Monday, March 07, 2016

Blood and Vengeance

The stories of war are always fascinating.  It seems to me that when I read about it, the best and the worst of people come to light, and those extremes are interesting.  The vast majority of my experience with learning about life during war comes from WWII.  Its stories have captivated me from an early age, likely because I heard my grandpa’s stories of being a soldier in the Pacific theater and the stories of my grandma and grandpa on the other side as civilians in wartime Germany.  I have always been exposed to both sides and found worthwhile stories in both.  Modern warfare also has its heroes and bravery and villians and cowardice.  War is, of course, an overall saddening thing, usually rather senseless, but there are incredible stories and great lessons to be learned.

Book cover.Blood and Vengeance: One Family’s Story of the War in Bosnia by Chuck Sudetic (ISBN: 978-0-393-33548-4) is, indeed, and incredible story.  It follows one Bosniak (Muslim) family from the final few years of Yugoslavia through the end of the Bosnian War.  The information about life in an obscure village on the border of Bosnia and Serbia serves a great purpos in the book; it sets up what life was like in so many places.  Ethnic hatred simmered under the Communist cover of “brotherhood and unity.”  When the lid provided by party was gone, it boiled over and escalated quickly.  Based on personal interviews in the first few years after the war, the stories of fights, flights, bomb shelters, forced marches, and genocide are raw and personal.  The Muslim villgers, chased from their homes, their neighbors floating face down in Bosnia’s famous Drina river, seek shelter in neighboring villages progressively farther and farther from the fields and dirt paths of their nativity before finally reaching Srebrenica, where many would meet their ultmate demise.  Along the way, they face a very personal enemy, their former friends and neighbors.  At Srebrenica, the Bosniaks think they have found relief since the UN has provided for them a safe zone.  They soon find out that the realities of international policy are far from cut and dry, and the safe zone has little in common with the word “safe.”  Here, Sudetic relies on articles, documents, and archive material, painting a picture of great power ineptitude.  Eventually, the war comes to an end, but not without changing forever the lives of those involved, some, paradoxically, possibly for the better.

The highly charged (the book is littered with Bosnian swearing, which is very representative of the linguistic realities of the Balkans) narrative is raw, personal, and oftimes graphic.  An accurate portrayal of the horror of war compounded by the atrocity of genocide is not likely possible to portray any other way.  I, a far removed observer, found it interesting.  These personal stories have a place in history.  Living in the Balkans, I wish I had an opportunity to hear them with my own ears, but the younger generation doesn’t remember them because they were not a part of it — at least not significantly — and it’s usually an impropriety to ask the older generation about it.  This made the book a gripping read.  I was somewhat skeptical at first because the author is distantly related (by marriage) to the main family in the book.  I found, though, that the story was objective.  There were mistakes on both sides.  In addition, like many families of the times in Yugoslavia’s dying years, the Bosniaks of the book were intermarried with Serbs.  There was really no clear-cut delineation between the ethnicities (throughout the book, soldiers, gangs, and others resorted to what was the only sure-fire way to tell if a man was Muslim or not: they demanded prisoners drop their pants to check for circumcision), making the whole genocidal aspect of the war that much more senseless.  The author had a clear anti-UN bent, but painted NATO in a more positive light, which probably aligns with my own thoughs on that matter.  The massacre of Srebrenica was just as depressing as always.  The truly eastern European moments of deeply rooted superstition and bizarre folk belief mingled with the Koran and an Orthodox view of Christianity (both willing to accept a certain degree of mysticism) provided some lighthearted moments in an otherwise dark book, mostly because it brought to mind my own run-ins with the eastern European mentality.  A witch riding a broom around a yard to remove a hex from a cow is something to never be forgotten.  Finally, out of the mess there was a ray of hope, which also mirrors my personal experience in eastern Europe.  A Bosniak who had never seen himself doing anything but walking behind a yoke of oxen in field in a village named for cabbage, now found himself living in the capital city, forging a way forward through owning a business and seeing it as a step up and a way forward.

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This work, including all text, photographs, and other original work, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial No Derivatives 3.0 License and is copyrighted © MMXIV John Pruess.

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