Love Thy Neighbor by Peter Maass

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Human Animals, Killing Like Wolves

By Richard Bernstein
The New York Times, February 28, 1996

After all of the thousands of articles and news reports written about the war in Bosnia, you might think that there was nothing more to say on this unhappy subject. Peter Maass’s angry, stinging, profanely eloquent and often painful book would prove you wrong.

This is not simply because Mr. Maass, who covered the Bosnian conflict for The Washington Post in 1992 and 1993, is a good reporter and an effective writer. It is more because in “Love Thy Neighbor” he does what newspaper reporters are generally not allowed to do in their daily dispatches: he puts himself into the story, makes you see and feel the conflict the way he saw it and felt it. Mr. Maass tells what it was like to be under fire, or to interview the Serb leader Slobodan Milosevic, or to discover the corpse of an old woman on a bed in an unheated home for the elderly being evacuated by United Nations soldiers.

“Three journalists were in the room, and we looked at one another for direction,” Mr. Maass writes. “Who was going to close the corpse’s eyelids? Who was going to pull a sheet over the corpse’s face? Who was going to wrap the corpse in a blanket and put it somewhere else so that these two godforsaken women in the adjacent beds would not, quite literally, be forced to stare death in the face?”

Mr. Maass continues: “We were like aliens in that room dressed in our high-tech clothing, wearing Gore-Tex gloves, our wallets stuffed with money and passports that meant we could leave this hell at any moment we wished and fly, for example, to Paris, where we could stay at the Ritz and impress our friends with tales of adventure from Bosnia.”

There is a lot of writing like that in Mr. Maass’s account of his two years in the living hell of Bosnia. Tough and vivid, laced here and there with gallows humor, the writing draws you into Mr. Maass’s world and holds you there even when you would like to escape. And there are times when escape would be a relief, as, for example, when Mr. Maass recounts the tales of torture he heard among former Muslim prisoners in Serb detention camps. And, at the same time, Mr. Maass is too smart not to see through both his own fascination and that of his readers. The issue is a kind of pornography, “war porn,” he calls it. You feel a vague guilt in the simple fact that Mr. Maass’s sharp-edged account is so very interesting, like a well-made horror movie. You almost wish it were duller.

War reporting has always been a special business, a way of advancing a career while being well paid for skillful, even enthralling descriptions of horrors experienced by others. In his book (in contrast with his reports for The Washington Post) Mr. Maass drops all pretense of neutrality on the Bosnian conflict. “Love Thy Neighbor” is an unabashed condemnation of the Serbian side in the war and a ferocious sort of j’accuse directed against the Western countries, including the United States, for, in Mr. Maass’s term, appeasing the Serbs for so long.

At times, fortunately only a few of them, Mr. Maass nearly foams at the mouth in his rage, and he defeats himself when he does. “The men with pens were every bit as fascinating and repulsive as the men with guns,” he declares of the diplomats in Geneva who tried in 1993 to push the sides in the conflict into a settlement, one eventually rejected with good reason by the Bosnian side. There is no basis for that statement. One who murders, rapes and tortures is more repulsive, if not more fascinating, than one who ineffectually, even hypocritically, fails to stop him.

Still, Mr. Maass was in Bosnia during many of its worst moments, and his presence there gives him a shrewd eye for the telling moments of Western hypocrisy. Sitting in his room in the Hotel Tuzla one evening, he watched on satellite television the speech President Clinton gave at the opening of the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, the one in which the President declared the American commitment to a “ceaseless struggle to preserve human rights and dignity.” Earlier that day Mr. Maass had interviewed a Bosnian doctor who had carried out 1,400 operations, many of them amputations performed without anesthesia, on members of the Muslim population who were wounded during the Serb seige of the supposed “safe area” of Srebrenica.

“My disappointment in President Clinton—no, let me be precise, my disgust with President Clinton—turned to shame,” Mr. Maass says, describing his feelings at that moment. “I felt no personal responsibility for the fact that he was a hypocrite. But something new struck me: President Clinton was making hypocrites of us all, and there was very little that could be done about it.”

Mr. Maass’s book was written before the agreement that now, finally, seems to have brought real hopes of peace to the Balkans and so, through no fault of the author’s, there is no recounting of that part of the story. No matter. Mr. Maass’s book will be read not because it gives a complete account of recent Balkan history, since it doesn’t, but because it describes so brilliantly what happens when what the author calls “the wild beast” of human cruelty escapes its cage.

Mr. Maass tells us what human beings smell like when they have been cooped up in refugee camps. The smell, he writes, reminds you “that humans are animals, with the ability to stink like pigs and kill like wolves.” He visits some of the wolves, sitting in their shelters in the hills above Sarajevo where they fire on the civilian population below. He interviews a Serb family that used a crowbar to occupy an apartment vacated by a fleeing Muslim family, and is told how they learned on the radio, which wouldn’t lie, that the Muslims were plotting to round up Serb women and put them in harems for the use of Muslim men. He describes the demolition by the Serbs of the 400-year-old Ferhad-Pasha Mosque in the “cleansed” city of Banja Luka.

What Mr. Maass gives us in short is a view of ethnic cleansing in all of its cruelty, its absurd detail, its self-justification, its dehumanization of the other. “Love Thy Neighbor” will take its place among the classics of an unfortunate genre: the portrayal of humankind at its worst.

Love Thy Neighbor by Peter Maass

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