Quo Vadis Aida?

by Jennifer Bryce

I write this on the second day of the invasion of Ukraine by the Russians, described as potentially the worst European conflict since World War II. Quo Vadis Aida? dramatises the Srebrenica massacre of July 1995, the genocidal  killing of more than 8,000 Bosniak Muslim men and boys in and around the town of Srebrenica, during the Bosnian War.

I must confess that my knowledge of the Bosnian-Serbian conflict in the mid-1990s is shamefully limited. Shamefully, now that I have seen the movie Quo Vadis Aida?, (brilliantly directed by Jasmila Žbanić ) and realise what horrendous slaughter was taking place then under labels such as ‘ethnic cleansing’.

Prior to the massacre, the United Nations had declared the enclave of Srebrenica in eastern Bosnia, a ‘safe area’ under UN protection. However, the UN failed to demilitarise the Bosnia-Herzegovinian Army within Srebrenica and were unable to prevent the town’s capture and the subsequent massacre. In the movie, the UN personnel are shown to be inadequate and powerless – some of them very young men in short trousers.

Aida is a Bosnian Muslim former school teacher, working as a translator for the Dutch-run peacekeeping mission in Srebrenica. The Muslim majority town is soon overrun by the Bosnian Serb army and people flee desperately to the UN safe zone – but there are scant resources and there isn’t room for everyone. Aida desperately tries to save her husband and sons who have not made it to safety. The UN facility is grossly under-resourced and the UN soldiers resorted, pathetically it seemed, to procedure. The Bosnian general (Ratko Mladić, later convicted of war crimes) demanded that the Srebenicans be bussed to ‘safety’: the men and women were separated, and my stomach churned as I was immediately taken back to WWII movies I’d seen of Jewish people being marched onto trains destined for concentration camps. In this case, the women survived but the men were shot and buried in unmarked graves – so reminiscent of the Nazi brutality.

At the end of the movie we see that, some years later, the Srebenican women were able to return to identify the bones of their loved ones. And, amazingly, Aida, having lost all of her family, returns to teaching and to the apartment where they lived – the wall clock still ticking as it had all those years ago.

Aida in her apartment

Millions were killed in the holocaust. Over 8,000 were killed in the Srebrenica massacre. Eight thousand too many. And as I write, there is war in Ukraine.