A Bosnian war of attrition

MONDAY BOOK: BLOOD AND VENGEANCE: ONE FAMILY'S STORY OF THE WAR IN BOSNIA BY CHUCK SUDETIC, WW NORTON, pounds 19.95
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The Independent Culture
CHUCK SUDETIC was a journalist in Bosnia. His wife was a Serb, which did not stop the flow of death threats from Serbian fanatics, furious about his investigative reports. During the Serb siege of the town of Srebrenica in eastern Bosnia in 1993, his wife asked him to try and establish ham-radio contact with the family of her Bosnian brother-in-law, Hamed Celik.

He did so. Hamed was in Canada but his mother Hiba, father Huso, sister Sanela and brother Paja were trapped in the town, along with 40,000 other Muslims. "Get us out of here," they begged. Of course, he could do not. It was not until Srebrenica fell to the Serbs in July 1995 that Sudetic met Hiba and the rest of the family who had survived the Serb onslaught.

Step by step, Sudetic set about tracing the history of the Celik family. Starting at the turn of century, he charted their fortunes through the carnage of the Second World War, Tito's relatively benign dictatorship, the chaos of another war in 1992, the family's flight from their home and their two years in hell in Srebrenica.

The result is a mesmerising story. Some are comparing Sudetic to the Bosnian Nobel prize winner Ivo Andric, but I found The Travnik Chronicle and Bridge over the River Drina contrived, compared to this grippingly real drama of a Muslim peasant family that was blown apart by the Serbian war machine.

Blood and Vengeance starts in an almost bucolic setting: the mountain village of Kupusivici under the Habsburgs, a world of intense superstition, of witches and their hexes. Serbs and Muslims worship, marry and bury their dead separately, while gossiping and brewing their plum brandy together in an intense and almost unhealthy proximity.

It ends in Srebrenica. It contains priceless oral testimony from the victims of the worst, most shameful moment in Europe's postwar history.

This is what it feels like to be driven from your home, see your relatives killed by your neighbours, be herded with tens of thousands of others into a tiny UN "safe area", spend two penniless, hungry years, be assured by "the West" in the shape of the UN that you are at least safe there - and then watch General Mladic stroll in and take your husband and son- in-law away, never to be seen again.

Sudetic never romanticises. There is nothing heroic in this story of ghetto life marked by constant gnawing hunger. Like Anne Frank's family, the Celiks bickered and squabbled.

At night, meanwhile, the men stole out into the forests and descended like wolves on nearby Serb villages such as Kravica.

Looking for food, they kill the occupants, fuelling the cycle of revenge that has bedevilled relations between Bosnia's Serbs, Croats and Muslims.

"Were you angry?" Sudetic asks a villager from Kravica, whose neighbours took part in the sacking of Srebrenica.

"Everyone in the district was angry."

"What did they say?"

"Revenge."

"What did they tell you?"

"They said kad tad, kad tad, sooner or later, our five minutes will come."

"And the opportunity came?"

"Yes."

"Vengeance?" `Yes, blood vengeance".

"Did they come for you?"

"I was in an apartment in Bratunac [the neighbouring town to Srebrenica]."

"They were excited?"

"Yes, yes."

"What did they say?"

They said `Grab your gun and come down to the soccer field'."

Well, now we know.

Although we do know the outcome, the final chapters still make for almost unbearable reading. Hiba watches her elderly and sick husband being led away to the bus by the Serbs, his beloved family photograph album stuffed under his arm, off to be slaughtered and chucked into some pit. Sanela's husband disappears in the same way. Hiba's son, Paja, miraculously escapes. Slipping into the forest with a band of other Muslims, he fights his way through 25 miles of Serb-held woodland to the Muslim-held city of Tuzla.

At the end Sudetic, back in Bosnia as a UN election monitor in 1996, escorts Hiba home to her village on the mountain for a disturbing confrontation with her old Serbian neighbours. Once they were her friends; now they stare blankly at each other, separated for ever by the river of blood that has flowed between the two peoples.

This is the book to have emerged from that whole horrible war, a definitive account that will surely be read for decades to come.

Others have written about the West's miserable diplomacy in Bosnia, while British and French politicians and generals have penned their own toe- curlingly self-congratulatory accounts. None has written of the war from the standpoint of the people who lived through it.

This book is beautifully written, too. Anyone who wants to know what really happened in Bosnia, and what makes the Balkan people tick, must read it.

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