Bosnia: blood, honey, and war's legacy

A film portrayal of the horrors of systematic rape during Bosnia's war of 1992-95 highlights the victims' suffering and bravery. But the romantic thread of Angelina Jolie's work fails to convince, says Peter Lippman.
Peter Lippman
7 February 2012

The legacy of the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina from 1992-95 continues to haunt survivors and pervade the politics and social life of the region. Its memorialisation is also beginning to take new forms. A case in point is the film In the Land of Blood and Honey, directed by the actress and campaigner Angelina Jolie. This story of torment and romance focuses on the sexual abuse of women as an instrument of war and terrorisation in Bosnia. In doing so it may play a valuable role in highlighting the predicament of the survivors and their brave struggles for justice.

It is well known that rape was employed as a widespread tactic used during the 1992-95 war, as in many other wars before and after. It is estimated that between 20,000 and 50,000 women were violated, the greatest number of them Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims), though Serb and Croat women were also raped. In addition, sexual violence against male prisoners was not a rarity.

The scale and brutality of what happened in Bosnia is staggering. "Rape camps" and "bordellos" were set up in numerous parts of the country, especially where nationalist Serb forces were in control. The eastern town of Foca was the site of some of the most notorious of these camps, with women held captive for months and abused repeatedly. Many women were murdered after being raped.

The use of rape in Bosnia was systematic and organised, designed to intimidate an entire population and to demoralise opposing troops. It began to be recognised as a specific war crime when eight Bosnian Serb military and police officials were indicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in June 1996. Three men - Dragoljub Kunarac, Radomir Kovac, and Zoran Vukovic - were in 2000 accused of involvement in the Foca rape camps. Sixteen survivors testified in their trial, which ended in 2001 with their conviction.

This outcome - with the ICTY categorising rape as a crime against humanity - was a historic moment in international law. It was also of symbolic importance to the survivors, but in itself could not change the lives of women who, for example, had endured gang rape and witnessed their pre-teen daughters being abused. They often speak of living alone with their trauma, with minimal support. Their struggle to heal emotionally, and to have their plight acknowledged, is daunting.

Many women were unable to return to their pre-war homes for fear of encountering their rapists on the streets. The government of Bosnia failed to implemented a policy of support for the survivors’ recovery. The policy of the Bosnian Federation (one of the two "entities" that make up the country) is that rape victims should receive preference in employment due to their official status as "civilian victims of war", but this has not been put into practice.

Moreover, domestic prosecution of the wartime rapists has been negligible. By 2011, only twelve such cases had been processed. The fact that Bosnia’s war-crimes court provides little or no protection for witnesses in rape cases is but one factor here. The ICTY's record is better, in that nearly half of all war criminals convicted there were found guilty of rape (alongside other crimes).

In the face of official negligence at the Bosnian level, many women survivors have bravely risen above the role of victim in order to testify openly about the crimes. Such behaviour also negates the stereotype that the families of Muslim rape victims routinely reject them, for many families have often supported them in court. Meanwhile, survivors have formed several advocacy organisations throughout Bosnia.

The controversy

A decade after the war's end, the Bosnian film director Jasmila Zbanic released the film Grbavica, which tells the story of a Sarajevo woman who was raped by Serb extremists. She raised the child that resulted, telling her daughter that her father was a Bosniak soldier who died during the war. The daughter eventually confronts her mother, demanding to know the truth. Grbavica, awarded the Golden Bear prize at the Berlin film festival, challenged the Bosnian public to acknowledge the history of war rape openly and to banish stigmatisation of the victims; it proved a turning-point in helping to bring the issue into the open.

In the Land of Blood and Honey belongs to this context. The production began fitfully in late 2010 as Angelina Jolie, who had written the screenplay, attempted to start filming in Bosnia. The production immediately hit a roadblock when one local organisation, Women Victims of War, strenuously objected to her treatment of the subject matter. The group’s leader, Bakira Hasecic, accused Jolie of ignorance and faulted her for not having consulted with the organisation. 

Jolie’s critics had not read the screenplay. But a synopsis was released, which revealed that the fictional war story involved a romance between a Bosnian Serb army officer and a Muslim woman, captive in a camp where women were routinely being abused.

Hasecic objected to this scenario as unbelievable and insensitive to the survivors, and stated that "playing games with those who had survived all those tortures is beyond reason…if Angelina wanted to film the true events, she could have filmed our stories." Hasecic’s organisation declared: "Angelina Jolie's ignorant attitude towards victims says enough about the scenario and gives us the right to continue having doubts about it."

These protests had an effect when Gavrilo Grahovac, Minister of Culture for the Federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina, banned filming in Bosnia. He responded to Hasecic’s complaints by saying: "No one may insult the Bosniak woman." The film crew was forced to relocate to Hungary, where most of the film was then made.

Angelina Jolie's personal role in the project, and the intelligence and compassion she has brought to it, should not be underestimated. I encountered her personally when I participated in a conference in Barcelona in 2004, sponsored by the Spanish organisation Friends of the UNHCR (UN High Commission for Refugees). In her role as UNHCR goodwill ambassador, Jolie gave a short speech advocating for the displaced victims of war. As teenage fans snuck into the conference to catch a glimpse of her, Jolie showed that she was more than a celebrity.

Since then, Angelina Jolie has demonstrated an abiding personal interest in Bosnia. Before embarking on her film project she had visited the country several times, traveling even to remote places such as Gorazde and Rogatica (in the latter she sponsored the founding of an orphanage). Her dedication over several years shows that her concern about the plight of the traumatised is genuine.

In any event, the ban on the film's production was met with some resentment in Bosnia. Both proponents of free speech and supporters of the local film industry exerted pressure to have Grahovac’s decision reversed. But in the controversy over censorship, the possible merit of Hasecic’s accusations was lost.

Hasecic’s action was itself controversial. Some characterised it as a case of a survivors' group exploiting the moral capital of the victims in the interest of its own power (a phenomenon as common in Bosnia as it is elsewhere. Several representatives of other survivors' organisations criticised the ban, and Hasecic and Grahovac for not consulting with them. Again in a familiar pattern, they objected to Hasecic assuming the role of sole spokesperson for the wider cause.

Grahovac did in the end reverse his decision, allowing the film to include some panoramic scenes shot in Bosnia. In the Land of Blood and Honey was finally released in December 2011, with a private screening arranged in Sarajevo for a small audience of representatives of war survivors. There was general praise for the two-hour film, including from some who had been early critics of the project.

Murat Tahirovic, president of the Association of Concentration Camp Survivors, said that the film "is deeply moving for the victims who experienced all of these things…It is completely objective and it really tells the facts of what happened during the war." Bakira Hasecic, however - who was not invited to the screening - held to her original position: "From the [movie clips], and I could not even watch the full two minutes, what she has done is hard and disgusting."

The aftermath

I watched the film in my home town of Seattle, with several friends from the local Bosnian community. The film is full of scenes of brutality and casual murder, and thus is not an easy one to watch. The mosaic of shrapnel, noise, grit, and human pain probably conveyed the sense of the Bosnian war as authentically as any fictional movie can do. My friends agreed that Jolie had created a historically accurate film, although I found that there are moments where the film crossed the line into a clichéd portrayal of Serb extremists.

It is clear that Jolie did her homework in consulting with many experts and real-life survivors, some of whom even acted in the film. The affirmation of Bosniaks' suffering in the film means that the response among the Bosnian Muslim public, both in Bosnia and in the United States, has so far been overwhelmingly positive. In my view, however, the incorporation of an impossible "Hollywood romance" into the scenario - commercial imperative though it may have been - is a dreadful flaw.

This narrative concerns Ajla, a Muslim woman prisoner, who is caught after a brief escape from a camp and is then protected by Danijel, a Serb officer whom she had dated before the war. This romance, which continues throughout the film, is scarcely credible even in the film's own terms. At the point where Ajla flatly professes her allegiance to Danijel, I found it impossible to accept that she would acquiesce passively to her enslavement or (quite unconvincingly) express romantic feelings for her captor.

Bakira Hasesic's objections to the romance scenario - leaving aside the various criticisms of her behaviour that can be made - look quite justified. The survivors themselves have the ultimate right to make the final evaluation about its moral and emotional truth; to this viewer, the strange and simplistic romance presents, at best, a confusing portrayal of this suffering woman and those who endured the same nightmare.

It is true there are many documented cases where Bosnian Serbs protected Muslims during the war - and vice-versa. The war, after all, was much more one for power and territory than a truly "ethnic" conflict. Moreover, inter-ethnic romances did carry on (if under great pressure) in 1992-95, just as intermarriage had been widespread before. It is unfortunate that Angelina Jolie was unable to work with these elements to develop a more believable and, thus, a more respectful scenario.

Beyond such arguments over the film's content, the larger theme it exposes is that the suffering of the victims of the Bosnian war - and that includes just about everyone except the country's political mafia - goes on. It will take more than well-meaning foreign celebrities or domestic politicians on any level to solve their problems. It remains to the survivors themselves to do so by organising, keeping their plight in the news, and agitating for support.

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