The War is Dead, Long Live the War: Bosnia – The Reckoning by Ed Vulliamy – review

Ed Vulliamy's intelligent analysis of the Bosnian war and its aftermath does not linger on the horror but tries to explain it

The wars that followed the collapse of the Yugoslav Federation were the ugliest and most shaming event in our recent history. Margaret Thatcher was much derided for saying she was shocked that such things could happen in today's Europe, but you can see what she meant: not that Europe was inherently superior to today's Africa or Asia (though of course she may have believed it was), but that we thought Europe had progressed beyond barbarism.

But some parts of it hadn't. Here are two random incidents from the Bosnian war. In the first, eight prisoners were discovered inside a ceramic drain, four feet in diameter. The ends of the drain were plugged up, and they were kept in the dark and filth for weeks. Food was thrown in to them once a day, and the prisoners had to scrabble for it in their own faeces. Against the odds, they survived. In the second incident, five prisoners were forced at gunpoint to run through a minefield. They were linked together with barbed wire, which had been painstakingly threaded through their tongues. All five were killed.

Ed Vulliamy is an engaging, passionate, highly intelligent correspondent who works for this newspaper and for the Guardian. Having written one of the most haunting books on the fighting in Bosnia, Seasons in Hell, he understands that readers can't take too much of this kind of detail. He quotes Edgar Allan Poe: "Now and then, alas, the conscience of man takes up a burthen so heavy… that it can be thrown down only into the grave."

The story of Omarska and Trnopolje, two of the concentration camps where the Bosnian Serbs kept their prisoners, constitutes this kind of burden. In August 1992 Vulliamy, together with Penny Marshall of ITN, Ian Williams of Channel 4 and their teams, managed to reach these camps, and their reporting on them was a key moment in the world's understanding of the conflict.

In The War Is Dead, Long Live the War, Vulliamy has tried not to load down his readers with horrors. He wants to explain why these things happened, and to take us on from them. He explains in detail the circumstances that led to the Bosnian war and the policy of ethnic cleansing, to the setting up of camps such as Omarska and Trnopolje, and to the massacre at Srebrenica; but his main concern is with the fallout – moral, physical, emotional, juridical – and he follows the afterlives of a variety of people who were there. Inevitably there are details and stories that his readers will not thank him for including; some of these will indeed lie heavily on the mind.

Vulliamy is, as I say, a passionate man, and this is a book of great passion. For those journalists who took it up, the Bosnian cause, like La Causa of the Spanish civil war, became all-encompassing. Among the press corps in Sarajevo there were many who believed it was their clear duty to persuade public opinion that Nato should intervene in the war. Others simply found it hard to understand. At the time, an American correspondent showed me a message from his foreign editor instructing him in future to concentrate only on "the Serbs" and "the Muslims", and omit any reference to "the Croats"; American audiences, apparently, couldn't cope with a war that had three sides. So both the Croats of Croatia and the Bosnian Croats were airbrushed out of much of the US television reporting.

Airbrushing became commonplace in other ways. Many writers and politicians, particularly in the US, saw the plight of the European Jews of the 1930s and 40s reflected in the ethnic cleansing of Muslims and the existence of the concentration camps; they were unfazed by the support of Iran for the increasingly Islamist government of President Izetbegovic, and chose not to notice that all sorts of extremists were becoming drawn to Bosnia. In the scale of things, they were probably right not to worry about it, yet it was a strange choice all the same.

Trying to present a balanced view of things, and not simply act as a claque for the Muslim government, was difficult. The Muslims, though undoubtedly better than the Serbs and Croats, were not entirely innocent themselves. In the incident of the eight men kept in the ceramic drain, which I mentioned earlier, the guards were Muslims and the prisoners Serbs. The story was largely ignored by the Sarajevo press corps.

At key moments in the diplomatic battle, the Muslim defenders would station mortars near hospitals and old people's homes and fire them off at the Bosnian Serb positions on the surrounding hills, in the certainty that the Serbs would retaliate enthusiastically. The resulting pictures would be shown on US television, and would create the anticipated outrage. But in that Manichaean atmosphere, even referring to such things brought accusations that you were soft on the Serbs.

None of this compared with the overwhelming evil of Omarska, Trnopolje and Srebrenica, or the siege of Sarajevo itself. Vulliamy's account of what happened in the camps is completely unanswerable; and I'm sorry now that I supported the small post-Marxist magazine Living Marxism when it was sued by ITN for questioning its reporting of the camps. It seemed to me at the time that big, well-funded organisations should not put small magazines out of business; but it's clear that there were much bigger questions involved.

Few people – journalists, politicians, soldiers – came out of the Bosnian war with much credit. Western generals supped with the bloodthirsty Mladic, western politicians did deals with the dangerous dreamer Karadzic, a lot of the reporting was either partial or not incisive enough. Vulliamy blames the rottenness of the British system, a notion he repeats rather often. For example, he attacks the former foreign secretary Douglas Hurd, who had handled the Serbs with kid gloves while in office, for doing business deals with them once he had left. Personally, I think the basic reason for the widespread feebleness in dealing with the Serbian monsters lay elsewhere. Moderately decent people are out of their depth when they come face to face with the unquestionably wicked, and rarely react with the necessary toughness. 1992 was a repeat of 1938. We failed yet again to learn from history.

John Simpson is the BBC's world affairs editor


John Simpson

The GuardianTramp

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