Academic journal article East European Quarterly

Responses to Inhumanity in the Balkans and a Preliminary Discussion concerning the Problem of Evil

Academic journal article East European Quarterly

Responses to Inhumanity in the Balkans and a Preliminary Discussion concerning the Problem of Evil

Article excerpt

In Rezak Hukanovic's novel based on his experience in the death camps of Bosnia, his protagonist Djemo narrates a scene wherein he and other Croats and Muslims captured by Serbian troops were being conveyed by truck to a concentration camp. Unexpectedly, the soldiers stopped the truck then unloaded and began to beat some of the captured. An older man who resisted was violently stripped of his clothing by the troops, beaten, doused with gasoline, burned, and shot dead.

Such crimes were to become as common in the Balkan wars as they are in all wars, but when Djemo sees what happens to this old man and the others for the first time, he, like all of the captured, was stunned. As Hukanovic writes through the consciousness of Djemo:

   One of the soldiers mumbled something and ordered the driver to
   shut the door and drive on. Through the window Djemo could see
   the wide expanse of the plain at the foot of the Kozara
   Mountains, just where the ... tilled soil reached its highest
   elevation. Fertile, ploughed land, sown with wheat, extending as
   far as the eye could see. "Who will harvest it?" wondered Djemo.
   Abandoned ... cows, horses, sheep, and newborn lambs grazed
   in the fields ... [and] wandered around scorched houses as long
   spits of flame and pillars of smoke soared high above them. In
   front of the houses, fresh linen still hung on the lines
   stretched across the courtyards. No one had expected such evil
   [he thought.] (1)

Perhaps no one ever does, and yet the world has experienced it time and again. How do we stand it? Why does it continue to happen? Big questions, these.

In Hukanovic's narrative, Djemo illustrates one type of response to what playwright Tennessee Williams calls "man's inhumanity to man." He shifts away from the horrific experience he witnesses to a more remote and presumably less frightening vantage point. That is to say, he sees the fields, the houses, the linen, and wonders more about what will become of the larger world than he does about what is happening to an old man right in front of him or, for that matter, about what is happening to himself.

Djemo's response tells us something important concerning our way of dealing with violence and trauma experienced in extremis, and so it will be central to this essay. At the same time, in the summer of 2001 I traveled to various parts of the former Yugoslavia and interviewed many people about their experiences during the recent war there. Of the several ways in which many of them seemed to have coped with the violence that they had experienced during the war, one way involved humor and another involved what seems to be an emotional turn to silence. Both are related, I think, to the response evoked by the character Djemo, because all involve, in some sense, emotional relief from the moment.

While in Sarajevo, I met with Ivanovic Zeljko, poet, novelist, and member of the shadow government in Sarajevo during the siege. (2) We had breakfast together early one morning. I ordered coffee and he ordered whiskey--a common breakfast drink in Sarajevo. It was a dark humor they developed in Sarajevo during the siege years, he said, but it somehow helped them. He recalled an entire series of jokes involving two men--let's call them Oskar and Felix. There was always a 10 p.m. curfew in Sarajevo during the siege years, and in one joke, Oskar and Felix are guards on the street. It is 9:45 p.m. A man walks by the two guards and raises his hand to say hello to Oskar. Oskar raises his weapon and shoots the man dead. Felix, puzzled, asks Oskar, "Why did you shoot that man? It's only 9:45!" Oskar noted that the man was his neighbor, so he knew where he lived, thus: "There was no way he could get home in 15 minutes."

With the same perversity of spirit, the poet Izet Sarajilic writes:

   In Sarajevo
   In the spring of 1992
   Everything is possible:
   You go to stand in a bread line
   And end up in an emergency room
   With your leg amputated. … 
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