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Interview: Time For Serbs To Say 'We Knew What Happened' On Bosnian War Crimes

Author and sociology professor Janja Bec-Neumann (Courtesy Photo) Serbia holds parliamentary elections on May 11 that are touted as crucial in determining the future of a country still deeply divided between European and nationalist, pro-Russian ambitions. On the eve of that vote, Gordana Knezevic, director of RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service, speaks with Janja Bec-Neumann, a rare voice in Serbia calling for recognition that a "genocide" was perpetrated against Muslims in the 1992-95 Bosnian war. Bec-Neumann, who was nominated for the 2005 Nobel Peace Prize, teaches a university course about the massacres and is the author of a book, "Darkness at Noon: War Crimes, Genocide, and Memory."

RFE/RL: What is your message to the students you teach and to readers of your book?

Bec: What is important for me -- and I think it's important for others as well -- is that we now have, after the wars, between 100 and 200 private and state universities in the region, and nobody has been teaching that course [on topics such as war crimes and genocide]. I'm the first one. I'm a woman, and I'm a woman from a patriarchal, very macho society; and it's not easy. The book "Darkness at Noon" is a document about these five years struggling, fighting, enjoying, crying, and all these things together.

RFE/RL: Could you please explain to whom your book is dedicated?

Bec: My book is dedicated to my child, Sarah Tahirovic. I'm not her biological mother; my husband and I met her in 1993 in a [Bosnian] refugee camp in Slovenia. She was 18 years old when we met her and she was looking after 10 younger children, aged 6 to 12. She became, as we called her, our war child. After the war, she went back to Bosnia, where she became an excellent student. She died on June 1, 2006. She became ill and it was all over within two days. After a few months, I said, "OK, Sarah, I will write this book."

RFE/RL: Most Serbs don't seem to be troubled by the fact that Vojislav Seselj, an indicted war criminal, is now a kingmaker in Serbia. A number of media reports said it was Seselj who masterminded the formation of a nationalist election bloc between the parties of Vojislav Kostunica and Tomislav Nikolic. Does that worry you?

Bec: I think it's sick to idolize someone like him, an indicted war criminal -- and there's evidence he committed very grave war crimes. He's not from Serbia, by the way, he's from Sarajevo and Herzegovina. It's absolutely disgusting.

RFE/RL: You've said that denying genocide is the last stage of genocide. Would you say that Serbia is currently in that last stage of genocide? What comes next?

Bec: Turkey's official policy is that the genocide against Armenians never took place. The vast majority of people say that people always kill each other during wars. Serbia, too, has the option of continuing to lie [and] deny. And that's not good, because the whole region is clearly paralyzed by this denial. But there's also still hope, a very small hope, that Serbia will depart from this position and pronounce the words, "We knew what happened." The next step would be, "We are ashamed," and, finally, "We are very sorry."

I agree with Marlene Dietrich who, when asked after World War II whether she was aware of what had happened in Germany during the Holocaust, said that all those who wanted to know knew. I don't know in which direction things will evolve. But nothing is going to happen spontaneously, because if we accept this silence and denial, we accept our collective guilt -- and thereby grant amnesty to the real perpetrators.

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