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the September 2001 issue of World Press Review (VOL.
48, No. 9).
Remembrance of Things Not-Quite-Past
Justice in the Balkans Promises Relief, Imposes Burden
World Press Review Correspondent
I recently had a nightmare. I dreamed that I was arrested
as a war criminal by officials of the International Criminal
Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia. Not for a particular crime,
but for war crimes in general. While an official was reading
me my rights, I was completely calm, because I knew I had
done nothing wrong. In the dream I was not worried about the
charges, only about the bother of all the time it would take
to clear my name. Part of my job as a journalist in the Balkans
throughout the past 10 years was to report on wars and therefore
crimes committed. I did not wake up in a sweat. I have no
need to. But I am wondering what kind of dreams millions of
Serbs must be having, those who only now are beginning to
face the terrible truth. And what are the nightmares of the
hundreds and thousands who have committed crimes?
When thousands of people from all over Serbia took to the
streets last October to oust Slobodan Milosevic, few of them
realized that it was not the final ugly and unpleasant obstacle
to a better life. Getting rid of Milosevic, it seems, was
just the beginning of a long and extremely painful path toward
the future. Facing the past is probably the most difficult
part of the road that Serbs have started on. Now, only months
since the peaceful change of the regime, the people of Serbia
find themselves quite confused at the first evidence they
have seen of war crimes committed in four wars. All these
conflicts, they believed, were waged in defense of Serbs
and Serbia proper.
Milosevics peaceful extradition to the tribunal at The
Hague, which indicted him for war crimes committed in Kosovo,
would have been impossible if viewers of RTS (Serbian state
television) had not seen footage of mass graves in their neighborhood
containing hundreds of bodies of ethnic Albanians from Kosovo.
The discovery caused a dramatic change of opinion among the
public and reformist leaders, who only three months earlier
were not yet ready to own up to the ugly past. Ordinary people
remained silent, in shock after seeing for the first time
the results of a monstrous policy, as one 40-year-old
woman in Belgrade said. This may explain why only some 15,000
Milosevic supporters turned out in the streets to protest
The extradition itself has not passed smoothly on the political
level. The federal prime minister, Zoran Zizic, a Montenegrin
from the Socialist Peoples Party, which was once allied
with Milosevics regime but switched to the reformists
side after the October events, resigned in protest, bringing
down the entire cabinet with him. Yugoslav President Vojislav
Kostunica, a moderate nationalist and critic of The Hague
tribunal, attacked his main rival, Serbian Prime Minister
Zoran Djindjic, accusing him of violating the constitution
by extraditing Milosevic. Djindjics move nevertheless
was seen by many as a brave one, without which Serbia would
face continuing international isolation.
Yet the political turmoil over Milosevics extradition
has not subsided; Serbs have faced another shocking experience
related to the recent past. On the sixth anniversary of the
massacre in the eastern Bosnian town of Srebrenica, RTS broadcast
a BBC-produced documentary clearly showing that Bosnian Serb
forces, led by Ratko Mladic, had committed horrible crimes
against thousands of Muslim civilians. This was the first
time that RTS, once part of Milosevics propaganda machine,
broadcast such a film. It sparked a storm of protests, both
among the public and in the Serbian parliament, which saw
the film as an attack against the Serbian people as a whole.
An RTS deputy manager received hundreds of phone calls by
outraged Serbs. That was war; it was either us Serbs
or them [Muslims]; it was impossible for both [nations] to
survive, he quoted a viewer as saying. Opposition in
the Serbian parliament, Milosevics socialists, and ultranationalist
Vojislav Seseljs radicals, once allied in supporting
the former leaders policy of wars and crimes, strongly
protested the broadcast, demanding an inquiry into who was
behind it. Deputies from Kostunicas party joined the
demand. In a heated daylong discussion, socialists and radicals
argued that the broadcast was aimed at presenting Serbian
heroes as criminals. The few positive reactions are
a hopeful sign that the new editorial policy at RTS will help
Serbs come to terms with their past.
After the broadcast, I tried talking to a close relative,
once a Milosevic supporter, but he could hardly speak. I
watched a little bit and then switched channels. It was very
painful. I do not like to watch such horrible things,
he told me. When asked who had committed those horrible
things, he replied in a low voice: I do not want
to talk about that.
Serbs were not the only ones upset by the knowledge of an
ugly past. The Croatian government had to cope with similar
reactions after extraditing two army generals indicted for
war crimes committed against Serbs in the 1991-95 war in Croatia.
Using language strikingly similar to that of their Serbian
neighbors, Croats denied their own responsibility. The government
was forced to demand a no-confidence vote after four ministers
Milosevic has left a burdensome legacy, the evidence of which
can be seen these days in Macedonia, the southernmost former
Yugoslav republic, which is now on the brink of civil war.
The sad legacy is also visible in Bosnia, which has barely
emerged from war, and in Kosovo, which still seethes with
ethnic hatred. Yet, 10 years after the bitter breakup, there
is hope that the countries of the former Yugoslavia may leave
the dark past behind. Serbia and Croatia, which are making
their first fragile steps toward democracy, could set examples
for the entire region. The people of the Balkans deserve finally
to join a modern world in which wars, hatred, and ethnic division
are a shameful part of the past.