Debating denial

Discussing the topic of accountability for the war crimes committed in the former Yugoslavia is important for Serbian society, writes Slavenka Drakulic. Summing up a debate around her article “Why I have not returned to Belgrade” in the Serbian newspaper Politika, she notes: “Many citizens of both Serbia and Croatia seem to believe that if they all just shut up for long enough, the problem will disappear. But it won’t.”

The Serbian newspaper Politika announces on its front page that it is the oldest daily in the Balkans. It has been publishing continuously since January 1904, with interruptions only during the First and the Second World Wars. Many distinguished writers have appeared in the paper, among them the Nobel Prize laureate Ivo Andric.

Politika has always been considered a quality newspaper, even when editorials were too close to the government. When Politika publishes something, it is not by a sheer coincidence. Nor is the choice of how to tackle a certain issue unimportant. Therefore, when Politika published my essay “Why I have not returned to Belgrade”, originally published in Eurozine, in its weekly cultural supplement on 28 February, it was a calculated decision. I like to believe that the intention was to use my text as a trigger for a discussion about Serbia’s responsibility for the wars and war crimes committed in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo. A debate much needed, since responsibility is not an issue in Serbia at all. The general attitude is denial, which is exactly what I wrote in my text.

If this was the intention, my article fulfilled its task. The reaction to it was vehement and dismissive. On Politika‘s website there soon appeared more than fifty readers comments, some anonymous and some not, saturated with the whole palette of negative feelings, ranging from cynicism to the explicit accusation that I nurture hatred even against “unborn Serbian children”. In addition, four comments had been commissioned in advance, written by public figures, artists and intellectuals.

The next issue of the cultural supplement – the whole affair started to look like a soap opera – featured yet another response to my article, written by Serbian writer and publisher Natasha Markovic. Reacting to my suggestion that young people in Serbia who complain about how difficult it is to get visas should perhaps ask themselves (and their parents) why this is, Markovic writes: “someone who doesn’t know cannot be held responsible!” Well, no one said that they should be. What they can be held responsible for, though, is for not asking, which was my point.

Anyway, Markovic made clear that due to my “hate speech” and “racism” I am not welcome in Belgrade – otherwise “an enticing multiethnic city, a real paradise for writers”. Her bitter piece, full of self-pity, repeated what many commentators had already said in fewer words: that I am malevolent, a mercenary, that first I should have written about what happened to Serbs in Krajina (that is, Croatia) in the 1990s. Clearly, there are readers of Politika who don’t know about my criticism of Croatian nationalism – which is understandable enough.

Judging by the reactions I have read, it seems that the Serbian public is running around in circles, incapable of shedding its aggressive self-defensiveness. These reactions made one thing clear: the vast majority of the readers commenting on the text are not ready to address and discuss the issue of responsibility for wars and war crimes. By this I mean nothing more than the ability to face this responsibility, if not necessarily accept it – after all, this is a process that takes a long time. The word “guilt” I did not even mention…

However, Natasa Markovic’s text was not the end of the discussion. When it looked as the opposition in Serbia was either too sleepy or not interested enough in the topic to raise their voices, an extraordinary, critical text appeared. It was written by Mirjana Miocinovic, a translator, essayist and literary critic well known for her resistance to the politics of nationalism and war. Doing brilliantly what badly needed to be done in order to conclude this story, she analysed reactions to my text. In this way, Miocinovic held a mirror up to the face of the Serbian public.

The good news about the debate in Politika is that Serbs were, in a way, forced to say something about their accountability, even if they were mostly defensive about it. Opening up this topic for discussion is more important for them than for “outsiders” like myself. If my text helped, so much the better. Never mind that in order to speak about it, they had to spit on me – I am used to that from my Croatian compatriots, too.

The bad news is that the quality of the arguments, tainted by ideology, prejudice and lies, was very poor. However, lets hope that this is just the beginning.

What about the reaction outside Serbia? It seems significant that the Croatian press did not devote a single word to the soap opera in Politika. Not because Croats don’t care what their neighbours have to say about this issue – but because they themselves demonstrate a similar kind of resistance to criticism when it comes to the responsibility of their soldiers for war crimes. Many citizens of both Serbia and Croatia seem to believe that if they all just shut up for long enough, the problem will disappear. But it won’t.

Published 3 April 2009
Original in English
First published by Eurozine

© Slavenka Drakulic / Eurozine

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