“Quo Vadis, Aida?” Highlights the Bosnian Genocide


Courtesy of The Calvert Journal

“Quo Vadis, Aida?” was nominated for Best International Feature Film at the 93rd Academy Awards on Apr. 25.

Anthony Grasso, Staff Writer

“Quo Vadis, Aida?” is a Bosnian film directed by Jasmila Žbanić that provides a harrowing account of the days leading up to the massacre of more than 8,000 Bosniak men and boys in the UN-declared safe haven at Srebrenica, Bosnia and Herzegovina, in July 1995. The slaughter was perpetrated by the Army of Republika Srpska with the backing of the Yugoslav National Army. The film was nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Film in 2021 and has been lauded by scholars since its release on March 5, 2021. The atrocity is recounted through a woman named Aida, a Bosnian Muslim herself who is an interpreter for the United Nations on the ground in Srebrenica. While fulfilling the immense demands of her job, she tries desperately to protect her husband and two sons living in the enclave from the torture and brutality of the Serb forces under the command of General Ratko Mladić.   

I was first introduced to the film by Dr. Gerald J. Beyer, an author, scholar, and professor of Christian ethics and theology at Villanova University, in the class Solidarity and Peacebuilding in Central and Eastern Europe. The first two-thirds of the course focuses on the Polish Solidarity Movement, the resulting collapse of communism in Poland, and the subsequent social and economic phenomena that occurred across Polish society as a democratic, neoliberal capitalist model was implemented. The last third of the course shifts to focus on the Bosnian genocide following the breakup of Yugoslavia. 

Dr. Beyer recommended this film to us as a supplement to the material we were studying in class. 

“I precautioned my students in class that this film is extremely challenging to watch given the focus on the Bosnian genocide, and one must be in the right emotional space to do so,” Beyer said.

From my own experience watching the film, I will certainly echo Dr. Beyer in warning that it is emotionally-taxing and a formidable challenge to finish. Nonetheless, it would not be possible to do any sort of justice to the horrors that occurred in the Muslim enclave at Srebrenica and throughout the entirety of Bosnia and Herzegovina without evoking such powerful reactions in viewers. 

“The film provides an accurate portrayal of the abandonment of Bosnian Muslims by the international community,” Beyer said. “This inaction in the face of genocide is depressingly and eerily reminiscent of the Rwanda failure.”   

The atrocities of Srebrenica portrayed in the film occurred as part of a horrific four-year campaign of genocide, torture, and mass rape between 1992 and 1995 committed against Bosnian Muslims, or Bosniaks, by the Bosnian Serb forces of the Army of Republika Srpska with the support of Serbian President Slobodan Milošević and the Yugoslav National Army (JNA). Fueled by extreme nationalism and the desire to construct a Greater Serbian nation that would include all ethnic Serbs living in the territory of the former Yugoslavia, the Serbian forces waged war against Bosniaks and Croats to expel them from lands that would become “pure Serb” lands. Western nations had imposed an arms embargo on Bosnia and Herzegovina, which meant that Bosniaks could not obtain weapons to defend themselves against the Army of Republika Srpska, which also had access to the resources of the JNA. As the genocidal acts of Serb forces became more and more apparent, the United Nations and the West, including the administrations of both George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, refused to intervene or even change their position on the arms embargo. Instead of lifting the arms embargo or conducting NATO air strikes against Serb targets, the UN set up numerous “safe havens” around Bosnia and Herzegovina in which Muslims would be protected by UN peacekeepers. One of these “safe havens” was in the small town of Srebrenica in Southeastern Bosnia and Herzegovina.

As Serb forces closed in on Srebrenica in the beginning of July 1995, the Dutch peacekeeping force was massively outnumbered despite repeated requests to UN higher-ups for more personnel. The safe zone was essentially handed over by the UN peacekeepers to the Serb forces under the command of General Ratko Mladić, who can be seen in a famous photograph handing out candies to children before taking their brothers and fathers to be slaughtered in the killing fields of Srebrenica. Dr. Beyer explained that some in the international community thought Srebrenica must be ceded to Milošević in order to negotiate a peace deal.

“This ignored the responsibility to protect and the UN Convention on Genocide which calls for intervention, demonstrating a massive failure of western nations and the UN,” Beyer said. “The failure and its painful lessons are clearly shown by the film.” 

Twenty-five years later, this genocide that occurred in front of our own eyes in the heart of Europe is often still excluded from school curriculums, even classes that specifically focus on human rights and genocide. Some argue that the death toll of the approximately 250,000 killed during the Bosnian War does not amount to that of atrocities in Rwanda, Cambodia, or the Holocaust, while others blame the genocide in Bosnia on the false notion that ethnic hatred has always dominated the region we call the Balkans. Perhaps it is the failure of western nations that keeps this genocide out of the public eye. 

“With the recent international conference to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the tragedy at Srebrenica, more and more classified evidence is coming out that leaders knew the Serbs’ plan and decided not to take on responsibility,” Beyer said.

If we look at the Rohingya in Myanmar or the Uighurs in China, we can see that genocide is an ongoing threat in our world today. It is imperative that more people are educated on the atrocities and the international failures associated with past genocides like that which occurred Bosnia and Herzegovina, and the film Quo Vadis, Aida? is a devastating reminder of what can still happen if we fail to live in solidarity with the targets of tyranny.