When you read Hemingway and think of Srebrenica, you cannot unsee the connection

Then he rested as easily as he could with his two elbows in the pine needles and the
muzzle of the submachine gun resting against the trunk of the pine tree.’
Ernest Hemmingway, For Whom the Bell Tolls

Somewhere in the seventies, when everything was still young and fresh Holland and Amsterdam looked like a promised land where all our hippie dreams would have been fulfilled. A place where freedom really existed, a kind of Woodstock-city covered with clouds of marijuana smoke and decibels of music – the real John and Yoko honeymoon place (Drove from Paris to the Amsterdam Hilton / Talking in our beds for a week…)

The Dutch speak English

So, it’s easy to imagine a romantic picture through student’s eyes in, let’s say, modest, communist ruled Yugoslavia, listening to the early works of Golden Earnings, Shocking Blue, Rick van der Linden or Focus. Due to all these connections, we simply believed that Holland was an English speaking country; we heard about some Dutch language, but believed that it was not really used, something like the old Gailic still spoken in Ireland or Scotland. Even though, some of the rare witnesses, who reached Amsterdam with at the time very popular Inter-rail tickets, reported the same: ‘They speak English, of course!’

Later, when my destiny brought me here, to Amsterdam, I found that some traces of that old dream were still alive in the city, but I also learned that Amsterdam, for sure, was not the same as the rest of the country, that its spirit had also changed with the times – and finally, that certainly not everybody here was a hippie.

But ‘the introduction’ was much more serious and painful for my generation in Bosnia, who had faced more profound disillusionments: at the end of the eighties and the beginning of the nineties, a turbulent rhythm of the events pushed us into a kind of a political helter-skelter. A dark shadow of the bloody history that was just doomed to happen, approached as a terrifying monster, showing its ugly face in a form of an infuriated media; Milosević in Serbia, massive demonstrations, TV screens resembling the last horizon, paranoid voiceover comments – then suddenly… the wars: in Slovenia, in Croatia, in Bosnia. And finally: in my street, in my house, in my home and in my own room. Then, the choices were significantly reduced: one could call oneself either a warrior or a refugee.

Total transformation

The spirit of the times is in the process of total transformation. An apocalypse of sorts had already happened to us. Old values, ideas and illusions do not mean much anymore – for the survivors, everything starts from a scratch – all the books must be re-read, all films must be seen again, all the music listened to again – and all of them are revealed to have completely new meanings. Simply, the new experiences makes one see the ‘old things’ through a new lens and in a completely new ‘spirit of the time’.

From my own, very personal angle, this ’time spirit’ can be symbolized (or better still, materialized) through the presence and the mandate of the UNPROFOR in Bosnia. A seemingly neutral force among all the butchery, calmly ‘monitors’ in the middle of all the bloodshed, passive ‘protectors’ of cynically proclaimed safety zones. This is not a story about the honesty or the moral quality of individual personnel.

Sometimes, that was not in question. Some of those young and brave men and women were in fact prevented from reacting to terrible crimes, and were put in a position of uninvolved (or ‘forced-to-be’) witnesses, most of them later suffered hard psychological damage, so that even suicides were not surprising. In this or other way, these youngsters were forced to remain neutral, even in situations where any normal human being could not stay on the sideline, whatever the price might be.

For Whom the Bell Tolls

So, at this point, I am reminded of one glorious moment form the world of literature, the last few lines of Hemmingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls: a wounded American university professor, a volunteer, an internationalist, lies down on the ground of a Spanish forest with a gun in his hand in his last moments, ready to die for the sake of a few people in a foreign land, alone against approaching fascist solders:

Robert Jordan lay behind the tree, holding onto himself very carefully and delicately to keep his hands steady. He was waiting until the officer reached the sunlit place where the first trees of the pine forest joined the green slope of the meadow. He could feel his heart beating against the pine needle floor of the forest.

Could we read this fragment and, in some way, juxtapose it to the war in Bosnia? Just as a kind of a literary experiment? Let’s try to imagine this moment in hills around Srebrenica, in a morning of July 11th 1995, for example? There is also the place where ’the first trees of the pine forest joined the green slope of the meadow.’ It is there, I know. Even, the ‘pine needle floor’ and that feeling of drumming heart were the same as in this Hemmingway’s fragment. Equally, the approaching soldiers looks also alike. All killers are of the quite similar kind, everywhere.


This mental connection could lead to a very dangerous direction, could provoke a thousand new questions, some of them even on the edge of any correctness or even today’s ‘permissible’ morality. How many civilian lives are worth the life of one Western soldier?

Will the idea of United Nations finally, with all its resolutions and protected zones, get some real value if it is washed in blood of their soldiers? (In that case: Where in Amsterdam will the street named after sacrificed Dutchbat3 fighters supposed to be placed? Dutchbatstraat? Dutchbatplein? Dutchbatkade? What kind of monument? Where? Will that sacrifice make any impact on Dutch national pride then? Or, will it just cause more frustrations and anger?)

Is it possible to imagine that history could have happened in another way than it did? (Prevented genocide? Dutch War Memorial in Potočari? Several dozen simple white crosses, always covered with fresh tulips from Holland and Bosnian wild lilies, instead of 8000 slim white tombstones? Open air memorial concert? Woodstock instead of mass graves? Imaginable?)

And finally, one horrifying association: Is it possible to read Hemmingway now and (not) think about Srebrenica?

Image: Mikhail Evstafiev CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Antonije Nino Žalica (Sarajevo 1959). Schrijver en filmmaker. Nino woont en werkt afwisselend in Amsterdam, Sarajevo en Dubrovnik. Hij studeerde literatuurwetenschappen en filosofie aan de Universiteit van Sarajevo. Zijn roman Gele Sneeuw werd vertaald in meerdere Europese talen. In 1994 werd zijn korte film Angels in Sarajevo bekroond met de Felix Documentary Award van de European Film Academy.