31 August 2012

The Balkan Express

I've been absent for a number of reasons, but I have also been making some serious investment in the Balkans.  Books have been on the agenda and they have not disappointed me.  I began my journey by checking out two books from the wonders of the public library: The Balkan Express by Slavenka Drakulic and Srebrenica: A Record of a War Crime by Jan Willem Honig.  They both have to do with the devastating Balkan Wars of the 1990s and both let me peer into the dark, dark world that existed during that time.

I'll start off with the wholly factual and report style Srebrenica.  I checked out this book mainly because the Mladić and Hadžić trials at the ICTY were making news and when my husband asked about the Balkan Wars, I embarrassingly knew nothing I could share with him.  I thought to start out with the Srebrenica massacre.  The book is a UN report on the massacre, which detailed exactly what happened and went into analysis in the following chapters.  It wasn't a fun read by any means, but it certainly horrified me.  Some of the essays in Drakulić's book really brought out this point (which made the pairing quite fortuitous): no one really seemed concerned with what happened in Yugoslavia.  The lip service was done, but the chain of command and the overwhelming sense of non-urgency pervades the entire event.

I won't go through the entire breakdown of what happened because the report itself is not that long of a read.  The summary is this: Srebrenica is a heavily Bosnian area that was isolated in the Serbian held territories, but the UN proclaimed it a safe zone.  The (in)famous Blue Helmets were present, but Mladic planned the invasion and subsequent cleansing anyway.  The Serbian forces came in, UNPROFOR proved itself to have a complicated chain of command and completely uninformed and out of date.  Milošević was in talks during all of this, secretly meeting with Mladić, and making agreements counter to what was actually occurring.  Mladić took complete control of the situation and systematically exterminated the Bosnian men within Srebrenica with careful thought to leave no direct witness evidence.  In fact, the whole orchestration was spookily watertight.  Clearly, it was not so watertight that nothing came to light, but it was done so swiftly and systematically that it was over before anyone higher up really knew what occurred.

If nothing else, it made the UN look toothless and a sham.  What was meant to protect people hardly did anything but slightly stall the onslaught.  After reading it, I became infuriated at the vague language of the code of conduct for UN Peacekeepers that made it difficult for them to discern if force was allowed without a superior giving the signal.  The only way non-violent peacekeeping can work is if you are working to get people out of the war zone.  You can't keep peacekeeping borders in a war zone with blue helmets and an organization without muscle.  Obviously, because Mladić didn't give two farts about the UN and just marched on in.  I think this event is a good case study in giving the UN some teeth and machine guns.

The Balkan Express: Fragments from the Other Side of War by Slavenka Drakulić had been on my "to read" list for quite some time.  I love How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed so dearly - I bought it in central Pest during my internship and it gave me such a vivid understanding of some things I was seeing.  Slavenka is so honest in her writing that it's completely disarming and gets under your skin.  She writes primarily about living in Croatia during the war of independence.  It causes her to confront the nature of war, its effect on every day life, and the difficulties of being displaced (she stayed at friend's in Slovenia for a time).  The creeping, dark shadow of war begin to dwell and live within her so that all moments were lived in reference to war.  It changed emotions, how she viewed the future, and made it difficult to relate to other people.  Though she did not succumb to the ethnic hatred that personified the war, she was far more aware than she would like to admit.  The most civil thing for her to do was to simply ignore it.  The most telling piece, which was also included in Laughed, takes place on a train leaving from Sudbahnhof in Vienna back to her home: the fellow passengers simply ignored one another.  Slavenka was reading a Croatian newspaper (which would signal her ethnic allegiance) and could not escape the horror of war news, but recognizes that she cannot talk about geography with her passengers (too political) and they cannot speak without giving away where they are from.  Civility in ethnic war was simply to feign ignorance.

Reading my second book of Drakulić's, I am committed to reading more of her work and becoming a more ardent fan.  She has a unique voice and never abandons honesty, which makes her so readable and easy to relate to, even though most of her readers will have never experienced these situations firsthand.  Much like Kapuściński, she plants you right between her eyes and let's you look around to take it all in.

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