Dealing with the past in Serbia

Katarina Putnik

The topic of Serbia and its political situation has been lingering in the news since the wars in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo, including the NATO bombing. Many things about this country and the region as a whole have been exposed to the world, apart from one: the truth! All sides involved, from the republics of ex- Yugoslavia to the international community, tell only their version of the conflict. This is not the way forward. If it continues, there is a dark future ahead for Serbia, as well as for many neighbouring countries.

Serbia has not been for some time top news, and as there is no overt war going on, people may think that the situation is stable and under control. Unfortunately this is not the case. There is a lot of potential for future violence and something needs to be done now to prevent it.

What am I suggesting?

What is needed at the moment is to deal with the unresolved issues while the situation is still peaceful, or to be more precise, under ceasefire. Now is the time to confront the past and deal with it: establish the truth and bring out the facts that would be accepted by all sides! How can this be done? One of the ways in which truth has been brought in to the open in countries like Chile, Argentina and South Africa was by establishing a Truth Commission. However, one of the main differences between the above mentioned countries and Serbia lies in the fact that, in those countries, human rights violations were committed mostly by the governing regime on its own people. Although this does apply partly in the case of Serbia under Milosevic, by far the biggest concern is about the human rights violations among various ethnic communities, committed in almost all parts of ex-Yugoslavia. This involves the following main ethnicities: Serbs, Croats, Bosniaks, Kosovo Albanians, Macedonians and Macedonian Albanians. So one possible suggestion is to have a regional truth commission authorised to investigate the abuses of and from all of the nationalities involved in the war. It would aim to give a voice to every side and be objective in its work. It may be difficult to decide in which country such a commission would operate, since every side may want to have it in their own out of mistrust towards the others. Possibly, having separate national truth commissions cooperating regionally and sharing the information could overcome this obstacle.

The history of the region is very complex and hazy, with different ex-Yugoslav republics having conflicting views. Therefore, finding the very beginning of the problems and truth about them would be hard. Neither would it be easy to decide on the time frame needed to complete the work.The region has faced many conflicts and people from all sides have suffered, so dealing with the past would be a long and painstaking process. However, ignoring past history would not be useful, since many causes of the wars fought during the 1990's arose from deep historical grievances. At the same time, it is important not to be lost in historical debates, but to focus on the contemporary problems. A balance between the two has to be found in order to move forward constructively.

One may ask: how crucial is it to establish the truth about past events in countries facing many other challenges, from economic to political to educational issues?

Dealing with the past would take away the collective guilt, hopefully removing collective prejudices and stereotypes against different ethnic groups. At the end of this process people should be able to see and begin to accept who were guilty of atrocities and why they did it.

Besides bringing out the truth about the violence and atrocities that occurred, if the society is to have a whole picture, then these facts should be paired with the experiences and testimonies of people who stood together and helped each other despite the danger. Presently the commissions focus only on the testimonies of victims and perpetrators, which without doubt is important for establishment of hidden facts and experiences. However, there are other unheard facts and stories that relate to examples of inter-religious and inter-ethnic support during the conflicts. I believe this helps establish the real truth, the one that consists not only of bad examples, but of the good ones as well. Focusing exclusively on the negative side may threaten stability in some regions. It is healthier for the society to include the good examples as well in this process. If this is done, people will more likely be able to see that, despite the horrors of war and terrors of repression, certain human relations can remain stronger than the evil around them.

In the name of future peace and security for the people in the affected countries, it is important to know what happened in the past and try to understand it; stop the hate-breeding propaganda; provide support to the victims; insist that the guilty are not simply exonerated; create measures that would prevent the same problems arising in the future and start building new relations. As a result of dealing with the past to build the future, hostility and bitterness may one day be replaced by neighbourliness and mutual respect.
Katarina Putnik was a WRI intern in January and February 2004. She studies at the European Peace University in Stadtschlaining