To a lot of people, genocide means the Holocaust. And in some ways that can be helpful, to have a ready-made example of the ultimate evil, where a band of anti-Semites set out with the goal of eradicating the Jewish people and may well have succeeded, were it not for the efforts of intervening forces. Textbook genocide. We like to think that now that we have the United Nations and the International Criminal Court, we can stop countries on the brink of ethnic violence rather than just holding them accountable afterward.
What Quo Vadis, Aida? drives home is how hollow those protective mechanisms are, and what little power the concept of international peacekeeping has in the face of cold, clinical, genocidal intent. How mediating parties can be drawn in and forced to capitulate again and again until they’re stunned to realize that they have become complicit in ethnic cleansing. This film begins with UN peacekeepers issuing an ultimatum to Serbian forces not to invade a Bosnian city, and ends with those same peacekeeping troops standing meekly by while over 8000 Muslim boys and men are executed within a so-called UN safe zone. Quo Vadis, Aida? is a relentless, harrowing look at one of the worst atrocities committed in the past thirty years through the eyes of one woman caught in the middle of the unimaginable.
Aida is a hard-working, level-headed translator working with the Dutch UN peacekeeping troops attempting to mediate the ethnic conflict between Serbs and Bosniaks. She has put a tremendous amount of faith in the men she works for, and why not? They have the full weight of the United Nations behind them, and it would be foolish for the Serbs to risk war with the entire global community. But this whole situation is a powder keg waiting to explode, and it’s less surprising than perhaps it should be that the Serbs disregard the UN ultimatum and invade, leaving tens of thousands of terrified Bosniaks to flee to the relative safety of the UN base.
What’s truly devastating is how quickly Aida sees the writing on the wall, even while the Dutch officers are confident that they have the situation under control. Her life becomes a desperate scramble to obtain some assurances that her husband and sons will be protected if the worst should happen, some display of loyalty on the part of the UN for all of her hard work. As she forces her way through the crowds that have gathered at the base, hands reach out to her, asking for aid, information, sympathy. She brushes them off; there are simply too many of them and not enough time. If she cannot save the Bosniak population of Srebrenica, she can at least try to save her family.
Jasna Djuricic is a revelation in this role, her quiet anguish at being forced to participate in this entire ghastly affair in her capacity as translator only occasionally boiling over as she begs her superiors to understand what’s actually happening here. Djuricic displays a mingling of emotions that capture the complexity of the situation: anger, grief, frustration, fear, and even shame. She is furious with the Dutch peacekeepers for withholding support even as the situation unmistakably escalates, but is still functioning as their mouthpiece, using her translating skills to help keep control of the crowd and assure their compliance.
If the Dutch peacekeepers can be accused of sending Bosniaks to their deaths by going along with Serbian demands, is Aida any less culpable through her own supportive actions? You can see this inherent conflict every time she’s asked to repeat orders to the crowd through her megaphone or echo the party line. Where are you going, Aida? Where does this path lead?
Quo Vadis, Aida? is a grim, heartbreaking exploration of the price that is sometimes paid to preserve “peace.” External parties to a conflict want the fighting to stop and are willing to cede more and more territory with the goal of fewer bombs being dropped and fewer destroyed cities. But what is the cost? Do 8000 Bosniak lives need to be sacrificed at the altar of peace? And if the role of UN peacekeepers is ultimately to protect the most vulnerable, have they not failed to the highest degree if, in the pursuit of a temporary cessation of hostilities, they willingly send thousands to their death? Quo Vadis, Aida? brings to life the maddening, soul-wrenching struggle of being betrayed by your supposed protectors, with Djuricic’s devastating performance providing an emotional anchor to the film’s many tragedies. Her haunted eyes serve as a legacy to unanswerable pain, creating a powerful emotional resonance in a film too damning to be ignored.