The other White House, where hate flowed like lava John Hinton on a brave attempt to promote healing in post-war Bosnia.
The White House is a small, prefabricated building in the grounds of an iron ore mine at Omarska near Prijedor in north-western Bosnia. It might once have been the humble home of a subsistence farmer in that poor and infertile region. Two windows stare out on a discouraging landscape. Hardly worth a glance, you might think.
But into this nondescript building – during the terrible summer of 1992 – up to 4,000 innocent Bosnians and Croats were led to their deaths, terribly beaten, hung on meat hooks, tortured and then ploughed into the ground around the mine.
Had international journalists not discovered the killing camp it might have continued its ghastly work until the war ended three years later. The authors here have taken things a remarkable step further: Peter Pelz, responsible for most of the writing, and Donald Reeves, both founding members of a movement called The Soul of Europe, vowed to themselves that however difficult, however long it took, they would build a real memorial to the victims of Omarka, so that people on all sides could see what had been done and learn to live with their past, and drive the demons of racial hatred out of their minds, never to appear again.
The authors are clear about one thing: the obscurity of the White House only underlines the banality of horror. During the Bosnia war, people were imprisoned and killed in any old buildings: schools, factories, even grain silos.
And the figures of the total dead in the war are now certain. One hundred thousand died, 70,000 of them Muslims; 20,0000 were Serbs and about 10,000 Croats: or 44 per cent, 31 per cent and 25 per cent of the population respectively.
The Muslim community certainly had the grievance of bearing more victims proportionately but attempts by some of them to exaggerate the figures led the former President Izetbegovic to say in exasperation: “The international community has stood by and watched 10,000 Muslims die here in Sarajevo; why should the death of 60 more force them to act?”
Meanwhile, as Pelz and Reeves learned from many Bosnian friends, there was palpable anger at the swarms of NGOs and agencies, large and small, which parachuted into Bosnia after the war, all arrogantly convinced they were doing the right thing and, instead, generating confusion.
Spending five years in Bosnia following the war’s end, the authors concluded that many suspicions lurk in Bosnian hearts. Serbs believe the West wants Republika Srpska to cease to exist, and with it their identity as Serbs. Bosnians feel betrayed by the West for not preventing the massacre at Srebrenica and failing so far to capture General Mladic (they have, of course, captured Radovan Karadjic). Meanwhile, the Croats feel ignored and marginalised.
And the old arguments continue to be rehearsed. Because the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina was a consequence of the instability in the wider region of the former Yugoslavia, and due to the involvement of neighbouring countries, Croatia and Serbia and Montenegro, there was long-standing debate as to whether the conflict was a civil war or war of aggression.
Many western politicians and human rights organisations claimed that the war was a war of Serbian and Croatian aggression. The International Court of Justice ruling of February 26 2007 indirectly determined the war to be international, though it cleared Serbia of direct responsibility for the genocide committed by the forces. The court did conclude, however, that Serbia failed to prevent genocide committed by the Bosnian Serb forces and failed to punish those who carried out the genocide, especially General Mladic, and bring them to justice.
To the authors of The White House, one suspects this is only a numbers game. Their mediation project show an unyielding devotion to the healing process which they passionately believe is both necessary and worthwhile. Time and again, success seems to have slipped from their grasp. Had the new owner of the mine at Omarska really agreed to a memorial? Some local people were opposed. Curiously, the massive grey-and-black marble plinths erected as memorials in Prijedor’s public spaces led some to demand a ban on these mournful reminders of the conflict.
“You have stirred up bad emotions,” they were told. “Terrible things have happened in the past; we want to move on.”
The mayor was against a memorial at the mine. Local pressure led the mine owner to think again and come down against the idea.
But the authors have doggedly kept to their original plan, discovering whether Serbs, Bosnians and Croats would be ready to talk about the past. From encouraging individual assurances, they moved on to the difficult and bureaucratic process of forming groups, tabling resolutions and taking the advice of expert negotiators. “But at its heart, the road to reconciliation is a long, hard and profoundly human activity,” they write. “And the journey never ends. It is never completed. Politics and history aren’t like that. But without reconciliation, even partial reconciliation, there is descent into barbarism and never-ending violence.” They had to be ready to hear the stories in the raw – yet one cannot help wondering how far the bubbling of painful memory stops the healing of scars.
The book takes us to their final chapter – for now. An international conference and press visit has marked the White House. It has been filmed. The mine owner says he will now allow visits to the old mine workings where the atrocities took place. There is no memorial yet. But perhaps the little industrial building into which flowed the lava of so much suffering and hatred is memorial enough while the authors continue their saga.
Will it ever end? As they say, “the struggle continues”. Perhaps at this stage, they need a world figure to put his shoulder to the wheel. Former president Bill Clinton, who finally broke the impasse in that troubled land by giving Nato a mandate above the impotent UN, springs to mind. Here is a project which would be the perfect fit with his ambition to bring accord out of conflict and heal old wounds.