The genesis of this report – telling the tale of a large scale project to re-engineer Serbian understanding of their role in the Yugoslav wars – actually came during the process of filming another report that my colleague Johanna Hoes and I produced in January this year.
It has been a quarter of a century since some of the most brutal wars tore through the once huge country called Yugoslavia.
The stories of collective memory, the narratives of loss, and the legacies of those wars are still fresh in the minds of so many who lived through those years. And as a Kosovar-Albanian working on The Listening Post, telling those stories – especially the ones that capture the damage done to our discourse and the mutilation of our media culture – has been close to my heart.
As Serbs protested their government and its hold over the country’s media, it became evident to both of us that it is not just the country’s current media climate that is problematic, but that there is a hangover from the wars that has skewed the historical memory of a majority of Serbs.
As I researched this phenomenon, I came across numerous headlines denying key events from the wars in Bosnia and Kosovo.
Headlines like “No genocide in Srebrenica”. Demonstrably fake news. And books, 119 of them, written by 22 former generals and politicians – convicted of war crimes including genocide – now turned authors. And finally, television appearances by former Hague detainees dismissing any accusations that they played a role in a deadly war.
There is an entire self-sustaining structure perpetuating a historical delusion: that, contrary to the established proof unearthed by investigators and prosecutors, Serbs did not mastermind and execute the crimes of Bosnian and Kosovan wars.
“The facts are horrible,” Emir Suljagic, a professor from the International University of Sarajevo, told us. “But they don’t care about facts, and they don’t care what you or I think about it. This is tailor-made for the Serbs. And it’s made in a way that would fit in the pre-existing narratives of what Yugoslavia was, of what and who the Serbs are.”
“Stories make nations. Radovan Karadzic [Bosnian Serb former politician, convicted of war crimes by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia] is not going to be remembered as a murdering genocidal maniac, but as a great Serbian hero who made the first Serb ‘state’ on the left bank of Adina River. Nebojsa Pavkovic [commander of Third Army of the Armed Forces of Yugoslavia during the Kosovo War and convicted by the ICTY of crimes against humanity and war crimes] is going to be remembered by future generations of Serbs, not as a murderer of Albanian children in Kosovo, but as a great war hero who stood up to NATO. End of story,” Suljagic says.
Natasa Kandic has spent years documenting and campaigning for human rights in the region.
During the Kosovo war, Kandic was a lone voice of reason from Belgrade, at a time when reason and logic were branded hate and propaganda by the Serbian state.
Two decades later, I found myself standing in front of her, filming an interview about the revisionist literature of Serbia. “I think these books are short-lived, they cannot survive,” she tells us. “But even the short time these books will last is still lost time. Time we’ve lost for setting up different relations in the region and getting over these ethnic divisions and tensions, creating the conditions in which we can think about common goals in the future.”
These books are commonly available in bookstores across Serbia. Many of them are even published and marketed by Serbia’s Ministry of Defence.
As Aleksandar Brezar told us: “When it comes to some of the books we know that for instance Alexander Vucic – the current president of Serbia – wrote a couple of forewords to some of the editions. Now if you have a legitimate representative of a country write a foreword for books of an alleged war criminal that is a huge issue. And I think that tells you a lot about just how far the current political structures will go in order to push this narrative onto the public.”
“People have actually managed to move on from their own experiences of the 90s,” says Suljagic. “But the people who did that to them have not moved an inch. Denying a past genocide, it’s never just about denying genocide in the past. It’s about planning and or hoping for the next one. Otherwise, why do it? Why glorify genocidal maniacs, why glorify mass murderers unless you’re prepared to repeat it?”
Produced by Hasan Rrahmani and Johanna Hoes
Aleksandar Brezar – journalist
Emir Suljagic – professor, International University of Sarajevo
Vladimir Petrovic – historian
Natasa Kandic – founder, Humanitarian Law Center