Tales of the unexpected: Moving the goalposts with Ivica-love

A child's watch. A child's jumper. A bullet.
A child’s watch. A child’s jumper. A bullet.

People should know, and so other people are there to help them, and so they will. On 28 March 1999, members of the “Scorpions,” a reserve police unit, paid an uninvited visit to the home of the Bogujevci family in Podujevo. By the time the visit ended a few minutes later, fourteen members of the Bogujevci family, the Lugaliju family and the Duriqi family were murdered by gunshots. The visit by the “Scorpions” was not part of a battle or a fight against terrorism. At the ages of two and four respectively, Albion Duriqi and Mimoza Duriqi had not had the chance to join any organisations, paramilitary or otherwise.  Shehide Bogujevci, at the age of 67, and Hamdi Duriqi, at the age of 72, were past the age for active military service.

Some of the five children who survived the massacre participated in collecting and giving evidence. Fatos, Saranda and Jehona Bogujevci gave evidence at the trials of Vlastimir Djordjević (convicted and awaiting appeal) at ICTY and of Saša Cvjetan (convicted and sentenced in a domestic court in Serbia) and Dejan Demirović (turned protected witness). There were a few more trials of members of the “Scorpions” unit, and the surviving children gave testimony at all of them. Other than Vlastimir Djordjević, none of the people who supplied, financed and commanded the “Scorpions” have been charged.

This is probably about as far as courts and prosecutions are likely to go. The limits on criminal justice are, in a word, overdetermined. But resolved that the people who ought to know about the crime should know, the surviving family members put together an exhibition, “Bogujevci – visual history,” (the PDF catalog) which made its way this week to the Belgrade Cultural Centre. The exhibit is disarmingly simple. A visitor enters and sees first the living room of the family home, looking very much like typical family living rooms across the region. The next room gives details of the killings through photos and lists of the victims and recollections of the survivors. Visitors then move on to the hospital room where the survivors were mistreated, and finally to a room showing documentation of the trials. The surviving family members explain the exhibition in terms of the need of people to know the truth. The director of the Cultural Centre explains that she was willing to (fight to) host it so that “as a society we can show that we are ready for dialogue.”

Is it necessary to say that not everybody in Belgrade was enthusiastic about the prospect? The responses ahead of the exhibition ranged from the loopy papers like the extreme-right Pravda (“Albanian provocation in the centre of Belgrade”)  and Kurir (“Albanian propaganda: Artists from Kosovo make an exhibition in the middle of Belgrade!”), to the finger-yellowing tabloid Telegraf (“Scandal: An Albanian exhibition right in Knez Mihailova”) and the whatever-the-fuck-they-are Novosti (“Albanian propaganda right on Knez Mihailova”).  So if you peek at the range from subconscious-official to hyper-official media, you could get the feeling either that there is a broadly shared consensus in opposition to information out there or that under conditions of austerity they are all sharing the same headline writer. The fact that on the evening of the opening only a few dozen members of the Horst Wessel community choir showed up to shout insults at the attendees might be taken to suggest that the latter is the case.

But there was a surprise attendee. Prime minister Ivica Dačić came to the opening, let the members of the Bogujevci family take him on a tour, gave a statement affirming the importance of the exhibition, and expressed his sympathy with the victims of violence. That would be the same Ivica Dačić who was the principal spokesman for the Milošević regime at the time that the massacre took place. Throughout the evening and into the morning, there were expressions of Ivica-love from the most unexpected quarters. He was praised for courage, for showing his readiness for reconciliation, and for placing officialdom on the side of open exchange.

And it’s a bit hard to disagree, all that is great, especially in comparison to what could have happened, and may very well have happened not much earlier. Maybe the gesture was transformative and meaningful enough, and we can agree with Woody Allen (did I just say that?) that 80% of life is showing up.

Or maybe not. Let’s have a look at what Ivica Dačić actually said.  First he gave a statement minimizing the number of perpetrators and their sponsors, saying:

“They asked me when I came here about an apology, my answer is that everyone who is guilty has been convicted and that I would like all of the guilty people for all of the crimes from all sides to be convicted. That is much more meaningful than an apology. I offer my sympathies to the families of the victims of crimes; for the sake of reconciliation and the continuation of our shared life that is the way it should be in all of the major parts of the former Yugoslavia.”

So, he makes it a little bit interesting. In a few sentences he tell us 1) that anybody who has not already been convicted is not guilty, 2) that guilt for crimes depends on reciprocal guilt for crimes from other formerly warring parties, and 3) that states not involved in the conflict of which the massacre that is described in the exhibition was a part have some obligation to the ones that were involved. The narrowing of responsibility brings with it a broadening, and gle čudo both of them are transparently self-interested.

But that’s not all that Ivica Dačić said. He continued:

“It would be a shame if an exhibition like this were taken to imply that we are talking about our crimes or their crimes, because victims are victims. The guilty people did not do what they did in the name of Serbia, nor did anyone authorise them to do it.”

This is a bit interesting because Dačić knows better. He knows, for example, that the trial chamber judgment in the Djordjević case explicitly addresses the authority given by the Interior Ministry to the “Scorpions.” He knows that Interior Ministry personnel involved with similar crimes are still employed in the Interior Ministry.  He knows that the “Scorpions” were a reserve police unit under the jurisdiction of the Interior Ministry.

But yes, I can anticipate you saying, sure, Interior Ministry this, Interior Ministry that. Dačić was there not as a technical official of government, but in his symbolic role as Prime Minister. Perhaps if the Prime Minister wants answers, he could share some of his thoughts with the Minister of the Interior. I think they might know one another.

Apologies for being a little contrarian here, it’s not really in my nature. It’s great that Ivica was thoughtful enough to roll himself into the gallery. He took one small step for humankind. And along the way placed one little kick in the butt of justice.


Language is a virus from the margins of politics

onda su došli popovi....
onda su došli popovi….

I say elevator, you say lift, big deal, it’s only a problem when we start talking about pants. But there are languages where these kinds of distinctions provoke controversy and even violence, not because they are intrinsically meaningful but because big identities are invested in questions like the presence or absence of the letter “J.”

On the question of whether there is a Serbo-Croatian/Croato-Serbian language or whether this is two languages, three, or, since 2006, four, I remain determinedly and blissfully agnostic. As long as the hearer knows what the speaker is talking about, there’s no problem with people calling things whatever makes them happy. At the institution where I work I have been told that the policy is that we never say “Serbo-Croatian” but should say “Serbian slash Croatian.” I put this down to an obsession among sedentary academics with slashing people (NB: You can’t spell “Jason” without a “J”).

Because really this is a symbolic matter of no consequence, and satisfying people’s symbolic desires is a little bit like saying “thank you” when you are not really grateful or “sorry” when you have no genuine regrets. The fact that it is dishonest in a meaningless way is compensated by the fact that it is polite.

What makes these distinctions meaningful is the sets of associations that they call forward. The question of whether one set of habits related speaking and writing constitutes a “language” is least of all a linguistic question, and more than anything a political one. When Yugoslavia existed it was a coded way of expressing concern about numerical and cultural domination, and after Yugoslavia stumbled away through a pool of blood it became a signifier of prestige (as indicated by the similarly content-free dispute in the smaller entity of Bosnia-Hercegovina over whether there is a “bosanski” language).

The recent inflammation of dispute in Vukovar is a case in point. This is a city destroyed during the last war between Serbia and Croatia, occupied for a period by a parastate that made its best effort to erase all traces of Croatian identity, and returned to an authority that made its best effort to erase all traces of Serbian identity. It’s a sad fate for a town with a long multicultural history, but if there is one thing the nacoši of both dominant adjectives agree on it is the necessity of demolishing the other. This was acceptable populist policy as long as one side was weak, another side was strong, and states and political environments were at best semilegal.

Little factors like peace, legality and acceptance of the standards of the European Union disrupted the effort to translate military victory into a social order, though. Croatia has accepted the European obligation to protect the rights of minorities, and since the principle that Serbian and Croatian are separate languages has moved from coffee chitchat to law, that means protecting their linguistic rights as well. How has the Croatian government interpreted this? By deciding, against the resistance of most of the politically active population of Vukovar, that they would see the law observed and put up (five) bilingual signs on public buildings in the city. And since the question of which linguistic habit is Croatian and which one is Serbian, when it moves out of the territory of charming ethnic jokes and into codification, is one on which people can have endless nonproductive discussions, it is the most visible difference (not really a difference) that makes the Serbian part of the signs Serbian: the bottom part of the sign say the same thing as the top part, but in Cyrillic rather than Latin script. The fact that the difference has to do with letters underscores that the signs are a symbolic means of meeting a symbolic obligation.

This made members of veterans’ groups and professional carriers of particular national identities not one bit happy. One group, the picturesquely named “Croatorum” (after the kind of institution they should be sent to?) helpfully called the signs “genocide.” The signs went up early Monday morning, police were stationed near them to keep vandals away, and by noon crowds had formed, broken through lines of nonresisting police, and smashed the signs with a hammer. Upon which new signs were put up, and police let folks through with hammers again to smash the signs. And again. The representatives of groups dedicated to the exclusive national character of their town promised that as long as they have hammers, they will hammer in the morning, they will hammer in the evening, all over the local tax office.

So there is a predictable confrontation, not especially helpful to the government, but the glove has been laid down by both sides. The government is in a position where it has to have the law, including the law on minority rights, observed – and it also has the challenge of seeing that this happens without violence, which is why the police is heavily present but lightly reacting. The career veterans and their supporters in various opposition political parties and anti-government cleropolitical and parapolitical groups, are determined to draw the confrontation out a long as possible and hope to force the government to back down.

Eighteen years after Vukovar was “reintegrated” into Croatia, why is this happening? Let’s be clear: it is a conflict over whether the sign on the building of the “Porezna uprava” should also say ”Порезна управа” (which is itself not idiomatic Serbian; in Serbia the tax office would be called ”Пореска управа” – there will be a quiz for anyone who has not yet fallen asleep). Maybe a clue can be found in a single fact about the person who took the first hammer to the first sign: he is 73 years old.

Do the younger people in Vukovar, of whatever nationality, care? Maybe some of them do, but for the most part if they are employed they are not in Vukovar. The city was “reintegrated” territorially, but not politically or economically, and one of the few profitable jobs out there (available only to members of a certain generation) is being a veteran with a chip on your shoulder and time on your hands. Small surprise that there should be resistance to the introduction of European standards in minority protection in a place that has not been introduced to European standards in any other field.


A few words about reconciliation

unicorn_of_reconciliation1I was asked to prepare a short statement for an upcoming meeting about how people in the research community look at questions of reconciliation. Here it is in draft form.

A first observation: it may be misleading to cast discussion in terms of a category like “reconciliation.” The term has some implications that might be neither accurate nor welcome. The first is that before the conflict there was a pre-existing state of “conciliation” that can and should be recovered. This is probably both empirically inaccurate and historically tendentious. Yugoslavia may have offered a framework within which conflicts could be resolved peacefully (most of the time), but it neither resolved conflicts remaining from earlier periods nor overcame them. The second is that in the process of acquiring and sharing knowledge and achieving mutual recognition of experience something old will be recaptured rather than something new being built. I would be inclined to suggest that a solid foundation for mutual understanding and recognition would represent considerably more than clearing away a recently built record.

We last held this meeting two years ago, and at that point there was considerable discussion of how reconciliation could be achieved and considerable scepticism as to the likelihood of moving forward in a political atmosphere that often appeared hostile. Most of the obvious signs in the period in between appear to confirm the scepticism that was expressed, but there are some less obvious signs that might lead us to think differently. Beneath the surface, we understand a bit more than we used to understand, we acknowledge a few things we used to deny, and we communicate a little better than we used to communicate.

Does that sound overly optimistic? It very well could, considering some disconcerting signs around reconciliation since this meeting was last held:

  • The ICTY appeals chamber has issued decisions in cases like Oluja, Haradinaj and Perišić that seemed more likely to keep controversy running rather than settling it, and that used reasoning that put the presumptive rights of states well ahead of the interests of victims.
  • In several highly visible political contexts (for example the recent thematic debate on international criminal justice at the UN General assembly) there has been a  visible hardening of rhetoric and re-emergence of language used during the time of conflict. At the same time some governments have not shied away from the occasional production of incidents, including celebration and financing of accused and released criminals and the escalation of conflict in areas like the north of Kosovo, Vojvodina, Hercegovina and parts of Republika Srpska.
  • It is easy to observe a strong nationalisation of cultural formations and public opinion, with aesthetics, language and education visibly subject to narrow ethnic criteria.
  • The success of the effort of organisers and perpetrators of violence to construct themselves as representatives of entire “peoples” is apparent, with the strong tendency to speak in terms of “our” and “your” suffering, victimisation, responsibility, and so forth.

These might all be thought of as indications of difficulty in moving forward with reconciliation, perhaps even as signs that the process has stalled. It might be possible to trace all of these to a single cause: the absence of sustained engagement in the fields of culture, communication and politics, and a strong emphasis on formal and legal procedures involving mostly official agencies communicating with one another. In that sense it might be said that too many eggs have been put into the ICTY basket, with the effect of sidelining activity in a number of other fields. This has had the following consequences:

  • A shift of the topic of concern from substantive to formal justice. Public discussion concentrates heavily (still) on the number and distribution of indictments issued, the comparative length of sentences, the legal status of different combatant sides in conflict. What receives far less attention is justice as it is perceived on the level of communities, in terms of recognition, reconstruction, acknowledgement, restoration of lost rights.
  • Another way of looking at the same phenomenon could be to say that attention remains centred on perpetrators rather than victims. While the punishment (or acquittal) of perpetrators constitutes a portion of creating a historical record, it is only a part of the larger social story. For too long a time the part has been mistaken for the whole.
  • Argument over judicial verdicts shows a distinct tendency to degenerate into adversarial hardening of competing interpretations. The “truth” as perceived by advocates on either side is either affirmed or undermined, as is the legitimacy of institutions involved. The contingency of trust in decisions and the institutions that make them stems from the exclusion of the public from processes and discussions over them.
  • There is an expectation that all of the work – establishing facts, explaining them, integrating them into public understanding – will take place in the legal sphere. This has had the effect of relieving the cultural, educational and media spheres of responsibility, permitting the continuance and consolidation of conflict-era discourses in those areas.
  • The entire situation has become more acute to the degree that the legal sphere fails (as it always going to do, at least partly) to accomplish its mission. Lack of movement in one sphere tends to encourage or intensify regression in all other spheres

Considering the type of movement we have seen, the first impulse may be to say that movement toward reconciliation is not happening. Considered over the longer term and on a larger scale, however, we have seen some interesting developments:

  • Unqualified and complete denial is now a fringe phenomenon. We can observe a diminishing number of instances in which crimes are negated. Instead disagreement has migrated from the absolute to the relative: their size is contested, their place in comparative context, the ways in which they can be qualified as one type of crime or another. This is a mostly qualitative but nevertheless meaningful shift in the stake of debate.
  • (Below the top level of government) there is meaningful cooperation between states in prosecuting crimes and revealing information, most significantly between Serbia and Croatia. All states in the region have some variety of institutionalised system for prosecuting crimes and establishing facts. The clear mutual interest of all states suggests that the scope of cooperation will broaden as time goes on (with or without REKOM).
  • Despite the strong orientation of official cultural institutions to a tendentious representation of history, official cultural institutions are not the only ones that operate. Culture and civil society persistently, even without support, do the work that official institutions decline to do. This might be interpreted as pointing both to a need for discussion of the issues involved in reconciliation and to the existence of efforts to address this need (however much it is limited by a lack of support).
  • (In some environments, but too narrow ones) people are talking to one another across ethnic boundaries and across the boundaries established by the kind of participation that was taken during the period of violence. One of the areas where the development is most visible is in the exchange of information and support among veterans from opposing sides in the conflict, but also more significantly (though on smaller scale) between veteran and victims. The further that events recede into the past, the more apparent is the shared interest of different types of groups in having access to more complete information and understanding.

What is needed in order to move further:

  • We know a lot, but not enough. And the public does not know everything that researchers and institutions know. Inaccurate and incomplete information make wide-ranging discussion impossible, and distort its direction. The quality of information needs to be improved and good information needs to be made public
  • To the degree possible, historical and legal “truths” should be kept autonomous from one another. Establishing or negating an indictee’s criminal guilt is not the same thing as telling the story of people’s experience, and a legal theory of crime is not the same as a historical explanation of causes.
  • A greater number of opportunities for (as far as it is possible) unencumbered dialogue needs to be provided. Although it may sound like psychological cliché, it is not possible to overestimate the importance of encountering people who have been defined in advance only as members of a group as human beings.
  • Attention needs to turn from accusation to affirmation – from demonstrating the criminal or moral burdens borne by some institutions and individuals to recognising the symbolic and moral needs of communities and victims.
  • The publics of the region need to be welcomed into discussion and to feel welcomed.

In addition to things that need to be done, there are places where our knowledge and understanding are relatively strong, and places where they are relatively weak. I want to give a little bit of attention to the things that we need to know, and draw some attention to the work that is going on (that I know about) that is promising to get us there.

Let us posit at first that there are several fields in which we already know quite a lot, thanks to legal analyses by people like Judith Armatta and Tim Waters, and to political analyses by people like Jelena Subotić and Mladen Ostojić (among many others, certainly – one of the difficulties around specifying names at all is that very important people will inevitably be left out. This is possibly one of the happier misfortunes available because it is a sign that the field of research that has been opened here is both empirically and theoretically productive).

  • We need comparative approaches examining how things are done in different parts of the region, and comparing the experience of transitional justice and reconciliation in Southeast Europe with the experience of other regions in the world that have undertaken similar efforts, especially but not only in South and Central America and in Africa (here I would draw attention to ongoing research by Ivor Sokolić, Chris Lamont, Marijana Toma, and Victor Peskin).
  • We need historical approaches that will elucidate institutional and other backgrounds of violence, and trace memories and appropriations of memory as they have been engaged in the period following violence (here I would draw attention to the ongoing historical work by Christian Nielsen, and the ongoing ethnographic work by Maja Lovrenović).
  • We need culturally founded approaches that explain multiple meanings and understandings that develop around memory and victimisation, conflicts over the valence of memory and how these conflicts are addressed or resolved when they are (Here I would draw attention to both published and ongoing research by Elissa Helms, Jasna Dragović, Janine Clark and Vjeran Pavlaković).
  • We need ethnographic and political research that addresses how people and their experiences are categorised and how communities and the divisions within are understood, and how dialogue develops under the constraints imposed by the conditions under which people live (here I would draw attention to groundbreaking work by Kristen Perrin, Jelena Obradović, and Vjollca Krasniqi).