Maass on Bosnia: words as tears


"Love Thy Neighbor: A Story of War," by Peter Maass. Knopf. 292 pages. $25.95 Peter Maass has war, Bosnia and journalists as his subjects and is expert in all three. He is wise enough, thanks to work in 1992-93 as a reporter in the Balkans for the Washington Post, to write of survivors but never of heroes.

Not many outsiders believed the Balkans war was real. Or you knew there was a war but could not believe the events unless you had the misfortune of witnessing them. The enormous catalogue of atrocities, Mr. Maass says without rancor, will not be taken seriously by Americans until they see the movie. In the United States, your neighbor is unlikely to tie your legs to a tank and drag you along the main road, and he is unlikely to force you to watch the rape of your daughter. In the Balkans, people have had opportunities that Americans lack, to pillage, torture and murder with approval of their warlord or government. In this, "Love Thy Neighbor" is detailed, pointed and deeply felt.

Mr. Maass worked during the 1980s as a free-lance correspondent for several papers, including The Sun, and learned the moral shortcomings of the trade. The journalist's loyalty is invariably to "the story," not the place. And the Big Stories often go to the reporter willing to run the highest risks, "which means," Mr. Maass says, "the scoops often go to the craziest SOB."

So you become a risk-taker yourself and, with ordinary luck, later entertain your friends in some civilized place with tales of adventures. In the retelling, the stories are even funny and you are even brave. But the people whose lives you observed when you were frightened beyond all pleasure remain where you saw them in Sarajevo, Baghdad, Kilgali.

"It's one thing to see a man get shot, and it's something else when that man is your father," Mr. Maass says. "We were visiting hell, not living in it." He forces himself to see much that is horrifying but sets limits. He will not indulge in "war porn": he will venture into a Sarajevo hospital's emergency room but never its morgue. His fear is not of the bodies but of the memories he would have for the rest of his life. A chronicler should not see truly everything for there would be nothing left to dread.

Many actors in his drama are repugnant. His account of an interview with Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic is a textbook example of how a calm, well-spoken monster can render an interviewer powerless. Mr. Maass has contempt for the United Nations Protection Force, the peacekeepers who shamefully acquiesced to the demands of the Bosnian Serbs. In this case, even the movie will be hard to believe.

There is contempt, too, for the large cast of diplomats. But "Love Thy Neighbor" can't transcend the handicap of having been completed before Balkan leaders signed their peace accord at the end of 1995 - due to efforts by those same diplomats. The book also is saddled with feeble vignettes from the author's California childhood; they are wildly out of place.

Mr. Maass is far better writing of his Big Story, writing of war and fear and being sickened and powerless, except for his pen. "Words," he says, "are my tears."

Robert Ruby, deputy foreign editor of The Sun, was a correspondent in the Middle East and Europe for a decade. He is the author of "Jericho: Dreams, Ruins, Phantoms."

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