The Tenth Circle of Hell

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The Tenth Circle of Hell by Rezak Hukanovic, book reviewThe Tenth Circle of Hell by Rezak Hukanovic is an eye-witness account of life in the death camps of Bosnia, where Serbs locked up Croats and Muslims and subjected them to the must unimaginable atrocities. It was first published in 1993, the year after most of the events that it describes took place and it has since been translated many times into many languages. It’s one of the most shocking books I’ve ever read but one I feel compelled to recommend and advise others to read. We should not forget that things like this happened in Europe, in a place where western Europeans took cheap package summer holidays and where the people killing each other looked like us, ate like us, sang like us, lived in houses like ours and got up in the morning to go to jobs like those we did. There’s a scene in the film ‘Shooting Dogs’ about the killings in Rwanda where a woman news reporter says she was horrified in Bosnia that the people killing each other looked like her, her parents and her friends. Sadly the same woman then reveals that she’s not horrified by the events in Rwanda, dismissing them as just black people killing each other – so clearly people don’t always learn the lessons we expect them to.

In May 2011 many of us sat down on a Saturday evening and watched Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina singing dreadful songs and observed them and their other Balkan neighbours involving in the ‘I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine’ behaviour of the Eurovision Song Contest block vote. Whilst we nod and think “Well that was predictable” things were not always so friendly.

Almost 19 years earlier on May 30th 1992 in the town of Prijedor, local people could hear the sounds of gunfire in the distance as the conflict of the Bosnian Civil War crept closer to their city. It was a town in which different ethnic groups – Serbs, Croats and Muslims – had lived together for centuries but it soon became clear that all would change. Neighbours became enemies and the Serb victors rounded up Croat and Muslim men, took them away to camps and set to work on their famous and horrific policy of ‘Ethnic Cleansing’. One of those men was Rezak Hukanovic, a poet, journalist and radio presenter before his incarceration. The Tenth Circle of Hell is his story and takes it title from Dante’s classic description of Hell as a place with nine circles. The Tenth Circle, we are told, is not in hell but in this world,

The book is told in the third person and Hukanovic is represented by a character called Djemo who is one of the men rounded up by the Serbs and taken to the camps at Omarska and Manjaca. He describes the horrors of the abuse, torture and murder, listing the names of those he knew who ‘never came back’ and those who sat beside him through his experience. The brutality of the blood-thirsty men who beat, kicked, stabbed, mutilated and shot other men for no greater crime than religion and ethnic origin and for no better reason than their own sick enjoyment or to meet the orders of the men they followed is something that will stay with the reader long after this slim volume is finished. There are so many examples I could offer of how shocking this book is, but I don’t want to reveal too much – I’d prefer you read it for yourself. A couple of examples might give you a small insight into what to expect. In one scene, the Serb soldiers refuse to give the prisoners clean water and march them to the banks of a filthy lake to fill their water bottles. One guards stands beside the lake and urinates into the water and laughs as the men fill their bottles. In another, an old man is told he must have sex with a girl captive in front of his captors and his fellow prisoners. When he tells them he won’t do it because she’s young enough to be his granddaughter they laugh at him, asking why she was good enough for all of them but not good enough for the old man. He’s beaten, sent outside and left to die.

The Tenth Circle of Hell is remarkable for its brevity.”

The translator of his book explains in a foreword to book that Hukanovic told his story in the third person through the character of Djemo because what he saw and what he lived through was so horrific that he felt as if it must be happening to somebody else. This, I guess, is a technique some people can use in order to deal with the horrors they have lived through. Sadly, it wasn’t happening to someone else and as we read through this book we realise how remarkable it is that Djemo/Hukanovic lived to tell the tale and how important that we as outsiders should read his words and remember what happened to him and those who died in the camps. If the men who killed in Omarska had been given the luxury of a little more time, we can only imagine that perhaps today there would be nobody left to tell us about what happened in these places. On that basis we owe it to those who didn’t survive to read books like this.

The Tenth Circle of Hell is remarkable for its brevity. My hard back copy stretches to just 164 pages and each of these is generous with the white space around the text. Some writers create small books because they don’t have much to say. Hukanovic’s book is short not through lack of story, but because every page is dipped in pain and must have taken great courage to write. For the reader, it need not be any longer – if you haven’t got the ‘point’ in the first few chapters, then you really don’t need a few hundred more pages to convey the message.

My husband and I agree on most things but one area where we don’t align is on the treatment of war criminals like Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic or John Demyanyuk, the 90-something year old Ukrainian who worked in the Nazi death camps. He’s of the opinion that the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and other similar set ups are just an expensive ‘talking shop’ and that these men are scum-bags who deserve nothing more than a bullet in the head. I agree with his analysis of their characters but think that their day in court is an expensive but necessary part of the process of reminding the world of the atrocities committed and that to skip this stage does an injustice to the victims of their crimes. It’s all too easy to simply say ‘Past is Past’ and just move on, and in most things I would agree. However, whilst the families of victims need to have their suffering (and that of the victims themselves) highlighted and recognised, I think they deserve the much debated ‘day in court’. I want the men who told others that killing and torture were fine and patriotic to be faced with what they did and who they did it to.

I am no expert on the Balkan Conflict and am the first to confess that a lot of the war kind of slipped past me when I wasn’t paying attention. When the trouble started, I tried to keep up but soon found it became so incredibly complicated that I was struggling to follow what was going on. I took my eye off the ball and like a complex television drama, I missed a few ‘episodes’ and soon found I couldn’t really understand the intricacies of who hated whom, who was living in the wrong place and who worshipped Jesus and who preferred Allah. There was nothing ‘easy’ about the Balkans for the casual onlooker who hadn’t made a commitment to paying full attention. I’m ashamed of not trying harder and of perhaps falling into the majority of observers who couldn’t quite believe that stuff like that could happen in Europe at the end of the 20th Century.

If you look to the list of 153 men indicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia you will find names from all the groups in the conflict – Serbs, Croats, Albanians, Bosniaks, Macedonians and Montenegrans. However it’s very apparent that the vast majority of those named are Serbs (94 out of 153). I’m sure that for all the atrocities reported in this book which were perpetrated by Serbs on Croats and Muslims, there were others carried out in return. I have no intention to say who were the good guys and who the baddies in this terrifyingly complex war, but only to report on this one book by just one man who survived and can deliver in just 164 pages a message we should all read and of which we should take notice.


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Tenth Circle of Hell, The
by Rezak Hukanovic

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Written by koshkha

Koshkha has a busy international job that gives her lots of time sitting on planes and in hotel rooms reading books. Despite averaging about 3 books a week, she probably has enough on her ‘to be read’ shelves to keep her going for a good few years and that still doesn’t stop her scouring the second hand books shops and boot-fairs of the land for more. At weekends she lives with her very lovely husband and three cats, but during the week she lives alone like a mad spinster aunt. She will read just about anything about or set in India, despises chick-lit, doesn’t ‘get’ sci fi and vampire ‘stuff’ and has just ordered a Kindle despite swearing blind that she never would.

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