Category Archives: Bosnia

November, 9th as European Legacy

MostarBridge

Today Germany is marking a double anniversary, the fall of the Berlin Wall and Kristallnacht.

Twenty years ago, on 9 November 1989, the fall of the Berlin Wall was achieved when the Berliners themselves literally started to pull it down. That night symbolized a turning point in Europe, revealing the irreversible character of the democratic revolution in Eastern Europe and the end of the division of the continent. This was a happy event, whose joy I shared at a distance (I was 14 then), and from which I learned that peaceful change is possible, and that that what, at one moment is taken for granted may always be changed, because the future is not written in advance.

On the same date, 51 years earlier, Kristallnacht, the night of the broken glasses, represented the beginning of a new phase in the nazi persecution of the Jews, from systematic discrimination to physical damage, which would achieve its climax in the ‘Final Solution’, the physical extermination of the Jews on the territories under German control. This date reveals how important it is to look at the Holocaust, and indeed at all genocides, as a process, and to learn how to recognize its earlier signs in order to pre-empt its culmination in mass murder. I believe that understanding the Holocaust is key to understanding genocide in general, because one of the great lessons of the Holocaust was that it taught subsequent genociders that the unthinkable is possible.

Both events are now part of the German historical legacy, but also part of our wider European legacy.

The end of the bipolar division of Europe provided an unprecedented opportunity to accelerate and deepen the process of European integration, which had its roots on the need to overcome the historical tensions between nations in the aftermath of the Second World War. Through the European Union and NATO, Europe embarked on a dynamism of integration through the still ongoing parallel processes of enlargement and deepening.

But this date also marks the anniversary of the destruction, sixteen years ago, of Mostar’s Old Bridge. Despite the momentum created by the democratic revolution of 1989, European leaders lacked the boldness that was required to stand up to the challenges that the new times were presenting them, proving thus that the lessons of the broken glasses were yet to be fully learned. Faced with the dissolution of Yugoslavia and with war and genocide, the best Europe had to offer was so-called peace plans consecrating territorial division along ethnic lines, precisely the opposite of what was being sought by the process of European Integration.

Sixteen years later, the bridge has been built again, using, as much as possible, the same old stones that, for centuries, brought together both sides of the Neretva river. However, Mostar is still a divided city, and Bosnia-Hercegovina a divided country, and the recent failure of the EU-led Butmir initiative for Bosnia highlights the lack of credibility of the EU when it comes to playing a major role in international politics.

Together, the three events reveal much of our common European legacy, but, more than that, they should inspire us to find a better way ahead, one in which European political decision makers, but also us citizens, would abandon the  mentality of a small-town grocer, and assume with boldness our place in the world and our responsibilities towards the values of freedom and development that stand on the base of the European Integration project.

(Note: Usually I only publish here my own photos, but since I haven’t yet been to Mostar, I had to ‘pick’ one somewhere in the internet.)

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Filed under Bosnia, Duty of memory, EU, Genocide

Bosnia now: the past and the future facing each other.

On the same day that the trial of Radovan Karadzic began in the Hague, war criminal Biljana Plavsic, who succeeded Karadzic as President of Republika Srpska was released from prison, after having served seven of the eleven years to which she had been convicted by the ICTY for her role on the war in Bosnia.

These two events occurred just a few days after the failure of the Butmir talks, the latests initiative to overcome the current political situation in Bosnia, which some define as crisis, but I prefer to define as deadlock, because, unlike in a crisis, the current situation perfectly serves on of the parts involved. While the current situation doesn’t satisfy anyone, doing nothing, leaving things as they are is clearly beneficial for the leadership of the Serb entity.

Headed by Milorad Dodik, the government of the Republika Srpska is actively working towards the disintegration of Bosnia by systematically obstructing the process of decision making, proving by its behaviour that any power-sharing is worthless when the actors are not willing or at least complied to share power.

APTOPIX Serbia War Crimes Plavsic

Upon her release from prison in Sweden, Bijlana Plavsic flew to Belgrade in the jet of the government of the Republika Srpska, and upon her arrival, was warmly received by Milorad Dodik. The image of this encounter are striking: the past and the future holding hands, like a mother and her son.

Both were, at a certain point, considered by the international actors involved Bosnia as moderate politicians worth backing. This tells a lot about the fallacy of the opposition between moderates and hardliners when it comes to Serb nationalism. Their moderation, Plavsic’s as well as Dodik’s, proved to be merely tactical. Through their seemingly moderate policies, when compared to those of Radovan Karadzic and his supporters, they gave a very important contribution to advance the cause of pursuing with the goal of disintegrating Bosnia and reinforcing the homogeneous ethnic composition of the serb entity.

During the war, Plavsic, aka the ‘iron lady’, was known by her extreme nationalism and her outright racism. A Professor of Biology, Plavsic had no problem in abusing the authority of science to justify her racism, by presenting ‘ethnic cleansing’ as “a perfectly natural phenomenon” and claiming that the Bosnian Muslims were “genetically deformed material”:

That’s true [i.e. her imagination that the Bosnian Muslims were originally Serbs]. “But it was genetically deformed material that embraced Islam. And now, of course, with each successive generation this gene simply becomes concentrated. It gets worse and worse, it simply expresses itself and dictates their style of thinking and behaving, which is rooted in their genes…

This was the ‘moderate’ politician who, after the war the international actors chose to back. And when she voluntary surrendered after being indicted by the ICTY, her ‘moderation’ seemed to be confirmed.  Thus, Plavsic had as her defense witnesses prominent figures such as Madeleine Albright and Carl Bildt, whose testimony was an important mitigating factor for the judges (here, see note 20). Plavsic went as far as showing remorse and appealing for reconciliation, and the sincerity of her words was confirmed by the statement of the witness Elie Wiesel.

In fact, by pleading guilty on the count of persecutions as a crime against humanity, she managed to obtain a bargain in which the prosecution dropped all other charges, including two counts of genocide. Her plea thus represented not a positive step towards reconciliation, but a lost opportunity to prove that a genocide was committed in Bosnia, by the Serb forces against the Muslims.

Early this year, Plavsic retracted her confession, in an interview to the Swedish Vi magazine :

I sacrificed myself. I have done nothing wrong. I pleaded guilty to crimes against humanity so I could bargain for the other charges.”

By pleading guilty on crimes against humanity so that she could get away with genocide, Biljana Plavsic sacrificed herself for the sake of the Nation, but her sacrifice was obviously not as hard as the one she thought it was right to impose on her own co-nationals. Indeed, for the sake of ‘Greater Serbia’ considered that the dead of as much as half the total ethnic Serb population would be a worthy sacrifice:

There are 12 million Serbs and even if six million perish on the field of battle, there will be six million to reap the fruits of the struggle“.

So, through her ‘sacrifice’, not only she managed to get her sentence substantially reduced, but she also avoided a conviction of genocide that would contribute to highlight the illegitimacy of the very existence of Republika Srpska.

If we look at the concept of legitimacy as springing from the founding act of any politically organized society, what do we see? We see the need to deny genocide, because legitimacy is the glue that binds people together in a politically organized society, while genocide is the ‘original sin’ upon which Republika Srpska was built. If someone like Bijlana Plavsic, or Milorad Dodik for that matter, chose to oppose the warmongering faction led by Karadzic, it was because they understand that violence was merely an instrument among others to achieve a goal.

Until now, the only conviction on the account of genocide by the ICTY was the case of General Radislav Krstic, the commander of the Drina Corps. However, his conviction for genocide covered solely the case of the Massacre of Srebrenica. The chance to get a conviction for genocide on a wider area than Srebrenica was also missed at the trial of Momcilo Krajisnik, in which the prosecution failed to establish the Krajisnik genocidal intent ( read Bosnia’s ‘accidental’ genocide, by Edina Becirevic. Krajisnik was convicted to 27 years in prison, but acquitted of genocide, and as a result of his appeal, the sentence was reduced to 20 years, overturning the convictions in several charges.

This appeal revealed major flaws in the prosecution’s strategy and sparked the fear that similar or even greater difficulties will be faced to convict Radovan Karadzic of genocide(about this debate, read ‘What Karadzic Prossecutors learnt from Krajisnik Trial’, by Simon Jennings).

Thus, bearing in mind the failure of the International Court of Justice (about this, read ‘The ICJ and the decriminalisation of Genocide‘, by Marko Attila Hoare, and ‘Vital Genocide documents concealed‘, by Florence Hartmann), and the fact that Ratko Mladic is still at large and most likely will never be captured, the trial of Radovan Karadzic represents the last chance to establish through international law, the full extent of the genocidal character of the aggression against Bosnia-Hercegovina (about this, it’s worth reading this post by Kirk Johnson at Americans for Bosnia).

The stakes are high. The result of this trial cannot but have an important impact on the Republika Srpska. It is not at all a matter of ‘collective guilt’, since guilt is always individual, but it is a matter of political legitimacy. The political identity of the serb entity is being built now as if it was an alien land, but the past keeps coming back and the urge for justice won’t go away so easily, as the case of the Spanish Civil war highlights.

However, for something to change in the current trend of ‘smooth’ disintegration, it is necessary that what is called the international community, meaning the relevant international  players in Bosnia, should make a serious reflection on what went wrong on their approach both of the conflict and of the post-conflict phase. That reflection is not at all happening and the result is clearly shown in the predictable failure of the Butmir talks.

Nonetheless, I do believe there are grounds for hope, for the simple reason that the future is not written in the stars but is rather built in the present and can always be changed. I believe real change must come from within the Bosnian society. Imposed solutions have already proved their limits, but international support for change will always play a crucial role. But for change to happen, we must stop waiting for a miracle, because time is not working on our side.

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Filed under Bosnia, Genocide, International Law, Nationalism, Srebrenica

Denial and the rhetorics of Serbian victimization.

One of the most effective ways for Serbian nationalist propaganda to get into the minds of normal people has been, over the last three decades, the invocation of Jasenovac and of Serbian victimhood. The rhetorics of victimization was presented in a way that actually represents an abuse of memory of the Serbian victims of past oppression. Victimization was used in order to install a climate of fear, to present the Serbs as a nation under continuous threat and thus to whitewash as self-defence the wars of aggression conducted by the Serbs in the 1990s. For Serbian nationalists, thus, Serbian victims became no more than an asset, a useful tool of propaganda.

Even nowadays, this mentality dominated by the idea of victimization is what prevents many decent Serbs with no sympathy for nationalism to fully aknowledge the degree of harm caused by the Greater Serbia nationalists.

On my post on Holocaust Memorial Day, a reader, signing as Svetlana, wrote a comment about a bitter exchange of arguments between Owen and I and a Greek reader, Nikos previously published in the same thread. Her comment to a certain extent is illustrative of how the rethorics of victimization distorts the ability or the will to assess Serbia’s responsibilities for the violent break-up of Yugoslavia.

here is an excerpt: (…) somehow I feel that there will never be any understanding for serbian victims. The comments for this article should talk about all the victims of all nationalities and to be equally treated by everyone and not just always to point to Serbs as the main war criminals. Mladic should be arrested, no doubt about it, but now I somehow suspect that it is not Serbia that does not want to arrest Mladic, in my opinion some bigger factors are involved, because for some people it would be better to leave Serbia in dark, isolated, marginalized… so they could do their business as usual there.(…)

I am not at all questioning Svetlana’s good faith, I am just quoting her, in order to introduce the comment written as a reply to her by Owen, which focuses on victimization and on the patterns of argumentation used by those who believe that should not face the extremely negative legacy of Greater Serb nationalism.

I have been reading Owen’s comments in other blogs for years and I am very happy to receive his support and have him regularly following my blog and writing comments here. I am publishing Owen’s comment in full. In case some parts seem to lack context, please consult the post where the comment was originaly published :

Svetlana, I must take my share of criticism for the way in which the discussion moved on from discussing Sarah’s initial post honouring Aristides da Souza Mendes by way of commemorating Holocaust Memorial Day.

The problem was that I saw in the way Nikos expanded his original comments yet another effort to take discussion of criminal atrocities into the area of subtle propaganda for the EU to allow Serbia to move on and in.

As Sarah has said, our experience of exchanges with Serbians – hers considerably greater than mine – has been sufficient for us to have a reasonable idea now here an apparently open-ended discussion is heading. I observed to Nikos that the regrettable outcome of so many discussions with so many Serbians is that I have become much more focussed – closed-minded, with entrenched views, whatever – because I have wasted so much time beating around the bush as a result of taking the initial remarks at face value. Sad, but some of us have to use our time and energy carefully.

That’s not to write off all Serbians, far from it. I know that Sarah like myself has Serbian friends and acquaintances whom we not only like but intensely admire. But when engaging in discussion with Serbs and Serbians on the internet – on blogs, at places like Wikipedia, etc. – I so often find myself aware of a pattern emerging that reveals a single overriding concern on the part of my interlocutor, the aim to persuade me that Serbia is being victimised and discriminated against and I and the world should treat Serbia with more consideration and tolerance.

Of course I know about Jasenovac and the atrocities there. It is true that what happened at Jasenovac is not widely enough known and acknowledged outside Former Yugoslavia as a horror that stands alongside Srebrenica and the other atrocities in the wars of 1991-1995. But there are reasons why even those who are aware of Jasenovac are distracted from showing adequate respect for the memory of the victims.

Most of us communicating on the internet were born after the Second World War. We tend to speak of what we know. I know that Srebrenica was the single worst atrocity on the continent where I live since WWII. Events in Former Yugoslavia in the early 1990s were profoundly shocking to myself and others who had grown up with the idea that even if the commitment to “Never Again” was unlikely to eradicate war and conflict the one thing we should not expect to see in our lifetimes was the spectre of ethnic extermination. Srebrenica was only the culmination of horrible events that unfolded before us in places like Eastern Slavonia, Prijedor, Central Bosnia and the Drina Valley (not ignoring atrocities perpetrated on a smaller scale but no less importantly in places like Gospic and during the exodus from the Krajina).

For a long time when trying to discuss these atrocities and the reality of what had happened the inevitable response from Serbians, with the exception of an honourable and honoured minority, was that no massacre had taken place, that the scale of atrocities was vastly exaggerated, that Muslim and Croat atrocities were on a much greater scale than those blamed on Serbs, etc.

Over time as more facts have been confirmed the arguments deployed have gradually changed. There is still denial, but absolute denial is much less in evidence and attempts to downgrade the scale of what happened are much less blatant. In the case of Srebrenica that’s perhaps thanks to the evidence of the Scorpions video, though Natasa Kandic remains a target of hatred for forcing it onto the public’s consciousness. And also perhaps an appreciation of the overwhelming public acceptance outside the Balkans of the facts relating to the wars of the Former Yugoslavia wars as established in legal proceedings which however imperfect have succeeded in bringing to light an extraordinary volume of evidence that is now seen as beyond question.

So the argument has shifted but its central focus remains the same, the unfair treatment of Serbs and Serbia. Many Serbians now acknowledge that Srebrenica was a terrible atrocity (albeit little is said about events elsewhere – Omarska doesn’t seem to register much and Ovcara seems to remain difficult to accept). But that’s about as far as it goes. After a brief acknowledgment of Srebrenica the discussion moves rapidly on to Serbia’s problems and suffering. There’s no real outrage, no condemnation of the fact that the principal perpetrators have succeeded in avoiding justice for so long. I never hear concern expressed for the families of the victims. Above all I hear about the suffering of Serbians denied the right to be part of a prosperous, contented Europe (and occasionally complaints about the situation of Serb refugees in Serbia – a legitimate concern but usually expressed in a context of assigning uncritical blame). Serbians appear to be outraged by the notion of conditionality. The country that has protected and paid pensions to the indicted war criminals considers it has moved on.

The agenda is always to make the outside world aware of its mistreatment of Serbs and Serbia. And that is the problem. So much obvious intelligence and wide-ranging knowledge is relentlessly applied to the task of persuading the persion at the receiving end that Serbia must be allowed to cast off the burden of any outstanding responsibility for the recent past.

Jasenovac has become part of the scheme of justification, as an instrumental reference. And that’s why people who are aware of what happened there may appear to pay less attention to Jasenovac than the scale of what happened there demands.

The motives behind the work of the hopefully now defunct Jasenovac Research Institute were made clear by the activities of its officers elsewhere. That was perhaps one of the most transparently cynical attempts to exploit the reality of the suffering of the victims of Jasenovac and their survivors by using an association with other Holocaust victims to cloak apologist propagandising in a false respectability.

I often sense the presence of a similar, if less intense, cynicism in the references to Jasenovac that I’m offered as a sort of balance to comments about Srebrenica and other atrocities. To be frank though possibly unfair, it is difficult to detect the pain experienced by other victims in many of these references. Where there is a sense of genuine anger it often seems to spring from a resentment at being treated unfairly. But at least that anger is genuine. What I find most disturbing is when the references are almost incidental and appear intended simply to confirm a communality of victimhood rather than remind me of the terrible suffering of the individuals killed and otherwise abused by the Nazis and their Ustashe and Chetnik associates.

Svetlana, I don’t quarrel with your reference to Serbians as hospitable people. My problem is that Serbian hospitability seems to be conditional on the conduct of your guests. We’ll get along fine as long as I don’t disagree with you. I’m not going to be mealy-mouthed and pretend that I’m not criticising because that’s precisely what I have been doing up to this point.

As far as you personally are concerned I know almost nothing about you and your personal motives so the above is not directed at you. Nevertheless I think I’m still entitled to challenge your lack of insight in accusing Sarah of unfairness towards people who don’t share her attitudes. I very much hope that the profound respect for truth and justice she observes is, as you put it, what Europe is, and what democracy is.

You’re right, Europe should be proud of all its diversity and let people be different, their difference informed by that fundamental respect for one another.

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Filed under Bosnia, Culture of denial, Duty of memory, Genocide, Nationalism, Serbia

Duty of Memory: European Parliament declares 11 July “Day of Comemoration of the Srebrenica Genocide”

At 11 July 2009, the commemorative ceremony of the Srebrenica Genocide will be officially celebrated for the first time not only in Bosnia but in all European Union countries.  Today, the European Parliament has declared this date to be the day of Comemoration of the Srebrenica Genocide.

As a citizen of the European Union, I want to welcome this resolution. This is an act that honours the democratic tradition of the European Parliament, the only european institution directly elected by the european citizens themselves. Through this act, the European Parliament is fulfiling its duty of memory and contributing to fight genocide denial and oblivion.

With this decision, the European Parliament is also helping to strengthen the fragile civic-minded civil sector in Serbia, by calling all the countries in the Western Balkans to join the EU countries in this european-wide celebration. dsc_0661

At 11 July 2009, 14 years will have passed since the genocidal massacre of Srebrenica, 17 years since the start of the war in Bosnia and 18 since the start of the break-up of Yugoslavia. During these last three years since I started studying full-time the history, culture and current political situation of the countries of the Former Yugoslavia, I have met a lot of people who shared with me their frustration for the impunity with which the apology of genocide and war crimes was done, and their sense of hopelessness regarding the prevalent state of denial of the majority of the population in Serbia. I have also met people who have expressed their fear that soon all would be forgotten and to those people I have always said the same thing:

The commemoration of traumatic events with political implications, which is one of the ways in which collective memory is established and renewed, obeys to a cycle. Immediately after the events, there is a peak in commemorative acts, but in the subsequent years the need to focus on the future and to face immediate problems provoke a decrease in commemorations. Traumatic evens involve a lot of pain, and it is only natural that people tend, in this phase, to repress those memories. This happens to individuals as well as to societies. The wish to live a normal life and to move forward drives people to neglect their duty of memory.

Anyone who has already experienced the death of a beloved person knows that this corresponds also in a way to the process of mourning. Denial is a mechanism that helps us to cope with our pain for a while. I remember that when my father died, for a while after his funeral it was as if he was travelling, but at a certain moment we had to admit to ourselves that he wasn’t going to come back.

In societies, this phase of decline in the remembrance of traumatic events is much longer than with individuals. The push for a new increase on commemorations and other forms of expression of collective memory, such as through narrative arts like literature and movies depends mainly on a specific group: the generation that lived through the traumatic events in the period of adolescence and early 20s. This is the generation that will most want and need to remember, because it is the one that was most deeply marked by the traumatic events. Older people will try to stick to the memory of how their life was like before it got disrupted and many try to ignore that period as a period when their lives were suspended, and small children were too young to remember more than what they directly experienced, and are more likely to have the most traumatic blocked or to keep only fragmented memories.

The moment when a generation starts getting its voice heard in a society starts when they reach their 30s. This means that, in the case of the genocide in Bosnia, thus moment is now only starting. This is the defining period to establish an enduring collective memory. This period will last more or less 10 years and will reach its peak at 25th anniversary of the events.

Someone who was 16 in 1991 and 20 in 1995 is now reaching his 35. It is thus the generation composed of people of 28-40 year old that most want to get involved and commit themselves in shaping collective memory. Because they are still young people with most of their lives still ahead of them, It is very likely that, if the circumstances so permit, that this generation will try to shape those memories in a way that helps them also move forward, and with them the whole society. In this sense, today’s decision by the European Parliament is a worthy contribution.

I am not citing any source because this is not an academic essay, but those intested should read this book: Collective Memory of Political Events. I am sorry to say that the book is hugely expensive but it’s the best reference in this fiels (other suggestions welcomed). However I didn’t follow the book to write this post, it is the product of  my own impressions observing comemorations of events that happened in my own country and of my experience as a researcher, reading and meeting interesting people.

Bellow you can read the text of the European Parliamente resolution (emphasis added by me to make it easier to go to the point).

P6_TA-PROV(2009)0028
Srebrenica

PE416.145
European Parliament resolution of 15 January 2009 on Srebrenica

The European Parliament,
–    having regard to its resolution of 7 July 2005 on Srebrenica1,
–    having regard to the Stabilisation and Association Agreement between the European Communities and their Member States, of the one part, and Bosnia and Herzegovina, of the other part, signed in Luxembourg on 16 June 2008, and the prospect of EU membership held out to all the countries of the western Balkans at the EU summit in Thessaloniki in 2003,
–    having regard to Rule 103(4) of its Rules of Procedure,
A.    whereas in July 1995 the Bosnian town of Srebrenica, which was at that time an isolated enclave proclaimed a Protected Zone by a United Nations Security Council Resolution of 16 April 1993, fell into the hands of the Serbian militias led by General Ratko Mladić and under the direction of the then President of the Republika Srpska, Radovan Karadžić,
B.    whereas, during several days of carnage after the fall of Srebrenica, more than 8 000 Muslim men and boys, who had sought safety in this area under the protection of the United Nations Protection Force (UNPROFOR), were summarily executed by Bosnian Serb forces commanded by General Mladić and by paramilitary units, including Serbian irregular police units which had entered Bosnian territory from Serbia; whereas nearly 25 000 women, children and elderly people were forcibly deported, making this event the biggest war crime to take place in Europe since the end of the Second World War,
C.    whereas this tragedy, declared an act of genocide by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY), took place in a UN-proclaimed safe haven, and therefore stands as a symbol of the impotence of the international community to intervene in the conflict and protect the civilian population,
D.    whereas multiple violations of the Geneva Conventions were perpetrated by Bosnian Serb troops against Srebrenica’s civilian population, including deportations of thousands of women, children and elderly people and the rape of a large number of women,
E.    whereas, in spite of the enormous efforts made to date to discover and exhume mass and individual graves and identify the bodies of the victims, the searches conducted until now do not permit a complete reconstruction of the events in and around Srebrenica,
F.    whereas there cannot be real peace without justice and whereas full and unrestricted cooperation with the ICTY remains a basic requirement for further continuation of the process of integration into the EU for the countries of the western Balkans,
G.    whereas General Radislav Krstić of the Bosnian Serb army is the first person found guilty by the ICTY of aiding and abetting the Srebrenica genocide, but whereas the most prominent indicted person, Ratko Mladić, is still at large almost fourteen years after the tragic events, and whereas it is to be welcomed that Radovan Karadžić now has been transferred to the ICTY,
H.    whereas the institutionalisation of a day of remembrance is the best means of paying tribute to the victims of the massacres and sending a clear message to future generations,
1. Commemorates and honours all the victims of the atrocities during the wars in the former Yugoslavia; expresses its condolences to and solidarity with the families of the victims, many of whom are living without final confirmation of the fate of their relatives; recognises that this continuing pain is aggravated by the failure to bring those responsible for these acts to justice;
2.    Calls on the Council and the Commission to commemorate appropriately the anniversary of the Srebrenica-Potočari act of genocide by supporting Parliament’s recognition of 11 July as the day of commemoration of the Srebrenica genocide all over the EU, and to call on all the countries of the western Balkans to do the same;
3.    Calls for further efforts to bring the remaining fugitives to justice, expresses its full support for the valuable and difficult work of the ICTY and stresses that bringing to justice those responsible for the massacres in and around Srebrenica is an important step towards peace and stability in the region; reiterates in that regard that increased attention needs to be paid to war crimes trials at domestic level;
4.    Stresses the importance of reconciliation as part of the European integration process; emphasises the important role of religious communities, the media and the education system in this process, so that civilians of all ethnicities may overcome the tensions of the past and begin a peaceful and sincere coexistence in the interests of enduring peace, stability and economic growth; urges all countries to make further efforts to come to terms with a difficult and troubled past;
5.    Instructs its President to forward this resolution to the Council, the Commission, the governments of the Member States, the Government and Parliament of Bosnia and Herzegovina and its entities, and the governments and parliaments of the countries of the western Balkans.

dsc_0527

My photos, 11 July 2008.

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Filed under Bosnia, Duty of memory, EU, Genocide, Srebrenica

Resolution 819, the film: Hasan Nuhanovic’s position.

I have been writing about this film about the genocide in Srebrenica, ‘Resolution 819’, named after the UN Security Council resolution that established Srebrenica as a ‘safe area’. This film sparked a controversy over the way it depicts the role of the international comunity, the United Nations ‘peacekeepers’, and the Dutch Bat, the battalion of UN ‘peacekeepers present in Srebrenica.

The film was awarded the public’s award in the Rome Film Festival, and I put a post here saying that ‘anything that may help keep the memory of Srebrenica alive and reach audiences that are usually not interested in this issue is more than welcome.’.

Then I published an article written by Hasan Nuhanovic, who in 1995 was working for the DutchBat as a translator, and whose entire family was killed after having been handed to the Serbs by the Dutch themselves. Based on some photos he saw of the movie’s scenes, he claimed that the film contained at least one inaccurate scene that would distort the truth about the role of the DutchBat. As it happens that the victims associations were not consulted about this film, Hasan raised  the following question:

“””So who in the end was responsible for including the scene in the film, and why? This is the stereotypical general idea that in any situation of that kind there will always be a guy “with balls” who angered by the behaviour of the Serb soldiers, at least grabs hold of one of them by the collar and then “lets go” when another Serb soldier holds a gun to his head.  Pure Hollywood. If this scene isn’t removed from the film (and that is what I plan to ask the director to do), over the next 50 years it will be telling future generations that the UNPROFOR troops were compelled to behave as they did, there was nothing they could do about it because they were being held “at gun point”, with a pistol held to their head. And so the Republika Srpska troops were able to do what they did because the whole of UNPROFOR, the whole of Europe, the whole of NATO, were being being held “at gun point” as people were being separated and killed. That scene and that individual UNPROFOR officer, will be fixed in the minds of the film’s future audience, who will take away the idea that it is the uncontested truth. And if all the rest of the film consists of a faithful and accurate reconstruction of the tragic events, that scene would still be extremely controversial.  Because that scene gives the audience an idea of the attitude of the rest of the world towards the executioners and the victims – Europe, represented by UNPROFOR, after all those reiterations of “Never Again”.

No, neither UNPROFOR nor the Dutch, none of them, made even the slightest effort to grab one of the Serbs by the collar, a terrifying thought.  Not one of them. They were servile towards the Serb , they did whatever the Serbs asked them to, and more.  We cannot consent to that scene being shown, no matter how many people might say that it’s just a single scene and the rest of the film shows events in a truthful light.

We do not know that and we cannot offer our absolute trust without having seen the film.””””

(Hasan Nuhanovic’s full article here, in english . The article was originally published in the bosnian newspaper Dani, then translated into italian and published on Osservatorio sui Balcani)

When I read Andrea Rossini’s article on the projection in Sarajevo, I emailed Hasan Nuhanovic to ask him if he could share his opinion with me, and whether the issue had been clarified, as the article implied, or not.

Hasan gave me his position and authorized me to paraphrase him here on my blog, and that’s what I’ll go right now.

For Hasan Nuhanovic, the issue he raised was not clarified. He did meet Giaccomo Battiato, the film director, and discussed the issue of how the film shows the role of the Dutch and the UN during the critical period and why he thinks that  particular scene should not have been included, but this meeting did not clarify what the authors had in mind with such option.

In fact, according to Hasan, the scene where a Duch military tries to protect a Bosniak woman  is not the only inaccurate scene in the film. The entire part regarding the role of Karremans does not match what happened in reality.

He points out that the main reason why the film has been welcomed  rather than challenged is primarily because politicians and ordinary people aren’t clear about what actually happened at Srebrenica and the complicity of the UN/Dutch would be incomprehensible to a lot of people who did not experience it – and it still is incomprehenisble.  Even most Bosniaks, who understand the enormity of the genocide, don’t necessarily understand the the reality of the betrayal that occurred. Thus, the inaccuracies in the film are perceived as mere details, concessions that are easily accepted.

The film is highly critical of the Bosnian Serbs, and, because of that, it is being welcomed among Bosniaks, while the importance of the inaccurate scenes regarding the role of the DutchBat and the United Nations is downplayed or ignored. Behind this logic, Hasan claims, is a mind-set that leads Bosnians to adopt the attitude that one should not  look a gift horse in the mouth.

Such attitude, which he refuses to accept, is, in part, politically motivated, but mostly due to the fact that many people don’t understand or refuse to see up to which point the UN and the Dutch became complicit in the Srebrenica genocide, this despite all the books that have been written, including his own (Under the UN Flag, the International Community and the Srebrenica Genocide),  the documentaries that have been made, and the legal action against the UN and the Dutch state.

Hasan also raises the more general question of how a traumatic  historical event should be portrayed in cinema, and what should be the involvement of the survivors and witnesses. The problem regarding this film is that it is not a work of fiction. Although it is not a documentary, it is a film that is perceived by the public as a reconstruction. However, the director made the choice to mix fictional events with real events, in a way that creates a bias in the perception of the behaviour of important elements involved in the real events. Hasan criticizes the ambiguity of such option and the decision not to consult the victims.

The question of what did the authors had in mind is still not answered, and the position that we should not look a gift horse in the mouth is one that Hasan Nuhanovic rejects.

Aditional note:

Among traumatic historical events, the experience of genocide is one that only victims fully understand. The lack of understanding from others about the impact of genocide in people’s lives, not only as members of one group, but also as individuals, is something that is part of of the heavy legacy that survivors have to cope with. This is an additional element of suffering for them, which has been widely documented on studies about Jews who survived the Holocaust. There is also a whole body of literature about the ethical implications of the choice of the topic of genocide for films and books. The importance of popular narrative forms such as films and novels for the construction of a collective memory of Historical events is also widely known. The fact that this is the first feature film about Srebrenica only adds responsibility to the authors options.

Thus, it puzzles me that the victims have not been consulted. The issue raised by Hassan Nuhanovic should not be seen as a question of detail. There is a strict ethical code that people who choose to work on the issue of genocide are obliged to observe. Instead of making one more film for entertainment, the authors chose a sensitive topic, they should be aware of its implications.

I am looking forward to watching the movie, and then I’ll try to post on this again.

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Filed under Bosnia, Duty of memory, Genocide, Srebrenica

Resolution 819, the film: article on its projection in Sarajevo

I have already written three posts about the film Resolution 819, about the genocidal massacre of Srebrenica, but i’m not satisfied, so today I’m posting two more.

I’ve been googling searching the keywords ‘Resolution 819’, and I came to the conclusion that there is hardly anything relevant written in english and available online about this film. I’m not surprised, this is the problem with european cinema, national boundaries are hard to cross.

There are some more materials in French, because it turns out that this film has already passed on french TV Canal Plus on 27 October 2008 , but nothing relevant in english, at least nothing that I could find.

So, I think it’s useful to provide both the regular readers and those who come here through google searches with a more extended excerpt of the article published on Osservatorio sui Balcani by Andrea Rossini, who covered the projection of the film in Sarajevo. The article also adresses the issue raised by Hasan Nuhanovic, and incudes a small interview with the director.

I’m posting most of the article except for the journalist personal considerations, not that they are not relevant, but because it would make the post too long.

In another post I’m giving Hasan Nihanovic’s own opinion about this film, now that he has already watched it.

Sarajevo 819

04/12/2008

Author: Andrea Rossini, published originally in italian in Osservatorio sui Balcani.

Translated by Owen Beith (thanks, Owen!)

The Sarajevo premiere of Resolution 819, a French film about the massacre at Srebrenica by Italian director Giacomo Battiato.
Cinema, history and the construction of the past.
The public’s reaction, the director’s comments.

“I am a bit concerned about the screening tomorrow [Wednesday].  I have come here from abroad to talk about their history. I was very motivated and I made this film in a spirit of absolute honesty. But I don’t know what the reaction here might be …”

The anxiety that Resolution 819’s director Giacomo Battiato had confided to us the evening before the film’s premiere in Sarajevo disappeared after an hour and a half.  The audience in the People’s Theatre watched the screening in almost religious silence.  In the auditorium were survivors, relatives of the victims – the women of Srebrenica.  Women who had been there in July 1995.  They watched the cinematic reconstruction of the killings in anguished amazement. The story of the fall of the enclave was accurately recounted.  There was tentative applause as the closing credits began to roll, which slowly built to an ovation. Amor Mašović, a man who has dedicated his life to searching for the missing, rose to his feet in the centre of the auditorium and invited everybody around him to do likewise – Nataša Kandić, Florence Hartmann, the anthropologist Ewa Klonowoski and many others who over the years have played their part in the search for the truth about Srebrenica.  Finally Giacomo Battiato returned to the stage and modestly expressed his personal gratitude to the Sarajevo audience.

The previous evening the director had explained his motivation to journalists: “I decided to make this film for two reasons. There have been some excellent documentaries made about  Srebrenica, but a film speaks to the emotions and allows you to reach a lot more people.  I wanted to tell a story that was not just about the suffering of the Bosniaks but also about the passivity of the international community, and the feeling of guilt this could have been allowed to happen.  At the same time, though, I wanted to show something positive as well, the story of a French investigator [Jean René Ruez], and how so many people have contributed to the work of trying to establish the truth and bring the criminals to justice.”

The screening was prefaced by a controversy raised by Hasan Nuhanović, the United Nations interpreter whose family died at Srebrenica and who eventually decided to take legal action against the Dutch government for its failure to protect them.  In an article for the weekly journal Dani, Nuhanović told of his confusion after seeing a shot from the film showing one of the [U.N.] Blue Helmets clashing with a Serb soldier.  Nothing like that ever happened at Srebrenica, Nuhanović maintained, expressing his hope that the film would not distort history by exculpating the United Nations.  The confusion was cleared up after Nuhanović and Battiato met here in Sarajevo.  Apart from this episode the film’s stance is unambiguous, the message that Resolution 819 tells about the role of the international community is very clear. The situation is described in merciless detail, starting with the desperate telephone calls made by the Dutch commandant at Srebrenica (Karremans) to the United Nations general in Zagreb (Janvier), who refuses to order air strikes. The Dutch soldiers then hand over uniforms and equipment to the Serbs, who carry out killings disguised as Blue Helmets. This is precisely the scenario that the scene that inspired Nuhanović’s article describes: a Dutch officer just for a moment ceases to be a soldier and reacts as an ordinary human being to a violent assault on a girl.  And then almost immediately the soldier resumes the role that Dutchbat was assigned at Srebrenica in the summer of ’95, ordered to do nothing.  The film is very hard on the international community.  In a subsequent scene filmed at an imaginary road block in post-Dayton Bosnia, American soldiers allow a convoy of cars with the wanted Radovan Karadžić on board to pass through, on the grounds that “it’s better to avoid problems.”

We met Giacomo Battiato ahead of the film’s premiere before a Bosnian audience, fresh from its triumph at the Rome Festival.  “If anyone had wanted to strike a bet with me I’d have lost”, he told us.  “I never dreamed we’d win in Rome. The fact that the public voted for the film astonished me, it meant that the message had been received loud and clear.”

What is the reason, in your opinion?

It is a story about pain, and the sharing of pain, and along with the pain a sense of guilt that we experience when we discover that while we were enjoying ourselves on the beach, only a few kilometres away something unimaginable was taking place.

Italy knows nothing about Srebrenica?

Very little, and very superficially.  I was astonished by the response of the media after the film won the prize in Rome. The newspapers began to talk about Srebrenica, people said to me “but I knew nothing about all that, but it’s true, so how is it possible?”

(…)

Previous posts on ‘Resolution 819′ on Café Turco:

History as written by other people, the transation of Hasan Nuhhanovic’s article  Drugi pišu našu historiju, published on the newspaper Dani (thanks, Owen, for the translation) (24/11/2008)

Film ‘Resolution 819′ about the genocide in Srebrenica includes inaccurate scene that falsifies the truth, where I react to Hasan Nuhanovic’s article. (21/11/2008)

Film ‘Resoultion 819′ about the genocide in Srebrenica wins highest award at the Rome Film Festival. (1/11/2008)

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Filed under Bosnia, Srebrenica

Some texts on Islamic communities in Bosnia, Sandjak and Kosovo

One of the biggest problems for someone interested in understanding the region of the former Yugoslavia is how to assess the credibility of the sources available. This is so even for researchers and scholars, but even more for average citizens who take some of their limited free time to look through the internet for articles and documents that may help them to go deeper than the small articles on news sites.

I remember the case of a blog in portuguese that I used to read, and whose author I appreciated and regarded as a serious, honest and intelligent person (I still do, but I am now more aware of his prejudices). This author, an academic with a PhD in Physics, was deeply engaged in the fight for secularism and against religious extremism. His blogging was part of a wider civic engagement which I respect and admire. Unfortunately, his concern regarding radical islam made him prone to Serb nationalist propaganda. When Kosova declared its independence, he published a post claiming that Kosova was a country dominated by radical islam, etc, etc, etc.

I was appalled, not so much for the fact that we didn’t agree on the issue of the Independence of Kosova, but because he was using as his source the Serbian nationalist site Serbianna and was accriticaly replicating a bunch of lies. It stroke me that an intelligent and educated person like him did not bother to take some time to evaluate the reliability of the sources he was using.

The fact is that this blog had a good audience and its readers tended to trust the good judgement of its authors regarding sources, even when they didn’t agree with is opinion. I am not mentioning the blog’s name because it is not relevant, this is not a personal attack, I left my opinion on its comment box, this is just an illustrative case of how difficult it is to fight the dominant prejudices regarding the Balkans and its peoples, and how even reasonable, moderate, educated people can be deceived by propaganda.

I decided to write this post because today I clicked on the wordpress tag “Kosovo” and found a blog written by someone who claims to have lived there, and to know a lot about the region, and there was this text about radical Islam in Bosnia. The post was very bad, and on his link list he had serious resources mixed with nationalist propaganda and genocide denial websites. It has happened to me quite often that people who have spent more time in the region that I did uses that as an argument of authority, and it seemed to be the case also with this blogger.

There is a whole body of literature analysing the impact of travellers accounts on the distortion of the image of contryes considered to be ‘exotic’ and the spread of prejudices about their peoples. Belonging myself to a country whose image suffers a lot because of its perceived ‘exotism’, I am aware of this problem and try not to focus too much on my personal impressions when I am researching and writting. It is not the fact that a person is living for years in, say, Serbia, and speaks serbian, that qualifies that person as an authoritive voice about Serbia. One is entitled to have an opinion and share one’s personal impressions, but the problem is that too often the temptation to lecture about it is impossible to resist, especially among bloggers.

So, today when I read this blog I really felt that it is important to fight this kind of obfuscation, by linking some texts that I think are well researched, balanced and reliable. They were written by Juan Carlos Antunez, a spanish military who has pursued studies on Islam, speaks Bosnian and Arab, and lived and worked until recently in Sarajevo as an international functionary.

Not everybody has to be an expert, but when we want to inform ourselves, the choice of sources is something we must take very seriously. However, for non-experts, it is sometimes hard to find texts that don’t demand much previous knowledge. I think the texts that i’m linking are very accessible even for someone who knows nothing on this issue.

In english:

Wahabism in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Published in two parts on the website of the Bosnian Institute. Part One here, Part two here

This paper was written primarily with the goal of providing some basic but accurate information to international functionaries in Bosnia.

An excerpt:

“””

For most International Community (IC) personnel, this is the first time in their careers that they have had to deal with any kind of Islamic issue. Part of the local media, often biased by nationalistic or/and political interests, have tried to present the problem of Wahhabism in B-H as a growing tendency that is a threat to safety and security not only in the country but also in the rest of Europe. These media have used a discourse very similar to that used at the beginning of the 90’s, changing the term ‘Islamic fundamentalism’ by ‘Wahhabism’. On the other hand, media close to the Bosniak establishment have tried to ‘hide’ any evidence of the Wahhabi presence in B-H, or at least to play down the importance of the phenomenon.

Most of the information gathered until now is based on the regurgitation of media or biased spread of rumours without further confirmation. A serious analysis must try to define who is a real follower of Wahhabism, in order to avoid misinterpretations. Only then can proper proposals be developed for stopping the ‘reported’ growing tendency, and reversing it.

This is a paper on the situation of Wahhabism in B-H, intended to represent original thinking about the real picture of the Islamic community in the country and not a ‘regurgitation of open-source wisdom’.

“””

In spanish: published on Athena Intelligence, a spanish research centre on terrorism and armed conflicts, with a particular emphasys on Islamic terrorism.

Presencia yihadista en Bosnia y Herzegovina,Athena Intelligence,  n.2/8 (3/4/2008)

Sandjak: un inestabile región entre Bosnia y Herzegovina y Kosovo, Athena Intelligence, December 2007.

Islamismo radical en Kosovo, Athena Intellingence, n.2/8 (3/4/2008)

Sorry for the non-spanish readers!

I’ll return to this subject and specifically to these articles when I have some time, which will not happen before the new year.

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Filed under Bosnia, Islam, Kosovo, Sandjak, Serbia