I will not write about facts concerning the crimes committed in my hometown of Prijedor or in the rest of Bosnia and Herzegovina. These facts are already readily available, just as numerous testimonies and verdicts are.
One is able to access the names of victims and perpetrators. We know about the crime scenes, we know about the mass graves, we know about the procedures. In short, we know about the atrocities that marked the early ’90s in this country.
Having no knowledge of these things is but a choice. By making this choice, one opts for ignoring a vital link in the development of a society all of us now live in, whether we want to or not.
The final verdict in the case against Radovan Karadžić once again turns the spotlight on war crimes, murder, deportation, rape, ethnic cleansing and genocide. In fact, these issues have never been left out of public discourse. Virtually everyone has offered their opinion on these matters and has taken part in the interpretation thereof. However, in most cases this has been done without a basic understanding of law, military strategy, sociology or ethics.
What has rarely been discussed however, is accountability, guilt, and the processes a deeply traumatized society is required to go through on the rocky road to recovery.
When mass crimes were carried out in Prijedor, I was nearly three years old. I was not old enough to perceive these as a crime, not old enough to make sense of the tectonic shifts that were bound to alter the environment I grew up in forever.
Children adapt to changing circumstances quite well. While numerous friends of my parents left Prijedor, I chastised no one about this situation; after our teacher told us that we should not hang out with Muslims, I did not ask any questions either; when I found myself receiving my education in an ethnically cleansed class, my silence continued. I was a kid, a kid adapting to societal developments, regardless of whether they were in line with the “customs of war” or not.
We received internet access in 1999. The first thing I did online as a 10-year-old boy was to search for my hometown using Google.
I was shocked. All of the first-page results included photographs showing mass crimes. My subconscious was aware of everything, yet it was my consciousness that was hit by a crisis.
A myriad of questions popped up in my head. It caved in, it downright caved in — this perennial narrative revolving around us being the victims of some imaginary ghosts of war. From that point on, I started inquiring. Sometimes I would be given satisfying answers, other times the elders would tell me I was too young.
I tried to deal with these unanswered questions through philosophy and ethics, disciplines I had always been interested in. Fortunately, I was developing an immunity to all forms of injustice. I set out to formulate principles I would adhere to even to this day.
Ethnic cleansing induced my moral expansion. If only all of us were as lucky.
Having been privileged to be regarded as a Serb in a Serb territory, I enjoyed the luxury of being able to survive. I was taught about Serb victims, the Nemanjić dynasty and Dušan’s Empire. I read poems and fiction written by Serb authors — most of them male.
I was a part of a system that once again decided to wipe out substantial parts of its culture and of its very being. I needed a lot of time in order to make up for what I had missed, even when it came to the tiniest of details. Hence, I doubt that I will ever manage to brush up on every single one of these missing fragments.
Even less will I be able to compensate for all the people who were notably missing from my surroundings, even though I have never come to know them. Day in, day out, their presence can be felt nevertheless. I miss the exiled, I miss the humiliated, I miss the ones deleted from the system. This society and our entire civilization misses them, and it does so with much dread.
This is exactly why every verdict and conclusion of each and every trial, within various institutions, offers us a fresh opportunity to fill the voids in the osteoporotic skeleton of our society, no matter how cosmetic these amends might be.
Not only will the final verdict against Radovan Karadžić admonish us anew, but it will also give us another chance to seize a moment in time so that we can reflect. In this way, our crippled society might be in a position to achieve catharsis.
And it is not only catharsis that matters. It is forgiveness, shame and responsibility, either in the sense proposed by Karl Jaspers — in terms of growing as a moral society based on one’s past failures and actions — or in any other sense. We should use this moment for the sake of bringing back dignity both to the deceased and to the living.
I hope we will not ruin this chance like we have done the previous ones.
Feature image from the annual memorial in Prijedor. Image from Nikola Kuridza’s private archive, adapted by Besnik Bajrami.