Bosnia, 1995. Aida is an interpreter for the UN forces in Srebenica. They don’t seem to have too many resources – at one stage, someone asks her to find the other interpreter.
As the film opens, Serbian forces take Srebenica – officially a UN safe zone. Local UN generals meet with community leaders. They say that they have issued an ultimatum and if Serbian forces are not withdrawn by 6am, there will be air strikes. The Bosnians remind them that this is not the first time they’ve heard such threats and they’re worried that they will be left on their own. Again. Just have a guess whether they’re correct to worry.
The inhabitants of Srebenica escape to a UN compound run by Dutch troops. Only 4,000 or 5,000 are let in, leaving tens of thousands stranded outside. The soldiers – little more than children – point their guns towards anyone who comes close to the compound. Inside the camp there are no toilets, no food, no medicine. Aida’s main job as an interpreter is to calm them down and to prevent an upsurge of protest.
Although we view the film through Aida’s eyes, she is not entirely innocent. She looks for a reward for her collaboration with the ineffective UN troops and asks them to bring her husband and sons, who are trapped outside, into the compound. The UN commander eventually relents after he can’t find anyone to represent the Bosnians in talks with the Serbian army. Aida’s husband – a local headmaster – is allowed in, as long as he goes to the talks.
Although the talks have been formally organised by the UN, there is no doubt who is in charge. The Serbian generals set their terms – that they will bus the Bosnians out of the refugee camp, and take them to somewhere controlled by the Bosnian army. The UN representatives insist that they must accompany any transfer, but they are effectively brushed aside. Besides which, the UN trucks have run out of petrol, and they’re dependent on borrowing some from the Serbian arms.
It’s time to ring the UN headquarters in New York. Everyone seems to be on diplomatic holiday and no-one will take responsibility for what is happening. This results in the Dutch UNO general reluctantly allowing armed Serbian troops entering the refugee camp to “look for terrorists”. The people in charge of the UN soldiers can only look on awkwardly behind their walrus moustaches.
A lesser film would portray the Serbian troops merely as being faceless brutal oppressors, but director Jasmita Zbanic is much more canny. Swaggering general Ratko Mladic is shown as being very media savvy – never going anywhere without his own camera man. In the camps he doles out bread, Toblerone bars and cans of Coca-Cola to the desperate people who the UN has been unable to feed.
Every so often, we are reminded of the specific heartbreaks associated with civil war. As the Serbs and Bosnians negotiate, a pair on each side of the negotiations recognise each other as old schoolfriends. On the edge of the compound, one of the soldiers recognises Aida as his old English speaker. He offers some small talk before moving on with a “see you later, alligator.”
As the Bosnians are prepared for departure – women and young children in coaches, men in cattle trucks – Aida tries once more to win favours for her husband and sons. She tries to get them on the list of UN helpers, but they’re not on the list. The machine which makes the passes that they need to get out is broken. The UN people offer Aida’s husband a place as a representative of the residents of Srebenica, but he must leave his sons to fend for themselves.
You may know what happens next – it’s difficult to avoid plot spoilers on something that was headline news 25 years ago. Even if you don’t know, you may be able to guess. Let’s just say that there’s no happy ending, though there is an attempt in the final scenes to invest a little hope in the post-war generation.
Quo Vadis Aida is not afraid to point the finger. Serbian generals are duplicitous, and many of the soldiers are anti-Muslim racists. But the UN, supposedly there to keep the peace, must share the blame. The film is based on a book by co-writer Hasan Nuhavonic called “Under the UN Flag”. This all happened on the UN’s watch while its various leaders ducked for cover.
The film does not try to suggest what it thinks should have happen – and rightly so. It could and should provoke an argument about whether more force was necessary or the problem was that the UN and NATO were there in the first place. That discussion is for a different film. Quo Vadis Aida shows the shameful realities that make such a debate absolutely necessary.