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Vermeer in Bosnia

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Submitted By stevenlin53
Words 3121
Pages 13
Mingzhao Lin


Stephen Bulter Ph.D

Awaken from the nightmare
A photo displayed on one of James Mason’s galleries— The War in Central Bosnia. The

photo was named “The Unknown” and taken on the summer of 1993. A year before this,
1992, the Serbs attacked Bosnia. The destruction of war was tremendous: buildings were split open with their wires hanging outside, villages were burnt, and rivers of people were fleeing. Inside this seemingly moving picture, lies a stillness— a coffin, an open coffin. Its white sophisticated surface was dabbed with spots of rain from the grey above, dimming its reflections. A body lied inside, as the hoary clouds grow larger, hovering moistly above the mournful land. His hand was tied with his fists on his chest, like the pharaoh of ancient
Egypt, symboling the immense power and wealth; or maybe, simply, for the convenience of burying. The word “Nepoznat” was narrowly engraved on two pieces of wood that were nailed on the apex of the coffin. Later I found out, it meant “The Unknown” in Croatian.
The horrified expression was now gone from the man’s face. His eyes were closed like he was sleeping. He looked peaceful and relieved. To him, the war had left, the pain was gone and the suffer wouldn't bother him anymore. But, it was only because he was dead.
While the world focused on Sarajevo (the capital of Bosnia), the real fighting was going on in villages and towns. Most of the time it wasn't even fighting, but murder by an army. The war was so cruel in Bosnia that it seemed only in death could a man found a sense of serenity. In the beginning of his essay “Vermeer in Bosnia,” Lawrence Weschler tells the stories about how he visited the Yugoslav War Crimes Tribunal and the horrific madness he was told: a Muslim, a soccer player, was “forced to watch as they repeatedly raped his wife and two daughters and then slit their throats”(778); another Muslim, a prisoner, was forced “

LIN 2 to emasculate another — with his teeth”(778). The focus of the essay —Tadic, the war criminal, was former guard of a prison camp, who is charged with twenty different counts of depraved crimes. Tadic was considered a “grave breach” of the Geneva Convention by the
Appeals Court, in which “grave breach” was defined as “Willfully killing; torture or inhuman treatment; willfully causing great suffering or serious injury to body or health;
Persecutions on political, racial or religious grounds; rape; murder; inhumane acts” (GC 1
Art. 50). The world thinks of Dusko Tadic as a monster that lived in the chaos of war.
As he reckons with such inhuman violence, Weschler began to discuss Edward
Snow’s approach to Johannes Vermeer’s painting Head of a Young Girl (1665) which is to ask “Has the girl just turned toward us or is she just about to turn away?” (782). Weschler proposed that, in the simultaneous presence of both turning back and turning away, the girl’s

action connects us viewer with our experience when we were the one “eventually turning away”(782). And in this connection, when realized the girl in the painting is “autonomous, self-sufficient”(782), we began to consider that we too could in turn be “autonomous, selfsufficient”(782). In the painting, Weschler explored a way to look into stereotype in which the sense of “autonomous individuals” (782) was lost, and which he proposed to be the heart of conflicts: “the entire Yugoslavian debacle has been taking place in a context wherein the
Other, even one’s own neighbor, is suddenly being experienced no longer as a subject like oneself but as an instance, a type, a vile expletive, a Serb, a Croat, a Turk.” (783) he wrote.
Victims were killed only because of their identity. The murderers hated others because they hated the idea they had for “Others”(782), not because they hated who “Others”(782) really were. And perhaps, the man in the coffin in James Mason’s photo was not only “unknown” to the people who buried him but also “unknown” to the people who killed him.
And yet, when facing the Thirty Years’ War of his time, Vermeer “had been finding — and, yes, inventing — a zone filled with peace”(781). As Weschler gazed upon the

LIN 3 magisterial canvas View of Delft(1661), he found himself looking inside the heart of its creator. The interplay of light and shade, the impressive cloudy sky and the subtle reflections in the water showed the tranquility in Vermeer’s composition. Looking into “Vermeer’s camera obscura”(785), Weschler “found myself [himself] thinking of these people here with their legal chamber, the improbably calm site for a similar effort at transmutation” (785) and

began to see differently. Starting from the idea of invented peace in Vermeer’s painting, he began to consider the possibility that the trail of Tadic may also be doing the same thing
—“inventing peace”(781).
And this was what the Tribunal was doing: “We hope that our work alleviates their suffering in some measure.” the Prosecutor of the Tribunal Serge Brammertz said as he met with representatives of victims associations. In the chaos world of violence, peace was not there in the first place. It was instilled, inserted and invented. The War Crime Tribunal gave people a sense of peace in which justice sill exists. The camera zooms in and focuses on a single individual. To them, Dusko Tadic, Kim Jong-un, Adolf Hitler… bear all the sins, prosecutions and responsibilities of the larger group that actually killed and murdered their family. However, Weschler himself had pointed out in the postscript written when the essay was published as part of the book Vermeer in Bosnia “Evidence for the depravity of the defendant’s [Tadic] alleged crimes vying against equally compelling evidence of the relative insignificant of his [Tadic] role in the wider conflict: he [Tadic] had, after all, merely had been a guard at the camp…and the Tribunal had to been seen to be doing something.”(26)
Weschler admits that, for many, Tadic, merely a guard, just “had the bad luck to be caught” (26) and that the existence of the Tribunal, in the minds of some, became the purpose of merely inventing peace instead of finding justice. Did the Tribunal make Dusko
Tadic a scapegoat?

In his essay, Weschler described Tadic as “not some symbol or trope or a stand-in for anybody other than himself: a quite specific individual ”(785); and yet Tadic, an
“autonomous individual” (782), was punished as a substitute for punishing the larger evil.
Trying to console the wounded family and the hopeless victim, the Tribunal invented such justice that Tadic, the seemingly sole cause of violence, bears the major share of responsibility and yet the bigger evil behind is still held unaccountable. “Joyce is right about history being a nightmare— but it may be the nightmare from which no one can awaken.
People are trapped in history and history is trapped in them.”(192) James Baldwin, an
African American, wrote in his essay “Stranger in the Village” as he found racism to be prevalent in a small Swiss village. In this isolated village, people were trapped in the nightmare of history, in which they still called Baldwin an “Neger”(191) and treated him as an alien. Perhaps similarly, in Bosnia, the larger evil behind was the nightmare of history.
And perhaps, this nightmare was the reason that hatred and anger could prevail in Tadic’s mind. Described in Weschler’s essay (written on 1994), David Rieff tells a story about his visit to a recent battlefield: “Muslim corpses strewn across the muddy meadow, a Serb soldier grimly standing guard.” (783). When asked “What happened here?”(Quote in
Weschler 783), the soldier answered: “Well, in 1385…”(Quote in Weschler 783). In the year of 1385, Battle of Savra was fought between the Muslim Ottoman Empire and Zetan forces.
After the victory of Ottoman Empire, millions of local Serbs and Albanian became vassals and lived under the shadow of the Ottomans (From Sedlar Jean W, University of Washington
Press). The ethnic-rooted hatred and violence began to grow since then. In 1995, “Genocidal rape,” acts of massively systematic rape against Muslim woman, happened during the
Bosnia war, a war between Serbs and Muslims. During the four years of Bosnia war, rape was used not only as a weapon against Muslim woman, but also as a part of ethnic

LIN 5 cleansing. Robert Fisk wrote on “Bosnia War Crimes: “ The rapes went on day and night’” (From The Independent).
Behind these massive atrocities, it was not Tadic, a single individual, that could cause this disaster, nor it was caused by any individuals or any leaders in the Army of Republika
Srpska (Serbian Army). “The Serbs and Croats and Muslims now appear to be so deeply mired in a poisonous legacy of grievances, extending back fifty years, two hundred years.” (784)Weschler pointed it out in his essay. Instead, it was the need for revenge to reciprocate the suffering and abuses the Serbs experienced at the hands of the Ottomans that ignited the cause of chaos; it was the collective suffering and stigma that had been passed on through the generations that the Serbs lashed out at the Bosnian Muslims. And, it was this anger and hatred that trapped Tadic in the cycle of revenge. This nightmare — history of ethnic war, racial conflict, and vengeance— like a vortex, forever confuses him between past and future, between reality and imagination.
And yet, people blamed Tadic, for all the suffer and pain they had endured; the Tribunal blamed Tadic, for its overeager on its quest for justice. “Specific individuals bears the major share of responsibility, and it is they… who need to be held to account.”(784) Weschler quoted Richard Goldstone, a jurist in the Tribunal. However, like those children shout
“Neger! Neger!”(191) as Baldwin walked along the streets, perhaps, Tadic, a man trapped in the nightmare of history, has “no element of intentional unkindness”(191), as Baldwin described those isolated village people in Swiss. Because “no individual can be taken to task for what history is doing, or has done”(192) he wrote. For the invented peace that remediates the wounded heart, the Tribunal created a sense of invented justice: Tadic was responsible for all. And in this false sense of justice, people so firmly believe that killing
Tadic or other Serbs army leaders would make all the pain and suffer go away.

And surely, this false sense is shattered by reality. The invented justice that was supposed to comfort the families has now vanished, for the nightmare of history still haunts this blighted country and the quest for justice is still left unanswered. “20 years after war began, Bosnia grows more divided” Jonathan S. Landay wrote on the tile of his journal on
April 25, 2012 (From McClatchy Newspapers). “Fear of retaliation by Muslims and Croats has kept Strajko Trifkovic, an 80-year-old Serb, from returning to his home in Grbavica,” he wrote. Yet, the fear was not only for the neighbors but also for the government that relies on identity politics and sectarian tensions to corral votes. “The politicians want us to live in
1992, but I don't want to live in 1992,” Pojata, one of the civilians said. (From The
Guardian). The nightmare of ethnic is still deeply rooted in the minds of the Bosnians
(Serbs, Croats, Muslims). The invented justice of the Tribunal, that sentenced Dusko Tadic
14 years ago, was just ephemeral and today, violence, conflicts and fears still prevail on this land. At the same time, on another continent, the Umbrella Revolution was brewing. I was calling my cousin, when he leaned out of his window and showed me the ongoing protest that happened in Hong Kong. On the night of September 26, several hundred students gathered in a courtyard in Central Hong Kong, demanding an end to Chinese oppression and control. It all started on August when China announced to Hong Kong its ruling on who may stand as a candidate in elections for Hong Kong's leader. To the people of Hong Kong, that meant social justice was deprived and that it wouldn’t be their own government after all.
Down the window, the protesters were using umbrellas to cover against the pepper-spraying riot police and thousands of supporters occupied the streets surrounding Hong Kong's financial district.
However, what’s more shocking to me was that back in my hometown, a southern city in Mainland China, people congregated at the Martyr Memorial Gardens to show their

LIN 7 support for the Hong Kong protesters. Even though there were only a few people and all were wearing masks, the slogan on the protesters sign still stressed their common hope for social justice: “Promise are not meant to be broken! Support Hong Kong! Fight for
Freedom!” However, later, these people were arrested and detained, all for the same reason:
“picking quarrels and provoking troubles”(From the Amnesty International).
This common quest for social justice happened under the background of the growing social tension between Hong Kong and mainland China. Local prejudice is heating up since the return of Hong Kong from the United Kingdom and they’re mostly directed at mainlanders. Mainlanders are sometimes derogatorily called “locusts”, a reference to the idea that they come to Hong Kong, consume its resources, and leave a mess behind when they leave. On the other hand, mainlanders think of Hong Kong people “are too used to being running dogs for British imperialists.”(Professor Kong Qingdong, Peking University)
Yet, it was these two groups of people who used to dislike, repel and even hate each other that stood together to defend the social justice that they believe in. When I got off the phone, thinking about the arguments I have seen on busses between people from Hong Kong and from mainland China, I was surprised that this time, they could stand on the same side.
“We want justice!” people shout out deep from their hearts. The quest for justice has gone beyond their identities, social tension, prejudice and everything that they used to discriminate each other. Because when they stand together for justice, they are the same: the most basic human beings — not a Hong Kongese or a mainlander— who fight for the right things they believe in.
In Bosnia, perhaps, if justice becomes a genuine pursuit of every individuals, a Serb, a
Croat or a Muslim would able to look beyond their identities, ethnics and believes and the nightmare of history— about ethnic, violence and revenge — might eventually be broken. If a Serb solider asked himself: “Is this the right thing to do?” before he killed an innocent

Muslim, he would not have the courage to pull the trigger when a man was held at his gunpoint. Because he knew there was absolutely nothing that could justify massacres. If a
Muslim woman asked herself the same question before she pushed away a Serb child, she would not have held grudges towards this child. Because she knew there was absolutely nothing in this innocent child that she could hate. It is this simple question that awakens the part of hidden humanity that lies inside us and helps us look beyond our identities. Also it would be this simple reminder that frees us from the nightmare of history. The invented justice of the War Crime Tribunal inserted a sense of invented peace that would assuage the pain victims’ families had suffered, but it would not end the violence and conflict among
Serbs, Croats and Muslims, for the nightmare of history still traps the people of Bosnia in the cycle of vengeance. The hatred that had been buried in this land since Ottoman Empire could not be reconciled by simply punishing an individual and the fear inside Strajko
Trifkovic would not be conquered by simply inventing justice. But when a Serbs, a Croat or a Muslim hold a sense of justice in their hearts and look beyond their identities, the nightmare of history will eventually be ended.
In James Mason’s The Unknown, the strip of cloth that was used to tie the man’s hand was loosen, as if he tried to struggle and yet he failed; the clenched fists on his chest reflected his reluctance to give up and yet he had to. Maybe, there was a moment before his death when he realized that he was living in a nightmare and he tried, maybe for just one second, to get out. Weschler claims holding Tadic accountable for all the sins will bring peace to Bosnia; but, in fact, this invented peace that was based on invented justice couldn't end this nightmare and the violence among Muslims, Serbs and Croats still haunts the people in Bosnia. Perhaps, when justice was not invented for us, when we have a sense of
“what is right” inside, we will finally wake up from the nightmare of history and peace, that comes with the end of conflict, will no longer need to be invented.

Work Cited
Baldwin, James “Stranger in the Village”, Occasion for Writing: Evidence, Idea, Essay. Eds. Robert
DiYanni and Pat C.Hoy II. Boston: Wadsworth, 2008.500-508. Print
Borger, Julian. "Bosnian War 20 Years On: Peace Holds but Conflict Continues to Haunt."Http:// The Guardian, 4 Apr.
2012. Web. 18 Nov. 2014. .
Fisk, Robert. "Bosnia War Crimes: 'The Rapes Went on Day and Night': Robert Fisk, in Mostar,
Gathers Detailed Evidence of the Systematic Sexual Assaults on Muslim Women by Serbian
'White Eagle' Gunmen." The Independent. Independent Digital News and Media, 08 Feb.
1993. Web. 17 Nov. 2014. .
ICTY, UN. "ICTY - TPIY : Landmark Cases." ICTY - TPIY : Landmark Cases. International
Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, n.d. Web. 18 Nov. 2014. .
International, Amnesty. "News." Chinese Activists Detained for Supporting Hong Kong Protests.
Amnesty International, 7 Nov. 2014. Web. 18 Nov. 2014. .
Landay, Jonathan S. "McClatchy DC." SARAJEVO, Bosnia and Herzegovina: 20 Years after War
Began, Bosnia Grows More Divided. McClatchy Newspapers, 25 Apr. 2015. Web. 18 Nov.
2014. .
Sedlar, Jean W. East Central Europe in the Middle Ages: 1000-1500. Seattle: U of Washington, 1994.
The Hague. "Prosecutor Serge Brammertz Met with Representatives of Victims Associations." ICTY.
International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, 30 Sept. 2014. Web. 18 Nov.
2014. .
Weschler, Lawrence. Vermeer in Bosnia: A Reader. New York: Pantheon, 2004.Print.
Weschler, Lawrence “Vermeer in Bosnia”, Occasion for Writing: Evidence, Idea, Essay. Eds. Robert
DiYanni and Pat C.Hoy II. Boston: Wadsworth, 2008.500-508. Print

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