Susan Sontag: A Lament For Bosnia

I went to Sarajevo for the first time in April 1993, one year after the start of the Serb-Croat campaign to carve up the newly independent multi-ethnic Bosnian state. Leaving Sarajevo after that first stay, I flew out as I had come in, on one of the Russian UNPROFOR cargo planes making a regular run between Sarajevo and Zagreb. The heart-stopping drive into the besieged city by the switchback trail over Mount Igman lay far in the future, on my seventh and eighth stays; and by that time, the winter and summer of 1995, my standards of peril and my tolerance of the shock of Sarajevo would have eased. Nothing ever equaled the first shock. The shock of Sarajevo itself, the misery of daily life in the shattered city under constant mortar and sniper fire. And the after-shock of re-entry into the outside world. To leave Sarajevo and be, an hour later, in a "normal" city (Zagreb). To get into a taxi (a taxi!) at the air-port...to ride in traffic regulated by traffic signals, along streets lined with buildings that have intact roofs, unshelled walls, glass in the windows...to turn on the light switch in your hotel room...to use a toilet and flush it afterward...to run the bath (you haven't had a bath in several weeks -- and have water, even hot water, come out of the tap...to take a stroll and see shops, and people walking, like you, at a normal pace...to buy something in a small grocery store with fully stocked shelves...to enter a restaurant and be given a menu.... All this seems so bizarre and upsetting that, for at least forty-eight hours, you feel quite disoriented. And very angry. To speak to people who don't want to know what you know, don't want you to talk about the sufferings, bewilderment, terror and humiliation of the inhabitants of the city you've just left. And even worse, when you return to your own "normal" city (New York -- and your friends say, "Oh, you're back; I was worried about you" -- to realize that they don't want to know either. To understand that you can never really explain to them -- neither how terrible it is "there" nor how bad you feel being back, "here." That the world will be forever divided into "there" and "here." People don't want to hear the bad news. Perhaps they never do. But in the case of Bosnia the indifference, the lack of effort to try to imagine, was more acute than I ever anticipated. You find that the only people you feel comfortable with are those who have been to Bosnia too. Or to some other slaughter -- El Salvador, Cambodia, Rwanda, Chechnya. Or who at least know, firsthand, what a war is. A few weeks ago -- I'm writing in late November -- I returned from my ninth stay in Sarajevo. Although once again I came in by the only land route, this was no longer my sole option (U.N. planes were again landing on a corner of the destroyed Sarajevo airport), and the rutted dirt trail over Mount Igman was no longer the most dangerous route in the world. It had been widened and graded by U.N. engineers into... a road. In the city there was electricity for the first time. The shells were not exploding, snipers' bullets were not whizzing past everyone's heads. There would be gas for the winter. There was the promise of running water. Since my return, an agreement has been signed in Ohio that promises an end to the war. Whether peace, an unjust peace, has actually come to Bosnia I am reluctant to say. If Slobodan Milosevic, who started the war, wants the war to end and can impose this decision on his proxies in Pale, then the successful campaign to destroy Bosnia by killing or relocating or driving into exile most of its population is, in most senses, finished. Finished, too, is what the Bosnians had held out for: their internationally recognized unitary state. So Bosnia (an utterly transformed Bosnia) is to be partitioned. So might instead of right has triumphed. Nothing new in that -- see Thucydides, Book V, "the Melian dialogue." It's as if the eastern advance of the Wehrmacht had been halted in late 1939 or early 1940 and the League of Nations called a conference among "the warring parties," at which Germany was awarded half of Poland (the western part), the invading Russians got 20 percent of the east, and while the 30 percent of their country in the middle that the Poles were allowed to keep did include their capital, most of the territory surrounding it went to the Germans. Of course, no one would have claimed that this was very fair by "moral" criteria -- quickly adding: "Since when have moral standards prevailed in international politics?" Because the Poles had no chance of successully defending their country against the superior forces of Hitler's Germany and Stalin's Russia, they would have to be content with what they got. At least, the diplomats would have said, they still have some of their country; they were on the verge of losing it all. And of course the Poles would have figured as the most difficult at the negotiations, since they didn't see themselves as simply one of three "warring parties." They thought they had been invaded. They thought they were the victims. The diplomats brokering the settlement would have found them quite unreasonable. Divided among themselves. Bitter. Untrustworthy. Ungrateful to the mediators trying to stop the slaughter. If before people didn't want to know -- you often heard that the war in Bosnia is so complicated, it is hard to know which is the "right" side -- now more people do understand what happened. They also understand that the war -- that is, the Serb and Croat aggression -- could have been stopped at any moment in the past three years in exactly the same way and by the same minimum application of force by NATO (entirely sparing soldiers on the ground as well as civilians) as finally took place this past August and September. But the Europeans didn't want to stop the conflict (both the British Foreign Office and the Quai d'Orsay are traditionally pro-Serb), and the Americans, the only major power to acknowledge that justice was on the Bosnian side, were reluctant to get involved. Now that the war has, or seems to have been, stopped, it suddenly looks less complicated. The mood is retrospective now. One question I'm often asked after returning from a stay in Sarajevo is why other well-known writers besides myself haven't spent time there. Behind this lies the more general question of how to explain the widespread indifference, or lack of solidarity, in Europe (most notably in Italy and Germany) with the victims of an appalling historical crime, nothing less than genocide -- the fourth genocide of a European minority to take place in this century. But unlike the genocide of the Armenians during World War I and of the Jews and the Gypsies in the late 1930s and early 1940s, the genocide of the Bosnian people has taken place in the glare of world-wide press and TV coverage. No one can plead ignorance of the atrocities that have taken place in Bosnia since the war started in April 1992. Sanski Most, Stupni Do, Omarska and other concentration camps with their killing houses (for hands-on, artisanal butchery, in contrast to the industrialized mass murder of the Nazi camps), the martyrdom of East Mostar and Sarajevo and Gorazde, the rape by military order of tens of thousands of women throughout Serb-captured Bosnia, the slaughter of at least 8,000 men and boys after the surrender of Srebrenica -- this is only a portion of the catalogue of infamy. And no one can be unaware that the Bosnian cause is that of Europe: democracy, and a society composed of citizens, not of the members of a tribe. Why haven't these atrocities, these values, aroused a more potent response? Why have hardly any intellectuals of stature and visibility rallied to denounce the Bosnian genocide and defend the Bosnian cause? The Bosnian war is hardly the only horror show that has been unfolding in the past four or five years. But there are events -- model events -- that do seem to sum up the principal opposing forces of one's time. One such event was the Spanish Civil War. Like the war in Bosnia, that struggle was an emblematic one. But intellectuals -- the writers, theater people, artists, professors, scientists who have a record of speaking up on important public events and issues of conscience -- have been as conspicuous by their absence from the Bosnian conflict as they were by their presence in Spain in the 1930s. Of course, it's speaking rather too well of intellectuals to think that they constitute something like a perennial class, part of whose vocation is to take up the best causes -- as it's unlikely that only every thirty years or so is there a war somewhere else in the world that should inspire even would-be pacifists to take sides. Most intellectuals are as conformist, as willing to support the prosecution of unjust wars, as most other people exercising educated professions. The number of people who have given intellectuals a good or (depending on your point of view) a bad name) -- as troublemakers, voices of conscience -- has always been very small. Still, the standard of dissent and activism associated with intellectuals is a reality. Think of Havel, Pasolini, Chomsky, Sakharov, Grass, Michnik.... Why so little response to what happened in Bosnia? There are probably many reasons. Heartless historical cliches certainly figure in the paltriness of the response. There is the traditional bad reputation of the Balkans as a place of eternal conflict, of implacable ancient rivalries. Haven't those folks always been slaughtering one another? (This is comparable to having said when confronted with the reality of Auschwitz: Well, what can one expect? You know, anti-Semitism is an ancient story in Europe.) Not to be underestimated, too, is the pervasiveness of anti-Muslim prejudice, a reflex reaction to a people the majority of whom are as secular, and as imbued with contemporary consumer-society culture, as their other Southern European neighbors. To bolster the fiction that this is, at its deepest source, a religious war, the label "Muslim" is invariably used to describe the victims, their army and their government -- though no one would think of describing the invaders as the Orthodox and the Catholics. Do many secular "Western" intellectuals who might be expected to have raised their voices to defend Bosnia share these prejudices? Of course they do. And this is not the 1930s. Nor the 1960s. Actually, we are already living in the twenty-first century, in which such twentieth-century certainties as the identification of fascism, or imperialism, or Bolshevik-style dictators as the principal "enemy" no longer offer a framework (often a facile one) for thought and action. What made it obvious that one should side with the government of the Spanish Republic, whatever its flaws, was the struggle against fascism. Opposing the American aggression in Vietnam (which took over the unsuccessful French effort to hold on to Indochina) made sense as part of the worldwide struggle against Euro-American colonialism. If the intellectuals of the 1930s and the 1960s often showed themselves too gullible, too prone to appeals to idealism to take in what was really happening in certain beleaguered, newly radicalized societies that they may or may not have visited (briefly), the morosely depoliticized intellectuals of today, with their cynicism always at the ready, their addiction to entertainment, their reluctance to inconvenience themselves for any cause, their devotion to personal safety, seem at least equally deplorable. (I can't count how many times I've been asked, each time I return to New York from Sarajevo, how I can go to a place that's so dangerous.) By and large, that handful of intellectuals who consider themselves people of conscience can be mobilized now solely for limited actions -- against, say, racism or censorship -- within their own countries. Only domestic political commitments seem plausible now. Among once internationally minded intellectuals, nationalist complacencies have renewed prestige. (I should note that this seems true more of writers than doctors, scientists and actors.) There has been a vertiginous decay of the very notion of international solidarity. Not only has the global bilateralism (a "them" versus "us") characteristic of political thinking throughout our short twentieth century, from 1914 to 1989 -- fascism versus democracy; the American empire versus the Soviet empire -- collapsed. What has followed in the wake of 1989 and the suicide of the Soviet empire is the final victory of capitalism, and of the ideology of consumerism, which entails the discrediting of "the political" as such. All that makes sense is private life. Individualism, and the cultivation of the self and private well-being -- featuring, above all, the ideal of "health" -- are the values to which intellectuals are most likely to subscribe. ("How can you spend so much time in a place where people smoke all the time?" someone here in New York asked my son, the writer David Rieff, of his frequent trips to Bosnia.) It's too much to expect that the triumph of consumer capitalism would have left the intellectual class unmarked. In the era of shopping, it has to be harder for intellectuals, who are anything but marginal and impoverished, to identify with less fortunate others. George Orwell and Simone Weil did not exactly leave comfortable upper-bourgeois apartments and weekend country houses when they volunteered to go to Spain and fight for the Republic, and both of them almost got themselves killed. Perhaps the stretch for intellectuals between "there" and "here" is too great now. For several decades it has been a journalistic and academic commonplace to say that intellectuals, as a class, are obsolete -- an example of an analysis willing itself to be an imperative. Now there are voices proclaiming that Europe is dead, too. It may be more true to say that Europe has yet to be born: a Europe that takes responsibility for its defenseless minorities and for upholding the values it has no choice but to incarnate (Europe will be multicultural, or it won't be at all). And Bosnia is its self-induced abortion. In the words of Emile Durkheim, "Society is above all the idea it forms of itself." The idea that the prosperous, peaceful society of Europe and North America has formed of itself -- through the actions and statements of all those who could be called intellectuals -- is one of confusion, irresponsibility, selfishness, cowardice...and the pursuit of happiness. Ours, not theirs. Here, not there.

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