Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Review: They Would Never Hurt A Fly

They Would Never Hurt A Fly
Slavenka Drakulic

Hypothetical question here, what is worse: To hold abhorrent racist beliefs, and feel no qualms about killing those of a different race, ethnicity, religion, as you?
Or, to be an opportunist who is willing play political chameleon, and who feels no qualms about killing those different from you, provided that it would keep you in power?
The first group holds repugnant views, but in a twisted sort of way, truly believes that he is doing good and is on the moral side of the argument.
The second group doesn't really hate "the other", but is willing to do anything to hold onto power, including adapting the lingo of the racists and using them as foot soldiers in their army.

After reading Slavenka Drakulic's "They Would Never Hurt A Fly" it seems as if almost all of the defendants in the Hague (to an extent, although you can certainly make exceptions) fall into the latter category. Despite being on trial for committing horrific crimes against members of other ethnic groups, the overwhelming majority of them are not truly racist or prejudice at all.
Yet, for what ever reason, many of them have chosen to during the war, objectify members of other ethnic groups and call for their slaughter, or to have taken place in the rape, murder, pillaging that has become synonymous with the war.

Drakulic's book looks at the war crimes tribunal in the Hague, combining her own thoughts and memories with accounts of major war crime trials at the Hague. Each chapter is dedicated to a trial or to an accused war criminal. The title comes from Hannah Arendt "Essay in Understanding" where she talks about war criminals who feel as if they hadn't really committed any crimes, because they acted under the auspice of professional capacity, away from being part of the bureaucracy of a murder system, they would never hurt a fly.

The book starts out with Drakulic talking about the memories and images of World War II she was taught by her parents and teachers. Yet even then, she did not get the complete story, she was told of the role of the partisans in liberating Yugoslavia from the clutches of the Ustasha-Nazi government; yet the massacre of thousands and thousands of retreating and surrendering Croatian soldiers by partisan forces in Austria was never discussed.
The absent of facts and of accounting was fully taken advantage of by nationalist politicians, who for their own political gain, picked the scab that was World War II, added salt in the wound by way of propaganda, lies and fears and used it to justify further war against civilians almost 50 years after World War II ended.

That is why the Hague Tribunal is so important. I don't think anyone believes that the Hague tribunal is anywhere close to perfect, but the idea of having an internationally recognized court of law and have crimes be confirmed by an international court of law will not only help bring some semblance of justice but hopefully also lessen the opportunity of future politicians to take advantage of perceived past wrongs and injustices for their political career.

Drakulic takes us into the courtroom where she comes to the conclusion that "Justice is boring." It is nothing like the high dramatic interplay seen on the Law & Order shows. Instead, Drakulic spends her time trying not to yawn during the preceding. I must say, I think the "Justice is Boring" is a universal maxim, and not limited to the Hague. When I was in high school, a few of my classmates were in a introductory law course where as part of the class they were given the opporunity to attend the local trial of a mother accused of killing her three children. The case was horrific and sensationalistic, yet when they came back to school that afternoon, they just sort of strugged off teachers and students questions about the case; saying "nothing really happened, it was pretty boring."
Most moments at the Hague don't feature dramatic moments or courtroom outbursts, many of them involve maps, intercepted phone calls, and complex laws involving command responsibility.
Drakulic is shocked out of her passive listening to the courtroom hearing, when one of the witnesses describes seeing blood on the walls. Like a shockwave she is suddenly conscious that these cases involve real people and real victims, and not just abstract matters.
While for some Drakulic's sudden realization that these court cases are about real people might smack of a dramatic a ha! moment for the sake of keeping the narrative interesting, I felt it had a ring of truth to it. When you are following a trial it is sometimes easy to forget that real people, victims, defendants, witnesses, all with family and friends are involved, and not just abstract arguments.

There are several cases that are followed in this book: Kristic, Erdemovic, Milosevic, Plavsic and others. Of all the cases, the one that tends to touch and disturb Drakulic the most is the one of Goran Jelisic, who was sentenced to forty years for killing 13 prisoners and the evidence brought out at his trial suggests that he actually killed hundreds of prisoners. Throughout the chapter Drakulic cannot seem to get over the fact that this man is the same age as her daughter, that they probably shared the same tastes in music, books and the same cultural and educational experiences. Why did Jelisic turn into a killer? What makes Jelisic even more perplexing for her, is that with the exception of the 18 days in 1992 where he goes on a killing spree, Jelisic appeared to be a perfectly nice guy. Indeed, his Muslim neighbors testified how he had helped repair the house of an elderly Muslim neighbor whose house was destroyed by a bomb. Another testified how Jelisic had protected their parents after Arkan threatened them.
Why then, did this man who protected and helped his Bosniak neighbors kill perhaps hundreds of them in a prison camp? How did a quiet man become, in his own words the "Second Adolf?" What makes Jelisic case even more disturbing is the "neatness" and organized nature of these killings. They were not killings in the moment of passion, they were carried out with formality and efficiency. It was when his victims appeared fearful that Jelisic showed pleasure in killing them. According to witnesses, the more scared his victims were the more pleasure he showed.
And for 18 days he held undisputed power and complete control over life in death in the camp.

Beyond looking at court cases, Drakulic also looks at figures like Mira Markovic and Ratko Mladic and the suicide of his daughter Ana. Perhaps as result of her writing of fiction books, Drakulic imagines a confrontation between Ana and Mladic. I felt this chapter was the weakest exactly because it was based upon imagined conversations, re enactments of the Mladic family's homelife and assumptions as opposed to facts. For example, she imagines Mladic waking up with night terrors night after night, knowing that he is responsible for his daughter's death. These chapters, although interesting, rely too much on imagination and not enough on facts.

If her chapters on Markovic and Mladic are not her best work, her ending essays are quite good. The second to last essay asks the question of "why we need monsters" where she discusses that perhaps the greatest horror of the war, and of all wars, is that ordinary people (who otherwise would never hurt a fly) do the killings. There have been studies after studies of ordinary people, who given the opporunity behave ghastly. People who would never so much hit a fellow human being, killing with impunity. This scary realization forces us to imagine what we would do in the situation. Would we be a cog on the wheel of hate and injstice? As Drakulic notes, the unpleasant truth is that there is no easy answer.
I felt this chapter on the banality of evil would have been better in Drakulic mentioned how that in every war and atrocity there are also people who risk their lives to help the victims. How do these people come to be? If faced with the same horrible circumstances, would we have their humanity and extraordinary bravery?
And what about the bystanders in the war? What makes an ordinary person a killer, a life saver or a bystander in the time of crisis?

This book ends on a rather optimistic note, brotherhood and unity. There is no place where brotherhood and unity is carried out in its purest form than at the detention center at the Hague. The description of interethnic friendship and the daily lives of the detainees, reminded me of a pamphlet for a summer camp. The detainees, for the most part get along very well with each other, Muslim, Catholic and Orthodox holidays are celebrated by one and all. There are also birthday parties with specialized cakes, and roasted pigs and lambs. The detainees play chess with each other, share a library, work out, and take painting classes. There is also a "love room" where detainees can spend the night with the wives, girlfriends, mistresses. Indeed at least two children have been conceived thanks to the love rooms. When Milosevic entered the detention unit, he was initially isolated, for fear that the other detainees would want to harm him. With the exception of being punched by Jelisic the first day of his arrival, Milosevic soon became accepted as one of the boys. Indeed, Milosevic even taught some of his fellow inmates English.
The detention unit at the Hague is easily the most comfortable detention unit in Europe; and personally, I tend to think of it more as a low class hostel than an actual detention unit. Of course, all of the defendants are innocent until proven guilty, and I certainly don't think the detainees should be treated inhumanely in the slightest, but for the victims it must rankle to read about their
torturers living better lives in the detention unit than they do back home.
While the scars of the war are still very apparent all across the former Yugoslavia, in a detention unit in the Hague there is no nationalism, no animosity, just brotherhood and unity.


Bg anon said...

Actually it does make me crazy thinking of the way these people helped destroy Yugoslavia (with some notable or lucky absences) with their exploitation of differences in ethnic groups.

And yet they live(d) it up all together. Its sickening really. Sort of like dancing on the graves of not only victims of 'opposing' ethnic groups, but also their own nationalist believers.

In other words. What was it all for - that killing? Absolutely nothing of course.

So much for so called ethnic differences.

Katja said...

Hear! Hear! I think it gets lost in the shuffle that these people not only massacred the other ethnicities in Yugoslavia but DESTROYED Yugoslavia as well.
There some worthy ideals in Yugoslavia. It was wrong for it to end in such a way.
The other thing, is that it shows how much one's conditions of life can affect behavior. THere is no incentive to be hateful when one is basically so comfortable.
The prison administrator learned a lot from the situation in Long Kesh, a notorious prison in Northern Ireland, and didn't make the same mistakes in the Hague.
That is good, but it should be so for the people in the former Yugoslavia too, they deserve some comfort and a life decent enough to eliminate circumstances that lead to war.

Shaina said...

The thing that upsets me the most, is that while in the detention unit they get along, enjoy each other's company without regard to the ethnic background, but the minute they get in front on the camera or in a courtroom (many, although not all) of the defendants parrot the old nationalist slogans and speeches.
It is like they are scam artists. Even during the war, I truly doubt most of them "hated" the other ethnic groups, they were just opportunists who saw nationalism as a way to hold on and gain power.

For example, according to Drakulic, while in the detention unit the refer to B/C/S as "our language" and they obviously can communicate with each other just fine. That didn't stop Dario Kordic in the court from insisting that his translation was not in Croatian, but rather Serbian. Blagoje Simic did the same.

Bg anon said...

Well I'm in agreement with you Shaina but dont get me started on the language point.

Although the idiocy of the Serb defendents on the language point is pretty well documented, due to the necessity of nation building its usually Croatians who insist upon difference between the languages.

Bosniaks are usually more grown up on this point and say that their language is a mixture of Serbian and Croatian - which it is.

Of course this is just a tendancy I've noticed and doesnt apply to all members of an ethnic group / country.