Perspectives | War Crimes

Living with Milošević’s legacy means living voiceless for survivors

By - 23.07.2020

Three decades on, what will it take to put survivors above language of hate and division?

At the end of June, a couple of hundred people turned up at an annual gathering at Gazimestan, Kosovo, to mark Vidovdan. The Serbian Orthodox Church dedicated this day to Tzar Lazar, who — according to the myth of the Battle of Kosovo — sacrificed his life for all Serbs. 

In 1989, Slobodan Milošević, the former leader of Serbia and indicted war criminal who died in 2006 before the ICTY announced its verdict, had come to the very same place to give the speech that would mark the beginning of the end of Yugoslavia and of peaceful life in the region.  

Milošević’s speech was followed by bloody wars and mass crimes against civilians committed in more than one country; they included mass rapes, ethnic cleansing and genocide. 

For Milošević, the speech was the opportunity to officially launch a campaign of hate, which he and his associates (some of whom are named as part of the so-called joint criminal enterprise with him in the ICTY indictment) carefully prepared and planned for a number of years.

This language of hate spoken by people who were pushed into wars remains Milošević’s biggest legacy.

The media played a very important role in this campaign, transmitting messages created in political cabinets. These messages of hate could also be detected in the lyrics of popular music, in movies, even children’s programs, but also in horoscopes and all kinds of unexpected places.

The same methods were later used by all other politicians in the region who used nationalism to create the world of “us” and “them,” and to unite us in fear and hate. “Us” as permanent victims, and “them” as permanent villains. The hate speech became a language that we all still speak today. 

This language of hate spoken by people who were pushed into wars remains Milošević’s biggest legacy, and not even the ICTY found a way to deal with it.

Looking back, with so many established facts, we can clearly see that the main purpose of it for Milošević, as well as all the other nationalistic leaders, was to justify the crimes they orchestrated. 

Today, we can say they were successful since after almost 30 years we still hear and see propaganda, and we are kept separated based on divisions that pushed us into wars. One of the many enduring problems with this is that it removes any space for the voices of survivors, or any kind of dialogue.

Bosnian stories

Many examples can be found all over the region. Like the story from Višegrad, a town in eastern Bosnia that was “ethnically cleansed” in 1992 by the forces backed by Milošević and under the command of Radovan Karadžić, who is sentenced to life by the ICTY, and his army. 

At the end of each June, for over 25 years, people who survived the horrors of Višegrad talk about the famous stone bridge in this city that back in spring 1992 was red — covered with blood. 

On June 27, 1992, Milan Lukić, a notorious war criminal, and his unit called the White Eagles, ordered over 60 people (mostly women and children) to enter a house, sealed all the exits, and then set it ablaze. 

“I lost my entire family in Bikavac,” Esad Tufekčić said during another day of commemoration in Višegrad earlier this year. “In the house were my wife, 5-year-old daughter and a son who was less than 2 years old. After they made the torch, they destroyed what was left, and took everything with the truck somewhere. Until today we still do not know where. For 28 years.”

Lukić, who is now serving a life sentence in Estonia after being tried in the ICTY, was hiding for years from justice. While in hiding, the hate propaganda was building the myth about him as a hero who did everything to protect his nation. 

In reality — and that is what the court established — he was a cold blooded murderer, who has no remorse. 

The language of hate that they have learned to speak has kept them away from the truth.

I know a woman who was raped for over a month in a rape camp, Vilina Vlas, in Višegrad. Milan Lukić personally cut the throat of her 9-year-old son in front of her, and then took her and her 12-year-old daughter to a place where they were gangraped for weeks. Two of them are among five survivors from that place where over 200 women were held.  

In order to hide all these killers, what propaganda does is erase the stories of victims. Even today, many people who live in Višegrad have never heard Tufekčić’s story or those of these survivors of Vilina Vlas. 

It is not that hard to find them, but over the years, the language of hate that they have learned to speak has kept them away from the truth. 

It has been almost 30 years since the start of the first wars of the ’90s in Yugoslavia. Three decades in which people in our region have become experts in how to — and how not to — deal with the past.

Dealing with the past means — among other things — knowing the names of both perpetrators of the crimes and prosecuting them, as well as identifying the victims. It also requires the use of very clear language, based on facts, and to call those people who killed, killers; those who raped, rapists; those who tortured, torturers. 

Recently, K2.0 hosted the world renowned scholar and environmental activist Vandana Shiva, who said that by naming the crime — like genocide — and naming the perpetrators of the crimes, the victims take the power.

Because the language of hate has been successful in “romanticizing” the term “war criminal,” creating a myth that those who committed mass crimes did so to protect “us” from “them.” That is why all over the region we can see people who identify with criminals. Remember all those, “We are all…” followed by the name of a person indicted for war crimes. 

All the while, the survivors, the dead and the missing, and their families, are broadly forgotten — brought up only to be utilized when serving some other purpose.

Establishing the facts

One of the ways to help ensure the stories of victims and the voices of survivors is heard is through war crimes trials.

The ICTY conducted over 160 trials against individuals from all post-Yugoslav states, and domestic courts have also handled cases. We all know that it is far from an ideal institution, but at least it gives a ground for everybody, not only people from the region, to look into the facts and use them to start learning how to live with the legacies of the past. 

Kosovo, where a relatively low number of court cases against perpetrators of war crimes have been held to date, has a chance to learn from other countries in the region. 

As with the ICTY, the Specialist Chambers is an imperfect system, surrounded by problems and controversies. Just like with the ICTY, the way the Specialist Chambers was formed, under intense international pressure, means the process lacks legitimacy in the eyes of many citizens; many Kosovars also feel that its specific remit is discriminatory due to its focus on crimes allegedly committed by people from one ethnic group — Albanians.

These “almost 100 people” are still just a number mentioned in the indictment.

But for all of the criticism, indictments by the Specialist Prosecution are an opportunity to contribute to the process of facing the past — just like with all the other war crimes courts all over the region. 

People who are indicted should face the court and have a right to defend themselves. Survivors should have the opportunity to have their testimonies heard.

The latest case involves Kosovo’s President, Hashim Thaçi, who according to the Specialist Prosecution could be responsible for crimes including the murder of almost 100 people — he strongly denies all the accusations. 

Perhaps inevitably after a sitting president had a war crimes indictment raised against him, it is Thaçi who has been under the spotlight in recent weeks — these “almost 100 people” are still just a number mentioned in the indictment. 

To hear their stories, or the stories about the crimes that were committed by somebody, the public will have to wait for a trial, if the indictment is confirmed by the court. And then, we will all have to hope — and insist — that the media will report about the crimes and the victims, and not only the defence, as has happened in previous war crimes cases.

It is important to emphasize once again that it is an individual — Hashim Thaçi — who is facing justice for alleged crimes.

In the meantime, Thaçi’s smooth media message may be about embracing justice and judicial processes, but like many of those who have been indicted for war crimes in the region before him, he has also decided to hide behind the collective — to put on the cape of a hero, while re-invoking division. His decision to immediately change his Facebook picture to a KLA emblem, before issuing any response to news of the Specialist Prosecution’s indictment, sent out a clear message of the narrative he intended to construct.

It is important to emphasize once again that it is an individual — Hashim Thaçi — who is facing justice for alleged crimes. His attempt to frame it as the KLA — or the Albanian people — that is potentially set to face trial is a naked ploy to win popular support and to avoid the scrutiny that the judicial process is intended to bring.

And while it ensures that all the public attention is diverted to indictees and the indictment, like in many other cases before, it also means survivors are left aside, forgotten almost, and silenced. Hidden away once again behind the language of “us” and “them.”

This language has already proved to be a perfect hiding place for others accused of war crimes in the past. It justifies and denies even the ugliest crimes, while shifting the blame from the accused to those who lost their lives. Myths are in the roots of this language, while reality is pushed aside, or even erased. 

In some cases, similar language has ultimately made proven killers into heroes; in all cases, it has made the experience of survivors disappear. 

The indictment against Thaçi has not even been confirmed by a court, but the parallel with previous individuals who have been accused of war crimes in the region is in the narrative that he is trying to frame — that of a hero who is prepared to sacrifice himself for a greater cause.

Whatever the outcome of any potential trial, this is a narrative that once again silences survivors.

In the meantime, in order to give a voice back to all those who survived war crimes, we have to start changing the language we speak, or we will be doomed to live forever in hate. Just as Milošević wanted. 

Erasing the voices of the survivors, and glorifying culprits and those alleged to have committed crimes, does not provide a good basis for dealing with the past. 

Some would say that political will is needed, and that can certainly help. But I believe, based on different examples from the region, but also internationally, that the people who wish to live a peaceful life have the biggest role to play, by engaging in dialogue amongst each other, based on facts and arguments, and by pushing the language of hate from our lives. 

Feature image: Majlinda Hoxha / K2.0.

  • 05 Aug 2020 - 22:30 | Jon:

    Hi Nidzara, My name is Jon and I am an associate professor in instructional technology in the U.S. I was taking some time off before the next semester begins and decided to watch the movie, 'The Load' which focuses on a truck driver in Serbia during the late 90's NATO bombings, if you haven't seen it. I started reading and trying to find out more about the conditions and people and who was fighting who, and came across your article which I'm thankful for because most of the other items were wiki's. Ashamedly, our news here is sorely lacking when it comes to world news. Worse, we need to pay more attention to what others are going through around the world and hear the people and their stories. Your research interests in your bio are very engaging and I wish you the best.