f o r e i g n p a r t s
Ed Vulliamy, however, remained engaged with Bosnia. Unlike some war correspondents, Vulliamy is not fascinated by conflict as such. He found himself pitched into events by accident, having been sent to nearby Italy to report on football and political corruption. After the end of hostilities in Bosnia, Vulliamy did not immediately jet off to the next hotspot, but devoted himself as much as possible to filling in the background and subsequent histories of the men and women with whom he had so unexpectedly but irrevocably become involved. His brilliant new book, The War is Dead, Long Live the War, is the result.
Vulliamy’s story is by turns shocking, depressing and uplifting. He recounts the terrible history of Omarska camp, this time with the benefit of the testimony of victims and perpetrators gathered later, and sets it against the backdrop of their unfolding ‘post-Bosnian’ lives. We are given a series of interwoven narratives, switching deftly between past and present. Vulliamy eschews sensationalism, and does not overload his text with details of the torture, rape and murder of Muslim and Croat prisoners, the vast majority of them civilians. Instead, he builds gradually towards the victims’ own revelations, which are all the more effective for his knowledge of their characters and circumstances. Moreover, Vulliamy is not only an observer of the suffering of the Bosnians (and in some cases a witness to the prosecution of their tormentors at the War Crimes Tribunal at The Hague), but also their therapist as they try to come to terms with their shattering experiences. It is a very complicated relationship, which the author negotiates with considerable sensitivity.
Aside from the straightforward revisionist deniers, whom Vulliamy has seen off in the courts, the author’s critics fall into two categories. The first charges him with the betrayal of journalistic ethics by supplying law enforcement agencies with detailed notes, on his own initiative, on the activities and even the confessions of the perpetrators. Vulliamy even went to testify in person against some of those he had interviewed. ‘So far as I am concerned,’ a one-time editor of the International Herald Tribune told the author, ‘you’ve surrendered your right to call yourself a reporter by doing what you did.’ But it was often the contrived attempt at ‘balance’, by suggesting an ‘equivalence’ between the relatively isolated transgressions of the Bosnians and the systematic violations of the Serbs, which led to distorted reporting and comment.
The second area of contention is whether the Bosnian genocide is comparable with the murder of the Jews, and whether places such as Omarska can be properly described as ‘concentration camps’. Vulliamy has thought hard about this issue, and the book includes a chapter on the Holocaust based on interviews with survivors from Theresienstadt. He concludes that while the Bosnian experience was neither qualitatively nor quantitatively on the same plane as the systematic extermination of European Jewry, the appellation ‘concentration camp’ captures the reality very well (and does no violence to the historical precedents). Interestingly, the Bosnians themselves make no claims for equivalence, but they also note the difference between the present-day Germans, who never tire of atoning for the crimes of their grandparents, and the Bosnian Serbs, who are at best in denial about the events of the 1990s and at worst openly defiant about what they did, scorning the memory of the victims while erecting monuments to the ethnic cleansers. Here Vulliamy is at his most depressing. The worst thing, one Bosnian remarks, is not so much what Bosnian Serb nationalists did but that ‘[t]hey would do it again tomorrow if they could, and that is why nothing has come to an end here, because the trauma has not passed’.
This book is not just a story of despair, however. Vulliamy does not regard the Bosnians primarily as ‘victims’ – though it’s hard to avoid the word – but as ‘survivors’, who resisted their fate and continue to do so. They fought back, forming refugee brigades that recaptured large swathes of land from the aggressors before being cruelly denied by the Dayton peace settlement. After the war, many of them returned to the properties from which they had been evicted, braving harassment and even death. Yet most Bosnians steadfastly refused to hate their enemies, because to do so would have betrayed their own tradition of tolerance and played into the hands of the perpetrators. Above all, Vulliamy shows how, in war and in peace, they got on with life, making the best of circumstances through humour, football, nicotine, alcohol and song. It is fitting, therefore, that his book should end with this sentence: ‘Next day, after breakfast in the hotel, [the Bosnian Muslim] Sefer knocked back a vodka sharpener for the road back to Bolton, got the guitar out just for us and the Kenyan waitress, and sang.’ To order this book for £16, see the Literary Review bookshop on page 9’
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