Time's Up, Serbs!
by Gojko Beric
What is there to prove, and to whom? Eight or maybe ten thousand people were killed in just a few days. The bones of half of them have been found in a series of mass graves, and the rest are listed as missing. What does this mean, missing? It’s not as though the massacred of Srebrenica are wandering around lost in some strange forest, unaware that the war is over. Everyone knows what happened in Srebrenica in July 1995. Everyone knows who the victims were and who the executioner. How can there be anything that still needs explaining, then? There can, but only for the Serbs, both those in Bosnia-Herzegovina and those on the other side of the river Drina. Recognizing their genocide against the Bosniaks, at the centre of which stands Srebrenica like a sombre obelisk, has become an impossible political, legal and moral undertaking for them.
I can see no way ever to justify this amnesia of theirs. It is simply untrue to say that those who were present, emotions afire, at the war-mongering rally at Gazimestan knew nothing of the destruction and sufferings of Sarajevo. It is untrue to say that politicians, journalists, writers and intellectuals in Serbia, including the opposition, did not know what happened in Srebrenica. Everyone in Serbia knew who wanted to know. Arkan, Seselj and Draskovic publicly glorified their volunteers who murdered, looted and burned their way around Bosnia, calling this rabble ‘the finest sons of the Serb nation’. And what is there to be said about Karadzic’s disciples in his criminal politics? It cannot be that they didn’t know what they were doing up hill and down dale in this unhappy country. So why are so many Serbs saying nothing about all this even now? Probably because they feel themselves to be guilty too.
To evade all responsibility, they have resorted to the transparent but alluring story of the so-called collective guilt of the Serbs. This is the favourite theory of the Serb political and intellectual nomenclature. Time’s up, Serbs! Stop telling that old story, because no one has ever said that all ten million Balkan Serbs must be taken to court. But the theory has been of the greatest importance to the Serbs, because it did away with any individual responsibility. If an entire people is guilty, it goes without saying that no one is individually to blame. It would mean that crimes might have been committed, but there are no criminals. But if the existence of both crimes and criminals is recognized, then the devil has come for his own. Meanwhile, the entire construction began to fall apart the moment Milosevic was extradited to the Hague Tribunal.
Two great Germans of the post-Hitler era, Wilhelm Reich and Karl Jaspers, have given a convincing and universal answer to the question. In his famous essay, Reich described the so-called little man, whose sheer numbers form the base of every totalitarian order, demonstrating that this ordinary man unscrupulously carries out the most monstrous of deeds. Citing the example of Nazi Germany, Jaspers distinguishes the guilt of the Germans for the criminal deeds of the Hitler regime as criminal, political and moral. Those who organized and committed the crimes must answer to the court. Speaking of political guilt, Jaspers writes: ‘Everyone bears a share of responsibility for his own government.’ Moral responsibility, in the typology of this famous philosopher, is perhaps the most crucial: ‘Moral omissions form the basis on which political guilt and crime arise.’
When he entered the ghost town of Srebrenica, the vicious killer General Mladic proclaimed on the spot that he had ‘taken revenge on the Turks’ that day, and to celebrate that revenge he ‘made a gift’ of the ill-starred little town to the Serbs. But in addition to the historical irony, there is a certain historical justice in Srebrenica remaining in Republika Srpska. For however much that three-ton foundation stone laid yesterday at the Memorial Centre in Potocari symbolizes piety towards the innocent victims of mass slaughter, it also symbolizes the extent of Serb fascism at the end of the 20th century. If the Serbs have falsified their historical defeats by turning them into victories in their epic songs, some Serbs are now singing of the atrocity they committed in Srebrenica. No falsification, please!
From this day forward, and for the next one hundred years, Srebrenica should be the subject of debate among the Serbs. If they knew that the tanks entering Vukovar were strewn with flowers, then one day they should lay at least one flower in Potocari, the site of the greatest killing field in Europe since the Second World War, as a sign of repentance and piety towards their victims.
As a Serb from Bosnia, I should like to live to see the day that would be evidence of the catharsis of the Serb people in the Balkans, but I doubt that it will happen in my lifetime. I do believe, however, that it will happen one day.
(12 July 2001)
This essay is reproduced from Letters to the Celestial Serbs, recently published by Saqi Books (London) in association with The Bosnian Institute