OPINION

Peter Handke and the power of denial

What is behind the decision to award a genocide denier a Nobel Prize?

Bosnians protest against the decision to award Peter Handke the Nobel Prize for literature in front of Sweden embassy in Sarajevo on November 5, 2019 [File: Dado Ruvic/Reuters]
Bosnians protest against the decision to award Peter Handke the Nobel Prize for literature in front of Sweden embassy in Sarajevo on November 5, 2019 [File: Dado Ruvic/Reuters]

I have a brief but intimate experience of Stockholm. While living there in the winter of 2000, I wrote my first book, Postcards from the Grave – a first-hand account of my experience of the genocide in Srebrenica.

I had needed to get out of Bosnia in order to write, so when my Swedish-Bosnian girlfriend at the time offered to share her small university dormitory room with me, I accepted.

That period of my life was characterised by utter poverty. I could only afford a ticket on a shabby bus, which took 72 hours to travel from Sarajevo to Stockholm because its driver was smuggling alcohol across the borders and had to make frequent stops. I had left behind my sister and mother in an abandoned Serb house in a suburb of Sarajevo; my mother especially could not understand what it was I was doing.

I felt guilty for leaving them behind, particularly when strolling along Stockholm’s wide avenues, where everything was spacious and shiny. My inner world, even five years after the genocide, was still a very dark place, which felt at odds with the glamour of the Swedish capital.

I left shortly after I completed my first draft and did not go back for 20 years. Today, I have returned to Stockholm again in an attempt to preserve the memory of Srebrenica.

I am here to protest against the decision of the Swedish Royal Academy to award the Nobel Prize for literature to Peter Handke – an Austrian writer who spent a good part of his career belittling and openly denying everything that my family and I, among millions of others, survived in the 1990s.

Denial of crimes is closely linked to power. Individuals, groups, organisations and even entire societies engage in denial for one simple reason: because they can. By doing so, they exclude their victims from their moral universe which defines crime and punishment. According to this logic, no crime is perpetrated if the victims deserved it and hence, there should be no punishment.

With the decision to award Handke its prize for literature, the Nobel Committee excluded Bosniaks from the European moral universe once again; and this decision was no accident. It is indicative of a shift in the European attitude towards Bosnia and, I daresay, towards Muslims in general. 

The horrors that were uncovered by the trials at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia pushed into the background for a brief period some of the more virulent elements in the European political mainstream which were whitewashing war crimes. Throughout the war, these members of the European political elite continuously justified and rationalised the slaughter of the Bosniaks by presenting the genocide as an operation carried out by a “professional military” against a people that does not belong in Europe.

British officials referred to the genocide as the “painful but realistic restoration of Christian Europe”, while international mediators continued to engage in negotiations with Ratko Mladic, the commander of the Army of Republika Srpska, throughout July 1995, even as the genocidal operation in Srebrenica was ongoing.

Handke, in other words, was not an aberration in the 1990s; he was one of many others in the political mainstream with an identical agenda.

This political cohort has not gone away. The talking points have not changed. In fact, the entire discourse constructed in the 1990s for this purpose is still the same. One need only look at the recent rhetoric coming from the highest echelons of the French political establishment, describing “Muslim Bosnia” as a “ticking-time bomb” of jihadist extremism to see the alarming parallels to the language used by the architects of Bosnian genocide in the early 1990s.

The decision to award Handke a Nobel Prize for literature mirrors faithfully what I saw in the behaviour and actions of the United Nations officials and peacekeepers during the genocide in Srebrenica.

I had been working as an interpreter for the UN there since May 1993, when the UN “safe area” of Srebrenica fell to Serb forces led by Mladic in July 1995. The Serbs immediately began to talk about the deportation of Bosnian refugees to the town of Kladanj, near Tuzla, which was controlled by the Bosnian government at that time.

When the Serbs started separating men from their families, UN officials and Dutch peacekeepers thought it made sense for them to do so since they had “to check for war crimes”. I remember telling them as loudly and clearly as I could, “They will kill them all!” and being ignored and pushed aside.

A few days later, I watched a televised UN press conference with some Dutch officers and soldiers. A UN official, responding to a journalist’s question about the deportation, stated: “The people want to leave, the Serbs are just providing the buses.”

Not only was this a complete distortion of the reality of forced deportation, but it also omitted one critical detail: many of the buses provided by the Serbs – those which transported men – were never meant to take them to Kladanj. The men put on these buses were never seen alive again; they were taken to remote places and executed. The genocide had started, but the UN and the “peacekeepers” were still in denial.

Fast-forward to today. The Nobel Prize Committee similarly engages in denial. In a series of letters dated November 15, addressed to publishers and survivors in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo, the committee claims that “there must be space for different opinions about authors and that there must be space for different reasonable interpretations of their literary works”.

Some of the “different opinions” and “reasonable interpretations” offered in Handke’s work include suggestions that the Serb bombing of the Markale market in Sarajevo was actually the work of Bosnian Muslims; that the Bosnian Muslims somehow brought the slaughter of more than 8,000 of their men and boys in Srebrenica onto themselves; that it is unfair to refer to the Serbs as the “aggressors” in the conflict; and that Bosnian Muslims are not in fact an actual people.

Handke’s genocide denial is the logical political extension of the ignorance and the indifference of the rationalisations by UN and Dutch officials I witnessed in 1995.

Denial is part and parcel of the process that sets the context for genocide in the first place. Victims have to be seen in the same way they were constructed and imagined before the killing: as less than human and deserving of their fate. The most obvious form of denial is burial in an unmarked mass grave. What is not seen is not talked about or remembered.

In October this year, the Nobel Committee delivered the final verdict on our place in European memory: we are unseen and unremembered, our pain and our truth – denied.

No, the outside world did not just stand by during the Bosnian genocide. It actively rationalised and negated our experience, and what is more, it continues to do so.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.



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