Sosic, Stipo – The Road to Hell and Back

The Road to Hell and Back (Chicago: Croatian Franciscan Press, 1999), 137 pp., photos, appendix.

     Father Sosic’s account of his internment in the Serbian camps of Keraterm, Omarska, and Manjaca is a valuable contribution to the literature on suffering and the human spirit. Like Viktor Frankl, Sosic discusses life in a death camp, and like Frankl, he draws conclusions that stress our need for meaning and faith in hopeless situations.1 Frankl lived through Auschwitz as a Viennese Jew and a psychoanalyst; Sosic experienced the Serbian camps as a parish priest from Ljubija, a small town in an ethnically mixed area in Bosnia. But the conditions in the camps, the brutality, the efforts to destroy the human spirit, and the faith in human dignity and a greater Good which saw both men through were similar. For Frankl, meaning was crucial, for Sosic, prayer was “a cure for all wounds” and faith in God and the actions of good men his salvation. (pp. 117, 122-3)

     Frankl was interned The Road to Hell and Backbecause he was Jewish, Sosic because he was Croatian. Both men describe extreme crowding and vicious brutality. Keraterm had no running water and only one toilet for 600 inmates. (pp. 43-4) Sosic estimated that over 3,000 men were killed in Omarska, “a factory of crimes” and “the most horrible of all the concentration camps.” (p. 51) He lost 20 kilograms and was tortured to the point of welcoming death as a release. (pp. 61-2, 71) During the transfer from Omarska to Manjaca, prisoners were stuffed 98 to a bus and left for two days with windows closed and no water. (pp. 94-5) At Manjaca, 4,500 men were crammed into seven stables, with little food, no running water, and poor sanitation. Those who rebelled ended in the “confinement cell,” a dank, flooded cell. (pp. 102, 108) Like most personal accounts, Sosic’s story is anecdotal, not analytic. Yet his experiences fit into a larger literature and a larger human experience. Brutalized, he was grateful to a Serbian officer who treated him as a human being. (p. 103) With little hope of release or survival, he and other inmates expected too much from journalists, the Red Cross, and Orthodox prelates. But none of the visitors witnessed the tortures and murders nor did they do much more than register the suffering of the inmates, who were too frightened to speak to them. (pp. 84-5, 111, 113-115)

     Sosic and his parishioners tried to hold on to their human dignity. But those who fought back, were killed. Others despaired, because although intellectuals and community leaders were marked for death, violence and death were largely random. So some took their own lives, others betrayed those dearest to them a father his son, a brother his brother simply to survive. (pp. 130-1) After his release, Sosic even saw a Serbian nurse abuse a wounded Croatian soldier.2 Through it all, he remained a priest who prayed for deliverance and forgiveness for both victim and tormenter. (p. 89-90) He concluded that only good and evil exist, “there is no in-between,” and if evil triumphs, good disappears. (p. 127)

     We tend to view such accounts as descriptions of tragic and extraordinary experiences with no relationship to our lives. But this is an illusion. Frankl noted that camp life intensified our appreciation of our own past lives, and Sosic observed that in camp prayer had a special intensity. In effect, the camps push our human propensities toward good or evil to logical conclusions. Our tendency to look the other way when our fellows suffer was evident in the failure of journalists and Orthodox prelates to risk themselves to help those in the camps. Our tendency to give in to mob behavior was clear in the attack on a prisoner by Serbian women and children, who “tore the poor man apart like a scalded hen.”3 The use of children and youths to torture and kill prisoners shocked Sosic, who pitied “those middle aged men who used these innocent children for their evil ends” and condemned “this kind of war, in which young men are forced to kill and commit heinous crimes” as more evil than conventional wars. (pp. 49, 121) Yet children have been taught to kill in many places, and in our own ghettoes we have created a culture in which children are so brutalized that they kill as a matter of course. We blame them for their acts of violence, but Father Sosic pitied his tormentors and his fellow who invented crimes to explain their own internment and torture just as the victims of society’s failures are held personally responsible for sufferings inflicted by social and political systems.4

     Although Father Sosic believes we all can choose good or evil, the atrocious behavior of Serbian guards and civilians was not a manifestation of extraordinary evil, but of what Hannah Arendt called the banality of evil. When a culture accepts unethical patterns of behavior and rationalizes immoral actions because they serve a goal, then evil wins. In Bosnia, virulent Serbian nationalism led to war and atrocities. “For fifty years Serbs have been preparing themselves for Greater Serbia,” Father Sosic writes. To realize their goal, they would “stoop to the most heinous actions that would leave any normal man dumbfounded.” (pp. 126-7) This book will leave some dumbfounded, unable to believe that our fellows could behave so badly. But it should be read as a lesson, not a tale of unique moral evil. Father Sosic has done all of us a great service, no matter our nationality. By sharing his experiences with us, he reminds us how fragile is our civilization and how precious our humanity. James J. Sadkovich

     1 Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning (New York: Washington Square Press, 1946/1984), passim, esp. 136-8. If suffering and death have no meaning, Frankl concluded, there is no meaning to survival, “for a life whose meaning depends upon such a happenstance as whether one escapes or not ultimately would not be worth living at all.” People must be allowed to suffer nobly, something modern society does not allow, and something that those in places like Auschwitz or Omarska would not allow. Like Sosic, Frankl implies that only by finding meaning in suffering one can overcome it.

     2 Sosic, p. 125. Brutalizing patients occurred elsewhere in Bosnia, e.g., Maurizio Cucci’s interviews, in Bosnia. Le vittime senza nome (Milan: Mursia, 1994), pp.13-32.

     3 Sosic, p. 98. The incident was not unique. Jean Bethke Elshtain, Women and War (New York: Basic Books, 1987), pp. 167-8, describes an attack on two Indian prisoners by the women of Marblehead on a July Sunday in 1677. “Then with stones, billets of wood, and what else they might, they made an end of these Indians…we found them with their heads off and gone, and their flesh in a manner pulled from their bones.”

     4 Sosic, p. 129. “When a man ascertains that there is nothing he could charge himself with [to explain why he was in camp], he feels even more miserable.” In effect, lack of meaning created misery, which Frankl, pp. 128- 30, labeled an “existential vacuum.” For our tendency to blame victims, see Alexander Werth,Russia: Hopes and Fears (New York, 1970), pp. 80-5, and Jiri Pelikan, ed.., The Czechoslovak Political Trials, 1940-1954 (Stanford UP, 1971), pp. 28-9.


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