In July 2001, a few days after Slobodan Milosevic was flown to the War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague, Janine di Giovanni went to Sarajevo to see how it felt for those who had suffered so brutally from his rule. But she found no one celebrating. “Some of the “big fish” were getting caught, but the ones who really did it – “the executioners” as people call them – are still living peacefully, walking the streets. They are the men who raped and killed and burned and now sit in cafes in Foca and Srebrenica, confident that The Hague will never find them.”
In fact, there isn’t a lot of celebrating in this deeply disturbing book. Subtitled A Memoir of War, Janine di Giovanni has written much more than an account of battles waged, won or lost. It’s an account of life lived in extremis. The setting is the former Yugoslavia, where di Giovanni was based as a reporter, mostly for The Times, on and off for ten years. She describes that period, when neighbour attacked neighbour, as a time when madness descended like a crashing wave. But, just as it is not a book simply about war, nor is it just about Yugoslavia. Di Giovanni wrote her account, based on diaries and notes at the time, in the Ivory Coast where she partly lives, and comments that it could have been set in Iraq, Afghanistan, Israel, Africa or any one of the places from which she has reported about war.
By focusing on ordinary people – both the perpetrators and the victims – di Giovanni has shown how easy is the slide into madness and how difficult to break the cycle of vengeance. “I finally understood war for the first time in Maglaj,” she writes, a place no one could even spell, when she saw a beautiful woman lying naked on the road waiting to be shot and killed. She was laughing as though she had a secret no one else did; viz death is preferable to the many unimaginable sufferings described in these pages. Di Giovanni, who has seen more dead bodies and body parts – would you ever forget a dog with a human hand in its mouth? – than most, is clear-eyed when admitting that perhaps only the dead truly know what is meant by the end of war.
She has assembled a vivid cast of characters; some well known such as Radovan Karadijc, the psychiatrist who wrote terrible poetry; Biljana Plavsic, the former Bosnian Serb President once known as the Iron Lady of the Balkans who in her seventies handed herself over to The Hague – a woman di Giovanni admits to having a grudging respect for – and Nikola Koljevic, the Shakespearean scholar, who oversaw the destruction of Sarajevo before putting a gun to his own head. And some unknown, such as the fearful young soldiers covered in equal amounts of blood and acne, Jeva, the mother of a soldier desperate to find her son, Suzanna, a student, who was sitting next to her best friend killed in a cafe bomb explosion. And countless numbers of women raped.
No one who reads this book will be able to forget 10 year old Lajla, born to Azra who was raped and deliberately impregnated in order to wipe out the Muslim gene pool. Lajla, who longs to watch cartoons on television “because they are not real”, is more mother than Azra, who cannot work, lives only on pills and cigarettes, and says that the war is finished but the pain is not. She has no confidence in The Hague, as her rapists who sit in cafes, drink good coffee, marry and have children. Yet, as di Giovanni points out in a rare note of optimism, The Hague has found some of those guilty of rape, torture and enslavement- the first time that rape and enslavement were defined as crimes against humanity. But what else will it take to rebuild a community that has been totally smashed? The most powerful sections of the book are concerned with what happens after the war is over- not just the continuing pain but the desire for retribution. In Sarajevo she describes young, unradicalised Muslims who left during the war returning after studying on “scholarships” in Malaysia with a new-born fanatical interest in Islam.
There is a slightly disjointed feel to this book; not a criticism this, however, war is disjointed. The images are unforgettable and di Giovanni writes movingly, with no need for embellishment, about babies born in the snow, children with their legs blown off, heads split open like watermelons, their brains spilled out over the floor, as well as about the insanity and irrationality of human behaviour. Read this book and you may begin to understand what war looks and feels like, or even smells like. Try living in a trench that doubles as a latrine, not washing for days when you are covered with mud, sick and blood. Any aspiring reporter with delusions that being a television reporter is glamorous should study this book. The rest of us might learn a thing or two about the human condition.
Anne Sebba is the author of Battling For News; The Rise of the Woman Reporter.