Book Review

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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.”


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