it goes on, it is only a question when and how the partition will be formalized. The independent, multiethnic and multicultural republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina is dead, and the Bosnians are confined to a Gaza Strip "unable to sustain itself economically and militarily, dependent on international assistance for everything, and at the mercy of Serbia."

But Rieff's point is that all this could have been prevented. Bosnia could have been saved. Between his first sentence and his last one ("The defeat is total, the disgrace complete"), he gives a comprehensive account of how it happened and why. Rieff integrates history and political analysis, reporting and personal reflection, in an interesting way, only occasionally slipping into overly speculative and abstract digressions.

His book is a chronicle of missed opportunities to save Bosnia, and the shameful role the West played in this. The most obvious example of this failure are the United Nations Protection Forces (UNPROFOR) positioned in Bosnia and Croatia. As soon as it became clear that Western policy aimed to do little more than "contain the crisis," the U.N. forces did nothing but provide a fig leaf for the humanitarian aid.

Moreover, Rieff shows that U.N. forces have not been what they pretended to be: i.e., a disinterested party in the Bosnian tragedy. From the beginning of their deployment, they had a prepared political agenda. Their task was to get the aid through and to facilitate peace. However, the terms for peace from their point of view were irrelevant. It did not have to be a just peace.

The Bosnian government, therefore, became almost a hostage of the UNPROFOR officials, who decided how all aid would be distributed, and who assisted the Serbs even to the point of murder. Rieff recalls an incident when a French officer, Patrice Sartre, opened the back door of an armored vehicle on Serbian demand, so that Hakija Turajlic, the vice president of Bosnia could be shot at, point- blank. (Rieff's book is dedicated to his memory.) There are so many examples given of the UNPROFOR's unsympathetic attitude to the Bosnians, and also of their links with Serbian commanders, that even skeptics will see which side they are on. And even if they see themselves as humanitarians and peacekeepers, the UNPROFOR forces, Rieff concludes, became "the handmaidens to the genocide of the Bosnian Muslims."

Rieff accuses them directly, without any hesitation. In his outrage, he spares no one. He names names and acts like someone who has nothing to lose, as if he himself were a Bosnian. And in a way, he is. He has spent enough time there to understand one thing: In the face of genocide, it is impossible to stay neutral. This is, in my opinion the most interesting and the most surprising aspect of this book: Rieff reflects upon his personal change from objective, distant reporter, who is supposed not to take sides and feel no emotions, to an alien in his own life in downtown Manhattan:

"In a previous life, the life before Bosnia, I used to flatter myself that indignation was an emotion to which I was virtually immune. Just as I did not expect to end up in Bosnia in the first place, so I did not expect to feel that I would never recover from it."

Even journalists are human beings, although they rarely are willing to admit it. Which brings us to another interesting aspect of this book--that about the apparently highly overrated role of the world press. Information is not power, knowledge is not power, as we tend to naively believe. So Rieff says.

The hope of the Western press was that an informed citizenry back home would demand that their governments not allow the Bosnian Muslims to go on being killed or cleansed from their homes. They--we--failed, Rieff concludes, and I totally agree.

*

Journalism is precisely the topic of the other book, Tom Gjelten's "Sarajevo Daily." He writes about the Sarajevo newspaper Oslobodjenje (Liberation): "I admired the ideals for which their enterprise stood, and in the story of their daily newspaper I found the whole Sarajevo saga. The values of harmony and tolerance would stand or fall with the struggle of the Oslobodjenje staff to stay together and remain true to their tradition."

Oslobodjenje is a heroic paper. Its heroism consists of being able to publish every day of now more than 1,000 days under siege. Gjelten's introduction is rather slow, a broad fresco of both Sarajevo and the paper, including an inevitable chapter devoted to a history of the Balkans since ancient times. It is a boring start, but as the almost daily account of the war in Bosnia unfolds on the pages of his book, together with the story of the struggle to keep the paper alive and independent, "Sarajevo Daily" becomes more and more interesting to read.

At the outset the reader has the impression that Gjelten is idealizing both the staff and the paper itself. But as the war goes on, he is faced with the inevitable deterioration of their values, relationships and ideals. It looks as if the main dilemma of a newspaper in war is how to avoid falling into the choir of propaganda and to preserve its professionalism. But the story is not that simple, because the real dilemma is not to choose between professionalism or propaganda, but to find out if there is a choice at all.

Gjelten shows how Oslobodjenje's editorial policy depended on so many things: the diesel rations assigned by the government to run their printing press and cars, transport help given to them by UNPROFOR, the benevolence of local gangsters or of army commanders who can be persuaded not to recruit their staff for digging trenches at the front line. Under these conditions, was there a real choice? Could the paper exist at all, if it criticized government decisions, or UNPROFOR black marketeers, or criminals ruling the city?

Besides, it is not as if they were totally uncompromised journalists even before the war. They all worked under the Communist regime; but just as they were on their way to a more independent journalism, the war started. There was an enormous pressure on Oslobodjenje to give in, to compromise for the right cause. Gordana Knezevic, the deputy chief editor of the paper had her own answer to this: "Why save the paper and lose the state?" Her reasoning was purely political, but it made sense because she felt that dissent and political opposition were out of place, as long as Bosnia remained at war.

The chief editor, Kemal Kurspahic, on the other hand, felt less responsibility for the state and therefore was more prepared to defend the paper's professional values. It soon became clear that it was impossible to treat all warring factions in the same way. So-called loyal Serbs in the paper got upset, and some of them even left for Serbia. Gjelten points out that there were many things that Oslobodjenje has chosen not to report about because of sheer opportunism and fear for survival. As the war continued and conditions in the city deteriorated, it was clear to everyone that they were losing as professionals--regardless of all awards given to them abroad.

Here again, the journalists were not heroes, just human beings like anyone else, and their decisions, at the end, also started to be influenced by their nationality, their personal destiny. Gjelten's book ends sometime in mid-1994, when the key people have left Sarajevo (if not the paper). Kurspahic is now a correspondent in Washington and Knezevic is considering staying in exile (she lives in Slovenia now). Their ideals and promises clearly belong to the past. But after reading this book, no one can blame them for that.

Back in Sarajevo, Oslobodjenje is struggling with another big problem, that of its ownership, which has not been clearly defined. The government is claiming it as state property, and the remaining journalists consider this to be a definite blow to their profession. The only chance they see is to publish the paper abroad. But for whom, then? This question, however, belongs to another story.

Gjelten's story is about journalism under hopeless conditions and it can hardly be anything but a story of defeat. At the end, the war appears to be the only winner. If there is a moral in the fate of Oslobodjenje, it is that journalists should have no illusions about themselves, either about their heroism or about their importance. This book should be read by every aspiring young journalist; it would save him a lot of disappointments.

Both David Rieff and Tom Gjelten have written important books and I am happy that I had a chance to read them. From now on, any one writing on the same subject will have to take them into account. But let's not forget that this war still goes on and that the Bosnians need some hope. As naive as it might seem at this point, hope helps people to survive. Therefore, I can agree with Rieff that the disgrace of the West is complete, but the defeat of the Bosnians is not total.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
59°