from the Grave
Exactly 10 years ago, Emir Suljagić, a young Bosnian Muslim from Srebrenica, met
General Ratko Mladic. The general had just taken Srebrenica and was, as we were
soon to fnd out, busy organizing the slaughter of up to 8,000 men and boys from
the place that the UN Security Council had declared a "safe area". The general looked at
Suljagić's identity card, asked him what he was doing and then said he could go. To this
day, that moment has tortured Suljagić.
"I survived because Mladic felt like God that day," writes Suljagić in his remarkable memoir
of life in the besieged town. "He had absolute power to decide over life and death. I used
to dream about him for months, reliving the encounter ... I feared I would go mad trying
to explain to myself why he spared me, who was just as insignifcant to him as my friends
must have been whose execution he ordered. I never found an answer." Ten years after
the massacre and 60 years after the liberation of Auschwitz, it is chilling to recognize in
Suljagić's words the syndrome of survivor's guilt which was identifed among Holocaust
From the spring of 1992 until July 1995, Srebrenica and the
surrounding enclave were besieged by General Mladic's men. It
was a cruel siege and its end was crueler still. Indeed, the UN's
war crimes tribunal in the Hague has declared unequivocally that
the massacre that took place after the war was genocide.
For that reason, large numbers of books have been written about
Srebrenica, but all of them by foreigners.
Suljagić, now a journalist in Sarajevo, has written the frst
account of the siege to be published in English by a Bosnian
who lived through it. Just to bear witness would be enough but
Suljagić writes beautifully. His stories of life in the besieged
enclave are not marred by a rancor, which could have made this
survivor's tale just a stream of angry consciousness. Indeed, Suljagić writes with the skill
of an accomplished novelist but at the same time, for those who are interested, gives us
much detail not just about life under siege but also facts which doubtless will be repeated in
histories yet to be written.
Suljagić was 17 when the siege began. He taught himself English and became an interpreter
for the UN. This was what saved his life when Mladic asked him what he was doing. For
that reason, he was then moved out of the town and did not have to trek across Serb-held
territory to get out. Thus, what is most fascinating about his book is not encounters with the
Serbs, in a face-to-face sense, but, rather, his account of surviving the siege.
Some of this is intensely personal. "I noticed that hunger had completely altered my
personality," he writes. "From a boy who before the war used to be shy and reserved, I had
become aggressive and unscrupulous. What I saw scared me, but I quickly realized that it
was a matter of survival."
Events and scenes described are very focused. Suljagić tells how the defense of the town
was organized and describes his admiration, if not liking, for Naser Oric, its military leader.
Then comes his disappointment when suspicions arose that Oric doubled up as Srebrenica's
Suljagić's story is by no means a self-pitying tale of passive victims betrayed only by the
outside world. He gives us the full story or at least, one suspects, the fullest one he can to
date without getting a bullet in the head.
At one point, he describes how when rushing forward to get humanitarian aid dropped over
the enclave, his uncle is shot dead. Nothing happened to the killer, though, because of his
connections with leaders of the municipality: "There were no laws and public authority was
based on mutual balance of power." Even today, says Suljagić, there is "no point" in naming
the murderer. Another man who is murdered dies after leading a protest against the theft of
aid by local offcials.
One of the most moving scenes describes how people would come from across the enclave
to get an opportunity to speak on the town's ham radio to family and friends elsewhere. "No
one ever said, “I love you.” Never did an open love declaration pass through those wires,
aerials and cables. And yet nowhere and never had there been more love concentrated on
one spot than in that half-dark, grey room with bars on the windows." Suljagić has written a
very fine book indeed.
- Review by Tim Judah
Sunday 3 July 2005