Monday, 17 December 2012

Reflecting on the Gotovina case, a month later

Last month, between the 16th and 17th, I got quite emotional, even though I prefer to do things as logically as possible, which is also how I wish, as a rule, to write my articles on this blog. I described the reversal of Markač and Gotovina’s convictions as a “disgraceful acquittal”, an “outrage” and an “insult to all the Serbs from the fallen Krajina, especially to those from the areas affected by ‘Operation Storm’”. I even went as far as to call it a “mockery of justice”. Perhaps these words were too strong, come to think about it. But perhaps, from a Krajina Serb perspective, it was appropriate at least at that moment in time. But like I say above, I prefer logic over emotion, and since that Friday morning, I’ve had time to consider and re-consider this issue with a clearer head, my feelings aside.

After careful consideration, I acknowledge that the Brijuni transcripts, which even I believed “proved” intent on the part of the Croatian state to ethnically cleanse Serbs, actually do not offer any concrete evidence of any ‘joint criminal enterprise’ (JCE) at the very least on the part of the Croatian military leadership, Gotovina included, with the intent to commit crimes against the Serb population of the then Republika Srpska Krajina (RSK) through ‘Operation Oluja’. Indeed, with regards to the subsequent exodus of Serbs, my relatives among those fleeing to Serbia, I came to the conclusion that just because Gotovina had predicted a greater exodus of Serbs following future military action by his army, as seen in those transcripts, that doesn’t mean he intended for such to happen. I personally thought that his foreknowledge of events made him guilty, but I now see that this line of reasoning is flawed on my part. I now realise that just because you know something is going to happen, don’t mean you want it to; there is a huge difference between predicting and intending, and that’s a big lesson to me.

(In fact, it was with the Brijuni transcripts that I, personally, had doubts about Markač and Gotovina’s convictions; there was a part of me inside that told me that Gotovina’s words in those transcripts did not constitute strong enough evidence against him or his colleague, with which to prove intent on their part to ethnically cleanse Serbs from the then RSK.)

However, what I find pretty strange, being a layman when it comes to artillery fire, is how the 200 metre margin of error (that whatever projectile landed outside that radius constitutes a criminal act, and thus not a legitimate military target) could’ve been designated the basis of any JCE in the first place! Even I accept that the imposition of 200m is rather arbitrary (why 200m; why not 100, or 20 or 10?). This margin of error was applied when examining the artillery fire upon towns like my hometown Gračac, Benkovac, Obrovac and Knin; the Trial Chamber established that the shelling “constituted an indiscriminate attack on these towns and an unlawful attack on civilians and civilian objects” on precisely that margin of error. However, since they rejected this standard, surely it’s worth asking why the Appeals Chamber did not proceed to consider a correct one; was it not allowed to do so, or was there perhaps no point to doing so?

As it turns out, Gotovina and his colleagues cannot be held legally responsible for the burning, looting and usurpation of Serb property in the fallen Krajina, as no evidence exists that proves either of them had the intent to achieve anything of the sort through ‘Operation Oluja’. The responsibility for burning Serb property lies with individual Croatian military personnel, the responsibility for looting Serb property lies with individual Croatian civilians (the extent to which Croatian police aided and abetted this needs to be clarified), while the responsibility for usurping Serb property lies with local councils and in turn the Croatian state.

However, a couple of Serbian legal experts have questioned why Gotovina and Markač were not handed lesser sentences; perhaps that might’ve been more appropriate than a complete vindication (see here in Serbian and here in English). And indeed, the evidence that was used, in its totality, to convict the two generals was re-considered in isolation from each other by the Appeals Chamber. I’m no legal expert, so I certainly don’t know which legal process should apply in such a case as this, nor shall I recommend any!

Nevertheless, what is most important for us Serbs from those areas of Croatia that were part of the short-lived RSK affected by ‘Oluja’, is that the acquittal does not dispute the heinous crimes committed by individual Croatian soldiers in various localities during and after that operation. Those crimes are still acknowledged, but the Appeals Chamber concluded that Gotovina and his colleague Markač were not responsible for any of them. This means that the real perpetrators are still walking free, and the families of those Serb victims still have no justice, still on square one. And I doubt very much that, without the political will of Zagreb, we will see all the perpetrators of crimes against Serbs, towards the end of the war, during it and prior to the outbreak, get prosecuted any time soon.

And I agree that courts — ICTY or any other — should not pander to public opinion outside of court, but solely focus on meting out justice on behalf of the victims of all sorts of crime. However, I do wonder what kind of precedent this verdict sets for future cases, regarding wars between state authority and rebel groups, and how the reasoning of this verdict will influence judges and juries. Like I say above, I don’t claim to be a legal expert in any shape or form, but what about cases in retrospect, for instance during WW2; could Gotovina’s acquittal influence how we view the actions of various warring sides in the past? Also, will this vindication help in any way to undermine the impunity of states and various régimes?


Of course, even though the ICTY should not be concerned with public opinion when making legal decisions, I can’t help but notice, as I have done so many times before, that at the end of the day, they usually do have an impact on public opinion in the Balkans and among diaspora populations, both in real life and online. And this acquittal is no exception. For Croats, it is not only a vindication of the two generals, it’s a vindication of their entire war effort, and in turn, perhaps exaggerated, a vindication of their nation, assuming that the original conviction condemned the whole nation with those two! While for Serbs, it reaffirms the alleged “anti-Serb” bias of the ICTY, “proving” that Serb victims don’t matter to outsiders, and another reminder of how Serbs should never trust the West! Any Croat or Serb, who dares to challenge these conclusions offered by “patriotic” Croats or Serbs, is deemed “naïve” at best, or branded a “traitor” at worst!

This brings me to the issue of emotional blackmail, a cynical ploy used by nationalists in the former Yugoslavia to silence dissent within their beloved nations. Let me explain how this works: an anti-Hague, anti-Croat Serb nationalist from the fallen Krajina claims how no Serb should be sent either to the ICTY, nor should any Serb be extradited to the “Ustasha” state, i.e. Croatia, to face war crimes charges there, and how Serbs like him fought bravely for our people and for everything Serbian! However, if I, as a Serb from a part of Croatia that was also part of the short-lived RSK (and as you know, I am one), raised my hand and declared that Croatian Serb war crimes suspects should be put on trial, tried fairly, and if proven guilty, should be sent down for their crimes against Croats and other non-Serbs during the war, I would be not only branded a “traitor”, I would not only be accused of speaking against and “spitting” on my people and everything Serbian (!), but also “spitting” on all Serb victims of Croat war crimes as well! Therefore, to avoid this unpleasantness, I just have to keep quiet, and thus silently consent to them doing whatever they think will “save” our people from God knows what! I strongly believe that this emotional blackmail, especially used by advocates and proponents of Serb and Croat nationalism, helps prevent justice from being served to any victim, and leaves people from all sides in the Balkan wars without justice in the long run.

Also, when it comes to the Croatian war, I've noticed more times than I care to remember this absolutistic condemnation by the Croatian media and by Croatian politicians of any equation, whether blatant or subtle, of “aggressors” with “victims”. It’s because their national narrative goes like this: Croats see themselves as ‘defenders’, who were fighting for their independent state against Serbian ‘aggression’ and ‘occupation’ of their territory, but see local Serbs as ‘rebels’ against the Croatian state, and Serbia or the (Socialist) Federal Republic of Yugoslavia as the ‘aggressor’, whose army, then the fourth strongest in the world, trampled upon Croatia’s sovereignty.

First of all, I do NOT deny that the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia was deeply involved in the Croatian war, as that is an irrefutable fact, examples of which include the JNA’s infamous attacks on Vukovar and Dubrovnik, the first one being the most devastating of the two. And neither do I deny that Croats and other non-Serbs were persecuted by the régime of the late convict Milan Babić; his government and the forces under his namesake and fellow convict Martić showed no regard for the rights of ethnic minorities within the then RSK, and as far as I’m concerned, they were rightfully convicted at the Hague.

My problem is with the absolutistic nature of this condemnation of equating “aggressors” with “victims”, which I think can in a paradoxical way lead to precisely the very equation it vociferously condemns! This is what I mean: on the one hand, all Serbs from the fallen Krajina, and even other parts of Croatia, are by default “aggressors”, regardless of whether they were civilians during the war or whether they were themselves victims in any way; while on the other hand, all Croats, regardless of whether they were soldiers or whether they themselves caused any suffering to anyone, are automatically deemed “victims”! Here’s an example of this in a comment dated 16/11/2012, 13:13. Do you see how ironic and yet perverse this is? This absolutism leads to the irrational conclusion whereby Serb civilian victims are equated with Serb war criminals, while Croat war criminals are equated with Croat civilian victims!

As you can see, assuming you understood me well, I don’t wish to equate “aggressors” with “victims/defenders” either. All I wish for is that all those, who’ve suffered some form or some amount of injustice during the ‘90s, to receive at least some justice, be it via convictions, restitution or compensation or even a combination of these. Of course, no number of legal proceedings will ever bring back lost loved ones. But if only those responsible for such deaths faced justice for what they did, then at least we could say that some justice has been served.

Personally, what I resent the most is how we get lost in talk of conflicting territorial claims and worst of all let nationalist passion take over, thus losing sight of inalienable human rights, which were so blatantly trampled upon by participants of both sides against each other. That’s not to say that both were at it at the same level, or that they both had the same intentions. I believe justice should take into account all the relevant details, especially the ones others may miss through mere oblivion or with intent. Justice should never appease any government, any ideology and certainly not anyone’s sense of vengeance, but hold true to the facts and to reason. And I don’t think you need to be a legal expert to understand that!

So do I still consider last month’s acquittal at the Hague a “disgraceful acquittal”, an “outrage” and an “insult to all the Serbs from the fallen Krajina…”, and most importantly a “mockery of justice”? Well, I was upset by this vindication initially — not to the point of tears, hell no! — but somehow disturbed. I kept thinking of how to reason this decision with fellow Serbs and Croats; I was engaged in an internal dialogue trying to figure this all out. To be honest, that’s a bad habit of mine, but I suppose that’s what leads me to write articles like this one, examining and weighing up the finer details! However, I do concede that I lack the qualifications to brand any verdict a “mockery of justice” as an expert could; I am not qualified to use that term in any case and I regret using it in my previous article.

I’ll end this post with what I sincerely believe is right: I don’t want revenge; I just want justice for all victims. I want innocence to be highly regarded, and impunity to be completely condemned. But in a world of state authority and standing armies, I think this will always be compromised in one way or another.

Saturday, 17 November 2012

Where’s the justice gone?!

Note: Strikethrough added 9th October 2013 (should've done it sooner). Please refer to this article for my current opinion on this issue.
Yesterday was a sad day for Serbs from the short-lived Krajina. As I found out that morning, convicted Croatian generals Ante Gotovina and Mladen Markač, sentenced last year to 24 years and 18 years respectively, were completely acquitted, and now they are free! This reversal is an insult to all the Serbs from the fallen Krajina, especially to those from the areas affected by ‘Operation Storm’!
So many things keep going round my head about this outrage — a very appropriate word for this mockery of justice — that I feel compelled to share it. Last year, I was relieved to know that the suffering my people endured was at least beginning to be prosecuted. Now I’m just bemused; trying to make sense of it all, trying to find the words to describe how appalled I feel by this reversal. As you can see, I can’t be indifferent about this.
I saw last year’s verdict as a first step on the way to justice for Serb victims and their families. For a year and a half, I felt that we had that one small step, from where we could persist on getting justice for Serb victims of other war crimes before and after ‘Oluja’. Now thanks to yesterday’s verdict, we’re now back at square one! The justice I felt we had achieved last year, has been snatched from us. And I suppose, realistically speaking, the least amount of justice we can hope for now are some guilty verdicts for some of the perpetrators of some war crimes against some Serb victims, but even such cases will probably get dragged along before any justice is served to the families of the victims.
I don’t promote anti-Hague conspiracies or anything like that, but I do wonder on what basis they reached this disgraceful decision. I know it’s easy to just dismiss the whole court over this, and no doubt many of my fellow Serbs have done so long before yesterday. But being inquisitive as I am, I feel compelled to ask further questions as to how the court came to this devastating decision, especially how they came to the conclusion re: Gračac and other ethnic Serb towns not being civilian targets afterall. Why does the shelling of those towns no longer constitute “unlawful attack on civilians and civilian objects”? And what about the “destruction of a substantial part of Gračac on 5 and 6 August” committed by “Special Police members” acknowledged in last year’s verdict? All in all, what made them change their opinion from last year? Either way, it baffles me how those, who were initially punished for this, are now all of a sudden “un-punished”!
Of course, as a matter of principle, I don’t oppose any defendant’s right to appeal. But I still find this vindication disgraceful, and as a Serb from one of the towns listed in his initial conviction as being shelled by his forces, I’m outraged!
This verdict repudiates the whole “joint criminal enterprise”, and in some way vindicates Franjo Tuđman personally. But what is of great concern to me is how this plays to the self-righteousness on the Croatian side, while feeding into suspicion on the Serbian side. That is not going to help either side move forward, and will certainly dampen reconciliatory efforts.
However, if I must be honest, there was a part of me that would pop up once in a while, when thinking about Gotovina's conviction, that thought his conviction wasn’t strong enough. Funnily enough, something in me was saying that. So why am I so disappointed that this has been brought to light?
I will definitely read through the acquittal to understand this in greater detail. But at the end of the day, this kind of thing does make one wonder whether justice will ever be completely served for my people and our victims. It’s at times like these that many of my fellow Serbs hope for “Divine justice”, either in this life or the next, when injustice prevails here on earth.
I’ll end this unhappy post with this tragic reminder: justice has still not been served for the 106 Serb fatalities in the Gračac municipality alone (see the list of names here) during ‘Oluja’. Indeed, there are many other Serb victims from the Gračac area before August ‘95, who likewise don’t deserve to be forgotten. This disgraceful acquittal is an insult to the victims’ memory, their surviving relatives and to all of us from my hometown!

    • You can also see this article on Britić here. Dead link as of 10th February 2014
  • Monday, 6 August 2012

    Britić in the Serbian press!!!

    Yesterday, the British Serb online magazine Britić received some well-deserved attention from the Serbian media courtesy of on their article "Britić, a Briton with a surname ending in ić". The article relates the altruistic goals of the magazine's chief-editors Stan Smiljanić and Aleks Simić. Stan explains the concerns he and his colleague Aleks had regarding the state of the British Serb community, and how they began by handing out 20,000 printed copies of the magazine, which they posted to members of the Serb community around Britain (including me!). He also explains their website's predominant use of the English language, even though they originally planned it to be bilingual, and how Britić is at least attempting to bridge the cultural gap between two generations of Serbian emigrants, i.e. those who came to Britain after World War Two and the emigration which started arriving in the '90s.

    Of course, I am one of Britić's many contributers, as you can see here. And without bragging, I've so far received a substantial number of responses to my articles in the form of comments, whether directly on those pages or via Facebook. Apart from that, I've even done my bit to help raise the site's ratings by taking part in an April Fool's joke (see here)! So, I am definitely glad to see our community's magazine and website receiving recognition from Serbia, which I think represents a huge success and a major milestone for Britić.

    I've met the two chief editors of Britić in person, and I can tell you that they're both truly wonderful and a pleasure to be around; both are very enthusiastic in what they wish to achieve for their fellow Serbs here in Britain, and they're also very generous, hospitable, and they both have a great sense of humour. Hand on heart, Stan and Aleks are truly upstanding members of the British Serb community, and they both make me proud to say I'm a British Serb!

    Friday, 9 March 2012

    Films that offend people!

    In the land of blood and honey - U zemlji krvi i medaHollywood actress and UN good will ambassador Angelina Jolie has recently released her first director's cut In the land of blood and honey (U zemlji krvi i meda), which depicts the Bosnian war through the eyes of a Bosnian Serb soldier and a Bosniak woman, whom he saves from rape at a detention camp. It received a standing ovation at its premiere in Sarajevo (see here and here), and positive reviews for how it managed to depict the suffering of the war (see here), with particular focus on the issue of rape during that war.

    However, her directorial debut has received a lot of fervent criticism and even scorn from my fellow Serbs (see here), many of whom have deemed it as "biased" and even "anti-Serbian". Not surprisingly, very few people went to see its premiere in Serbia (see here). But why has a film, written and directed by one of the most famous women in the world, caused so much offense in one Balkan nation?

    Well, there are two main reasons why a lot of us Serbs disapprove of Jolie's movie: one, many of us feel that this film once again portrays us as the "bad-guys", the main perpetrators of ethnically-motivated violence and wanton destruction in that conflict; and two, because of that reaffirmation, it continues to divert attention from our own people's suffering during the wars of the '90s, which even at that time received very little press coverage in the Western media.

    Many of us Serbs feel that the film revamps that deeply negative, media image about our people, which Western viewers had become accustomed to during the '90s, that we are a nation of cruel, sadistic, war criminals, hell-bent on ethnic cleansing, and as such, we were as bad as the Nazis of World War Two! Now, I don't deny the seriousness and the gravity of all those allegations of war crimes etc. against a whole host of Serb leaders, both political and military, all of which has coloured people's negative views on us as a people. However, it must be borne in mind that all this negative press from that time left us Serbs, both back home and in the diaspora, feeling dehumanised and demonised, but most of all, misunderstood by the world. Nevertheless, since the '90s, we have been trying very hard to overcome that negative image of ourselves in the eyes of the international public, and I think the successes of our sportsmen and women (the world-famous Novak Đoković being a fantastic example) have helped to showcase us in a much more positive light, and I hope we continue to impress the world in sport and in other fields. Of course, even I think we still have a long way to go until we have completely overcome that "bad guy" image, which is why many of us are not that keen to see yet another film, after many that have been released before (like Behind Enemy Lines), that reminds us of what brought shame to our name in the world.

    However, what really offends and frustrates a lot of us Serbs about Jolie's film, whether we've seen it in full or just clips of it, is how it mainly depicts the suffering of one side of the war, i.e. the Bosniak side. This doesn't mean that we object to the production of any film that may portray the Bosniaks as the main victims; after all, they did suffer greatly during that war from 1992 to 1995, and we shouldn't deny that at all. However, what bothers a lot of us Serbs is how very little is known about the suffering of our own people during that conflict and others in the '90s. As a result of those wars, Serbia provided a refuge to hundreds of thousands of ethnic Serbs from the Croatian, Bosnian and Kosovo wars (if my memory serves me right, it was about half a million refugees from Croatia and Bosnia altogether, along with over 200,000 internally displaced people from Kosovo). Of course, we Serbs are aware of war crimes committed by our own against others, and many of us do feel ashamed of all that. But we are also concerned about the fate of our own victims from those conflicts too, and it displeases us how even now very little is known about them.

    Angelina Jolie & Brad Pitt at Sarajevo premiere of In the land of blood and honey - U zemlji krvi i medaI'm a Serb myself, but I don't hold anything personally against Angelina Jolie — in fact, I've NEVER had anything against her; from my teens onwards, I've always respected her as a woman and as an actress, and likewise, I've always respected her fellow actor and partner Brad Pitt. At a conference in Sarajevo last month, she openly denied being anti-Serbian (see here and here), and I don't see any reason why she would be; why on earth would anyone in her position waste their time being anti-Serb, especially since she has so many better things to do with her life and career? (And no, I don't think the fact, that her father went to a Catholic church named after a controversial Croatian cleric (see here), has any bearing on her views on us Serbs at all!) She is a Hollywood actress, who works for the UN, and I think she's just doing her job as a UN good will ambassador the way she knows best, and that's through film. Also, she's a renowned feminist, and the film focuses on the rape of women during that war. And in her own words, her film is a criticism of the international community for its poor response to the crisis in Bosnia at the time (see here).

    However, I remember when I first heard that Ms. Jolie was planning to produce her directorial debut about the Bosnian war, and even back then I was quite wary of the possible reactions to it (see here). By embarking on this project, she must've known she was straying onto some very sensitive territory. After all, she hasn't produced a mere documentary about the Bosnian war, but a fictional re-telling of the war in that country, whose traumatised nations have still not resolved all their disputes from that time not very long ago. And let's not forget that she is an outsider, albeit one working on behalf of the UN, and it's easy for people on the side portrayed as the protagonists of most of the violence to feel singled out for it. The side that feels singled out is offended by what they see as a "black-and-white" depiction of a war they were themselves involved in, and are thus resentful of the outsider for producing such an "unbalanced" film. After all, so many lives have been destroyed on all sides, and many people, Bosniaks, Serbs, Croats and others, are still traumatised by what they lived through. Along with that, there are so many accusations of war crimes and crimes against humanity between all the sides of that conflict, that it doesn't surprise me how depiction of one side's view of the war is enough to offend the other side(s). But even if she had produced a film that focused mainly on the suffering of Serbs at the hands of Bosniaks or Croats, Sarajevo conference, February 2012such a film would probably also receive huge disapproval, the likes of which we're seeing now with this one, and likewise spark a backlash from Bosniaks or Croats for not depicting their suffering at the hands of Serbs. Perhaps if she had, she would've been "the darling" of us Serbs, rather than becoming a "persona non-grata" in Serbia (see this Facebook group)?

    I haven't seen the film myself; I've only seen clips of it on YouTube. And I'm not really sure I want to watch it — not because I'm afraid that I'll be deeply offended by it, but because I'm not that keen to see such an emotionally-charged war movie wherever it's set on the planet! And although I have no experience in producing movies like Ms. Jolie has, my only constructive criticism here is it would've been better if she had set the film in post-war Bosnia rather than in wartime Bosnia. I think such a format would be much more palatable for people on all sides in Bosnia and the wider region, thus receiving greater acceptance from all, and I doubt it would've caused even half as much anger and hysteria as this film has caused among the Serbian public.

    Generally speaking, there is a tendency among all Balkan nations to feel offended by another nation's sense of victimhood. On many occasions while surfing the net, reading messages on various Ex-Yu forums, comments under YouTube videos and discussion pages of Wikipedia articles, I've seen how easily offended, for instance, my fellow Serbs can feel when they hear Croats accusing them of war crimes against them, and unsurprisingly, the same is the case the other way round! And it's not just the recent conflicts that cause heated disputes; even different interpretations of distant periods of history can rouse offense, such as the Serbian and Bosniak view of Ottoman rule in the Balkans! And as we can see with the reception of Jolie's In the land of blood and honey, even films by outsiders can offend local nations, and not just some YouTube comments!
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    • You can also see this article on Britić here. Dead link as of 1st March 2014