Sanski Most: Shattered Lives of the Bosnian Genocide
Seasons in Hell: understanding Bosnia’s war
By Vulliamy, Ed
Simon and Schuster, New York and London, 1994, 370 pages.
“All day long, the refugees, or deportees as they should more properly be called, had been made to run a gauntlet of fear, hate, arrogance, humiliation and uncertainty on the day that had started with them being bullied out of their homes in Sanski Most. The announcement came over the radio, Radio Sana, that the convoy was leaving, and it had been made clear that this was among the last chances. The previous night had been one of horrific violence, with gangs lobbing grenades through the windows of people’s homes and firing willy-nilly on the streets of the Muslim quarters. The mosque had been blown up, all Muslim shops burned and looted, Muslims sacked from their jobs and some undamaged houses allocated to new, incoming Serb families, their names posted above the doorways. Tickets for the journey were purchased from the police, the fare payable in Deutschmarks. People could use the buses and trucks provided, or take their own vehicles. The convoy left shortly before midday”.
Substitute “Jews” for “Muslims”, “synagogue” for “mosque”, a German or Polish town for “Sanski Most”, and you are back in a past from which the generations born after the Second World War believed they had been permanently separated. The above passage from Ed Vulliamy’s Seasons in Hell: understanding Bosnia’s war describes only one instance of a carefully planned and coldly executed operation – habitually now described as “ethnic cleansing”, though as Vulliamy insists “genocide inspired by the ideology of fascism” would be a far more appropriate definition – involving the two thirds of Bosnia-Herzegovina that came under occupation in the first few months of the Serbian blitzkrieg. His book is a powerful testimony to the realities of this terrible war.
What gives it additional value is that through it we hear Bosnians speak of their destroyed existence, their fears and their hopes. As the war progresses in its terrible and dehumanizing fashion, so too these voices articulate an increasing incomprehension of – and despair at – the betrayal (for this is the true word) of international law and those values which Western civilization claims to be its unique contribution to historical progress. Out of 20,000 Muslims who once lived in “the neat and pretty town Sanski Most”, only 1,000 remained by the end. Within weeks, in this way, a town that in typically Bosnian fashion had been multi-ethnic – 44 per cent Muslim, 42 per cent Serb, 8.5 per cent Croat and 4 per cent other – lost more than half its population. Some of those expelled were put into concentration camps – which Vulliamy was among the first to visit. Others were herded across mountains towards the central area under government control, or ended up leaving Bosnia altogether. Serbia’s concept of the war as a racial and religious crusade – pioneered a year earlier in Croatia – established a model that came to be emulated subsequently by Croatia itself, as forces under Zagreb’s control pushed from the west towards central Bosnia. Guided by similar annexationist aims, these practised the same odious policies. At some point, albeit in desperation, the Muslims in central Bosnia started to respond in kind. As a nation, they in particular faced the prospect of extinction. That they have thus far escaped their own “final solution” has been due first to the Bosnian state’s capacity for self-defence and secondly to the willingness of a limited number of countries – not including Britain – to offer sanctuary to significant numbers of a people that, like the Jews in earlier times, found itself thrust outside all laws or moral rules.
The great value of Vulliamy’s book lies in such detailed rendering of the horrors of this war, which makes it an indispensable source of reference. Yet even such an account fails to convey fully what this violent alteration of a centuries-old ethnic and cultural configuration has done to that part of Europe. This is what Armageddon must look like. “Seasons in Hell” is indeed an apt description. Vulliamy’s angry, passionate account of the destruction of the Bosnian state and society is also explicit about the reasons for his anger. It is directed above all against the ever-deepening complicity of Western chancelleries – especially the British Foreign Office – with the perpetrators of the Bosnian cataclysm. Unlike the politicians, who not only knew what was happening and did nothing but also did their best to hide their knowledge from the public, it was journalists like Vulliamy who braved great dangers in order to tell the true story. It is thanks to their efforts that one is led to question a system of governance in which citizens are denied any say in shaping their country’s response to a war that is the harbinger of a violent European future. British – and Western – handling of the war in Bosnia has revealed the fragility of what we have assumed to be a terra firma of international law and rules of conduct, codified in numerous conventions including the founding Charter of the United Nations. The response amounts in practice to a wilful tearing up of all such international agreements and a brazen acceptance of the principle that only might is right.
If, however, you wish to understand the causes of the former Yugoslavia’s disintegration and the forces that set this war in motion, then Vulliamy is a poor guide. This is a matter of both factual and analytical weaknesses. Here are a few examples taken at random. In 1992 Bosnia did not opt for independence “from Yugoslavia”, since Yugoslavia by then was no longer in existence. The war in Bosnia was not due to Serbia’s and Croatia’s desire to “re-establish their ancient frontiers” (the presence of these states on Bosnian soil represented but a fleeting moment in the history of the country, as short in duration as – for example – Bosnia’s incorporation of Central Dalmatia), but was simply the result of a direct attack by Serbia. Moreover, as Vulliamy himself observes in other parts of the book, the policy of partitioning Bosnia- Herzegovina has always been unpopular in Croatia, as it has been with the Catholic Church; unlike the way things were in Serbia. There was no “War of the Maps already nascent between Croats and Serbs during the 1980s”; on the contrary, only in Serbia were Yugoslavia’s internal borders challenged at that time (by the bulk of its political and intellectual establishment, what is more). Croatia’s eagerness to defend itself in 1991 should not be ascribed, as Vulliamy ascribes it, to some great desire to go to war with Serbia: how could it be, in view of Croatia’s initial near-total lack of arms? At the start of the Serbian aggression against Croatia, not “a few” but more than half the country’s Serbs found themselves outside the self-proclaimed “Krajina”. The four Cs found in the Serbian state emblem do not come from the motto “Samo Sloga Srbina Spašava”, but reflect a Byzantine heraldic inheritance. Dragiša Cvetkovic, who in 1939 signed the infamous agreement with the Croatian Peasant Party leader Vladimir Macek partitioning Bosnia-Hercegovina, was not “a Serbian diplomat” but the Prime Minister of Yugoslavia. Nebojša Popov, once a dissident Belgrade sociologist, could hardly be described as a “Titoist Communist”. Miloševic did not become head of the Serbian Communist party after defeating Ivan Stambolic, for it was Stambolic who gave him the post in the first place. Finally, the war in Bosnia may be seen as a “War of Maps”, but it is certainly not a “War of the narod”, i.e. an ethnic war. In fact the schema into which Vulliamy tries to fit the wars in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina is far too simple and static, further aggravated by scant knowledge of events in the former Yugoslavia prior to the break-up of the ruling League of Communists.
These weaknesses, however, should not detract from the immense value of Vulliamy’s book, which lies in its urgent compassion for, and attachment to, what Bosnia-Herzegovina has signified: a multicultural co-existence of which Europe should have been proud, but which it did nothing to protect.
This review first appeared in The Tablet on 19 February 1995