The war of narratives

Different historical accounts produce different war-inspired and post-war narratives, particularly narratives of victimhood and collectivised guilt, which undermine attempts to foster tolerance and reconciliation in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

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Conflict Background


By Dusan Babic

For centuries the Balkans has suffered from too much history and too little mutual understanding. Winston Churchill perfectly encapsulated it with the saying, “the Balkans have a tendency to produce more history than they can consume.” More history is usually closely connected with more conflicts and wars. Different historical accounts produce different war-inspired and post-war narratives. Of course, the Balkans is no exception. It would be sufficient just to consider different narratives of traditional civil wars, in particular, the American and Spanish. More than a century and a half after, there remains a striking disagreement over the character of the American Civil War. Even the very name of this war is questioned, with “The War Between States” a term that is still widely used in the South, both in popular discourse and history textbooks.

Heated debates over the Spanish Civil War have involved many aspects, not only about resisting fascism, but also reflecting a deep social crisis in Spain, lasting for more than a century. This crisis was primarily based upon the land question, the corruption of the monarchy, the military, and the clergy, the issue of lay education, and partly combined with the legacy of Castilian centralism. Foreign historians and social scientists have been more focused on the role of international brigades (IB) in the war and controversies over their withdrawal ordered by Joseph Stalin. Some IB volunteers resisted the withdrawal order. As a reminder, after Stalin’s failure to influence Britain and France against Hitler, he decided to negotiate with Berlin. As evidence of his sincerity, Stalin offered the corpse of the Spanish Republic. The post-Franco regime – in order to secure a peaceful transition to democracy and economic recovery – officially fostered collective amnesia; widely known as the pact of oblivion. And it worked. Could this formula be suitable in the Balkans, or more precisely in post-Dayton Bosnia-Herzegovina?

Narratives of victimhood

A great number of Bosniaks – politicians, intellectuals, academics, pundits and ordinary people – see a Serb hand in nearly all their problems, with many subscribing to a narrative of victimhood. Needless to say, such narratives are dangerous for a variety of reasons, particularly when applied to Bosnia-Herzegovina’s extremely complex political, social and cultural environment. An additional problem is the fact that a great majority of Bosniaks consider themselves to be the only victims of the 1992-1995 war. This victimhood narrative is detrimental; not only for Bosniaks, but for the country as a whole. How to create normal and functional state, if one of its two entities is regarded as a “genocidal creation”? Within this narrative a crucial place belongs to two terms – aggression and genocide. By insisting on aggression instead of civil war, Bosniaks are only cementing partition of the country.

Despite the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) having ruled that genocide was committed in Srebrenica, many Bosniaks continue to claim that genocide occurred in dozens of towns and cities. Some Bosniak academics also claim that Bosnian Muslims have experienced ten genocides in the twentieth century, whilst Grand Mufti Ceric has called intermarriage “another form of genocide.”

Not to mention the never ending numbers game. Some Bosniak sources claim that 200,000 to 250,000 died; with some going as high as 350,000. Figures by the Research and Documentation Center (IDC), led by Mirsad Tokaca, presented a rigorously researched figure that is unlikely to grow far beyond 100,000. The Demographic Unit of the ICTY, meanwhile, substantially agrees with the IDC’s findings; estimating a total of 102,622 war-related deaths in Bosnia-Herzegovina from 1992 to 1995; some 65% Bosniaks, 25% Serbs and the rest Croats and others.

In an article by Nerzuk Curak, a Sarajevo University professor – entitled “Mladic was not alone”, published in The Guardian on July 3, 2011 – the subheading reads, “justice in the Balkans must encompass not just war criminals, but their whole communities”. This is a tacit call for re-establishing collective guilt, which was officially abandoned by the ICTY.

In his famous work, “The Question of German Guilt”, Karl Jaspers examined the metaphysical aspects of collective guilt. Though calling for de-Nazification of German post-war society, he did not accept the legitimacy of a future generation’s guilt over atrocities committed in the past. “There is no such thing as a national character extending to every single member of a nation…A people cannot perish heroically, cannot be a criminal, cannot act morally or immorally; only its individual can do so.”, wrote Jaspers. Despite these persuasive lines, Curak stated that, “a culture of denial is still the leading paradigm of Serbian social cohesion”; an extremely damaging account when put into the context of the struggle to build the spirit of tolerance and reconciliation which Bosnia-Herzegovina badly needs.

Bosniak politicians are also reluctant to admit that the so-called Bosnia-Herzegovina Army committed crimes against non-Bosniaks. This victimhood narrative is also accompanied with hate speech too. One illustration is the statement by Ejup Ganić, who recently told a Canadian radio station, CBC Radio One, “more Serbs died in automobile accidents during the war than from Bosniak bullets”.

The point should be to develop a narrative that is not poetic (i.e. based on falsehoods), but literal (i.e., based on the facts). The point should also be to have good faith whilst facing problems. Bad faith produces a cycle of new violence and hatred, magnifying poetic truths about constant victimhood. It should be noted here that an absolute truth does not exist. It is always relative, conditional and contextual.

Comparing the incomparable

This established narrative – which focused almost exclusively on Bosniaks, and to a lesser extent Croats, as the only victims and ignored the complexities of the context – was relayed by most mainstream Western media. This distorted narrative served as a basis for Bosniaks, and partly for Croats, to develop their own and specific narratives; detrimental for Bosnia-Herzegovina and its extremely fragile society.

The 1970 image of then West German chancellor, Willy Brandt, falling to his knees at a memorial paying tribute to Jews killed in the Warsaw ghetto was used countless times by architects of the Bosniak narrative; representing a perfect example of comparing the incomparable. Variations of this comparison can be condensed into the sentence, “waiting for a Serb Willy Brandt?”

Recently we witnessed a disappointing and shameful incident in Sarajevo. Parents, close relatives and friends of JNA soldiers killed in Dobrovoljacka street, on May 3, 1992, gathered to commemorate the event, but were verbally attacked by Bosniak war veterans, who shouted “Assassins and Chetniks!”. Four years ago, when this gathering first occurred, Stjepan Kljujic, then a member of the Bosnia-Herzegovina Presidency, remarked that “this practice looks like as if the Nazi SS officers have decided to visit Auschwitz to pay homage to slain Jews.” Such a comparison compares the incomparable.

Another example of this phenomenon is the comparison of the siege of Sarajevo with that of Leningrad. If only numbers matter, not to mention the great psychical suffering Leningrad’s inhabitants experienced (including cases of cannibalism) then any comparison is inappropriate. Many historians and sociologists agree that Leningrad was the deadliest siege in the humankind history, with some 650,000 people having died. While Leningrad was under total blockade, this was not the case with Sarajevo, with the famous Sarajevo tunnel – built under the Sarajevo airport runway and dubbed with a cryptic acronym, DB. Indeed, for many Sarajevans who spent entire war in this besieged city (including myself), the DB also symbolized the black market and wartime profiteering. “The internationalization of the siege, which aimed to end conflict, paradoxically helped to perpetuate it by becoming incorporated into the war economy”, wrote Peter Andreas in his book, “Blue Helmets and Black Markets: The Business of Survival in the Siege of Sarajevo”.

Closing remarks

“Do Muslim victims deserve a minute’s silence? They deserve a century’s silence”. This was put up on posters carried by young protesters in Sarajevo on October 2001. It is still unknown who coined these inflammatory lines, but the purpose is quite clear – to promote and foster the victimhood narrative. A key question is how to deal with conflicting memories? The answer should be – to try to come to terms with the past.

An initiative to create a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) – modelled on the South African example – was launched shortly after the Dayton Peace Agreement, and then renewed in 2000. To date, however, all attempts have failed. Serbs and Croats expressed suspicion on the likely stereotyping or categorizing of people into good and bad, whilst Bosniaks were preoccupied with the numbers of victims.The Coalition for REKOM, a regional gathering of civil society organizations, having learned the lessons of TRCs, decided to abandon the “truth and reconciliation” syntagm, replacing it with “fact-finding”. Bosniaks were, in particular, against this change for well-known reasons; a fact that is clearly illustrated by the number of signatures supporting REKOM in Banja Luka, which by far outnumbers those collected in Sarajevo.

In the introduction to “Confronting the Yugoslav Controversies: A Scholar’s Initiative (Central European Studies)”, co-edited by Charles Ingrao, used the term “inconvenient facts” to describe those facts removed from the history textbooks. Since Bosnia-Herzegovina significantly differs from other states emerging from the former Yugoslavia, so “inconvenient facts” differ too. Unfortunately, wartime narratives continue to compete on post-Dayton Bosnia-Herzegovina.Unlike the narratives of Bosnian Serbs and Bosnian Croats, which are mostly derived from narratives of their respective motherlands, the Bosniak narrative is explicit and resolute in terms of what they are struggling for – to preserve the unified country, as the only place they have to live. Bosniaks must accept, however, that Bosnia-Herzegovina is not only their country and power sharing – which has existed since its medieval period, to Ottoman and Habsburg rule, to the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, to Tito’s Yugoslavia, and finally to the post-Dayton Bosnia-Herzegovina – must be respected.

This country desperately needs a kind of common narrative, as a tool of better communication and mutual understanding. Otherwise, we will continue discussing the same controversies for another twenty years, or even longer. And probably, by then, as divided peoples and a partitioned state.

Dusan Babic is a Sarajevo-based media and political analyst.