Quo Vadis, Aida?
Arminka Helić on a film that takes a human look at the Srebrenica atrocity – and why it still weighs on the conscience of the west
Writer & director Jasmila Žbanić Broadcaster Curzon Home Cinema
Iremember the day Srebrenica fell. I was living in London with my sister. We huddled around a kitchen radio listening to the BBC World Service, fearing the worst.
Weeks earlier, Ratko Mladić’s henchmen had seized UN Peacekeepers and chained them to lamp posts, as human shields against NATO airstrikes around Sarajevo. If peacekeepers could be treated this way, what hope, I asked myself, could civilians in Srebrenica have, encircled by the same murderous forces?
In a matter of days, in July 1995, more than 8,000 Bosniak (Muslim) men and boys, were massacred by Mladic’s so-called Bosnian Serb Army, despite being under supposed UN protection.
The UN safe area of Srebrenica, in eastern Bosnia, had been established two years earlier. The Dutch troops deployed as part of the ‘UN Protection Force’ proved unable to defend it as Mladić’s forces advanced.
Srebrenica’s Muslim inhabitants gathered at the Dutch base, but Dutch soldiers could only look on as they were taken away: the women to be deported – and many raped – and the men and boys to be murdered in cold blood.
Twenty-five years on from the Srebrenica Genocide, a reckoning is yet to take place. Ratko Mladić is serving his life sentence in the Hague, yet those on whose behalf his army committed the genocide have yet to face up to acts carried out in their name. Those who lost their loved ones, are still searching for their bones in the mass graves scattered around eastern Bosnia and Herzegovina. And Srebrenica still weighs on the conscience of the west.
Jasmila Žbanić’s new film, Quo Vadis, Aida? takes a human look at the atrocity. It follows the struggles of the central character, Aida, in the lead-up to the massacre. Aida, a teacher-turned-interpreter working for the UN, frantically battles to save her family, deal with the demands of her Dutch employers, and help members of her community, who are desperate that she use what little influence she has to alleviate their situation. Standing above a crowd of tired,
hungry and thirsty, friends and neighbours, she must relay the soldiers’ words even as she bitterly argues against them – and knows that they will lead not to promised safety but to death. Played by an amazing Serbian actress, Jasna Đuričić, her shifts between desperate energy, exhaustion, despair and laughter capture the hope and dread that haunt all the Bosniaks gathered at the Dutch base. The camera lingers on her face – we don’t need to see anything else to sense the strain, and the pain.
Quo Vadis, Aida? sees horrors taking place under a bright blue sky, among flowered hillsides, in a modern world. It asks us to remember the humanity of the victims of genocide – and that genocide can take place amidst and despite humanity. Among the Serb forces, Aida sees former pupils from her class who call out to her, their friendly tone at odds with their lethal weapons – and their position on the other side of the wire. Others Bosniaks see neighbours and former playmates transformed into enemies. Boys grab their favourite trainers as they flee their home. Children play on bicycles as genocide unfolds.
Youth is a recurring feature: the Dutch troops in particular look more like summer campers than soldiers, with young faces and rolled-up shorts.
Compared to the rough, swaggering, thickly menacing Serb commanders, they seem like children, lost. Age is no guarantee of greater wisdom or strength: the beleaguered Dutch commander starts the film brimming with confidence – almost arrogance – in the ability of the UN and Nato to defend Srebrenica. He ends it withdrawn, hiding in his office, a collapsed figure pretending – to himself as much as to others – that the ‘deal’ he has negotiated with Mladić will see all the inhabitants of Srebrenica taken to safety. His attempts to call in airstrikes had gone nowhere: like his young soldiers, and the inhabitants of Srebrenica he has been abandoned by the UN and the west.
The film closes with a reminder of the shadows and (literal) skeletons which the women of Srebrenica still face. It is dedicated to them and to the husbands, fathers, brothers, and sons who were murdered.
And it is a reminder to us all about the futility of war. Everyone lost in Bosnia. Bosnian Muslim families lost their menfolk; Bosnia Serbs and their allies Serbia lost their truth and, even today, live under the shadow of that was done in their names. Europe lost a truly multi-ethnic country it was unable or unwilling to defend. And the children of both the survivors and perpetrators have inherited pain, lies, guilt and trauma. Jasmila Zbanic’s extraordinary film gives hope that art may succeed where politics failed: by telling the truth about Srebrenica – and enabling all to see it.
“Quo Vadis, Aida? sees horrors taking place under a bright blue sky, among flowered hillsides, in a modern world”