Bad blood

The War is Dead, Long Live the War: Bosnia, the Reckoning, by Ed Vulliamy, Bodley Head, RRP£20, 400 pages

Twenty years after the start of the war in Bosnia, EU diplomats face a conundrum. After Europe’s abject response to the war, when Britain and France championed the EU into pursuing a policy of, at best, vacillation and, at worst, appeasement, it sought to atone for its failures with a vigorous support for rebuilding. Now, once again, siren voices are suggesting it is time to abandon fundamental moral principles. The argument runs that, after two decades, maybe the world should implicitly accept the partition of the Bosnian state into Republika Srpska and the Muslim-Croat federation, and push for the state’s rapid admission into the EU. After all, at a time of economic uncertainty, can Europe really afford to devote precious resources to an as yet seemingly fruitless process of reintegration?

That hard-headed argument may ultimately win the day. But before any EU diplomat signs up to the latest realpolitik over Bosnia, they should read Ed Vulliamy’s impassioned book on this most wretched of European countries. They will at least have had to examine their consciences and accept that, to recognise Bosnia in its current bifurcated state, is to accept that the warped vision of Radovan Karadzic has been all but achieved.

When Vulliamy arrived in the region from the Guardian’s Rome bureau at the start of Yugoslavia’s wars of secession, he was not, as he concedes, an obvious chronicler of the carnage. Something of a Renaissance man, he had been as at home writing about opera as the mafia or, indeed, football. With his long flowing locks, satchel filled with Beatles cassettes, and fund of Maradona stories, he did not exactly fit the stereotype of war correspondent. It might have been a reasonable assumption that the fluctuations of the Balkan frontlines and evasions of its politicians and western diplomats would not inspire his prose. They did not just inspire it; they all but ignited it.

The War is Dead, Long Live the War is not a conventional history of the past 20 years. It is an account of two decades of the author’s attempts to chart the tragic narratives of a handful of Bosniak communities – and to confront their abusers, whether at the war crimes tribunal in The Hague or in grim small towns across the southern Balkans. It is also part memoir: in one of the more powerful personal passages the author lays bare his agonising over testifying at The Hague. It is partly a “J’accuse” aimed at those who pander to the Bosnian Serbs’ revisionism over what happened.

Yet it will also be hard to beat as an account of the difficulties a state faces in confronting a bloody and divided past. Its narrative is rooted in the minutely chronicled experiences of Bosniak survivors as they confront the abiding refusal of most Bosnian Serbs to accept what was done in their name and the desire of some in the west to forget about it. The chapter on the argument over ArcelorMittal’s acquisition of the right to operate the iron ore mine at Omarska, the site of one of the most notorious concentration camps, is especially poignant. How easily, the author reminds us, the world can be seduced into forgetting a terrible past.

Vulliamy is best known as one of the trio of journalists who exposed the existence of the Bosnian Serb camps at Omarska and Trnopolje in 1992. But long before then he had been patrolling former Yugoslavia, highlighting atrocities wherever he found them. Many Bosnian Serbs have since argued he has lost objectivity and claim he ignores the crimes of the Bosniaks, or Bosnian Muslims as they were known before the war. But as this, his second book on Bosnia, makes abundantly clear, there is a simple reason for his focus on Bosniak victims: the overwhelming majority of the crimes in the 1992-1995 war, the mass rapes, the massacres, were committed by Bosnian Serbs against Bosniaks. Some colleagues suggested he crossed a line when he opted to testify at The Hague. His convincing riposte is that traditional “he said, she said” journalism is ill-equipped to address evil. Journalists have to understand the difference between objectivity and neutrality, he argues. His belief is convincingly endorsed by the events of the war.

Since the 1995 Dayton peace accords, the author has returned to Bosnia repeatedly. At times he has sought to expose the guilty, many of whom are not even bothering to hide. His book is partly a reminder of that unfinished business – while The Hague tribunal has defied the sceptics in bringing war criminals to book, it has inevitably addressed only the more prominent culprits. The chapter, “The Middle Managers of Genocide”, in which Vulliamy recounts postwar meetings with some of the masterminds of the Omarska atrocities, is riveting and chilling for its insight into the denialism pervading Republika Srpska, and the ordinariness of so many of the perpetrators. This was, he observes in a customarily telling judgment, “a war of parish-pump sadists”.

Vulliamy is also motivated by that traditional but neglected aim of great journalism: the quest for truth. He wants to ensure that the peddlers of the “great lie” will be forced to back down. The “great lie” is the argument of moral equivalence. This was tended by many western officials in the war as they sought to stave off calls for military intervention. It lives on, Vulliamy shows, sometimes attracting improbable supporters. Doris Lessing and Harold Pinter were among a number of literary figures who backed a small magazine, Living Marxism, when it was sued by ITN for libel over its claim that its footage of emaciated camp inmates was misleading. ITN won its case but apologists for Karadzic and Bosnian Serb nationalists still present the war as a case of all sides having equal amounts of blood on their hands.

The author comes across as angry, sad and tired – tired of having to confront denialists again and again. He is also, rightly, outraged at the lack of an acknowledged account of what happened. Occasionally his editors are over-indulgent. Once or twice the narrative slips into journalese. More importantly, I craved a declaratory ending about truth and justice. Instead, the reader is left somewhat bathetically with the author and Bosnian friends in a pub in Newcastle after a Holocaust memorial day. But maybe the author thought he had at last earned the right briefly to lay down his sword of truth. He has certainly wielded it in the past 20 years without flinching.

Alec Russell is the FT’s comment and analysis editor. He reported on the Balkans between 1991 and 1993

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