Rezak Hukanovic: Witness and Survivor in The Tenth Circle of Hell

By Ruth E. Dominguez
2009, Vol. 1 No. 10 | pg. 1/1

The Tenth Circle of Hell: A Memoir of Life in the Death Camps of Bosnia, written by Rezak Hukanovic, is one survivor’s account of his experience during the war in former Yugoslavia. In a chronological manner, Hukanovic details events that happened in his native land, starting in his home of Prijedor. Through his eyes, we become witnesses to the tragedy of ethnic conflict and the atrocities of war crimes.

This story is a personal story, but it is also a group story, a national story, and a universal story of survivorship. Three elements of such an account that are strongly conveyed in Hukanovic are the lack of control experienced by the victims, the severity of war crimes and the brutality of human rights abuses, and ultimately how hope operates in such a situation, when survival is the primary experience of the witness.

Hukanovic’s account is written in the third person, a choice he made for a number of reasons and a technique that creates a number of effects. Among these possible effects, are a certain amount of detachment from the subject and from the highly personal experience. Indeed, as the translator tells us:

"In coming to write of his experiences in the Omarska and Manjacacamps, Hukanovic felt that using the third person would be themost effective means of conveying the mixture of the macabre andthe mundane that constituted the lives of Bosnian prisoners. Hehas also explained that he chose to use a third-person narratorbecause he felt, at the time, that the brutal events he endured—as well as the complicit behavior of former friends and neighborshe witnessed— must have been happening to someone else." (xii)

This feeling, that the experience “must have been happening to someone else”, is conveyed in the narrative voice. The use of third person, the numbing effects of repetitive brutality, and the necessity of survival all create a narrative that is, at times, difficult to accept, yet is ultimately the truth. Perhaps the reader is carried along with the idea of survivorship— that at the very least, the author survives. And at least so much a part of that survivorship, from this man’s perspective, is being able to withstand inhuman circumstances, with the detachment that often accompanies trauma, and live to bear witness to the extremity of what happened.

The narrative, therefore, goes beyond the idea of witness to the idea of survivorship. Hukanovic’s use of third person is one signal that shows the readers the complete lack of control and victimization that occurred against targeted groups in Bosnia. The almost “out-of-body” sensation, that is the nature of his experience, is inherently a part of his total victimization.

The account begins in Prijedor, Djemo’s (Rezak Hukanovic) hometown. His personal situation starts with danger and fear, and slowly becomes worse. Djemo is taken as a prisoner to a camp at Omarska, and we are told of others who have been put in a similar situation:

"Over the course of two days more than three thousand inhabitants of Prijedor and its outlying villages were arrested in their homesin these inconceivable raids and brought to the Serb prison atOmarska. Among the prisoners, whose only fault was beingMuslim or Croat, were intellectuals, teachers, engineers, policeofficers, craftsmen. Djemo recognized the mayor of Prijedor, theHonorable Mr. Muhamed Cehajic. How absurd such a title seemednow." (26)

Hukanovic repeatedly tells us of the helplessness of his situation. Key to an understanding of this account within a larger context of human rights issues, we see how genocide, what has been called in the Bosnian case “ethnic clensing”, begins to take hold of a victimized population. Perhaps one of the unsettling aspects of the book, from the point of view of lector, is the contrast between the passivity of the victims and the active brutality of perpetrators. Through Hukanovic’s “character”, Djemo, one begins to understand and experience the lack of control that victims in such a situation possess. The narrative account takes us from beatings and interrogations, to continued beatings and interrogations, to repeated torture. Hukanovic tells us:

"All may be fair in love and war, but practices such as those at Omarska were the most perverse forms of physical and psychological torture— a militarily enforced prostitution of people, supplied by a huge arsenal of pain and suffering." (83)

It is such a situation-- conveyed to others through this witnessing-- that is elaborated upon throughout the book. One primary element is the utter defenselessness of the prisoners, and the lack of control experienced by victims of such torture.

Another element that was witnessed in both the Omarska and Manjaca camps was the repeated brutality and severity of human rights abuses referred to above. At the beginning of the account, Hukanovic tells us, “These were strange times. Bosnia trembled as if it had been hit by a powerful earthquake. But an earthquake comes and goes. This upheaval just kept on coming.” (24) Hukanovic’s detachment from his own experience, at least in this account, goes beyond frustration at being so victimized.

Some of this victimization, he seems to tell us, is a resignation to incomprehensible circumstances. These circumstances of the prisoners reveal the extent of ethnic hatred. Included in Hukanovic’s account are repeated instances of brutality where former neighbors or co-workers or students seek revenge on their prisoners:

"The prisoners— seized against their will and humiliated at every turn,the smiles gone forever from their withered lips, exhausted and sick,starving to death, staring absently with glassy eyes— were made ofthe same substance, were born under the same sky, and had livedon the same soil as their jailers." (56)

In many instances in the camps at Omarska and Manjaca, the brutality expressed by captors is personal. At other times the torture is psychological in addition to being physical:

"One rainy night the name Mehmedalija Sarajlic was called out.A distinguished, gray-haired man about sixty years old, he was takenoutside and forced to strip naked; then the guards brought him,still naked, back into the room with Hajra, a girl who couldn’thave been older than twenty-two or twenty-three. She, too, wasforced to strip, and they were ordered to make love in front ofall the other prisoners, who looked on in horror and silence, deeplyhumiliated by the utter powerlessness of the man and womanbefore them." (43)

The brutality of the tortures and the repetition of abuse is a primary reality brought forth in the narrative. An effect of this is a sense of frustration, one that is experienced directly by Djemo or Hukanovic to different degrees, as with all the prisoners, but also that is ultimately experienced by readers.

This frustration is countered somewhat by a sense of hope and the knowledge of survivorship. Hukanovic describes what it is to survive such circumstances, to be concerned almost exclusively with bare necessities, to try and avoid torture, to be passive under the harshest conditions. Survival is the ultimate goal of the prisoners. There are sporadically hopeful moments: escapes from the camp, contact with neighbors and family, news from the outside world, help from international aid organizations, and memories of better days.

There is sometimes hope of political resolution to the conflict; indeed, Djemo often reflects on Bosnia’s situation as a whole nation, wondering if the previous co-existence can ever happen again. In the camp of Manjaca, contact is established with the International Red Cross. Djemo learns that his family has escaped to Austria, and he reflects on his own and the other prisoners’ situation of trauma:

“'In Bosnia, even the sun is drenched in blood,' Muharem used to say. 'Even the sun has been caught up in these wholesale deathsentences.' Little by little they lost all sense of time, the one thingthey had more than enough of to spare. As the present ebbedaway, the lack of any purpose except survival was slowly destroyingthem. They were only numbers, shadows: heads down, hands behindtheir backs. A trace of vulnerability crept into their fragile bodies." (133)

Hukanovic repeatedly informs us of the fragility of hope in a situation where survival is a primary reality.

In Remnants of Auschwitz, The Witness and the Archive, Giorgio Agamben talks about the connection between the word “witness” and “survivor”. In Latin, he informs us, there are two words for “witness”, “testis” (etymologically connected to “testimony”) and “superstes” (etymologically connected to “survivor”). In speaking of Nazi concentration camps, Agamben states, “In the camp, one of the reasons that can drive a prisoner to survive is the idea of becoming a witness.” (15)

Witnessing and survivalship, in Rezak Hukanovic’s account, are completely connected within his experience. One amazing aspect of Hukanovic’s story is that he did survive and does have the memory enabling him to bear witness to the atrocities that occurred. Perhaps Tenth Circle’s main purpose is witnessing. Witnessing is essential to the survival.  It is significant that Hukanovic tells his story in the third person as it is somehow reflective of his over-all experience. The readers are made aware of the complete victimization experienced by prisoners in Bosnia, the severity of war crimes and human rights abuses, and the human capacity for hope and survival.

Agamben, Giorgio. Remnants of Auschwitz The Witness and the Archive. New York: Zone Books, 2002.

Hukanović, Rezak. Tenth circle of hell a memoir of life in the death camps of Bosnia. New York: BasicBooks, 1996.

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