The idea to this post goes back to late summer 2021. Since then, the text sat in my “drafts folder”. Now, one year later, with unprecedented developments happening in East Europe, it is time to pick it up again, to rewrite it according to what has happened since the Russian war of aggression began to rage through the Ukraine, and to finalise it.
September 09, 2021, I came across an article in Balkan Insight, titled “In the Balkans, Let Us Remember to Forget“. The somewhat contradicting title caught my attention. I was enjoying a late summer espresso in a Belgrade street cafe, looking back at living and traveling for more than a decade in the Western Balkans. I love being here, the Western Balkans are somewhat home to me, and I have made it a habit to always connect to the local neighborhoods and to listen to local friends. Like that day in September 2021, in Belgrade’s Innercity, when I had a conversation with a youth activist. Of course, the conversation touched on the question as to which extent people identifying with different nationalities do co-exist. Do they feel like belonging to something they share in common, other than an ever more distant past of an entity called Yugoslavia? How do they establish a joint identity, based on commonly shared memories? The assessment of my friend was somewhat sober: Young generations carry the same feeling of belonging to entities based on “ethnic” narratives. We spoke about how to learn to effectively talk to each other by listening. But the memories of those who talk to each other, including in young generations, they are very different from one place to another.
I spend a lot of time as a digital nomad. The great thing is that I happen to listen to new people everyday, meeting people from all walks of life. Academic discussions are rare, and when I explain what I do, I always struggle with making it as simple as possible.
When I travel to Kopacki Rit, a stunning nature reserve in East Croatia, I sometimes pass through the city of Vucovar, which has a wartime past of unspeakable atrocities. During 87 days of siege in 1991, the city was shelled into rubble by the Yugoslav People’s Army JNA. To quote Wikipedia: “The damage to Vukovar during the siege has been called the worst in Europe since World War II, drawing comparisons with Stalingrad.”
Today, you will see mostly new and non-descript buildings not telling anything about that time long gone. Believe me, under the surface the memories and tensions are still there. Also, I am not so sure any longer that the damage to Vukovar stands out the way it did when the Wikipedia article was written: The damage to cities, towns and villages in the Ukraine is increasing day by day.
If you happen to come to Mostar in Bosnia&Hercegovina as a tourist, you will marvel at the beauty of a historic town with the famously destroyed bridge nicely rebuilt. Not much will give away tension, and segregation. But people on one side of the bridge are identifying as Croats, on the other side as Bosniaks. Live there, and you will soon become aware of the segregation running underneath.
More visible is this segregation, of course, in Mitrovica in Kosovo, the northern part inhabited by Kosovo-Serbs, the southern parts by Kosovo-Albanians. I can not count how often I have been on the West Bridge between 2000 and 2004, with tensions and, at times, violence, flying high.
When, in 2008, I asked a friend in Bosnia&Hercegovina, whether we were still driving in East-Sarajevo or would already be close to central Sarajevo, he responded “No, we are still on our side”. My friend identifies as a Croat, and he was referring to a specific area through which the front-line of Bosnian defence moved forward and backward throughout Sarajevo’s siege by the JNA. He said this more than twenty years later, realized what he had just said, looked surprised, and apologised for his Freudian error. At the same time, our Nanny, who identifies as a Bosniak, would be scared when we were taking our children and her for a walk up at Trebevic, an area from where Serb snipers were killing Sarajevan citizens during the siege.
When, early after the beginning of Russia’s war against the Ukraine, in February and March 2022, I would talk to friends in Serbia, notably here in Belgrade, I would always hear them also talking about their memories of the NATO bombing campaign in 1999. Like with everyone else, including related to those examples I have used above, on Croatia, Bosnia&Hercegovina, and Kosovo, collective memories of the wartime past are still very present here in Serbia. The historical connotation in which those memories happen, they are different from place to place, and so is the narrative related to what happened, or whether it happened at all, why it happened, whether some of these events constitute acts of genocide, or whether things which happened were justified, and just.
But here is the thing which I note these days: There is a collective memory of the trauma which happens when civilian populations suffer, whether through a siege, of through a bombing campaign, or anything else. The memory of trauma and fear, the memory of injury and death, it persists, notwithstanding historical reasons, established narratives, or narratives attempting to falsify history. Whilst the article in Balkan Insight in 2021 is arguing the necessity also to forget, in order to support reconciliation, this is not yet the situation here: These memories are very present.
Over the last days, when I am having coffees with Serbian friends and when I bring up the situation in the Ukraine, their voices go very low. I will hear great sympathy for the suffering of the Ukrainian people, and I see expressions of pain on my friend’s faces. I will hear very clear voices telling me that indiscriminate shelling of the civilian population, that rape, murder, torture of Ukrainian’s by the Russian Army are upsetting my Serbian friends very much, that there is no justification for it, at all. There is a clear distancing from those acts of war crimes, crimes against humanity, other severe crimes. And it appears those feelings go deep. I always will hear references to the fear which my friends remember from their own trauma. Whether the bombing campaign here in Belgrade, whether the siege of Sarajevo. And I guess it is similar elsewhere.
This is where I close the loop between finishing this blog article which I have sitting in my draft folder since one year, and what is in my draft folder since a few days:
First, a select collection of links which I have been compiling:
I could go on an on, but I guess it is enough. From Bucha to Izium, one atrocity is piling on another war crime. To this, the indiscriminate bombing, rocketing, shelling over the past days, justified by the Russian President as revenge for the attack on the Crimean Bridge, it adds. I don’t want to throw even more links into the hodgepodge above, but it is especially this revenge action of the past days which clearly increases the feeling of people here of being upset.
When this war is over, Russia will be remembered for this. The long-term image of how we look at the Russian people will be severely damaged for a generation, or more. What this murderous Russian regime and the atrocities committed by the Russian army is doing pales anything we have seen on the European continent since the Yugoslav wars. The impact on the World order is so huge because one of the constituting powers defining the post WW2 order, dealing with the unimaginable atrocities committed by Germany, and others (notably including Russia), now tramples down the very foundations of what we collectively hoped to set up in the name of humanity.
Though genocide is genocide, and holding every nation accountable for systematic violations of the laws regulating armed conflict is a necessity of applying justice to violations of international laws, it has always been psychologically different to see these crimes being committed by nations far away, or so-called minor powers.
Yet, here we have a former superpower committing atrocities, whether in Chechnya, or in Syria, or through delegation to mercenaries in places like Africa or the Middle East. But the fact that this now is also happening in the very heart of Europe, with systemic occurrence and being part of a brutal plan of intimidation and oppression, it will haunt the individual Russian and the Russian society for decades to come. I was a child in post-war Germany and I have many individual memories about people from other nations neighbouring Germany hissing at me. As a little child, I wouldn’t understand. As a little child from Russia, they will not understand. Any process of reconciliation will last decades. And the responsibility for this, including criminal liability, lies with Russian leadership, including the person holding the office of President of the Russian Federation.
Yes, it is, in some ways, important to be able to forget, in order to forgive. But some things shall never be forgotten, otherwise the term “Never Again” becomes not only violated in so many cases, but becomes simply irrelevant. Whether it is the Holocaust, or the genocides of Srebrenica, Rwanda, or so many other places, or the crimes against humanity committed by Russia in the Ukraine, they shall never be forgotten.