My favorite books to read are those on subjects I know nothing about. Having no prior knowledge makes every revelation profound, every fact a surprise.
The Bosnian War has long been one of those blank spots in my knowledge, which irked me as someone who not only enjoys history (military history in particular), but who was also alive during the conflict.
My goal was to find a book that gave me a good overview of the war, both from a political and strategic perspective as well as personal one. After some browsing, I discovered there are very few well-reviewed books in English on the subject. This may be because the war was fought between non-English-speaking countries, or perhaps because few outside Eastern Europe remember (or want to remember) the savage conflict that engulfed a former Yugoslavian backwater in the early nineties. After reading some Amazon reviews, I decided my best bet was My War Gone By, I Miss It So by Anthony Loyd.
It became clear from the first few pages that the book would not really satisfy my “political and strategic” criteria, but I resisted reading the Bosnian War Wikipedia page with the hopes that I would piece things together myself. I’m glad I went this route. I feel like I have a much more personal connection to the events and was able to form my own opinions uncontaminated by preconceived notions. That said, it would have been nice to have a bit of a primer, so here’s my attempt at one:
After the fall of the Soviet Union, the communist state of Yugoslavia fractured into separate entities including Serbia, Croatia, and Bosnia-Herzegovina. Bosnia itself has long been composed of a multiethnic population of Serbs (Orthodox Christian), Croats (Catholic), and Bosniaks (Muslim). After an attempt by the Serbian faction of Bosnia’s multiethnic parliament to remain a part of Serbia, the rest of the Bosnian government, with the blessing of the international community, declared independence.
The Serbs responded by laying siege to the Bosnian capital, Sarajevo, sparking a three-and-a-half-year armed conflict and land-grab with each ethnic group trying to secure their own part of Bosnia. Initially the Croats allied with the Bosniaks against the Serbs, but, seeing an opportunity, turned against the Bosniaks, creating a three-sided war. This outcome injected a special kind of chaos and brutality into what followed. After decades of coexistence under communist rule, the three ethnic populations were suddenly forced to choose sides and fight against friends along ethnic lines they may have never identified with in the first place.
The book is largely autobiographical and recounts Loyd’s experiences covering the war as a British ex-soldier-turned-photojournalist. He’s a fantastic writer with an uncanny ability to convey complex emotions in a relatable way, despite the fact that many of the situations he describes are unfathomable, bordering on the surreal. This knack for vivid descriptions can be a double-edged sword, however, since some of the stories are accompanied by the most horrific descriptions of carnage and brutality I have ever read.
Though often gut-wrenching, these personal stories are unquestionably the most important, revealing in revolting clarity how quickly and completely human beings can transform into monsters. More terrifying is the fact that these atrocities happened not in some distant-past World War II concentration camp or medieval torture dungeon, but around the same time as I was watching Ninja Turtles.
The year the war ended, Toy Story was released.
Loyd also weaves in anecdotes from his personal life, mostly having to do with his struggle with heroin, which becomes his coping mechanism after witnessing some truly disturbing stuff. I don’t mind these sections, since they offer not only a change of pace from the war (albeit only a slightly less depressing one—I don’t recommend reading this book before bed), but also a glimpse into the mind of a person that would voluntarily put their body and mind in harm’s way.
As with heroin, Loyd becomes addicted to war; the rush of combat, the thrill of cheating death, the clear-headed conviction of doing something that matters. In some ways it’s relatable and inspiring. In others, it’s insane, selfish, and exploitative. The hypocrisy of his actions is not lost on Loyd, and reading him grapple with it is illuminating, especially as it pertains to the modern media.
This is definitely not a book for everybody, but it did satisfy my goal of filling a hole in my historical knowledge, one I’m sure many others have. The lessons learned are important, though sadly not unique. That this happened in my lifetime is sobering evidence that it can easily happen again. Hopefully, with more books like this, that chance will diminish.
Wikipedia: Bosnian War
Wikipedia: Breakup of Yugoslavia
Wikipedia: Siege of Sarajevo
This War of Mine (a video game inspired by the Siege of Sarajevo)
Featured image: UN troops on their way up “Sniper Alley” in Sarajevo. From Wikipedia.
Thanks to @mnz3000 and @Andersonib, I now know Yugoslavia was not, in fact, part of the Soviet Union during the lead up the Bosnian War or even considered part of the Eastern Bloc! The post has been updated to reflect this. Informative Wikipedia entry here.