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  • Hannah Shaw

'Quo Vadis, Aida?' - How a Film Taught us More About a Genocide than School

Hannah Shaw reviews the film Quo Vadis, Aida? and explains how it has been a springboard into learning about the Srebrenica massacre, where over 8,000 Bosniak men and boys were murdered during the Bosnian conflict in the early to mid-90s.

The Genocide Memorial by Tamara El-Halawani (Instagram: @tamara_elhalawani)

Image description: The Srebrenica–Potočari Memorial and Cemetery for the Victims of the 1995 Genocide.

Quo Vadis, Aida?, from start to finish, is an honest and painful portrayal of the massacre of over 8,000 Bosniak men and boys during the Bosnian conflict in the early to mid-90s. It follows the progression of the Serbian army into what had been promised a secure UN area - Srebrenica. The detail offered by the perspective of the protagonist, a Bosniak translator for the UN, is invaluable. As the viewer watches Aida, the translator, clammer to save her husband and two teenage sons, the narratives of her family and friends who were stuck inside and outside of the United Nations base are also explored. From shots of Aida’s family and friends flashing by at a party in times before the conflict, to those same people shown on opposite sides of the atrocities in 1995, Quo Vadis, Aida? shows how different Srebrenica became, and how quickly this change took place.

This film demonstrates what must have been an unimaginable disaster before the massacre took place. Srebrenica is the largest genocide to take place on European soil since the Holocaust, but nobody talks about it. The film’s director, Jasmila Zbanic, said in a New York Times article in March that responses have been mixed, and that she had hoped somebody else would have covered the atrocity. Just over 25 years since Srebrenica’s atrocity, some Serbian nationalists still deny its definition as genocide at all, and in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Serbia, let alone beyond the region, the subject is hugely undertaught. Zbanic invited over 100 young people, some of whom were Bosnian Muslims, others who were ethnic Serbs, to the film’s premiere in Srebrenica. Could such a film have the power to both educate and reconcile?

This film moved me immensely; it felt important to watch and needed to be made, but why had my knowledge of Europe’s second-largest atrocity been so limited? 1995 does not seem all that long ago, and I don’t think it was covered once at school. Perhaps this is simply because no one expects something like this to happen in Europe anymore? Or was it the catastrophic failings of the United Nations and its Dutch battalion stationed in Bosnia at the time? To cover the whole story, the failings of the UN needed to be highlighted. This began with declaring Srebrenica a UN ‘safe zone’, and promising airstrikes and military intervention if the Serbian army was to enter Srebrenica. This never happened, and Quo Vadis, Aida? demonstrates well the urgency of the situation and the panic that the Dutch soldiers, too, must have felt. Even in Srebrenica itself, schools in 2019 stated they would not teach 1995’s disaster. Many Bosnians have, since the massacre, returned to the city they were driven out of, and mothers, wives and daughters search through unidentified remains in an attempt at some form of closure. This was also one of the final scenes of Quo Vadis, Aida? as Aida loses all three of her male family members. Republika Srpska still exists. It lies in the northern enclave of Bosnia and Herzegovina and Bosnian Serbs here decide on all school curriculums, and education policies - purposeful forgetting seems to be the aim here.

The atrocities of General Mladic’s army in Srebrenica (and elsewhere) cannot be forgotten. This film leaves little untouched, and so offers significant insight into how quickly a city was divided, evacuated and robbed of its men and boys. If not least to honour the lives of the lost men and the efforts and resilience of the women left behind in nation-building processes, this is a topic that ought to be taught and discussed in educational contexts.


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