In the summer of 2005, a decade after the genocide in the United Nations Sanctuary in Srebrenica, where Bosnian Serbs slaughtered more than 8,000 mostly civil Muslim men and boys, I received a call from a friend in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina. who reported that Natasa Kandic, a Serbian human rights activist, had found a snuff film made in Srebrenica by a paramilitary group, the Scorpions. Kandic had heard members of the Scorpions proudly murdered some of the Bosnian men on camera. At great personal risk, Kandic found a former member of the group, drove to Croatia and confronted him. She got a copy of the video and sent it to the War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague.
The film is absolutely sick. It shows helpless Bosnian men who were driven out of a truck – beaten, begging for water, pleading for their lives. Both older men and teenagers had to dig their own graves before they were shot. I will never forget that the killers mock and mock their victims as they faced death in raw terror.
A few weeks later I flew to Bosnia, where I had reported about the war a decade ago. With the help of the International Committee on Missing Persons, an organization that uses forensic evidence to assemble and identify the remains of Srebrenica victims, I met families of the men executed in the video.
I found Senada Ibrahamovic near Tuzla. She was only 12 years old when she saw her father walk into the woods that hot July afternoon in 1995. She remembers being mad at her father – she didn't want him to leave her. She stood by a window and watched him shrink as he disappeared into the woods and raised his hand to wave goodbye. Ibrahamovic remembered wearing a denim jacket.
Years later, without knowing exactly what happened to her father, she saw his denim jacket on the Scorpions death video. The man who begged for water and his life was her father. She watched his execution.
In a half-built house outside of Sarajevo I met Nurijaja Alispahic, whose two sons and husband were killed in Srebrenica. She watched as her youngest child, then only 16 years old, was tortured and then killed by the scorpions. She trembled when we talked and seemed more like a ghost than a woman to me. She whispered, "I'll only have peace when I'm dead."
Then I met Mevludin Oric, one of only 15 men who survived the Srebrenica battlefields. He stayed alive through the chaos by holding his 14-year-old cousin's dead body over his own. As night fell, he clawed his way out of a pile of corpses and escaped in the dark. He told me that he sees the same thing every night when he goes to bed and every morning when he wakes up: death. The ground is soaked in blood.
Fouad Riyadh, one of the judges at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, accurately described Srebrenica as "true scenes from hell, written on the darkest pages of human history". This is the exact reason why Quo Vadis, Aida? – a new film by the Bosnian director Jasmila Zbanic – is so important and why it was rightly shortlisted for this year's Oscar nominations for best international feature film.
Quo Vadis, Aida? – if it wins an Oscar in April – will do for Srebrenica what Schindler's List did for Auschwitz: burn the tragedy and crime into public memory so that we never forget what happened there.
The film focuses on the three days of the murder in Srebrenica through the eyes of a local woman who works as an interpreter for the United States of America, Aida. As Aida translates for the men who will eventually slaughter her people, she desperately tries to save her husband and two sons.
It begins with scenes from her gentle pre-war life. Aida, a former teacher married to a school principal, goes to carefree parties and family gatherings. Life is good. Then it shifts to the suddenness of the war. Srebrenica was besieged for almost three years and suffered enormous hardship before the Serbs finally took the city on July 11, 1995. The frightened population, who had been disarmed, rushed to the United States Protection Battalion for protection.
Srebrenica, along with five other cities – Zepa, Gorazde, Sarajevo, Tuzla, and Bihac – had been declared safe havens of the United States to be protected by the international community. It was a terrible mistake. They were the cities that seemed to suffer the most.
Like Angelina Jolie's equally powerful 2011 film about the rape camps in Bosnia, In the Land of Blood and Honey, there is no sentimentality in Zbanic's film. Quo Vadis, Aida? moves through a landscape of horror. Mothers dress their teenagers like girls to save their lives, while the men and boys are separated from the girls and women – and brought to their deaths. Neighbors turn on neighbors. Women are shot while cooking their lunch.
In one scene we see a boy who was torn from his mother's arms. We see people keeping pets that grabbed them when they were chased out of their homes. We see confused men ushered into a room, guns lowered through windows and the men sprayed with bullets.
We also see US officials charged with protecting the civilian population of Srebrenica, in the worst case: bureaucrats tied to a system. The fact that more than 8,000 souls are no longer on this earth because a message did not reach the right people at United States headquarters will be considered the greatest failure of the international community.
The Dutch soldiers hired by the United States to defend the city were far inferior to the Serbs. But they were also abandoned by their commanders. Their bosses in the Netherlands and the United States were either out for lunch or on vacation – so no one could order air strikes that would have saved Srebrenica. Aida, watching all of this, is powerless. Like the apostle Peter who faces Jesus on the Appian Way – the Christian fable from which the title comes – she is on a terrible journey that is twisting her own destiny.
"The translator's character seemed like the right angle to tell the story," said Zbanic. “She had more information than the other Bosnians, but she is still Bosnian. She was between two worlds. She believes that a U.N. badge gives her a privilege. But it doesn't. "
For me, the most painful scene was Aida desperately trying to hide her son and husband on United States grounds. She knocks on the door of the Dutch commandant, who is supposed to be Colonel Thom Karremans, the head of the United States' garrison in Srebrenica, and asks him to open the door and intervene. "They kill people out there," she says quietly.
But the Dutch commander is paralyzed. When he tries to reach United States headquarters, he is thwarted by his superiors who tell him to appease the Serbs. He can't get airstrike clearance. He knows terribly that he will forever be part of the unfolding mass murder. (Since the massacre, the Netherlands have recognized their role in horror. Following a particularly damaging report in 2002, the Prime Minister and the entire cabinet resigned.)
Zbanic, who is known for making two other powerful films in Bosnia, lives between Berlin and Sarajevo. It took her six years to make the film, mostly because she felt that "the time was not right". Now she said: "With the rise of right-wing governments, political uncertainty and irresponsible presidents, people understand more what happened in Bosnia." Her film, she emphasized, shows what can happen when people “lose their security”. If we live in COVID-19 19 times, we will understand the fragility of our security more than ever.
One of their goals is to raise a new generation of Bosnians who don't know – or whose leaders don't want them to know – what happened.
She also wants to remember the survivors. For years, many family members have tried to get loved ones' bones so they could bury them. The Serbs already knew during the murder that they had committed a war crime: in some cases they tried to hide the bones in several graves.
A group of women known as the Mothers of Srebrenica eventually brought a civil lawsuit against the United States for neglect of duty to prevent genocide. "For me these women from Srebrenica were saints," said Zbanic. “We always think that there are saints in heaven, but these women are with us on the ground, on earth. This is the story of their journey. "
To clarify her point of view that Bosnia is still divided by ethnonationalism to this day, Zbanic decided to hold the premiere of the film in Potocari, the site of the Srebrenica memorial and cemetery. She invited Serbian journalists and students. A Serbian student came to her tearful and told Zbanic that he had no idea this had happened. Another wrote to her asking why it wasn't in her history books. "It was the best thing for me," she said.
But instead of shedding more light on what happened, the crime has been whitewashed. The rejection of genocide among Western opinion leaders began with the Austrian writer Peter Handke, who received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2019. Handke not only questioned the events of Srebrenica, but also delivered a laudation at the funeral of Slobodan Milosevic, the Serbian leader and ethno-nationalist demagogue who was in power at the time of the genocide and charged with war crimes in The Hague.
Last year, Boston University professor Jessica Stern published a book, My War Criminal, based on her interviews with the infamous Bosnian Serb warlord Radovan Karadzic in prison. Stern, who had previously written eloquently about her personal trauma, likely set out to explore the mind of a sociopath. But she lost her understanding of the book and, as she admitted, fell under the spell of the – in her words – "hypnotic" and "Byronic" convicted war criminal. The entire book is a vehicle for a man responsible for mass murder to demonstrate his lack of remorse for a terrible war that tore a country apart.
But perhaps the greatest victory for historical amnesia and ratification of murderous ethnic cleansing took place in Srebrenica itself. In a 2016 mayor election, the city that had a Muslim majority before the war and is now 55 percent Serbian voted for Mladen Grujicic, a Serb who lost his father in the war and refuses to consider the crimes in Srebrenica To denote massacre. "The Srebrenica genocide is still being denied," said Zbanic. "We couldn't film (in the city) because the mayor still says there was no genocide."
Quo Vadis, Aida? challenges all of this. Zbanic hopes both Serbs and Bosnians will see it. "Serbia has many, many votes," she said – not just those who want to forget history. Hopefully the film ends. Aida returns to a mixed Srebrenica – a school with Muslim and Serbian children. "There is hope," said Zbanic firmly. The sooner people see your movie, the faster they will be healed.