- Blood and Vengeance: One Family’s Story of the War in Bosnia
The suffering of the victims of the war in Bosnia is fading from public view. In 1995 the Dayton Peace Agreement 1 brought an end to the fighting in Bosnia and to news images of residents of Sarajevo lifting bloody bodies into make-shift ambulances in the wake of another Bosnian Serb mortar attack. Now, the accounts of victims receive only sporadic press attention, largely through reporting on UN-sponsored war crimes trials at The Hague. In light of this, former New York Times correspondent Chuck Sudetic’s book is a timely contribution to the growing body of literature on the Bosnian war. Sudetic gives us a more holistic account of the war—one that integrates political developments into the real-life wartime stories of the author’s own relatives. The result is a moving and intimate perspective on the causes and impact of the conflict from the perspective of the victims.
While Sudetic has covered Bosnia for the Times, his ties to the region predate his posting. His wife’s sister, a Serb and Belgrade native, married a Bosnian Muslim named Hamed Celik. Hamed Celik’s family lived in a small village of Serbs and Muslims in eastern Bosnia, called Kupusovici, at the outbreak of the war in 1992. Hamed’s family is the fulcrum of the book.
Sudetic traces the history of the Muslim Celik family from their arrival in the village at the turn of twentieth century to the fall of the Bosnian town of Srebrenica in 1995—at the time a UN-declared “safe area”—where the family had sought refuge. Through the Celik family, the author depicts the evolution of rural life in Bosnia through World War I and World War II—during which time Muslims and Serbs committed atrocities against each other.
Sudetic’s snapshot of life in Yugoslavia after the war forcefully contradicts the myth that ancient ethnic hatreds between Muslims and Serbs led inevitably to war. In fact, the Celik family and the other Muslims in the area lived peaceably with their Serb neighbors during Tito’s rule. Violence erupted in the area in 1991, as a result of a plan by the Bosnian Serbs (backed politically and militarily by the President of Serbia, Slobodon Milosevic) to carve out of Bosnia an area “cleansed” of Muslims, which would then merge with the neighboring republic of Serbia to form a “Greater Serbia.” As the war advances, Sudetic traces in vivid detail the family’s experience of the “ethnic cleansing” of their village, the deprivations of their life as torbari (impoverished refugees) in besieged Muslim enclaves in eastern Bosnia, and their final days in Srebrenica.
Sudetic’s method of storytelling is deliberate. He rejects the journalistic framework of a Times correspondent that “focuses mainly on institutions and political leaders and their duties and decisions while leaving the common folk to exemplify trends.” 2 Instead, [End Page 545] Sudetic inverts the structure, making the experiences of the Celiks the prism through which the reader sees and understands the effects of the decisions of political leaders. For example, in the final chapter, Sudetic provides the details of the capture and “cleansing” of Srebrenica, an operation that is carefully planned by the Bosnian Serb leadership. In fact, the commander of the Bosnia Serb army, General Ratko Mladic;, personally oversaw the mass execution of thousands of captured Bosnian Muslim men, whose shot bodies were bulldozed into unmarked graves. The reader is drawn into the maelstrom and is invited to walk the “trail of death”—the route that thousands of Muslim men have attempted to take out of Srebrenica in order to escape capture—perched on the shoulder of Paja Celik, Hamed’s brother. From this intimate vantage point, the reader witnesses the chaos and death that ensues when the Serbs bomb the column of men. The author’s detailed account of the capture of Srebrenica is simultaneously riveting and revolting. The reader cannot escape the unbridled brutality of the Serb...