Human safari

CONFLICT / The story of wealthy foreigners who turned besieged Sarajevo into a human safari, paying high fees for the chance to shoot at the residents.
Director: Miran Zupanič
Country: Slovenia

Sarajevo Safari is a film about how, during the War in Yugoslavia, the Sarajevo battlefield became a place for a specific hobby. Revealing the mechanisms of a particular form of power might also warn about the future.

Sarajevo Safari, a film by Miran Zupanič
Sarajevo Safari, a film by Miran Zupanič

Homo sacer

In 1995 the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben published Homo sacer, Sovereign Power and Bare Life. In this book, Agamben, one of the leading figures in philosophy and political theory, revived the figure from ancient Rome. In archaic Roman law, «homo sacer» was a person whom anyone could kill without committing murder and who could even not be sacrificed in ritually prescribed forms. In this life that can be taken and can’t be sacrificed, Agamben saw the key to the contemporary globalised world. His main thesis was that today, we are all «homines sacri», as we are at the mercy of the sovereign decision of biopolitical «power», that is, the power that reigns directly over our biological bodies. In such a state, all traditional categories of political reflection, from human rights to democracy and citizenship, are called into question. In his book, Agamben examined the development of the relationship between sovereign power and bare life from Aristotle to Auschwitz, pointing to Nazi concentration camps as the biopolitical place par excellence. He also identified more contemporary examples of «homo sacri» of human beings who find themselves in a position in which they are in no way protected, and their life can be taken at any moment, such as the detainees at the Guantánamo military prison. In the years following Agamben’s book, such situations have been multiplying at an incredible pace, and today, people without basic human rights are practically everywhere, from migrants to the homeless.

In such a state, all traditional categories of political reflection, from human rights to democracy and citizenship, are called into question.

New enemy

Still, learning that during the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina, wealthy hunters from diverse parts of the world were paying huge sums to kill civilians in the besieged Bosnian capital Sarajevo from Serbian sniper positions makes one’s blood freeze. The motive of people killing other people for fun is not completely new in the history of cinema. Bacurau, a sci-fi western by Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles, features western tourists hunting Brazilian villagers for sport, but the villagers are fighting back in grand style, as the fictitious village of Bacurau is home to an eclectic community of outcasts, the prime subject of the film. In the documentary Serbian Epics by Polish director Pawel Pawlikowski we can see Russian poet Eduard Limonov shooting at Sarajevo from Serbian sniper positions. John Jordan, a former American marine stationed in BiH during the war, also spoke about the foreigners shooting at the civilians of Sarajevo; he used the term «tourist shooters». The rumours about this twisted form of hunting took place during the siege of Sarajevo, during the Yugoslav war.

Miran Zupanič constructed his documentary around first-hand testimonies. His main witness remained anonymous. A former Yugoslav secret service agent, who worked for a USA agency during the war, visited Sarajevo several times while the city was under siege, accredited as a journalist. He would travel there with the United Nations plane and would be taken to Pale, the Serbian headquarters. It was there where he was invited to join a special tour to the position of snipers, along with a group of strangers equipped with the latest hunting gear. Filmed on the shooting range, his face in the dark, the man remembers seeing another man pointing his sniper rifle toward a child holding a mother’s hand. The other key testimony, an analyst of the intelligence service of the Army of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina, reveals how, at the end of 1993, they learned about «Sarajevo safari» and how they acted to stop it. In a cold, to-the-earth tone, the man presents the outcome of his analysis. The Sarajevo battlefield became a place for a specific hobby. But this «new kind of enemy» was not very significant in terms of war. Compared to the dozens of regular snipers in the ranks of Republika Srpska, foreign mercenaries, and weekend mercenaries, they were «just a few more snipers firing at the town every day».

Sarajevo Safari, a film by Miran Zupanič
Sarajevo Safari, a film by Miran Zupanič

The victims

Sarajevo Safari does not show the perpetrators. It does, however, something much more important that makes the film much stronger and relevant beyond the siege of Sarajevo, the Yugoslav, or any other war. It puts victims in the first place. Instead of trying to bring closer those who are able to perform such a horrible act, it turns the camera towards the «Sarajlije», the citizens of Sarajevo. The couple lost their one-year-old daughter. She had just learned to walk and was shot by a sniper while her mother was standing near her, chatting with women on the street. «Why did they not shoot me instead?» she asks. A young man who, in a moment of distraction, came out to the open. He was shot by a sniper and survived. Trying to reflect on what happened, he claims that «such violent, inhuman, inhumane killing and extermination of people as in Bosnia will not be seen again soon, anywhere in the world.» But this sounds more like a hope than a fact.

The archive material used in the film features the streets of Sarajevo during the last years of the war and at present times. Showing how astoundingly little has changed. As if the scarcity that determined life in the besieged city prevailed to this day. The shots of the schoolchildren learning about the universe create a stark contrast between the hopes about what the peace might bring and the actual situation in which common people are helpless and powerless, at the mercy of power – today as they were during the war. Sarajevo Safari should be about the past. Still, its’ final effect is a sinister feel that it might as well be a look into the future, confirming Agamben’s fears that the new form of biopolitical power might prevail.

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Melita Zajc
Melita Zajc
Our regular contributor. Zajc is a media anthropologist and philosopher.

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