SREBRENICA AND SERBIA some thoughts on moral monsters, bystanders and civic minded people.

On my first trip to Serbia, in 2006, I had the chance to attend two sessions of the trial of the Scorpions.

The Skorpioni were a para-military group that attained world fame through a video made public in 2005, where they are seen getting a blessing from an serb orthodox priest, and then killing men and boys in Srebrenica.

The shock that this video provoked forced the serbian authorities to arrest those that appear in the video and prosecute them.

In case someone wants to see those images, please go to youtube and make a search on SKORPIONI. you will find plenty of apologetic videos about them. Please do read the comments, they are quite revealing. I just read one that said “they were a good unit but they shouldnt of filmed what they did because it makes us srbe look bad” . I am not going to post one of those videos here because i don’t want to contaminate my blog with the language of hatred.

In the room reserved for the public in Special Tribunal of Belgrade, there were three groups of people:

  • a group of Human Rights activists from Serbia, the Women in Black, all of them dressed in black in sign of mouring;
  • a group of Mothers from Srebrenica, including some who identified their loved ones getting killed in the video;
  • and finally a group composed of the friends and family of the accused. there were some men in this group, but most of the group was composed by wives, girlfriends and the mothers of the Scorpions.

There were a few other people, five or six at the most (including myself). In what regards the international community, only the Embassy of the USA sent representatives.

As we entered the room, the group who came to support the Scorpions sat on the front seats. The Mothers from Srebrenica sat on the back, while the Women in Black sat between both, as if they felt they needed to act as a barrier.

By that time, my skills in serbian were very very very limited (now they are only very limited), and people tend to speak really fast, so what I mostly did during those hours was to observe the other persons in the room, as well as in the room where the trial was taking place, which was separate with thick glass.

It was not but one hour after the session started that I fully interiorized that I had monstrous assassins in front of me . Not that I didn’t know that. I had seen the video, just like millions of people did. I knew the story, but it’s like on a certain moment I became aware, as it suddenly stopped being just one more thing that I rationally knew about, to become something much stronger: that is the sense that one cannot be indifferent, that we just don’t have the right not to know.

On the short break in each session, these groups would go to the corridor and drink some coffee or water. Watching the behaviour of the Scorpion’s friends and relatives was much more shocking that looking at the back of the assassins as they stood on trial. They were chatting, laughing, and in between they would intimidate and harass the women from the other two groups. It was obvious that they believed nothing would come out of that trial, and even more that they shared the idea that their victims had got what they deserved.

Then, there was also the attitude of the police officers that were guarding the tribunal. They too harassed both the Women in Black and the Mothers from Srebrenica as much as they could, while discretely (and sometimes not so discretely) exchanging complicit looks with the men who had come in support of the detainees and admiring the sensuality of the killers’ girlfriends. While some of those women were dressing like prostitutes on duty, it was the girls from the Women in Black, who were outside the building smoking, that got a warning that they were not decently dressed.

Before the first session, one of the Women in Black told me that i would notice that those people that came to support the killers looked like normal people. This is an argument I often listen to when people talk about mass murder. Most of them did look like normal people, but there was a difference between them and what I consider to be normal people. They didn’t behave like normal people. Their arrogance and contempt clearly indicated that the concept of justice is meaningless to them. I had witnessed such behaviour before in other trials, albeit involving much less serious charges. A friend of mine was over-run by a car whose driver abandoned her and flee. The driver and his lawyer had the same attitude of contempt in court that I observed in the scorpions trial, that is a total disregard for suffering inflicted on others and the absence of any sign of regret, not to mention shame.

These people are normal only if we consider that normal people are incapable of feeling remorse for their wrong doings and the suffering inflicted upon others.

This argument about what normal people can do comes from what I think is a missinterpretation of Hannah Arendt expression The banality of Evil. As far as I know ( I dont have my books with me nor my notes, so I am relying on my memory), she latter regretted having used such expression precisely because of those misinterpretations. This argument, that is often repeated in this context( the best example is the book They wouldnt hurt a fly, by Slavenka Drakulic), is very appealing in the sense that it contradicts the tendency to judge people for their external looks or their origins. Anyone who has already felt disappointed by someone whom one had in high esteem can understand how difficult it is to know the true nature of people and the degree of moral corruption that a person can engage into.
But this argument misses the point on why is it that some people are able to resist and maintain their moral integrity. I believe the answer to that question was provided some centuries ago by the french thinker Ettienne de la Boetie on the when he said that some people are better able than others to keep the sense of the value of freedom in their minds even in the most oppressive circumstances because of their ability to live in a simple way, that protects them from moral corruption. In a way, this is also implicit in Hannah Arendt argument when she speaks about thoughtlessness. As Boetie identifies the habit as the most important treat to free will, so she identifies the refusal or the inability to think as the element that transforms seemingly normal people in moral monsters.
The problem is that normal people living in normal circumstances dont usually know themselves well enough to imagine how they would react or what they would become if faced with exceptional circumstances. In this I consider myself included. However, at a micro level everyone has already experienced or observed situations of discrimination, prejudice and racism. Unfortunately, it seems that most people only feel outraged by discrimination when it happens to them or to someone they consider to be close to them. This reminds me of when I was in elementary school. My teacher loved to beat and humiliate the most fragile children in class, but most of the other children didnt seem to mind because they believes it wouldnt happen to them as, unlike the others, they were smart and behaved well, so the teacher told them (she also told my mother that I was a good student, but my case was different because she didnt beat me but she used to beat my brother who had been her pupil, and this was enough for me to dislike her). So the fragile kids were seen by normal kids as inferior and thus deserving the harsh treatment the teacher imposed on them without ever realizing that they could very easily become the next victims of that sadistic frustrated woman whose sole pleasure was to mistreat the children who most needed her protection. Everyone in school, including my mother, knew about it and nobody did anything in their defense, because in those times it was still considered normal to use corporal punishment and psychological violence to *educate* some children. There was a great deal of conformism in such indifference, to the point that those victimized children actually interiorized that they deserved to be treated in that way.
This brings me to the phenomenon of bystanders, which is something that I find more difficult to understand.

I have given up on counting the number of people in Serbia that tried to manipulate me into relativising the seriousness of crimes committed during the wars. I guess I look dumb, and I do play dumb because I think it is very important for my work to listen to such arguments on first hand. It makes me sick, tough, to listen to some people that have everything to be qualified as decent honest citizens trying to pedagogically convince me about what “really” happened, and then doing their best to show me that the serbs are really nice people, excellent hosts and that I have the wrong impression because I was naive and thus manipulated to believe in anti-serbian traitors ( as if I needed to be rescued from those self hating serbs).

I have been studying about the rethoric of victimization in Serbia, and i also am aware that the reversal of reality is one of the most clear signs of a totalitarian mind-set. But at the same time, I often have the feeling that the strategy of denial, oblivion or relativisation used by normal serbian citizens whom I met in the last 2 and half years is in fact hiding a sense of shame that is sublimated as victimization and scapegoating of others. They need to denie or relativise so that they keep intact their self image of decent persons.

I am in Belgrade now, and today I listened to some young people who were teenagers in 1995. They remember, they know and they refuse denial. They face the hostility of the bystanders and relativisers, something that sometimes has deep implications to their lives, as those bystanders are often their parents, family and friends.

Unlike those other people, they are willing to go against the tendency to denial and oblivion. From their mouths I know that I will have to listen to lectures about the demographic strategy of the albanians, or about how the roma who refuse to integrate themselves in the serbian society all carry muslim names, and similar racist statements that I have heard too often. They are a source of hope, and the fact that they were able to organize and engage in common actions with people like the mothers of Srebrenica is a source of hope for Serbia too.

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Filed under Belgrade, Bosnia, Culture of denial, Duty of memory, Freedom, Genocide, Hope, Justice, Nationalism, Serbia, Srebrenica, Violence

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