In 2019, I went to Belgrade for the first time. Before 1989, I viewed Yugoslavia with respect and admiration. I admired the Serbs for their struggle against the Nazis and I respected Tito as the leader Romania didn’t have. The Yugoslavs had everything that the Soviet Bloc lacked, from a higher standard of living to dignity. From the very first, I remained frozen, like the city that opened up before me. It was as if I were in a place where time had stopped thirty years ago. It wasn’t so much the fact that many of the buildings were in an advanced state of decay so much as the sensation of dust that had settled over everything and remained undisturbed by not one single housewife’s feather duster.
I talked to veterans of the Yugoslav wars. Although the military orders, the political declarations, the hundreds of thousands killed during ethnic cleansing, and history itself unequivocally demonstrate that Serbia was the aggressor, even thirty years later many still claim that Serbia was only defending itself. After the proclamation of independence, the Serbs claim that they were afraid of being killed by Bosnians or, even more so, by Croats, given the latter’s fascist past, and decided that attack was the best means of defence. The Serbs tried to defend themselves by killing the former, but they weren’t able to kill them all. Not even today do the Serb veterans understand why it was so hard for their status as veterans to be recognised or why support for veterans is virtually nil, even after they have fought for their rights for almost twenty years.
Life as a veteran is hard, regardless of your country or the war. But life becomes hell in countries that can’t give their veterans a parade. What could Serbia’s veterans celebrate? How could their nation show them its gratitude when the whole of humanity has condemned the leaders who commanded them for genocide?
On hearing that I was Romanian, Aleksandar Jovanov repeated to me at least five times that his family originated from somewhere near Timișoara. Born in Belgrade in 1942, he was one of the Serb veterans of the Rakovica association. He smiled constantly and looked like the ideal grandpa. When asked how it felt when he found out about Serb war crimes, he simply said, ‘War is war. I don’t know what a war crime is. We didn’t learn that in school. I was only defending my country.’
Mile Milrsevic, born in Belgrade in 1963, was a volunteer in Vukovar in 1991 and in Kosovo in 1999. ‘The Serbs lost the war because everywhere there were once Serbs, today there aren’t any more. The Krajina Republic. The commanders and politicians tried to make us believe we had won, but that’s madness.’
Mile believes that both sides committed war crimes and thinks that all those guilty should pay the price.
‘The Serbs ended up showing their true colours as traitors and cowards. The majority fled the war or deserted. We have bad genes. Having fought for centuries, the bravest perished. Only the cowards stayed alive to perpetuate the species. That’s why in 1999 we had one hundred and two thousand deserters,’ adds Mile, and even today you can see the regret at having lost the war.
Emil Mišković, born in Australia in 1971, is a veteran of the Croat army. Emil was a volunteer and fought as a sergeant in the 122nd Guards Regiment. He began his military service in 1991, in a police unit, since the army didn’t form until July of that year. ‘The war began at the Zagreb football stadium, when Dinamo Zagreb played Red Star Belgrade. There was a scuffle during the match. The Belgrade supporters came to the match aiming to cause trouble. The Yugoslav police protected the Serbs. The Serbs were the attackers because they came to the stadium led by Arkan, who was armed. In the minds of many Croats, that was when they decided to join the police in large numbers so they could protect themselves from attacks by Yugoslav Serbs.’
The Serbs expected it to be a weekend war; they thought the Croat issue would be solved within a few days. When that didn’t happen, when they were faced with stubborn resistance and an increasing number of casualties, they began to lose their will. They destroyed entire towns without understanding what for. The achievements of their campaign were paltry to non-existent. The unity of the Yugoslav army had already begun to unravel. They had set out intending to preserve a union but very quickly, by that summer, the Serb ideal was in ruins. All that was left was aggression against an independent Croatia. There were completely disillusioned commanders who said to themselves, ‘We went to war for Yugoslavia, not for Serbia.’
‘At the beginning of the conflict, the commanders in Belgrade didn’t have any control over units on the ground and very quickly there appeared a number of Chetnik units. They began to make their presence felt in Slavonia as early as May 1991. In Borovo Selo, twelve police officers were captured and murdered by Chetnik troops that had arrived from Serbia. The Serbs of Borovo Selo did not give this operation an enthusiastic welcome, but the Chetniks claimed they were there to save them. The operation resulted in a fear of ethnic cleansing among the Croat population. The Yugoslav military forces of the time weren’t yet ready as a whole to support an ethnic cleansing operation, although a part did choose to back it. This split within the Yugoslav army tore in two the unity of its command. This didn’t happen in Croatia. Once we united under the country’s flag, we acted in unison to defend the country and achieved synergy in operations from Dubrovnik to Vukovar.’
‘We had nothing but pistols and light machine guns. Any serious attack would have pulverised us. We didn’t have bullet-proof vests, air support, and the rest. But we did have the support of the civilians. At first, people seemed to support the armed columns that were leaving from Belgrade, thinking that they would save Yugoslavia and that we’d all live well in this enclave. But very quickly people realised that it was actually a question of Serb operations to ensure territories for themselves in the region where ethnic Serbs lived.’
What was happening in Bosnia, with the encirclement of Sarajevo, made things very clear to the Croats.
After they learned their lesson in Croatia, the Serbs didn’t give up in Bosnia.
‘Things are very simple. You defend yourself or attack. If you attack, whom do you attack? If you defend yourself, it’s yourself you’re defending. I can’t go to Belgrade to defend myself there. The Croats didn’t want new territories, whereas the Serbs did’, says Emil, who in November 1991 was shot in the leg near Vukovar.
‘In a way, Serbia tried to take advantage of the fact that the world’s attention was taken up by the Gulf War. Among the Croats and Serbs it was more of a border war. It was more complicated in Bosnia, where you had three mixed enclaves. They’re still mixed today. There isn’t a street where you don’t find not only Bosnians but Serbs and Croats. In Croatia we had those two hot zones of insurrection, but the Serbs cleansed them of Croats in 1991. That made our military operation easier because we knew the people we met, be they civilians or armed forces, could only be Serbs. There was no longer a need to ask them.
We had information from the Americans regarding the position of armed forces and civilians. We had clear orders to protect civilians. In the towns (Knin), things become more complicated. Every plan is thrown into disarray as soon as the forces start shooting.’
‘When the army returned from Operation Storm, we felt like guests at the biggest ever wedding, at which our favourite cousin was getting married and we were so happy that we were all taking part.’
For Yugoslavia, the year 1990 meant not only a break with the communist past, as it did in countries including Romania, Hungary and Poland. With the collapse of the Communist Bloc, the countries that made up the former Yugoslavia took advantage of the opportunity to assert their independence. Besides nationalist and populist ideals, the idea of decentralisation found favour with the new local leaders from every point of view. It’s one thing to take orders from Belgrade and another to make your own orders. It’s one thing to have a budget allocated to you, another to make your own budget. On the other hand, former President Milosevic understood how important it was, particularly for the Serbs, to cling to the idea of the Yugoslav Federation. As a promoter of continuity in his own political interests, Milosevic hoped to ensure that the Serbs retained their primacy.
Unfortunately, the two interests were incompatible. As a new Federation with the Croats or Bosnians didn’t make much sense, when the two countries showed their desire for independence, it put Milosevic’s back against the wall, thwarting his megalomaniacal plan from the outset. Faced with that unilateral decision, Milosevic felt completely powerless. Under normal circumstances, there would have been nothing he could have done to oppose it. The only way he could oppose it was to concoct an emergency as a pretext.
Like a drowning man, the pretext Milosevic clung to was the statement of Croat President Tudjman to the effect that he thanked God that he didn’t have a Jewish or a Serbian wife. Tudjman’s support for the former Ustaše leaders was also grist to Milosevic’s mill, who was stoking fears that the Serbs were in danger of extermination in Croatia.
Milosevic attempted to make use of the Croats’ fascist past to justify his actions. In the new European context, more than forty-five years after the end of the Second World War, Croatia could not have embarked on independence carrying the baggage of Nazi ideology and perpetrating another genocide. Moreover, it was obvious, in that same context, which side was the first to seek revenge. Young Serbs, lured into the snare of the Chetnik movement, now had the opportunity for the first time to avenge their grandparents murdered in camps run by the Croat Ustaše forces during the war.
The second pretext that Milosevic used was a complete fiction. Employing a simulacrum of logic, the same as Putin today, Milosevic tried to justify his actions by saying that just as the Croats could demand an independent state, the ethnic Serbs living in Croat territory could also demand an independent Serb republic, preferably one conjoined to a Greater Serbia.
This was how the Serbian Republic of Krajina emerged in Croatia and the Republika Srpska in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
In order to put a stop to the war, limited autonomy within an independent Croat state was offered to Serb separatists in Croatia. It was a compromise that Croatia didn’t want, but which it was prepared to make for the sake of peace. But the Serbs, blinded by the ideal of unification and enlargement of their territory, rejected it.
Under pressure from the Croat military’s Operation Storm, but above all as a result of the reckless or downright criminal actions of Serbs such as Milosevic, Hadžić, Babić, and Arkan, in 1995 it all culminated in the evacuation of Serb civilians from Knon, Benkovac, Obrovac, Drniš and Gračac. Around two hundred thousand Serbs, tricked by their leaders’ rhetoric or genuinely terrified of retribution for crimes committed in Vukovar and elsewhere, abandoned their homes and left for Serbia, Bosnia, and Slavonia.
‘The Hague Tribunal showed that there were written orders whereby the Serb forces used human shields,’ says Emil, who brings into the discussion the fifty-kilometre column of civilians mixed with soldiers and political leaders forced into exile by the leaders of the Serb separatist republic themselves.
Paradoxically, for various reasons, but mainly thanks to the will on the part of civilised countries to put an end to the genocide as quickly as possible, the Republika Srpska still exists in Bosnia today.
The Serbs, isolated from almost all the civilised world, try to put a brave face on it, telling themselves that it is better that way. If things really were that way, they would not gravitate toward Putin’s Russia. An entire generation, prisoner to the genocidal past, are trying to justify that past by citing Russia’s war in Ukraine. If Putin’s actions are valid, then it is as if history can be rewritten and the Serbs can be absolved of all their crimes.
The Russians have never been anybody’s friends. Our great misfortune was that we were born next door to them. That misfortune became a catastrophe at the end of the Second World War. Protected by the charismatic Tito, the Serbs never really experienced what Soviet friendship meant. If they had known, they wouldn’t have talked about close ties with Russia even in jest. Particularly in the present context, in which Russia would be greatly advantaged by the outbreak of a new interethnic conflict in Bosnia. It would mean a great deal to the Russians if the NATO alliance was distracted by a war in the Balkans. While the Serbs, the former anti-fascist partisans, are out of desperation and isolation heading into the Soviet mist, from 2023 Croatia will be a proud member of the Schengen area. The fascist past has not held the Croats prisoners.
Thirty years ago, the Russians gave a little present to the new republics that chose to part with Russia after the fall of the Iron Curtain. Besides independence, each country received a region inhabited mainly by ethnic Russians. The same as the Serbs, thirty years later, the Russians want to save these ethnic minorities from a danger recognised only by them and, given that if a job is worth doing, it’s worth doing well, to annex the territories in question to Mother Russia. The two scenarios are identical. The only difference is that Russia still thinks it is powerful enough not to be content with just a simulacrum of a republic, as the Bosnian Serbs were.
I have heard many things about the multiple causes underlying the Yugoslav War. For me, the main cause of the war was the desire on the part of the Serbs, and to a lesser extent on the part of the Croats, to take advantage of the disintegration of Yugoslavia in order to add new territories to their newly independent states. They made use of the ethnic pretext and tried to expand their territories. Their failure to do so led to frustration and drove both nations, but the Serbs in particular, to genocide.
All the Serbs got from the war they fought was two Serbias. An isolated Serbia that regrets not having put Milosevic on trial instead of sending him to the Hague, even though it was in no hurry to convict him while it held him under arrest. And another Serbia, which, barely out of the egg in 1992, gave the world Ratko Mladic, the war criminal responsible for the siege of Sarajevo and Srebrenica massacre, which earned him the nickname ‘Butcher of Bosnia’. The republic has only a single foreign partner: Serbia. The only real beneficiaries of this un-Orthodox, un-Catholic and un-Muslim scission are the leaders and politicians of the Republika Srpska. The Bosnian Serbs have ended up with nothing but grief and hatred.
The state is based on a people. The Orthodox Christians of Bosnia and Herzegovina were told more than a century ago that their Orthodox Christianity necessarily meant they were also Serbs. But the Serbs already had a country when they aberrantly demanded they be allowed to form another country on the territory of Bosnia and Herzegovina. There are now two Serbian peoples each of which has the same language and traditions. But not the same country.
For a number of reasons, the Bosnian Serbs are viewed in Serbia as second-class citizens. The likelihood of an international conjuncture to allow Serbia to absorb the Republika Srpska is virtually nil. And that is even if Cossack troops stationed on Serbian and Montenegran soil, in various monasteries, move from cultural and musical activities to less Orthodox actions, thereby repaying the Serbs for their favour when it came to the Crimea.
The only chance the Bosnian Serbs have of freeing themselves from second-class-citizen status is in a strong, united and independent Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Miloš Vučić, the Bosnian Serb owner of a hostel in Srebrenica, says, ‘It is the moral duty of every Serb and Croat to sabotage the Bosnian state.’
Milos seems not to realise that in doing so the Serbs and Croats are only sabotaging themselves. The Bosnian Serbs try to label as Muslim every action of the majority Bosnian representatives. And they employ anti-Muslim rhetoric and fear of terrorism to undermine the Bosnian state. Paradoxically, even based on this anti-Muslim rhetoric, in a strong and united Bosnia, the Serbs and Croats would always be favoured as business and negotiating partners. Only the Bosnia they want to destroy would give them an unequalled status.
The Serbs and Croats have formed a majority coalition, whereby they oppose every Bosnian project. Their aim is to demonstrate that the Bosnian Federation is ungovernable. Moreover, not even thirty years later are they prepared to recognise the genocide. In order to deny it, they invoke various isolated crimes committed by Bosnians against Bosnian Serbs. What the Serbs claim not to understand is that such crimes existed on both sides. Nobody denies such incidents took place. But when they were examined at the Hague, they couldn’t be classed as genocide, as ethnic cleansing. The separation of male prisoners from women and children, the systematic execution of the men and then their burial in mass graves, followed by the attempt to erase the evidence by moving the bodies to other graves were declared ethnic cleansing and classed as genocide at the Hague.
Germany recognised its guilt and tried to construct a European future for itself, swiftly becoming one of the most powerful states in the world. It is not an international conspiracy that makes the Serbs pariahs but their own inability to recognise their guilt even thirty years later. The Serbs are paying a heavy price for their defiant attitude. That price is the future of entire generations.
But maybe the Serbs were the victims of a genocide. Maybe the Bosnians were cleverer, maybe they buried the bodies deeper. But in that case, only one question remains: Where are the thousands of Serbian mothers and widows, waiting thirty years later for news that their sons’ and husbands’ bodies have been found in a mass grave at the edge of some forest?
In Srebrenica I met some of the mothers of the eight thousand Bosnian men and boys who were murdered on the twenty-seventh anniversary of the genocide committed by Republika Srpska troops under the command of General Ratko Mladic.
Rusmir Piralić was just seventeen when he enlisted as a volunteer in the Bosnian army to defend his country, his home, his family his town, an army completely unprepared for war.
‘Those who lived through the 1,425-day siege of Sarajevo, those who felt the hot lead every day, lose the apocalyptic sense of the genocide committed by the Serbs. We grew up with, we became adults amid the traumas of that war,’ says Rusmir.
‘There are no victors in war, only the vanquished,’ he adds. It’s no wonder he feels this way, particularly after the Dayton Agreement. Rusmir sees the agreement as glorifying the brute force which by means of war, murder, rape, ethnic cleansing and genocide succeeded in obtaining much-desired recognition for the Serbs.
‘Time has demonstrated just how dysfunctional is the existence of an entity, of a district such as Brčko, for the everyday social, economic and cultural life of its citizens,’ says Rusmir.
‘The war began in 1992, when yesterday’s friends and neighbours encircled us and started shooting at us,’ says Ismet Imamović, aged seventy-three, a former colonel in the Bosnian army and the recipient of the Golden Lily, its highest military award.
‘In order for us to heal, a recognition and a plea for healing, I don’t know whether it would help, but at least it wouldn’t do any harm to listen to them. Around here, almost every generation has experienced a war. Maybe we would heal if we helped the new generations to understand that war isn’t a solution. Despite all that, and above all given what’s happening in the world today, I think we’re heading in the wrong direction. It seems we haven’t learned any lessons from this war and so, probably we’ll have yet another one,’ says Ismet, a former commander of the divers.
A hundred years ago, the fez was the only thing that set the Bosnians apart. The Muslims wore a pink fez, the Christians a black one, and the Jews a dark red one. Back then, it was the man who wore the fez. Today, it’s hatred that wears the fez.
Ramiza Gurdic, aged sixty-nine, remembers how she saw her sons for the last time at a crossroads at the bottom of the hill where they lived. Mustafa, the eldest, was rolling a cigarette, after which he bid his mother farewell, saying, ‘We’ll never see each other again.’ She watched her sons only they vanished around the bend of the winding road. Mustafa’s remains were discovered in 2003. He was given a proper burial in 2005. She buried her husband, shot in Kravica, in 2010. In 2011, she buried her youngest son, Mehrudin. ‘He was as handsome as a doll. I still haven’t found his head. I’ve been to every grave they’ve identified. I found his belt but they didn’t want to give it to me. I recognised his shoes, his trousers, and I sewed them together. Then I added the belt. I’m sure I’ll find his head too. I gave birth to him with a head and I want to bury it in the fitting way while I still live.’
Ramiza Gurdic has no other purpose in life than to search for and make whole the body of her son. This endless search is the only thing that keeps her alive. She hoped that maybe they had survived up until 2003, when the Hague Tribunal informed her that they had found Mustafa in one of the mass graves. Nothing can assuage the loss. Nothing can heal the wounds, which only grow deeper with the passage of time.
‘I go to bed sad and I wake up grief-stricken,’ says Ramiza. She sometimes dreams of them. Either they visit her, or she visits them. Whenever they see each other again in a dream, it is cause for rejoicing.
Not even the guarantee that such a terrible genocide might never happen again can assuage her suffering.
Sehida Abdurahmanović, aged sixty-two, was thirty-six in 1995. She saw her brother seven days before he and some other men tried to escape from Srebrenica, walking through the forest toward Tuzla. To this day their bodies have not been found.
Milos is convinced that the same people were buried in Potocari a number of times. He is just as convinced that some of the missing are still alive somewhere in Bosnia.
History has established that six million Jews perished in the Holocaust. If it had been only five million, would Nazi Germany have been any less guilty?
Bosnian Serbs have accumulated a dual frustration. On the one hand, as a result of their actions in the 1990s, the territories they conquered in the name of a Greater Serbia, they never became part of Serbia. On the other hand, the republic they created, at the cost of a genocide, is the main cause of the wretchedness and paralysis they are forced to endure day after day. The Serbs are forced to live in an alliance imposed by the Dayton Agreement and they are forced every day to see the survivors of the ethnic cleansing they began, but which they were unable to carry through to the end.
The young and the educated have long since abandoned this paradigm, trying to build lives for themselves abroad.
Iva Djolović (22) is studying pedagogy and sociology in Belgrade. To avoid the war, her parents fled to Cyprus.
‘I think that when the countries of Yugoslavia wanted to separate, Serbia was the one that wanted to preserve Yugoslav unity. I wouldn’t say Serbia was the aggressor, but since Serbia didn’t want the other countries to break away from Yugoslavia, it had the motivation to act a little more aggressively, but I wouldn’t say it was the only aggressor in the war. But that’s certainly where it started from.’
When I asked her what impact the war had on the country, she answered, ‘It had a big impact on the economy, but also geopolitically. When we broke apart, we lost a lot of countries.’ My question was what impact it had had on Serbia, since the effect on Yugoslavia was strictly the breakup of the federation. But her answer didn’t surprise me. The Serbs identified with Yugoslavia. After all, they were its main beneficiaries.
I then asked her whether she saw herself living in Serbia after she completed her studies. ‘After I finish my studies I want to work abroad for a year. I’m still thinking about where I want to live. No matter how much I love Serbia and Belgrade, I feel like I won’t prosper here as much as I’ll be able to abroad. The country isn’t prepared to support those who want a cultural career. Maybe I’ll return in fifty years.’
If you’re still in any doubt, if you still feel the need to be convinced, I’d like to share with you one last observation. Whereas the Serb veterans, both at home and at their associations, have pictures of Ratko Mladic on the wall, when I visited Bosnian veterans I found the picture of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. Tell me who your idols are and I’ll tell you who you are.
I felt drawn to this episode from the history of the Balkans because I remember what happened to us at the beginning of the 1990s. After the wave of sympathy that came Romania’s way after the coup d’état of December 1989, only a few months passed before the then president of Romania summoned the miners to quash the student protests. The miners’ rampage resulted in six deaths and hundreds of wounded. The miners went on to terrorise Romania until 1999. Although we didn’t suffer a genocide, as well as claiming six lives the miners confiscated from us for more than twenty years the feeling that we existed as citizens and could express ourselves without the fear of being killed, if not by a repressive state, the same as under communism, then by the paramilitary forces it commanded.
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