Almost three years ago I moved to Sarajevo, to work here. A little over three weeks ago I quit my job. In three days I am leaving Bosnia for good. Time to look back.
As a little boy I was obsessed with war. I think it is fair to say that I memorized all battles fought in Europe during the Second World War so thoroughly, that I can dream them- sometimes literally.
As a bigger boy I was still obsessed with war. However, the obsession for battles and fighting shifted to an obsession for battles, fighting, the political run-up to a war, and the social, economic and cultural results of a war. Let’s say that I grew an interest in war in all it’s forms, and that I wished I would live to see one, one day…..
Instead of going to the Royal Military Academy in Breda, the Dutch equivalent of Sandhurst, I went to study law in Groningen. I thought that one day I would be a ‘war-diplomat’ like Richard Holbrooke, who brokered the Dayton Peace Agreement, or like diplomats under President Carter, who made the Camp David Accords possible. Because after all, it are the peacemakers who are the real heroes of a war, not the fighters.
However, one can not have it all in life- for instance, I never became a diplomat. Instead of that, I became a jurist at a War Crimes Court that deals day-in, day-out with the most horrendous (war) crimes one can imagine. And I wrote about this, and about my life in Bosnia, the last three years.
But in all honesty: those stories and blogs are complete and utter manure. Because I write cool about a war that was not mine, and where I was not present at. And much to my shame, I must admit that I sometimes regret not being here during the war. This just shows that even with all my best intentions I can not imagine how bad and horrible a real war actually is- I still can’t after being here for such a long time.
A lot of young ‘internationals’ I have met here told me in secret that they would not mind going to a ‘hotter’ zone than Sarajevo currently is- naive, but true. Many want to got to Afghanistan, some want to go to Iraq. The idea exists that if you do not belong to one of the warring parties, you can life through a war without too much damage. Complete nonsense, and even insulting to people who do
know what they are talking about, but some people want to go through or to a war to give meaning to their lives. Maybe I was one of them- although rationally I knew very well how senseless a war was. The main reason for me not to apply for a position in Iraq was because I did not want to worry my parents. Childish and foolish, indeed, but still: going to a war zone stayed an attractive idea. Obviously I did not have a clue what I was talking about. But what if you never go to a war- how could you ever understand one? And before you can solve a problem, you first have to understand it….
But what is my fascination with war, and its aftermath? My mother once told me that it seems as if I am trying to get back to the Nazis, sixty years after the Second World War. And maybe she is right. My childhood and youth were to a large extend influenced by the Second World War- a war I never lived through, and one I could not do anything about whatsoever. Something I have wished was different for a long time.
Because The Netherlands was liberated 32 years, 6 months and 10 days before I was born, the Second World War was history to me. Recent history, ok, but in my ‘childhood eyes’, 32 and a half year ago were ‘a long, long time ago’.
‘Childhood eyes’ can be wrong: on June first 1989 my childhood ended. That day, exactly 44 years and 27 days after liberation of Holland and the surrender of the German troops in the Netherlands, my dad’s liberation ended. Almost 45 years after the war Hitler succeeded in death in which he failed in life: he broke my father, who was a child, hidden without his parents during this war. And made the Second World War thereby very vivid for me and the rest of my family.
My childhood up until that moment was a very happy one. I was a spoiled kid- emotionally spoiled, with love, not materially spoiled. My parents treated us, my sister, brother and me as their equals, without ever forgetting how old we were. We were allowed to decide on important family related issues, like desserts and holidays, we were stimulated to do things that were doomed to fail from the beginning, like my clarinet lessons, and we were taken to ‘adult events’ like classical concerts. However, we were never treated like real adults- there were strict boundaries to what we were and were not allowed to do, and there was no haggling with that. All and all my family was a hammock and a safety net, in which I leisured or was comforted, depending on the needs of the moment.
Although I can not remember my father going to a parent teacher night once, he was an active father. We went skiing on the river dikes close to our house, were he taught us to ski parallel, he took us on skating trips, were he dragged us behind him on sticks when we were tired. He had a demanding job, and during weekdays he came home from work late. Dinner was the only meal we had together as a family, and as a result of his work it was always eaten late- I can not remember going to bed in time once as a kid.
In June 1989 all of this changed. As a result of different factors the war came back into my father’s life- he once more became the hidden kid he once was. Again his life was dictated by a struggle to survive, and by his feeling that he and his family were endangered by unknown evils. Daily life was a battle for him, and he had to protect us, and safe us from danger. We saw it happening- and there was nothing we could do about it.
When someone you worship so much, changes that much because of a long gone war, you want to understand war, if not live through one yourself- and solve one.
So when in June 1991, not long after the Gulf war was fought, the war in then- Yugoslavia broke out, I silently hoped that that war would become serious enough to reach Holland, too. Yugoslavia was in Europe, it was once an ally of the Soviets, or so I thought, and I was sure they had Scuds. According to my Atlas, given to me by my grandparents at my 10th birthday, Slovenia, where the fighting started, was only roughly 2000 kilometers away from the most southern Dutch borders, and I had learned during the Gulf war that the Scuds had a reach of about 2000 kilometers and were not very accurate, so I had good hopes for getting my war!
While the war continued, it became clear to me that it would stay a regional conflict; the only thing Holland got out of that war was a ‘Srebrenica trauma’.
I kept following the news about the war closely, and chose sides for the party that fought the Germans hardest during the Second World War. I turned a blind eye to the fact that this party in this conflict in the nineties behaved almost as bad as the Germans did in the forties. I disregarded it, and tried to reason it. And as a result I ‘committed’ ‘history relativism’ or even revisionism if you will. For someone who wants to solve something this is usually a bad start to things.
During my first weeks in Bosnia my sympathy laid clearly with the Serbs. Slowly, but surely this view changed. Being good or right was not the merit of a people, but of individual persons. Over time here the Second World War stopped being my measurer of good and bad for contemporary generations. That war became background noise to me; louder than preferable, but still- background noise. The war in Bosnia took over the role the previous war had in my life, but only for a short period of time. The Bosnian war was to remote for me to come under my skin. All it did sometimes was leaving some salt behind on my skin, the salt of dried night sweat – as a testimony of the bad dreams my work gave me sometimes. But still, this is different- the war here is not part of me.
For my dad, the Second World War is now a war from the passed century. He told me that when he re-reads his own book about his experiences during his period as a kid in hiding, he feels as if it is not his own story anymore- that war is over for him. He now again is the man he used to be 20 years ago, but 20 years older.
And now I have spent almost three years here, dealing with trying of war criminals. Did this give me satisfaction? Mmm, I do not know. I guess so. Do I understand war, this war, the previous ones? No, and I guess it won’t change- I never will. But going to BiH did make me realize that the Second World War is really over, that after this war many other horrible wars have been fought. That my dad’s war was not the only one, and that none was mine. Thank God. I have resigned from the Court, and BiH and it’s war criminals are from now on only a memory to me.
Silently I count my blessings. Because coming here was my liberation. A liberation of a stupid and childish, but strong desire. A desire for a war that would be mine, but that luckily never came.
My obsession has disappeared. I will always be interested in conflicts. Like I am interested in, let’s say: running, literature, boxing, writing, history and economics. But I had to go to Bosnia first, to find that out….