Category Archives: Duty of memory

Focusing on the present, working for a better future for all in Bosnia-Herzegovina

                  I am posting this today, almost one year later than I promised čika Idris that I would disseminate online the Hujdurović brothers’s Open Letters to the Citizens of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Today it’s 21 years since the day that Srebrenica fell, and the day when we commemorate genocide in Srebrenica and in Bosnia. People sometimes speak about lessons from the past, but we don’t learn lessons from the past by merely engaging in commemorative practices, symbolic per nature, and, in the case of Bosnia-Herzegovina, highly politicised and for that reason prone to abuse by nationalists who thrive on keeping people stuck in a past of extreme violence, and here I mean both Serb and Bosniak nationalists.

              I have been to Srebrenica a number of times, including three times for the Annual Commemoration and collective burial in Potočari. Of everything good and bad that I’ve observed there, one image always stands out in my mind: that of a little girl with a  t-shirt saying ‘Lucky Girl’. 

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                   At the time I wrote: “The beautiful girl, and all the other children I got the chance to meet in my trips around former Yugoslavia are what gives my work a purpose. She means that the past is important, but that it is the future that really matters.” Well, the girl is now 14, and her future has been systematically undermined by nationalists, some of whom killed her family, while others thrive on her family’s victimhood.

                  With her in my mind, and many other young people that I met during the last 10 years, I would like to to invite the readers to learn about the case of two brothers who, having repeatedly lived through experiences of extreme violence, never became hostage of the traumatic past, but instead continued to live in the present and work for a better future, not only for themselves, but for all, as the natural way to remain truthful to the legacy of courage and decency of their beloved father.

                  What follows is a short introduction to the lives and work of Idris and Meho Hujdurović, partisan veterans from Bijeljina, and to their present engagement in favour of a better future for the people of Bosnia-Herzegovina. On a separate page, I am also publishing their Open Letters to the Citizens of Bosnia-Herzegovina, only in Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian.

 

 I met Idris Hujdurović in 2014 when I was living in Bijeljina, a town in the North-East of Bosnia-Herzegovina, now part of Republika Srpska. As part of my fieldwork for the PhD, I was looking for people who would be willing to talk to me about the transformation of Bijeljina through time and how they were personally involved in it. Idris Hujdurović, a civil engineer, founder and director, for almost thirty years, of the construction company GIK-Rad, had, literally, built much of Bijeljina: all of its schools; the tribunal; all the communist era apartment blocks; etc. What immediately fascinated me, was not, however, his professional record, of which he didn’t speak much. It was the compelling, yet tranquil way he spoke about his life, which revealed a man who, having lived through so much, lived in the present, and focused on the future much more than on the past.

After the interview, as we walked home through the neighbourhood of Ledince, where we both lived, he said it would be nice to meet again for a coffee, given that, we had just realised, we happened to be neighbours. One week later, when we met again, čika Idris gave me a letter (link), that he and his brother Meho, who lives in Tuzla, wrote in April/May 2014, and sent to all political institutions in Bosnia/Herzegovina, both at state and entity levels. Directed to the citizens of Bosnia-Herzegovina and to the politicians competing in the upcoming general elections (which took place in October 2014), the significance of this open letter emerges in the context of a life of active engagement for the common good, guided my the example of courage and dignity of their late father.

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Picture by Emir Musli/Deutsche Welle

Born in 1925 in Bijeljina, to a family of land-owners and craftsmen, Idris Hujdurović grew up in a loving environment. While most Muslim families at the time privileged religious education and traditional crafts, the Hujdurović family greatly valued modern education, without disregard for their Islamic practises and traditions. Idris’ father, Mujo, made sure his children received formal, secular education. His sons attended the gymnasium, and were expected to later go to university. He wouldn’t lived to see that, though.

Mujo Hujdurović was killed by the ustasha regime in Brčko in early 1944. Just before Yugoslavia entered the Second World War, Mujo Hujdurović and his sons had built a secret shelter, where an unknown number of people, Serbs, Jews, communists or partisan sympathisers, went into hiding. When ustasha guards found the place, Mujo Hujdurović and Idris, then eighteen years old, were arrested on the spot and taken to a detention site in Brčko. On that night, with the help of other prisoners, Idris managed to escape from a tiny window; his father was executed the next day.

Idris then joined the partisans, and participated in the NOB (narodnaoslobodilačka borba), the national liberation war of Yugoslavia. As a member of the partisans, Idris was initially assigned the function of bombaš (bomber): his task was to run towards enemy positions and throw a grenade. Not many bombaši survived such tasks. In recognition for his courage, he was invited to join the Communist party, regardless of the fact that he was a practicing Muslim. After the war, Idris pursued his studies in Belgrade, and became a civil engineer, as his father wanted; in the meantime, his brother Meho, who had also joined the partisans, studied Agronomy in Zagreb. Both returned to Bijeljina, where their mother and sisters still lived, and became important agents of the post-war development of Semberija.

Idris Hujdurović found a place for himself in the communist regime, through which his energy and creativity was channeled, but he always managed to preserve his own autonomy within it. He did pay, however, a high price for the sincerity of his commitment. In 1952 he was arrested and sent to Goli Otok, where he remained until 1955. He did not side with the stalinists, but was denounced on the basis of a casual conversation in which he questioned the wisdom of entering in conflict with the Soviet Union, by saying that it wasn’t clear to him why such a conflict was necessary. He survived Goli Otok and eventually returned home to Bijeljina, and was reinstated as director of GIK-Rad, the construction company he had founded in 1948. He left his post only in 1976, pushed into early retirement, after he successfully opposed plans to refurbish the town’s centre, which included the demolition of the Atik Mosque. Even as Yugoslavia entered a stage of social and political decline after Tito’s death, until the disintegration of the state that Idris Hujdurović had helped create, despite his own experience of persecution by the regime, he remained committed to the partisan legacy.

As for Meho Hujdurović, he became the director of Semberia’s agronomical station, where he developed new species of vegetables, including a species of cabbage that became one of the main products in the region. He also educated and provided support to local farmers to develop horticulture so as to better explore the potential of the land and diminish the regional dependency on cereal production. His personal contribution to the quality of life of the peasants of Semberija cannot be overstated.

When war returned to Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1992, the Hujdurović family suffered again. Bijeljina became dominated by a climate of terror, where Bosniaks were systematically intimidated. Nationalism and greed went hand in hand, and wealthier, educated individuals were particularly at risk. Both brothers were forced to give up on their homes and other property; Meho was deported to Tuzla, and Idris was briefly arrested, then released thanks to the mobilisation of friends, after which he was forced to flee with his wife across the border to Serbia, and eventually into exile.

Idris Hujdurović returned to Bijeljina in 2004, now a widower. Already in his seventies, he actively engaged in the process of return of Bosniaks, as a member of the local association for sustainable return (Udruzenje povratak i opstanak), then led by the late Salem Čorbo. He is also a renowned bee keeper, who has developed a number of natural remedies based on honey, which he shares at no cost with anyone in need; and a farmer, who, now entering in his nineties, still maintains the large family orchard.

In the aftermath of the popular protests that, if only for a moment, shook Bosnia-Herzegovina in early 2014, Idris and Meho felt compelled to give their contribution to the quest of a a better future for their country. Their principles, life experience and education converged with the particular insights each one of them gained from living, in Meho’s case, in Tuzla, the epicentre of the revolt, part of the Federation (one of Bosnia’s entities); and Bijeljina, the second city of Republika Srpska (the other entity), where a small locally-organised protest was immediately ‘dealt with’ by thugs from the local football club, and later by the police through ‘informative conversations’.

Although they were not directly in touch with participants in the plenum process, they grasped the essential of its dynamics. Their open letter endorsed some of the plenum ideas and demands, but without the elements of populism that did much to alienate potential supporters, such as unrealistic demands with financial (spending) implications (as I witnessed myself in Sarajevo, and which were very likely part of the efforts by infiltrated agents to discredit the plena), nor any hint of the ‘yugonostalgia’ which inspired a number of plenum participants.

Assessing the political and social situation in Bosnia as critical, they called the citizens to involve themselves in the creation of plenum-like local forums, but rather than placing their faith in the mysterious mechanisms of direct democracy, which made the plena prone to infiltration and infighting, they invoked the responsibility of public intellectuals and other educated, respected figures to step up and assume task of organising and leading. Without demonising the political class, they listed a series of concrete, realistic measures, cutting on public administration and political privileges, and set specific goals to their realisation, which would result in financial savings to be reinvested in the productive sectors. Against those goals, the plenum-type assemblies should assess politicians’ work and monitor the (non)implementation of their electoral promises.

Idris and Meho Hujdurović sent this letter to all the media, which ignored them. Lacking the skills necessary to engage with the internet, they were not able to get in touch with the generation of political activists that seemed to be emerging from the ashes of the plenum process.

In May 2015, one year after the initial letter, and five months after the general elections, the Hujdurović brothers wrote a new letter, an exercise that most would consider futile, but which they felt to be both a duty and a right, as citizens, to interpelate power as well as their fellow citizens. Based on a lucid assessment of the post-election situation, the letter expands the set of proposals, to include a number of ideas for social and economic reform, so as to have a fairer distribution of jobs and revenue among the population, incentivise agricultural production and other sustainable activities The letter renews their appeal to the intellectual class to assume the role that should be theirs, but is especially directed at the younger generations, whom it exhorts to take action. Again, they were ignored.

In the meantime, I had moved out of Bijeljina, and when I come back for a visit in the Summer of 2015, čika Idris gave me the second letter, and asked me to post it online. I am sorry that only now I have found the urge to do it, caught as I was with ‘my own stuff’. When I left Bijeljina for the second time in mid-September I was feeling discouraged about the social situation in Bosnia-Herzegovina as I had never felt since I became interested in this country. Without meaning to whine about it, it took me many weeks before I was able to do any work at all for my thesis, because the sense of possibility that the Hujdurović brothers action convey was completely absent from my horizon. All I could see around me during my field visit was people who wanted to leave the country, not only because they lacked economic opportunities, but because they were exhausted of engaging with a system so morally corrupt that leaves (almost) nobody untainted.

In this context, the letters stand out even more, as an example of the future-oriented commitment towards society of two elderly men who, through the good and the bad, have preserved their sense of agency, and mobilised the best of their knowledge and energy whenever they felt they could make a difference, and even when they knew that making a difference was an unlikely outcome.

The value of these documents lies, even more than in their proposals for chance and exhortation for mobilisation, in the sense of temporality they express, which is at odds with the dominant tone of memory politics in Bosnia-Herzegovina. In their first letter, as they briefly describe the tragic legacy of the 1992-1995 war, they state

Ostavimo istoričarima nek daju ocjenu šta se to zbilo na ovim prostorima,

a mi se okrenimo našim današnjim životnim problemima.

We leave it to historians to account for what happened in this region,

and turn ourselves to the problems of our present life.

In the end of the second letter, however, they do turn to the past, to evoke the example of courage and dignity that guided them into such endeavour, as it did throughout their lives, thus showing how from a past of violence it is nevertheless possible to find resources to inspire action towards a better future, in a way that, rather than fracturing society, can work towards its cohesion:

                  Na kraju, osjećamo potrebu da se i predstavimo, kao autori ove analize o situaciji u BiH (…). Sinovi smo oca Muje Hujdurovića kojeg su na najgori način (iako je bio musliman), ubile fašističke vlasti u II svjetskom ratu zato što je, s nama kao djecom, štitio i branio od tadašnjih fašističkih vlasti, komšije iz čitave Semberije, pravoslavce, Jevreje i sve druge ugrožene; što je jedan od organizatora pisanja rezolucije muslimana Bijeljine i Janje i Ugljevika iz decembra 1941. godine gdje su muslimani zahtijevali suživot građana svih vjera i da vlast štiti sve građane itd; što je imao niz ličnih istupa protiv tadašnje fašističke vlasti u učinio niz humanitarnih poteza za spašavanje ugroženih građana svih vjera.

                  Vođeni tim idejama i ljudskim postupcima našeg oca u kritičkim vremenima II svjetskog rata osjećali smo obavezu da ovo napišemo i damo u javnost te uputimo vlastima, bez obzira kako će to ko cijeniti, a u nadi da će sve iznijeto prihvatiti prvenstveno stranake na vlasti, u cilju rješavanja problema gladnih u BiH bez obzira na njihovu vjersku i nacionalnu pripadnost i boju kože.

Translation:

To conclude, we feel the need to present ourselves as authors of these analyses of the situation in BiH (…). We are the sons of our father Mujo Hujdurović, whom during the Second World War the fascist rulers killed in the most horrible way (although he was a muslim) because, with us his children, he protected and defended from the fascist government neighbours from all of Semberia, Orthodox, Jews, and all others in danger; because he was one of the initiators of the Resolution of the Muslims of Bijeljina, Janja and Uglevik in December 1941, in which Muslims demanded the preservation of common life of citizens, and that the government (the croatian ustasha regime, which ruled over Semberia) protects all citizens; because he personally confronted the fascist government and performed a series of humanitarian gesture to rescue vulnerable citizens of all faiths.

Guided by our father’s ideals and personal actions in the critical times of the second World War, we felt it was our duty to write this and give to the public and instruct the authorities, regardless of how they will appreciate it, in the hope that the parties in power will accept it, with the goal of responding to the problems of the poor in BiH, regardless of their religion and nationality and skin colour.

I would like now to go back to the little girl, whose name I wrote on my notebook and then forgot. In my 2008 post, I concluded by saying that:

“On the children will one day rely the double responsibility to both honor the dead by protecting them from oblivion and to overcome the legacy that burdens their families.

This will not be an easy task. To be able to cope with such responsibility in the future they need to be nurtured now. It is up to today’s adults to provide them with an environment that allows them to grow into self-confident decent adults. If we achieve, these children will represesent the genociders ultimate failure.”

It has been precisely that which the Hujdurovic brothers dedicated their lives to and continue to work towards, a better future for all.

 

Notes: This text was prepared with full knowledge and in collaboration with Idris Hujdurović; back in 2008 the picture of the little girl was taken with full consent from her family; I sent the family paper copies of that and other pictures I took of them.

 

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Filed under Bijeljina, Bosnia, Duty of memory, Genocide, Plenum, Srebrenica, Violence, War

6 of April: Remembering war in Sarajevo.

This week two historical dates were commemorated in Sarajevo: the day of the liberation of the city in the Second World War and the beginning of the siege of Sarajevo, in 1992.

Photo: the Croat representative on the collective Bosnian presidency, Zeljko Komsic, places a wreath of the Eternal Flame.

The commemorations started with the deposition of flowers in memorial monuments. Flower wreaths were placed in the Eternal Flame, which marks the victory over fascism in the Second World War, but also at the Cemetery of Kovaci, the mezarja (Muslim cemetery) dedicated to the Shehid, the fallen soldiers of  Muslim faith. Flowers were also placed at the statue of Tito at the University campus (where the JNA barracks used to be), and at the bust of Vladimir Peric “Valter”,a partisan who became a mythical figure in Sarajevo; at the Vrbanja bridge in Grbavica where on the 6 of April 1992 two young women, Suada Dilberovic and Olga Sucic, were killed when Serb forces started shooting at a peace demonstation- the bridge was renamed after them; at the Partisan memorial park of Vraca; at the Old Jewish cemetery; and at the monument dedicated to the children of Sarajevo who were killed during the siege.

The commemoration of both wars was simultaneous not only because of the coincidence of dates, but also because of the coincidence of places: both the memorial park of Vraca and the Jewish Cemetery were used as launching pads from which the Serb forces targeted the city. The connection between both wars is also made through the invocation of anti-fascism. Such approach, while establishing a connection between both wars, also allows to identify the nature of the recent war as a new episode of the confrontation between fascism and anti-fascism, and thus ‘de-ethnicise it’. But such connection is far from being consensual, and reflects the ideological divide existent in Bosnian society. Not everyone views the communist regime only through the perspective of an heroic anti-fascist struggle. Thus not everyone who went to the Mezarija in Kovaci went also to the Vijecna Vatra, and only people affiliated with SDP, the social democratic party, went to Tito and Valter’s statues.

Only a few people attend such institutional ceremonies, mostly people in official positions and  NGO activists. Most Sarajevans are rather indifferent to them, and simply spend this city holiday enjoying Spring. This does not mean that they are unaware to the meaning of such date. On the contrary. We are speaking about living memory here. Those that are old enough have their own war experience to cope with, including, for the elderly population, the memory of both wars, and for the younger ones the legacy war is present both through their family’s history and through the lack of perspectives towards the future, a consequence of the social and political environment that emerged out of the war.

Photo: the memorial dedicated to the children of Sarajevo killed during the war.

This larger mass of people, who does not actively participates in commemorations are nevertheless interpellated by the existence of the memorials on the public space, on the streets which they walk through, on the squares where they enjoy their coffee or their beer, and the flowers remind them that there is something to commemorate. This is why different political forces try to place their own imprint into these memorial sites, so that they become associated with what is there to be commemorated and through that memory assert their legitimacy.

But there is more to memory than politics, and that is why, of all the forms to commemorate the war that took place in Sarajevo on this 6 of April, the one that most challenging was an anonymous initiative: on the Ferhadija street, formerly Vasa Miskin’s street, on the exact place where in 27 May 1992 the bomb that killed 20 people hit the floor, in what became known as the bread line massacre, someone drew a square with tape, and painted it orange, and on the centre, where the impact hole is, a red rose was placed.

I sat on some door steps for a while, watching people’s reactions. Some walked through without even noticing, but most people tried to avoid stepping over it as much as they could, contorting it when they could, or bouncing sideways to in extremis avoid smashing the flower. This is the most crowded street of Sarajevo, and it was not easy to see it before getting to its spot.

Some people stopped and looked at the memorial plaque placed at the wall of the closest building, others did not stop, but through their face expressions and gestures acknowledged the meaning of this rather precarious, ephemeral. Like memory, and like life itself.

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Filed under Bosnia, Duty of memory, Sarajevo

Visegrad: Remembering the Bikavac fire massacre.

Last Sunday, 27 June, attended the ceremony which marked the 18th anniversary of the Bikavac fire, in the town of Visegrad in Eastern Bosnia. This was a very simple yet moving ceremony, in which family and friends of the victims paid tribute to them in the most dignified way.  I felt very gratified for having had the opportunity to witness such emotional event, which was deeply sad, but also, through the example of dignity and strength revealed by its participants, very inspiring.

Photo: the arrival at the site of the Bikavac fire.

On the night of 27 June 1992, around 70 persons were locked in a small house on the Bikavac hill, after which the house was set on fire. The crime was meticulously prepared, to make sure that nobody would survive to tell the story. All the exits had been blocked by heavy furniture, and a heavy garage door was placed at the house’s entry. Only one person, Zehra Turjacanin, survived, albeit heavily burnt, by escaping through a narrow fringe between the door and the garage gate, and eluding the surveilance of the armed men, who were busy celebrating Vidovdan by listening to loud nationalistic songs and intoxicating themselves with drugs and alcohol.

Amid widespread indifference and oblivion, a small group of determined people works in order to pursue justice for the victims and keep their memory alive. Only around one hundred persons attended the commemorative ceremony, organized by the Women Victims of War (Zene zrtva rata). As we walked the slope leading to the place where once the house stood, it occurred to me that the number of participants was very close to the number of victims. I couldn’t stop imagining them being gathered in the same place, eighteen years earlier, surrounded by their executioners. When we arrived, a wave of emotion spread, and tears were shed while some of the women covered their heads with a scarves as a sign of respect. Nobody cried, though. Instead, people looked at the improvised exhibition installed for the occasion, showing the names of the victims, depicting the images of some of them, as well as photos of some of the Chetniks who terrorized them and of  Zehra Turjacanin, whose testimony at the ICTY provided crucial evidence for the conviction of the leader of the local para-military unit, Milan Lukic, to life in prison.

No politicians were present, no reporters either, such tragic event not being considered important enough amidst the countless atrocities committed during the war. However, the small number of participants did not diminish in any way the significance of the commemoration In fact, it rather highlighted it, as representative of all those forgotten massacres. Far from being an isolated incident, the Bikavac fire was only one among many crimes committed in the area of Visegrad, as part of a widespread and systematic attack against the civilian population, targeting the Muslim inhabitants, in order to change the demographic structure of the area, that is, to transform it into a exclusively Serb area. Such goal was successfully achieved. Eighteen years later, very few Bosniaks have returned to the municipality of Visegrad, and, I was told, only two or three have returned to the city itself. Of the presence of the Muslims in the city, very few traces remain. One of the mosques destroyed during the was was rebuilt, but on the location of the other, a small garden has been planted, in which the cross-shaped pathways further desecrate what was once a place of worship. Only the Drina river and the magnificent Mehmed pasa Sokolovic Bridge, made famous by Ivo Andric’s book ‘The Bridge on the Drina’, still confer some beauty to the town, in which main square a statue to the Serb fallen soldiers stands, facing the river and its famous bridge in front of the Hotel Visegrad, where Serb fighters ‘heroically’ got drunk before and after executing rows of Muslim civilians on the bridge and throwing their bodies to the Drina. The tribute to the ‘Fallen soldiers’, with which the Bosnian Serbs try to highlight their own suffering stands is striking contrast with the absence of memorials to the real victims of genocide in Visegrad.

Photo: an Italian soldier of the EU Police Mission observes the participants as they leave the place where the house once stood.

After the fire, what was left of the house in Bikavac was bulldozed and removed to unknown locations, along with any remains of the victims, in order to erase all traces of the crime. The land was then transformed into an improvised waste dump, and as we were standing there, listening to the short speech delivered by Bakira Hasecic, the leader of the ‘Women Victims of War’, and to the prayer pronounced by the local Imam, the silence on the audience was interrupted by the noise of plastic bottles and other rubbish under our feet. As a proof that a house was once there, only one section of the houses’s fence remains, but the organizers marked the four corners of the house with wooden sticks, which allowed me to realize how small it was, and to imagine how packed it was on that tragic night.

Photo: Esad Tufekcic and other participants engage in a prayer for their loved ones, at the end of the ceremony. Photo by Sven Gunnar Simonsen.

Among the participants on the ceremony, was a man, Esad Tufekcic, who lost his then 28 year old wife Dzehva, his four year old daugter Elmaghter and two year old son Eldar. He spoke to the foreigners present, myself and my friend Sven who came with me, and a few american students. Asked by one of them what did such event mean to him, this man, whose face was the very image of pain and trauma, reminded us that he had lost his entire family, for whose remains he has been searching for in the last eighteen years, and expressed his sorrow and outrage by the fact that the people who committed such atrocity can return to Visegrad and welcome as heroes.

This was a reference to the recent release of Mitar Vasijlevic, a leading member of Milan Lukic’s ‘White Eagles’.  Released from prison in March 2010, after having served ten of the 15 years to which he was condemned by the ICTY, he was greeted in Visegrad by a fanfare and celebrated by hundreds of people (photo here),  a crude reminder of the long road yet to be travelled before we can even start talking of reconciliation in Bosnia. The feeling that justice has not been served in Visegrad is further highlighted by the fact that, while in his own trial, the prosecution failed to proof beyond reasonable doubt his involvement in the Bikavac massacre, as well as on a similar crime, committed one week earlier on Pionirska Street, which resulted in the death of 59 persons, such proof was subsequently established in the context of the trial of Milan Lukic, who in 20 July 2009 was condemned to life in prison. Other participants in this crime remain unpunished, as do many others in the countless crimes of the Bosnian genocide.

As was stated in the judgement of Milan and Sredoje Lukic (pag. 239),

“In the all too long, sad and wretched history of man’s inhumanity to man, the Pionirska street and Bikavac fires must rank high. At the close of the 20th century, a century marked by war and bloodshed on a colossal scale, these horrific events remain imprinted on the memory for the viciousness of the incendiary attack, for the obvious premeditation and calculation that defined it, for the sheer callousness, monstrosity and brutality of herding, trapping and locking the victims in the two houses, thereby rendering them helpless in the ensuing inferno and for the degree of pain and suffering inflicted on the victims as they were burnt alive.”

One of the most beautiful regions in Europe, Eastern Bosnia is now a desolated region, burdened by the weight of genocide and economic stagnation, the two faces of the legacy of the war. What was achieved with all these crimes? Endless suffering for the victims and his relatives and friends, and moral corruption among those who fail to feel outraged by such atrocities, and a whole society whose future remains hijacked by those few which the war and its aftermath brought wealth and power.

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Filed under Duty of memory, Genocide, Uncategorized

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

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

Aristides de Sousa Mendes: small tribute on Holocaust Memorial Day

Today is the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. In 2005, the day was declared Holocaust Memorial Day by the United Nations General Assembly (A/RES/60/7, 1 November 2005, adopted by consensus).

I take this day as an opportunity to pay my tribute to Aristides de Sousa Mendes, the Consul of Portugal in Bordeaux, who, in 1940, saved the lives of more than 10 000 Jews, who were fleeing the Nazi invasion of France.

aristides20i

On 16 July 1940, he decided to disobey the orders coming directly from António Oliveira Salazar, the Portuguese dictator, who had forbidden the issuance of visas to “foreigners of nationality undefined, contested or under litigation; apatridas, and Jews”.

On that day, he said: “From now on, I will grant Visas to everybody, regardless of nationality, race or religion”. After the Consulate was closed, he still kept issuing Visas, until the moment he entered Spain. He justified his stubborness and defyance with these words: “If I have to disobey, I prefer to disobey an order issued by men than an order issued by God”.

He granted more than 30 ooo visas, of which more than 10 000 to Jews.

He was expelled from the diplomatic service and persecuted by the regime, and died as an indigent in 1954.

I take this example of non-conformism as very inspiring, since it happens that it’s simply so much easier to just follow orders and never take risks.

Update, a video:

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Filed under Duty of memory, Non-conformism, Portugal, War

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.

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My photos, 11 July 2008.

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