What does it mean to be a victim of war? This is a question that is particularly difficult for the post-conflict communities in Bosnia-and Herzegovina to face when the distinction between ‘victim’ and ‘perpetrator’ is complex, blurred and often politicized. Outright conflict in the three-year war, which was part of the broader breakup of Yugoslavia and contained horrific episodes of ethnic violence, ended with the signing of the Dayton Peace agreement in December 1995. This established a single country divided in two parts, a Serbian dominated Republica Srpska and Bosniak-muslim/Croat populated Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Critics at the time warned that the post-conflict arrangements merely entrenched ethnic division and, although 90 war criminals were convicted through international tribunals, failed to adequately deal with the underlying divisions exposed by the war to provide clarity to victims of injustice.
Scars of war
The conflict left many scars. Over 100,000 people were killed, over 2 million forcibly displaced and ethnic segregation now has deep roots within the history of the region. Stories of violence and victimization are often inseparable between the past and the present. As Michael Ignatieff noted, ‘the past continues to torment because it is not past’. Reporters wanting to document ethnic violence during the wars in Bosnia often couldn’t tell whether stories had occurred yesterday or in 1941, or 1881, or 1441. This unfortunate combination of deeply historical injustice and post-conflict political arrangements that have entrenched ethnic divides have left victimhood an open question in Bosnia. Ethnically divided schools teach one-sided histories of the war and who the victims were. 56 schools today in Bosnia and Herzegovina still act as ‘two schools in one roof’ where Bosniak children enter through one door to be taught one curriculum while Croat children enter through a different door to be taught another curriculum. Political parties based on ethnic groups still dominate election results, a division also reflected in the media landscape. This has led to a situation today where contested stories of blame and injustice are much of a barrier to peace and reconciliation as physical minefields. Long-lasting competition for victimhood status is by no means a situation unique to Bosnia and Herzegovina and all post-conflict communities face these types of issues. However, Bosnia’s legacy of mass inter-communal violence and ethnic based post-conflict political system makes this conversation have extra potency. This conversation is best viewed in two ways, from the perspective of political leaders discussing victimhood and individuals trying to categorise themselves and others as victims. To illuminate this using the voices of real people, I draw on interviews of survivors verbally recounting their experiences in the war.
The public sphere is a prime venue for the exploitation of past injustices. For many, war traumas are exposed and prodded through politicians seeking to use past-crimes as political ammunition. Milorad Dodik, representing the Serb portion of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s three-way split Presidency, has repeatedly attempted to delegitimize Srebrenica genocide as a significant victim-generating event. According to recognized official estimates, over 8000 men and boys were killed by Serbian forces and paramilitaries at Srebrenica in July 1995. Dodik instead dismisses the massacre as an ‘arranged tragedy’ to place collective guilt upon the Serbian people for the injustices during the war. He further claimed that many of its victims were ‘still alive’ in 2018 and has had numerous stages in his Presidency tried to reject official reports of the numbers killed in the genocide. The two-fold purpose to the politicization of trauma can be seen here. Dodik both delegitimizes claims to victimhood from Bosnian-Muslims and seeks to claim collective victim status for Serbs in his region. On the other side of the spectrum, one could see Haris Silajdzic’s ( Bosnian-Muslim President from 2006-2010) repeated parallels between the Jewish experience at Auschwitz and the Bosniak-Muslim experience at Srebrenica as an equivalent attempt to exploit past-injustice for political gain. What they share is an attempt to make victimhood a collective experience. Slavisa Sucur, one of the only ethnic Serbs to be honored for his service in the Bosnian army, argued that this eradicates the individual victimhood experience-‘You are not victims but there are many people who are’. Nevertheless, examining individual stories of victimhood reveals that competition for victim status isn’t only pursued by political elites and is in fact a marked part of the memory process for ordinary inhabitants of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Victims in war- are there clear dividing lines?
There is often an idealized version of a war-victim. Violence is committed onto them by perpetrators who are usually dangerous, from a strange and separated land and evil in the motives. Victims are usually perceived as weak and lacking agency for their actions. Hearing directly from how Bosnian and Herzegovinian people themselves describe victimhood reveals this to be a distortion. Various difficulties are clear when trying to establish true categories of victimhood. Firstly, perpetrators of violence were often well known to their eventual victims as neighbours, colleagues or authority figures. Nasim, a former concentration camp detainee described his shock when he saw those who guarded his transport to the camp had been his workmates for over 14 years. Now to him they were dangerous and ‘mad’ yet they had once ‘shared everything with each other’. This complicates the picture of a clear dividing line between victim and perpetrator. Indeed, the muddiness of responsibility is most clear when individuals address crimes committed by one’s own ethnic group. For instance, when a 65 year old Croatian male was asked in 2018 about Operation ‘Storm’, a Croatian army operation which led to the deaths of 500 Serb citizens and the displacement of 200,000 others, the instinct to defend the Croat forces’ actions was evident. He argued that the Croatan armed forces in fact wanted to keep people in their homes and it was the Serbian president Milošević who deceived the international community by ordering the Serbs to leave, therefore creating the impression of a Croatian displacement campaign. Through this, the perpetrator (Croatian army) is transformed into a victim of deceit while simultaneously the victims ( Serbian citizen) are turned into perpetrators of a deceit.
Complications furthered when considering post-conflict victims in Bosnia and Herzegovina. A key dividing line here is between the ‘remainders’, people who remained in their homes and communities, and ‘returnees’, people who were expelled during the war and have since returned to their pre- war addresses. Those that stayed in Bosnia, either in their own addresses or as refugees in another region, were often jealous of returnees who generally had a better economic situation and weren’t perceived to have experienced the same hardship. Radovan, who stayed in northwestern Bosnia through the war, described his frustration at those who had returned from abroad with ‘money’ and ‘donations to repair their houses’, even saying that they should ‘thank the Serbs’ for their fortune. ‘Refugees’ who were forcibly moved to another region of Bosnia faced similar sentiments from fellow post-conflict victims who perceived them as strangers, unwelcomingly changing the culture of their new area. The complexities of victimhood can be seen at all levels in Bosnia and Herzegovina. From the political elite who manipulate past injustices, to individuals navigating muddied wars of responsibility, victimhood is still an open question in Bosnia.
Oliver is a History and International Relations student at the War Studies Department, King's College, London. He researched and wrote this article as part of the BizGees & War Studies Department Internship programme.