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Book Review

The Tenth Circle of Hell -A memoir of life in the death camps of Bosnia

The Tenth Circle of Hell cover
By Rezak Hukanovic
Translated from the Bosnian
by Colleen London and
Midhat Ridjanovic
Foreword by Elie Wiesel
Basic Books, 1996
Reviewed by Lori Jablons

n a time where we are so inundated by the images of the Holocaust through film and literature, not to mention through current events, it is hard to fathom that such a dreadful scenario could ever again be played out without strong and violent intervention. But this scene is exactly what Rezak Hukanovic describes in harrowing detail in The Tenth Circle of Hell, his memoir of surviving a Bosnian concentration camp.

      As of this writing, the overt bloodshed in Bosnia is no longer front-page news, and the efforts of the American and European forces sent to facilitate the repatriation of 2.5 million Bosnians have fallen miserably short of the mark. Only ten percent of those displaced by the Serbs have actually returned to the homes from which they were forced. Thousands have paid with their lives.

      Apathy has taken a stronghold in the Balkans. Radovan Karadzic, a psychiatrist and the man responsible for implementing the “Memorandum” that advocated the extermination of the Croats and Muslims, walks freely through the streets of Pale, although indicted as a war criminal by the International War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague. As Anthony Lewis wrote in the New York Times, “The Dayton peace agreements included a commitment to arrest accused war criminals. But the United States, which organized the Dayton conference, is essentially ignoring the promise.” No effort has been made to arrest Karadzic — in fact, the word is out to “steer clear” of him. Lewis quotes one official as saying “Our guys are afraid we’re going to run into Karadzic.” That the War Crimes Tribunal even exists brings a glimmer of hope that justice will be rendered in the Balkans. However, for this to be fully realized, indifference will have to be exorcised first.

      There are only two references to Karadzic in Hukanovic’s book, one when he is thought to have agreed to close the camps and another when the author describes the genesis of the ethnic cleansing: “And where on earth was the poisonous game conceived? In the head of that bloodthirsty lyricist, the mad psychiatrist from Sarajevo, Radovan Karadzic. Years before, clearly spelling out the evil to come, he had written: ‘Take no pity let’s go/kill that scum down in the city.’” The absurdity of a psychiatrist gaining control of a whole nation and whipping that nation into such a frenzy of hatred that it turns on itself to commit genocide is unfortunately something we as a race have witnessed before. Like Hitler, Karadzic is a staunch proponent of the master-race tenets and an enforcer of sickeningly grand proportion. Apparently, the Jewish mantra of “Never again” was not heard and assimilated by the Bosnians.

Newspaper articles
The architect of ethnic cleansing: In author Hukanovic’s words, “And where on earth was the poisonous game conceived? In the head of that bloodthirsty lyricist, the mad psychiatrist from Sarajevo, Radovan Karadzic.”

      Told in the third person, Tenth Circle of Hell unfolds on the morning of May 30, 1992. Djemo, whose story is told here, and his wife and two sons have spent the night at Djemo’s cousin Fadil’s home across the street after a late game of cards. It has been one month since their hometown of Prijedor was taken over by the Serbs. The Muslims and few Croats living there have been dismissed from their jobs, the schools have closed and a propagandizing media blockade has been instituted by the occupying Serbs. People are afraid to leave their homes. The sound of gunfire echoes throughout the day and night. Djemo viewed the conflict merely as a power struggle, never even imagining the horror he would eventually experience.

      Just after Fadil notices a few soldiers poking around Djemo’s house across the street, the fateful knock on the door sounds. Djemo’s oldest son, Ari, sobbing, informs him that the Serbian soldiers had shot and killed their beloved black Doberman while near Djemo’s home. Djemo, Ari, Fadil, along with other neighbors and relatives, are that day put on a bus to the death camp at Omarska.

      The use of third-person narrative in this memoir is quite effective, and one has the feeling of reading a novel rather than a first-person account. It also provides a sense of unreality, which the author, as he was living in the camps, most probably felt as well. Such feelings were easy to come by for those being persecuted. Muslims, Croats and Serbians had lived together with their religious differences since the end of World War II. The only separation of Muslims and Serbs that Djemo had known was “when they played soccer on the banks of the Sana River on hot summer days.... Sometimes the Serbs would win, sometimes the Muslims, but it would always end with beer and a barbecue.... The drinks and food, of course, were on the losing team. Over drinks they would sing together, softly, just for the hell of it.”

      The brutality exhibited by the Nazis during World War II is mirrored by the Serbs. The conditions in which the Croats and Muslims are expected to live in the Omarska “dorms” as they were called are not fit for animals. Quarters are so crowded that when sleep finally comes, many have to do it standing up. The heat is unbearable, and vermin and misery are constant companions.

      The prisoners are deprived of food and water, weakening them physically as well as spiritually. When they are fed, once a day — a few cabbage leaves and a few beans covered with lukewarm water and a “piece of bread that seemed to be made of soapsuds” — they are given two minutes to eat. The men are often beaten on the way to the canteen where their daily meal is served. A favorite pastime of the guards is to “pour water on a worn-out patch of glazed cement to make the corridor more slippery. If a prisoner fell, the guards would pounce on him like famished beasts at the sight of a carcass.”

      People are beaten and tortured, if not to death, within an inch of their lives. Medical attention is provided by other prisoners, using wet rags on bruises and cuts, pieces of decaying shirts and parts of door frames to set oft-broken bones. Djemo himself is beaten senseless on more than one occasion. When a noted ear, nose and throat specialist finally arrives and begins to care for the injured, he says of the Serbian guards: “These guys could even give Hitler a run for his money.”

      Ironically, the most feared building in the camp is called “the White House.” It is where the prisoners are taken when called out in the middle of the night. It is from here that many do not return. Hukanovic writes: “Dying was easy at Omarska, and living was hard. Not even a glimmer of light could be detected at the end of the tunnel.” Djemo watches people he has lived with all of his life devolve to skin and bones, void of all hope. There are suicide attempts, many failed, which only give those in power more cause for destruction.

      Hukanovic also documents acts of kindness, humanity exhibited by some of the guards, men who are there to do their duty, serve their country, not commit murder. But these men are very few and far between.

      Two months of imprisonment pass, then boys 16 and under and men 65 and older are released. Ari, Djemo’s son, is among those freed. In early August, it is rumored that Omarska is closing down and the men remaining will also be emancipated. In actuality, those remaining are transferred to Manjaca, another camp.

      After a long, terrifying bus journey during which nine men die, the prisoners arrive at Manjaca. The men are first given medical examinations, are finally fed some decent food and are assured by the supervisor of the camp that they will not be beaten if they follow the elementary rules of “head down, hands behind your back” and to “respect work, order, and discipline.” Here, the Red Cross is in attendance and takes record of each man by name and number and supplies them with individual water bottles and shampoos and powders for their lice infestations. The American and European journalists begin making appearances with their television cameras.

      In early November the Red Cross representatives come daily with assurances that Manjaca is on the verge of closing. On November 13, after almost six months of captivity, 740 men are let go — Djemo among them. He sobs with happiness along with his comrades at the nightmare’s ending, but is overcome with anger as he looks off into the distance at his hometown of Prijedor. He vows to return someday, and cries out in agony, “Lord, may you never forgive them!”

      The Tenth Circle of Hell is not an easy book to read; as “enlightened” human beings living in 1998 we are ill-prepared to confront the realities of a virtual Nazi state in the Balkans, of men, women and children slaughtered owing only to their genetic makeup and the manner in which they worship. The former Yugoslavia may seem a million miles away from New York, Los Angeles or Washington, but the pestilence of hatred and injustice can traverse quickly and find its way into the most unlikely cracks. And while Hukanovic’s book is not a light read, it is an important one — for in the Balkans, “Never again” was not enough.

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