It Does Not Permit Itself To Be Read – But It Must Be

This is a not well thought out post, mainly because it comes from the heart not the head and like most things which are guttural it is a bit messy and full of things that shouldn’t really be displayed to the public. But – I want it to come out, and my blog, my rules.

So. Today is a delicious snowy day. The bird-feeder on my window is being kept busy by little feathered bodies diving backwards and forth. The trees are dusted with frost and the air is crisply icy. I am making pancakes with berries, pears and creme fraiche. And I’ve just finished The War is Dead, Long Live the War by Ed Vulliamy.

In 1992 – when it all kicked off in the Balkans – I was going up to Big School. That’s what marks that year for me: wearing a different tie, going in a class with people I’d never met, going from being a relatively big fish in a small pond to a sprat. 1992 was the year of my last gym display at Bredon Hill. We all got given mugs with frogs in the bottom and we all sang the school song for the last time in Assembly and cried. (Well the girls did.)

And in 1992, genocide began. Genocide never admitted by the authorities, nor the international community who were sent to ‘keep the peace’ which meant not taking sides, which meant doing Nothing.

I have tried to get my head around what happened in Bosnia for a few years now. Mainly because, like Rwanda, it’s something that happened when I was young and I didn’t know what was happening. But when I talk to men at work, who were in Bosnia, they say that they were there, and they didn’t understand it. Neighbours and friends turning on each other overnight. Unspeakable tortures and mass deaths. Violations of the cruellest order. 20 years later, the Serbs, and many revisionists who I’m not going to give the dignity of naming, still claim that the genocide was exaggerated or lied about. Even the mass graves at Srebrenica don’t dissuade them from that.

I have tried a few books on Bosnia and got lost. But Vulliamy’s book is different; it is clear, calm, and intensely human. He quotes from Poe how some stories are so hideous they “do not permit themselves to be read”; thus his writing is not gratuitous, carrion for ghoulish vultures, but the horror is never muted as a result. In fact the grace and delicacy of the prose makes it starker.

Vulliamy, a journalist from the Observer, and Penny Marshall, a journalist for ITN, were the first people to enter the concentration camps of Omarska and Trmopolje and showed the world what was going on. The world had a meeting about it. And then they decided at that meeting, to have another meeting. And then decided that there was trouble on both sides and the Serbs and the Bosniaks were both as bad as each other, yer know, and that they shouldn’t offer refugees asylum because it was a ‘civilian matter’ and if the Serbs saw that civilians were being hurt they might stop killing them.

I’m paraphrasing. Badly. But that’s what I’ve read. I’ve seen photos of UN “Protection Force” Commander Sir Michael Rose laughing and shaking hands with General Mladic. Does he, like Lady Macbeth, try night after night to wash off the blood – “Out, damned spot”?

What about the Dutch UN ‘peace-keepers’ who stood and watch as the Muslim men were separated from the women, one side to go to death and the other to violation? Bad dreams anyone? (Incidentally I blame those who told them they couldn’t intervene rather than the individuals themselves)

I know I’m being simplistic. I know as a privileged white Westerner I don’t really have a clue what I’m talking about. But what I’ve read, and what I’ve seen, has affected me. That isn’t a bad thing incidentally. We can’t pretend these things haven’t happened – or aren’t happening – or won’t happen. “Never again” after the German Holocaust indeed; it happened over and over again and this time we had evidence and statements and witnesses and it was beamed all around the world through TV and on the radio (I remember hearing about it most days, like I heard about the Rwandan genocide, in which Chris Evans joked that one could not really be scared of someone called a Tutsi because it was such a silly word), and the UN knew about it and did piss all. I feel ashamed today of not doing anything. But what could I have done aged 13? What can I do now, 20 years later? What can we all do?

After finishing Vulliamy’s book I went on Youtube to try and find some of the footage I vaguely remembered being on the news. We would watch Neighbours and eat fish-fingers and peas and then do our homework with the BBC bumbling in the background. This time I looked at the footage, the faces. It’s very different to seeing black and white photos of Auschwitz or Treblinka; this is in colour, the footage is moving, and these are people look like someone you’d walk past in the street (only much, much thinner). This happened in our lifetime, and the world kept turning.

I haven’t read anything else. I will do, but I can’t quite think about anything else at the moment. I should ‘rinse’ my brain with some Wodehouse but I don’t want to forget about what I’ve read either, or the impact it’s had on me. I get told off for reading ‘dark’ stuff, but sometimes you do need to know what happened, because so many people are trying to pretend it didn’t.

By the way, my pancakes would have been delicious; but by the time I got round to eating them, they were stone cold.


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