Why do we commemorate wars and their endless mutilated dead? Why do we gather round cenotaphs and tombs of unknown soldiers, lay wreaths and stand still for a moment in silence? Why do we keep choosing to remember what is better to forget? Such thoughts must cross the mind of people here as Café Europa meets once again to talk about Bosnia, this time in the city that was the centre of that war, still scarred by the trauma, still inhabited by ghosts.
It’s now fifteen years since the wars of the former Yugoslavia began. Fifteen years. It seems such a long time ago, but then again – no time at all.
I was born in 1960, fifteen years after the end of the Second World War, and in some ways that war seemed like ancient history to me as a child. True, all my comic book heroes were still engaged in aerial combat with the Luftwaffe, and every weekend and every holiday my TV set would show The Great Escape or Battle of Britain. I was six when England just beat West Germany in the World Cup and the wartime rhetoric of ‘blitzkrieg’, ‘panzers’ still dominated tabloid newspaper coverage of football matches until the 1990s. Back in the sixties my model aircraft kits were still dominated by Spitfires and Messerschmitts, my miniature toy soldiers were dressed as Tommies or Afrika Corps. The war was ancient history, but still being refought in every young boy’s war games, in every living room during Christmas or international football fixtures. And the odd thing about this constant memorialisation is that it made the past seem more distant, more mythic and unreal. It was only later, as an adult, that I discovered the real side of this recent history, and it became more present and more disturbing.
I can only imagine what is happening to a younger generation of Sarajevans today as they encounter the memorials to a war they are too young too remember, but not old enough to understand. As for the older generations, those who suffered bombardments, who lost families, who were forced to flee, fight or witness the sufferings of others – I can only wonder how they compare with the people in my youth who lived through the Second World War.
There was some kind of bizarre dual compulsion among the wartime generation when I was young: nobody really talked about what happened in the 1940s, but they were always talking about it. These were the people, after all, who made the movies and comics and the model spitfires. These were people like my parents, who would offer some dim memory of seeing bombing raids in their home towns, or dog fights over their country fields. They would occasionally give you glimpses of glamour or drama or excitement. But other than that, I had no idea what the war really ‘felt’ like. They were quiet on that, as if they didn’t quite know themselves. It was only years later that I discovered the silently traumatic impact war had on their lives. Some of them had seen the concentration camps of Dachau and Buchenwald. Some of them had dug shattered bodies out of the rubble of the blitz. Others hadn’t seen their fathers for years, or had been evacuated to some coastal town, and then passed on from stranger to stranger.
The real impact of the war was somehow ever present but invisible – a bit like the derelict bomb sites you could still find in central London until the early 80s. These gaps in the houses, or empty plots in the commercial zones, were usually colourful, overgrown with wild shrubs and trees. They revealed nothing about how they got there: the homes and buildings demolished, the lives lost. But their lack of signification conveyed its own meaning. I wonder if the same moments of expressive emptiness happen in Sarajevo to people today.
It took several decades for my parents’ generation, the Second World War generation, to fill those empty plots in the urban landscape, and to fill out those vanished chapters of their lives. For many, especially those who had survived the Holocaust, it was nearly 50 years when they finally came out and told their children and grandchildren what happened. I don’t know why it took so long. Maybe it was a change in the culture, a wider realisation by the end of the last century that repression and stoicism were not necessarily the best way of dealing with the memories of suffering. Certainly there are countless authors, from Primo Levi, to Imre Kertesz or Wadislaw Spzilman, who could find no willing publishers for their tales of genocide and its aftermath, or accepting censors, for their works until the late 90s. Maybe also too, on a more personal level, the inhibiting factors of shame, embarrassment, lessened as the Second World War generation entered retirement, and began to face the final silence of the grave.
Let’s hope that, for the health both of the victims, and their children, the process is not so prolonged for the victims of the Bosnian war.
So why should we keep on remembering? Why keep reliving that suffering? Something strange happens to memory after a major trauma like war. For anyone who has been through a catastrophic event where they felt they had no control, psychologists have notice a contradictory set of impulses. There is a massive desire to forget and to flee anything that can trigger the memory of the horror. This is called avoidance. But paradoxically, the more the victim of trauma tries to flee these recollections, the more powerful the hold they exert. The push of avoidance is matched by the pull of strong involuntary flashbacks. You try to forget, but the repressed returns. By running away from your demons you run towards them.
These warring impulses of flashback and avoidance have a profound impact on the sensibility of someone who suffers from what is now called post traumatic stress disorder. A victim will go through sudden emotional mood swings, at one time desensitised and deadened, and then suddenly energised, antagonistic, overreacting to perceived threats. These two states are commonly described as psychic numbing and hypervigilance. It parallels the process of avoidance and flashback. At one point the victim is deadened, in denial, trying to suppress any emotion or memory that might remind them of the violence of the past. Then suddenly the repressed memory returns involuntarily. From a state of torpor and lethargy, the victim is suddenly alert and paranoid, hearing the crump of mortar shells, preparing for fight or flight again.
I don’t know Sarajevans well enough to comment on whether this is happening here. Nor am I enough of a psychologist or political scientist to say whether these individual reactions can translate themselves collectively into the behaviour of a whole nation. But I can remember these symptoms very clearly in the behaviour in the Second World War generation of my parents, particularly my father. I’ve also seen this strange emotional see-saw among friends of mine in Israel, conscripted into the Israeli army as teenagers, who are now professional designers and artists, and try to suppress what they saw and did Ramallah and Beirut. Perhaps these individual compulsions translate into a wider political mentality of siege and over reaction. I cannot speak too readily of other countries, but there’s certainly some truth that post traumatic stress contributed to some of the more aggressive and paranoid aspects of British Foreign policy, right up to Margaret Thatcher.
So what is the function of memory when we would prefer to avoid and numb ourselves? By constantly treading over the ground of the past, and reliving those times of war, aren’t we just subjecting ourselves to more flashbacks and hypervigilance?
But there’s a complete difference between a victim of post traumatic stress, and the people who gather at graveside or cenotaph or a meeting like this to recall the horrors of the past - we choose to remember. Flashbacks are fragmented, scary, involuntary. But remembrance is a conscious act, conducted in a demeanour of silence and respect. Though memory cannot necessarily explain or mitigate the brutalities of war, it can frame them, try to understand their origins, work out mechanisms to prevent or forewarn of their recurrence. The conscious act of remembering a trauma is akin to what counsellors advise to victims of PTSD: to talk about the violent past in the security of the present, to reshape the meaning in your own time, within the structure of your own narrative – in a sense to change the memory by remembering it again.
We may not realise this, but we change our memories all the time. There is some complex neuroscience to this, but when we recall (again) a distant event, we actually form new connections with other memories, and of course, the ever new present. To some this sounds like we tamper with the past, but the memory can remain intact and authentic while the meaning changes and resonates over time. This to me is entirely necessary, entirely healthy, and – let’s be honest – unavoidable. The memory will haunt us if we do not revisit it. In the act of remembrance, we fill out the empty bombsites, we see the streets as they used to be, we talk to the ghosts and we hear new nuances to their stories. We feel and grieve what we have lost through a kind of mourning, rather than avoiding the pain with fear and loathing. We remember again and again consciously, in memorials and conversations and conferences and essays and books, so that eventually, at a deeper level, we can heal and forget.
What follows is a personal act of remembering. Below is a reprint of the essay that was for my speech then at my first Café Europa, six years ago, in Poznan in April 2000. The essay was an attempt in personal form, to explore my own responses to the wars of the 1990s, and my own possible connection to the Bosnian Generation. It has never been published, so while the argument may be vaguely familiar to some people who were present in Poznan, I am not repeating completely repeating myself. The essay reprinted here without amendment, warts and all, but I will revise my thoughts in a brief postscript after the essay.
THE BOSNIA GENERATION: A CONFESSION
A presentation for Cafe Europa, Pozna, April 2000
THE BOSNIA GENERATION: A CONFESSION
Is there such a thing as the Bosnian generation? If so, who belongs to it? Is it a peculiarly Yugoslav, or Balkan, or European generation? And what is its mentality and emotional stance? How did the war in Bosnia – and after that in Kosovo - affect how it thinks and feels?
I am not a historian or a social scientist, so I cannot answer these questions in any formal or authoritative way. All I can speak from is my own personal experience – and that is a rather distanced view point – that of a Londoner watching events unfold hundreds of miles away. It seems to me that, if such a thing as Bosnian generation exists, the traumatic break up of the former Yugoslavia will have left an indelible mark on their thoughts, their moral perspective, and their emotions. On this one matter I can therefore say something with some authority – because Bosnia and its aftermath had a profound influence on me.
The weekend in July 1995 when Srebrenica fell was one of the worst weekends of my life. I still don’t quite understand why this is so. I am partly writing this in order to understand why. During that weekend five years ago neither my life, my livelihood, nor my children were under threat. But somehow the fall of Srebrenica was more terrible because it was NOT a personal crisis, because it was not limited to me and my circle, because it begged much bigger questions of me, of my friends, of my country, of my continent. It questioned our capacity to determine right from wrong, and our ability to intervene to do something about it.
That weekend, when it became clear that neither the UN nor NATO were going to intervene to protect the ‘safe area’ they had proclaimed, nor willing to defend the civilians they had disarmed and gathered in the former mining town, I remember staring out of the window and thinking that darkness had descended on Europe. I had read about this darkness in history, seen it in black and white archive footage. I had even written about a time, long ago, when massacres were conducted on European soil and good people stood by. I had written The Man in the Trees, a play set in the borderlands of Poland, simultaneously in 1942 and 1992. It cut between a present day story of an archaeological dig and the wartime legend of a ‘Man in the Trees’, a partisan hiding in the puszcza, who will only come out of hiding once the ‘war is really over’. With more intuition than knowledge I suggested that the causes of war – in Eastern and Central Europe at least – had been repressed in the last fifty years, rather than resolved. The play began with the refrain.
"Believe me, this happened here. It could happen again. Even if it seems like an old tale from long ago, so distant and so strange."
The Man in the Trees
Throughout my adolescence, I had often wondered – as teenagers do - what I would have done had I been alive during the Second World War, knowing that evil was taking place somewhere in Europe. The Man in the Trees was an attempt to explore that feeling in fiction. But then it happened in fact. During that weekend in July 1995 I suddenly realised what I would have done: nothing. Because there was nothing I could do. It was too late.
Forgive me for being sentimental, but I wept that weekend. I’m sure I wept partly out of pity and terror: terror for the defenceless men and boys who were facing the Serb paramilitaries; pity for their wives and daughters. But combined in these tears was an acid feeling of futility and powerlessness. This is a large part of the trauma, even for a mere spectator, knowing you have stood by and done nothing. So I wept mostly for my self. They were burning tears of shame.
For me, then, a core part of being a member of the Bosnian Generation is this sense of shame, a feeling of being complicit, of being a spectator at a horrific event. I was neither a direct victim, nor a direct perpetrator. But somehow I believe I was guilty of being both. But there was no one to accuse me. It was just me and my conscience in that room as darkness descended outside. I felt totally isolated. But now I know I was not alone .
Many of us were passive spectators during the Bosnian conflict, and by that token became passive perpetrators. We have no excuses. Unlike our parents or grandparents fifty years ago, when news was censored and rumours took years to percolate across continents, we could see nearly everything almost instantaneously on BBC or CNN. I watched the shelling of Dubrovnik – a town I had visited as a boy – in the comfort of my living room. Soon there were nightly mini documentaries about ordinary life in Sarajevo under the siege. Children played under the cross hairs of a sniper’s rifle. Women scoured the rubble-strewn streets for lipstick, to defy the heavy weapons with their sense of style. So I cannot claim innocence through ignorance. With the exception of the clearing of the Drina valley in April 1992, none of us could claim that the information wasn’t available, nightly, for us to see what was happening. The problem was not a lack of information, but a lack of understanding. Our eyes were wide open but we were blind.
To me this seems one of the core characteristics of the Bosnian Generation, which separates it from the Vietnam Generation. In the 1960s the nightly news bulletins of the Tet Offensive, or the photo journalism of Don McCullin, brought war closer than it had ever been to a non-combatant. The mass media of TV injected realism and immediacy, and part of the reason for the mass demonstrations against the war in the US and Western Europe was due to the graphic effect of napalm on photo emulsion as well as skin; the sound of a bullet makes going through someone’s head through a speaker a few feet away in the corner of your living room.
But by the 1990s, we had all become accustomed to war imagery as mere imagery. The screen violence had lost its capacity to shock. The Gulf War was, of course, the apogee of this trend – an apparently casualty free spectacle of smart bombs, cruise and patriot missiles, the Bagdad sky lit up on CNN, described by commentators like ‘a firework show’. Everyone noticed that this was a spectacle, and post-modern commentators like Baudrillard revelled in their ability to read the rhetoric. They wrote essays about how ‘virtual war is hell’ . But these were not works of moral outrage or political passion. They were disquisitions on the poetics of the modern medium.
So we hoodwinked ourselves. We no longer trusted our senses. Even I was worried by the ‘lookalike effect’ when ITN first broadcast pictures from the Trnopolye camp in North Eastern Bosnia. The pictures were too similar to the black and white photos of inmates of Buchenwald, Dachau and Auschwitz. The analogy was too neat, the barbed wire too resonant. It’s a peculiar effect, because we both need analogies to make sense of what is happening, but the analogies can also undermine the reality. Somehow the juxtaposition of wartime Holocaust imagery with the pixilated colour of a video still made us distrustful. I remembered Marx remembering Hegel and how history is supposed to repeat itself, the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.
But it was no video farce. If only it had been. If only the Bosnian war conformed to that ideological dictum. Though signally different in organisation and scale from the concentration camps of Germany or the death camps of Poland, Omarska, Foca, Zvornik and Prijedor were dark, serious echoes of the past. But we were blind to it. We didn’t trust our reactions any more. It was as if we had loaned our eyes to CNN and BBC, and when we got them back, believed they were someone else’s.
The debate about propaganda and media coverage still rages today. Indeed, to follow some newspapers you would think that the ‘media’ had been the main victims of the Bosnian and Kosovan wars, rather than anyone else. Only last month (March) ITN won a libel case against Living Marxism magazine, which claimed that the images of the camps in 1992 were exaggerated and manufactured to look like concentration camps. Many intellectuals, led by Harold Pinter, took the side of the ‘underdog’ against the big news organisations. Whether it was right in this particular instance, Living Marxism had a right to question the version of truth told by the mass media. At the same time, in another London courtroom, Deborah Lipstadt was defending herself in another libel battle against David Irving over his claim that the Nazi death camps were not the part of a deliberate policy of genocide by Hitler. Strange that, none of these same intellectuals, led by Harold Pinter, supported the underdog against this version of truth told by the mass media. Revisionism – so terrible and betraying and impermissible in one genocide, is somehow allowable in another.
I believe that incredulity is part of the problem of the Bosnian Generation. And we weren’t helped by our intellectuals. We were radically let down by the radicals of the 60s who saw everything in terms of American cultural colonialism and mass media manipulation. They had brought us to a point of total distrust, of post-modern relativism, that we had no bearings.
This distrust infected both right and left, and spanned most ideological divisions. I fell out with many friends on the left because – in a magazine supplement misreading of history – they somehow believed Milosevic’s government carried on the traditions of Tito. They confused Partisans and Chetniks. The Serbs were ‘comrades’, fighting against resurgent Croat fascism, Islamic fundamentalism. Besides, on the principle that my enemy’s enemy is my friend, America was taking sides against the Serbs so they must be right.
These arguments neatly tallied with the (then dominant) thinking of the right in the UK and US. In search of a new post Cold War rationale, these so called ‘thinkers’ projected Islam as the new great enemy. Therefore Bosnia was a fifth column, the first Islamic state in Europe, and could not be allowed. Besides, they argued, there was no national interest was in supporting the Serbs against the German sponsored Croats. We had nothing strategically at stake in the fate of these strange Balkan peoples.. Despite the instability, despite the refugees, intervention would not further British (or French) interests. Yes, of course, we should provide humanitarian aid – bandage the shrapnel wounds while letting the hard rain of mortars to continue. But the only way to sort out this ‘ancient ethnic rivalry’ was to let the parties tire of bloodletting. The Serbs will partition Bosnia and peace will come.
It has been said that most nations, when engaged in conflict, make the mistake of fighting the previous war rather than the one they are engaged in. Something like this happened with Bosnia. Both left and right applied the wrong lessons from World War II but by and far the biggest false lesson was Vietnam. It was constantly used as a warning. Don’t intervene in the Balkans. It will become Europe’s South East Asia. Troops will become ‘bogged down’ in a ‘quagmire’. ‘Mission creep’ would lead to years of ‘body bags’. This fear of a European Vietnam was readily exploited by Karadvic, Mladic and Milosevic, who constantly threatened to tie down European or US troops. And because, led by Bill Clinton, the 60s generation was in power, their recurrent fear was that they get in too deep, get too involved. We still held to the image of the soldier as shown in an Oliver Stone movie. Why am I using this gun? Why am I killing people I don’t want to kill? Why am I fighting myself?
I believe we are part of a Bosnian Generation, because we have learned a completely different lesson to our predecessors: the dangers of standing back, of NOT getting involved. In this way, we are similar to the Munich generation. We learned too late, after diplomacy and humanitarian aid led to Srebrenica, and engagement and airstrikes finally silenced the heavy weapons on Mount Igman, that appeasement still exists and intervention still can work. My image of the Bosnian war is of Dutch soldier in Srebrenica who is traumatised by a different set of questions:. Why I am NOT using this gun? Why am I not protecting the people I want to protect?
A passive spectator is also a passive perpetrator. This is the lesson of the Bosnian generation. All it takes is for evil to flourish is for good men and women to stand by and do nothing. Moral political engagement requires us not only to have an opinion but to engage in action. We can talk the talk. But can we walk the walk?
So what did I do to fight this sense of passive appeasement? I bring this down to a personal level, not because I am particularly significant, and certainly I have nothing to boast about – quite the reverse. I bring this down to a personal level because I believe that this is one of the hallmarks of the Bosnian generation. There were no mass movements taking to the streets and rising up against the passivity of their governments and saying: ‘Enough!’ In many ways, just as the siege of Sarajevo forced people to forsake the street cafes, just as it ruptured the marriages of survivors and separated brother from brother, mother from son, the experience of Bosnia for those of us on the sideline drove us to struggle with our consciences in silence and solitude.
I’m not a soldier or a doctor: I am a writer. My talent is not in using bullets or bandages to silence the heavy guns or cover the shrapnel wounds. My talent is in using words to target falsehoods and heal the hidden mental lesions. As I writer, I could have intervened to dispel the mystifications that daily smoked our television screens. As a story teller I could have borne witness and told the real story of what was going on.
I had certainly heard of stories that were ripe to be told: the story of the soldier who is not allowed to fight, the tragedy of a man trained to protect people, who hands are tied by politics and compromise. This was based on the SAS men who acted as ‘Forward air controllers’ in the Srebrenica enclave, and were supposed to target tanks and artillery with lasers for airstrikes to stop the Serb advance. From research, from talking to journalists and former soldiers, I knew that the image of the helpless soldier was a profound one.
Away from the frontline, I also had a story about the news and media manipulation that went on. While researching a television drama on political lobbyists around Westminster I shadowed Ian Greer, the lobbyist who was ultimately involved – several years later – in the ‘sleaze’ scandals that hit Parliament and caused the landslide against the Tory government. In 1992 and 1993 I shadowed him, attended meetings, and soon realised that he was lobbying for a powerful group of Serb Businessmen. Their aim was not to make politicians or the public pro Serb. They had a much more effective strategy: firstly to maintain an arms embargo. This left Milosevic’s government with nearly all the heavy guns and tanks of the former JNA – until recently the fifth largest army in the world. Secondly, these lobbyists wanted to stop any western military intervention
It was a meticulously planned campaign, and it largely succeeded. The British foreign secretary Douglas Hurd famously refused to lift the arms embargo because he didn’t want to create ‘ a level killing field’ – this left the field open for the unlevel killing field of Sarajevo. (Later, when Malcolm Rifkind took over as Foreign Secretary his main adviser on Bosnia was a friend of Greer’s and a member of the Montnegrin aristocracy.) I knew of reporters and TV producers who were regularly wined and dined by the lobbyists, and given friendly contacts in the Bosnian Serb Army. Like many in the British military, these journalists thought the Bosnian Serbs were at least ‘real soldiers’ unlike the ragtag, ill equipped and trained reservists, policemen and volunteers of the Bosnian army.
The news reporting – with some honourable exceptions – generally swallowed this line: all sides were as bad as each other. When the marketplace atrocities took place in Sarajevo, journalists would repeat stories, planted by MI6, that the Bosnian government was deliberately shelling their own people to gain sympathy. No wonder the public was horrified but also stymied. They are all as bad as each other. Keep away. Don’t intervene. All this was part of a concerted propaganda campaign against intervention which suited both the lobbyists and the British and French governments. It continued well in into 1995 when – as a preliminary to clearing Srebrenica – the BSA attacked the Gorazde enclave. The French and the British government deliberately aborted airstrikes, and Janvier gave Mladic a green light for the final phase of the campaign. The situation on the ground became so bad that the Americans ceased sharing intelligence with the British, and routed their surveillance and monitoring operations through German intelligence. So the ‘unlevel’ killing field continued, and the tanks rolled across the Drina, followed by hundreds of buses.
I made the story of this propaganda campaign a focus of my lobbying drama. I made my heroine an early supporter of Bosnian autonomy who finds herself, by the accidents of history and the exigences of her work, lobbying for Serb businessmen. When the BBC cancelled the drama because it was too contentious for the ‘current political climate’, I then decided to amalgamate it with the story of the soldier who was not allowed to fight. I wanted to show how our action and inaction had a direct impact on the lives of the men and women and children of Srebrenica. I wrote over 2000 pages of notes, researching cuttings and archives for every day of the conflict from 1992 to 1995. The novel was to be called ‘Eyes and Ears’. The title came from the name one of the UN’s commanders - General Rose – gave to his SAS soldiers deep undercover in the Bosnian hills.
Someone one said that ‘thoughts are also actions’ and until five years ago I had an unswerving faith that writing consisted of a form of intervention - that ideas and images can change attitudes and therefore deeds.
Now I am more dubious. I wonder if I am alone in feeling that fictions are sometimes futile when faced with brutal facts. Writing often comes too late on the scene: it arrives after the event. We fight in our imaginations the battles we have lost.
Nothing of my story would have saved another life among the 8,000 massacred in Srebrenica. One of the reasons I failed to complete the novel was this profound sense that it was too late. I also suspected that, in an age where information and imagery everywhere bombards us, another fiction, another illusion would just add to the unreality of modern atrocity. These qualms about my project – about the role of writing confronted with political calamity on such a large scale – began to erode my confidence. Besides, forms of political correctness had told us that too many white western males had intervened to depict the lives of other cultures. What right did I have to portray the tragedy of Bosnia? Even though I was privy to a larger tragedy – the tragedy of the passive complicity of myself and many of my friends – this peculiarly post modern doubt about imagining other people’s experiences sapped my will.
Maybe this is a crucial difference too, between the Bosnian generation of writers, compared to their forebears during Vietnam, Algeria, or the Spanish civil war. Perhaps the role of the actively politically ‘engaged’ writer has become a cliché we now distrust.
I only raise these questions because it seems to me there has been a marked silence among European writers and screenwriters to the Bosnian war. Maybe I have missed something. Maybe it takes a decade or so for such events to be digested. But one of the problems with Bosnia is that it was all too familiar, too resonant of wartime Europe, as if writers were afraid to repeat an old old story.
But by far the biggest reason that I failed to go any further with ‘Eyes and Ears’ was my sense that, in the UK anyway, no one wanted to know. One of the main characteristics of the Bosnian generation – at least in this country – is its apparent isolation and lack of self awareness. Friends and colleagues had not the slightest interest in the 200,000 casualties of the worst war to hit Europe in 50 years. The words ‘Bosnia’ or ‘Serbia’ or ‘Croatia’ were an instant turn off, despite this being the greatest test of the European Union and NATO and the UN since they were formed. And just as those institutions signally failed that test, I failed too. Eventually I gave into apathy and abandoned work on the book. I got on with my life, and in my own private moral universe, let the bodies lie forgotten in their shallow graves.
Then – early in 1999 – Arkan’s Tigers and the Sesejl’s White Eagles started again on their well tested methods of ethnic cleansing: this time in the formerly autonomous province of Kosovo.
In the post-modern theatre of war, where the instant media make us all near neighbours, the danger is we become eyes and ears but have no hands or teeth. Like the crippled photographer in Hitchcock’s ‘Rear Window’ we can see murder taking place but can’t stop it. The voyeurism of war amplifies helplessness. The victim feels betrayed by those who witness his suffering but do not intervene, while the bystander is traumatised by having instincts of pity and terror aroused, with no practical response or resolution. The spectacle of atrocity thus leaves us feeling paranoid or desensitized. Sometimes the images are so shocking, they hold us in a fixated fascination that prevents us from understanding. The easiest way to survive is to reach for the remote control and switch over to another channel.
For my own sake, I now wish I had finished ‘Eyes and Ears’. It would have been published just before the 1999 Kosovo war, and maybe a few of the people who read it have seen how Milosevic worked, how France and Britain tacitly acquiesced. Maybe it would have helped some people to read the writing on the wall more quickly. But, in the end, Milosevic showed his true colours and real events opened the eyes of the European public. Any regret I may have is still overweighed by the relief that NATO finally did make a stand for human rights above national interest, refused to allow ethnic or religious exclusivity becoming a governing factor in our politics again. Clumsy, confused, and botched as the intervention somehow was – I am still proud that we somehow managed to make values as important as interests in the struggle over Kosovo.
Salman Rushdie has suggested that the twentieth century really began in Sarajevo in 1914 with the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, and ended there with the siege of 1992-5. This image is appealing to a writer. It is narratively neat. It has poetic justice. But I think part of the danger is that, as writers or storytellers, we look too much for poetic rather than real justice. We are always on the lookout historical coinicidences and narrative patterns. It is partly this mentality that makes us fight the war just previous, rather than engage in the real conflict taking place now. I believe it is this poetic attitude to history which led to some seeing Bosnia as another Vietnam – with all the catastrophic consequences. And there is still a danger that, in the Kosovo conflict, we were fighting the last war, assuaging our guilt for our failure in Bosnia. One of the great responsibilities of a Bosnian generation would be to engage in the conflicts of the present, rather than refight in imagination the war we just lost.
The other great responsibility of the Bosnian generation is to make sure that we don’t become insular. We now know that conflicts hundreds of miles away will eventually involve us. Containment is not an option in the age of CNN when images and voices come into our living room. We are virtual neighbours, and even if we can turn our eyes away from atrocity on our doorstep, the victim will not forget we stood by. But I still think that the Bosnian Generation is primarily a European phenomenon. It arises out of the thaw of the Cold War. It is the generation that experienced the dreams of 1989 – an end to European division – only to have the nightmare of ethnic conflict returns in its place.
Some may think that our obsession with the Bosnian conflict is just a sign of our Eurocentrism. We are more concerned with Sarajevo or Kosovo than Rwanda or East Timor because the victims are white and watch MTV and wear jeans. If they were black, or wore dhotis, we ignored their sufferings as the natural antics of uncivilised savage people. But I happen to believe the opposite is true. Europe is a special not just because of its unique civilisation, but also because of its unique barbarity. In this century alone Europe and Russia have been the scene of hundreds of millions of casualties, and many times more people have been killed by famine, war and pogrom on this dark continent than in Africa, India or China.
So, as a Bosnian Generation, we know just how special Europe is. It has its beauties, its amazing cultural diversity and rich history . But we also know that all these virtues can turn into vices. We know the bridges we build to cross cultures and cross rivers can slowly be blown away by mortars. We know that the rough killing fields of history lie under our feet like a minefield, that one misplaced step can set off.
Peter Jukes for Café Europa: March 2000
Rereading that confession after six years, I am struck both by how much I still feel and live in the world shaped by the last decade of the 20th century. I still stand by most of what I wrote, and still feel the same shortcomings, anger and shame. But a few important things have changed, with certainty replacing doubt, and doubt replacing certainty.
The most important place where certainty has replaced doubt is in the central question: is there such a thing as the Bosnia Generation? I’ve no doubt now that there is, but this certainty comes out of a paradox. I’m now convinced that there is a nexus of collective concerns, sensitivities and shame which defines a ‘Bosnia Generation’ because it has been superseded.
Talking to friends and acquaintances now in their twenties or early thirties, I can see that the words Mostar, or Omarska, or even Srebrenica, do not have the same emotional relevance to them. They probably know what they mean, and can even give me snapshots, descriptions, dates and figures. But these events do not have the same emotional resonance to a younger generation. They can perhaps remember newspaper reports, or blurry images on TV (much as I can of the Vietnam War) but they do not feel morally culpable or politically animated by these events.
Instead, the generation behind us, are seared by other events, mainly outside of Europe. To them, the attacks on World Trade Centre and the Pentagon, bombs in Bali, Casablanca, Madrid and London, and the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq are the key events, traumatic memories and the compass points in their psycho-political landscape. Compared to the current situation in Iraq, the wars in the former Yugoslavia are small side shows, tragic but distracting preludes to the main event – the War on Terror. If the ricochet of bullets both opened and closed the twentieth century, as Salman Rushdie suggested, then 9/11 inaugurated the beginning of a new millennium.
Though my narrative hunger craves them, I still distrust these neat historical book ends. To me the rise of radical Islam cannot be separated from events in the former Yugoslavia, especially since many of the victims in Bosnia and Kosovo were nominally Muslim. To many of the bombers involved both in the 9/11 plots and subsequent attacks in London and Madrid, the failure of Europe and the US to intervene in the conflicts for so many years was seen as its tacit acquiescence in anti-Islamic prejudice. Bosnia plays, in this narrative of betrayal and crusader violence, almost as important a part in the narrative as Chechyna, Palestine or Kashmir. But this is a complex argument, because NATO did end up intervening, and besides, the historical nuances and shadings of the Balkans don’t fit too neatly into the black and white master narrative of the War Against Terror, or indeed it’s mirror image – the oppressions of the American Empire.
So the Bosnia Generation has been superseded. But what of the lessons we learned? The most important of these seems to me to be the principle of military intervention for humanitarian purposes. The 1995 bombings of Serb positions and the use of the Rapid Reaction Force, followed by the Kosovo Conflict in 1999, were not only the first time NATO forces were used in active combat since the foundation of the alliance. They also marked an innovation in foreign policy among NATO members: that military force could be used against another state even if it was not directly threatening a member of the alliance, but because a large section of its own population was a risk This principle of liberal intervention, debated throughout the 20th century from the Armenian genocide through the Holocaust of World War II, seemed finally to have been resolved. The trials of Milosevic and other war criminals in the Hague, accompanied by similar trials in Rwanda for the politicians and soldiers responsible for the genocide there, seemed to usher in – for a brief while – a breath taking new strand to foreign affairs: governments had not only a responsibility to the interests of their own people, they also had an obligation to protect, even pre-emptively, populations in other countries.
There was always a problem with the concept of liberal intervention compared with the simple realpolitik of national interests and grand alliances: which liberal principles would we intervene militarily to protect? Though it is famously a ‘problem from hell’, genocide is also one of the more clear-cut reasons for military engagement. The prospect of imminent physical destruction is a threat to a right that presupposes all others: the right to existence. But genocide also covers the cultural and linguistic destruction of peoples and the principle of military intervention becomes much more problematic when it comes to defending those rights beyond physical existence. What of the destruction of ways of life in Tibet? Or the Indian peasants in Central America? And where does cultural identity stop? Should we defend the rights of Pakistani men to kill their errant sisters or daughters? Or the long established traditions of female circumcision in sub Saharan Africa?
These doubts aside, the biggest blow to the concept of liberal intervention was its use and abuse in the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Not only were many liberal interventionists either ambiguous or supportive of some kind of intervention in Saddam Hussein’s regime (and yes, I confess I was one of the ambiguous ones), these newly minted principles of humanitarian military action were very effectively used by the neo conservative right in the US. If we could intervene in Bosnia and Kosovo to protect local populations against Serb aggression, then we had an equal duty to protect the Kurds, Shiite’s and Marsh Arabs against the Baathist regime in Baghdad. If cultural values are to be protected and fought for, why shouldn’t we fight to protect the basic right of democracy? If it’s good enough for us, it’s good enough for Iraqis. Only a racist would say that a citizen of Sarajevo deserved more protection from a tyrant than a citizen of Basra. And so, thanks to its innate vagueness and contradiction, the principle of liberal intervention could be hijacked by the right wing of the Republican Party for its own ends. It was a very effective tactic, and effectively neutralised the opposition to the 2003 invasion in the Democratic Party in the US, and the Labour Party in Great Britain. As I said repeatedly in that essay six years ago, most nations make the mistake of fighting the previous war rather than the one they are engaged in. It seems my government, and myself in some part, made that mistake again. We/they thought that Iraq might be like Bosnia, that intervention would be the lesser of two evils, when in retrospect, containment, engagement, anything would be better than the situation of insurgency, sectarian violence and possible civil war that exists in Iraq now.
For the massive mistake of Iraq, however, the most disastrous outcome would be if the principle of liberal intervention, however woolly or loosely defined, was abandoned. At the moment, given its overwhelming firepower and ability to intervene, liberal intervention cannot be readily separated from the foreign policy of the United States, and given that country’s own dissatisfaction with its own government, there is some reason to hope that with a new leadership, and a new sense of its multilateral obligations, the US will claw back some of its lost prestige, and its sporadic and patchy support for self determination of the peoples, democracy and human rights. For most of the younger generation now, US intervention is – as it was in my youth in the 60s and 70s –a byword for oppression and self interest. But perhaps we, as member of the Bosnian generation, can remind them that it has not always been this way, or never quite so simple. And even if the US never returns to the moral leadership it assumed at times in the second half of the Twentieth Century, the principles it averred should not be abandoned just because the country has either overstepped itself with imperial overreach, or retreated back into isolationism.
The principle of liberal intervention should not live or die according the US electoral cycle. Too many lives in too many other countries are at stake.
So though we have been superseded, the Bosnia Generation is not outmoded, or irrelevant. The generation behind us will probably repeat our mistakes, and end up fighting their last war in their new conflicts, and it will be our turn to remind them how things were different, and will be different again. I strongly suspect that the next big moral and political challenge on the international stage will revolve around these principles – when to intervene and not intervene over basic human rights. After Iraq, I also strongly suspect, that the dangers will be of retreat and passivity rather than excessive military force. I may be wrong and the Bosnia generation may have no contribution to make, but as we keep on revisiting the failures of our past, the swing between doubt and certainty will keep us alive and morally responsive.
On a more personal note, I also notice a huge contradiction in my essay. I say at one point how writing about my connection with Bosnia, albeit remote, was both completely futile and somehow still urgent. At one point I say I would have made no difference. A few pages later I say I should have persisted and wrote a novel or film called Eyes and Ears. In the years since I wrote that, this contradiction has continued. I tried on many occasions to get the project off the ground, but to no avail. Film and TV companies, liking my work, would ask me ‘what do you have a burning passion to write?’ I’d tell them the story about the soldier who couldn’t fight, the two best friends who found themselves on opposite sides on a front line near their home town, of a left wing politician who finds herself lobbying for the Serbs. They’d either look like they weren’t interested in this story, or interested in the story but worried that other people (i.e. audiences) wouldn’t be. So though Eyes and Ears exists as a film and TV outline, it never made it to script, let alone to screen or print. My imperative to write something, and my ability to do it, never stopped arguing with each other.
On the other hand, I did end up writing about it all the time. Stories from Bosnia and Kosovo, stories of ‘passive spectators’ and the politics of liberal intervention, keep recurring in my TV work in the last five years. The most prominent of these were the opening episode of the Emmy award winning series Waking the Dead – which focused on the disappearance of a war photographer who had photographed scenes of a massacre in Vukovar: and Sea of Souls which explored the traumatised psyche of a British soldier returned from duty with SFOR in Bosnia, who though he was responsible for the death of an innocent civilian. That episode was called ‘Omen Formation’ which is an acute form of post traumatic stress disorder in which the victim believes his own future is completely determined by fate, and that he can see omens of disaster everywhere. These were hardly great literary works, and much too late to make any difference to the history of the region. But both involved memory and how we have to keep on revisiting the narratives of our lives, and in that small way, I hope I have made a little difference here (at least to me) and will keep on trying to make some more.
Peter Jukes, London, May 2006