Rezak Hukanovic, The Tenth Circle of Hell: a memoir of life in the death camps of Bosnia, Little, Brown and Co., London 1997, £12.99.
One of the striking things about the millions of words written on the war against the innocent in Bosnia - the bloodiest carnage to blight Europe since the Third Reich - is how few of them have come from participants in, and victims of, the violence, and how few have been written by Bosnians.
Unfortunately - and despite the clarity of the best chronicling of Bosnia's war - the whole rainforests-worth of paper produced by journalists, UN officials, soldiers or lawyers has had the effect of obfuscating rather than telling the cruelly simple story of genocide.
Rezak Hukanovic's book now steps into this vacuum. He has written only 176 painful pages; they are pages that bear witness not only from inside the war, but from within the nightmare of a concentration camp in our lifetime, just down the road from Venice. Hukanovic was not a reporter but a prisoner in this inferno, and his story cuts as sharply as the blades of the knives he watched slice into the bodies of his friends and fellow prisoners.
The story is mercilessly simple and comfortless, and its power lies in the fact that when its last words are completed, there is neither room nor breath for pedantry or hot-air debate. There is only the judicious and unarguable record of what happened in a satanic place called Camp Omarska - the Serbian camp for Muslim and Croat prisoners into which a crew from ITN and I, by a twist of fate, had the accursed honour of stumbling one putrid day in the summer of 1992.
We had only an inkling of the horror, before being ignominiously bundled out by Serbian guards and thugs. Hukanovic reveals what actually occurred, in all its spine-chilling brutality. We, the press, have been accused of 'exaggerating' the horrors of Bosnia. The truth is quite the opposite: the hidden reality, coming slowly to light in defiance of a world that is reluctant to know it, was infinitely worse.
Stories like Hukanovic's have been told by Westerners in snippets a hundred times, taken down in notebooks, quoted or filmed. They filled days of evidence at The Hague. But the evil of those camps has never been recorded as coherently or directly as this. Hukanovic's style is cool, probably out of necessity, and so detached that he turns himself into a third person, a narrator called 'Djemo'.
The descent past Dante's Ninth Circle of Hell to a tenth begins with the utter bewilderment of Muslims at the appearance of uniformed, armed Serbs on the streets of Prijedor, Hukanovic's home town. Then comes the shattering of the community and the smashing of families - the sacking of the town, the mass arrests, disappearances, interrogations, beatings and murder. 'An earthquake comes and goes', writes Hukanovic, 'this upheaval just kept on coming.' Throughout, there is this macabre intimacy which was the hallmark of the war: the victims knew their torturers, had grown up alongside them.
At the core of persecutions (echoing those in other places, at other times) ws the fact that the Serbs came first for Prijedor's intellectuals and businessmen, who were invariably Muslim. The Muslims were the Jews of the Balkans, and it was envy, not just race, that propelled Bosnia's slaughter. These are the first people whom 'Djemo', poet and journalist, meets when he is taken to Omarska.
From that day on, violence is piled upon violence. There is an endless calling of names - usually at night - with prisoners staggering to their feet in response, leaving the hangar and either coming back 'dumped through the door, bloody and beaten', or not at all. Some were tortured for days on end. 'Djemo' is himself beaten senseless in a building called the White House - he was lucky, many died in there - and it is a haunting description of pain from the inside.
There were beatings and killings too on the tarmac across which we walked on our visit to the camp; it was empty then, but for months, says Hukanovic, corpses were stacked up and loaded by their fellow prisoners onto yellow trucks. New prisoners were beaten upon arrival, often to death. 'That was a truly horrible sound - a skull being smashed, the bones splitting and breaking... intermingled with the shouts and screams.'
If Hukanovic's tale is repetitive, then so are Primo Levi's. There is the prisoner who refuses to strip naked, and whose clothes, skin and finally sexual organs are therefore ripped apart with knives. It is a slow, bloody, noisy death. There is a scene made infamous in evidence at The Hague, when two prisoners are forced to bite the testicles off two others, who die of the wounds.
A boy weeps 'as he is forced to watch the bloodthirsty monsters plunge daggers into his father's body'. But the most heartbreaking episode comes with the end of the attempt by a man called Kasim to keep alive his son Sudo, who has dysentery. Sudo could not get up to eat or to face the beatings that accompanied every trip to the toilet. But he knew it meant certain death to refuse the order to come outside for a naked hosing-down, when even the guards became sickened by the stench of the men and their excreta. The guards enjoyed firing jets of water at gaping wounds, and beating the men as they returned into the shed, and Sudo died that night. Kasim watched the guards kick his corpse: 'Get this garbage out of here.' His brother and nephews carried the body out to join the others by the White House, and await the yellow truck. 'Off in a corner', Hukanovic writes, 'someone cursed God.'
'Dying was easy in Omarska, and living was hard', he writes. 'Time - that final arbiter of mortality - moved along slowly, very slowly.' The great hangar was a pyrexia in that hot summer, lice and worms were ubiquitous, there was acute hunger, humiliation and pain. A doctor tried to treat the wounded, using a normal needle and thread to administer stitches. 'When somebody took a leak, the others gathered round to cup their hands and catch the urine, wetting their chapped lips with it, and even drinking it. They slept standing up, because there was no room to lie down.' Men awoke from their short stints of sleep, ranting and raving.
There were drilled outings to the canteen for those who were fit enough, and scraps of food were smuggled back to those who were not. That canteen, and those drills, were all we were allowed to see of Omarska on 5 August 1992, and to read Hukanovic giving the prisoner's-eye-view makes the flesh creep.
'It was a time for crying without tears, without noise. Even prayers could not be heard.' It goes on and on, relentlessly, all within this confined, claustrophobic space where recreational sadism meets despair. 'No one, not even God, can pardon them for this', says 'Djemo' out loud one night, after some appalling orgy of violence. The problem is that whatever God decides, the world at large already has not only forgiven them, but rewarded them.
Hukanovic's book is published at what should be a time of reckoning in the aftermath of Bosnia's war. 'Reckoning' is one of the toughest words in our language; it means staring history in the face, coming to terms with what has happened and why, taking responsibility for one's actions. It is a prerequisite to the restoration of democracy and civilization in the wake of calamity.
Over Bosnia, the reckoning is not happening. The international community has compounded its betrayal of the victims and its appeasement and reward of the Serbian perpetrators. Western aid pours into the 'cleansed', mono-ethnic 'Republika Srpska', built on the mass graves of Hukanovic's friends.
When I returned to Hukanovic's native Prijedor and to Omarska in 1996, I found no reckoning among the perpetrators (save a drunken, remorseful camp administrator, who confirmed and confessed all), only a grotesque and illogical mixture of denial and vindication. In Serbia itself, even the 'democratic' opposition suffers a memory wipeout when it comes to the pogrom in Bosnia.
And there is worse - far worse. Within only a handful of years of this hurricane of violence, an attempt has already begun in the West to rewrite and defile its history; to say that these accounts of the gulag of Serbian camps are exaggerations, even fictions. This outrage began with a myopic but poisonous argument: that by transmitting a picture of prisoners behind barbed wire at Trnopolje, another camp near Prijedor, ITN gave a false impression of what was happening in the area. (If that picture, which is on the cover of Hukanovic's book, is misleading in any way, it is only because it showed the world people who were still alive, not their butchered friends or relatives.)
That such an argument should spawn in Germany should come as no surprise. Despite that nation's estimable 'reckoning' with its recent past and subsequent construction of a modern democracy out of the ashes of the Reich, there is bound to remain some residue of pyschodrama over concentration camps - and the denial of their existence. This time, however, the argument that the Bosnian camps in our own time are a trumped-up lie comes not from a Nazi but from an extreme Marxist communist, Thomas Diechmann. That Diechmann's argument should then be picked up in Britain by an eccentric fringe group, the 'Revolutionary Communist Party', which had for years peddled the Serbian line and now says that our reports of the camps 'took liberties with the facts', is also predictable enough. (I, too, am accused of this deceitful conspiracy, in print and in a torrent of hate-mail including one illuminating letter that accuses me of being 'probably a nasty little Jew' - the kind of intended insult one takes as a compliment, that makes one wish it were true.)
There is something baffling, diabolical even, about the ability to overlook or dismiss human suffering - mass murder, torture, rape, deportation - on the scale of that inflicted on Hukanovic's people in those camps and described in this book, in order to pursue some argument or agenda. Like the classic of Nazi revisionism, Frederik Leuchter's Engineering Limitations of a Gas Oven, the 'revolutionary communists' contort the epic suffering and near obliteration of an entire European people into an obscure point about a fence. But such people will always exist, like lice on society's underbelly.
What is spine-chilling, however, is that this time, so soon after the horrors of Omarska and Trnopolje, these people's poisoning of history is being taken up and endorsed within the British mainstream, twisted and banalized into a high-profile 'media debate' by critics and writers happy to join in the diluting and rewriting of the prisoners' testimony. Barely a day passes without someone ringing up from a 'media magazine show' wanting to talk about the Serbian 'so-called camps'.
The British establishment, moulded by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, of course finds its own neutralist position on Bosnia echoed in this filth, while sections of the Left wallow in it to find some perverse 'radical' cause. Why? Why, indeed? Guilt, maybe, at the West's inaction and the need to belittle its consequences? Crass anti-Americanism (the US spearheaded most attempts to stop the carnage)? Genuine, cold support for the Serbs and their racial pogrom? Very probably. Or is it just armchair pedantry in a diseased, value-free society; desperation to be 'controversial', however grotesque the argument?
'In a war like this, truth had to be killed first', writes Hukanovic. It is among the wisest of his many bons mots. Truth is at the moment on the critical list, but thanks, in part, to Rezak Hukanovic's terrifying and disarming book, it is still alive.
This article first appeared in The Observer on 20 April 1997. The book The Tenth Circle of Hell can be ordered at a discount price of £9.99, by ringing Observer Interactive on 0500 500 171.