Greater Surbiton

The perfect is the enemy of the good

The persecution of Serb civilians in wartime Gorazde

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Review of Savo Heleta, Not My Turn to Die: Memoirs of a Broken Childhood in Bosnia, AMACOM, New York, 2008

It is a truism that there were victims among all national groups in Bosnia-Hercegovina during the war of 1992-95. Though Serb forces were guilty of most of the killing and persecution during the war, and Bosniaks made up the great majority of its civilian victims, yet Serb civilians, too, were victims at the hands of Bosnian and Croat forces. It should not need saying that their suffering was no less real or worthy of recognition than that of other Bosnians. Unfortunately, all too often, accounts of Serb suffering have been instrumentalised by propagandists for the Great Serbian cause, who will for example, highlight the killing of Serb civilians by the Bosnian Army at Kravica in January 1993 and in virtually the same breath deny the Srebrenica massacre. Such abuse of victimhood adds to the sensitivity with which any discussion of Bosniak atrocities against Serbs must be treated. In these circumstances, eyewitness accounts of such atrocities by enlightened Serb witnesses are particularly valuable.

In Savo Heleta’s book Not My Turn to Die: Memoirs of a Broken Childhood in Bosnia, we have one such eyewitness. Heleta has provided a gripping, harrowing account of his family’s suffering in wartime Gorazde. He describes the intimidation, murder attempts, vandalism of property and other abuses to which he, his family and other Serb civilians were subjected at the hands of local Bosniak thugs, as well as lengthy arbitrary incarceration without food, dismissal from employment, humiliating forced labour such as street-sweeping, and enforced virtual starvation at the hands of the authorities. Some Serbs fared worse, and were beaten or murdered. In the words, of Heleta’s father, as quoted here: ‘Everyone in this city is suffering, but we are also seen by Muslims as the enemy. Muslim extremists, hit squads, and even the police and government officials have threatened to kill us. The only reason we are oppressed is because we are Serbs. Many innocent people have already been killed just because they were Serbs and remained in their homes.’

Yet Heleta also describes the support and kindness extended to his family by Bosniak neighbours and friends, including the provision of food and shelter that may have saved their lives; he does not portray the persecution as the work of Bosniaks in general. The official persecution of Serb civilians he attributes to segments of the Bosnian authorities, including the city mayor and senior police officials, but mentions that other Bosnian officials, including senior army officers, disagreed with the persecution and tried to stop it, or intervened to protect Serbs. There is much nuance in this account, though this should not be allowed to overshadow the suffering to which the Heleta family and other Serb civilians were subjected. In one graphic passage, he describres the impression created when his parents, emaciated after months of semi-starvation and abuse, swam in the River Drina: ‘When they took off their clothes, the entire beach turned toward us and stared at them. People whispered in disbelief, asking if anyone knew who the two skeletons were.’

Heleta does not shy away from describing the wider context of the persecution of the Serbs: the Serb shelling and sniper attacks on the town; the arrival of large numbers of Bosniak refugees who had been expelled from their homes elsewhere in the region by Serb forces; and the fear that the town would be overrun by the Serb army, as all other Bosnian towns in the region were. He describes how, in response to NATO airstrikes against Serb forces in the spring of 1994, ‘the Serbian forces, incensed by the NATO attack, went on to brutally and indiscriminately bomb the city.’ And elsewhere: ‘The Serbian snipers often shot at everyone – women, children, and old people – even though they were located on the hilltops not far fromt he city center and could probably distinguish between civilians and soldiers. I saw with my own eyes old women getting shot while scurrying across the street with water canisters in their hands.’ Faced with this existential threat, some Bosniaks looked upon Gorazde’s Serbs as spies or as the enemy within, though as the Serbs often pleaded, they were not responsible for the Serb assaults and were themselves at risk from Serb shelling. The agony of the Gorazde Serbs, caught between a rock and a hard place, is starkly portrayed by Heleta.

Tragically, it was the very Serb civilians who stayed in Gorazde and endured the Serbian assault alongside their Bosniak neighbours who were inevitably likely to end up most wholly alienated from their once multiethnic town. As Heleta relates: ‘After thugs and the police had terrorized my family so many times over the course of the previous months, I didn’t feel I was living in the same city. I no longer felt safe anywhere. I didn’t know most of the people in my neighbourhood anymore. Most of them were refugees. Those people I did know I didn’t feel like I knew anymore. I knew many of them hated my family. They lied that my parents were spies, that they should be killed. Some talked about this even in front of us. I started seeing my city and the majority of the people in it in a different light than before the war. They were now a source of degradation, forcing me to lose all connections to the world outside my circle of family and close friends.’

Though the narrator generally comes across as a sympathetic individual in difficult times, he is not uncritical of himself; he confesses that his anger at his family’s wartime treatment drove him, among other things, to throw rocks at Bosniak cars that drove between Gorazde and Sarajevo after the war, sometimes smashing windscreens and windows: ‘It hardly crossed my mind at the time that perhaps those people in the buses and trucks had not done anything bad to my family. Some of them could even have been those who had helped us. Maybe even the man who gave us his last loaf of bread. I was completely blinded by fury.’ This book is valuable reading for anyone wishing to understand how a multiethnic society can be pulverised by war; it was not simply a question of the authorities destroying multiethnic coexistence from above, but of ordinary people – Serbs and Bosniaks alike – responding to suffering and injustice at the hands of officials or thugs from the opposing side by adopting a generalised hostility to the entire other nationality.

Unlike nationalist Serbs who responded to the Bosnian war by embracing the crackpot politics of genocide-denial and anti-Western conspiracy theory, Heleta has, to his credit, spoken out against instances of persecution and injustice in other parts of the world in the years since his ordeal. I do not agree with all of his politics, but he has, in his blog and elsewhere, genuinely attempted to be consistent in his condemnations of killing and human rights abuses, and has spoken out against the regimes in Iran, Zimbabwe and Sudan – and in particular over Darfur – while being strongly critical of US and Israeli policy as well. If he has a weak spot, it is in his readiness somewhat to gloss over Serbian wrongdoing; his book makes no mention of Serbia’s role in engineering the Bosnian war, which he blames vaguely on ‘nationalist politicians’ and ‘bad leadership’. He also rather unfortunately describes the Nazi-collaborationist Chetniks of World War II as having ‘fought against the Nazis’.

On his blog, Heleta downplays the killing of Kosova Albanians by Serbian forces in the late 1990s, and complains of the fact that the Western alliance intervened in Kosova but not in Darfur: ‘Western governments are eager and ready to send troops, equipment, aid, and money to stop conflicts in Europe, while conflicts in Africa are ignored. They have done this in the case of Bosnia in the early 1990s, while ignoring the Rwandan genocide in 1994. They are doing this again in Kosovo since 1999, while ignoring the Darfur conflict and suffering of millions since 2003. Whether it is due to skin color, geographic location, natural resources, or effective lobbying, it seems that some people do matter more than others.’ Critics of Western policy are often fond of making this sort of point, though it begs the questions: Should the West intervene neither in Kosova nor in Darfur, or should it intervene in both ? And if it intervenes to stop the persecution only in one place and not the other, is this not better than intervening in neither ? The answer one gives to these questions reveals if one is genuinely opposed to persecution and injustice, or whether one is merely exploiting it opportunistically to score points against the West. I believe that Heleta is sincerely opposed to injustice, but there are a couple of wrinkles in his political ethics that he needs to address. But this does not detract from the value of his moving memoir.

Monday, 25 May 2009 - Posted by | Balkans, Bosnia, Former Yugoslavia | , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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