In the summer of 2005, a decade after the genocide in the United Nations-protected area of Srebrenica, where Bosnian Serbs slaughtered more than 8,000 mainly civilian Muslim men and boys, I received a phone call from a friend in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, who reported that Natasa Kandic, a Serbian human rights activist, had tracked down a snuff film made in Srebrenica by a paramilitary group, the Scorpions. Kandic had heard that members of the Scorpions proudly murdered some of the Bosnian men on camera. At huge personal risk, Kandic found a former member of the group, drove to Croatia, and confronted him. She got a copy of the video and sent it to the war crimes tribunal in The Hague.
The film is utterly sickening. It shows helpless Bosnian men herded out of a truck—beaten, begging for water, pleading for their lives. Both older men and teenagers, they were forced to dig their own graves before they were shot. I will never forget the killers mocking and deriding their victims as they faced death in raw terror.
A few weeks later, I flew to Bosnia, where I had reported from the war a decade before. With the help of the International Committee on Missing Persons, an organization that uses forensic evidence to piece together and identify the remains of Srebrenica victims, I met with families of the men executed in the video.
Near Tuzla, I found Senada Ibrahamovic. She was only 12 when she saw her father go off into the woods that hot July afternoon in 1995. She remembers being angry at her dad—she didn’t want him to leave her. She stood at a window watching him grow smaller as he disappeared into the forest, raising his hand to wave goodbye. Ibrahamovic remembered that he wore a denim jacket.
Years later, never knowing for certain what had happened to her father, she saw his denim jacket on the Scorpions’ death video. The man begging for water and his life was her father. She watched his execution.
In a half-built house outside Sarajevo, I met Nurijaja Alispahic, whose two sons and husband were killed in Srebrenica. She watched her youngest child, only 16 years old at the time, being tortured and then killed by the Scorpions. She shook as we talked and seemed to me more like a ghost than a woman. She whispered: “I will only have peace when I am dead.”
Then I met Mevludin Oric, one of only 15 men who survived the killing fields of Srebrenica. He stayed alive through the mayhem by holding his 14-year-old cousin’s dead body over his own. When night fell, he clawed his way out of a pile of bodies and escaped in darkness. He told me that every night when he goes to bed and every morning when he wakes up, he sees the same thing: death. The soil, he said, was soaked in blood.
Fouad Riad, one of the judges at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, accurately described Srebrenica as “truly scenes from hell, written on the darkest pages of human history.” This is the precise reason why Quo Vadis, Aida?—a new film by the Bosnian director Jasmila Zbanic—is so important and why it has rightly been shortlisted for this year’s Oscar nominations for best international feature film.
Quo Vadis, Aida?—if it wins an Oscar in April—will do for Srebrenica what Schindler’s List did for Auschwitz: burn the tragedy and crime into the public memory so we never forget what happened there.
The film focuses on the three days of killing at Srebrenica through the eyes of a local woman working as an interpreter for the U.N., Aida. While translating for the men who will eventually slaughter her people, Aida is also desperately trying to save her husband and two sons.
It opens with scenes from her gentle prewar life. Aida, a former teacher married to a school principal, goes to carefree parties and family gatherings. Life is good. Then it shifts to the suddenness of war. Srebrenica was under siege for nearly three years, suffering enormous deprivation before the Serbs finally took the town on July 11, 1995. The terrified population, who had been disarmed, rushed to the U.N. peacekeeping battalion for protection.
Srebrenica, along with five other towns—Zepa, Gorazde, Sarajevo, Tuzla, and Bihac—had been declared U.N. safe havens, meant to be protected by the international community. It was a terrible fallacy. They were the towns that seemed to suffer the most.
Like Angelina Jolie’s equally powerful 2011 film about the rape camps of Bosnia, In the Land of Blood and Honey, there is no sentimentality in Zbanic’s film. Quo Vadis, Aida? moves across a landscape of horror. Mothers dress their teenage boys like girls to save their lives as the men and boys are separated from the girls and women—and taken off to their deaths. Neighbors turn on neighbors. Women are shot dead as they cook their lunch.
In one scene, we see a young boy ripped from his mother’s arms. We see people holding pets that they grabbed as they were rushed out of their homes. We see confused men led into a room, guns lowered through windows, and the men sprayed with bullets.
We also see U.N. officials, meant to protect the civilians of Srebrenica, at their worst: bureaucrats tethered to a system. The fact that more than 8,000 souls are no longer on this earth because a message didn’t reach the right people at U.N. headquarters will go down as the biggest failure of the international community.
The Dutch soldiers tasked by the U.N. to defend the town were vastly outnumbered by Serbs. But they were also abandoned by their commanders. Their bosses in the Netherlands and at the U.N. were either out to lunch or on vacation—so no one could give the orders for airstrikes that would have saved Srebrenica. Aida, watching all of this unfold, is powerless. Like the Apostle Peter confronting Jesus on the Appian Way—the Christian fable from which the title comes—she is caught on a terrible journey that twists her own fate.
“The character of the translator seemed to me the right angle to tell the story,” Zbanic told me. “She had more information than the other Bosnians, but she is still Bosnian. She was between two worlds. She thinks in some way having a U.N. badge gives her a privilege. But it does not.”
For me, the most painful scene was Aida desperately trying to hide her son and husband in the U.N. compound. Knocking on the door of the Dutch commander—meant to be Col. Thom Karremans, the head of the U.N. garrison in Srebrenica—she begs him to open the door and intervene. “They are killing people out there,” she says quietly.
But the Dutch commander is paralyzed. When he tries to reach U.N. headquarters, he is thwarted by his superiors, who tell him he should appease the Serbs. He can’t get authorization for airstrikes. He knows, horribly, that he will be forever complicit in the unfolding mass murder. (Since the massacre, the Netherlands has acknowledged its role in the horror; after a particularly damning report in 2002, the prime minister and entire cabinet resigned.)
Zbanic, who is well known for directing two other powerful films set in Bosnia, divides her time between Berlin and Sarajevo. It took her six years to make the film, largely because she feels “the time was not right.” Now, she said, “with the rise of right-wing governments, political uncertainty, and irresponsible presidents, people understand more what happened in Bosnia.” Her film, she stressed, shows what can happen when people “lose safety.” Surely, living in COVID-19 times, we understand the fragility of our security more than ever.
One of her goals is to educate a new generation of Bosnians who do not know—or whose leaders do not want them to know—what happened.
She also wants to commemorate the survivors. Many family members spent years simply trying to get the bones of their loved ones so they could bury them. The Serbs knew, even as they were doing the killing, that they were committing a war crime: In some cases, they tried hiding the bones in multiple graves.
A group of women known as the Mothers of Srebrenica eventually brought a civil action against the U.N. for its breach of duty to prevent the genocide. “To me, these women of Srebrenica were saints,” Zbanic said. “We always think saints are in the sky, but these women are with us on the ground, on earth. This is the story of their journey.”
To drive home her point that Bosnia is still divided by ethnonationalism today, Zbanic decided to hold the film’s premiere at Potocari, the site of the Srebrenica memorial and cemetery. She invited Serbian journalists and students. One Serbian student came to her in tears, telling Zbanic he had no idea this had happened. Another wrote her asking why this was not in their history books. “For me, that was the most beautiful thing,” she said.
But instead of shedding more light on what happened, a whitewashing of the crime has been taking place. Genocide denial among Western opinion-makers started with the Austrian novelist Peter Handke, winner of the 2019 Nobel Prize in literature. Handke not only questioned the events of Srebrenica but gave a eulogy at the funeral of Slobodan Milosevic, the Serbian leader and ethnonationalist demagogue in power at the time of the genocide who was tried at The Hague for war crimes.
Then, last year, Boston University professor Jessica Stern published My War Criminal, a book based on her interviews with the notorious Bosnian Serb warlord Radovan Karadzic in prison. Stern, who had previously written eloquently about her own personal trauma, probably set out to explore the mind of a sociopath. But she lost her grasp of the book and, as she admitted, fell under the spell of the—in her words—“hypnotic” and “Byronic” convicted war criminal. The entire book is a vehicle for a man responsible for mass murder to demonstrate his lack of remorse for a hideous war that ripped apart a country.
But perhaps the greatest victory for historical amnesia and the ratification of murderous ethnic cleansing occurred in Srebrenica itself. In a 2016 vote for mayor, the town—which prewar held a Muslim majority and is now 55 percent Serb—elected Mladen Grujicic, a Serb who lost his father in the war and refuses to call the crimes at Srebrenica a massacre. “The Srebrenica genocide is still denied,” Zbanic said. “We couldn’t film [in the town] because the mayor still says genocide did not happen.”
Quo Vadis, Aida? challenges all of this. Zbanic hopes that both Serbs and Bosnians will see it. “Serbia is many, many voices,” she said—not just those who would like to forget history. The film ends hopefully. Aida returns to a mixed Srebrenica—to a school with Muslim and Serb children. “There is hope,” Zbanic said firmly. The sooner people see her film, she said, “the sooner they will be healed.”