Europe’s Forgotten War: ‘The Last Refuge’ by Hasan Nuhanović

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War diaries are there to either attest the horrors of a conflict or romanticise its brutality – or both. Generally, their narratives follow the frontmen’s experiences and reflections about the war in an attempt to dig out bits of humanity in a place seemingly devoid of it. Such examples may include Martha Gellhorn’s adventures and camaraderie as a war correspondent, or Anne Frank’s refugee story in an Amsterdam hideout (where she fell in love with another Jewish boy). Hasan Nuhanović is no exception to the rule. 

His story takes place in the early 1990s Bosnia (back then, part of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia). Following the fall of communism in Central and Eastern Europe, centralised governments began to loosen their grip on power and free, multiparty elections replaced the one-party systems. In Yugoslavia, elections sprouted nationwide and, with them, calls for independence. And while its breakup happened slowly, gradually and by various means, the author’s focus is on the Bosnian War of Independence and its violent nature. 

Yet, what makes Nuhanović’s story stand out is his tear-jerking recollection of civilian casualty and suffering in what is now one of the most ethnically divisive regions in Europe. His story is not about combat heroism. Instead, he sheds light on the lives of the forgotten ones: the people – survivors – fleeing war and the omnipresent threat of ethnic cleansing. Even from the preface, the author warns against his often harrowing and inconceivable accounts: “It may be that some day in the future, when they have invented a machine that can project images directly from our minds on to a screen, we will have access to the truth about human suffering.” 

Visibly overwhelmed, he assumes the role of initiator and introduces the readers to the relevant details about the war. One such instance is his clearheaded explanation of the ethnic and religious layers that constitute his primary identity: “a Yugoslav, a Bosnian, a Muslim and a muslim [religion]”. The resulting distinction enables him to present the two ethnic sides fighting against each other: the Bosnian Muslims (the group to which he belongs) and Bosnian Serbs (Chetniks). Throughout his story, Nuhanović will regularly provide background information to his readers in order to give a context to human suffering. 

A mechanical engineering student in Sarajevo, he recounts the stockpiling of war machinery on streets and the prelude to the war from his bedroom window. Knowing that a civil war is imminent, Nuhanović returns to his hometown, Vlasenica, where he convinces his family to leave right before conflict breaks out and a Chetnik militia takes over the town. The action is fast-paced and intense, and soon, they will take refuge in several villages and towns in Eastern Bosnia, from Stoborani to Srebenica. His journey is not as straightforward as it seems. As each place falls into the hands of the Chetniks, he escapes death either by fighting, taking shelter when bombed or shot at, or keeping a low profile on the road. Additionally, his story is not singular. It becomes the epitome of the Bosnian Muslims’ and their families’ concerted efforts to escape Chetniks. 

The strength of the book lies with the author’s growing sense of moral decadence throughout his journey as a refugee. His reflections are crude and filled with sorrow. It dawns on him that the war has made him incredibly selfish, to the extent that the distant bombing of a village brings him relief just because it is not his turn to seek shelter. To console himself, he accepts that his survival takes precedence over that of others and it is this selfishness which, in turn, breeds the ‘law of survival’. For instance, food is scarce, and Nuhanović remembers having lunch at Aunt Mina’s house, witnessing the collective rush to empty the two bowls of thick soup feeding eighteen household members. In the end, he concedes that there can be no bitterness on others since everyone is doing the same – trying to stay alive. 

His primary instincts intensify in moments of complete desperation. When his uncle pushes the author’s mother off the narrow path and into a ravine to avoid falling himself, Nuhanović takes his bayonet out to confront him. Looting becomes the norm, and the author has to risk his life in frontline villages, storming the abandoned houses in search for food (he once broke into a home, its roof on fire, and stuffed himself with whipped cream cake while a battle raged outside). 

Another equally intriguing aspect of the book is how the author strives to bring a face to the genocide committed against Bosnian Muslims. For him, the gravity of the Bosnian genocide does not rest on the sheer number of casualties, but rather on the methods employed to systemically murder his people. As a result, gruesome details fill the book, illustrating what it meant to be captured, tortured or even executed by the Chetniks. He does not shy away from naming third-parties complicit to the persecution and talks about Serbia’s tacit support for the perpetrators. For instance, he mentions the participation of the ‘weekend Chetniks’ – fighters from Serbia paid to support the Chetniks – to the war. Although he briefly talks about the Srebenica massacre (by far, the worst atrocity committed against Bosnian Muslims during the war), he leaves room for expectation in his upcoming book. 

His writing style is dry and lacks pompousness as if to highlight a general sense of foreboding. Nevertheless, the chronic lack of details makes the story seem too fast-paced, turning it into a chain of unfortunate events (not that they were not). But it is this feeling of omitting details which gave me the impression that the story would have deserved a few more words to dwell on aspects such as the author’s introspection episodes. 

This book review cannot be more relevant in the context of remembering the horrors of the Yugoslavian wars. July 2020 marks twenty-five years since the Srebenica massacre happened and the quest for justice is greatly jeopardised by the Serbians’ denial of war crimes committed in Bosnia. As years pass by and the poll of witnesses diminishes, the chances of bringing real justice to the victims become smaller. Moreover, the massacre is not over. Each year, human remains are identified and given a proper burial in the hope of bringing the slightest form of relief to the victims’ relatives. Therefore, Nuhanović’s war memoir is a chilling tribute to human suffering and revisits one of Europe’s recent, but forgotten wars. 

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