Serbia is a Nicely Packaged Bomb

Knowledge of what happened denied, victims concealed, ignorance of   victims’ names – these are the factors that constantly encourage new crimes. Hence my constant preoccupation with putting a name to the victims, because a name can serve in the Balkans as an instrument to prevent denial, lies, manipulation of numbers. * The Office of the War Crimes Prosecutor has been tasked with the protection of  the former criminal state by protecting its military generals. Today, this institution has no strategy to prosecute  war crimes. Instead, it protects the politicians who in certain situations arrest  citizens of other nationalities for political reasons. * When will the question of the responsibility of the police, the army, the media, the banking system which had funded the procurement of weapons and war volunteers,  be on the agenda? Never – because crime has been totally revitalized here, and the prevailing opinion is that these persons and institutions were only defending the Serbian government and the Serbian people. No one even mentions that these state institutions  acted illegally to the detriment of  society.

“When the Humanitarian Law Center was  established on December 9, 1992, the most horrendous year of the war in Croatia was over, whilst the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina had ended only as regards the ethnic cleansing. By August 14, 1992, Eastern Bosnia had been  ethnically cleansed completely. The HLC started off with a significant database, compiled from media reports, including those from Croatia and Bosnia. It became clear to me that we should continue to collect data about what was happening at the time. To talk as much as we could to the people who had direct information about what was happening, to cross the borders and reach the victims. That was the main idea – I and those who worked in the HLC were to cross the borders and, in doing so, become recognized by the ordinary people. We wanted them to know who we were, what we wrote and spoke about. We would manage to cross those borders, never thinking about our own nationality. This was perhaps one of our greatest achievements, in a region in which one was killed because one’s nationality was ’unsuitable’, in ’the wrong place’,” says Natasa Kandic, Executive Director of the Humanitarian Law Center, in an interview for e-Newspaper on the occasion of the twentieth anniversary of the HLC.

* The borders were numerous back then – and so also  the various military and armed formations?

It wasn’t easy, but I believed that even in situations of high risk, borders could be crossed. That was a pretty crazy endeavour back then, but today I remember it as crazy luck. On all sides I encountered wonderful ordinary people, – but also, those who could turn dangerous in the worst sense of the word.

Today, twenty years later, I still fear that the Dark Ages may return. A turnaround is always possible here – a disruption in people’s minds, in the relationships between neighbours, in communities and peoples. That’s why it is most urgent to devise  mechanisms that will provide assurance to a society such as ours that these things will not happen again.

* The  HLC’s first peace activities consisted of recording the names of  dead and missing persons. What has come out of your work so far?

Even during the war in Bosnia, we were focused on documenting war crimes and cooperating with the ICTY. We wanted to assist with what I would describe as our highly reliable documentation in the launching of investigations and trials. When the war broke out in Kosovo in 1998, we were in a rather privileged position – we were able to collect  data about Albanians and Serbs, because we had an office in Kosovo which employed Albanians, Serbs, Gorani and others. We initially believed that our reports of the killings and abductions would contribute to efforts to stop the war; but it turned out that our activities had no such impact. By 1999 it was obvious how much Serbia had changed, even in comparison to what it had been like during the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Serbia’s participation in the war in Bosnia meant that by March 1999, many men – especially those who had experienced the war in Croatia and Bosnia – were going to Kosovo for the money, with the idea of taking possession of Albanian property. This was a direct result of the war in Bosnia, which made these men think about war as an opportunity for the misappropriation of someone else’s property. It turned out that everyone who went to the war in Kosovo as a volunteer or reservist, had a clear idea of ​​how to commit the  crimes in Kosovo for which they would not be held accountable later. That is why they went there. Referencing the Geneva Conventions and the Law began later, with the defence of the generals in the Hague. The situation in Kosovo was such that the Albanians were put through everything, from murder to looting, and the seizure of houses, lands and other property, such as TV sets, VCRs, money, livestock, cars, tractors… Those times were horrible times.

* And then the war ended…

And October 5, 2000 happened, and we asked ourselves – what comes next?  What is the role of NGOs? It was clear that everything we had collected over the years, everything we’d learned, had to be used now to defend the rights of victims to learn the truth, and to obtain justice. It was clear, in other words, that we had to side with the victims, regardless of their nationality.

 The Kosovo Memory Book, with its three more volumes in preparation,  will be a unique record of victims and causalties and, in addition to names, will contain narratives about the circumstances in which the victims died. This has never been done before, anywhere.

The entire international community was focused on Kosovo then, and on what was happening there. What the world saw was a number of mass graves, and a large number of missing persons, and everyone was focused on what was happening to the Albanians. The retribution and revenge against the Serbs and Roma who remained in Kosovo passed unnoticed. They were made to pay the price for the crimes committed by those who had left Kosovo immediately, without waiting for the international community to arrive. In such a situation, we were trying to do something that seemed impossible. No Serb was allowed to move around Kosovo up until the end of 1999 and into much of 2000. You couldn’t hear the Serbian language spoken – it was dangerous to speak Serbian. No person of Serb nationality could move freely around Kosovo. But I myself was able to travel around there, and also, I was able to speak Serbian, and others could speak to me in Serbian.

We were trying to find out what was going on with the Serbs. In 2000, our book Missing Serbs, Roma and Others came out. With  great help from Father Sava of Decani and other priests, one of our associates was able to move around Kosovo. We created that report in a relatively short time. It shows what was happening in Kosovo, right there in the presence of the international community, and how that community was unprepared for the reprisals against the Serbs and Roma who were not responsible for war crimes, for the crimes committed by others from their own ethnic groups.

While completing the documentation on war crimes, an idea emerged about ​​collecting and publicizing the  legal facts connected with them. They were to be collected primarily from the victims who were still alive, and from the family members of those alive or dead. This resulted in some extremely significant documents, the transcripts from the trial of Slobodan Milosevic in 46 volumes, and a number of books that contain the rulings and exhibits from the trials. We were obsessed with creating  guarantees that such crimes would not be repeated. Naturally, we thought a lot about what, in this cursed space of the Balkans, could serve as a guarantee or assurance that such crimes could be prevented. My idea was that we had to proceed from uncovering what was not known about the wars here,  what could contribute to the recurrence of crimes. It was clear to me that lack of knowledge about what had happened, and silence about the victims, or ignorance about the victims, as well as the absence of names, would be  the factors that would continue to encourage new crimes. Hence my constant preoccupation with the effort to put a name to every victim – that is the instrument that can prevent denial, lies, the manipulation of numbers in the Balkans. When you know the names of the victims, and the circumstances under which they suffered, it is more difficult to mobilize people to commit crimes against others.

Two or three weeks later, the authorities concluded that NATO’s air strikes against Serbian military and police were unjustified. No one, however, asked how else the army and the police, which killed 10,000 Albanians in three months, could have been stopped.

* And so when the Kosovo Memory Book happened, you had already had the experience and documentation?

In Kosovo we were perceived and accepted as an organization that helped all victims, regardless of their nationality. Our office became an independent, strong organization, and we survived inter-personal fractures as well as fissures between communities. We had the power and capacity to build awareness and convince the people that putting a name on the victim will help make sure that such crimes never happen again.

But we didn’t stop with Kosovo. We began to collect documentation on the victims of the war in Croatia, by interviewing family members of victims from Croatia living in Serbia. At the same time, the organization Documenta was focussing not only on Croatian victims, but also on Serb victims who had remained in Croatia. And now we were/are assisting Mirsad Tokaca and his Research-Documentation Center to published four books of the Bosnian Book of the Dead. In about two or three years, we will be able to complete the list of all the victims, using different databases, records, documents and reports. The list is now largely  consolidated and complete, and so we have built up  the world’s perhaps most reliable database. When, by the end of next year, we complete the remaining three volumes of the Kosovo Memory Book, it will be a unique list,  containing not only the names but also the narratives of the circumstances and sufferings of the victims. No one else in the world has ever done that. There have been attempts to compile a more or less comprehensive list of victims by listing their names, but that’s not all that such a book should contain. The HRW has documented several hundreds of victims, the Hague Tribunal about two thousand victims, and ABA CEELI about two-and-a-half thousand. We ourselves  have now documented about ten thousand recorded ethnic Albanian victims of the war,  and between two thousand six hundred and two thousand eight hundred Serb victims. We believe that the difference could be between one or two hundred names, but we will have a comprehensive list with the narratives. Our data base is being evaluated now by distinguished statisticians who are analyzing our data. That work will be completed in March next year, when we will disclose the results. I think that the Kosovo Memory Book will end up being the most comprehensive database ever of victims of war crimes, of persons missing or who died in combat.

* Have the Serbian and Albanian sides accepted these results?

We had  book promotions  in Belgrade and Kosovo. Our efforts mean a lot to the victims’ families, especially since we provide more data, not only the name of the victim, but also how they lived and died. It is especially important that the two sides have accepted that all victims  – civilians, soldiers, policemen –  are all in one book as the victims of war crimes;  but also along with those who were in a situation and position to commit some criminal act, although the book does not go into those details. The book is merely a registry of suffering and casualties, but it contains enough information for any prosecution/prosecutor in Serbia and Kosovo to initiate  proceedings. And because it is very easy to connect the data and locations with the movement of certain formations, it is very easy to trace the thread of data towards those who could reveal what happened, and where and how. This is how a connection with the perpetrators can be made, and paths for investigation revealed. We will see how it  works out  in practice, because the things that happened during the War Crimes Prosecution did not really match what had to be done.

* Did the government, in this context, understand your work on war crimes in the right way, and does it treat the topic as one of vital interest to the citizens? Where is transitional justice now, and can one talk about acceptance?

The work of the Office of the War Crimes Prosecutor in Serbia is my biggest disappointment. In 2004, when the Prosecutor’s Office was established, the Humanitarian Law Center – and I personally – supported it very much, by helping to establish its cooperation with prosecutors in Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. We brought witnesses, for a start, and initially we thought it was all right to prosecute the direct perpetrators first. We believed that with a larger number of cases the Prosecutor’s Office would become safer, that it would certainly side with the victims, pushing for the prosecution of those who had participated in the decisions to commit the crimes. I spent seven years in  court representing victims, and for the first two or three years I had profound faith that the War Crimes Prosecutor would become an important institution in establishing the rule of law. I always thought that those who governed and had control over a territory in which serious crimes were committed had to be held responsible.

Then I began to face the fact that our prosecutors were not new, but the same people who had failed to initiate  proceedings while terrible crimes were being committed. It is impossible that they did not know about those war crimes. So, professionally they had acted and behaved in the way they thought the government expected them to behave. Which basically meant that they would ignore the violations of the law and not deal with the actual war crimes. This became obvious. The Prosecution will  indict direct perpetrators very easily, but it will remain protective of the generals. This is why we still don’t have a single convicted general. Under  pressure from us, one general – the commander of the 37th PJP Detachment – was indicted and detained, but  released after two months. And frankly, I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that he had sued the state and won damages.

At the trial of the “Scorpions”, I questioned each defendant as to whether they were part of the State Security, or private groups. The Prosecutor asked the Trial Chamber to interrupt me, arguing that I wanted to demonstrate the responsibility of state institutions, while this was the trial of individuals.

After seven years, it is clear that I have lost my battle with the Prosecution. In cases such as Tuzla Column or Ganic, in which  the Serbian judiciary was shamed when a British judge described the Serbian Prosecutor as an unreliable witness,  state institutions suffered a serious degradation. When the HLC released the records of  Chief of Staff Dikovic, the same Prosecutor’s Office, only 24 hours after our release of the Dossier, came out with a statement claiming that no information about General Dikovic and his involvement in war crimes existed.

All this was a clear indication that the Prosecutor in Serbia has a duty to protect the former criminal state by protecting its generals. We see how an institution that only seven years ago seemed capable of acting professionally and of helping  establish of the rule of law, is slowly disappearing into thin air. Today it is an institution with no strategy for war crimes. It will protect politicians who in certain situations arrest citizens of other nationalities for political reasons. I’m not at all sure that things will get better at the moment. Judges who do respect the facts will be less and less in a position to work on cases that would give them professional satisfaction, because they are constantly being presented with defective indictments. A judge cannot resolve the issue on that level, cannot make suggestions for improvement, while the Prosecution deliberately drafts such indictments, in order to minimize the crimes being tried. I expect no improvement. Our situation is currently one of not talking about war crimes, not talking about the war ;  the past is being suppressed, and it is even politically unacceptable to talk about it. The President has said that the war is in the past anyway, and that we should be talking about the future.

* Are there any signs of  progress in any state institution?

The Declaration on Srebrenica, which was adopted by the Serbian Parliament, is only a technical document, as we  heard from the the former Serbian president; it is a document supposed to help the country’s progress towards European integration, but  not evidence of a sincere desire for the victims of this genocide to be recognized. Neither the current nor the former president of Serbia – and they take identical stands on this issue – accept the judgment of the International Criminal Tribunal, which clearly stated that a genocide was committed in Srebrenica.

* Do the institutions you have mentioned, the Office of War Crimes Prosecutor and the Parliament, undoubtedly very important in the process of transitional justice, properly represent the majority opinion of the citizens of Serbia, the atmosphere in the society, and the attitude towards the recent past and the events in which many of them were directly implicated? Is pushing it under the rug something the citizens would opt for?

If awareness of the importance of accountability for war crimes has not prevailed in the Democratic Party, we can generally say that we have a society that does not recognize or accept the facts about war crimes and its own past. What we have is a rather small civic Serbia, quite insignificant in relation to the requirements that need to be answered, even in a society that entertains  merely declarative aspirations to become democratic and to put things in order. None of these requirements exist here. On the other hand, the present ruling coalition was responsible for everything that happened, for the plans and participation in the wars, for the bombing and the social isolation. The coalition claims openly  to be in favour of Serbia’s European integrations and in favour of resolving the issue of Kosovo. So I think the situation should be assessed from this standpoint too. Is this a step forward? What does the term ’’European integrations’’ mean? Is this perhaps the moment in which European integrations no longer means what  civically minded groups in Serbia mean by it? We have always insisted that European integrations means dealing with the past, acceptance of responsibility and of the judicial facts established by the ICTY and its judgments, as well as an open dialogue about the past.

* So is this feasible only with  new pressures from the international community?

Currently, so far as we can tell from the relationship of  the European Union and the United States with the new government of Serbia, the priorities are the establishment of relations with Kosovo, followed by the combat against internal corruption. At this moment, the new government is making progress with regard to the first priority, with dialogue at the highest political level – there have been meetings that the previous government could not even have imagined. But it is not at all clear that by the establishment of  cooperation and the normalization of relations America and the European Union mean the same thing as the new authorities in Serbia.

* Does that mean that these new relations, as they are being tailored by the current government, could exclude dealing with the past?

I think that is up to us – Us, meaning who? Non-governmental organizations are becoming weaker rather than stronger, at least with regard to the problem of dealing with the past. We do not have a strong network of civil society organizations, and non-governmental organizations have moved closer to the political parties, or  refrain from dealing with the issues that are no longer politically advisable, or permissible, or  have the support of the international community. Which is why it seems to me that things are up to us, although we are losing the critical spirit which we have always had in Serbia. During the wars in Croatia, Bosnia, and Kosovo, that voice was lost. Questions about reconciliation, accountability of state institutions and criminal responsibility have been marginalized, and so, more generally, have the need to achieve reconciliation on a regional level, by recognizing the suffering of victims, and by giving them back their voice. This topic has disappeared, although there are attempts to bring those issues back onto the political scene, at least partly. Unlike in previous years, the media are no longer interested, nor do they want to deal with the past, justice, victims and the accountability of state institutions, nor do they see the need to prevent a repetition of the crime. There are only two or three small oases left, and that is not enough for stronger social pressure.

* The victims will remain, both here and in the region, and so will the perpetrators, as part of the security apparatus the new government has inherited. And yet, without confrontation, can this thread of victims and perpetrators  be severed?

Of course not. We present the image of  a nicely packaged bomb that can remain undetonated for a long time. It will not explode for a long while – for a long, long time, no one will touch it. But someone will at some point touch it, and  it will have to explode. This is precisely why the HLC is doing the things I have spoken about: we are working on a list of victims in the region in the belief that, as in Germany, a moment of confrontation will eventually come.

* Is this why the Regional Commission for Truth and Reconciliation is being established?

RECOM aims to verify human losses and to compile lists, after which the establishment of the Commission will seem more likely. If you draw up all these lists of casualties in the wars from 1991 until 2001, including the conflicts in Macedonia, the historic responsibility will fall on the politicians if they fail to establish RECOM. We will carry out one of the most important tasks,  but the whole matter will have to be raised to a higher level and sealed with a state seal. All of our data are verifiable and legitimate, and with time will grow in importance. It is important to do this, even if belatedly. There is no way to exert pressure that would elicit a prompt response from the authorities. Not a single politician came to the promotion of the Kosovo Memory Book. Everyone is willing to support RECOM declaratively, but we need concrete action.

* Today in Serbia,  society is being radicalized. Don’t we see a tragic lack of education, and a lack of any attitude towards the past on the part of the younger generations, who seem to feel no  compassion for the victims, and even abuse their suffering?

The HLC runs a School of Transitional Justice which brings together students interested in our topic, and in the facts about the wars and atrocities. There is interest, but the state is not involved; everything is left to non-governmental organizations, which is not enough for our need to get answers about the recent past. For instance, why were we bombed? At one point, after October 5th, it did seem as though that question could be asked. Or the question of why people voted against Milosevic… But two or three weeks later, the new authorities described NATO’s bombing of Serbian military and police as unfair. And yet, nobody has asked how the army and police, which in three months killed about 10,000 Albanians, could have been stopped.

* Collective responsibility has room in theory – but Serbia rejects theories, doesn’t it?

The accountability of state institutions must be addressed, but here it is still a taboo. At the trial of the “Scorpions”, I questioned each defendant about whether they were part of the State Security, or private groups. The prosecutor asked the Trial Chamber to interrupt me, arguing that I wanted to demonstrate the responsibility of state institutions, while this was a trial of individuals.This clearly shows that this is, in fact, the strategy of our state institutions: to say nothing about the connections between the accused and the state institutions. When will the question of the responsibility of the police, the army, the media, and the banking system which  funded the procurement of weapons and war volunteers be on the agenda? Never, because crime has been totally revitalized here, and the prevailing opinion is that these persons and institutions were only defending the Serbian government and the Serbian people. No one even mentions that state institutions have acted illegally to the detriment of the society.