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On Contact: Yugoslavia/USA déjà vu

On the show this week, Chris Hedges discusses what happened three decades ago in Yugoslavia when the country broke into brutal warring factions, and the parallels in the US today, with Croatian author and journalist, Slavenka Drakulić.

Drakulić’s book ‘They Would Never Hurt a Fly’ is about the war criminals from the former Yugoslavia who were put on trial in the Hague. She explores not only the motivations of these killers and their sense of themselves, but also how such crimes were allowed to be perpetrated in her country.

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Slavenka Drakulić: I always find it hard to explain that we did not have history.  We have history that was written by the Communist Party so it was kind of official history and private memories of the back--going back to the Second World War.  So, it was always possible, especially in the federation, as Yugoslavia was, to raise some antagonism that existed before.  And nationalism--this is how the nationalism based on myth, on lies, today they would say fake news, was kind of built up.  And as I said before, it was built up not to start the war, it was built up just to stay in power, mainly first, Milosevic, but when army got involved into that, then it was kind of--it became too late.

Chris Hedges: Slavenka Drakulic in her book "They Would Never Hurt a Fly" writes about the war criminals on trial in the Hague from the former Yugoslavia.  She explores not only the motivations of these killers, their sense of themselves, but how these crimes came to flourish in here country.  She explains the factors that caused Yugoslavia to break down into brutal warring factions.  Drakulic, who grew up in the now Independent State of Croatia in Yugoslavia, looks in this book and several others including her brilliant novel "S." about a Bosnian woman held for months by Serb forces and repeatedly gang raped along with other girls and women at the legacy of communism, the danger of historical amnesia, and the intoxication of hyper masculinity and violence, especially sexual violence.  She is one of the most important and prescient writers from Eastern Europe.  And her insights are especially important as the United States unravels in ways that are frighteningly similar to what happened three decades ago in Yugoslavia where she and I reported on the conflict.  Joining me from her home in Croatia is Slavenka Drakulic.  So before we begin, I--as you know, I'm a huge, huge fan of your writing.

SD: Thank you so much.

CH: I mean not only are you a great writer, but I just think you're so thoughtful.  Let's talk about what you write about also in "Cafe Europa," which--another great book of yours.  But you write about the unraveling of this state in Yugoslavia which, in many ways, was best prepared when you look at some of the other states in Eastern Europe to perhaps integrate into Europe.  I mean, Yugoslavs could travel, their standard of living was much higher, what do you think went wrong?

SD: Oh, so many things went wrong.  But when you say that Yugoslavia was perhaps best prepared, it was also not so well prepared comparing to the other Eastern Europe--European countries.  Why?  Because we did not have actually at any point dissidents of the kind, Polish dissidents, or Czech dissidents, or any kind of alternative democratic political even underground organizations.  So there was no--there was…

CH: But even--what--but what about Milovan Djilas?  What about Milovan Djilas?

SD: Well, Milovan Djilas long passed the times.  I mean it's not Djilas that you could direct were some people, but there was no organization.  There was no solidarity, if you want Polish solidarity.  There was no--I think that it is because people were glad with what they had.  They were happy with what they had.  Well happy is perhaps too big a word.

CH: Yeah.

SD: But they were satisfied for the reasons that you just mentioned.  They could travel, they had many more things to buy.  It was kind of a--they also had much more freedom than the other countries in the bloc.  Yugoslavia was not in the Soviet Bloc.  Apparently, this was one of the reasons, and I take it as a blame for my generation, why?  Because I think that my generation was kept happy with these scrambles of freedom that we--that we had and therefore we did not when nationalists, so to say, they've started in the beginning of the '80s, not with the war but before the war with Kosovo actually.  With Serbian nationalism against Kosovo, this is where it started.  We tend to forget that.  So, nobody really thought that it will turn into something so nasty as wars in the Balkans.  And I think my generation, especially, was completely politically unprepared for that.

CH: And you had the rise.  You write about them, you sit through their trials in the Hague.  These, you know, Trump-like, almost buffoonish figures, Radovan Karadzic, Milosevic, even I would say Franjo Tudjman.  What gave rise to these--they're at once almost ridiculous and frighteningly dangerous.  How did they rise up out of the kind of disintegration that took place in Yugoslavia?

SD: Well, I would say that the only people who were prepared in Yugoslavia, who were organized in Yugoslavia, especially that's true for Croatia, were nationalists.  If you do not have a democrat--Democratic people who are in some kind of Democratic organization to take over or to lead, nationalists are very much prepared.  But I have to say that Croatian nationalism I think was a response to the Serbian nationalism of Milosevic's kind.  Milosevic, from that point of view, was a kind of evil spirit, if you can call him like that, although I don't like to use that word, who realized one thing, which is that--as different to Franjo Tudjman who was a Croatian and nationalist during the war, it is that he was an opportunist.  He saw the chance of using nationalism as means of staying in power.  Tudjman was messiah.  He was bringing independence to his people.  This was his call.  But Milosevic didn't have anything but opportunism.  He wanted to stay in power.  The moment when he really realized he's going--he can use it is in Kosovo when he gave a speech in 1997.  He went there to convince Serbs who live in Kosovo with Albanians that nobody will harm them and he said, "Nobody will harm you."  And then this crowd, these people who were crying, applauding him, thousands of them gave him, so to say, feeling, okay, this is how I should go.  This is how should proceed from there.  I don't believe that from the very beginning, anybody had any war in their mind, but there are so many other circumstances that actually led to the war.  But we should not forget that also there was some kind of five year, I would say, psychological preparation for that.  You don't--I mean everybody abroad said, oh, the war started--they were all very surprised.  The war started overnight.  It did not.  You need to prepare people to be able to kill their neighbors from the same floor.  It's not done just like that.  Killing is still the biggest taboo.  So I, in my book, tried something else.  I tried to show different kinds of people from leaders that you mentioned also what we call ordinary people.  And my guide in that was somebody--it was an American.  It was American professor Christopher Browning.  This is the book that I had on my mind when I was writing that.  He wrote the book "Ordinary People: Battalion 101" and "The Final Solution in Poland."  And so this was my kind of a starting point trying to show how different kind of people ended up in the situation to become war criminals.  Did they--did they choose it?  Did circumstances choose because they couldn't do anything else?  There are some cases like that, like for example Dragan Radenovic who is in the book and who is a criminal who was killing people in Srebrenica, Srebrenica, executing, but also the key witness in many cases on trial for Srebrenica, so he was--he was doing both in a sense, you know.  He's the war criminal who had conscience, this we can say, as paradoxical as it sounds.  But you can also have political leaders like Milosevic opportunists, the other people who were guided by this ideology, the others who have grown up with the certain--in certain circumstances, they were too poor or they were different.  But the point is we--all ourselves could find in this situation and then you realize okay what is that I would do in such a situation.  Many, many people say no, I would never do anything like that.  I'm not a criminal.  And then we have this impulse to defend ourselves by saying they're monsters.  My bitter conclusion at the end of this research and reading about that, talking and watching in the Hague, was that they're not monsters, they're ordinary people, as they are the politicians that you mentioned, as there are politicians everywhere, they are ordinary people.  And, of course, ordinary people, as Primo Levi would say, they always have a choice.  Sometimes this choice can bring you very--could bring you that.  But, I mean the choice, the free choice, is always there.  So, this is what my book is about.

CH: Well, the--it--you captured that.  "The Browning" book, of course, is brilliant.  It's about a reserve police battalion out of Hamburg.  None of these people are Nazis, most are middle-aged family men.

SD: Yes.

CH: And as with your book--and you talk about how for instance when you are in a town and Muslims are attacked and driven out of their home, people will go in and pillage those homes, that there was a tangential complicity that forces ordinary people to be quiet.  And as in the Browning book, how--and this, of course, was something that I experienced in the war in Yugoslavia and in other wars that I covered, is that line between the victim and the victimizer is razor-thin.  That one of the most haunting aspects of covering war is that how easy it is for us to be seduced into becoming the torturer, the killer.  And I think this is something you capture in your book.  Can you speak about that?

SD: Well, yes.  I think you--we all have this possibility to choose between--because we all, in us in ourselves, have both possibility to do evil and to do--to do good.  And--but I think you mentioned one word which I think is key to understanding, and this is opera--this is collaboration actually.  You become collaborant with the powers to be in communism because the same principle is valid in the war.  You do not have to kill.  You can go and loot the house as it happened--as it happened very often.  And it's not only soldiers who are doing that, it's--there are civilians.  So, they go in and they strip naked a house and take these machines, I don't know, television set, the washing machines.  It sounds so very banal.  They take them to their house.  And what are you then?  You are not a war criminal, that's for sure.  You're not even a murderer, but you are complicit.  You are accomplice to this crime, therefore in--especially in the small places, people do not want to talk about that.  They do not even want to witness.  There is another element we are--now we are talking about trials and so on.  There is element of fear.  Of course the ICTY, International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia, put on trial many people but not enough.  The idea was that they will continue to have these processes for war criminals in in former--in former--in the countries of former Yugoslavia, in Serbia, in Bosnia, in Croatia.  This is not going very well.  It is still kind of a reluctant process as--and it is very much on the way of real peace in this part of the world.

CH: Great.  When we come back, we'll continue our conversation about war crimes in Bosnia.  Welcome back.  We continue our conversation about the war in the former Yugoslavia.  So, I want to ask about you write about in a chapter a suicide scenario.  You write about Milan Levar, he's a Croatian, he becomes a witness.  He--and courageously stands up to give evidence about war crimes, and this gets to that point about a kind of collective collaboration.  Talk about that case and what happens because it's kind of emblematic about the culture of silence.

SD: His name is pronounced Milan Levar and what happened there, it's the little town of Gospic, and it is a town in Krapina, in this part where mostly Serbs are living and Milan Levar was a policeman but he was not happy with how the police was so to say behaving at the beginning of the war and also he stepped out of the police and became a civilian, repairing machines, and cars, and so on.  Milan Levar was a Croat but he witnessed killings of Serbs civilians in Gospic or near Gospic, and then he was called in ICTY--he was--I have to say he passed all--every single instance in that process to ICTY, what I mean is that he tried to report that to the--to the other instances, local instances, from local to the--to the state, instances of the police and--but the law system of the law rejected that because these were Croats who they claimed they didn't do it but it was actually ethnic cleansing of Serbs.  And when he was already desperate, he was then called to the ICTY to witness there.  He never made--he went there to get--he--too--gave to the positions but he was killed in the meantime, just because of that, just because he wanted to witness the--and Gospic is a very small town.  Now recently there was commemoration, the 28th of August, of his death and his wife said, "Why didn't they ask me who killed him?  Everybody in this town knows who is the murderer, but nobody there to say the name even 20 years later."  So the question is another, how do we live?  How do we go on living like that?

CH: The war in Yugoslavia was presaged by the economic collapse of Yugoslavia, Tito had taken out tremendous loans, then the Western powers wouldn't renew, or renegotiate the debt, which was quite heavy, state factories closed down.  So there was a huge economic crisis, how much of that do you think fueled the war?

SD: It's hard to say was it that--was it the--if the economy was the cause of that for it was very bad.  I remember still how it was but we had then the Prime Minister Markovic who made the dinner convertible and whose idea was he also funded a party, his idea was if people are living well, they will not think about nationalism and about war.  And he was--he was naive in that belief because it was easier to fuel the war with the past.  It's hard to explain, I think, to the Western people.  I always find it hard to explain that we did not have history, we have history that was written by the Communist Party so it was a kind of official history and private memories of the--back--going back to the Second World War.  So it was always possible, especially in the federation, as Yugoslavia was, to raise some antagonism that existed before and nationalism, this is how the nationalism, based on myth, on lies.  Today, they would say fake news, was kind of built up.  And as I said before, it was built up not to start the war, it was built up just to stay in power, mainly first, Milosevic, but when army got involved into that, then it was kind of--it became too late.  It became too late because there was nobody to stop the war, there was no thousands and thousands of civilians going out, there was no peace movement, there was no--there was very little civil movement and mainly in Slovenia, and there was nobody who would say, "Okay, enough of that.  It's enough.  We don't want to do it."  But this is because--one of the consequences of life in communism, that you cannot develop this kind of activities, that you are afraid, that you are not used to it, democracy does not have any kind of tradition there so to behave democratically, I think it wasn't really feasible to expect from the people there.  So, nobody is objecting, every political leader is seeing the opportunity to proclaim independence, nobody is still thinking about the war, only when the army moved to Slovenia we are forgetting this small Slovenian war, but still it was a war.  Then later in Croatia, and then later in Bosnia, only when the army starts to move and the army was led by Serbian officers.  It was the office--officer corps was mostly Serbians.  And then it became kind of serious.  I think everything is kind of possible to do before the first blood is shed.  But then the first bloody is shed.  When the--when the first person is killed in Croatia, it was the case of Bloody Easter in 1991 in Plitvice, and I still remember the name Josip Jovic was the name of the first victim killed by the Krajina Serbs in Plitvice.  So as long as you remember the names of the victims, this is not war, but when there are so many victims that you cannot remember their names then the war started and the war really started in Croatia not properly in Slovenia.

CH: And you had the same there was the wedding in Sarajevo where the father of the groom was killed.  Again, that…

SD: Exactly.  In 1992, yes.

CH: Exactly.  So two things, one, I think you're right that nobody expected war and yet you have people posturing with arms and speaking in the rhetoric of war, but they kind of stumble into the conflict and I'm wondering if, when you look at these armed militias now in the United States and cities like Portland or standing on the steps of state capitals that reminds you of the initial stages of the conflict in the former Yugoslavia.

SD: Unfortunately, it does.  Whenever I see people in some kind of uniforms and not really proper uniforms with arms, I'm, of course, afraid.  You could take Unite--you can take United States today or--but you can also take Spain and their problems with nationalism.  It's always very, very dangerous and I'm always afraid when is this number of killed people going to cross this border between remembering their names and not remembering their names?  Because this is--this is what is fatal and, of course, what is looming.  I don't want to be Cassandra, but it--from far away it looks as if that civil war, another civil war in the United States, it's looming there.  It's--of course everybody's afraid even to think that, even to say that, but I mean from the pictures, and from the descriptions, and from the news, you get a very--yeah, frightening idea of how United States are today.

CH: Well, Trump is speaking in the same language of nationalism and racism and, of course, violence that Milosevic spoke in, that Tudjman spoke in.  I mean do you find in his rhetoric echoes of those leaders?

SD: The language is always very simple, and it's always very fierce, and it's always blaming the other.  Yes, of course, but this is not only common to the--to the leaders from the Balkans, it's everywhere like that, you know.  There is a certain repertoire of words and of statements that lead to that, but, yes, the words are always preceding the acts and therefore this is--this is very problematic.  I do not want to speak about the situation that I'm not experiencing, I'm not there and I'm not following it so closely, but it is scary.  The feeling that you get over here is--it is scary.

CH: In your book, in your novel "S.," which I think I read in one sitting, you write "War began the moment others started dividing and labeling her," you're talking about the woman who's held in a Serb camp and--for a period of months and gang raped, "when nobody asked her anything more, it is that labeling which again we're watching within the, kind of discourse in the United States.  Can you--can you say what you mean by that?

SD: Well, at a certain point, there is a reason why this person is called S.  In other countries, the novel has a different title.  It--the title is "As If I'm Not There," but that--the word "S." is actually her known name while in the camp.  She is only in that camp because she is a Muslim woman.  So, she already has this etiquette, she has a brand, she has a--she's not human being, and this is the process of dehumanization.  This is what it means to tell you are--you are Black, or you are a woman, or you are a lesbian, or you are this, or you are that, you are not--this is dehumanization and I don't think we really understand that.  And watching that this is happening in the beacon of democracy, I mean, it's--I have to say it's very, very--it's very, very sad.  Because if it's happening in America, you can only imagine what consequences it could have on the other less democratically developed countries.  So it's not only that it is happening in America, it is--it's giving you a bigger picture and also a bigger fear.

CH: You write at the end of "S.," "The murderers need to forget but their victims must not let them."  And I know from your essay like the essay about your father and "Cafe Europa," you actually take a certain amount of blame for what happened to the generation of your daughter just as you felt that your father and his generation should have taken a certain amount of blame, talk just--we have just a minute or two left, but that historical amnesia, the danger of forgetting.

SD: I don't know, it is--you don't know, is it better to forget or is it better to remember?  There are two ways, it says you know, it's a German way and Spanish way.  German said, okay, let's go or rather they were forced to go to the bottom of their fascism.  Spaniards after Franco died, said, "Okay, let's forget everything."  I think it is dangerous if we have official history and private memory and if they cannot somehow come together, and this is the situation that you are creating, at least in former--countries of former Yugoslavia, we are creating another official--officially created history and the memories of the people are different and so we are creating another ideology, I would say, and this is--this is not good.  So, it is very important how we remember and it is very important that we have--that we have true--that we find truth about what happened and therefore I think that ICTY, the International Criminal Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia, accomplished their historic mission, if not in justice because it is impossible, it is in creating and digging out truth.  The last thing I would say is if it wouldn't be for ICTY, we would never find out the truth about 8,000 Muslim men, old and young men, killed in Srebrenica.

CH: Great.  Thank you.  That was Slavenka Drakulic, the author and journalist speaking from her home in Croatia.

SD: Thank you.

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