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A still from the film 'Quo Vadis, Aida?'. Aida, a middle-aged woman with shoulder-length hair wearing a loose denim overshirt and a grey t-shirt, looks out a window with a concerned expression and her hand to her mouth.

Jasna Đuričić in Quo Vadis, Aida?. Image: © IMDb

Last Sunday, 11 July, marked the twenty-sixth anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre. Actually, the massacre lasted for days. The 11th is the first day, the day the Serb army took control of Srebrenica, a UN-designated ‘Safe Area’, and sent thousands of Muslim (‘Bosniak’) civilians fleeing to the nearby UN base where Dutch Battalion (Dutchbat) soldiers were stationed. Some refugees were allowed in, but the vast majority were locked outside, waiting. On the morning of the 12th, after ‘negotiations’ between Ratko Mladić and Dutchbat commander Lieutenant-Colonel Karremans, the refugees were split into two groups, women/girls and men/boys, and loaded onto buses and trucks. Often women and girls were pulled out of the group and raped, sometimes in front of the UN soldiers and other refugees. The men and boys were taken away to be tortured and murdered, their dismembered bodies buried in mass graves.

Over 8,000 men and boys were killed while the UN stood by and watched—indeed helped. Although the UN had promised to launch airstrikes against the Serb army if it invaded Srebrenica, they did not. Worse, when the Serbs came for the refugees, the UN let them in to the base and allowed them to ‘evacuate’ the civilians. This event, the horrific culmination of a horrific genocidal war, was the largest massacre in Europe since the Holocaust. Seeing this, NATO began airstrikes against the Serbs and the war ended in November the same year.

This massacre, and this war, is barely a footnote in history. Many Australians know almost nothing about Srebrenica, and what they do know is piecemeal at best. Many Europeans don’t know much about it either, even though it happened less than a day’s drive from Auschwitz. I mention the Holocaust not to make comparisons, but to remind us of a promise the world made in its aftermath: never again. And yet genocides keep happening, again and again. History is not a thing to learn, it is a thing to learn from—and I am afraid that we have not only forgotten what happened, but that we allowed it to happen, that we are culpable. That we are still allowing it to happen, that we are still culpable.

History is not a thing to learn, it is a thing to learn from—and I am afraid that we have not only forgotten what happened, but that we allowed it to happen.

Twenty years ago, a film about this war won an Oscar for Best Foreign Film: Danis Tanović’s No Man’s Land (2001). I was too young to understand Tanović’s film when it came out, but watching it this year, the parable was obvious. No Man’s Land shows almost nothing of what happened in our war, but instead spins out from a trench in 1993 Bosnia where three men are trapped, one Serb and two Muslims. One of the Bosniaks has a landmine buried underneath him (put there by the Serb while he was unconscious, in the hope that other Bosniaks who came to collect the body would be blown up). The other Muslim and the Serb call for help, and what follows is a darkly humorous farce of UN incompetence, journalistic voyeurism and international complicity. It is absurd, or would seem so to anyone unfamiliar with the Bosnian war.

I will spoil the movie for you: The men are not saved. The soldier on the mine cannot be helped and, attempting to save face, UN officials cover up the fiasco and abandon him.

I’ve been thinking about this man a lot lately, about how he would have felt as the news crews and UN peacekeepers left, as the sun set and the cold night set in, as the next day broke. I think he knew what had happened and from there I cannot imagine any further. I do not want to imagine any further. The man on the mine is Bosnia, and the world is looking away.

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Twenty years later, another film about the Bosnian war was nominated for Best Foreign Film, this time Jasmila Žbanić’s Quo Vadis, Aida?. Twenty years later, the world is still looking away and Žbanić’s film shows us the results of this avoidance in no uncertain terms. Like No Man’s Land, it is tightly focused, showing nothing of the war except the lead-up to its most infamous tragedy. Unlike No Man’s Land, however, it is not at all interested in analogies that might be missed. Žbanić wants to show us exactly what happens when we ignore what is happening right in front of us.

The film follows Aida (Jasna Đuričić), a Muslim teacher-turned-translator to the Dutchbat forces, as she desperately tries to save her husband and two sons from the oncoming Serb forces. In her capacity as translator, Aida is forced to translate equivocations and untruths to the people of Srebrenica, lies which she and everyone else in the room know to be as much. Shortly after the film opens, Aida assures residents that the UN will bomb the Serbs if they advance, but that there is no need for residents to seek bomb shelters and not long before the film ends, she finds herself telling a warehouse full of panicked refugees that the Serbs have finished ‘evacuating’ those outside, that it is their turn, and that they will be safe. In between her translation responsibilities, Aida is on the move, dodging through crowds and rushing through the labyrinthine UN camp, frantic to find a way out for her family. In this she is single-minded, barely looking back as a woman begs her to take her son too. Aida cannot do anything to stop the disaster that is unfolding and does not try. Her hopes are small: her husband, her sons. For them, she will do anything: lie, beg, shoot them in the foot if she has to.

Aida cannot do anything to stop the disaster that is unfolding and does not try. Her hopes are small: her husband, her sons.

When Christine Maier’s camera isn’t following Aida’s frantic movements, it is panning over the refugees, lingering on faces and the lives being lived despite the circumstances: a couple making out in the midst of sleeping bodies, a woman washing clothes by hand, a boy with a white rabbit, an old man who brought his cow, a new mother and her baby. We do not learn much about these people, yet the camera is preoccupied with their faces, hinting at the many complex stories that came together at Srebrenica, and the many that ended there. In one scene, as Aida searches for her family in the crowd, faces flit in and out of focus before the camera zooms out to offers us a devastating view of the human scale of the disaster to come—the crowd stretches as far as the eye can see and in every direction. This is the film’s focus: these ordinary people, their panic, fear, hopelessness, defiance. They are all bodies on landmines and they know that they’ve been abandoned.

The granular, moment-by-moment account builds its escalating sense of inevitable disaster through small moments and scenes that form a relentless series of red flags, which the UN assiduously turns away from. There is Mladić (played with narcissistic zeal by Boris Isaković) and his men giving bread and chocolate to the people of Srebrenica, a PR campaign designed to make the Serb army look benevolent and distract from the genocide in progress. There is Mladić refusing to speak English or be translated in ‘negotiations’ with the Srebrenica refugees. There is the frustrated attempts of Dutchbat command to secure protection from the UN and their eventual capitulation in allowing the Serb army to enter the base. There is Aida, exchanging greetings with a former student, now Serb soldier, who greets her respectfully as ‘professorica’ and asks about her son (a school friend of his), before sending his love to her family. There is the UN soldier, crying as he watches the refugees herded onto buses and trucks: the women and girls, unsure of where they are being sent and their terror for their brothers, fathers, sons; the quiet resignation of the men and boys. There is the man being led out of sight by armed soldiers, the young woman pulled away from her mother, screaming. There is Mladic’s cruel promise that ‘all innocent people will be safe.’ (No one is innocent when they are the enemy—neither a Bosniak boy twenty years ago, nor a Palestinian boy today).

The film’s narrow focus means that there is no mention of Muslim forces or armed resistance from civilians (or of the other player in this war, Croatia); Bosniaks are presented here as pure and unresisting victims. While this is perhaps necessary for simplicity’s sake, it does occlude the fact that we did resist, and what’s more, we asked the world to help us resist. But despite the horrors that had been perpetrated in the years leading up to Srebrenica, the ‘ethnic cleansing’, concentration camps and systematic rapes, it took the massacre of 8,000 people, right in front of us and with our collusion, for the international community to catalyse into action.

The film is a devastating indictment of international indifference and UN ‘neutrality’, a reminder that if you aren’t helping the victims, you’re helping the perpetrators.

In Bosnia today, Serb, Croat and Muslim children learn a different version of history, a different version of this war. Some Serbs deny the genocide altogether, and even in the West, many prefer the term ‘ethnic cleansing’ to genocide. Žbanić’s film, in its de-sensationalised narrative and close attention to the timeline of events, is a rebuke to these constructions. In laying out the facts in order, it demands that we see things as they are and, importantly, that we see how we let things get to that. The film is a devastating indictment of international indifference and UN ‘neutrality’, a reminder that if you aren’t helping the victims, you’re helping the perpetrators. Today, the man on the mine is Palestinian, Uighur, Rohingya, Yazidi, Hazara, Syrian, Kashmiri, Muslim in Modi’s India, Kurdish, Yemeni. There are many men; Quo Vadis, Aida? shows us what happens to them if we continue to look away.

But Quo Vadis, Aida? is, in a particularly Slav way, hopeful too. Žbanić, who was a teenager trapped in Sarajevo during the war, is especially interested in investigating the ongoing trauma of war and the struggle to live normally in its aftermath. Her previous movies have centred on this process of coming to terms: In Grbavica (2006), a mother and daughter confronting the fact that the child is a product of the Serb campaign of genocidal rape; in For Those Who Can Tell No Tales (2013), an Australian tourist holidaying in what she discovers was a former ‘rape hotel’. Quo Vadis, Aida?, too, touches on Žbanić’s concern for the after. In the film’s final scenes, Aida returns to teach at Srebrenica years later and, as her students perform musical theatre, the camera pans over their parents in the crowd, snagging on the faces of survivors and former soldiers. The children repeatedly cover and uncover their eyes as the camera slides between them and their parents, looking and not looking, seeing and not seeing. This scene is uncomfortable, but it is optimistic, too. It is a fact that most people who committed atrocities during the war have gone unpunished, that someone can meet their rapist or the man who killed their son in the street. In Bosnia, we are surrounded by what we have done, and what has been done to us.

But it is also a fact that we have found a way to live together again. Even as ethnic divisions between Catholic Croats, Muslim Bosniaks and Orthodox Christian Serbs are exacerbated for political gain, there are signs of change: children and teenagers in Jajce have protested the segregation of their schools, and this year Serbia offered free COVID-19 vaccinations to its neighbours. Living together is possible, but as Quo Vadis, Aida? shows, we—those not directly affected by the atrocities—are responsible for that possibility too.

Quo Vadis, Aida? is screening at the Melbourne International Film Festival on 6 and 14 August.

This essay was commissioned as a runner up in the 2021 KYD New Critic Award.