Thursday, March 07, 2013

"Sarajevo Daily" by Tom Gjelten [6]

Chapter 4: Humiliation
This chapter opens in the suburb of Dobrinja on May 2, 1992. Young Oslobodjenje reporter Senka Kurtovic is huddling in a bedroom with several of her neighbors as they comfort each other singing Bosnian folk songs while the entire neighborhood was subjected to one of the most intense Serb artillery bombardments yet. Senka lives in an apartment in this newish suburb, in a small apartment her parents bought her. The neighborhood is on the front line of Serb efforts to cut Sarajevo in half in order to achieve permanent ethnic partition. 

The title of this chapter is apt--cruelly so. Mixed in with the violence, the hatred, and the physical hazards of Sarajevo under siege, were endless humiliations little and big. The humiliation of living without running water. The humiliation of hoping that your ex-boyfriend the Serbian nationalist might be able to help you get permission to walk from your home to your workplace without being killed. The humiliation of being forced to crawl on your belly through tall grass because of snipers. The humiliation of standing in line to receive an inadequate quantity of basic foodstuffs from the very United Nations which treats you like a prisoner in your own country. The humiliation of having to kiss up to that same arrogant United Nations because it decides what basic supplies--such as newsprint--will be allowed to enter your own city.

The story of Oslobodjenje is the story of Sarajevo, and Bosnia, writ small; but it is also a reminder that a "genocide" is made up of thousands of individual atrocities and outrages. While a genocide is an effort to destroy, in whole or in part, a people defined by race, ethnicity, national origin, or religion, it is still experienced by individuals.

The multiple humiliations suffered by the staff begin to add up in numbing detail. They become a demoralizing "new normal" as the idea that one must dodge sniper fire in order to travel from one's home to one's place of employment becomes accepted by the international community standing by watching as if this all is some grotesque freak show carried out by some exotic species rather than fellow human beings being subjected to cruelties not of their own making. Gordana Knezevic interviews General Lewis MacKenzie, who Gjelten portrays as a glib, arrogant man who brings his preconceptions about the nature of the war with him and never lets facts or the realities on the ground shake any of them. (Keep in mind this book was published in 1995; MacKenzie's career as a craven Serb nationalist apologist-for-hire is in the future). He is as ungracious (scheduling the interview at a time when it will be especially dangerous for Gordana to travel) and amoral as he would later prove to be.(he not only refuses a request about the aforementioned newsprint, he also refused a personal request for a mere two liters of petrol for her car--all in the name of strict neutrality, of course).

In the end, all this humiliation--all this sustained, deliberate, targeted dehumanization of the "other"--can only lead to one inevitable result. Death and suffering stalk the staff of Oslobodjenje just as it does the rest of Sarajevo's population. The final section of this chapter is simply entitled "Some Who Died."
Zeljka Memic, the wife of editor Fahro Memic, is killed by a shell. Senka Kurtovic's mother suffered the same fate. Kemal Kurspahic is seriously injured in a car crash while racing through the unregulated streets of Sarajevo, trying as always to avoid the snipers. The humiliations continue.


Anonymous said...

Kirk, I don't know how the original reads, but your summary is a magnificent encapsulation of what one imagines the experience of life in Sarajevo must have been like. Horrific to think of Homs and Aleppo being worse still.

Kirk Johnson said...

Thanks, Owen, I must be doing something right if that feeling came across. The original certainly conveys that feeling well. I realized that for a book like this, a straight-forward review isn't really helpful. I was hoping that my own response to/interpretation of the original text would be both more interesting and more helpful.

And I agree with you on the situation in Syria. I cannot understand how this has been allowed to go on for two years. What a disaster.