Rezak Hukanovic: Witness and Survivor in The Tenth Circle of Hell

By Ruth E. Dominguez
2009, Vol. 1 No. 10 | pg. 1/2 |

The Tenth Circle of Hell: A Memoir of Life in the Death Camps of Bosnia, written by Rezak Hukanovic, is one survivor’s account of his experience during the war in former Yugoslavia. In a chronological manner, Hukanovic details events that happened in his native land, starting in his home of Prijedor. Through his eyes, we become witnesses to the tragedy of ethnic and the atrocities of war crimes.

This story is a personal story, but it is also a group story, a national story, and a universal story of survivorship. Three elements of such an account that are strongly conveyed in Hukanovic are the lack of control experienced by the victims, the severity of war crimes and the brutality of abuses, and ultimately how hope operates in such a situation, when survival is the primary experience of the witness.

Hukanovic’s account is written in the third person, a choice he made for a number of reasons and a technique that creates a number of effects. Among these possible effects, are a certain amount of detachment from the subject and from the highly personal experience. Indeed, as the translator tells us:

"In coming to write of his experiences in the Omarska and Manjacacamps, Hukanovic felt that using the third person would be themost effective means of conveying the mixture of the macabre andthe mundane that constituted the lives of Bosnian prisoners. Hehas also explained that he chose to use a third-person narratorbecause he felt, at the time, that the brutal events he endured—as well as the complicit behavior of former friends and neighborshe witnessed— must have been happening to someone else." (xii)

This feeling, that the experience “must have been happening to someone else”, is conveyed in the narrative voice. The use of third person, the numbing effects of repetitive brutality, and the necessity of survival all create a narrative that is, at times, difficult to accept, yet is ultimately the truth. Perhaps the reader is carried along with the idea of survivorship— that at the very least, the author survives. And at least so much a part of that survivorship, from this man’s perspective, is being able to withstand inhuman circumstances, with the detachment that often accompanies trauma, and live to bear witness to the extremity of what happened.

The narrative, therefore, goes beyond the idea of witness to the idea of survivorship. Hukanovic’s use of third person is one signal that shows the readers the complete lack of control and victimization that occurred against targeted groups in Bosnia. The almost “out-of-body” sensation, that is the nature of his experience, is inherently a part of his total victimization.

The account begins in Prijedor, Djemo’s (Rezak Hukanovic) hometown. His personal situation starts with danger and fear, and slowly becomes worse. Djemo is taken as a prisoner to a camp at Omarska, and we are told of others who have been put in a similar situation:

"Over the course of two days more than three thousand inhabitants of Prijedor and its outlying villages were arrested in their homesin these inconceivable raids and brought to the Serb prison atOmarska. Among the prisoners, whose only fault was beingMuslim or Croat, were intellectuals, teachers, engineers, policeofficers, craftsmen. Djemo recognized the mayor of Prijedor, theHonorable Mr. Muhamed Cehajic. How absurd such a title seemednow." (26)

Hukanovic repeatedly tells us of the helplessness of his situation. Key to an understanding of this account within a larger context of human rights issues, we see how , what has been called in the Bosnian case “ethnic clensing”, begins to take hold of a victimized population. Perhaps one of the unsettling aspects of the book, from the point of view of lector, is the contrast between the passivity of the victims and the active brutality of perpetrators. Through Hukanovic’s “character”, Djemo, one begins to understand and experience the lack of control that victims in such a situation possess. The narrative account takes us from beatings and interrogations, to continued beatings and interrogations, to repeated torture. Hukanovic tells us:

"All may be fair in love and war, but practices such as those at Omarska were the most perverse forms of physical and psychological torture— a militarily enforced prostitution of people, supplied by a huge arsenal of pain and suffering." (83)

It is such a situation-- conveyed to others through this witnessing-- that is elaborated upon throughout the book. One primary element is the utter defenselessness of the prisoners, and the lack of control experienced by victims of such torture.

Another element that was witnessed in both the Omarska and Manjaca camps was the repeated brutality and severity of human rights abuses referred to above. At the beginning of the account, Hukanovic tells us, “These were strange times. Bosnia trembled as if it had been hit by a powerful earthquake. But an earthquake comes and goes. This upheaval just kept on coming.” (24) Hukanovic’s detachment from his own experience, at least in this account, goes beyond frustration at being so victimized.

Some of this victimization, he seems to tell us, is a resignation to incomprehensible circumstances. These circumstances of the prisoners reveal the extent of ethnic hatred. Included in Hukanovic’s account are repeated instances of brutality where former neighbors or co-workers or students seek revenge on their prisoners:

"The prisoners— seized against their will and humiliated at every turn,the smiles gone forever from their withered lips, exhausted and sick,starving to death, staring absently with glassy eyes— were made ofthe same substance, were born under the same sky, and had livedon the same soil as their jailers." (56)

In many instances in the camps at Omarska and Manjaca, the brutality expressed by captors is personal. At other times the torture is psychological in addition to being physical:

"One rainy night the name Mehmedalija Sarajlic was called out.A distinguished, gray-haired man about sixty years old, he was takenoutside and forced to strip naked; then the guards brought him,still naked, back into the room with Hajra, a girl who couldn’thave been older than twenty-two or twenty-three. She, too, wasforced to strip, and they were ordered to make love in front ofall the other prisoners, who looked on in horror and silence, deeplyhumiliated by the utter powerlessness of the man and womanbefore them." (43)

The brutality of the tortures and the repetition of abuse is a primary reality brought forth in the narrative. An effect of this is a sense of frustration, one that is experienced directly by Djemo or Hukanovic to different degrees, as with all the prisoners, but also that is ultimately experienced by readers.

Suggested Reading from StudentPulse

This paper examines historical and contemporary instances wherein sexual violence, specifically rape, was used as a strategic weapon amid both traditional and tribal conflict, as well as in genocidal operations. It analyzes the cogency of sexual violence as a weapon by considering its physical and psychological effects on victims and the morale of targeted populations. Additionally, it scrutinizes the motivations and intentions that support the use... MORE»
It is important to note that information about human rights abuses in Chile, as well as the exact details and full connections of its recent political history, are still in the process of being sifted through, made public, gathered, and organized. According to the Guardian, “A large quantity of CIA and Pentagon documents about the 1973 coup in Chile and its aftermath were released...but human rights activists say vital information is still... MORE»
Human rights protection in Europe evolved significantly over the last century, culminating in the creation of the European Court of Human Rights. Unfortunately, the decisions made by the European Court of Human Rights are not binding and do not serve as precedent for future cases. The court has the potential to hold significantly... MORE»
The Republic of Chechnya in Russia’s North Caucasus region has drawn significant attention for being host to remarkable instability, thriving terrorism, and a staggering display of human rights violations over the past two decades, including torture, illegal imprisonment, and extrajudicial execution. Perhaps even more disturbing is the continued violence against human rights activists in Chechnya – a deeper problem woven into the Chechen... MORE»
In the aftermath of mass violence and terror, nations are left in a state of disillusionment, fear, and often a lack of state legitimacy. In this atmosphere many nations have resorted to using different forms of reconciliation and peace-building processes including the use of truth commissions. Scholars in the social sciences have debated the veracity of truth commissions, along with their success in restoring national legitimacy and reconciliation... MORE»
Submit to Student Pulse, Get a Decision in 10-Days

Student Pulse provides undergraduate and graduate students around the world a platform for the wide dissemination of academic work over a range of core disciplines.

Representing the work of students from hundreds of institutions around the globe, Student Pulse's large database of academic articles is completely free. Learn more | Blog | Submit

Follow SP