Perhaps the most bizarre incident recounted in Janine di Giovanni's tales of war comes at a time of peace. She is in Sarajevo, six years after the end of the war, and a radio station in Cape Town wants to interview her about a piece she has written for her newspaper, the Times. To her horror the interviewer asks her about snipers and aid convoys, as though the Bosnian war was still in full swing. The fact that it had ended had simply passed the South African by. "It was my obsession," she writes, but not that of others.
So this is a book about di Giovanni's obsession. The Yugoslav wars, or at least the Bosnian and Kosovo chapters of it. This is compelling reportage at its best. Grisly and depressing at times, of course, but also most revealing too. As reporting wars and how to do it, becomes, in the wake of Iraq, ever more a subject of discussion, di Giovanni is brave to admit that she for one does not believe in objectivity.
Discussing the siege of Sarajevo which lasted from 1992 to 1995, she writes: "We were guilty, we knew, of perhaps only covering one side of the war, but for us there was only one side: the side that was getting pounded, that was being strangled slowly, turning blue and purple." That side was the Bosnian Muslim side, and those Serbs who always said that they were "demonised" by the international media will see vindication in these words. After all, they will point out, Alija Izetbegovic, the then leader of the Bosnian Muslims was being investigated for war crimes by The Hague war crimes tribunal when he died in 2003 di Giovanni does not talk of Muslim crimes. But, as she says, "the truth wasn't necessarily objective; it was where we were sitting, what we were seeing." And she was seeing civilians cut down by Serbian snipers and old people literally freezing to death in a nursing home.
The book begins with the Kosovo war in 1999, moves on to Milosevic's Serbia in the months afterwards and then flashes back to the Bosnia of the early 1990s. There are telling chapters exploring the minds of two key Bosnian Serb leaders, the Shakespearean scholar Nikola Koljevic, who made his own tragedy before killing himself, and Biljana Plavsic who, racked by remorse, unusually pleaded guilty to war crimes at The Hague.
Di Giovanni recalls that the doyenne of a previous generation of war reporters, Martha Gellhorn, once said, referring to the Spanish Civil War, that "it was only possible to love one war" and the rest became duty. Di Giovanni would have us believe that Yugoslavia was her greatest love and that Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Iraq and the all the other places she has reported on were duty. In fact, reading between the lines, the true love seems to have been Sarajevo and Bosnia. If so, then even Kosovo was duty - but she does write about it well. A good book and a great read.