The Half-Truths Of History That Still Hang Over The Balkans

A Bosnian Serb who fled the Balkans as a teenager reflects on how hard it is to face the past in the Balkans, as much for history's winners as losers.

Srebrenica is seared into memories of Bosnian Muslims
Srebrenica is seared into memories of Bosnian Muslims
Draginja Nadażdin*

Convicted war criminal General Radislav Krstić will do his time in a Polish prison. A Polish court agreed to this after the former Bosnian Serb leader was attacked by Muslim inmates in the British prison where he'd been serving his time. Krstić barely survived.

The jailhouse attack was revenge for his role in the 1995 Srebrenica massacre, Europe's worst massacre since World War II that left more than 8,000 Bosnian Muslims dead.

Krstić was both one of the most highly placed Serbian military leaders, but at the same time not widely known. In Serbia, few remember his name. Still, Srebrenica and the war crimes perpetrated there hold more weight in the folk memory of Serbia than amongst Bosnian Serbs.

Serbians in Serbia might not know exactly all of the names of those responsible for massacres, but they obviously know about them -- and decry them. Bosnian Serbs also know the basic details of what happened in Srebrenica, even if they are more focused on their own suffering at the hands of Croats and Bosnians -- and some attempt to justify Serbian war crimes.

Even within the Republic of Serbia, Serbian war victims don’t feel properly acknowledged by their countrymen. Organizations that support families of missing people and former prisoners of war denounce the scant concern for their plight.

The politicians who rule the Balkans lack both courage and a sense of responsibility. Political accountability means helping war victims from all sides to overcome their trauma. In Bosnia, all of the victims -- Muslim, Croat, and Serbian -- may feel they have been treated like an object. When there’s a political need is when there are reminders about their suffering. Amnesty International research done several years ago shows Bosnia's lack of care for women victims of rape and abuse from all three backgrounds.

Different memories

In all former Yugoslavian countries the recent wars are remembered in different ways. Every nation has its own memory and does not actually bother with the points of view of their neighbors.

Recently, the ambassador of the Serbian minority in Croatia refused to take part in anniversary ceremony of the unjust taking of Serbian enclaves in Krajina in 1995 when more than 200,000 Serbs were forced from their homes. Croatia has not done enough to acknowledge their own war criminals: military officers, policemen, members of paramilitary formations. Meanwhile, some Croats think that the Krajina operation was necessary. The military leaders of that time are still widely respected.

Throughout the Balkans, too many perceive their war criminals as noble warriors. Serbia, Croatia, Bosna and Kosovo have written their own stories describing the Balkan wars. They all differ widely. In the Croatian version for example there is a story of people like General Ante Gotovina, sentenced in 2011 by International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia to 24 years of prison for war crimes. He is often presented as a hero, and his acquittal in November was celebrated.

In Serbia, things are a little bit different. There’s a wide discrepancy between those who have never and the ones who still do identify with both Radovan Karadžić and Ratko Mladić and other such accused war criminals. The second group, though, has thankfully diminished in recent years. When Karadžić, and then Mladić were arrested and brought to trial in the Hague, a clamor was expected, but there were only a few people demonstrating in their favor.

The Bosnian story is also dfferent. The best-known Muslim war criminals are dead. They are often considered to be martyrs for the faith. Their believers don’t seem to remember that most of them began as petty criminals, and some died in gangster showdowns.

Then there are the Albanian criminals, who still go unpunished. The attempts at determining what Albanians were doing in Kosovo are still very rare. The first judgement for war crimes committed by Kosovan Albanians was pronounced just in 2009, ten years after the end of the war.

Forced to face the past

Too many in the Balkans -- from all its nations -- still prefer to live a lie. Some like to say that the Serbian people have done the most to process what happend in the war. But it's rather that they saw the necessity of making sure that known war criminals disappear, since international opinion allowed for nothing less. Without it, Serbia would be a pariah. Still, Serbs are in no hurry to judge less-known, ordinary criminals. They behave like the best thing to do is to forget the war- their own war crimes, but also their own suffering.

On the other hand, there had been a very strong anti-war movement in Serbia from the very beginning of the war with Croatia, and later in Bosnia. When in 1992, I ran away from Croats and Muslims from Bosnian Mostar to Belgrade, I went to a huge anti-war rock concert. People were collecting money and medicines not for Serbian refugees like I was, but for Sarajevo, beset by the Serbs. But then, nobody said anything about this kind of Serbia.

A great part of Serbian society thinks that the results of war in Croatia and Bosnia are irremediable, both in territory and among the populace. Refugees from Croatia or Bosnia will not stay in Serbia forever, and Serbian minorities abroad will shrink. Serbia has that disconcerting feeling of having lost a war, not only due to the fact that they lost things and loved ones -- but also because of Serbian war crimes.

Winners, losers

The Croatians though consider themselves as winners and the whole world helped them think so. International public opinion look at the Balkans in a simplified way. People have long been talking -- rightfully so -- about Serbian nationalism and Serbian crimes, without seeing the same from Croatians or Muslims.

In 2011, as the former Croatian Prime Minister Jadranka Kosor paid tribute to Ante Gotovina, the country was finalizing the process of entering the European Union. Does any European politician recall that Vladimir Šeks (a deputy chairman of Croatian Parliament until June 2012) at the time he ruled the town of Osijek failed to react when he saw dead and tortured people in front of his office?

Serbia had to serve Slobodan Milošević and Vojislav Szeszelj up to the Hague. The orders for Serbia were tough, and that is why self-reflection about the war was deeper, and Serbian authorities after Milošević favored a more full accounting for the war.

Some Serbs think that the Hague Tribunal is part of a Western, anti-Serbian conspiracy. Others do not really care about the charges against their fellow Serbs at the Hague, but nevertheless are waiting for Croatian and Bosnian criminals to also stand trial because those crimes touched their families.

The Tribunal soon will be done with their work, so the national courts and politicians will play a key role here. It is up to them to properly ajudicate “their” war criminals.

If Croatia would judge Croatian war criminals -- as called for in the reports of Amnesty International - they would probably need some 30 years just to cover the cases they have already started.

And in every country, you can come across crumbling remains of houses. From time to time, someone dies when a buried anti-tank mine is triggered. Many Serbs are surprised at how easy it is to go to Croatia. Many Croatian people visit Serbia for work or pleasure. New relationships spring up, unlikely bonds are forged.

But for thousands of ordinary Serbian, Bosnian and Croatian people, the war will probably never end. They are still not sure what happened to their relatives and loved ones. The list of missing people is still very long, stretching back from the beginning of the 1990s to after the end of the conflict in Kosovo. It is for these people, after all, that the Balkan war criminals must be judged. And ultimately, this is the only way to begin to eradicate the enourmous hypocrisy that still lives on in the Balkans.

* Draginja Nadażdin was born in 1975 in a Serbian family in Mostar (Bosnia and Herzegovina). In 1992 she fled the Croatian and Bosnian army from Mostar to Belgrade. She graduated from University of Warsaw, Poland with a degree in Enthnology, and is the director of Amnesty International Poland.

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Where Lockdowns For LGBTQ Meant Moving Back In With Homophobic Relatives

The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.

At a Rainbow pride walk in Kolkata, India

Sreemanti Sengupta

Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.

Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."

Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.

Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.

Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.

Oppressive home situations

As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.

Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.

Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.

Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.

"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."

Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."

Lack of spaces

Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.

"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.

The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out

Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.

Lockdowns force coming out

According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.

"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.

Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.

Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.

"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.

The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling

David Talukdar/ZUMA

"Correctional" therapy

In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.

"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."

Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.

Medical care is dismal

Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.

Isolation triggered my depression

"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.

What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.

During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.

As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."

Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.

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