Tuesday, April 6, 2010

The Killing Game: The Massacre will be Televised

Two excellent books about the Balkan conflict and the fall of Srebrenica.

David Rohde's Endgame focuses on the invasion of the much-touted UN "protected" safe area of Srebrenica and the massacre of Muslim citizens after Serbian General Ratko Mladic and his troops overran the area, pushing past the unarmed, outmanned, and disorganized Dutch contingent of peacekeepers. Rohde's book dissects reams of information from the UN and reveals the organizational apathy, infighting, political maneuvering, and in some cases, outright deception that led to the deaths of thousands of Srebrenica's population and refugees and the destruction of the town.

Endgame is enraging. The UN turned the lives of thousands of men, women, and children into a political football, and, when the town needed protection the most, failed to deliver on the promises they had made in return for the earlier disarming of the Muslim civilians. Ringed by Mladic's troops, facing starvation and disease, Srebrenica's trapped population believed that the UN would provide air strikes in the event of a Serbian attack.

Unlike most books about the fall of Srebrenica, Rohde doesn't focus on the Srebrenican civilians, but tails the Dutch peacekeepers, who were trapped between the heavy artillery of the Serbs and the desperate inhabitants of the devastated town. Without the promise of air strikes to back them up, the Dutch were literally walked over by the Serbs, and watched as Muslim men were loaded onto buses and driven from Srebrenica for execution in the fields and forests outside of the town.

Rohde also picks apart the skeins of incompetence and cowardice in the UN. The UN appointed two officials, General Janvier of the French army and a Japanese diplomat, Yashusi Akashi, who delayed and dithered while Srebrenica suffered. General Janvier's strategy seemed to include refusing to answer his phone when asked to make a decision. The UN officials who were committed to saving the town, General Morillon and General Smith, were swiftly removed from their positions, and reports of atrocities in the surrounding area were deliberately obscured to prevent calls for action on the part of the UN.

Rohde's writing is clear and precise, with a journalistic detachment. He doesn't examine the lives of the civilians too closely; rather, he focuses on the inner workings of the UN and activities of the peacekeepers deployed on a fool's mission without the firepower or authority to protect anyone. Rohde's book is a must-read for clarifying the role of the UN in the Balkans and why the combined might of several Western nations proved useless against a much smaller but exponentially more brutal foe.

In contrast to Rohde's even, measured prose, Chuck Sudetic's Blood and Vengeance radiates so much fury the book seems incandescent. Sudetic, a journalist with personal ties to the Balkans, found himself returning again and again to the grittiest, most deadly areas in Bosnia and Serbia. Returning after the eruption of the Balkan conflict, Sudetic is also tasked with finding out about the fate of the Celik family, relatives of his wife and inhabitants of a multiethnic, rural mountain village miles away from Srebrenica.

Sudetic's book traces the lineage of the Celik family and their Muslim and Serb neighbors (the Celiks are Muslim). The town, built on the side of a mountain constructed by a legendary queen, Jerina, serves as a sort of microcosm of the greater conflict. Although the town's families live in peace, for the most part, and have forged multi-generational ties of friendship, the conflicts between the Serbs and Muslims spill into the town's life, and grudges against real or imagined slights are held for more than a lifetime. Old hatreds reappear at the most desperate times. Reading Sudetic's book gives one the sense that the crisis in the Balkans was inevitable, and the question is not how it could have happened but why it happened when it did.

Members of the Celik family end up in Srebrenica with thousands of other desperate refugees, and Sudetic is masterful in capturing the aura of a stagnant, apathetic, and desperate city. Sudetic's Srebrenica is a town of stifling garbage, starvation, and bored, trapped people who turn against each other and the hapless Dutch, waiting in their observation post with their silly white helmets and useless weapons.

Sudetic is not interested in the machinations of the UN and the global community, except for an occasional reminder that the massacres and shellings were being televised the rest of the world. Instead, he focuses a microscopic and laser-like view on the Celik family and their struggle for survival (a struggle that would end, like so many others, with members of their family unaccounted for, executed and hastily buried by the Serbs). To his credit, Sudetic does not allow either side to escape culpability. His work is essential for understanding the tangled and jagged lines of loyalty and hatred that divide the Balkans, and particularly timely in the light of the continuing roil of the Southern Caucasus.

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