I never knew much about the Bosnian War except what I heard and saw in in the media from time to time. After watching Quo Vadis, Aida, my curiosity was aroused and I Googled the “Bosnian War.” I learned that the war was an international armed conflict that had its origins in the breakup of Yugoslavia. The two primary antagonists were Bosnia and Serbia, with Serbia taking on an increasingly virulent approach to defeating the Bosnians by indiscriminately shelling cities and ethnic cleansing. Moreover, they used mass rape to terrorize their mainly Muslim victims. It is a matter of record that around 100,000 people were killed during the war, over two million were displaced, and between 12,000 and 50,000 women were raped.
The film opens in July of 1995 as Aida, a UN translator and former schoolteacher, is translating a meeting between the mayor of Srebrenica and the colonel in charge of UN peacekeeping forces, Thom Karremans. Karremans assures him that NATO will provide airstrikes if the aggressive Serbian forces violate the UN designation of Srebrenica as a “safe zone.” The mayor is frustrated because the Serbian forces, led by Ratko Mladic, are already actively attacking the city, and Karremans will not promise to protect the refugees fleeing the city.
In this chaotic environment, Aida attempts to save her husband and two sons who are temporarily in a UN camp seeking shelter. Because Aida is a translator, she can enter the camp, and she tries desperately to rescue her family. As she translates conversations between the Serbian military command and the UN, she realizes that the Serbians are lying and that the UN is making false promises to the refugees.
Mladic arranges a deal to gain access to the refugees, claiming that he will transport them to safety; but it is only a ruse to unleash his soldiers to savagely brutalize the helpless and weaponless refugees. The utter failure of the UN to demilitarize Srebrenica leads to genocidal attacks against the Bosnian Muslims. Mass executions take place. Men are taken to empty buildings, detained there for a while, and then transported by buses to another location to be executed.
Years later, when Aida returns to Srebrenica as a schoolteacher, she is disturbed to learn that an ordinary Serbian family is now living in her old apartment. People who were friends and relatives of those who persecuted her family took advantage of her absence for many years. Determined to rebuild her life, she requests the present occupants of her flat to leave.
Jewish educator Slovie Jungreis-Wolff writes about how ordinary people can be capable of evil deeds: “What is incredible is how ordinary they all seem. They can be your next door neighbor, the man or woman sitting beside you on the park bench to whom you nod and say hello. But they have blood on their hands.”
Jungreis-Wolff speaks of the Holocaust experience and the growing anti-Semitism that she sees in the America of 2020: “To counter anti-Semitism we must understand that the Nazis were regular people who got caught up in the frenzy of vicious hatred toward the Jew. This is not ancient history. We are speaking about my parents and grandparents, shoved into cattle cars with no air to breathe. We are speaking about my bubby whose name I carry. She was last seen holding her baby grandchild in her arms walking into the flames of the gas chambers, with the Shema on her lips. Ordinary people. Ordinary lives. How did they sleep at night? How did they make peace with the piles of corpses, the mounds of hair and shoes, the final heartbreaking shrieks of a precious child, mother, and father, never to be heard from again?”
In spite of personal tragedy, Jungreiss-Wolff is optimistic about the future. Although ordinary people can bring suffering into the world, she acknowledges that they can also bring blessing. Similarly, Aida sees her new students as innocent human beings who can be taught to revere and treasure human life. Being in the classroom with her students is life-affirming for her.