Thursday, January 09, 2014

"From Enemy Territory" by Mladen Vuksanovic [7]

So It Was Foreseeable: Afterword by Roman Arens and Christiane Schlotzer-Scotland

This brief afterword first establishes a fact which Bosnian revisionists have been trying to deny ever since the war first broke out--that the bloodshed in the Bosnian war was the product of deliberate planning. This diary is an eyewitness account of the early stages of the genocidal war which would engulf the country. Vuksanovic's diary stands as a witness to the ground-level implementation of a well-planned, if morally bankrupt, dismantling of a multinational society in the service of fascism.

"Power interests were the aim, ethnically grounded hysteria was the motor leading to this aim."

This basic point--that "ethnic hatred" was a tool of those who caused the war rather than the cause itself, is the central fact one must grasp in order to understand the war in Bosnia. And all the prevarication and dissembling in the world cannot match the clarity and directness of this document.

The afterword ends with a brief explanation of how the diary came to be translated (into German) and published--a chance encounter between Vuksanovic and a publisher named Nenad Popovic, who was also involved with the German organization Journalists help Journalists. Given how often Vuksanovic railed against his former colleagues in the field who turned to nationalistic propagandizing and lying, this connection is especially apt.

In the end, there isn't much else for me to say about this book. It is intensely moving and unforgettable. It deserves to be better known; a lonely and desperate witness to evil by a man who refused to surrender his moral sense to the tidal wave of madness and hate that destroyed the town he loved and the country it was in.

Wednesday, January 08, 2014

"From Enemy Territory" by Mladen Vuksanovic [6]

16 May to 15 July 1992 [pp. 124-165]

Although Pale, as a town inhabited by people living in houses and walking on streets past shops and cafes, will continue to exist, the Pale that Vuksanovic knows, the once-tolerant place inhabited by Serbs and Muslims is dying right before his eyes. In the final pages of his diary, he records the final death throes of what used to be his home. 

Cease fire agreements and the takeover of the airport by the United Nations briefly give hope, but within a few days he writes 

"It's the easiest thing to recognize fools here--they're the ones who believe in the latest cease-fire agreement."

There is no longer any question about any future for Vuksanovic and his wife in Pale; the madness is spreading into every nook and cranny. More and more hungry Serbs from elsewhere in Bosnia show up to take possession of abandoned homes, and increasingly they are not waiting for these homes to be vacant. Nationalist former friends show up late at night bearing weapons and vague threats; they stay and drink the Vuksanovics' booze while railing against "jihadists", "ustashe", and disloyal Serbs--Serbs like Vuksanovic, who recognizes that his last name and his ethnicity won't protect him much longer.

A friend comes to stay in the house, hiding for days on end. Other Muslims come on the night before they are to leave. A Serb official and a Muslim collaborator come to the house to "assure" them that they could have slept in their own house that night, as it is known they are leaving the next day. The threat is implied.

It probably was not necessary--the last Muslims of Pale, except for one elderly woman and one other woman who is married to a Serb man. The rest sell what they cannot carry, and queue up for buses taking them away. More and more Serbs show up to take their homes; some of them move into Vuksanovic's mothers' home. The new owners take everything that the former occupants left which they do not want out in the yards and streets and burn it all. The air is choked with the fires.

Vuksanovic and his wife get passes to leave, and one for the friend staying with them as well. They get the good news that their son has also received his papers at the same time. In the meantime, a Serb refugee family from Zenica has shown up to take their house; Mladen and his wife show them around, explain how the heater works and which plants are planted in what part of the garden. The house his parents built and the garden his mother created are about to be turned over to strangers. A Serb family takes in the last two puppies. His home is now his past.

The final couple of entries summarize their successful trip out of Pale and out of Bosnia; first to Serbia and Belgrade where the friend they sheltered is reunited with his wife. Then on through Hungary, Slovenia, and finally Croatia. Istria, their final destination, is just ahead. And here the diary ends.

There is a short afterword which I will review next; I'll give my final thoughts on the book in that post as well.

Tuesday, January 07, 2014

"From Enemy Territory" by Mladen Vuksanovic [5]

16 May to 15 July 1992 [pp. 85-124]

The final part of the diary covers his final two months in Pale, beginning with the return of his wife and daughter from Sarajevo (as noted before, the son stayed in the city while waiting for an opportunity to leave through the Jewish Community). His joy at being reunited is soon tempered by the growing despair and disgust by the continued slide of his community into total fascism.

On her first day back, his daughter tells him she would rather be back in Sarajevo. A visit with friends convinces her she will go crazy in Pale.

There is very little narrative here; just the slow, tedious tightening of the noose as the remaining Muslims of Pale lose their phones, their electricity, and their homes, until finally they are told that the Serb authorities can no longer "guarantee their safety." Vuksanovic allows Muslim friends to stay with him, particularly on the night after two Serb soldiers are killed and reprisal atrocities are widely expected.

More and more bearded chetniks in the streets. More and more hostile stares. Guns fired at Muslim homes at night. Soldiers show up to search his late mother's house without a warrant. Some old acquaintances turn out to have gone to the nationalist side. Being Serb will soon no longer be enough; one must be a "good" or "loyal" Serb to be truly safe.

The daughter leaves for Hungary, and as she leaves she begs her parents not to stay too much longer. The dog gives birth to three puppies; Mladen is delighted but wonders how to feed them.

One night their Muslim neighbor Mina, who deals with her fear by talking incessantly (Vuksanovic gets irritated with her then feels a little guilty for it) is staying with him and his wife; he notes that

"She talked non-stop all evening to dispel her fear, but fear is like water, it fills every crevice and finds new outlets."

Every page, every day brings yet another entry in this almost numbing catalog of a society being torn into a nihilistic wasteland; new indignities, new moral outrages, new betrayals--all shot through with a thickening atmosphere of fear and death. On the night of June 13 (page 124), he writes:

"I feel somehow that my life hasn't become just a past, that a future exists too.

These vampires [the Serb nationalists] have neither. That's why they destroy and kill. They won't for long. The penalty must be paid."


In the next post I'll summarize/review the final 40 pages of this section. After that, there is a short afterward.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

"From Enemy Territory" by Mladen Vuksanovic [4]

Recollections of Jadranka Vuksanovic
Vuksanovic's wife Jadranka left for the city on April 29th for what was supposed to be a two-day trip to visit their daughter and bring their son his papers so that he could leave the city. As noted already, those plans didn't work out as the bridge in Brcko--the last way out of the city--was destroyed the next day. In the end, Jadranka's two-day stay turned into a stay of over two weeks. This brief section is her "recollections" of that stay. Although written as a diary, with almost daily entries, it's not clear whether she actually kept this diary live or wrote it upon returning to Pale at the request of her husband. At any rate, if it is the latter she must have done so almost immediately; this section certainly has the feel for mundane day-to-day details that a more polished memoir might lack.

Mladen Vuksanovic's diary is written entirely from Pale and the perspective of being behind the Bosnian Serb lines; the terror being inflicted on Sarajevo can only be surmised. Therefore, the decision to insert Jadranka's recollections in the heart of the text is more than a desire to share his wife's experiences or to keep her "with him" in the narrative. Her experience of being jumpy from incoming sniper fire, hiding from bombardment in basements, growing quickly all-too used to the experience of hearing exploding ordnance all serve as a sharp contrast to the creeping horror that his diary recounts. This is more elemental stuff--underscored by the degree to which her account becomes a record of the efforts taken to acquire bread. Some days, the only "news" she has is "bought bread."

She also notes the sadistic nature of the bombing, which occurs at irregular frequencies seemingly designed to taunt the residents of Sarajevo; sometimes at predictable intervals, otherwise oddly quiet when one has grown to expect shelling. She witnesses an ambush of retreating soldiers. She sees an incident which might have been a settling of an old feud with the war as an excuse. And there is the surreal experience of being able to come and go because of her Serb surname--at the end, she is able to leave the city and rides back into Pale with her daughter (the son was left behind, waiting for the Jewish Community to arrange for a excavation) on a truck loaded with young Serb soldiers. Another reminder of how fratricidal and bizarrely intimate the war was.

They return to Pale on May 16. Now that his wife's narrative has rejoined his, Mladen Vuksanovic picks up from there

Sunday, December 15, 2013

"From Enemy Territory" by Mladen Vuksanovic [3]

Pale Diary - 5 April to 16 May 1992

This first section of the diary covers the period from the beginning of Vuksanovic's confinement to Pale and increasingly to his house, to the reunion with his wife (who left for Sarajevo on April 29 in order to help their children--still stuck in the city--get out) on May 16. The text of the diary is largely unedited and only annotated with occasional footnotes to explain references in the original which would not be clear to the general reader.

As a result, the text is somewhat impressionistic, referring to immediate circumstances, events, observations and conversations; sometimes giving a reaction, sometimes not. Vuksanovic never dwells on any one incident or observation for more than a paragraph. I suspect this is partially because the slow-motion horror is too much to bear.

Several motifs develop over these fifty-plus pages. The craven and criminal nature of the local authorities of Pale in action; whatever their rhetoric, and whatever is actually going on on the "front lines" (Vuksanovic reminds the reader how absurd the very idea of a "front line" in a multi-ethnic city suddenly wrenched along crudely nationalist lines), the reality on the streets of Pale are stolen cars without plates and shuttered homes waiting to be looted.

Another motif are the many personal betrayals and friends and colleagues suddenly reveal themselves as arch-nationalists firmly committed to an insane cause; a cause that commits them to destroying their own city and murdering their own friends. It's one thing to study the rise of nationalism and xenophobia in the abstract; Vuksanovic illustrates what is it like to experience that process on the personal level.

I used the phrase "slow-motion horror" above, and that is as close as I can come to explaining the overall feel of this section. Vuksanovic is not in Sarajevo, experiencing the bombing, the snipers, the growing desperation firsthand. Instead, he experiences the war through his radio, through reports from passers-by and neighbors, and most surreal of all through his telephone connection to Sarajevo, which is still working through the entire war. Nothing can illustrate how perverse a reversal of the normal order this war is better than the frequent references to his use of the telephone to call people he knows in the city a few kilometers away; people who are being attacked daily by the same soldiers Vuksanovic can see walking by his house in broad daylight. The Bosnian Serb government is not unaware of this connection--rather than shut down all telephone lines, they subject phone users to a constant barrage of nationalist music and radio broadcasts, so that both parties must listen and talk over this Orwellian audio backdrop.

Vuksanovic does not try to analyze the growing horror or to rationalize it in the larger context of politics and history. He simply expresses disgust and a growing fear that he has damned his family by not acting sooner to get his children out of the Old City. When this section ends, his wife and daughter have finally made it to the family home to join him--the son stayed behind for fear that he would certainly be drafted into military service if he was found. Vuksanovic notes that he has asked his wife to record her impressions of her two weeks in the Old City; those impressions form the next section of the book.