bosnia report
New Series No: 29-31 June - November 2002
Reconciliation or revenge?
by Nicholas Goldberg

The Key to My Neighbor's House: Seeking Justice in Bosnia and Rwanda, by Elizabeth Neuffer, Picador, 492 pp., $27.


As the Boston Globe's European correspondent in the mid-1990s, Elizabeth Neuffer came face to face with evil so brutal, so unexpected and often so gratuitous that it was nearly impossible to comprehend. In Bosnia, she saw a Muslim woman shot in cold blood while two UN peacekeepers stood by and watched. A mass murderer threatened to kill her. She dodged sniper fire in the capital city of Sarajevo and watched families search for their missing. She stood above a pit as corpses were exhumed from a mass grave into which they had been randomly tossed at the height of the war.

Genocide had taken hold in Bosnia. The three-year siege of Sarajevo, the barbed wire of the concentration camps, the death in Srebrenica of 7,000 unarmed men and boys, murdered in July 1995 for no other reason than that they were Muslim - this was violence on a scale unknown in Europe since the Holocaust. For Neuffer and for all those who lived through this terrible period, the memories don't fade easily. Even when the guns are lowered and the graves grassed over, the wounds remain and the healing process is slow.

‘Once you put a human face to evil it will not let you go,’ Neuffer writes. ‘What I realized was that there is an innate human need for some kind of reckoning, an accounting. Like everyone I met in Bosnia, I wanted something that would assuage my guilt, answer my fears and punish those who were responsible.’

Neuffer has written an extraordinary and deeply moving book about the search for reconciliation and justice in the aftermath of war, and about how people and nations drive away the ghosts of violence. Drawing on her journeys through both Bosnia and Rwanda, she examines not only the world's efforts to draw meaning from the ruins of hatred and bloodshed, but the heroic battle of individual victims to come to terms with the past.

It's not a particularly uplifting story. Both Bosnia and Rwanda were devastated by war and genocide in the wake of the Cold War, when opportunistic leaders seeking to strengthen their own rule fanned old ethnic conflicts into dangerous flames. In Bosnia, the names of Slobodan Milosevic, Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic became synonymous with senseless nationalism, ethnic hatred and the murder of hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians. In Rwanda, some 1 million Tutsi and moderate Hutus were slain in just 100 short days, while the world outside stood mutely by, failing to understand and lacking the will to stop it.

In both cases, the full horror of what was happening was revealed only after it was too late, and the international community was rightly aghast at what had been allowed to happen. Hands were wrung, speeches were given and ultimately, precedent-setting war crimes tribunals were established at The Hague to bring closure and justice to these ravaged nations, to bring tyrants to trial, to do away with ‘cultures of impunity’ and to establish the supremacy of the rule of law.

But it turns out - and perhaps there should be no great surprise here - that justice and closure are more easily intoned than accomplished. Anyone seeking them - whether in Bosnia, Rwanda, South Africa, El Salvador, East Timor or Haiti - must first determine whether they're seeking retribution, restitution or reconciliation, and must grapple with the complicated concepts of truth and peace and justice and revenge that we usually tend to lump together. They must decide who should be punished - should it be just those who pulled the triggers, or also those who ordered them to do so? And what about those who stood by watching? Even after these questions are answered, it is not clear whether the process will satisfy the victims or deter future violence or help rebuild the nation - or whether it will simply assuage the guilt of those who failed to act in the first place.

In seeking to answer some of these questions, Neuffer takes us into the lives of those who sought justice. There's Hasan Nuhanovic and his single-minded struggle to find his family after the fall of the UN safe area at Srebrenica. There's Hamdo Kahrimanovic, a school principal from Kozarac, whose testimony of his experiences at the Omarska concentration camp helped convict Dusan Tadic, a man he had known since childhood. In Rwanda, we meet Anonciata Kavaruganda, whose husband was handed over to his murderers by UN guards, and ‘JJ,’ whose testimony convicted the mayor of her small village, a man she had always respected and trusted, but whose political calculations led him to abet the murder, rape and genocide of her people.

Neuffer spends time with Gabrielle Kirk MacDonald, an American civil-rights lawyer and judge who served for six years on the Yugoslav tribunal but ultimately resigned, frustrated by NATO's unwillingness to arrest indicted war criminals. And she travels through the field with investigator Bill Haglund, whose searches through Rwanda and Bosnia for forensic evidence of war crimes made him an expert at exhuming mass graves.

That the Yugoslav and Rwanda tribunals were created at all was indeed a victory. Applying the rule of law to the battlefield had been a dream of philosophers and reformers and advocates of human rights for hundreds of years. The Rwanda and Yugoslav tribunals sought to emulate what was best about the Nuremberg trials after World War II while avoiding its mistakes. (Nuremberg had been viewed as the ‘triumph of reason over revenge’ by the world, Neuffer says, but had also been criticized for doling out retroactive ‘victor's justice’ and failing to ensure the rights of defendants.)

But this was not a straightforward case of good punishing evil, for the story of Bosnia and Rwanda is one of blindness and complicity on the part of the West. In Bosnia, the UN peacekeepers in their baby-blue uniforms were ordered not to fire their weapons, even when they saw atrocities being committed. In Srebrenica, Dutch UN peacekeepers turned over thousands of Muslim men and boys to the Bosnian Serbs - who massacred them in the days that followed. In Rwanda, Ghanian UN troops watched as enemies of the regime were rounded up and taken away to be killed.

What Neuffer learned, and what she conveys so articulately and intelligently throughout the book, is that justice - like evil itself - is often ambiguous, gray-shaded and elusive. On the one hand, the tribunals for Yugoslavia and Rwanda accomplished many of their goals - bringing murderers to the dock, forcing them to sit silently while their crimes were made public before the world and locking them up behind bars. Dedicated men and women from all over the world worked day and night to make sure that this happened.

On the other hand, even after the war was over, the West still could not summon the will to do what needed to be done. NATO didn't arrest the top leaders who had been indicted by the Yugoslav tribunal. Low-level killers went on trial, while Mladic and Karadzic and, until recently, Milosevic continued to walk the streets with impunity.

Both tribunals were hampered by lack of funding, lack of commitment and the general slow pace of justice. Victims received no compensation for what was done to them. The international community supported the tribunals when it served their purposes, Neuffer says, but ambivalence reigned the rest of the time.

If there is a heartening element here, it is the story of the individuals whose bravery and dedication rose above this ambivalence. Hasan's dedication to his family. Hamdo's courageous decision to move home to Kozarac. The simple satisfaction that JJ gained by helping bring Mayor Akayesu to justice for his crimes.

Particularly moving was Neuffer's brief depiction of General Romeo Dallaire, the head of the UN forces in Rwanda, who had repeatedly sought additional troops to stop the genocide - but who was rebuffed. Like all of us, Dallaire simply couldn't believe that the world could stand silently by while genocide was being committed, and yet that's exactly what happened. During his testimony, he burst into tears, saying: ‘It seems inconceivable that one can watch thousands of people being massacred every day and remain passive. All the member states of the UN have Rwandan blood on their hands.’

This review appeared in Newsday, 16 December 2001




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