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Balkans Without Borders

Thursday 20 July 2017

The Lingering Pall Of Srebrenica

  • Gordana Knezevic
Hajra Catic has still not found the remains of her son, Nino, who disappeared in Srebrenica in 1995. (file photo)

In Srebrenica, July 11 is a day devoted to the absentees: 8,000 of them.

In Srebrenica, July 11 is a day devoted to the absentees: 8,000 of them.

As head of the Women Of Srebrenica organization, Hajra Catic's job will be to greet official guests at a burial ceremony for dozens of newly identified victims of the 1995 massacre. Twenty-two years after a genocide that took more than 8,000 lives, the search continues for the bodies of victims.

The 71 new coffins will join the 6,504 white gravestones of Srebrenica men and boys already buried at the Srebrenica-Potocari Memorial. For the relatives of those victims, that moment will represent some kind of closure.

But not for Hajra. The remains of her son, Nino, are not among the recent arrivals.

As the city was about to fall into Bosnian Serb hands in July 1995, Nino was the "Voice of Srebrenica" -- the name of the radio station he ran. His final on-air words were a cry of desperation: "Srebrenica is becoming a giant slaughterhouse.... Will anyone in the world come and witness the tragedy that is befalling Srebrenica and its people?"

Two years ago, marking the 20th anniversary of those events, Nino's mother told RFE/RL that she would continue to search for him for the rest of her life, if that's what it takes.

Nino Catic
Nino Catic

In the run-up to this year's anniversary, Hajra, who keeps the crackly recording of her son's last report on her mobile phone, said it was becoming harder with each passing day to find new information about the location of individual or mass graves.

"Those who know either don't want to or are afraid to speak about the mass graves," she said, adding that she has received hundreds of possible leads over the years about where her son may have been killed. But none has brought resolution.

Apart from the silence of those who might have information, Hajra and others still searching for the remains of loved ones must contend with the legacy of the systematic destruction of evidence by the Bosnian Serb Army. Bodies were exhumed and reburied so haphazardly, in fact, that the remains of single victims are routinely found in dozens of scattered mass graves.

New remains are located and identified every year, and the July 11 Potocari ceremony is both a way of keeping track of freshly identified victims and a reminder of those yet to be found.

Parallel Universe

Yet, in what might seem like a parallel universe, a festival scheduled for Srebrenica on July 6-12 was slated to include the launch of a book by an author regarded by many as a genocide denier, Ljiljana Bulatovic, titled Srebrenica: A Lie And Deception Against The Serb Nation (Srebrenica - Laž I Podvala Srpskom Narodu). Under pressure from some local NGOs, Srebrenica's mayor canceled the book promotion.

Bosnian media have cited Bulatovic's purportedly close relations with indicted war-crimes suspect General Ratko Mladic and war criminal Radovan Karadzic, as well as her frequent dismissal of Srebrenica as genocide.

But a Republika Srpska branch of the ultranationalist group Oath Keepers is organizing a protest rally in Banja Luka under the banner "Support for Ratko Mladic -- stop the lies about Srebrenica."

Meanwhile, writer and commentator Nedad Memic tweeted that "#Srebrenica must be the world's only place of #genocide where genocide deniers can fully spread their ideology and insult victims."

'Most Important Topic Of Our Time'

At the center of this dispute is the conclusion -- as, for instance, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) has done -- that the mass killings of unarmed Bosniak men and boys at Srebrenica constituted genocide.

Neither Serbia nor Bosnian entity Republika Srpska has officially acknowledged that what took place there in July 1995 was an act of genocide.

ICTY chief prosecutor Serge Brammertz recently expressed hope that such recognition might be forthcoming. Brammertz told the Sarajevan daily Oslobodjenje recently that "it takes integrity and courage to admit the truth."

Journalist Ivica Djikic has studied the Srebrenica genocide from the perspective of the perpetrators, rather than the victims, and published a book on Srebrenica in 2016 titled Beara.

"In my opinion and according to my understanding of the world and life, Srebrenica is the most important topic of our time, particularly for those of us who live here," he said.

'What Ordinary People Are Capable Of'

Beara borrows its title from the surname of one of the chief perpetrators of the Srebrenica atrocities, the biggest mass killing in Europe since World War II. The book's protagonist, Ljubisa Beara, was the head of security at the Bosnian Serb Army's HQ. He received a life sentence for the crimes of genocide and murder, and died in prison earlier this year at the age of 77. Djikic told BIRN in an interview that he decided to write the book to try to determine the motives of people, like Beara, who "ordered and committed the genocide" of Srebrenica's Bosniaks.

"The genocide against Bosniaks will haunt this region forever as a warning about what ordinary people are capable of under certain political, ideological, and social conditions," Djikic said.

He said he worked on his book for nearly a decade and found most of his material in the archives of the Hague tribunal. The rest of the documents appeared in books or newspaper articles, or arose in conversations with people who knew Beara before the war.

Special Project: The Faces Of Thousands Who Died In Srebrenica

Genocide denial, Djikic said, is "wrong and infantile."

"The truth will not disappear if you cover your eyes. The political and intellectual elites should know by now that denial or relativization of genocide and war crimes only leads to long-term misery, primarily for their own people, and a future filled with hatred," he said.

While some Serbian politicians are planning to come to the Srebrenica memorial in connection with the tragedy's anniversary, many will stay away.

The leader of the Belgrade-based Movement of Free Citizens, Sasa Jankovic, has said that by denying or downplaying the Srebrenica genocide Serbian politicians are "deliberately preventing [Serbian citizens] from confronting and leaving the past behind."

"There will be no genuine reckoning with and moving on from the war as long as our countries are led by the same people who started it, or their political heirs."

Jankovic added that he would be in Srebrenica for the ceremony.

"This is the first time that I have been invited, and I will be there."

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.

Is The Power Of The Kosovo Myth Fading?

  • Gordana Knezevic
Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic (far left) leads official St. Vitus's Day commemorations in Belgrade on June 28.

In the early 20th century, the symbolism attached to the Battle of Kosovo was used as a unifying force among South Slavs (Serbs, Croats, Slovenes, and others) in the process of creating the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. Yet what became known as the "Kosovo Myth" also had a more divisive, darker side, not least when it was invoked by Slobodan Milosevic to let the genie of nationalism out of the bottle, helping unleash the Balkan wars of the 1990s. (The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL.)

Serbia has again marked its most important state holiday -- Vidovdan, or St. Vitus's Day -- and newly elected President Aleksandar Vucic led the official commemoration on June 28 for the first time, laying a wreath at the monument to the fallen heroes of the 14th-century Battle of Kosovo in the town of Krusevac.

The celebrations harken back to a historic battle between an invading Ottoman army and an alliance of Christian forces that took place in 1389, and which claimed the lives of both Serbian Tsar Lazar and the Sultan Murad I. The defeat of the Serb-led Christian army helped pave the way for the Ottoman conquest of most of the Balkan Peninsula in the 15th century.

In the collective memory of the Serbian people the valiant defeat came to symbolize, among other things, the struggle for freedom from foreign domination, love of country, and personal heroism. As such it was transformed into a potent nation-building tool in the 19th century, when Serbia secured its independence from the Ottoman Empire.

Unifying Force

In the early 20th century, the symbolism attached to the Battle of Kosovo was used as unifying force among South Slavs (Serbs, Croats, Slovenes, and others) in the process of creating the Kingdom of Yugoslavia.

Yet what became known as the "Kosovo Myth" also had a more divisive, darker side.

It was invoked by Slobodan Milosevic, whose infamous speech on June 28, 1989 -- the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Kosovo -- let the genie of nationalism out of the bottle, helping unleash the Balkan wars of the 1990s.

The story of a nation's struggle, death, and reincarnation still cannot be openly questioned in Serbian public discourse. It continues to make it difficult for Serbian politicians to recognize that Kosovo today is an independent state, recognized by 114 UN members.

The Belgrade-based social anthropologist Ivan Colovic, who has worked and published extensively on the Kosovo Myth, finds this dogmatic adherence to a single and unequivocal interpretation of history troubling.

"Narratives about the past are not considered myths based on their content, but rather the demands they make on those in the present; for instance, their status as incontrovertible and sacred truths about that past," he says. "The Kosovo Myth is still held as a sacred relic whose authenticity is beyond doubt. One may privately disbelieve [this version of history], but one dare not admit to this. One is expected to submit to its authority regardless."

Serbian anthropologist Ivan Colovic (file photo)
Serbian anthropologist Ivan Colovic (file photo)

In his book on the subject, Colovic shows how the Kosovo Myth effectively became state religion in the 1990s, and fuel for the cycles of violence seen in the Balkans. Yet he also concludes with the suggestion that its power may be fading:

"Perhaps events will prove me wrong, but I do believe that, in the current marketplace of political symbols, the purchasing power of the Kosovo Myth is not as great as it was in the 1990s."

In his first encounter with the media following his election victory, Serbian President Vucic seemed to give credence to Colovic's assertion. Vucic said that he would initiate a public discussion on Serbia's future relations with Kosovo, one of whose central aims would be to liberate Serbian political discourse from myth.

However, when a Belgrade-based RFE/RL journalist asked if the heralded new approach meant that the government was about to announce a shift in policy toward the former Serbian province, Vucic replied that his reference to the "mythologizing of Kosovo" was part of a sentence in which he also promised to ensure that Serbia did not "easily renounce what rightfully belongs to us."

Slippery Statements

The remark served as a reminder of Vucic's reputation for making slippery and enigmatic statements before he became president. It also indicates that while a more pragmatic approach may indeed displace mythic injunctions in policymaking, Kosovo will continue to be used as a tool of national homogenization in public discourse.

Colovic points out that President Vucic's words have preemptively set limits on the very dialogue that he is calling for.

"From the outset [Vucic] set the condition that participants in that dialogue must respect the Serbian Constitution. And as we all know, the constitution still includes the notorious preamble according to which Kosovo is an integral part of Serbia," Colovic says.

"So, all those who disagree with the claim made in that preamble are immediately excluded from the dialogue. In other words, those who believe that any real, open dialogue that would indeed open a new chapter in Serbian relations with Kosovo must begin with the removal of that preamble from the Constitution. There is also the wording of the [presidential] oath that [Vucic] has just taken, which also imposes restrictions on any dialogue about Kosovo, because the oath of office also holds Kosovo as the highest value, and most sacred relic that must be preserved in Serbian hands."

It is therefore hard to predict what this future dialogue on the status of Kosovo might look like, or where it may lead. Even if many in Serbia support a new dialogue, there is still plenty of opposition to taking the big step -- formal recognition of Kosovo.

WATCH: Serbs In Kosovo Mark St. Vitus's Day

​The academic and dramatist Dusan Kovacevic provides a window into the views that help forge that opposition -- steadfast animus to the idea that Kosovo belongs to its ethnic Albanian majority.

"I would never sit down with people who say that Kosovo is Albanian territory, that it always has been, and will be [Albanian]. Never."

Asked whether he believed in the mythologizing narrative according to which Kosovo is the cradle of the Serbian nation, and that "there can be no Serbia without Kosovo," Kovacevic responded by saying: "That is intended as a metaphor, but if Kosovo is indeed lost, if Kosovo with all its [Serbian Orthodox] heritage becomes Albanian, then it would be true."

Colovic, the author of the most exhaustive study on the history and uses of the Kosovo Myth, Death On Kosovo Plain, is optimistic but cautious. He warns that the Kosovo Myth might be deployed elsewhere and in other ways, with potentially pernicious consequences. He observes that the epicenter of St. Vitus's Day celebrations is no longer Kosovo itself but Republika Srpska (part of Bosnia).

"The construction of Andricgrad [a new town in eastern Bosnia built ostensibly as a showcase for the life and work of novelist Ivo Andric, the only winner of the Nobel Prize from the former Yugoslavia] started on June 28, 2011, on St. Vitus's Day," he says. "The intended link is therefore with Kosovo and the Kosovo Myth, and not with Andric, or else it would have made sense to choose a date associated with the latter, such as his birth or when he received the Nobel Prize."

Using Legal Means

According to Colovic, this is one aspect of the construction of a Bosnian Serb national, ethnic, or cultural identity, a strategy like the one employed in the 1990s by convicted war criminals Radovan Karadzic and Biljana Plavsic, the architects of Republika Srpska and its claims to a separate national identity (and statehood). That project has been revived and developed in recent times by Milorad Dodik, the president of Republika Srpska, the film director Emir Kusturica, and some of their associates.

Latinka Perovic, a prominent Serbian historian, agrees that the power of the Kosovo Myth seems to be fading in Serbia. She believes that the new generation of Serbian nationalists are prepared to fight for their goals using legal means, but that they are not ready to go to war over Kosovo.

Yet she also warns that in many other respects the political atmosphere in the Balkans is very much reminiscent of the 1990s.

Much therefore depends on the rhetoric and course taken by the new Serbian president.

It remains to be seen what practical steps Vucic will take to resolve an issue that links Serbia's present goal of regional stability, the need to come to terms with its recent violent past, and its national identity, for so long rooted in a mythic narrative of a medieval battle whose anniversary looms large once again.

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL

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About This Blog

Balkans Without Borders offers personal commentary on contemporary Balkan politics and culture. It is written by Gordana Knezevic, senior journalist and former award-winning editor of the Sarajevo daily Oslobodjenje, as well as the director of RFE/RL’s Balkan Service between 2008 and 2016. The blog reflects on the myriad ways in which the absurdities of Balkan politics and the ongoing historical shifts and realignments affect the lives of people in the region.

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