The War Is Dead, Long Live The War
Bosnia: The Reckoning
By Ed Vulliamy
The Bodley Head – £20.00
There’s a section in this book where Ed Vulliamy describes the terrible remnants of current day Auschwitz-Birkenau, which is so poetically chilling, one has to simply stop reading.
And reflect; upon a fraught, tarnished horror of human capability, that is so potentially dreadful and despicable, so utterly misguided and shameful, that surely even God would be stumped for words: ‘’Even the colours are silent: black and white; metal and snow. Black: spidery watchtowers with slanting roofs and long black stilts for legs line the black fencing, attached to black poles, silhouetted against the powdery white. Black and white, but not like in photographs, not even photographs of Auschwitz, where there is blurring and penumbra. In physical Auschwitz (in wintertime at least), the black is too black and the white is too white except for an inexplicable, sickly yellow that does not belong within the physical landscape but nonetheless hangs, curiously, from the dusk, wrapping the wretched trees, themselves sick. A black metal gate with a wire grille swings on its hinges – the only movement in the stillness – opening out onto a pathway lined by more spidery guard towers, at the end of which is a pointed square turret. The gate swings as though a silent column of people had walked through it just a moment ago.’’
Twenty years ago in mainland Europe, silent columns of people were once again, being forced to walk into concentration camps for some accursed, appalling, unobtainable cause. Once again in mainland Europe, innocent men, women and children were being systematically tortured, raped and murdered. All in the name of religion and hideous regional expansionism – otherwise known as ethnic cleansing although in truth, known as xenophobic bollocks.
This time, instead of Auschwitz and Treblinka in 1940s’ Poland, it was Omarska and Trnopolje in 1990s’ Bosnia; and even though the country’s capital Sarajevo is a mere two-hours flying time from such groovy fashion hubs Paris and Milan, nothing was done to help. To be sure, while the most ghastly acts of barbarity were taking place in the aforementioned camps, powerhouse Europe – tethered by either diplomacy or complacency or both – carried on regardless.
It wasn’t until the author of this book, Ed Vulliamy, had the wretched honour to unveil these murder compounds to the rest of the world in August 1992, that those traversing the corridors of supposed power in Brussels (and Washington) actually decided to do something. But The War Is Dead, Long Live The War – Bosnia: The Reckoning, isn’t about the soulless moguls of ignorance. It’s about the people who survived hell on earth: ‘’This book is nothing if not an attempt to record what happened to some of the people who survived and were bereaved by the concentration camps in particular – and how they built new lives to resurrect or replace those that had been taken from them.’’
Savage and potentially depressing as this truly remarkable read is, it casts a very far-reaching prognosis on the human condition. For amid its unspeakable horror and imagery, lurks a pristine clarity of understanding that is so very precise, so very considered; that maybe, just maybe, one of the heroic survivors of whom Vulliamy so eloquently writes, will be capable of locating a tiny kernel of solace.
It goes without saying that were the world community at large to have subscribed to even a tenth of the sickening stupidity and high-octane cruelty of Serb nationalism during the nineties, it would have found itself at the nadir of human civilization.
As such, Auschwitz stands as a reminder.
As such, history isn’t always destined to repeat itself.
Or is it?
The title alone, The War Is Dead, Long Live The War – Bosnia: The Reckoning, makes it abundantly clear that there really is a fundamental divergence between Nazi ideology and that of its Serb equivalent; especially when it comes to the elongated embers of some kind of reckoning: ‘’Reckoned with history can proceed through time, and enables both the victims and those in whose names the atrocities were committed to position themselves with regard to the violence itself and each other. To use the obvious but extreme example, modern Germany can be said to have reckoned with the Holocaust, of which Bosnia’s carnage was an echo. It is not the Jews who build the museums at Dachau or monuments in Berlin; it is the Germans. Out of this reckoning has emerged a democratic and enlightened Germany that understands what it has done. And as a result, Jewry, however smitten and traumatised, has been given back the history of what happened. Although, as the great Shoah historian Raul Hilberg said, it took some years, the Holocaust is irrevocably located and assured within history for what it was. Within 15 years of the British bombing of Hamburg, the Beatles were playing there.’’
Having made two Humanitarian Aid trips to the former Yugoslavia during the nineties, I saw for myself, some of the pain, hatred and futile destruction mentioned herein. And reckoning, just like forgiveness; isn’t a trait or a currency or however you want to describe it, that comes naturally. So when Vulliamy emphatically writes: ‘’What happened in Bosnia is irresolution, due to unreckoning,’’ we really ought not be surprised.
This will probably be one of the most important books published this year; even if only for the following line (among many) alone: ‘’One thing is sure, though: there can be no reconciliation or resolution without reckoning, nor anything that can be called peace.’’