One of the many over-valued witticisms of Winston Churchill concerns the slice of Europe known as the Balkans: ‘The Balkans generates more history than it can locally consume”, he once remarked.
Churchill, like most of his contemporaries, considered the Balkans to be little more than a small part of the continent responsible for immense geopolitical annoyance. Ishaan Tharoor quotes the unparalleled practitioner of 19th century statecraft, Otto von Bismarck, when he spat that the Balkans was “not worth the bones of one Pomeranian grenadier”.
Surviving Peace takes the reader through the death of the former Yugoslavia: “I was born in a country that no longer exists”, the book begins. The dissolution of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia was characterised by the balkanisation of civil society; a formerly multicultural country saw sharp divisions on the basis of ethnic identity between Serbs, Bosniaks and Croats.
For most, war is thought of in the abstract, usually only viewed in clean, bloodless, packaged segments featured in newsreels or the fictional excesses of film and television. Often lost within chaos are the lives and stories of ordinary people caught in the middle.
Simić was born to a Serbian family in Banja Luka, the second largest city in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Her experiences of war have driven her to focus on what she describes as “crimes committed in my name”. The most infamous of these crimes, the massacre at Srebrenica during which thousands of Muslim men and boys were slaughtered by the armed forces of Serbia over a few days, is a recurring point of interest in the book and a source of great difficulty between Simić and her father and indeed, between people like Simić and Serbs in general.
Simić describes how ethnic chauvinism dominates post-war discourse: Serbs concentrating on crimes committed by the other and vice versa, while simultaneously denying that atrocities carried out by Serbs even happened. In other words, truth carries no objective weight and becomes entirely relative. It’s the duty of ‘truth seekers’ to “demand justice and examine crimes committed by [their] clan”. Without acknowledgement of the crimes committed by all sides in the war, the chances of building a real, lasting peace and healing the deep societal divisions in Bosnia stands little chance.
Some of the stories stay with you: a boy who developed a speech impediment after being forced to watch the gang rape of his mother and sisters; the description of living through NATO’s Operation Merciful Angel and the resulting post-traumatic stress disorder; a friend’s dog killed to stop the spread of ‘anti-Serbian propaganda’ otherwise known as accurate reporting on war crimes.
Simić is an avowed pacifist, declaring that “the answer to violence can never be more violence”. My only real criticism of the book is that an alternative is never really elucidated. The prose has a ghost of the academic about it. Emotional events are often described in a passive manner, the exception being personal traumas.
Simić’s work is overall memorable and enthralling. The end of the book features a handsome bibliography with plenty of material for further reading if the reader so desires. My main takeaway from the book is that some wounds never really disappear, long after bombs have stopped falling.
Olivera Simić, Surviving Peace: A Political Memoir, North Melbourne: Spinifex Press, 2014.
Joseph Power is a former member of the AIIA QLD executive council and former editor-in-chief for ‘The Transnational Review’.