Chuck Sudetic's Bosnian war: enmities that could not die

July 26, 1998|By DAN FESPERMAN | DAN FESPERMAN,SUN STAFF

"Blood and Vengeance: One Family's Story of the War in Bosnia," by Chuck Sudetic. W.W. Norton. 400 pages. $29.95. The physical mechanisms of genocide have never been much of a mystery. Line up the unfortunates and open fire. Shove the bodies into a ditch. The Nazis industrialized the process, but the results were the same.

It is the mental mechanisms that remain indecipherable, or else genocide would not keep recurring throughout the world. In "Blood and Vengeance," Chuck Sudetic comes about as close as possible to reaching the heart of the matter. The result is a moving and masterful account of one Muslim family's forced march through four years of misery, siege and genocide in eastern Bosnia, culminating with the massacre of an estimated 8,000 Muslim men at Srebrenica by the Bosnian Serb Army in the summer of 1995.

Many books have attempted to explain the former Yugoslavia's descent into ethnic warfare, and quite a few are noble and noteworthy. None until now, however, has so thoroughly plumbed the deep, narrow blood grudges of Bosnia's peasantry - the country's true heart of darkness.

Sudetic does so by plotting in painstaking but lively detail the history of the Celiks, a Muslim family in the remote mountain village of Kupusovici. He helpfully begins their tale by reaching several generations into the past, because, as Sudetic found when the Celiks began relating their story, "They turned back time to another war, and another; to invasions and rebellions; to heretics, dervishes, pashas, and sultans; to slaves and sharecroppers and a swindler with three wives."

Such are the foundations of longstanding ethnic mistrust, a matter of violent history passed down through the generations. And to his credit, Sudetic does not overlook the Serbian side of the story, told by the Celiks' village neighbors.

"Their stories dovetailed with the Muslims," Sudetic wrote, "and also began with memories of a time long before the war, memories of fistfights, funerals, and feasts, of great-great-grandfathers who struggled to be free of feudalism, of great-grandfathers who helped ignite a world war, and of grandfathers who fought to survive Fascist butchery, who exacted blood vengeance to appease their dead, and who suffered defeat and buried their guns for another day."

It was in this rural culture, this "lumpen Bosnia," where the embers of past enmity never died, even as the people of Sarajevo and other cities strayed from their clannish ancestral passions, tamed by intermarriage and the impersonal nature of urban life.

Of course, it took cold-blooded and manipulative leaders, such as Yugoslavia's Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic, to rekindle Bosnia's embers, and Sudetic spares them no blame. Through military force and the outright lies of state television, Milosevic and his Croatian counterpart, Franjo Tudjman, incited the worst fears of a mistrustful people to engineer a Bosnian land grab that squeezed the Muslims in the middle.

But that angle is nothing new. It is the long-standing grudges of the hinterlands that made Bosnia's Serbian peasantry so exploitable for the likes of Milosevic, and Sudetic shows how those grudges lived and grew, even through four decades of Marshall Tito's policies of Brotherhood and Unity.

Revered as Tito was, his bromides were no match for tales of treachery passed down across dinner tables and shots of plum brandy, especially when some of the villains of the 1940s still lived right down the lane. So, whenever Kupusovici's Serb-Muslim conflict flared in brawls or small-time crime, each episode would become another score to be settled later.

Sudetic writes, for example, of young Huso Celik, who in the mid-1950s witnessed a gang of young Muslim rowdies inciting rival Serbs into a brawl. Huso was friends with some of the Serbs, but on the witness stand he let his ethnic loyalties prevail, and clammed up. Afterward, when one of the Serb boys' mothers came by the Celik home to lament the deed to Huso's father, Ajka, she seemed less worried about the short-term consquences for her son as she was about the long-time consequences to Huso.

" 'Oh, Ajka,' she said, 'memories live for a long time. Kad tad, Ajka, sooner or later.' "Sooner or later, indeed. Forty years later Huso disappeared into the throgs of captured Muslim men who were marched off to the killing fields of Srebrenica. Sudetic's account of the intervening years makes the dreadful moment seem virtually inevitable by the time it arrives.

Not everyone so readily succumbed to vengeance. The majority of people in Kupusovic, in fact, seemed ready to resist, to stick together as neighbors rather than fight as enemies when the Bosnian war began.

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