• When Fiction Bears Witness to a Crime Against Humanity

    Kim Echlin on Telling Stories of the Unthinkable

    The women came from Sarajevo and Foča. They came from Zagreb and Belgrade. They came from Toronto and New York and Hamburg. They came from Kathmandu and Vienna and Lusaka. They were witnesses, lawyers, researchers, interpreters and judges. They came to the international tribunal at The Hague with desire and ambition. Some came with fear. They came for justice, and to change the law. They cared little for borders.

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    Bakira Hasečić meets me at the door of her Sarajevo office. She is tall, and she moves with long-limbed energy. Her eyes are assessing and fierce. She is controversial and fearless and she gets things done. She speaks when others fall silent. Bakira founded and is president of “Women Victims of War,” where she supports survivors and documents war crimes. She is from Višegrad, and suffered brutal rape and incarceration during the war. She pulls out her latest publication, Monograph About War Rape and Sexual Assault in War in Bosnia and Herzegovina. It documents war rape in 73 cities and tabulates 4,350 statements.

    Bakira drives to cities and villages where perpetrators live free and she photographs them and their families and workplaces. She keeps stirring into flames the smouldering war crimes. If her women are to be forgotten, she will not allow the criminals to hide in shadows.

    I look at the shelves and shelves of files. These walls quake with women’s stories.

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    During the war, Bakira called for help and no one came. The world watched and did nothing.

    “After testifying, the feelings ranged over grief and relief and fear. Some came out destroyed. Others were outwardly calm.”

    I ask what she wants. I am thinking words like justice. I am thinking words like those in her publications: Their memories should also be our memories, because their suffering does not only belong to them, but to all of us…

    “Money,” she says. “The women need housing and food and jobs. Many of their families reject them. And I want the world not to forget.”

    I give her the money I have.


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    Writing fiction is solitary and moves only in one direction, down, into the dark where truth is. Do you think a writer sits alone in a closed-off life? It is exactly the opposite. A writer is always aware of the torment and fleeting delight of the world, and is forged in this awareness. If a writer does not tell, who the hell is going to?


    The women spoke from Bern and Hamilton and London and Dubrovnik. Dita worked in The Hague as an Operations/Language Assistant in the Victims and Witnesses Section. The support teams took care of everyone from generals to villagers, 24 hours a day. Dita worked with Kosovo rape survivors among the many people she supported. At the height of the court activity, there were six witness waiting rooms thick with smoke.

    When I met her, Dita had left the courts. She was working from a new home in Switzerland and I was in Toronto. Her voice on the telephone was radiantly warm and strong. She read my manuscript, consulted on language, and spoke to the delicacy of work with women survivors. She said, “We were close. The women needed to trust us completely to talk only about what we agreed to talk about. Witnesses sometimes knew each other from their communities and some wanted to see each other and some didn’t. After testifying, the feelings ranged over grief and relief and fear. Some came out destroyed. Others were outwardly calm. It was not just the rapes but the community reaction, not just the war trauma but the trauma of being ostracized by their families and villages.”

    “Do you think it was worth it to the witnesses,” I asked, “to travel to a foreign court in a foreign city? Sometimes alone. Sometimes in secret. And to face the perpetrators?”

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    Dita said, “Testifying helps a witness. They might feel terrible right after, but later there is relief and a sense of accomplishment. Sometimes a witness would say it was nothing, their small story against a big general or politician. The psychologist would say to them, ‘I want you to picture a brick wall made of many bricks. Each story that is told is a brick. Without all the stories, there is no wall. This is the importance of your story.’”


    We drove through the mountains away from Sarajevo. I was traveling with Salam, who fought in the siege of Sarajevo. Before our long drive, we visited the cemetery where Salam’s brother is buried, high above the valley. From this quiet place, you cannot see pock-marks on shelled buildings or Sarajevo roses in the sidewalks—you are looking over an imaginary fairy tale city with red tiled roofs, minarets and bell towers. Salam said, “My brother was killed in the first days of the war. After he died, I walked in front of bullets. I did not want to live. And then I thought, Who will protect my sons if I die too? I decided to fight here so that I could go home once a week and bring water to my family and our neighbors.”

    The mountain roads to Foča, to Srebrenica, trace deep valleys and long rivers. Narrow- gauge railways, remnants of the Austria-Hungarian empire, are cut into mountain sides. Bridges stretch over wide canyons like tightrope walkers’ cables. We drove through mountain tunnels, hurtling into a darkness that felt like long blinks of unconsciousness.

    What dread to arrive there with drunken soldiers, to pass through this locked gate toward a house built at the top of a sheer drop into a deep valley.

    After the war, there was no work. At first, Salam drove UN war crimes investigators. For a while, there were a lot of Italian soldiers, and he opened a pizza restaurant that served them. When the soldiers and investigators moved on, he created a tour company called “Funky Sarajevo Tours: Breaking Prejudice.” He guided young backpackers through his country, offered them his special “Sarajevo Total Siege Tour” to visit the war tunnel under the airport and the Olympic bobsled track where snipers hid and the Markale market. He fought the war and was now teaching it. He made a living for his family.

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    Iain, a former case-worker from the courts in The Hague, traveled with us. He carried an iPad stocked with files of statistics and maps, the recorded documentation of Salam’s war.

    We drove into Foča and stopped at sites where women were held, the high school and a recreation centre called Partizan Hall. I also wanted to see Karaman’s House, a place notorious for the brutal men who used it. Many women who testified at the trial were held there. We found the remote road and drove back and forth between isolated farmhouses. One of our few photographs showed a distinctive iron gate across the driveway. Could it still be there after two decades? The records showed we were in the right place but we could not see the house. Finally, Salam was able to read the line of the mountain ridge behind the house in the photo. The trees had changed, but the stone ridge beneath them was an exact match. And there, down a steep curving driveway, hidden, was the gate and the house.

    What dread to arrive there with drunken soldiers, to pass through this locked gate toward a house built at the top of a sheer drop into a deep valley. Now I could imagine this place. Steep treed forests above the road behind. Impassable precipice below. No way to escape.

    Iain and I walked down and were looking at the gate and the house when a man appeared on the deserted road up above. Where had he come from? No vehicle. Salam was waiting by the van, smoking, scanning the thick woods. At the sound of the stranger’s footsteps, we hurried back up the steep path to see the man a few feet from Salam. When I reached them, Salam had drawn himself up to his full height and stepped in front of me. Wordless, the stranger spat at our feet. He continued walking, worn shoes kicking at loose stones.

    Inside the van I asked, “What was that about?”

    “It’s nothing,” Salam said, lighting a cigarette, taking a sip of water, shifting the gears, turning the steering wheel. “Maybe they don’t like visitors.”

    History is now.

    I think of this long history of women as spoils of war. I think of Agamemnon in the Iliad exhorting his warriors, …let no man hurry to sail for home…not till he beds down with a faithful Trojan wife. What do we do once we know?


    We drove to the restaurant where the women and girls were rented, bought and sold. Last stop for today. A man came in, feigned that he knew Salam and reached across with a hearty greeting to shake his hand. Salam took it and the contact was violent, almost imperceptible, a warning. The war was 20 years before. When the man pulled away, Salam picked up his small cup and said, “We only come here for coffee. Let’s go.”

    These aggressions take seconds, but I remember them in slow motion. Like a wolf-dog’s raised ears.

    A few days later, I stop at Salam’s office to pay him. We have shared lots of jokes and many stories on this trip. He knows how to say “I love you” in a dozen languages. I ask him why and he shrugs: “Love not good?” He knows good restaurants. The history of the war is etched in his skull. He’s shown me the bunkers he shot from above the city and an artesian well and his brother’s grave. In the coming days I’ll see him with his sons and their girlfriends strolling in the city.

    Sarajevo is a great city to hang out in. He pours us each a glass of rakija to finish our “breaking prejudice” tour, and he reaches up for a bullet on a high shelf. He hands it to me to hold and I fiddle with the top and he takes it back and says, “Careful, it’s live. That is the bullet that shot my father in his war.” Then he opens it and tips a few grains of gunpowder into our drinks, looks at me cheerfully and says, “Makes it taste better. Nazdravlje.”


    The first true knowledge is not in language but in intimacy. Later, words come. There are two thousand pages of court transcripts for one trial. There is additional testimony from many other NGOs, reports from psychologists and women’s groups, government and UN reports. I read and read. I go so deep that I sometimes think I hear the women’s voices. Later, I get video recordings from the court proceedings. The women’s faces are pixelated, and their voices are altered. Other women’s English-language voices are layered over them and they speak in the syncopated gait of simultaneous interpretation.

    To remember is central to justice.

    At the courts I ask people about their work and why they have left their homes to come here. I ask Diana, who worked on the trials for seven years, who speaks the language and has the history in her bones. She has become a friend, guiding me like Ariadne through the dread maze. I ask Janet, who has worked in war zones and ordered helicopters as if they were taxis. I ask pre-op soldiers and interpreters and Victim-Support Workers. I ask researchers and case-workers. I ask Hildegaard Uertz-Retzlaff, a prosecutor on the Foča trial. She is succinct and unselfconscious. She says, “I wanted to make a difference.”


    For the first time since the Iliad, this international legal body declared that rape in war is not customary, but a crime against humanity. The women who broke silence and shame, who dared to witness and to build legal cases and to write judgements, changed the law. Now war-rape is a crime against all of us. The true story is the core of the law, and it is also the beating heart of literature. People dug deep, exhumed once more the meaning of being human. How do we remember? We carve names on memorials and grave-markers, we print stories in legal documents and novels. These are the measures of our humanity: how we tell our stories and how we bury our dead. We are breath and dust, and only briefly of this world.


    I have one last story to tell you. The oldest written literature in the world comes from Sumer in 2100 BCE. It was pressed and baked into clay tablets by a priestess-poet. She writes love stories and elaborate tales of power and a goddess’s quest for immortality. She also writes a rape story. The goddess is raped by a farmer-boy and after, the goddess will not be silent. She cries out and demands that the boy be brought to her. The people are afraid and they try to hide him and, in fury, she brings pestilence and drought to the land. The god of wisdom asks her to stop. But she refuses. And so, the people give her the farmer-boy, and she judges him and condemns him to die.

    But that is not the end of this 4,000-year old story. The ancient poet writes this crime into song so it will never be forgotten. To remember is central to justice. Her memory should also be our memory. Against silent forgetting, revolt.


    Speak, Silence

    Speak, Silence by Kim Echlin is now available via Hamish Hamilton.

    Kim Echlin
    Kim Echlin
    Kim Echlin's third novel, The Disappeared, won the Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Award and was published in 20 countries. Her new novel, Speak, Silence (March 2021), is a fictional account of The Hague's ground-breaking war crimes trials in which rape in war was defined as a crime again humanity . She has worked and lived around the world, and currently lives in Toronto.

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