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Bosnia: the “lost generation”

The international media can cast an unflinching spotlight on wars but when the war is over the spotlight is suddenly switched off—would that it were that simple for those, including children, left traumatised in its wake. Film review.

Just about the most insensitive observation international bystanders can make towards those who have been victimised in violent conflicts is that it is time, now the shooting has stopped, for everyone to “move on”. Victims might prefer to be “survivors”, with the implied agency, but unless the trauma they have endured is expurgated they will far more likely be trapped, however involuntarily, in its vice-like grip.

Indeed, fractured limbs can heal more quickly than identities shattered by destructive and invasive violence—and by the shocking discovery of the inhumanity others can visit upon a dehumanised self. It is neither possible to cauterise the pain of such bodily assault nor to rationalise it in such a way that the sense of self can be reintegrated. And so victims tend to oscillate between a fixation on the traumatic episode, talking about it years afterwards as if it were yesterday, and a numbed self-protection, which cannot save them from flashbacks at the merest reminder or in their thrashing dreams.

From In the Shadow of War

Remarkably, too, such trauma can be “passed on” to the children of victims and In the Shadow of War shows—at once graphically, disturbingly and with great humanity—how this manifests itself among young people in Bosnia-Herzegovina disfigured by a war they don’t remember. The documentary begins with the well-rehearsed statistics of the Bosnian horror: the most violent conflict in Europe since the second world war, 50,000 women raped, more than 100,000 dead, 2.2m displaced and a basket-case legacy of more than one in every two young people out of work. But it brings these cold data to life and to the present day through profiles of four of the thousands of children “abandoned, orphaned or abused”, now late teenagers, nearly two decades on from the Dayton Peace Accords which ended the war—and froze the conflict.

Ante’s father is a Croatian war criminal who was sentenced at the Hague to 20 years for his involvement in multiple crimes, most notably rape and murder (nine children were involved). In the film we see him impassive during the televised judgment and, years on, visited by Ante and the latter’s godfather at his Swedish jail, narcissistically focused on himself (as the godfather complains) even in the rare presence of his son. Yet this man is (as the godfather fears) Ante’s role model. The lad plays blood-curdling songs every morning on his MP3 player, openly admits to hating Muslims and is bent on becoming a “professional soldier” and fighting himself in the Croatian cause—driven to avenge in turn the post-war revenge murders of his mother and sister occasioned by his father’s crimes.

Magdalena grew up in the same Catholic orphanage in Medjugorje as Ante. The crimes of her father are never itemised but she says: “Everything would have been different if there had been no war.” She blames post-traumatic stress disorder for his systematically abusive behaviour towards her and retracts her charges against him to attempt a rapprochement, only for the abuse to recur. Too old to be taken back by the orphanage, she flees to her maternal grandmother in Croatia but is unable to secure a visa and ends up hiding from her father back in Bosnia.

Ilija grew up a Muslim in Mostar, rejected by his mother as a child. She never told him anything about his father except that he allegedly died during the war. When Ilija turned eighteen, he had to leave the orphanage and he is filmed walking past his mother’s house as she ignores him and closes the door behind her. He is driven by a desire to be a successful diver, participating in the famous annual diving competition off the bridge over the Neretva—a sixteenth-century construction destroyed during the war and painstakingly reconstructed from its fragments over many years with the support of the international community (when I was there a decade ago the final keystones were being inserted).

Elvis is a disturbed young man, with numerous scars from self-harm, who was taken into a children’s home in Zenica after his mother died. His father, although ethnically Serb, had been tortured and murdered by Bosnian-Serb forces because he remained loyal to the army of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Elvis has become a petty criminal and for a time tries to make a living in this way in Sarajevo, before returning to the home in Zenica and going back to school. But he is aware of his combustibility and ends up on the streets after he is kicked out. He says: “All my life I’ve been looking for peace and I can’t find it anywhere. I’m a lost person.”

Walter, Elvis’ carer, widens the angle: “In Bosnia there is a lost generation.” And this film, eloquently, tells its painful story. In the classic Hollywood genre, all loose ends are tied up at the conclusion to allow the audience to go out into the night with a smile on its face. This harrowing documentary, however, leaves those ends jangling—like the haunting murals at its beginning, on walls some still bullet-holed, recalling the war itself.

For its international funders, the restoration of the old bridge at Mostar was a tangible symbol of reconciliation—of the reintegration of what once was shattered. But war is a movie that cannot be rerun and the city remains bitterly divided between its Croat and Muslim communities: it has become impossible to hold municipal elections there, owing to intercommunal deadlock over the electoral arrangements and associated, cui bono? ethnic calculations.

There is an old Irish joke about the lost tourist who asks a passer-by the quickest way to Dublin, only to be told: ‘Well, I wouldn’t start from here.’ Reconciliation after a violent conflict on a mass scale, such as the war in Bosnia—of which row upon serried row of graves across the country dating to the early 90s remain a visible reminder—can only ever be a long-term, partial and limited project with much enduring human damage, as this film, made by Georgia and Sophia Scott for Christopher Hird’s Dartmouth Productions, powerfully testifies. Better, much better, not to start from there at all.

In the Shadow of War will be shown at the Bloomsbury Theatre in London at 14:30 on 21 June. It will be followed by a Q&A with filmmakers chaired by Dr. Cornelia Sorabji. Get tickets here. openDemocracy is an Open City Docs Fest media partner.

About the author

Robin Wilson has been lead editor of the openSecurity section of openDemocracy. He advises the Council of Europe on the intercultural paradigm for the management of cultural diversity, on which it has been the global standard-setter in the last decade. He is heavily involved in debates across Europe on the future of progressive politics, through Compass in the UK, TASC in Ireland and the Foundation for European Progressive Studies and the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung on a wider canvas.

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