Out of the ashes
A striking new documentary about Bosnia asks what happens to ordinary people when their lives are torn apart by war
This article is from the Winter 2013 issue of New Humanist magazine. You can subscribe here.
“There was a bloke called Mirko. We were friends in school – we knew each other, played football together.” Kemal Pervanić is telling me what life was like in Kevljani, north-west Bosnia, before war visited his hamlet in 1992. Mirko was from a Serbian family and Kemal’s family was Muslim. “About a year before the war started, I’d see Mirko and he wouldn’t talk to me, he wouldn’t even look at me,” remembers Kemal. “I could see something was happening.” Indeed it was. In 1990, Yugoslavia’s republics held multi-party elections. In April 1992, following Slovenia and Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina’s independence was recognised by the European Community. In May, Kevljani was attacked by forces variously described as “Serbian” and “Bosnian Serb”. Soon, Kemal was imprisoned in the iron ore mine turned concentration camp in nearby Omarska. Thousands were held there, and many did not leave alive.
Kemal now lives in the UK and is a producer and protagonist of the documentary film Pretty Village, shown in September at London’s Frontline Club. In this – a first cut to which there may still be changes – Kemal revisits Kevljani to reflect on how his life and his community were changed by the violence that unfolded. As Kemal explained to the Frontline Club audience, it’s a film about “what happens to ordinary people and their relations in the context of a conflict”.
As a young man born into Tito’s Yugoslavia of “brotherhood and unity”, Kemal identified as a Yugoslav: “I think most guys from my generation had the same identity [whether they were] Serbs, Croats, Muslims,” he tells me. “Even then I was a secular humanist, although I didn’t hear those words. I didn’t have a clue what they meant!” Back then, Kemal didn’t have a problem with being seen as “Muslim”. But as war came, things changed. “Suddenly my neighbours didn’t see me as a Muslim. Muslim was the embodiment of evil, and when my village was attacked I was not a human being any more.” Kemal describes this experience as “personal”. “I recognised so many soldiers after my village was attacked, when we surrendered, when they came from behind the hedge.” Following detention at a football ground and a school gym, Kemal was held at Omarska, where he saw men perish and heard their screams as they were beaten.
Kemal remembers being interrogated there by his former teacher Miroslav Zorić. In perhaps the most memorable scene of Pretty Village, we see footage from 2002, where Kemal confronts Zorić in a school corridor. Recounting the bold episode, Kemal tells me that he wanted not to accuse Zorić, but to understand how “this guy that I really liked in school became part of something unimaginable.” The teacher is clearly affronted by the strange reunion, and accepts he is disturbed by what he calls “that shit at Omarska”. But he argues that he was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. Of course Omarska is true, says Zorić, “but we were pushed into that situation.”
So, the age-old question returns: could Zorić have been “just following orders”? Might he, I ask, have been just as dehumanised as those he interrogated? Kemal disagrees. “My teacher was a thinker. He was not somebody who read newspapers, watched TV and said, ‘Oh gosh, Muslims are going to attack me’, because some of his best friends were Muslims!” So while Kemal may understand most “ordinary people” and also forgive them (forgiveness for Zorić came some years after this confrontation), excusing them is not so simple. It’s an important distinction that recurs when Kemal tells me that “we should be judged by our deeds, not by our capacity to do evil. So, I don’t excuse those perpetrators. They are just as human as me, but I didn’t do what they did and that’s what differentiates me from them. Our deeds are different.”
Viewing this surreal teacher-pupil confrontation, one wonders what its takes for a teacher to go from being the man who dictates your grades, to the man who dictates whether you live or die. The film, however, doesn’t choose to offer answers in the form of hard contextual detail or political analysis. In the panel discussion after the film, its director David Evans explained that he wanted to look at the “domestic reality” of Kevljani. But is it possible to abstract the human story from the context that gives rise to it? Does favouring the personal over the political make a story more powerful, or less so?
After the film’s screening, an irate audience member argued that Pretty Village told a one-sided (“Bosnian Muslim”) story. But Kemal insisted that the film is “not about blaming anyone”. He tells me: “I make one big distinction. Even though so many Serbs participated in crimes, I never say ‘Serbs’ as a nation are responsible for this.” What Kemal does blame, however, are “institutions”. It’s an important point, and it’s worth quoting from a 1994 United Nations report which stated that there is no question that there were “many Serbian individuals” in the Prijedor municipality who “had mercy for non-Serbs, protecting and assisting them as best they could – at great risk to their own security.”
I ask Kemal what he feels led people to commit violence against him. He accepts that propaganda was potent and that some people “didn’t have much choice; they were drafted into the Serb Army or the Serb Police”. But he says that some people simply became “opportunists”. (What happened in his town and in the camps, Kemal tells me, was a “matter of choice”, as “there were people who refused to do it and nothing happened to them.”) There were, Kemal says, “too many willing executioners”. It’s this, and the gratuitous violence he witnessed, that seems to haunt him most. “I know this is how we humans are,” he tells me. “Given half a chance a lot of us will go through it.” If you want to see what a “genocidaire” looks like, just “go to your bathroom and look in the mirror.”
At one point in Pretty Village Kemal stands at the edge of a field with the former camp in sight, reluctant to go closer for the moment. As a man cycles by, they exchange greetings, but Kemal fears he may go and tell someone that they’re there. Watching the scene, I wished the crew had stuck around to see what happened. But of course that’s not the point; the fact that Kemal appears to sense danger and leaves is poignant in itself. His concern is understandable given his experience and presence in an area which, due to the Dayton Agreement that ended the war, now sits in the Republika Srpska headed by nationalist Milorad Dodik. What’s more, “Cigo” the taxi driver, who, we hear in the film, rounded up villagers in Kevljani, allegedly still works nearby. And in Omarska town, Kemal shows us a monument, crowned with a cross. It commemorates not the camp victims but people who died for the Republika Srpska. Nearing the end of Pretty Village, we see hundreds of white balloons released from Omarska at a memorial event. The contrast between these ephemeral, transient dots and the more concrete, consecrated memorial is striking. One wonders what memorial, if any, might ever stand in the nearby village of Tomašica, where forensics experts are currently excavating a mass grave which, according to Reuters, may be the “largest single mass grave” in Bosnia, spread across “3,000 square metres in uninhabited green hills” and containing the bodies of Bosnian Muslims and Croats. Other mass graves have been found in Kevljani.
Today, despite his efforts and resilient outlook, Kemal seems concerned for Bosnia’s future. The Dayton Accords ended the war, but split the country in two and created a nation of “constituent peoples” – “Bosniaks” (Bosnian Muslims), Serbs and Croats. So, he explains, “if you want to claim any rights, you’ve got to belong to one of those groups otherwise you fall into a category of ‘others’. I want to be a citizen, I don’t want to be a majority or a minority.” And for the younger generations, “the only identity they have is the one that comes from Dayton.” It’s frightening, “because they say, ‘We cannot live together’ and they talk and behave as if they fought in the war.” Kemal later concludes: “I hope it’s not the case but it looks like we are raising new generations of soldiers. It wouldn’t take as long as it took the last time to prepare these young people to start another war.”
It’s a situation that Kemal seeks to counter through “Most Mira” (Bridge of Peace), the charity he founded to provide children with space to create their own identities through meeting each other, playing and expressing themselves. He also hopes that Pretty Village will make a difference. He tells the audience at the Frontline Club of his hope that children might see the film and start asking questions about the war, without feeling blamed for it. Meanwhile, Kemal maintains that our experiences are what ultimately move us forward: “I just try to do as little harm as possible, because you know, we human beings do harm all the time. I don’t think that I’m a bad person but I don’t say that I’m a good person, and I believe that we humans are capable of learning from our own experiences, from bad things as well as good things.” This, he insists, “is how humanity evolves.”
Watch a trailer for the film at prettyvillagefilm.co.uk