From Sarajevo To Christchurch

From Sarajevo To Christchurch

Transatlantic Media Fellowship

How White Nationalism Has Been Inspired by the Genocide in Bosnia

Cover: the city of Višegrad.
The city of Višegrad. — Image Credits

On a spring day in 2017, a monument was raised in the Bosnian town of Višegrad, in memory of a terrible mass murder that had occurred there two decades earlier. In a somber ceremony attended by local dignitaries, a 5.5-meter reflective steel monument was raised on top of a grassy hill overlooking the town. Višegrad was the site of some of the worst atrocities that took place during the ugly ethnic wars following the collapse of Yugoslavia. Over the course of one summer in 1992, as many as 3,000 Muslims were shot, raped, and drowned in this historic town along the banks of the Drina River. A resort hotel, the Vilina Vlas, was transformed into a concentration camp for the rape of young women. On at least two occasions, dozens of elderly people, women, and children were herded into homes by jeering Serb gunmen and burnt alive. 

Those atrocities are exactly what made the new memorial so jarring. The shining cross was not erected in memory of the Muslim victims of the genocide. It was put up to honor the perpetrators and their allies: Serbian paramilitaries and the Russian volunteers who helped them ethnically cleanse the town. 

A grave in the cemetery in Višegrad, where the word 'genocide' was removed in 2014. The word was added again in black ink by an unknown person. — Image Credits
An Orthodox Christian cross monument was unveiled on Grad hill above Višegrad in April 2017. — Image Credits

Nearly two decades after the war ended, Bosnia seems to be slipping back into the vortex of hatreds that destroyed the country during the 1990s. Yet what may be even more alarming is that outside Bosnia, the memory of the genocide committed against its Muslims has become a source of inspiration for the global far-right. The shooter who killed 51 people at two mosques in New Zealand this March wrote the names of Serbian nationalist leaders on the rifle he used to carry out the massacres. During his livestream of the attacks, he played a jaunty song performed by Bosnian Serb soldiers during the war, nicknamed “Remove Kebab,” that has become popular among the online alt-right. The Norwegian extremist Anders Breivik who murdered 77 people during a 2011 shooting rampage reportedly also showed a “strange obsession” with the genocide in Bosnia, heaping praise on wartime Serb leaders in a manifesto he wrote before his attacks. A domestic terrorist in Pennsylvania who killed a state trooper in 2014 was similarly infatuated with the wartime Bosnian Serb military, posing images of himself on social media in a uniform from its notorious Drina Wolves unit. On websites like 4Chan that are helping breed a new culture of racial hatred and glorification of violence, it’s not hard to find the Bosnian genocide favorably discussed. These new online connections are also helping foster real-world links between the Western far-right and their Balkan counterparts. 

In the ethnically-cleansed areas of Bosnia, where the genocide occurred, today the perpetrators seem to have narrowed their responses to either ignoring what happened or celebrating it. In addition to the memorial on the hill above Višegrad, in the town center a bronze statue stands in honor of local military veterans, several of whom have been convicted of war crimes at The Hague. Aside from a few small plaques put up by victims’ groups in neighborhoods where mass killings happened, there is no recognition of the massacres. Those plaques have been placed on the upper floors of buildings to keep them out of reach after repeated vandalism. A few years ago, the local municipality even sandblasted the word “genocide” off a memorial stone erected by victims’ families in the town’s Muslim graveyard. When I visited that cemetery this summer, the word had still been obliterated from the monument — though someone had defiantly written it back in with black marker.

In order to understand the ideology of the emerging far-right —obsessed with demographics and starry-eyed over the Bosnian genocide — it’s important to look at what actually happened in Bosnia. The grim success of the genocide in ethnically cleansing much of Bosnia should give a hint as why it has become an inspiration. Around 100,000 people are believed to have been killed during the Bosnian War. The majority of them were Muslims. The ethnic cleansing of places like Višegrad, Foča, Srebrenica, Prijedor and Zvornik was not a war between two equal and opposing forces. It was a campaign of murder and cruelty against a defenseless people, waged in the name of demographics and ethnic purity. It mixed equal parts racism and misogyny. The level of sexual violence against Bosnian Muslim women was so targeted and systematic — educated women were singled out for the worst treatment — that it led to rape being recognized for the first time as a weapon of war under international law. 

In the years before war broke out, ultranationalist politicians obsessively raised public fears about the demographic balance of Yugoslavia. As historian Michael Sells wrote in his history of the war, “Birthrates became so heated an issue that Serb nationalists charged Muslims with a premeditated plot to use their higher birthrates to overwhelm and ultimately destroy the Christian Serbs.” That same fever dream of birthrates and racism is now taking hold of the minds of many people outside Serbia and Bosnia, including in the United States. The young man who murdered 22 people in a Wal-Mart in El Paso, Texas, left a manifesto online despairing over the demographic growth of Hispanics in his state. His goal for the massacre was to kill as many of them as possible. It doesn’t take much to connect the rhetoric about a Hispanic “invasion” to violence as a response to the supposed threat. 

The Balkans is often condescendingly stereotyped as a backwards region stuck in the grip of old prejudices. In reality, Serbs, Croats, and Muslims had lived together as compatriots in the former Yugoslavia for a long time before violent demagogues came to power; it took years of effort during the late 1980s and early 1990s for ultranationalist leaders to drum up the level of fear and hatred necessary for war to start. 

Before it fell apart, the former Yugoslavia was a relatively modern place, with a highly educated elite in its cities and a solid professional class. In some ways, politically, the region might be ahead of us. It was decades ago that the former Yugoslavia began to experience the top-down encouragement of racism that America is now undergoing. We are only witnessing the early stages of a process that they have already been through in its entirety. The war and genocide in Bosnia proved that it is, in fact, possible to incite and kill your way to an ethno-state. The eastern half of the country, where towns like Višegrad are located, was cleansed of almost all its non-Serb populations and transformed into an entity known to this day as Republika Srpska.

As the United States and Western Europe now grapple with political movements demanding ethnic purity and demographic change —through individual acts of terrorism as well as government policy — it feels more urgent to take a look at the inspiration for these demands and the consequences. To put it another way, with Bosnia as an example, what does it actually look like when you get your ethno-state?

A Failed Reckoning

When the New Zealand massacre happened this March and the world began unpacking the cryptic Serbian historical references the shooter had left behind, Serbian politicians responded to the sudden onrush of media attention with irritation. 

"I condemn these types of abuses; the man has nothing to do with Serbia," Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic told a press conference. "I do not know who can be his inspiration, but I saw names of other countries on that list too." The Serb leader in Bosnia, Milorad Dodik, responded to the attack by denouncing a “vile campaign” against his community. Even the former Serbian soldier who wrote the song played during the livestream of the massacre weighed in, telling local media: "It is terrible what that guy did in New Zealand, of course I condemn that act. I feel sorry for all those innocent people. But he started killing and he would do that no matter what song he listened to.”

Serbia doesn't make international news too often. The one time it did hold the world’s attention for a prolonged period of time, in the 1990s, it was connected to terrible war crimes. But the Bosnian genocide was not the first campaign of mass atrocity in the region. The former Yugoslavia was made up of a number of republics, each with a predominant ethnic group: Croat, Muslim, Slovene or Serb. During World War II, a Nazi-allied regime in Croatia carried out a genocide against Serbs that murdered hundreds of thousands. Unlike that campaign, the crimes in the 1990s took place in the full glare of the modern global media, and the Serbs were the perpetrators, not the victims. It branded Serbia’s national image in a way that has proven lasting. “The Serbian leadership never seemed to realize that they had fallen into a trap and that with every shot they were turning the Serbs into international pariahs,” wrote journalist Tim Judah, in his postwar history of the country. “They consistently failed to understand that since 1941 an extra dimension had been added to war — international opinion as guided by television and the media.”

If the international far right takes inspiration from Serbia for its association with the 1990s ethnic cleansing, it’s worth pointing that this is a skewed picture of the country. Though it has been suppressed, modern Serbia has a rich history of democratic opposition to ultranationalism. A broad-based movement of Serbian liberal activists, many of them gathered under the banner of a student-led group called Otpor (“resistance” in English) played an essential role in the movement that overthrew Slobodan Milosevic’s dictatorship in 2000. Their advice and tactics helped inspire the revolutionaries of the Arab Spring nearly a decade later. The uprising that toppled Milosevic helped open a space in Serbian society to contend with the enormities that had occurred during his rule. 

“The period from the fall of Milosevic in 2000 until about 2012 was a relatively open time,” Igor Bandovic, a veteran Serbian civil society activist told me over a coffee in his office kitchen in Belgrade. “It was a period when civil society was trying to address the legacy of the past and the state was largely neutral.”

The graveyard at Srebrenica. — Image Credits

After Milosevic was overthrown, a movement in Serbia began to try and have a reckoning with the past. In part because it was the right thing to do; but also because refuting the narratives of the Milosevic-era was the only way of preventing more disastrous wars in the future. Undeniable evidence of war crimes were displayed to the public, including a shocking video of executions carried out by a government-linked paramilitary group during the war. This democratic movement made real progress. But by 2012 it had run out of steam. An authoritarian pushback had begun (part of a global rollback of democratic norms) and continues to this day.

In a grim irony, Serbia’s current president, Aleksandar Vučić, got his first big political break as information minister in Slobodan Milosevic’s dictatorship. The ultranationalists who now find themselves back at the levers of power have put an end to any prospect of a historical reckoning. 

Instead, in both Serbia and the ethno-state of Republika Srpska carved out by the ethnic cleansing, an outlandish new history of the Bosnian war is now being constructed. Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik this year claimed that the infamous massacre of 8,000 Muslim men and boys in the town of Srebernica was a “fabricated myth” and “something that does not exist,” suggesting that the thousands of gravestones in Srebrenica’s genocide cemetery refer to people still alive and living in Western Europe. This July, Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brabic appeared to downplay the killings as a “misunderstanding” in comments that were noted with outrage in Bosnia. 

Denial of the past crosses easily into celebration. A few years earlier, Dodik publicly dedicated a student dormitory to Radovan Karadzic, the Bosnian Serb leader who was sentenced to life imprisonment by The Hague for his role in the war. The current Serbian government has brazenly celebrated convicted war criminals, encouraging the public to see them as heroes. One of the worst killers from Višegrad — a notorious militiaman named Milan Lukic — has a popular Facebook page that he administers from an Estonian prison. Lukic’s poems and photos receive hundreds of likes and comments from enthusiastic fans. This June, Lukic posted a photo of Donald Trump with the comment, “Happy Birthday Mr. President!” 

The current crop of Serbian leaders has been unwilling to ideologically quarantine their war criminals, as was done in Germany after World War II. This helps explain why others read between the lines and proclaim people like Karadzic as heroes. Karadzic’s dream of an ethno-state, cleansed of minorities, racially and culturally homogenous, is the same dream that inspires the far-right today. Although Karadzic ended up in The Hague, his project of demographic cleansing resulted in the creation of Republika Srpska in eastern Bosnia; it was largely a success. In that sense, Republika Srpska is a look at the future envisioned by the far right. Anyone interested in seeing what it looks like can witness today it in the streets of Višegrad.

What Happens When You Get Your Ethno-State

Obrad Poluga is someone that people in Bosnia refer to as having “bloody hands” — a reference to those believed to have committed atrocities during the war. As a young man, Poluga was a commander in one of the notorious militias operating in Višegrad. In 2014, he and nine others were indicted for their wartime role in the torture and murder of twenty people abducted from a train station outside the town. The investigation into the massacre was a rare case of collaboration between Bosnian and Serbian prosecutors’ offices.

Poluga lives freely in Višegrad today, as his case continues through the courts. Until recently he was even the president of the local veterans’ association, helping organize events like the 2017 unveiling of the memorial on the hill. Earlier this year, Višegrad was briefly the subject of international outrage when hundreds of people came out to honor the paramilitary movement that had ethnically cleansed the town. Revelers were captured on video singing “the Drina will be bloody again.” 

This summer I came to Višegrad, along with a Bosnian Muslim named Samir Sabanija whose family had been ethnically-cleansed from the nearby town of Rogatica during the war. After numerous calls to Poluga’s cellphone, he agreed to meet for lunch at a small patio restaurant just down the road from Višegrad’s famous bridge. When we meet, he’s wearing a white t-shirt with a slightly stretched-out collar and striped jogging pants. Short, with spiky graying hair and narrow eyes, he looks less like a fearsome paramilitary than a washed-up Sopranos character in middle-age. He is visibly nervous. “I didn’t kill anyone during the war, so I don’t have any guilt about that time,” he tells me over a plate of greasy grilled meat and onions. 

Višegrad is a small town. From the outer bank of the Drina River it is almost possible to take in the whole place at once. During the war, the bridge became a site for ritual executions, where people were brought by the dozens to have their throats slit. Large public buildings were requisitioned for use as concentration camps. The Villna Vlas resort spa became a particular site of horror. Hundreds of young Bosnian Muslim women were held there for months where they were raped, tortured and killed by Serb paramilitaries. Never significantly renovated, it still functions as a resort today. When I visited it just before meeting Poluga, the ground-floor cafeteria was filled with vacationing families and elderly people noisily eating. The only indication that something bad might have happened there in the past was a “no photography” sign at the entrance.

Regarding who was responsible for the notorious crimes that cleansed Višegrad of its Muslims during the war, Poluga is evasive. Some crimes did take place — “international courts have documented this” — but he told me they had little to do with anyone from Višegrad. “Except for one or two people, no one from the town knew about what was going on. The killings that happened were done by paramilitaries that came from places in Serbia, not people from here,” he tells me carefully. “Most of the people here only found about what had happened after the war was over. Of course, everyone was shocked when they learned.”

People are killed in wars, of course, but the sadistic tortures and murders that took place in Višegrad were acknowledged by international courts after the war as something abnormal. At the sentencing of Milan and Sredoje Lukic, the two brothers who led a local paramilitary group, a judge at The Hague said that the crimes in Višegrad "exemplified the worst acts of inhumanity that one person may inflict on others."

Despite his pending war crimes case, Poluga’s life has continued relatively normally. He works now as a karate instructor, a job which takes him around the country. He has a son living in Sarajevo. Over the course of a few hours talking on the patio of the restaurant —with its plastic chairs and wooden tables a short walk from the Drina — he opens up a bit. 

“There is no life here, no jobs, no opportunity,” Poluga tells me pensively. “The factories that employed most people closed down during the fighting. When it ended, they didn’t come back.”

That was the other tragedy of Višegrad’s ethnic cleansing. Not only were many of its inhabitants murdered or expelled forever by the genocide, the town itself was ruined even for the winning side of the ethnic cleansing. The victors got what they wanted, but are now worse off than ever. Today Višegrad is an eerie ghost town. Violently remade as an ethnically homogenous Serbian enclave, it bears little resemblance to the lively place so eloquently depicted in Ivo Andric’s famous novel, “The Bridge on the Drina.” A bizarre historical theme park town under construction in the city center — named “Andrićgrad” after the Nobel Prize-winning novelist who wrote about the town — is the only sign of new development. Andrić was a complex figure who wrote a relatively nuanced history of Bosnia and its peoples. But in Andrićgrad, he’s been transformed into a forefather of modern Bosnian Serb ultranationalism. His image is plastered all over the place. Intended as a tourist draw, the miniature town doesn’t seem particularly popular even to locals. On a weekend afternoon, it is largely deserted aside from a few burly-looking men smoking at a café.

A statue of Yugoslav writer Ivo Andrić in the main square of Andrićgrad. — Image Credits

Before we part I try to press Poluga once more for details about the cleansing of Višegrad. It’s not often you get to meet an accused war criminal, and I wanted to know what he had seen or done during the war. The more I pressed, however, the more that a great wall of contradiction began to be erected. After admitting that there had been atrocities against innocent people, he switches to saying that there was actually a great military battle between opposing sides — something that never happened in Višegrad. If there were any war crimes, he insists, no one in the town knew about them at the time.

Višegrad is ruined today, it’s undeniable. The only thing that its remaining inhabitants have left, the “victors” of the cleansing, is the idea that it had somehow all been worth it. The Andricgrad theme park, built on the site of a former concentration camp, is the last desperate homage to the ethno-nationalist project that led to the genocide.

Before we leave, I try to get him one last time to open up about what happened.

Who killed who in Višegrad? 

“It was just equal, both sides were killing.” 

Who won the war? 

For the first time, he laughs. “No one. Everybody lost.”

Višegrad with the Mehmed Paša Sokolović bridge visible in the bottom left. — Image Credits

The View of the Cleansed

As a child, Samir spent his summers in Višegrad. Some of his earliest memories were playing on the town’s bridge, which was built nearly 500 years ago when Višegrad was part of the Ottoman empire. Considered a masterpiece of medieval architecture, the ornate stone bridge stretches out almost 180 meters over the emerald waters of the Drina River. Back in his childhood, the bridge had been a lively gathering place for people to drink, gossip and go fishing. After the paramilitaries took over in 1992, it became a place for executions. “I hate that fucking bridge now,” Samir said as we passed it after our meeting with Poluga. 

Tall and lanky with long hair pulled back into a ponytail, Samir is now in his 40s. Despite his grey hair he gives off the impression of a man much younger. A teenager when the war started, Samir, like hundreds of thousands of other Bosnians, suddenly found himself a refugee inside his own country. Enlisted into the fledgling Bosnian army, his youth was over almost before it began. During the war he was wounded four times, including once by a piece of mortar shrapnel lodged in his abdomen. He spent a year in a wheelchair before he could walk again. Today he keeps in shape by swimming, insisting that his war injuries don’t slow him down. But, as he concedes to me quietly as we leave Višegrad, he can no longer run.

Samir represents the other side of the coin of ethnic cleansing: the community that was targeted for the violence. For some Bosnian Muslims, the knowledge that their neighbors tried to exterminate them has bred a deep anxiety about the future. But for Samir, especially after coming to the brink of death on numerous occasions, its instead engendered a kind of steely resilience. Or at the very least indifference. Unlike many people who would be queasy at the thought of visiting Višegrad, Samir agreed to accompany me there without hesitation, including to the meeting with Poluga. He doesn’t seem to think the former militia commander changed much. “If there is another war, this guy would become a commander again in one second. No question,” he tells me as we piled into his gray Ford Focus and left town.

Samir grew up in Rogatica, a small town west of Višegrad that is now also part of the ethnically-cleansed Republika Srpska, the Serbian ethno-state created by the war. On the way back to Sarajevo, he agreed to stop and give me a short tour of where he grew up. Rogatica seems like a superficially normal place today. Like most towns in eastern Bosnia, the surrounding scenery is beautiful; all soaring cliffs and thickly forested hills. Around the main street there are several cafes, a small movie theater, houses and a few apartment buildings. The architecture is a combination of lusterless communist-style concrete buildings, mixed with orange-roofed, white-painted stone houses.

Those unremarkable buildings have a sinister history. When the war started, Samir’s Serbian neighbors suddenly turned into members of radical paramilitary organizations that were intoxicated by the rhetoric of leaders promising an ethnically pure Serb homeland. As Rogatica descended into madness, the childhood landmarks of his life took on new meanings. The local high school became a concentration camp where prisoners were detained and tortured. A pale, orange-painted house near the park where he played with his cousins became notorious as a detention center for women, where dozens were held prisoner and raped by paramilitaries. 

After driving around the cramped main streets of the town, Samir turns onto a side road leading into a hilly residential neighborhood. The white-painted houses are built on a huge incline. From their windows, they look out over a breathtaking forest embankment. On a fenced-off grassy lot, a few bricks mark the empty space where a building once stood. “This was my house,” Samir says. When the paramilitaries began taking over Rogatica, Samir’s family fled with the town’s other Muslims to the surrounding hills. From their hiding place in the forest, someone told him that they could see his house on fire. He climbed into up a tree to see if it could possibly be true. “I watched it burn down,” Samir whispered.

During the war, slightly over 100,000 people were killed, about two-thirds of them Muslims. In numerical terms, the number feels less cataclysmic than many of the other conflicts Europe experienced during the 20th century. But what made the killings effective beyond their numbers was their terrifying nature. Intellectuals, politicians, religious leaders and others somehow esteemed in their community were murdered in horrible public spectacles. The net effect seemed calculated to destroy the Muslims’ ability to regenerate themselves as a community. With their leaders murdered in terrifying ways, the morale of their people would be broken. In a conservative Balkan society where sexual violence carries stigma, the mass rape of women was aimed at lowering birthrates by destroying their ability to have families. The war attempted to not just wipe out Bosnia’s Muslims as a people but to erase evidence they had even existed. Historic mosques were dynamited and the rubble carted to garbage dumps. The places where they stood, including in Rogatica, were grassed over or turned into storage yards. 

It’s those memories that continue to torment long after the war ended.

“There are wars that happen where people are taken somewhere, lined up against a wall and shot,” Samir says as we drive slowly through the sunlit streets of his hometown. “This was different. There was so much cruelty and even enjoyment; they invented new ways of killing people in this war. All that hatred, we never saw it! These people were our friends and our neighbors. Suddenly they turned and told us that we were enemies. Why? ‘Because of history’.”

It took a tremendous amount of violence to try and erase the long history of Muslims, Croats and Serbs living together peacefully in Bosnia. Once the war ended and the country settled into its new, more homogenous boundaries, no one seemed happier. The “promised land” instead became Germany, and to a lesser extent the United States, both now home to large immigrant populations from the former Yugoslavia. In the end, after Bosnia’s own diversity was mostly eradicated by war, people of every ethnicity began dreaming of leaving for a place where they could experience it again. 

When you enter Sarajevo from the east, one of the first things you see is a striking yellow and brown striped building with a crenellated roof and arched entranceway. This is Sarajevo’s historic city hall, built under the Austro-Hungarian empire. During the war, the original building was destroyed by shelling from Serb forces camped in the surrounding hills. Nearly two million priceless historical documents were destroyed in the inferno. On the restored building a plaque reminds visitors of what happened during the war, concluding with the words: “Do not forget, remember and warn!” 

It is difficult to know what to do with such a memory. It is tempting to let it go, in the hope that future generations will not be burdened by it. 

But in a country where, whatever the wishes of ordinary people to live in peace, war has broken out every few decades, forgetting feels like an unaffordable luxury. It feels doubly unaffordable when you have lived through an attempted genocide yourself.

“I have a nephew,” Samir tells me. “He’s a teenager and he’s not interested in what happened during the war, in the past. He just wants to play video games and watch movies. I don’t know, maybe that’s better for him.”

Samir pauses for a moment before continuing.

“But if he’s going to live his life in this country, he needs to know,” he says. “If he is going to live here, he needs to know.” 

From Sarajevo to Christchurch

When the deadly mosque shooting in New Zealand happened this March, I had a glimpse of all the worst fears of minorities living in the West since 9/11 finally coming to pass. As the news began trickling in, including a horrifying video of the killings, I initially felt the normal human reaction to some unpleasant news: I wanted to ignore it. No one wants to imagine that there are other people in their society who want to kill them and are willing to bring their desires to reality. After the massacre in El Paso, many Latinos in the United States began coming forward to express similar feelings. But as the attacks have continued, including an attempted far-right shooting at a mosque in Oslo that I was just a few miles from at the time, I’ve fought back the urge to look away.

One thing these shooters have all left behind are written manifestoes. Starting with the New Zealand shooting, I’ve made sure to read every one. More than the hatred, the thing that strikes me from reading the words of these young men justifying their killings is the sense of hopelessness. They are obsessed with culture and race, and are convinced that they are part of a demographic contest in which their side is losing. The future they see is bleak beyond imagination. The only way it could be possibly be redeemed is through the act of mass murder they’re about to commit. It is not hard to see the similar vision of demographic decline and redemption through violence that animated wartime Serbian leaders. Even more than promises of glory, Karadzic and Milosevic warned that their community was in mortal demographic danger and that violence would be necessary to reverse its collapse. Their vision shattered innumerable lives and turned Serbia and the newly-created Republika Srpska into something like pariah states. Despite its failures, visible today on the desolate streets of Višegrad, their vision lives on in the imaginations of the international far-right and among a young, ultranationalist generation present not just in Serbia but across the Balkans. 

Still, that ultranationalist vision doesn’t attract everyone. It’s not clear yet whom the future belongs to, either in the Balkans or the United States. But in Serbia there are still young people in touch with the painful memory of the past, who are trying to prevent their society from going down the same dark road again.

In a wood-floored, glass paneled office in central Belgrade, a group of young people, mostly Serbian, spend their time working in the hope that no demons of historical memory emerge from the most recent war to destroy their country again. In the aftermath of the years of war that came with the collapse of Yugoslavia, a number of NGOs were founded across the Balkans to try and stitch back together the torn social fabric of the region. One of them is the Youth Initiative for Human Rights, an activist group founded in 2003 to nurture the region’s fledgling democracies and help people grapple with the legacy of the conflict. 

Ivan Djuric is the program director of the YIHR’s Belgrade office. Born in Belgrade, he was a child during the wars that destroyed Yugoslavia. Tall and reserved with parted brown hair, he speaks with a quiet confidence about the organization’s purpose.

“People in Serbia generally do not like to talk about the wars. If they do they prefer to talk about the NATO bombing that happened in 1999, which was ‘the war’ for most people,” he says, referring to the brief U.S.-led bombing campaign that struck Serbia during its 1999 war with Kosovo. “But when I was a teenager, around 2006, I started to hear about things that happened 10-15 years earlier — crimes that took place in Bosnia and Croatia involving the Serbian army and militias.”

The YIHR conducts public seminars on war crimes, transitional justice and authoritarianism in the Balkans. Despite the heavy subject matter, though, there is a light and optimistic atmosphere in their second-floor office. On a Friday evening groups of people are still tapping away at laptops. On a back patio, others are laughing, smoking and playing music. A small black Labrador dog weaves its way through the desks. 

Lately, activists from the group have taken to protesting events held in honor of war criminals. In 2017, Ivan Djuric and a group of other YIHR activists attended an event held in honor of Veselin Šljivančanin, an army officer found guilty at The Hague for crimes against humanity. As the event began, Djuric and the others blew whistles and unfurled a banner in front of the crowd that read: “War Criminals Be Silent, So Victims Can Be Heard.” They were surrounded by people in the crowd, pummeled with fists and pushed out of the venue. Djuric and the others who protested would end up being charged and convicted for a misdemeanor offense for interrupting the event.

If the support offered to war criminals by the Serbian government seems totally alien to Americans, it shouldn’t. Elected officials in the United States today openly defend accused war criminals as part of a broader campaign of ultranationalist chest-beating and xenophobia. The constant drumbeat of warnings about demographic invasion is legitimizing racist attitudes that might have been seen as beyond the pale just a few decades ago, or even a few years ago. The parallels with how Serbian leaders psychologically primed their society for violence are unsettling. The manifestos left behind after every new shooting are the calling cards for a new era of violence — driven by a sense of demographic threat — that we are only starting to understand. 

When Yugoslavia began to violently collapse into competing ethno-states, there remained many people, including Serbs, Croats, Muslims, and Slovenes, who refused to go along with the new sectarian reality. Many of them in fact continued to call themselves Yugoslavs; citizens of a multicultural society that would soon cease to exist. What many who remembered the time before the war tell you is that they never imagined that such a thing could happen in their country. Yugoslavia was a modern country that by most appearances had left the past behind. In 1984 the city of Sarajevo was the home of the Winter Olympics. Less than a decade later, it was under the worst military siege Europe had witnessed since Stalingrad.

During the final years of Yugoslavia, when the system was beginning to crack, its leaders kept insisting against all evidence that things would be better than ever, if the people would only let them push their ultranationalist agenda through. Even with a demagogic and incompetent leader, the United States is still likely more resilient than Yugoslavia was at any point in its history. But the xenophobia, hubris and ignorance being loudly trumpeted in the United States strikes a familiar note to people like Djuric. It’s what happened to his society, after all, right before it collapsed.

“When you put so much effort into building a glorious narrative built on lies and half-truths, at some point you run out of new stories to feed it with,” Djuric tells me. Outside the windows, the evening light in Belgrade is beginning to darken. “Then you go back to war.”

This article originally appeared in The Intercept on September 1st, 2019.

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