On Monday (7/13) after lunch with my aunt B (correction: first cousin-once-removed…) I had my first meeting with a human rights group: the Center for Civic Initiatives (Grandjanske Inicijative), part of Human Rights House in Belgrade which houses four other peace-making, reconciliation, and related human rights organizations: the Helsinki Center for Human Rights, the Committee of Lawyers for Human Rights, Belgrade Center for Human Rights, and the Policy Center — a think tank focused on improving the position of minorities in Serbia, particularly in the southern areas where there are large Muslim minorities.
S and I met with Ms. Dj who is the project coordinator for Civic Initiatives. She was extremely helpful and generous with her time, especially since she and others from the organization were headed out for a three day conference the next day. This group focuses on providing schools with curricula that are civic but not nationalistic. Currently the curricula in all the former countries of former Yugoslavia are heavily nationalistic and portray people in the other countries in negative, stereo-typical ways. It is an uphill battle for her organization as the Ministry of Education in Serbia does not have the political will to acknowledge the issues that led to the wars of the ’90’s or the consequences that came from them. This is part of the bigger picture of the Serbian government’s refusal to accept responsibility for their part in the wars and the atrocities that took place. Yes, much of it was committed by Serbian Bosnians, but they were supported in large part by the then government of Serbia under Slobodan Milosevic, and Serbs from Serbia did go to fight there. Ms Dj described the phenomenon of “weekend warriors” who would go from Serbia into the conflicted areas of Bosnia to steal, pillage, and worse. A great deal of material goods from Bosnia ended up in Serbia as a result. She described how “Arkan” (see link) would set prisoners in Serbian jails free on the condition that they go fight (pillage, steal, rape, kill…) in Bosnia.
I asked her what would it take for reconciliation to become a reality, as it did in South Africa. She told me about events which took place just last week, which to her serve as a sad metaphor for the current state of affairs. Every year people from various progressive groups commemorate July 11 (the anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre) in a significant way. The year, being the 20th anniversary, they submitted a permit request to gather peacefully in front of the Parliament building to place 7,000 squares of paper (representing the 7,000 known dead) in front of the Parliament building, light candles, and have a peaceful demonstration calling on the government to acknowledge and apologize for what happened. When right wing groups got wind of this, they too petitioned for permits and then all permits were denied by the government for fear that violence might erupt. The progressive groups instead gathered informally on the night of July 11th in front of the president’s house, lit candles, and laid out the 7,000 squares of paper. They were disturbed and harassed by right wing groups, who also showed up. What Dj told me next was particularly alarming: most of those from the opposing group were teens — 15, 16, 17 years old — who had not even been born during the actual wars. Where did they learn this kind of reactionary nationalism? How would it ever end? Where could it possibly lead? It made the work that Civic Initiatives has undertaken — to educate the upcoming generation to be tolerant, inclusive, and have a broader perspective on the rights of all human beings — that much more compelling. I commented that one of the privileges I have being the rector of a church with a school is that we are able to educate children from the very youngest of ages to understand the meaning of compassion and an understanding that when we say God loves everyone we mean everyone. To quote that song from South Pacific: “they have to be carefully taught.” Our choice as educators is what we carefully teach them from the youngest of ages, because it is from that basis that their characters and worldview are permanently shaped.
Ms. Dj also shared with us her understanding (which I share) that the issues which led to the ethnic wars of the 1990’s are directly traceable to World War II (and even farther back than that of course). After that war, which also in Yugoslavia contained within it both a civil war as well as state-sponsored genocide (a brutal and bloody “trifecta” as it were…), the communists came to power with the slogan of “Bratsvo i Jedinstvo” (“Brotherhood and Unity”) and all the ethnic hatred, all the injustices perpetrated by one group against another other were meant simply to be swept under the carpet and forgotten about now that there was a “Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.” None of the issues had been dealt with and so it was almost predictable that, under the “right” circumstances, all that pent-up, unresolved hatred, anger, and need for retribution would come rushing back with a vengeance. It is comparable to the very different ways in which West Germany and East Germany dealt with their complicity with the horrors of WWII: in the West there was a dedicated effort set forth by the government to confront what had been done and their role in it, to pay reparations, to be transparent, and to own their past. Conversely, in the East under Soviet control the people were told “it was fascists who did all that,” and they never fully dealt with their past. Not surprisingly, the right wing backlash now finding a voice in Germany comes predominantly from the what used to be East Germany.
And what now?
At this time there has still been no large-scale effort to deal with the past. No large scale effort to deal with the trauma suffered by so many. “Can you imagine, for example,” she said, “young men just doing their required military service, which, for so many years had just been sort of a lark, a right of passage — suddenly without any warning find themselves in the middle of a war, fighting other young men who until recently had been part of their same country? There has been no large-scale, focused, attempt to deal with that kind of trauma. Ironically, the people who do seem to be able to connect are mothers from different sides of the conflict. After all, the loss of a son is the loss of a son, no matter which ‘side’ he was on.”
“Nobody wants to start in their own backyard,” she said. “Nobody wants to come to grips with their own part of it, their own responsibility — no matter on which side they were. But if we don’t deal with what we did, we will never get anywhere.”
The words of George Santayana kept coming back to me over and over as our meeting with Ms. Dj ended: “Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it…”
And clearly, this is not just about Serbia or any of the other countries of former Yugoslavia. I look at my own country and where we are today and fear for our future…