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Saturday, 12 September 2009

Review: Madness Visible: A Memoir of War, Janine di Giovanni (2004)

Slobodan Milosevic died last year in The Hague. The war criminal was dead. But his death wasn't the greatest tragedy facing the survivors of the Bosnian War. Perhaps most damaging in its extent and effect on the perceptions of the world community was September 11, 2001. When the planes hit the skyscrapers everything else was subsumed in the resulting coverage. War crimes in Bosnia were no longer news.

Di Giovanni spent many years covering the Bosnian War, which extended from about 1992 to 1998. During this time uncountable men were summarily shot and buried in mass graves. Uncountable women were interned as sex slaves for the Serbian troops. Uncountable lives were damaged beyond redemption.

Many Serbs would deny things di Giovanni tells us. It's just foreign propaganda, they say. But it's not. If only it were.

Rape in wartime is no small thing. The men line up for their turn. The women are made to serve tea naked, a cause of intense shame for Muslims. They don't know where their children are, or their husbands. They lie on dirty mattresses in concrete huts as tens or dozens of men use them. Then they are released. And they can tell no-one what happened because the shame is too great.

"I was touched," they say. Others, who went through the same trauma, understand immediately. But later, when they return to their communities, after the shelling and killing has finished, they see their tormentors in the streets. What can they do?

These stories never came out in the press. Mass graves, yes. But mass sexual abuse on a fantastic scale was not aired. I would have known. Instead I watched for the thousandth time as a jet flew into a skyscraper, until the sight no longer held any value. Meanwhile these stories were there, waiting to be told.

Nobody told them. It wasn't until I picked up di Giovanni's book that I understood.

Her method is slightly confusing at first. Layer after layer of detailed reporting is applied to the reader's consciousness until a clear picture appears. Dates recur, meaningless at first, until they gain meaning. Characters and names reapper time after time. We finally manage to assemble a picture. Di Giovanni's method is a series of layers applied one on top of the other until meaning blossoms. Then, finally, we understand.

It would be meaningless to say that this book should be mandatory reading at secondary schools. It would be meaningless because each time this type of savage terror occurs it will have unique characteristics. In this case it was ethnic war, which allowed for ethnic cleansing. Next time it will be something different, but the effect on individual lives will be equally devastating.

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