More full text: There are few who dare to commemorate

mjesto-zlocinaThese interviews by e-mail produce archival treasures, n’est-ce pas? I answered some questions this week for Le Monde (you can only read the article if you are a subscriber, lo siento), but the source can offer you more: all of the text, including the parts the editors decided not to use. And as Sam Elliott says, “in English too.”

How did the discourses over guilt (of some) and (broader) responsibility for the massacre of Srebrenica evolve in Serbia this 20 last years? Which political events or social conditions were particularly decisive in this process? (Numerous testimonies and evidences have been produced. In this context, is denial still present,and to what extent? Which are the alternative positions?)

In July 1995, when the mass killings happened, they were not covered in media. In regional media the story was about control of the city changing hands. International media started publishing items about it later in the year on the basis of reports of large numbers of missing people. Jean Rene Ruez began investigating primary and secondary burial sites and execution sites in March 1996. So in the earliest period denial was fairly easy to do because so little was known. But this was no longer the case by the end of 1996. Still, before the first court verdicts, the main effort was to deny the facts.

You could see basic factual denial in the first RS report on Srebrenica in 2002. There you saw the basic strategies of factual denial: presenting civilian victims as combat fatalities (later, as prisoners of war), reducing their number, inflating the number of victims from surrounding villages. But the response to that report was to form a real commission, that produced its report in 2004. Their results were pretty close to what other investigations confirmed as the facts.

After that the pure denial position became more marginal, and it definitely became more marginal after the publicity that followed the broadcast of the “Scorpions” film in 2005. But what you could see developing was a changed set of strategies. One was to affirm the facts as much as possible, but to try to deny that they had any connection with military forces or the state, or to try to deny that they had the character of genocide. The other was to develop the tactic of competitive commemoration, like you can see with the constantly expanding memorial in Bratunac, where there is an effort to bring in victims from other places and other wars to try to bring the number close to parity with the number of Srebrenica victims.

These newer strategies have effects of that are similar to denial, but they are not simple denial of facts. What is disputed in them is contexts and interpretations. I have looked at them in my research as signs that the discourse of denial has some creative and responsive elements. It may not look like it at the moment it happens, but for officials to say “it’s a big crime but not a genocide” is after all meaningfully different from saying “it’s all untrue.”

The question may be whether the change represents progress. From a certain point of view it can, if you conceive of recognition as a process that takes time and think of changes in denial discourse as steps along the way. But there is another shift that still has to be made, and you could see it in the events around the Security Council resolution on Srebrenica. When the Serbian government calls an urgent session to generate a response to the resolution, and when president Nikolić calls the Russian veto “a great day for Serbia,” this means that people (at least the people in power) are still identifying themselves with the perpetrators. I think that the public is way ahead of the politicians on this, but this does not mean that the politicians will necessarily catch up any time soon.

Some civil society movements opposing the war were already present during the wars. I met several people from NGOs who were quite pessimistic about the future and about the future generation as well. Would you say that facing the past is a growing trend or remain the activity of a fringe minority in Serbia? What about eventual changes brought about by a generational change?

There are a couple of problems with the way that discourses about the past have been developing. One of main ones is that it is perceived by a lot of people as a project imposed from outside and carried by a small, relatively closed group of elites. Another is that there is a lot of fear of potential consequences – this is what you can see in the constant invocation of the nonsense formulation that one or another group “will be declared to be a genocidal nation.” A lot of these difficulties are compounded by the fact that political, cultural, religious and educational institutions have not been constructive participants. Basically the politicians were happy to hand the difficult work over to the Tribunal, and the other institutions were mostly happy to continue occupying the populist positions that had been profitable for them during the Milošević regime.

This means that everything that has been happening has been happening without leadership, or in spite of the obstructions imposed by leadership. But even under these conditions, you can see that activity is possible. People want to know the facts, and they want to be able to understand and recognise each other – politics cannot stop this from happening, it can only make the process slower. We tend to concentrate on irresponsible politicians, but if we look at events like the 7000 protests, the voluntary schools and seminars that are organised, the independent fact-finding activities, the artists exploring the taboos of memory, you begin to get a picture of a society that is pretty engaged. I think that over time people who are now young are going to want to know what has been withheld from them and get rid of the guilt that the older generation has imposed on them. But this a process that takes place slowly, with more failures than successes along the way.

When we listen to actual speeches of political leaders, it seems that almost everyone is supporting reconciliation. Yet diplomatic “incidents” happen regularly (I’m thinking for instance of the recent disputes over Naser Oric’s arrest and the resolutions’ dispute). Is the reconciliation seen by political leaders only as a conditionality element or are they genuinely concerned about it? In the same logic, is the refusal of these political leaders to call the massacre of Srebrenica a genocide, yet having strong words to condemn the killings (Tomislav Nikolic being “on his knees, asking for forgiveness for Serbia” in 2013 for instance) the translation of contradictory feelings/strategies?

There is no image that encapsulates the attitude of most of the political elite more effectively than the moment Nikolić said he was “on his knees.” The video is instantly available; you can see that he was sitting comfortably in a big armchair.

Reconciliation is a difficult problem even for people who are serious about it. It is a category that is not defined, and while we might be able to recognise when it has not happened there is no good way of determining that it has happened or how far it has gone. But maybe it is possible to suggest that reconciliation becomes possible at the moment when people are able to recognise one another as fellow humans, and to understand that the problems that different people face are similar and require approaches that are taken together. This may be one of the reasons why one of the first groups to concretely reconcile – to form joint groups and campaigns, and provide assistance to one another – have been associations of war veterans from opposing sides. They know that they all have similar needs, and they know that those needs are being neglected by different political leaderships in the same way. But even for them, to be prepared to do that, they had to be prepared to hear one another’s experiences, and to think of themselves as part of a group that was not just defined by ethnicity and opposition to one another.

As for the politicians, they are not serious about it. Part of the recent dispute over commemoration of Srebrenica has involved a lot of politicians claiming that mentioning or defining facts was a “threat to reconciliation.” The only possible conclusion is that they think that “reconciliation” is a synonym for “amnesia.” And going back to Nikolić, that it can be achieved by claiming to make gestures that they are not making. The politicians are going to be left behind by people who care.

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