A first- hand account of suffering during the war in Bosnia
Author: Noel Malcolm
Uploaded: Sunday, 27 May, 2012
Review published in The Sunday Telegraph of 'The War is Dead, Long Live the War: Bosnia, the Reckoning', by Ed Vulliamy, Bodley Head, £20, 354pp
On a hot August day in 1992, Ed Vulliamy and two other British journalists drove through the gates of a mining complex called Omarska in northern Bosnia. They had heard that Omarska was being run as a concentration camp; and, to their surprise, they had been given permission to visit it by Radovan Karadzic, the bouffant- haired Serb extremist whose forces had spent the previous four months looting and killing their way across the country.
Grudgingly, the local Serb authorities allowed them a brief view of the camp. Vulliamy and his colleagues watched as 30 terrified men, some in near- skeletal condition, were herded into a canteen to eat watery soup and a piece of bread. One man, asked about conditions there, muttered – with an extraordinary combination of fear and defiance in his eyes – “I do not want to tell lies, but I cannot tell the truth.” He knew, as the journalists did not, that merely to say those words was to risk the little that might remain of his life.
Next they went to another camp, called Trnopolje, where their camera crews filmed a group of men behind a barbed wire fence. One of these was Fikret Alic, an emaciated young man with, as Vulliamy puts it, a “xylophone rib cage”. Alic told them about a third camp, from which he had just been transferred: 130 prisoners had been massacred there in a single night, and he had been ordered to help load the corpses onto a truck.
When these pictures were broadcast around the world, there was an international shudder of revulsion. Those camps were closed, and many of the inmates were permitted to leave the country. But the campaign of “ethnic cleansing” of which they had been the victims was not halted; thousands of Muslim and Croat civilians were still being driven from their homes. Just two weeks later, Vulliamy joined a convoy of these people as they were herded by Serb police and paramilitaries to a remote point on a mountain road. There they were robbed of their cars and other possessions, and sent across a no man’s land, under tracer fire, towards the territory that was still controlled by the Bosnian government.
For his actions and his writings, Vulliamy was named “Foreign Correspondent of the Year” in 1992 – an accolade he fully deserved. But that was two decades ago. After the end of the Bosnian war he moved to America, where he reported on such things as the drugs war along the Mexican border, and the aftermath of 9/ 11. One might imagine that, with so many new crises to think about, he would have “moved on” ( as the cant phrase has it). But however far he has moved, Bosnia has stayed with him, for two reasons – one good, and one bad.
The bad reason is the campaign of denial about the camps which still rumbles on to this day. A article called “The Picture that Fooled the World”, published by LM Magazine (“LM” was short for “Living Marxism”), accused the journalists of deliberate deception. One of the news organisations involved, ITN, sued for libel and won. Yet the lies put about by atrocity deniers – for example, that Mr Alic, the xylophone- ribbed man, was a TB sufferer who looked like that normally – still circulate on the internet, and Vulliamy is obliged to set the record straight again and again.
The good reason is that Vulliamy has kept in touch with many of the people whose lives he helped to save. While his new book retells the story of his wartime experience, and also discusses the odious campaign of the “revisionists”, the bulk of it is a series of accounts, spanning the past 20 years, of how the camp survivors have tried to rebuild their lives. He visits them in England, Germany and America; he goes to Bosnia to meet the brave minority that have gone back to live among their former persecutors; and he explores their own attempts to understand their suffering, their grief and their anger.
These are, in one sense, very ordinary people. But there are stories of human resilience here that are quite extraordinary, and deeply moving. This is a book that will bring tears to the eyes of any reader – and tears of contrition, one might hope, to those of the international diplomats and politicians who prolonged Bosnia’s agony so cackhandedly for three and a half years and then imposed a “peace settlement” that rewarded the ethnic cleansers.
For Vulliamy’s writing is animated not only by sympathy but also, at a deep level, by a glowing sense of injustice. The towns and villages closest to the Omarska camp are now run by Serbs who mostly deny that anything untoward happened there in the war. As Vulliamy deliciously puts it, “In Bosnian Serb society there exists an oxymoronic waltz between denial and justification: we did not do it, but we had to do it to ‘ defend our people’.”
Omarska is now a functioning mine again; but its new co- proprietor, Arcelormittal, owned by Lakshmi Mittal, the richest man in Britain, has refused to erect any monument to those who were beaten and tortured to death there, on the grounds that the “local community” ( i. e. the Serbs, who include former camp guards) must decide. The Serbs have, however, put up several monuments in the area: to the memory of the heroic Serb fighters.
This review appeared in The Sunday Telegraph, 30 April 2012