Titular noticias

Svetlana Broz: The relevance of documenting Peace in the Balkans

Domingo 18 Marzo 2012

An apparently impossible story: multiethnic and community peace in the Balkans

By: Cristina Ávila-Zesatti - Corresponsal de Paz
Translation: Fiona Kirton

More than ten years ago, on the 24th March 1999, allied NATO forces (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) began the first “humanitarian offensives” in the Balkans, which had been embroiled since 1991 in an ethnic conflict that shook the world, still haunted by the ghost of the Second World War.

In 1992, Svetlana Broz (born 1955 in Belgrade) was working as a cardiologist at the Military Academy in the former Yugoslavia which, already suffering the first clashes of the brutal civil war, would end up splitting into complex fragments.

Moved by her desire to offer medical assistance, Svetlana signed up as a volunteer and went to where the fighting was taking place. However, once there, the reality of the situation drew her back to the world of journalism and her initial aim –  to cure her patients’ physical injuries – was replaced by a much greater task: to set about healing the very heart of a divided country. How? By telling a story of peace, overshadowed up to now by the violence of the war.

Good People in an Evil Time

In amongst the racist barbarity of the war, Svetlana came across innumerable stories of victims who in reality were heroes.

People who had risked their own lives to save their “supposed” enemies and had spurned the hate propaganda put out by the political classes, the military and the media…People who had individually confronted the fear and destructive forces and had responded to a more deeply-ingrained feeling: solidarity.

And so with the war at its height, but with the idea of “the possibility of peace” fixed firmly in her mind, Svetlana travelled six thousand kilometres across the former Yugoslavia, a journey which lasted six years, during which time she sought out and documented stories of Bosnians, Albanians, Kosovans and Serbians who had saved and helped each other, while Catholic, Muslim and Orthodox militias fought each other in the worst conflict seen in Europe since Nazi Germany.

Finally, in 1999, following that first idea, she published the book, Good People in an Evil Time: Portraits of Complicity and Resistance in the Bosnian War.
Originally published in Bosnian, Serbian and Croatian, it has now been translated into six languages (English, French, Czech, Italian, Spanish and Polish). The book contains 99 different stories told through testimonials, of ordinary people within whom the internal bonds of friendship and humanity prevailed over the thunderous extremes of war.

Corresponsal de Paz: How did your book, Good People in an Evil Time, come about?

Svetlana Broz: Right at the start of the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1992, I decided to go where the fighting was with the idea of helping, even just one person. And there, working in makeshift places, I started to notice that my patients – who belonged to all of the different ethnic groups that were involved in the fighting at that time – were telling me about how they'd survived, and many of them had been saved by people who belonged to groups they were fighting against in the war.
So, the following year (1993), I decided to tackle a different job, not now as a doctor, but documenting those stories that nobody knew anything about because the media only reported on the conflict; stories that I wouldn't have been able to tell working as a doctor under the obligation of patient confidentiality. I started right at the beginning of the hostilities, because nobody knew then that the war was going to last ten years.

CdP: You believe that human beings have within their power the possibility to choose between good and evil. Is it really possible to think and act peacefully even in the middle of a war?

First of all, let’s remember that every war that’s broken out in the world has broken out in a place where there was peace beforehand. I’m convinced that with time, people who've lived through recent wars will come to realize how much they were manipulated by the politicians, the military and the people at the top…It’s these people, driven by their own interests, who incite fear and hatred amongst ordinary people. That’s why I think that humanity needs to learn to not just blindly believe in those who choose the path of evil…that’s the only way, with what I call “civil courage”, strengthening individual courage, that we’ll be able to stop this mistake happening again: the great mistake of war.

CdP: The former Yugoslavia was left divided after a decade of fighting, and people still felt a great deal of resentment. How did the people who read your book react to it talking about "the good"?

S.B: It was very interesting. I thought that after everything that had happened, nobody would be interested in these stories, but fortunately, not only was the book very well received, but it turned out to be "therapeutic"...through these real testimonials, people saw that the hate wasn't universal, as we’d been led to believe. My book became a kind of “road to reconciliation”, especially amongst those who'd been most affected by the war, amongst the most badly wounded, and therefore the angriest.
Many people have said to me that after reading these stories, they were able to change the way they behave towards other ethnic groups a little...all of this is not down to me, but to the real testimonials that I just made public, because nobody was looking at the peace that existed within a country that at that moment was falling apart. But it's precisely in the middle of the "evil" that somebody needs to give a voice to the true heroes, who dare to turn their backs on the institutional hate...their struggle was very important, but nobody knew anything about it. And if nobody knows about something, it's like it never existed.

CdP: There’s an almost universal notion that the different ethnic groups of the former Yugoslavia feel a fierce hatred towards one another, but you’ve decided to show that that’s not the case…

My own memory is that of a country where people lived together in peace. We were neighbours, friends, relatives; people intermarried…without worrying about the faith or origin of the other. The reality is that the war didn’t start amongst the people, but because politicians with nationalistic and racist ideas started to incite hatred, to highlight differences between people…differences which hadn’t previously been important to us. The politicians (and not the people) were responsible for the first murders and that’s what interested the local press most, and the idea of division grew, then the international press arrived and they just echoed the same images, the same ideas...and you well know that if a lie is repeated a thousand times, in the end it becomes reality, or at least, it starts to look like the truth.

CdP: Or maybe the division and racial discrimination was already there, just waiting to be let out. Do you think that's possible?

S.B: The people of Yugoslavia had lived and coexisted for many years with feelings of fear and distrust since the end of the Second World War, and so it was relatively easy to make people suspicious of each other, even though it was all lies invented by the people in power, at least at the beginning of the war.
The press also played a decisive role, because journalists were used by the politicians for their own interests and the journalists published stories that suited those who wanted to see the breakup; and so people who had previously been friends and neighbours started to be suspicious of each other, they started to believe that there was some ancestral hatred between them, and little by little the ties that united us were being broken, even within families.
In Yugoslavia at that time, about 27% of marriages were mixed, people from different ethnic groups who had decided to spend their lives together: consequently, there were thousands of children who’d be born into families from both ethnic groups…the price of this war was very high, not just in terms of the lives it cost, but in broken bonds, which existed before.
The war was a terrible reality, but it’s also the case that before it, we lived alongside each other, respecting the differences, celebrating the festivals of all the different cultures, ethnic groups, religions…because the former Yugoslavia didn’t have just three or four ethnic groups…we think that at least 140 different groups lived together here.

CdP: You say that the press played and important role. How would you describe the effects of both the national and international reporting during the conflict in the Balkans?

S.B: With a few exceptions, I would have to say that it had a negative effect on the conflict that was developing there. First of all, the local media reported too much on the political classes and very little on the people. Journalists were being used from at least five years before the outbreak of hostilities, so people were getting the idea that there was conflict between ethnic groups. It was at that time that the different groups started to be separated into potential attackers and potential victims.
With regard to the international press, although there were some attempts, in general the trail of blood was much more attractive to them…and if you only talk about the negative aspects, you're not painting an accurate picture of what's happening, because there's more to it than that, always.
Unfortunately, I think the conventional media is always more interested in conflict...in portraying the "evil"...but sometimes these negative reports just increase tension if you don't tell the whole story: there are always people, organisations, struggles, testimonies of people who are fighting, not for the war, but against that war, in favour of peace.
It’s likely that the stories I tell in my book (Good People in an Evil Time, 2002) would never have been told by anyone and would have been left in the shadows, without offering the opportunity of reconciliation, of healing the wounds...here in Bosnia-Herzegovina, like in all wars, there are always people who didn't want war and fought for peace.

CdP: But if we read recent news reports, it would seem that there's another conflict imminent in the Balkans.  Do you think there is that risk?

I’m sure that many politicians who were around during the war in 1995 weren't happy with the lines that were drawn up, and some of them would like another war to break out so that they could realize their own dreams of greatness…to have a bigger Serbia, or a greater Croatia. But not amongst the people (again), I don’t see there’s any risk right now.

It’s true that there are still many wounds, and some of them still unhealed, because the international community also made a lot of mistakes when they were here, supposedly to help bring peace to the region…that’s why today, the same mistakes are being repeated and there are wounds that won't heal, which makes reconciliation more difficult. I ask myself if we’re not learning any lessons in the world...I ask myself: after Rwanda (1994) and Bosnia-Herzegovina (1995-99), how many more genocides have to be committed before the international community learns how to intervene more effectively in conflicts?

CdP: As well as being a journalist, you are also a doctor…let’s imagine that the former Yugoslavia is a human body. How would you assess its health?

S.B: I would say that before the war, we were healthy, but the mind, i.e. its politicians, was damaged; that’s why the whole body suffered such a catastrophe: because of the bad decisions of an unhealthy mind...unfortunately, a mind that doesn't work properly can do a lot of damage to the rest of the body.
However, continuing this metaphor, I think that the people would be the body's heart...and the heart keeps beating, and it's still beating strongly today, and it’s trying to repair the body. Because the heart is usually more resistant, more attached to life…even when the brain stops functioning in a body, the heart can go on living…but yes, obviously there are wounds and after-effects, and there’s a road we have to travel to recover.

CdP: And what steps are being taken today towards reconciliation in the Balkans?

S.B: Well, after any war, big or small, people have to take time and distance to recover from traumatic experiences, but little by little, people’s reactions and attitudes have started to mellow and many people, the majority of people, are trying to return to their lives, get back to their little routines and to normality, that's what most of us want after living through a terrible experience.
Some people can do it by themselves and others undoubtedly need help and guidance to recover; that’s what I'm also trying to do now and that’s why I decided to set up the NGO, because here, organisations have a fundamental part to play in directing those experiences towards the normal feeling that emerges after a war: which is basically the feeling of wanting to get away from the pain. People who have lived through war, they're usually people who are determined to go on living, and sometimes that effort needs to be guided to help them keep that spirit.

“I never believed that war was possible…”

After the publication of her book, Svetlana Broz decided to take a definitive step towards the search for true reconciliation between the opposing ethnic groups within the former Yugoslavia.

In 2001, she founded the Non-Governmental Organisation Gariwo (Gardens of the Righteous Worldwide), which seeks to pay homage to what Svetlana calls “civil courage”, in other words, the courage of those individuals who oppose hate, humiliation, torture and murder of innocent people.

In an effort to lend power to this individual effort and turn it into something collective, the NGO Gariwo, founded by Svetlana, provides civil education and creates spaces to bring about multiethnic reconciliation in Bosnia-Herzegovina; beyond its borders, the first “Garden of the Righteous" has already been opened in Italy.

Broz, doctor and journalist, also travels around the world giving lectures on the concept of “civil courage” as a way of increasing humanitarian feeling in the world.

Between 2005 and 2008, she gave over 700 lectures at universities and international organisations, the central idea of which keeps the spirit of that initial idea that she had back 1992 working as a volunteer cardiologist: that the story of peace during conflicts must also be heard.

Svetlana’s achievement takes on a different dimension when one associates her surname with that of her grandfather, Marshal Josip Broz Tito, leader of the unified Yugoslavia, who defeated Hitler and challenged the supremacy of the former Soviet Union. A man of contradictions who some remember for his egalitarian politics and others for the iron fist with which he ruled as President for Life (1945-1980).

The pacifist granddaughter of Tito prefers not to talk about the rights and wrongs of his actions because she admits that she's "not objective", and because she wants to disassociate her parentage from the ideals that motivate her now.

One thing that is certain is that Marshal Tito achieved his dream of a unified, multiethnic nation…a dream that was shattered in pieces barely ten years after his death…perhaps Svetlana inherited from this dream the conviction that it is possible to coexist…after all, the blood of various ethnic groups runs in the veins of this family.

The Many Authors of Evil in the Former Yugoslavia
The war in the Balkans that took place between 1991 and 1999 is now seen as the worst conflict in Europe since the Second World War (1939-1945). The fighting resulted in something like 200,000 deaths and lead to the displacement of thousands of people to more secure areas.

After the death of Marshal Josip Broz, the rise to power of Slobodan Milosevic resulted in a series of internal splits and the beginning of a hate campaign against other ethnic groups, which escalated into what the international community admitted was “ethnic cleansing”, with serious and blatant violations of human rights and of international law.

In reality, although Milosevic didn’t rise to the presidency of the former Yugoslavia until 1997, the clashes had already started in the early 1990s, specifically, in 1991 with the bombing of Vukovar and Dubrovnik by Serbia. Up to that point, the international community had passed it off as an "internal conflict" and it wasn't until 1992 that the UN Security Council imposed economic sanctions on Serbia.

In 1993, actions committed against the Kosovan Albanian population in the “internal conflict” reached atrocious proportions. As the lawyer and author of Crimes Against Humanity, Geoffrey Robertson points out, were it not for the images that the press started broadcasting, the international community would have been much slower to react and intervene.

That same year saw the first threat of military intervention from NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) in a bid to “pacify the region”, and the UN Security Council took the decision to create the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague.

In 1996, The Kosovo Liberation Army entered the scene. Their attacks were intended to draw attention to the ”internal conflict” and attract international help, although three more years would pass before, in 1999, NATO decided to deploy a thousand military aircraft and sixty thousand troops and launch a “humanitarian offensive” in the Balkans. The conflict thus took on an international character.    

Both the NATO intervention and the proceedings of the International Criminal Tribunal were plagued with problems from beginning to end. After an ill-conceived bombing campaign that had little tactical benefit, international forces became the object of fierce criticism and were accused of themselves violating international criminal law.

Meanwhile, the Tribunal, established in The Hague to prosecute war crimes committed during the break up of Yugoslavia, took two years to arrest its first suspect, who was far from being a “big fish” in the strategy of ethnic cleansing. The suspect was a low-ranking soldier, much removed from any intellectual responsibility for the crimes he was charged with. Nonetheless, his story offers a good illustration of what happened within the Serbian community.

Dusko Tadic was the owner of a café where people from all the different ethnic groups would meet, until 1990 when nationalist propaganda turned him into a fervent follower of the ideas of Slobodan Milosevic, which advocated Serbian superiority.

In Crimes Against Humanity, Geoffrey Robertson explains: “It is the tale of a café in Kozara which changed over eighteen months from a happy multiethnic meeting place to a den resounding to the racist obscenities”, fuelled by the political classes.

It took years for the majority of the true strategists behind the ethnic cleansing to be brought to justice. However, many of them never found themselves on the accused bench of the International Criminal Tribunal.

After the armistice signed in 1999, many of the true perpetrators of war crimes were a long way from being detained. In 2002, the International Crisis Group (ICG) confirmed that in Serbia, around twenty thousand people who devised and directed some of the worst massacres committed in the Balkans during the conflict, were still able to go about their lives unhindered.

Different sources estimate that the intervention of the NATO “peace keeping forces” caused the deaths of between 1,500 and 5,000 civilians in the region. Meanwhile, the chief strategist of the ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia, Slobodan Milosevic, was brought before the International Tribunal only in 2001, and died five years later. He defended himself, pleaded innocent and was never officially declared guilty by the court.

On the 21st March, the UN observes the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. On the 24th March 1999, the “internal war” in the former Yugoslavia became an international conflict involving various national armed groups and more than 19 different countries. Slobodan Milosevic died peacefully at The Hague on 11th March 2006, victim of a heart attack.

It's now a decade since war broke out in what was once Yugoslavia, a country now fragmented that, before its break up, was composed of Serbs, Croats, Slavic Muslims, Slovenes, Albanians, Macedonians, Yugoslavs, Montenegrins, Hungarians, Kosovans, Turks, Romanians, Vlachs, Jews and Gypsies.

Many of these groups have formed separate nations, some with tacit recognition from the international community, which hopes finally to see peace in this part of southern Europe.

As the lawyer, Geoffrey Robertson says, speaking of Slobodan Milosevic: “the release of white doves over his grave provided a surreal, if unintended, promise that his burial might bring peace at last to the Balkans”.

Corresponsal de Paz - © Copyright 2012

Traducción hecha por Fiona Kirton
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