Thursday, August 17, 2006

Books: Absolute Essentials

The following are a list of books that I believe are absolute essentials to any library on the Bosnian conflict. There are of course many other books on Bosnia that could be described as "essential" I picked the books that I myself had read, and the books that I think are the best in each category. As a mono linguist, I was of course somewhat limited in my choices.

Book: Bosnia: A Short History
Author: Noel Malcolm
What the book is about: Gives a concise history of Bosnia, from the Roman Empire to the break up of the former Yugoslavia.
Why you should read it: In this short book, Malcolm explains a great deal about the history (political, cultural, economical, social) of Bosnia and the impact Bosnia has had on the region as well as the impact the region has had on Bosnia. As he discusses the break up of Yugoslavia, he also destroys many of the myths and stereotypes levied against the Bosnians and Bosniaks in particular. For example, he looks at the false charge that Izetbegovic was an Islamic extremist. Malcolm's writing in concise but very scholarly.

Book: origins of a Catastrophe
Author: Warren Zimmerman
What the book is about: The break up of Yugoslavia from the perspective of the last US ambassador to Yugoslavia
Why you should read it: As the last US ambassador to Yugoslavia, Zimmerman has a unique perspective on the war and the break up of the war. In the book he also shows that while politicians like Trudjman, with his nationalist rhetoric certainly did nothing to help the situation; the blame for break up of Yugoslavia and war lies with Milosevic.

Book: The Bridge Betrayed Religion and Genocide in Bosnia
Author: Michael Sells
What the book is about: Sells looks at the ideological roots of genocide; and how the political, cultural and religious elite Serbian society (although he also does devote sometime to discussing Croat xenophobia as well)perpetrated a genocide.
Why you should read the book: This book deals with a lot of difficult questions, including the role the Church played, in not just ignoring the genocide, but also condoning it as well. It is important to understand exactly how and why genocide took place and how these myths and nationalist slogans were used to justify atrocities. Many of the causes of genocide in Bosnia are not new; in fact they have been used the world over: Portray yourself as a victim who must "kill or be killed" and portray the victim group as the aggressors. However, the unique role religious mythology played in the Bosnian genocide is noteworthy; and it is why Sells' book is also noteworthy.

Books: Witness to Genocide and Seasons in Hell
Authors: Roy Gutman and Edward Vulliamy
What the books are about: Both of these books give eyewitness accounts from foreign journalists to the atrocities committed in Bosnia. Gutman's book looks at the early ethnic cleansing campaign, which particular attention paid to the camps; while Vulliamy looks more at the atrocities that have taken place during the Croat-Bosniak conflict.
Why you should read these books: In the Bosnian conflict, some of the biggest heroes were the journalists and photographers who documented the atrocities that the US State Department knew about; but the public did not. Gutman's book is of particular worth because he was one of the very first Western journalists to expose the camps for the world to see. One thing that stands out about these books, and indeed, almost any journalist account I have read about Bosnia is the passion of the authors. It is clear that Bosnia has touched them. Perhaps it was because they could see their own families and selves in the faces of the Westernized, European Bosnians; or perhaps it is because they found it difficult to believe that atrocities could occur in the heart of Europe in the 1990s. Nevertheless, they have written important books documenting the war.

Book: Rape Warfare
Author: Beverly Allen
What the book is about: A book analyzing the mass rape campaign in Bosnia in the context of the war.
Why you should read this book: I found this book to be somewhat weak at places and at times disorganized. However, I still consider this book to be essential because it looks at the mass rape perpetrated in Bosnia and the role rape played, not just as a byproduct of war; but as an instrument of ethnic cleansing. This book is probably best for someone who does not have extensive knowledge on Bosnia. While this book certainly is worthwhile, I myself would also like to find a more scholarly piece of work.

Book: War Hospital
Author: Sheri Fink
What the book is about: This epic story, which combines biography, narrative, journalism, war crimes documentation all in the background of Srebrenica. Fink focuses on several doctors in the enclave, both Bosnian and international who under the most trying of conditions; do their best to serve the people; while keeping their own sanity in an insane situation. This book starts with the biographical backgrounds of doctors and ends with the doctors crossing the line to safety in Tuzla.
Why you should read this book: I am really impressed with this book; because it works on so many different levels. I think that even people who are not experts on Bosnia will find the story of the doctors and the medical drama of the book intriguing. But for those of us who are interested in Bosnia, this book is also worthwhile. Fink does a great job of capturing life under siege; the shelling, the starvation, and the blackmarket in Srebrenica. What is especially worthwhile is that through books and interviews with key Western military officials based in Srebrenica in 1992-1993; she shows their fear of a VRS take over and that fear that it would end in a genocide of the population. The fact that as early as 1993 Western agents used the term "potential genocide" to describe the VRS's goals is especially important. Even more, Fink, a medical doctor herself, discusses the larger medical and social implications of war time medicine. For example, one of the doctors in the book is Eric Dachy, who works for Doctors Without Borders. Dr. Dachy finds that in order to get food to the people in Srebrenica; he must negotiate with and give gifts to the very people who are starving the people in Srebrenica. As Fink shows, being a doctor in a war time situation often means agreeing to a lesser evil and making deals with the devil in order to have even the chance of success.

Book: Endgame
Author: David Rohde
What the book is about: Focuses on the weeklong Srebrenica massacre, from the perspective of the victims, perpetrators and observers.
Why you should read this book: Rhode was the first western journalist to expose the Srebrenica genocide; this book, was one of the first investigative accounts of the atrocity. However, because the book was written years ago; there is information that is excluded for example: the Kristic judgment and trial and subsequent Srebrenica trials at the ICTY. Secondly, the role of the Scorpions and Milosevic government in the massacre. As we are getting near to the new mass Srebrenica trials at the Hague; I really hope that someone would write an essential book on Srebrenica. Everything from the war in Eastern Bosnia to the Hague tribunals, to the role of the international community. Srebrenica is a very important story; but I have yet to find one book that effectively deals with all of the subjects and controversies raised.

Book: A Problem From Hell
Author: Samantha Power
What the book is about: Tracing the term "genocide" to its historical and political roots; Power looks at the reaction of the US foreign policy to major 20th century genocides.
Why you should read this book: I cannot praise this book enough. Her book is everything a good book should be; factual; heavily documented and researched; but written in a very accessible tone. What is especially important is that Power looks specifically at the meaning of the word genocide and how genocide is not just the biological destruction of an entire group; but it is committing acts designed to destroy the group in whole in part; and that rape, concentration camps and ethnic cleaning constitute genocide. This book is perhaps the most important book on US foreign policy I have read (serious-no exaggeration). This book is important for explaining the history of the genocide convention and how the US government has specifically reacted to 20th century genocides. Relying on eyewitness accounts, new documents and previous literature, Power paints a disturbing picture of US inaction in the face of genocide. A book as important now as ever.

Book: To End A War
Author: Richard Holbrooke
What the book is about: The Dayton accords from the pov of Richard Holbrooke.
Why you should read it: Dayton has sometimes been described as the treaty which won the war but lost the peace. While it ended the war; there have also been criticism over the decision to create two separate ethnic sectors in Bosnia. While Holbrooke does not answer all of the criticisms of Dayton; this book is a fascinating look behind the scenes of how the Clinton administration finally got involved in Bosnia and the slow process to plan and implement Bosnia. It is also important that Holbrooke is a man, who does not fall into the trap of moral ambiguousness that some of his colleagues did; he fully discusses the role Milosevic, Karadzic and Mladic had in planning and carrying out the genocide. Not, to mention, this book is worthwhile just for the surreal scene of Milosevic getting up on stage and singing to "Boogie Woogie Boy" while Trudjman and Izetbegovic watch deadpan. Passionate and even sardonic at points; this book is incredibly interesting and detailed.

Book: Postcards From The Grave
Author: Emir Suljagic
What the book is about: the siege and massacre of Srebrenica from the perspective of a survivor turned journalist.
Why you should read it: The fact that Suljagic survived the massacre makes this book worthwhile. The fact that he was a interpreter who had unique access to the Bosniak commanders, Canadian and Dutch officers and Serb commanders; including Mladic makes this book essential. The fact that Suljagic is a brilliant writer who writes about the ethnic cleansing campaign, mass starvation and siege of Srebrenica and who has the courage to ask difficult questions about Bosniak war crimes makes this book even more essential. And the fact that Suljagic's book serves as a memorial to the community destroyed in July 1995; makes this book absolutely essential.
Suljagic's writing reminds me a lot of Elie Wiesel. Stark and short, yet packs an emotional wallop. This book shows the horror of ethnic cleansing, not in a lot of dramatic, over emotional language; but in heartfelt simplicity.


Owen said...

Shaina, it should be David Rohde ("h" in wrong place).

If I had to pick one of them I'd pick Gutman's book. It's Gutman who opened the eyes of the world to the fact that what was happening on our doorstep wasn't a "simple" armed dispute. He's our eyes, suddenly wide open open with horror at what's going on there in front us.

As an American and 22 years old you're looking back at the (still festering) nastiness of history, and it must be hard for you to imagine the shock of that dawning awareness of what was happening. People in Western Europe knew Yugoslavia as a favourite holiday destination, source of the cheap white wine we used to take to parties and the home of cheerful and spirited emigres who gave the lie to the idea that "Eastern Europe" was a dour and boring place.

Suddenly we knew something was going out of control. Gutman captures that moment when we knew how terrible it already was and how terrible it was going to be.

Kirk Johnson said...

Great list, Shaina! Not a bad or unworthy book there.

I would definately add "Yugoslavia: Death of a Nation" by Laura Silber and Allan Little. It's a dispassionate, meticulously researched blow-by-blow account of the entire violent destruction of the country.

Shaina said...

thanks-I corrected the spelling mistake.