I covered the war in Bosnia in the mid-1990s, and I know what I saw. I traveled to besieged Sarajevo and to ethnically cleansed regions in eastern and central Bosnia where I interviewed victims of rape camps and bombing campaigns, mothers whose children were killed building snowmen, and the relatives of the elderly who were shot by snipers chopping wood to keep warm in the deep Balkan chill.
It left a painful scar that I can hardly bear to touch. Much of it is wrapped in guilt: My colleagues and I lived with the local population and tried desperately to keep their tragic narrative in the public eye. Every shell that fell, every body that lay cold in the morgue where I trudged every morning to count the dead, was a personal failure of a war that should and could have been halted early on.
Now, a quarter of a century later, I find myself confronting a disturbing trend. Scholars, journalists and prize committees are rewriting the history of the horrors that I and so many others lived through.
An American writer, Jessica Stern, has just published a book based on her interviews with former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, sentenced to life imprisonment for his role in genocide. Stern has chosen to call her book “My War Criminal” — a title deeply disturbing for reasons she was apparently unable to see. Karadzic, a former psychiatrist and poet, co-founded the Serbian Democratic Party and served as the first president of the tinpot Republika Srpska from 1992 to 1996. In that role, he was directly responsible for many murders, rapes, and acts of torture.
Stern went to Karadzic’s prison cell and let him perform faith healing on her. She let him touch her — an act that baffles me. She fell under his hypnotic spell, describing him as “tall and handsome, with flowing brown hair. A Byronic figure.”
She wanted, apparently, to understand the mind of a man who could abet near-unthinkable crimes. Yet along the way, she chose to forget the victims who should be at the center of the story.
I grew up fatherless because of Radovan Karadžić. My 17 years old cousin survived a mass execution. Sisters lost brothers, mothers lost sons. But as long as @JessicaEStern has the sensation of cypress trees growing out of her palms when he touches her - it's alright. https://t.co/KSkygyW6lA
— Emir Suljagić (@suljagicemir1) January 17, 2020
The siege of Sarajevo, conducted by Karadzic’s colleagues, lasted more than three years — longer than the siege of Leningrad. The Bosnian War in total took the lives of more than 100,000 civilians, many of them children. Those of us who were there will never be able to erase the memory.
And yet, as I’ve now learned, that won’t stop others from trying to erase or distort it. By humanizing a mass murderer, Stern has done a massive injustice to a country that is still bleeding today. She can find Karadzic as “Byronic” as she wants, but there are facts that he can never dodge. Those of us who experienced the consequences of his actions in real time will never let him be exonerated.
Stern’s approach — “trivialization” might be a good word for it — is one way to distort the past. Outright denial is another.
Last year, a committee in Oslo awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature to Austrian writer Peter Handke, who is well known for his efforts to deny the genocide in Bosnia. Handke has questioned the reality of the Srebrenica massacre in July 1995, when Bosnian Serb forces gunned down 8,000 Muslim men and boys and piled their bodies into mass graves.
No, we were busy looking for our families and friends buried in mass graves he denied existed. https://t.co/27F9sXlaFx
— Emir Suljagić (@suljagicemir1) October 10, 2019
I spoke with survivors not long after it happened. One young woman told me about her last glimpse of her father when she was 12 years old. He was wearing his jean jacket as he ran into the woods to escape the Serbian onslaught, only to turn around and wave to his young daughter. She next saw him — and his jean jacket — years later in a mass grave that was aired on Bosnian TV.
Another mother told me about how her teenage son, whom she dressed as a girl to hide him, was ripped from her arms when Dutch United Nations peacekeepers helped the Serb paramilitaries separate men from women and take the men away. In every story I wrote in my notebook, I imagined myself as that mother, that daughter, that man being hunted down.
I wish Handke could have met the people I did; I wonder if he would still make such claims. But he has apparently never made the effort to test his own views against the testimony of survivors. He lives, like Stern, in a reality he has created for himself.
In a powerful article, Bosnian scholar Edina Becirevic describes how Stern used Becirevic’s research in her book, twisting her conclusions into something almost unrecognizable. “Stern’s flattering and naive depiction of Karadzic reflects the profound influence he had on her, bordering at times on a hypnotic power,” Becirevic writes. “This seems to have clouded Stern’s ability to see her way clearly through the labyrinth of genocide denial into which Karadzic led her.”
We owe it to the dead, their families and all those who suffered during that tunnel of darkness that was the Bosnian War to remember what really happened.
Janine di Giovanni is a senior fellow at Yale University’s Jackson Institute and a 2019 Guggenheim fellow. Her latest book is “The Morning They Came for Us: Dispatches from Syria.”