The writer is an associate professor at the Faculty of Political Science at the University of Sarajevo.
At 27, Hasan Nuhanovic found himself in an impossible situation. The Bosniak Muslim interpreter for the UN in Srebrenica raced against all odds in an attempt to save his parents and younger brother. Being on the list of UN staff meant a way out of the unfolding genocide in July 1995. Being left off the list meant certain death. Nuhanovic’s attempts to save his family as the Bosnian Serb army commenced its genocidal operations would only have been possible had the UN staff allowed their inclusion on the list. The Dutch battalion stationed in Srebrenica wavered between complicity and indifference, thereby dooming the Bosniak Muslim population. Nuhanovic’s family was no exception.
“Quo Vadis, Aida?” is the first attempt to tell the genocide in Srebrenica as a feature film. Directed by the acclaimed Jasmila Zbanic, the movie is inspired by Hasan Nuhanovic’s book Under the UN Flag: The International Community and the Srebrenica Genocide. Initially, Nuhanovic and Zbanic were set to work together on this movie, but this arrangement fell apart. Instead, his story is told through a fictional female UN translator Aida Selmanagić, who is trying to save her husband and two sons.
Zbanic does an excellent job of conveying what it was like to live through the days of horror in July 26 years ago. With the Bosnian Serb army’s capture of the UN safe haven of Srebrenica, the Bosniak Muslim population’s fate was doomed. The enclave in eastern Bosnia that had been under siege and starved since 1992 was dealt a fatal blow by Bosnian Serb general Ratko Mladic and his forces. Bosnian Serb army’s conquest meant that the Bosniak Muslim population was now at the mercy of genocidaires.
Facing an advancing and murderous Mladic and his troops, several thousand Bosniaks sought refuge in the UN compound in Potocari near Srebrenica. What should have been the safest compound in the already UN-declared safe haven proved only a waystation on the road to the killing fields. The Bosniak Muslim population was let down on several fronts. The long-hoped-for NATO airstrikes on Bosnian Serb forces around Srebrenica never materialized. Under an illogical arrangement, the UN had the so-called ‘dual key’ mechanism –essentially a veto– over NATO airstrikes in Bosnia. That the most formidable alliance in history would acquiesce to sharing decision-making powers with UN bureaucrats over the issue of airstrikes was politically unfathomable and militarily disastrous.
The Dutch battalion stationed in Srebrenica became the personification of the UN impotence writ large. Vacillating between being perpetrators and bystanders, the Dutch troops provided the Bosniak Muslims with false hope and a false sense of security. In times of genocide, a false sense of security can lull the victims into making decisions based on what the UN should officially stand for. On the other hand, tens of thousands of Bosniaks decided to head through the woods to the Bosnian government-controlled territory, and a number of them made it alive.
Bureaucratic indifference to an unfolding genocide deserves particular scholarly and policy attention. In “Quo Vadis, Aida?” the Dutch battalion refused to add Nuhanovic’s family members to a list that could have saved other lives. Not only did the Dutch troops not come up with an idea of additional and, if necessary, fictional lists of UN staff members to save more lives, but they steadfastly rebuffed Hasan Nuhanovic’s desperate attempts to save his immediate family. The infamous photograph of Dutchbat commander Thom Karremans drinking with General Mladic in July 1995 as the genocide was underway has come to symbolize the Dutch battalion and the UN’s role in Srebrenica.
Co-produced by the Turkish state broadcaster (TRT), “Quo Vadis, Aida?” has been shortlisted by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences on Feb. 9 in the International Feature Film category. The film has now been nominated for two BAFTA awards; best director and best film in a non-English language. If the film goes on to win an Oscar, it would be essential in telling the story of Srebrenica.
Telling the Bosnian genocide on screen is crucial for reaching a global audience but also in the fight against genocide denial, which has become particularly widespread over the past years. While books, academic articles and newspaper reports codifying the Bosnian genocide are significant, the medium for reaching a global audience is a feature film. At least three other aspects of the Bosnian genocide deserve to be told in this format.
A sequel to “Quo Vadis, Aida?” should be a feature film about what came to be dubbed the “Death March” of July 1995, when tens of thousands of Bosniaks broke out of Srebrenica and made their way through the woods to the Bosnian-controlled territory. Individual stories of survivors are breathtaking accounts of courage and resilience.
More than twenty-five years after the war, there is still no serious English-language feature film on the Siege of Sarajevo. The most prolonged siege in modern history has been well-documented but not featured in an internationally award-winning film.
Lastly, a feature film on the horrors of Bosnian Serb-run concentration camps across Bosnia from 1992 onwards has long been overdue. Court testimonies, memoirs, and then-reporting by American and European journalists provide ample material for conveying the story of concentration camps in Europe at the end of the 20th century.
*Opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Anadolu Agency.