Pain on Both Sides
A Rough Guide to the Dark Side
(Zero Books, 2012)
Wounded I Am More Awake: Finding Meaning After Terror
(Vanderbilt University Press, 2012)
On the 20th anniversary of the brutal Balkan war’s ethnic cleansing crusade, two fascinating memoirs out by small presses try to reconcile the past and provide a message for healing. A Rough Guide to the Dark Side by Daniel Simpson, and Wounded I Am More Awake: Finding Meaning After Terror by Julia Lieblich and Esad Boskailo, visit my still-conflicted homeland and try to make sense out of the political insanity of the former Yugoslavia.
Thirty-eight-year-old British journalist Simpson’s humorous, rollicking first-person story follows the young, principled, and ambitious New York Times foreign correspondent as he travels to the post-conflict Balkans in 2003, believing he can stop the next conflict. He tries to help Serbia recover its reputation and economic prosperity through a “Serbian Woodstock.” Simpson becomes Belgradian and learns nothing is ever simple in the Balkans.
With the region still ravaged from bloodshed, Simpson ignored his superiors and embarked on a quest for the “real truth.” He wanted young Serbs to start making decisions and stop blaming such sadistic leaders as former president Milosevic for all of their lingering problems. After he took the podium in 1989, spreading Serbian Nationalism throughout Yugoslavia, former Yugoslav republics of Slovenia, Croatia, and Bosnia declared their independence from Yugoslavia. Then Orthodox Christians turned against Muslim and Catholic countrymen, determined to exterminate them for the benefit of Greater Serbia. The head of the U.N. expert commission investigating war crimes in 1994, estimated the death toll at around 200,000.
Simpson fantasized he could transform the area by launching a widespread festival that would spread to Bosnia and Croatia; all the different ethnic factions would prosper through entertainment and tourism. Immersing himself in the Serbian culture of stubborn self-defeatism, where every contact had a hidden agenda or conflict of interest, Simpson believed the younger generation could change. Good idea. Unfortunately he thought they would achieve this goal with the help of psychedelics, which he smuggled in for the festival. A gin drinker and a drug addict who modeled himself on Hunter S. Thompson, Simpson unwittingly got involved with local mafia. These criminal bosses were wartime paramilitary leaders with army connections and arsenals. They worked closely with lawmakers and corrupt officials, each helping keep the other in power.
Not surprisingly, Simpson’s “summer of love and conscience-raising” fell short of expectations. He barely managed to pay his staff due to corruption, bribes, and partners robbing him. Everyone he thought was his friend betrayed him, recreating a bizarre microcosm of the greed Bosnian Muslims faced in the same place a decade earlier.
Unlike Serbia’s neighbors, Simpson got off easy: He didn’t get executed nor was he sent to a concentration camp by his business partners.
Simpson’s addiction spiraled out of control and he came to the conclusion that this place was hopeless. He realized that his fantasy of saving Serbs from themselves was a delusion. Simpson concluded they were stuck between denial and liability for the horrors they committed. He finally realized that most Serbians believed all the documented massacres were fabricated. His illusion of a festival of peace and love was replaced with the Serb’s demented popular belief: that Muslims attacked Sarajevo themselves. Defeated, he went back to Western Europe to write this story.
Simpson chose the wrong side to help move forward. Historically, those persecuted needed to be consoled, not their persecutors. Simpson mentioned being tired of Bosnians dwelling and mourning. He became too Belgradian, blaming everyone but the guilty. Unlike Serbia, Bosnia and Croatia were pummeled with artillery and snipers for four years, while Belgrade youth enjoyed ice cream outdoors. As Simpson tripped on E-pills and acid with local Rastas, the Serbian Academy of Arts and Science continued to bind new plans of Greater Serbia by following their decades old version of educational systems’ school curriculum, “hate thy neighbor.” With Serbia’s radical leaders only filling Milosevic’s shoes, the Balkans are still a barrel of gunpowder. The only way Nazi Germany moved forward was through Allied occupation, Germany’s forced war reparations, a forceful 360-degree system educational change and, most important, letting go of their nationalistic pride. It’s hard not to agree with Simpson: Serbia has no hope for change in the near future.
Wounded I am More Awake: Finding Meaning After Terror, the more poetic and earnest of the two books, tells the other side. It chronicles the life of a Bosniak doctor who survived six Bosnian concentration camps and emerges with a courageous, powerful story of recovery. Lieblich, a Jewish-American human rights journalist based in Chicago, and her coauthor Boskailo, a Muslim psychiatrist, both in their late 40s, met at a conference on traumatic stress disorders. After Boskailo’s family was exiled to Chicago, he began counseling refugees at the Bosnian Mental Health Program. Originally trained in general medicine, he completed his specialty in psychiatry in Phoenix, where he currently works with survivors of trauma, from domestic abuse to war. The intriguing juxtaposition of the reformed Jewish Lieblich, and Boskailo, a secular Bosnian Muslim, illuminates two different European Holocausts. Unlike most books on the Balkan War, Lieblich escorts the reader through six concentration camps, a fellow witness, as Boskailo recreates what happened to him. She makes readers sit on the edge of their seat by re-experiencing the intimate betrayals Boskailo endured. You feel as if Lieblich was there with him, suffering herself, as he lost his best friends, and was tortured by the same people he once laughed with in cafés. As Lieblich tours Bosnia with Boskailo, she attends an annual burial of victims identified from mass graves. She mourns Srebrenica’s 8,372 killed with her coauthor and buries herself in understanding Bosnian culture.
Boskailo became an army doctor for the Bosnian-Croatian forces in 1992. He expected the worst from Serb ethnic cleansing. Then, unexpectedly, his Croat comrades turned against Bosniaks too. Boskailo was arrested at gunpoint by neighbors he’d treated for wounds while defending their hometown from Serbs. He spent a year in concentration camps reciting poetry to help keep prisoners sane, treating their wounds with a needle and a thread he hid in his underwear. He was forced to lie naked on concrete for hours under the searing sun. A year later, Boskailo weighed 100 pounds less than his 240 pound, six-foot frame. The same camp guard who stole his medical dictionary tells him, “We are on the same side again” and asks, “Was I really that bad?”
Boskailo’s poignant and deeply personal account helps mental health care practitioners and survivors of loss understand the long-term effects of trauma and the remedies that can help people find inner peace after terror.
Although the books have opposite themes, tones, and conclusions, they both illuminate the worst side of human nature along with the near impossibility of ever truly reconciling genocide.