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The Key to My Neighbor's House: Seeking Justice in Bosnia and Rwanda


The Key to My Neighbor's House: Seeking Justice in Bosnia and Rwanda

In the span of 10 weeks in 1994, 800,000 of Rwanda's Tutsi minority
were butchered by extremist Hutu with guns, machetes, hoes, and
anything else handy. Half a world away, the former Yugoslavia was
riven at the seams by a massacre equal in its brutality. In the
end, countless families grieved for loved ones lost, many of whose
bodies would never be recovered from mass graves. The carnage in
the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda brought the term "ethnic
cleansing" out of the annals of World War II and back into the
world's lexicon.

Elizabeth Neuffer's flawlessly researched and superbly written THE
KEY TO MY NEIGHBOR'S HOUSE examines how events that flickered
briefly across our televisions and consciences left a lasting
impact on the world at large. A veteran war correspondent, Neuffer
covered the Balkan conflict for the better part of a decade and
traveled to Rwanda in the aftermath to chronicle its recovery

She illustrates how public hysteria, coupled with long-nurtured
ethnic tension and cunning propaganda, escalated into genocide; how
people move on after suffering the unthinkable and why the pursuit
of justice is pre-requisite to rebuilding a nation. Her underlying
message --- that ethnic groups must learn to coexist peacefully or
risk genocide --- has particular relevance in a post-September 11

Her narrative jumps between the mist-shrouded hills of Rwanda and a
crumbling Yugoslavia. We see the conflict through the eyes of its
victims: Hasan Nuhanovic, a young Bosnian Muslim who lost his
entire family at Srebrenica; Witness JJ, a reserved Tutsi woman who
survived brutal sexual assaults to face her assailant in court ---
a courageous act that resulted in wartime rape being classified as
a war crime; Hamdo Kahrimanovic, a Muslim schoolteacher victimized
by his Serbian neighbors; Petko Grubac, who endured the horrors of
a Serbian concentration camp; and Justice Gabrielle Kirk McDonald,
who presided over the first war crimes tribunal since Nuremberg. By
depicting victims and perpetrators of all ethnic backgrounds,
Neuffer reinforces the fact that individuals rather than ethnic
groups must be held responsible.

The book is vast in scope without overwhelming readers. Neuffer
lays the historical groundwork, deftly sorting through complex
histories in a clear, compelling manner. By weaving her own
narrative with the stories of those who experienced the conflicts
firsthand, Neuffer captures both the injustices and the small acts
of compassion that lend hope to different groups' efforts to
reconcile their divisive pasts.

By juxtaposing scenes of global passivity with anecdotes of
suffering described in excruciating detail, Neuffer adroitly
communicates her point without explicitly stating it: Hasan watches
blue-helmeted UN Peacekeepers help Serbian troops separate families
--- as a result, 7,000 men and boys disappear into a mass grave; at
the concentration camp where Hamdo is interred, one prisoner is
forced to bite another's testicles off; murderous Hutu pour
insecticide down Witness JJ's throat; General Romeo Dallaire, who
led a ragtag contingent of 500 UN peacekeepers in Rwanda, weeps
openly on the stand as he recalls his frantic requests for more
troops, requests that went unheeded by UN leaders who meticulously
avoided using the word "genocide," a term that would've obligated
them to act under the Geneva Conventions; Neuffer sees a boy's red
high-top sneaker peer out of a mass grave of twisted limbs in a
Bosnian village and comments, "I was prepared to be horrified, but
I was not prepared to be moved."

Although Neuffer reports on the staggering ineptitude of the
peacekeepers and UN in unsparing detail, she could've delved more
into the reasons for U.S. inaction. Miscommunication, bureaucratic
gaffes, and an administration wary after Mogadishu all contributed
to America turning the other cheek. It's a minor oversight
considering her exhaustive research, but of possible interest to
her readers in the States.

Neuffer goes into great detail documenting the subsequent rise of
the UN tribunals at The Hague and in Arusha, Tanzania. Fraught with
red tape and lacking moral and financial support, she chronicles
the courts' stumblings and victories as they continue to try war
criminals today. We come to find that justice is sometimes only
partial, but the pursuit of it is as vital to rebuilding a nation's
psyche as reconstructing roads.

The long-term repercussions of such public and private traumas, and
the questions they raise (After such horrendous crimes, what
measure of justice can be attained? How do people go on once
they've suffered unspeakable evils, often at the hands of their
neighbors?) are never addressed in full because history is busy
still shaping the answers. Neuffer insists, however, that a public
accounting is necessary to move on. "A better way [is] to confront
the past rather than rewrite it; to develop not different,
ethnic-based versions of history but one common understanding of
what had occurred."

Neuffer's book will prick our collective consciousness, but more
than that, her tome is an attempt to bring a reckoning to both
conflicts. If the history we forget is the history we're doomed to
repeat, then THE KEY TO MY NEIGHBOR'S HOUSE should serve as a
warning signal to us all. Neuffer wisely points out that if
individual responsibility doesn't triumph over collective guilt,
different ethnic groups will never coexist peacefully.

Reviewed by Jen Robbins on January 22, 2011

The Key to My Neighbor's House: Seeking Justice in Bosnia and Rwanda
by Elizabeth Neuffer

  • Publication Date: November 17, 2001
  • Genres: Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 544 pages
  • Publisher: Picador
  • ISBN-10: 0312261268
  • ISBN-13: 9780312261269