Bosnia, 20 Years After the Wars: Movies, Memoir and Memory
Anyone who has ever watched any films based on the wars that ravaged the former Yugoslavia during the 1990s will come away battered intellectually and emotionally, I would bet. Because few of them pull any punches. Okay, 2001’s ‘Behind Enemy Lines’, with Owen Wilson in the starring role, overdoes the pyrotechnics somewhat and its lack of adherence to the facts of a recent reality do irk, but others are genuinely brilliant. Take ‘Nicija zemlja’ (No Man’s Land) also released in 2001 or ‘Niciji sin’ (No One’s Son), which came out in 2008, for instance. Both will shake you to the bones but they were made by local film makers, so the fraught realism is to be expected.
Others, foreign-produced, equally assail the emotions, however. ‘Harrison’s Flowers’, for instance, released, once more, in 2001, takes us from a genteel New York world of back-slapping journalists to the death and destruction of Croatia in the early 1990s, when taking a left turn after a serene road trip through the mountains could lead to a tank mounting your car. Then there is ‘Savior’ (1998) about an American mercenary on the Bosnian Serb side, who hates and slaughters Muslims for deeply personal reasons, then rails against the barbarity that he both causes and confronts. This is unflinchingly depicted throughout the film’s 103 minutes.
Second World War films, on the other hand, only began to become uncompromising in the 1970s, when some distance had been measured between the end of the conflict and a new era. ‘A Bridge Too Far’, made in 1977, might have had an all-star cast but the brutality of war was not eluded, even if one particularly murderous assault did include the perfectly-groomed Robert Redford.
But as far as World War II is concerned, the major contrast to be noted is that between 1962’s ‘The Longest Day’ and ‘Saving Private Ryan’ made by Stephen Spielberg in 1998. Both are exceptional but the key difference is in the boat landings made by the US troops on the beaches of Normandy. In the 60s’ version there is banter, in the 90s’ there is vomiting.
So why have the films showing the Yugoslavian wars been so unremittingly brutal, despite being made only a handful of years after they ended?
Television is the reason.
Film makers addressing the madness of the Yugoslavian Wars had to go all out to show the mayhem, because the TV cameras had been there first. During World War II, there may have been a few rifle shots on Pathe News but not the scenes of carnage after mortar attacks on markets in Sarajevo in the 1990s, for instance. The hideous drama was already out there. Film makers had to catch up.
This year marks the 20th anniversary of the outbreak of the war in Bosnia, which saw the Bosnian Serb army lay siege to the capital Sarajevo, with mortar attacks and sniper fire tormenting the city’s population on a daily basis.
Into this mayhem stepped Martin Bell and his crew, along with a number of other intrepid and, arguably, barely sane reporters, to cover a war which Bell called the “most consequential” of our time.
To coincide with the international remembrance of the start of the conflict in Bosnia, Icon Books has this year published a revised and updated edition of Bell’s memoir ‘In Harm’s Way’, which charts the terror and destruction that had the tiny nation in flames between 1992 and 1995.
Originally printed by Penguin in 1995, then 1996, Bell’s book addresses the predicament of being a journalist in what was an unprecedented war since 1945, with families torn apart and children seen as legitimate targets, along with anyone else crossing the street.
Martin Bell became a household name because of the Bosnian war, to such an extent that one UN General’s wife told him to stop looking “so miserable” when on air, as if a big cheesy grin would have been more appropriate.
The white suit, his somber voice narrating the latest atrocities committed by the troops up on the hills, the fact that he risked life and limb doing so, and was indeed wounded for his troubles, were all factors that seared the Bosnian conflict into the world’s consciousness.
Things didn’t always run smoothly, needless to say, in that quagmire. Bell’s reminiscences are fraught with the frustration of being a TV reporter, having to lug equipment around when print reporters were able to hop on buses with just their notebooks in tow.
There are countless other difficulties documented, such as the unwillingness of the armies to grant Bell and his colleagues access, something he wasn’t used to, the warring parties’ bloody-mindedness being exactly that, bloody. That and the fact that he and other journalists had to just stand there and record slaughter, helplessly and often, in their own minds, culpably.
I myself am a journalist though not one who has ever worked in a war zone, so I can only imagine the travails that Bell and his counterparts had to endure during the 1990s war, let alone the general population. But the irritations of the job recounted by Bell, I know well. The effort unrewarded, thinking you have a great story when something else crops up meaning yours is ditched at the last moment; the sheer chaos of it, that maddening source of despair and at the same time adrenalin, which gets you doing the job in the first place. That’s all familiar to me, but without any bullets flying in my direction.
I have also been to Bosnia, post-war, twice in fact. Both occasions were very educational. The first visit was to Sarajevo by coach from the Montenegrin capital Podgorica, the vehicle bursting into flames in the dead of night just as we were approaching the mountains. We rushed off in fear that it was about to explode. It didn’t and a replacement bus turned up eventually after us standing around in the pitch black dark for a couple of hours. Then came the climb up the mountains and the temperature dropping to freezing.
We arrived in the Serb-run bus station at dawn, in the East of the city, with it shrouded in fog. I was with two Americans, one a work colleague, the other a traveller we’d met outside the bus after it had gone up in smoke.
The taxi journey into the centre was stunning, in the worst sense, the grim weather augmenting a general sense of gloom. Almost every apartment block we passed was riddled with bullet holes, though other armoury may have also been responsible for the damage. Conversation stopped while we gawped.
The visit was also clouded by a sense of foreboding, though the danger had long passed. The sight of the burned out museum caused by the Bosnian Serb bombardment was harrowing, although the history of its assault was given on posters in the Serbian Cyrillic, as well as Russian, English and other languages. Serbs were being called ‘bandits’ in Serbian.
There were the calls to prayer from the minarets, while the mainly Muslim population ate their cevapi and drank beer and wine and also danced like mad in the bars. I’d seen far stricter Islamists in Birmingham. Yet religion had supposedly underpinned the fighting from the off.
The trip back taught me a lesson about the fragility of life, appropriately enough. From Podgorica to Sarajevo we had veered towards our destination in complete darkness and thick fog. The return journey was done in clear daylight. Gingerly, the coach negotiated mountain ledges that threatened a drop to our deaths should the driver’s hand slip for a second. The curves in the road were an invitation to tragedy, a word that had engulfed Bosnia of late. But it came in stark contrast to the stunning mountainous view. Majesty versus death: Bosnia defined, you could say.
Over a year later I was in Banja Luka, capital of Republika Srpska, the Bosnian Serb enclave created by the Dayton Accords of 1995. Then the temperatures were around 30-35 degrees Celsius and I traipsed about town doing guide book work while melting in the heat. I was made feel very welcome despite the fact that NATO had bombed the Bosnian Serb army to prevent it causing the citizens of Sarajevo any more suffering. Part of the job I was doing was to visit and write about the nightclubs in the city and because of the weather I went to one in shorts and trainers. I was told by the bouncers that my clothing was inappropriate but when I said I didn’t understand they let me in, as I was British. Balkan hospitality once again transcended politics.
But the politics was still out there. You only needed to look at the souvenir stands to see that, draped as they were in t-shirts and other paraphernalia celebrating the likes of Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic, then at large and out of range of the security services hunting them down. No one seemed to entertain the fact that there was a contradiction between hailing suspected war criminals and being utterly courteous to a British guest.
There was another surreal moment when I passed a drinking hole called the ‘Peckham Pub’. I almost had to rub my eyes to confirm what I was seeing. I walked in and discovered a shrine to ‘Only Fools and Horses’, massively popular in the former Yugoslavia. There I was in a part of the world much of the UK considered beyond the pale and staring back at me from the walls were Del Boy, Rodney and Uncle Albert.
It was a world away from savagery, yet I was right there, in Banja Luka, at one of its many sources. Watching films about the wars in the former Yugoslavia was more harrowing than actually being there, at that time, post-war.
Life does move on, extraordinarily, even in places oozing with death and it does so more brightly, arguably, than elsewhere. The glistening Vbras River flowing through Banja Luka under a beating sun, with its swimmers and rowers fleeing from the daily grind, the partying Sarajevans, celebrating a Muslim holiday in a flood of wine and beer: that was the Bosnia I saw, without the TV screen getting in the way.