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NONFICTION

When the Dying Was Easy : THE TENTH CIRCLE OF HELL: A Memoir of Life in the Death Camps of Bosnia. By Rezak Hukanovic . Foreword by Elie Wiesel (A New Republic Book/Basic Books: $20; 164 pp.)

November 10, 1996|Christopher Merrill | Christopher Merrill is the author of "The Old Bridge: The Third Balkan War and the Age of the Refugee" (Milkweed)

Survivors of traumatic events, Primo Levi once observed, fall into two groups: "those who repress their past en bloc and those whose memory of the offense persists, as though carved in stone, prevailing over all previous or subsequent experiences." Levi himself belonged to the second group, as does the author of "The Tenth Circle of Hell: A Memoir of Life in the Death Camps of Bosnia," an utterly compelling but nearly unbearable account of the evil that humankind is capable of.

"The need to tell our story to 'the rest,' to make 'the rest' participate in it," Levi recalled, was what led him to write "Survival in Auschwitz" and other classic works about life in a concentration camp. The necessary testimonies of Levi and Aharon Appelfeld, of Paul Celan and Nelly Sachs and a host of gifted writers who have borne witness to this century's worst atrocities add up to a unique and terrible literary genre. The latest addition to this literature of our barbarous age comes from the killing fields of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Rezak Hukanovic's memoir about the death camps of Omarska and Manjaca is the powerful and affecting record of life in a place where, as he writes, "Even prayers couldn't be heard."

Hukanovic, a poet, journalist and radio announcer, was living in the city of Prijedor when fighting broke out in Bosnia in the spring of 1992. Before the war, Muslims slightly outnumbered Serbs in Prijedor, which is located in Bosnia's northwestern corner, but Hukanovic remembered distinctions being made between the two groups only during pickup soccer matches. Everything changed, however, when the Bosnian Serbs took control of the city one night. All the Muslims--and the few Croats living there--were dismissed from their jobs, schools were closed and from the media came a steady stream of Serbian propaganda. It was on May 13, 1992, that every man and many women in the Muslim and Croat communities were rounded up and sent to concentration camps.

"Dying was easy at Omarska," Hukanovic writes, "and living was hard." Infested with lice, with little to eat or drink, some 3,000 prisoners--600 alone in the writer's dorm--were subjected to daily beatings and the cruelest imaginable forms of torture. To take only one of many examples, all portrayed with a chilling economy: Two drunken guards armed with knives attack a prisoner who has refused an order to strip and when they are done with him his penis and half of his buttocks are gone. Then he is dumped into a garbage container, doused with gasoline and burned to death.

Page by page we descend ever deeper into the abyss, and what is most terrifying is the random, sadistic nature of the violence the prisoners endured: guards firing their machine guns into the dorms, a prisoner clubbed to death for saying thank you to a guard, an old man killed for not making love to a young woman in public. And then there were the soldiers who came on the weekends--"the specialists," as the guards called them, "at breaking arms and legs, tearing out organs and smashing skulls against walls." "The Tenth Circle of Hell" teems with images of human depravity.

Yet there were moments of reprieve in the camps (not unlike what Primo Levi memorialized in his writings), because, as Elie Wiesel notes in his foreword, "In hell, all things can be found." One guard, for example, watched out for Hukanovic, sneaking him food and messages from home, at great risk to himself. Those who proved to be "good men, honest Serbs," unwilling to join in "the orgies of blood," were sent to the front lines or killed by their comrades.

What kept the prisoners going? For Hukanovic it was the memory of his wife and two sons, and then the hope, as another prisoner said, that "Someone will make it, to witness their evil atrocities. Wherever wolves feast, they leave a bloody trail." When journalists discovered that trail, in August 1992, bringing the Serbian camps to the world's attention, rumors began to circulate among the prisoners that they would be released soon.

But it was not until Nov. 13, six months to the day after Hukanovic was taken to Omarska, that he was freed. "All the prisoners desperately wanted was to forget all the horror, but the angel of death's carelessness had marked them as witnesses," he writes. And while some Bosnians will eventually block out their memories of the camps, Hukanovic cannot and, one presumes, will not forget what his former neighbors did to him and to so many other innocent civilians. "The Tenth Circle of Hell" is the work of an eloquent and passionate witness for the defense of human decency.

This is in every sense a disturbing book, which nevertheless deserves a wide readership: How else shall we know, in our bones, the dimensions of the tragedy we have watched these many years on television?

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