Nataša Kandić, Interview for Novi list
by: Boris Pavelić
We are faced with a horrible political situation, not just in the countries of our region, but in the international community as well. The current international political structures look like they have no idea (what’s been happening/what has happened/) what happened in these parts. When somebody promises them something that suits them, they forget about everything else. Today, the international community recognizes and treats with respect the same people in Serbia who supported the war in 1991. That is the hallmark of this moment, and it upsets people who value the spirit of criticism.
When talking about innocent victims of war, Nataša Kandić often coughs, as if fighting tears and trying to hide a tightness in her throat. That’s not surprising: despite a quarter of a century of peace activism and struggling to protect the rights of war victims, Kandić’s clear-sighted compassion remains unchanged as the fundamental motive for her noble but at the same time difficult and exhausting work. Nataša Kandić, the founder of the Humanitarian Law Center (HLC), a Belgrade based NGO, is undoubtedly among the most highly regarded peace workers from the former Yugoslavia.
Even before the war, together with a small group of like-minded people, she actively and courageously opposed Slobodan Milošević’s warmongering politics, organizing protests and various public activities in Belgrade. To this day, she has never relented in her support and advocacy for peace, compassion, solidarity, victims’ rights and the punishment of war criminals. For example, she represented the war victims of Vukovar in the trial against several perpetrators before a court in Belgrade. 10 years ago, Strepan Mesić, the Croatian President at the time, awarded Nataša Kandić the “Croatian Daystar”, a Croatian national medal depicting Katarina Zrinska, in recognition of her peace work and efforts to promote moral values.
In the past few years, she heads the campaign she has constructed for the establishment of a regional commission to establish the facts about the war and its victims, known to the public as RECOM. We spoke with Ms. Kandić this week in Zagreb, where NGOs from across the region gathered to present the new results of their work on creating a registry of all the victims of the Balkan wars of the nineties.
How would you describe the current situation in the region?
– I like the fact that communication between people is getting better. I am also very pleased that there are now initiatives such as, for example, the Crocodile Society, which work to restore damaged relations between people and cultures. I am thrilled by the fact that many people – at least compared to their numbers in the past -, now foster and voice criticism, and I think that there are no longer any real boundaries in this respect. It was hard to breach those boundaries because they were politically imposed, but I do get the feeling that this has already happened, and that no one will ever be able to impose them again. It was two of the region’s former presidents (neither of whom was deemed successful in the end, as they both could have done better) – Boris Tadić and Ivo Josipović – who started to build and lay the foundation for decent communication between the region’s states. However, with time, as leaders of their administrations, they even resorted to censorship, started to fear certain associations, and began to listen to the opinions of the far right. In the end, they lost power because they had been too afraid.
They were unable to consolidate the idea of a decent society, and it all proved rather limited. We are now faced with a horrible political situation, not just in our own countries, but in the international community as well. The current international political structures look like they have no idea what happened in these parts. When someone promises them something that suits them, they forget about everything else. Today, the international community recognizes and treats with respect the same people in Serbia who supported the war in 1991. That is the hallmark of this moment, and it upsets people who value the spirit of criticism. There are concerns over how far support for these old leaders will go, and whether political radicalism in the region will wane or continue to grow. It is a question of progress and the democratization of state institutions and the politicians tied to them.
You are clearly talking primarily about Serbia. But how can we expect the international community and the EU to help with the democratization of Serbia, when Croatia itself has been spiralling into political radicalism ever since it joined the EU?
– We have seen what’s going on in Hungary, and now in Croatia. All of these are political obstacles, and they have set back the region’s overall political progress. For a while, it even seemed that the situation in Serbia was better than in Croatia. And everything that has been going on in B&H amounts to total confusion: one day, we have Bosnian politicians drinking coffee in Belgrade – the next, their words are far removed from all that and reflect the complete opposite. Then, last year, we have Serbia on a diplomatic offensive at the UN trying to secure a resolution that does not condemn genocide, and celebrating when its efforts prove successful; Prime Minister Vučić then visits Srebrenica and gets attacked, and a big drama is made of the incident. However, the victims know who Vučić is, they remember his speeches from the nineties (“100 Muslims for one Serb”), they know who his mentor was…
Vučić actually got off lightly in Srebrenica, considering what he deserved. He certainly did not deserve to get to visit Srebrenica. But then, we also had victims’ associations greeting Vučić in Srebrenica with lilies. All of that has been very difficult to understand. On the one hand, we have oblivion; on the other, political manipulation of all that happened and everything that should happen… Still, I do feel that the election of the new Croatian Prime Minister brings with it a bit more hope. Honestly, I know people who were relieved by Plenković’s election after all that extremism, radicalism, primitivism and populism – although, truth be told, we have yet to hear what he actually stands for. Plenković is a man of decent manners, he does not radiate hate when he looks at people. That is why he won a lot of sympathy in Croatia, and even some in the rest of the region.
Nevertheless, his government did stage protests after the arrests of the HVO members suspected of war crimes in Orašje.
– The situation with Orašje shows that there is a problem, one that also exists at a political level: it is generally held that those who are considered victims cannot be accused of war crimes. Namely, the Croats are generally considered victims; therefore, members of the HV or HVO cannot be indicted as war criminals, let alone convicted. That was a big surprise for me – how is something like that even possible? The prisons in Donja Mahala near Orašje were truly horrible. The Humanitarian Law Center has investigated those places.
What did you find?
– We spoke with many of those who were imprisoned there, peasants for the most part, but also with some intellectuals from Orašje. It is incredibly hard to believe that human beings can come up with so many different ways to torture, abuse, humiliate and debase one another… There was one man, who had been tortured for days, who decided to end his own life because he couldn’t stand the violence any longer. Such testimonies should be brought to light. The reaction might then be different, because people would know for themselves what had happened there. This way, it looks as if Croatia is just defending itself against political accusations brought up by the B&H Prosecution, while everything that actually happened there remains invisible.
You possess a rare perseverance when it comes to researching facts: for years now, you have been documenting victims and their identities, trying to determine accurately what happened to them, and constantly advocating for the states’ involvement and support… Are you satisfied with the effects your research has had?
– No. We have this “other truth”, these “other facts”, which have prevailed. For example, each year we come out with a list of the names of each of the 758 individuals who died in NATO’s campaign against Serbia, but this fact is not even reaching the political levels. For each of our hard figures, we have some politician or other claiming that “thousands upon thousands of people were killed, including thousands upon thousands of innocent civilians, women, children, ordinary passengers…” This would imply that at least a hundred thousand people died in NATO’s airstrikes. That’s just another manipulative ploy, a political approach that keeps the public in a permanent trap, with NATO as the main culprit and enemy. They never talk about why NATO decided to bomb the country in the first place.
The truth, then, does not suit any of the region’s political administrations?
– It would be necessary for the politicians to establish a commission charged with a rather minimal task: to establish the victims’ identities and the circumstances of their death or disappearance, and to create a registry of every wartime detention site and camp where civilians were being imprisoned. That’s the idea behind RECOM. Whenever we spoke with politicians, they all agreed that this was important. But, the next step, it took so much time… to appoint envoys… to go over all our documentation… It took the Presidents two years just to appoint their envoys to RECOM.
However, since these envoys were appointed by former Presidents, they are no longer presidential envoys, are they?
True, they are not. The politicians who appointed them are no longer in power.
To Better Times Ahead
I am guessing that you do not expect the region’s current presidents to back RECOM?
– No, we don’t. The only chance we see is in the Berlin Process: for the governments of states such as Serbia, Kosovo, Montenegro, etc., to agree to establish a commission. The situation with Bosnia and Herzegovina is particularly difficult, as the Serbian member of the B&H Presidency takes his cue from the President of Republika Srpska, and he has always claimed that RECOM is aimed against the Serbs. We are not sure if there is any progress to be made there. But even with the Croatian member of the B&H Presidency, it is still unclear whether he intends to act independently or follow instructions from Zagreb. For now, the latter seems more likely. Željko Komšić, the former Croatian member of the B&H Presidency, did support RECOM.
Have you made contact with Croatian President Kolinda Grabar- Kitarović?
– Last year, RECOM’s public advocate Žarko Puhovski tried to get in touch with the President through some members of her cabinet. It didn’t work, and we quickly realized that RECOM wasn’t even on her agenda, or that of Croatia’s (now former) government. Since Croatia’s consent is not necessary for the first round of the Berlin Process, it seems to us that if the Prime Ministers of Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia, Kosovo and at least one member of the B&H Presidency were to agree on a joint declaration, it might make it easier for Croatia to join the initiative, as the task of establishing the victims’ names and the circumstances of their death or disappearance cannot be completed without Croatia’s participation. I hope that the victims’ associations will give their backing, because it is important that all of the victims throughout the entire region be recognized. It bears repeating that the Croatian victims are recognized in Croatia, but there is still a problem with their recognition and disrespectful treatment in Serbia. That’s why a regional approach is important. It is important for the Albanian victims to be acknowledged in Belgrade, instead of the monuments commemorating their suffering being kept “hidden” behind speeches about Serbian victims. That needs to change. All the facts need to be made known and publically disclosed.
All your work and effort is founded on the assumption that things will change for the better. For years, this kind of progress has symbolized the hard but constant and certain path to EU membership for all the countries of the former Yugoslavia. However, in recent years, this vision has been teetering on the verge of collapse: the EU is virtually breaking apart, Russia is getting stronger by the day, Donald Trump is the U.S. President-elect, the East and the South are engulfed in wars, refugees are drowning at sea while trying to flee warzones – with Europe refusing to take them in. It is as if the global vision for a peaceful world is breaking apart. How can peace-building work continue in such a context? How can all these victims be protected?
– Each of us has to try answering this question from his or her own personal perspective. I know that I will continue to do this until I die. I want to try to preserve the memory of all the people who lost their lives in the wars following the breakup of the former Yugoslavia. Most of them were civilians: of the 130,000 people killed in these wars, 70,000 were civilians. Just imagine – all the women, the children, the elderly… Everything I know truly prevents me from coming to the conclusion that everything is breaking apart and that no one will ever need any of this. I do believe that it will be needed someday. And, even if some global shifts were to happen – and there are indications that they might -, we would still need to create and preserve something that will prove important in some other, better times.
In Croatia, too, there are families whose sons died fighting for the JNA in Vukovar. Recently, you publically mentioned a group of victims who are almost never spoken of: the conscripts, most of whom were just 18 or 19 years old when they were mobilized by the JNA and killed (in Vukovar for the most part), and whose families now live in Croatia. Do you know any such families? How do these people live?
We haven’t been able to determine the exact numbers. We started searching for these families last year, and we found out that their numbers were not so small. But, it is very hard to reach them. Namely, in order to obtain any information from the Serbian Ministry of Defense, we first have to know the first and last name of the victim and file it with the Ministry before it can issue a certificate confirming the victim’s status. We have determined that around 100 Croatian, B&H, Macedonian and Albanian nationals died fighting in Croatia. All of them were young conscripts in the JNA. Most of them died in Vukovar. What is most disheartening is that there is no one who works with these people. Their families are left to fend for themselves. Croatia does not recognize them, they receive no support or benefits – it is as if they have been stigmatized. We forget that these children did not choose to enlist in the JNA. They just showed up when they were drafted. We also forget that no one asked them about anything, that they didn’t even know where they were going, and that they couldn’t simply switch sides on the battlefield while wearing a JNA uniform.
I’d like to remind you of a book we published in Belgrade in 1991 – “A Tomb for Miroslav Milenković”. Milenković, a father of two, was forcibly enlisted in the JNA and taken to Šid, where his unit was stationed before it was to be deployed to the frontline in eastern Slavonia. Some in the unit refused, so the commanders ordered them to form two lines – those who were willing to fight were told to stand on one side, those who refused on the other. Armed and wearing a uniform, Milenković crossed from one side to the other three times before he finally shot himself, halfway between the two lines. Many young people were forced to fight in the war. Do you remember that video of nineteen year-old Bahrudin Kaletović from B&H, wearing a JNA helmet with some green leaves as camouflage, taking cover on a battlefield in Slavonia and telling a Yutel reporter something along the lines of: “They’re, like, pretending to want to break away, and we’re, like, not letting them. Actually, all we want is to get back to the barracks”, adding that he only wanted to stay alive. That was a historical scene, and that young man expressed what all those young men and boys were thinking. They had no idea what was really happening around them…why they were in Vukovar, what was going on there. Their families had no idea where their children were. In the end, all they got was a brief notification of their child’s death and a sealed tin casket they were not allowed to open; the families in Croatia most likely didn’t even get that. It is sad talking to these families. They are all grieving and feel like they don’t belong anywhere, that no one acknowledges them. It’s just sad, very sad. I hope that a time will come when all of this will be spoken of in a different manner. Because – these young men are victims, victims of ideological depravity. To send children to the frontline… Moreover, the records show that most of them died during the first week, just three or four days after being taken to the battlefield. That means that they were sent there without any training.
(Published in Novi list 23. 12. 2016.)