Prof. Borislava Manojlovic
20 June 2015
After a long flight for each of us, eleven students, one professor, and one coordinator met up in Belgrade, Serbia. We entered the heart of the former Yugoslavia, 16 years after that last major violent conflict, to study how this society deals with a contentious past. As I rode the bus from the airport to the city center, I thought of the things I had read about in preparation for class, about how a genocide had happened in this area of Europe, led by Milosevic in this capital city, how Serbian groups responded by taking over the parliament building and eventually sending Milosevic to the Hague secretly, and how some Serbs see themselves as victims of NATO’s capricious application of justice by surviving over two months of bombing where innocent civilians were not all spared. I was eager to learn if these narratives I had read about held up to conversations and presentations I would soon participate in.
Jetlagged, we started slow. Milos, our tour guide, took us to all the great Belgrade sites, including Kalemegdan Park, where stands an ancient fortress 20 centuries old. Its walls had seen battles from the Romans, to the Ottomans Empire, to WWI and Nazi bombing in WWII. Its position atop a hill commands a breathtaking view of the Sava and Danube Rivers. Its green river banks and blue water observed from our vantage point on the battlements took my breath away.
The city is full of graffiti and coffee bars. Its churches, full of worshippers and beautiful gold depictions of saints and Savior. The national cathedral, St. Sava’s church, is a living building still being constructed. It is named after a King’s son and monk who secured an autocephalous church for Serbia. It is a symbol of nationalism and freedom. The first plans for it were laid in the early 1800s right when the centuries of Ottoman occupation was thrown off. The chosen site was where a Turkish leader had carried the remains of St. Sava and burned and desecrated them. The Serbs are feisty, Milos said, so they are building a cathedral over that site and making a desecrated site a holy site. Construction ceased in the early 20th century after the Balkan wars and the World Wars took place. Communism after that stopped construction further, and then it was begun again as communism was ending in 1985.
St. Sava’s is unfinished. It feels like the kind of cathedral that used to be made centuries ago when religion was more important to most people. It is completely paid for by private funds. The floor is concrete and rough, the walls are inlaid with marble, but are covered in plastic because most of the rest of the walls are waiting for 30 mosaic artisans from Russia to come spend 12 years covering the walls with their beautiful, dying art. Services are held there. It is a symbol of being Serbian and of Christianity conquering (or at least not being conquered by) Islam in their country.
After settling into Belgrade, we started off one of the first nights at a play called The Shivering of the Rose. All in Serbian, we read the script beforehand but were blown away by the symbolism and powerful images and ideas portrayed. It was a play about remembering and honoring, and thereby coming to terms, with the disappeared all over the world, including in the former Yugoslavia. We watched as The Centuries Old Woman Who Saw It All cared for the relics of the dead, how she portrayed the death of the innocents and horrible events such as selling organs on the black market. She listed each person, name by name, and responded to their fate over and over again, “disappeared…disappeared…disappeared.” Eventually, the Centuries Old Woman Who Saw It All could not bear it any longer. She shed all her outer, ragtag clothing and all the outer world of the play changed dramatically as well. Both clothes and the world of the play were traded in for a new perspective, a white robe, new life, green branches growing out of the grave of the disappeared, reading their stories. She was joyfully dancing to the most alive and active violin music I have ever heard. The Centuries Old Woman remembered again all the disappeared and replied as their names were read off again, one by one, as, “present… present… present.” This act of remembering restored dignity to the disappeared. It seemed that remembering and honoring the disappeared helped create resolution and peace for a terrible event.
This play helped frame the question we were exploring in the class, how do post-conflict societies deal with their contentious past? Through class lecture and meeting with several leaders of NGOs, government offices, and international organizations, we explored this question.
One major theme was agency and responsibility. Seeing oneself as an actor with choices as well as taking responsibility for those choices were attitudes that you could read between the lines from leaders of different organizations. While visiting the Serbian governmental office for Serbia-Kosovo Cooperation, the official narrative of the Serbian government concerning Kosovo was presented. The narrative is pro-unification. Serbia wants Kosovo to remain a part of its sovereign territory and it does not recognize Kosovo as an independent country. The narrative seemed to evoke a victim mentality and of having less agency or responsibility for past actions. In the end, the official personally expressed optimism for the future. He said that those who are not optimistic left the region years ago. He would like to see Serbia united and live up to its former greatness in peace and lead the region once more.
Contrast this with an NGO in Pristina Kosovo, the Centre for Research, Documentation, and Publication (CRDP). Besa, a 30-something former national security advisor, spoke with energy and vitality about a present she was actively creating. She is vigorously working to create institutions and justice that Kosovo needs in order to be more firmly established as a democracy. She is an optimist. She thinks if you are not an optimist, you do not belong in Kosovo. Her vision of Kosovo was to continue to grow as a country. She never mentioned Serbia in relation to its claim on Kosovo. It was not important to her. She was focused on the future and the future was Kosovo as a country and she was choosing that future.
On the final day of class, we also learned about responsibility and who bears what responsibilities in conflict resolution. In a victim-offender relationship, we discussed their need for each other, that relationships must be healed in order to reach resolution, rather than violence simply stopping. Victims need acknowledgement, truth, and justice to move forward and offenders need forgiveness. Restoring these relationships is not the responsibility alone of the conflict parties. We learned that bystanders carry responsibility in conflict resolution. It is their responsibility to act as third parties and intervene, know each side well enough to be able to present an alternative narrative, and help each side gain what they need as victims and offenders and then move to new relationships to one another, just as the play moved to a new perspective and reality under the violin music.
Most organizations we spoke with were trying to play the part of this third party and all of us as conflict resolution students make up this group of bystanders with responsibility as well. Considering this role of responsibility to intervene was both empowering and focusing for me. As a potential conflict resolution practitioner, I am not just a third party nosing my way into others’ affairs. With respect, empathy, expertise, and as much on the ground knowledge as possible, I would be a third party with a responsibility to support and intervene to assist in conflict resolution. I and other bystanders have a duty to step in with humility, knowledge, and expertise to assist conflict parties in their resolution process. Up to that point, I had felt eager but awkward about applying what we are learning at GMU to real situations. I would like to help but did not know my role or responsibility if any. Considering this idea and seeing the valuable initiatives many third parties actively pursue, I felt empowered that there is a space and a responsibility to engage in conflict resolution as a bystander.
Some of the projects bystanders were engaging in to assist victims and offenders in dealing with a contentious past are a project called RECOM and a project called The Kosovo Memory Book, 1998-2000. RECOM is a civil society initiative across the former Yugoslavia to find all the names of those killed during the Balkan conflicts from 1990-2001 and catalogue detention sites. This is in an effort to acknowledge everyone in the conflict, answer basic fact finding questions, and begin the process toward reconciliation. Serbia Youth Initiative for Human Rights helps head this initiative. They work with their sister organizations in Kosovo, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, and Montenegro to collect signatures and support for this initiative. If enough support is levied, they will be able to initiate this conflict resolution action. In essence, this is a truth commission that allows all sides to tell their story, gain acknowledgement, tell truths, and be on the path for justice. 600,000 signatures have been gathered to date according to the Serbian chapter of Youth Initiative for Human Rights.
A second project enacted by bystanders is the Kosovo Memory Book. It is a database of all deaths that happened in the conflict between Serbia and Kosovo from 1998-2000. This project is undertaken by the NGO Centre for Humanitarian Law Centre in Pristina. They have logged over 13,000 interviews that catalogue deaths, location, manner, biographic information, and other forms of documentation in order to acknowledge and establish truth. They have published the deaths of those killed in 1998 in a large volume, each death taking up about 100-300 words. Their database is not open to the public because of the potential violent backlash that could result. However, their work is important for not forgetting the atrocities and seeking peace, acknowledgment, and some form of justice for victims on both sides.
This leads to the question of how is justice pursued? What kind of justice? If a choice is necessary between justice or peace, which are people in this region choosing? Every time a war criminal goes on trial in the Hague, some form of violence breaks out. So how is this information handled so it creates the least amount of resurgence of the conflict as possible?
Serbia and Kosovo are still answering these questions. One kind of justice is retributive, it seeks to punish the offender. Another is restorative, which seeks to restore the relationship of the victim and offender. There have not been enough efforts toward reconciliation to determine if a choice between peace or justice will be necessary. Time will tell as bystanders, victims, and perpetrators work to deal with a contentious past and create a peaceful present and future in Serbia and Kosovo.