Hush –We Drank From the Same Poisonous Vial:

A Book Review: S. Drakulic, They Would Never Hurt a Fly (New York: Penguin Group, 2004)

…It is essential that we understand that it is we, ordinary people and not some madmen, who made it possible. We were the ones who one day stopped greeting our neighbors of a different nationality, an act that the next day made possible the opening of concentration camps. We did it to one another.
–Slavenka Drakulic in They Would Never Hurt a Fly, 194


Blind and Deaf to War Crimes

I was thirty-one years old and a little naive. The Rotary World Peace Fellow’s Class of June/September 2008, which I was part of had just completed a long day visiting Cambodia’s Killing Fields of Choeung Ek, also known as Choeung Ek Genocide Museum and the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. About fifteen-thousand people are believed to have been killed in the former and about twenty-thousand imprisoned in the Security Prison 21 (S-21) by the notorious Khmer Rouge in that country. This was my first first hand encounter with the history of mass murder. At a class brief after these two site visits, I found myself struggling to understand, come to grips with what happened in Cambodia between 1975 and 1979.

As a teenager growing up in rural Kenya, I had followed what happened in Rwanda in April 1994 from a distance and through conversations with two Rwandese farm-helps who worked for my grand-father and who didn’t even get along with each other. However, I had not devoted time or thought to what “war crimes” or “crimes against humanity,” “mass murder” and “genocide” meant. Not until this visit to Phnom Penh. My initial reaction was that it must have taken a pathologically mad person, or deranged people to commit such atrocities. But the more I thought about it, I came to the horrific realization that what I had just witnessed and encountered was done by ordinary or normal people. People not unlike myself. As such, in a way, I was witnessing and coming to terms with my true self: looking at myself in the mirror. I had come, or had had to come to terms with what human nature is capable of. And, in my fieldwork report thereafter reflected: “This is what we are capable of…we did this…the world…humanity allowed this to happen…I could have been there…done it…I did it.”[1] The same observation reached by Slavenka Drakulic in her book –They Would Never Hurt a Fly– therefore, resonates with my insight and experience.

Drakulic’s book may not be exactly a chilling, detailed and graphic description of war atrocities but it is, no doubt, profound. It is not only the story of the fifteen year old girl –B.A- who was raped and then sold to sexual slavery in Montenegro; not only that of the wiry old man who pleaded for his life to be spared before being executed along with other victims in the deserted farm in Branjevo; and it is not that of the boy who upon seeing “rows of dead bodies in the field” called “for his mother, as children sometimes do when they awake from a bad dream,” which break the heart of the reader of They Would Never Hurt a Fly. What does, instead, is the appreciation that that description could also mean that I would never hurt a fly. In essence, this deeply reflective work of what drives normal people to commit horrendous atrocities, observes that their “perpetrators are” not necessarily “monsters.” Drakulic argues that observers looking from the outside should not create a distance between themselves and such people. We should not brand them “mad” or “exclude them from humanity altogether.”[2]

By closely acquainting herself with Balkan war criminals and trying to understand how their crimes were possible, Drakulic found them not to be monsters. Rather, she found them to be ordinary people “just like us, who found themselves in particular circumstances and made wrong moral decisions.”[3] The most important question for Drakulic, therefore, is what the individual stories and backgrounds of people –who were party apparatchiks, military men, police officers, car mechanics, waiters, taxi drivers, teachers and politicians- tell us about ourselves with regard to the human propensity to evil.

It is the lives of these ordinary men and a woman that she scrutinizes in a bid to find out who they really were. She also asks the question of how or why the war happened in the first place, which she attempts to answer in the opening pages. With regard to the former question, the book is written out of personal interest and the author’s experience of the war, and is in this regard similar to Timothy Garton Ash’s book The File (1997), which also seeks to examine human nature. Drakulic writes about the Yugoslav wars, and specifically, the battle for Bosnia between Bosnian Croats and Bosnian Serbs on the one hand, and Muslim Bosniaks between 1992 and 1995.[4]

Like Ash (1997), Drakulic takes issue with the mis-written or non-existent post-World War II (Yugoslav communist) history and a glorification of acts of crime that were undertaken as wars for the homeland in the nineteen-nineties. She decries the conspiracy of silence over the truth about these wars, which she says will continue to haunt future generations if unaddressed. Such convenient forgetfulness, she argues, is what allows past mistakes to recur. Drakulic believes that “war does not come from nowhere; I saw in Yugolsavia that it must be prepared.” That in the absence of a desire for historical veracity, facts are manipulated and it is this “ground zero” of history, which was first inaugurated by the immediate post-World War II generation, that was repeated at the end of the last decade of the twentieth century: that is, after the collapse of communism and the outbreak of the Balkan wars.[5] Like Ash (1997), Drakulic deplores this state of affairs noting that it should not be let to happen for the third time running in the Balkans. She posits that there cannot be justice without truth, or no security and peace by the same token.

For Drakulic, the truth should not be hindered by widespread culpability and involvement of whole sections of society, cowardice and the inability and/or unwillingness to confront or thrash out the past and acknowledge it for what it really was. That is, just because “it is easier, and much more comfortable, to live with lies than to confront the truth and, with that, the possibility of individual guilt.”[6]

They Would Never Hurt a Fly is, certainly, the first installment towards such a thrashing out of the history of the region. She starts her examination with the Hague trials of Miroslav Kvocka, Dragoljub Prcac, Milojica Kos, Mladjo Radica and Zoran Zigic (a taxi driver) –all of them accused of murder and torture in the Omarska and Keraterm camps in Bosnia.[7] Then in quickly successive and brief chapters, Drakulic discusses a range of other war criminals who despite having participated in the same atrocities, played different roles. These include the Croatian Gospic group that exterminated a truck-load of Serbs under the direction of Tihomir Oreskovic and Mirko Norac (who had been a waiter); the Foca rapist trio of Kunarac, Kovac and Vukovic; the “calm” sadistic Bijeljina prison executioner-cum-farm mechanic and fisherman, Jelisic; the cowardly and lying general, Radislav Krstic; the cog in the wheel of evil, soldier Drazen; the embodiment of evil, Slobodan Milosevic and his sidekick (wife) , Mirjana Mira Markovic; the ethnic cleansing brainchild-operator General Ratko Mladic, commander of the Republika Srpska forces; and lastly, the repentant senior government official of the breakaway Republika Srpska, Biljana Plavsic. All these people represent various categories of “ordinary” people involved at various levels of responsibility for various crimes.

The Foca trio represents low-life people for whom the war represented an opportunity for self-importance: when the war broke out, Drakulic writes, “they managed to put their hands on some rifles, they began to feel big and strong.” They were crude and acted in a fashion that projected patriarchal values onto the war, including lack of respect for women: wives in their society were “nothing more than cattle. The man is the boss, the woman should shut up and obey him; and it is not unusual for a man to beat up his wife in order to remind her of that. Rape? … To take a woman whenever and wherever you want? It is a man’s right, for sure ….”[8] For these kinds of combatants, as their judge observed, their criminal personalities came out to play as the boys just had themselves some fun in the atmosphere presented by the war. Reading the story of this trio, one appreciates that though one may be normal, there is resident evil in the human soul, a part of human nature that is suppressed in times of peace and order. Here, one could also add, the subsequent silence at the end of the war can be attributed to this same inherent evil: that is, that there was widespread complicity of the population –what Drakulic refers to as “the T.V set syndrome.” This means that people are afraid of each other since a majority of them used the war to help themselves to TV sets and similar goods from deserted houses. If one dares challenge them and demand justice, they say: “you shut up, you stole a TV set.”[9] This is a theme that is also captured well by J. Gross in Neighbors (2002) and, to some extent Fear (2006).

On the other hand, the chapter on Goran Jelisic seems to suggest that he stands unique in that he was a former convict who was somewhat deranged and pathological. But he too had been quite a normal person before the war and at times during the war, when he extended help to Muslim neighbors who needed it.[10] To some extent, Drakulic is persuaded that the war had to something to do with the manner in which Jelisic’s personality changed: that it is not the person that had changed but the circumstances. “There was no longer peace; …there was war … .The war changed it all.” But she qualifies this by drawing parallels between him and her son-in-law observing that both, under the circumstances of war, made conscious choices –the former to join the police force and the latter to seek asylum in Canada. As such, she concludes that “there are many people who seem to be perfectly normal, but under certain conditions, like those prevailing during war, their pathological side comes forward and dominates their behavior.”[11] General Krstic, for his part, colluded with evil that he did not risk his neck to oppose.

Thus, he allowed evil to triumph, despite the fact that he could have resisted it. He complied with the force of circumstances: “his compliant character ‘allowed’ him to choose the wrong side, when he ‘agreed to evil,’ as the prosecutor said.”[12] In this, he’s like the Stasi men in Ash (1997) who were just doing their job and claimed to be following superior orders from above. The same can be said of soldier Erdemovic who represents lower cadres who had absolutely no choice in their actions such as the execution of hundreds of Muslims in cold blood, in this case. These were the driven hordes, which despite their stirred consciences chose to save their necks and comply with orders. Erdemovic lacked the moral courage to contradict the order to shoot innocent and unarmed civilians whom he shot until he got a blister.

Then there were people like Milosevic who were the epitome of evil: evil was not just resident in him. Rather, he allowed his opportunism to rein supreme, blindly following his political ambitions at whatever cost. Even that of a war that cost two-hundred thousand lives. The author doesn’t adduce a lot of evidence to prove that this leader was necessarily evil, however. The most damning observation Drakulic makes is that Milosevic was banal, vulgar and empty –and this was from reading a number of his biographies. The author, nevertheless, does relay a little piece of information, which conveys the kind of man he was: that is, when he asked the amputee witness –Nikola Samardzic- whether he was familiar with the Serbian proverb that “People who lie have short legs.”[13] This, quite aptly, serves to capture Milosevic’s crudeness.

This work becomes more personal when Drakulic discusses Milosevic’s wife –Mira Markovic. The reader must wonder why, suddenly, the author seems to lose all objectivity. For instance, when she dedicates no less than three pages to discuss Mira’s poor fashion taste or questions her femininity. Furthermore, Drakulic, in four separate instances, refers to both husband and wife as being autistic: thus, they were “an autistic couple;” their family a “little autistic haven;” and “united in their own autistic world;” and Milosevic, “a small, angry, autistic man.”[14]This can be misconstrued as a statement made by the author about autistic people, who are most often than not stigmatized by society and, should have obviously been qualified. But besides that, one must appreciate the fact that Drakulic does bring out a very important point regarding the unhappy individual pasts of man and wife. Both had had unhappy pasts without one or both of their parents –both were from broken families.[15] They had also become adults in a dangerous Cold War communist environment in which there was an economy with the truth. Could it be that both were stuck in Communist-era thinking? This is a question that the author does not address: perhaps, if Drakulic had spent time to investigate the childhoods of the two like Ash does (1997) with the former Stasi men who grew up without fathers, her analysis of human nature would have been much better for it. With that said, it is also important to note that the chapter on Mladic does not add much value as it is more about karma and natural justice when the general’s daughter commits suicides. Although it has an interesting literary effect, writing that Mladic probably suffered from high cholesterol and, as a result, “looks not so much like a soldier as a good candidate for a heart attack,” is getting a little too entangled with the topic at hand and is, therefore, neither here nor there. It would have been interesting to also, perhaps, indicate what her sources, with regard to some of the more intimate details of this chapter on Mladic, were: here, one feels that Drakulic knows more about the incidence than she lets on.

Drakulic prefaces and ends the book with two examples of personal courage: that of Milan Levar who in the face of tough choices chose to break ranks, and decided to speak up and testify at The Hague against the Gospic group. For her part, Plavsic risked being disowned by Bosnian Serbs when she admitted individual responsibility at The Hague. These two, for Drakulic are examples of personal courage, which is not only the beginning of confronting the past but also what should be our guide when caught up in difficult circumstances as ordinary people with a flawed human nature that tends to crimes of passion and caves in to resident evil. She closes the book with a provocative epilogue about how perpetrators from the sides involved in the Bosnian war –at the time when the book was written- were living harmoniously sharing food, space, sports and language at the Hague’s Scheveningen detention unit. The unity and brotherhood exhibited here mocks what happened in the Balkans as encapsulated by Zaric’s poem: It is not important what happened there, but how it is now, here. Perhaps, the question here ought to be what exactly was happening in this space in The Hague and how can it be showcased back home? This is a question that has been tackled by R.G. Helmick who studies how “men of violence” or terrorists in Northern Ireland sharing cell-blocks learned to accommodate the other side, and led to the end of hostilities there and reconciliation.[16]


[1] N. Githuku, “Cambodia: History and Memory, Contemporary Tensions and Dilemmas and an Uncertain Future,” Field Study Assignment -Cambodia, 10th- 18th August 2008, (For Rotary Center for Peace and Conflict Studies, Chulalongkorn University-Bangkok, Thailand) August 21st 2008.

[2] S. Drakulic, They Would Never Hurt a Fly (New York: Penguin Group, 2004) 190.

[3] Ibid, 190.

[4] Serbia plays an important supervisory and supportive role in this war.

[5] Ibid 8, 11 & 12.

[6] Ibid, 16.

[7] Ibid., 18.

[8] Ibid, 55 & 59.

[9] Ibid., 26 & 16.

[10] See Ibid, 67, 73, 75 & 77.

[11] Ibid., 81.

[12] Ibid, 94.

[13] Ibid, 136 & 137.

[14] Ibid., 129, 147, 136 &157.

[15] Ibid., 146.

[16] R.G. Helmrick, Jesuit Community Boston College, Chestnut Hill, Massachsetts, “Seeing the Image of God in Others: Key to the Transformation of Conflicts,” Unpublished/undated.

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Nicholas Githuku

Assistant Professor, African History at York College, CUNY
Nicholas Githuku is a Ph.D. holder in African Studies. His research interests include: War & Peace Studies in general; Conflict and Security and mediation in general and trends in the Great Lakes the Horn Regions of Africa; Memorialization of War; Development studies (Sub-Saharan Africa): Postcolonial/Contemporary Kenyan Politics; European History (1648 to 1900); First and Second World Wars; and Post-1989 Eastern Europe (Balkans) History.