Category Archives: Culture of denial

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

A reply to genocide deniers.

There are basically two kinds of genocide deniers:

Those for whom the existence of a genocide becomes a taboo, which allows them to live in peace with their good conscience, by pretending to believe in something that they know it is a falsification of truth. They know, they just don’t admit it, until, after a certain time, they interiorize the fake version as if it was not fake. I have found a lot of people like that in Serbia and among serbs who live abroad, and it is sometimes heartbreaking to see people that try to live a decent life and to behave according to high moral standards, people whom anybody could call good people, supporting through their silence, the most immoral of all human actions and its perpetrators. If you happen to tackle the subject, they will then try to relativise it, but with a clear discomfort, or maybe they will just say that they don’t want to talk about it. Usually there is a tacit agreement not to talk about the taboo issue, and I never take the initiative of unveiling the taboo with these people, whom I meet for reasons that are not related to my work. I will write my impressions about these people, as well as about my moral dilemmas towards them in another occasion.

For now I want to focus on the other category of genocide deniers, those who actively contribute to fabricate  and maintain the fake version that is then ‘sold’ to those on the above mentioned category, and to outsiders who are not properly informed, and we cannot expect normal people with no links to the region to be fully aware of what happened.

It has happened to me quite often that people confuse me with those not very well informed people, because I look dumb, and I often play dumb in order to see up to each point people try to manipulate me, so I know their strategies.

At a personal level, these people can be very persuasive. Their aggressiveness can be most clearly perceived when they put comments on blogs or news sites. One of the comments in my post about the case of Hasan Nuhanović against the dutch state highlights precisely this point, by recommending the readers to check the comments on this post published by Julijana Mojsilovic on Balkan Insight.

Here is one of those comments:

(…) To finish. You parrot the Western like that men and BOYS were killed at Srebrenica. As far as I know when someone reaches the age of 18 one is considered a man. Women and children were given safe passage. Even the BBC showed that!

The agressiveness of these comments was properly spotted by other readers, such as the person who then posted this comment:

You are indeed a unique and amazing human being for being able to see the truth in the world for what it is. Many of the posts before me show that clearly many people live in denial of basic facts. They do not know of objective fact-seeking, but rather look for information sources that fit their extremist and ignorant views.


There are abhorrent accusations of Muslim terror and all that in these comments and I am dumbfounded that people can make such baseless facts. There is no use in arguing with you people. The world will embrace Serbia only once more people think like you Julijana
.

Still, for the sake of those not very well informed people who sometimes drop by through their google searches, I am posting the photos of the graves of:

EDIN OSMANOVIĆ, born in 1979.

1995-1979= 16.

OSMAN ALIĆ, born in 1981.

1995-1981= 14.

SADIK HUSEINOVIĆ, born in 1982.

1995-1982= 13.

I took these photos myself in Potocari, in 11 July 2008. I don’t feel very comfortable in posting them because after all these are the remains of someone’s son, nephew, cousin, friend, but I feel even more discomfort if I don’t post them.

If the dates and names are not clear enough, please click on the photos.

The Srebrenica Genocide Blog has a parcial list of the children killed in Srebrenica.

And here is a good text on genocide denial, by Vladimir Petrović.

Now, I’ll just post this link there as a comment…

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Filed under Bosnia, Children, Culture of denial, Duty of memory, Genocide, Serbia, Srebrenica, Uncategorized

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

THE CULTURE OF DENIAL

But Visegrad is still home to the Ivo Andric library, the finest collection of his books in the world. The librarian, Stojka Mijatovic, offered us a volume, a gift. “We have taken so many books from Muslim houses we hardly know what to do with them,” she said.

The Bridge on the Drina, the famous book by Ivo Andric was recently translated into portuguese. There was an older translation, but it had been sold out long ago, so it was possible to get it only in libraries, and even so, in the Lisbon public library the book was in such a shape that it readers were not allowed to take it home.
This translation has the merit of having been made directly to portuguese, unlike what usually happens with most books written in foreign languages spoken not widely known in Portugal.

Despite the merit of the publishing house in promoting universal literature by providing their readers with good quality direct translations, there is something wrong about this portuguese edition. On its cover, one

can see a photo of an old bridge, and those acquainted with ottoman architecture will recognize its style. However, this bridge is not THE bridge on the Drina, and it is unlikely that the small river that passes beneath it is the Drina. This reveals the lack of zeal with which the publishing house produces its covers, but it also has a reflex on the perception that the reader will have on the content of the book itself, as it is probable that most of its readers never heard about the Drinabefore, and it is highly probable that even if they did, they don’t have a mental image of it, and even less of the bridge itself (here is a picture of the real bridge)

Much more disturbing was the description I was given of the book’s launching event, held last year at the Faculty of Letters of the University of Lisbon, not long before Christmas.
I didn’t go, so I am relying on the description given to me by a girl who was there. It may not be wise to talk about events that we didn’t witness ourselves, but there are ways to valuate the credibility of our sources. In this case, her description was made in the presence of other participants in the event. who did not denie her version. On the contrary, their uneasy silence was a very clear, albeit tacit, confirmation of the version that I will now reproduce.
The event was a success. Lots of people attended it, and the book got a reasonable media attention. The translator, a serb living in Portugal, was very proud of his deed, because it seems that translating Ivo Andric is a very hard task and the portuguese language is not an easy language either. Two more persons spoke at the event: the serbian ambassador in Lisbon, and a portuguese Professor of Literature.
The serbian ambassador spoke of Andric as if he had been a serbian citizen, thus ‘nationalizing’ Yugoslavia only Nobel Prize.
Nobody mentioned that Visegrad, the town where the bridge stands, was ‘ethnically cleansed’ in 1992 and is now a ethnically pure serbian town. This ‘small’ detail was unworthy mentioning in such a pleasant event about a book that describes inter-ethnic relations in Bosnia under ottoman and austrian rule. Nowadays there are no inter-ethnic relations to describe in Visegrad anymore and the bridge itself, damaged during the war is on UNESCO’s black list of endangered world heritage cultural monuments.
The brige was also nationalised, that is serbianized, as the Grand Vizir who ordered its construction was an orthodox christian taken by force by the ottomans to join the janissaries. Thus it became a serbian bridge, not an ottoman bridge, despite the fact that its architectonic style and construction technique leave no room for doubth.

The girl was shocked. When the event occurred, she had recently returned from Mostar, where she had been working as a volunteer (I didn’t ask what she was doing, I never ask anything, I just listen). She wanted to lean more about BiH, and that was the reason she decided to attend the book’s launching event. But Bosnia itself was hardly mentioned. As she told me, she felt she was too isolated there to say anything, and anyway she wouldn’t know what to say in such a surrealist environment where, apparently, only herself seemed to be shocked.

It was denial in its purest form.

Here is a description of what happened in Visegrad in 1992. Sensible souls should take a deep breath before reading it, but still read it. If you get easily impressed, don’t read it all, this small excerpt will probably be enough:

“””(…) But the bloodiest arena was the bridge itself. The structure is visible from almost every balcony and window in Visegrad, which climbs both sides of the valley. Its cobblestones are a stage at the foot of an amphitheatre; the executions were intended to be as public as possible. (…) At the end of June a Visegrad police inspector, Milan Josipovic, received a macabre complaint from downriver, from the management of Bajina Basta hydro-electric plant across the Serbian border. The plant director said could whoever was responsible please slow the flow of corpses down the Drina? They were clogging up the culverts in his dam at such a rate that he could not assemble sufficient staff to remove them. (…)”””

(Blood Trail of Butchery at the Bridge, by Ed Vulliani, published originally in the Gardian in March 11, 1996).

Photo: The Drina in a rainy day. My picture, taken in October 2007.

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Filed under Art, Bosnia, Culture of denial, Genocide, Nationalism, Portugal, Uncategorized, Violence