The Peace Movements' Response to the Balkans

Originally Published on
The Cerj_Commentaries Mailing List

My thanks to John Wilmerding for Checking My Facts

Here's an account on Bosnia and Yugoslavia by someone who was there in the early nineties and has some different perspectives to offer.

Since anything that seems remotely to sympathize with or support the Serbs is controversial at the moment, I decided to have the account read and critiqued by a good friend of mine who does neutral conflict resolution work in the region, Gary Shapiro of Conflict Resolution Catalysts in Montpelier, Vermont, USA. First I'm posting Gary's comments -- because they serve as a good introduction -- then the controversial account, which is written by CERJ correspondent and prison historian Joel GAzis-SAx:

Sat, 10 Apr 1999

Dear John:

I just read Joel Gazis-Sax' piece, and overall I think it is very good. I can relate to all of what he says, because I had similar experiences when I was in the Balkans.

Joel is articulating another side of the complex Balkans situation. It is a perspective that is quite real (as are other perspectives) but very unpopular at the time, and it remains almost taboo even today.

Those who tried to express the concerns, needs, and sufferings of the Serbs were heavily criticized and sometimes ostracized. I know this personally.

There are many "truths" and realities in the Balkans, depending on one's background and vantage point. While it was easier and more satisfying for many people to believe in simplistic formulations of good guys vs. bad guys, or aggressor vs. victims, this was also very dangerous because it only fed the fear, hatred, and separation that kept the conflict going.

While I might not necessarily emphasize all the same things Joel does or draw all the same conclusions, I think he's done a real service to shed light on things that are not easy to talk about. I especially appreciate his insistence that we should not favor one side over the other but rather help people on all sides. That's what CRC tried to do, and it wasn't easy!

My only real objection to his piece is the inclusion of some things that seem too highly personal (e.g. being diagnosed with major depression).

His piece is definitely not a propaganda piece. I recommend that it be posted.

Gary Shapiro
Conflict Resolution Catalysts

9 Apr 1999,

Dear John:

Thank you for your publication of the 'IGC top-ten censored stories'. To the item about Bosnia, I say it is about time that we looked critically at manipulations of the truth which were prevalent from 1991 to 1995.

As I mentioned in an earlier statement which I sent to you, I was in former Yugoslavia in 1992. The week the TIME Magazine cover came out, I was in Serbia. I arrived in Hungary to see this on the newstand. I immediately called my wife and assured her that the Serbs had not been picking my toenails out.

During the time I was in Serbia, I met with local peace activists and representatives of the Yugoslav national government. I knowingly broke the law (I tell friends sometimes that I am an unconvicted felon because of my violation of the embargo) so that I might find out what was happening in Serbia. I did not go as a patsy and I continue to object to many actions taken by the Milosevic government, especially the ethnic cleansing of Kosovo. While I was there, I publically confronted members of Milosevic's party about their continuing support of violent opposition in Bosnia. I advocated the cause of Serbian war resisters, not because I opposed the Serbian government, but because I support all cases of war resistance. And I made that plain.

I admit many failings. Sometimes I promised to deliver more than I could. I failed to learn the language as well as I could. And in 1994, I dropped out completely with little explanation -- except to some very close friends in the movement -- of my reasons.

They are:

1.) I was diagnosed with major depression. Bay area activists who worked with me supported my decision and carried on the relief work which I had urged others to begin. (I do not take credit for anything other than part of the inspiration for these fine programs. I am sure that without me, these people of conscience would have acted anyways.) My close friends knew I had to take care of myself. This was the most important reason for my retirement. But it was aggravated by other factors. These comprise my critique of the peace movement's response to the ongoing Balkan crisis.
2.) From 1992 to 1993, I was pnbalkans. I felt pressured by people with IGC and within the peace movement to take stands contrary to my avowed pacifism. I did not do so, but I felt emotionally weakened by their lack of support for some basic principles of respect for human rights, in particular:
* Support for Bosnian Muslim conscientious objectors. While I was in Croatia, the Croatian government undertook a program to return Bosnian male refugees to Bosnia for service in the army. Many of these men did not wish to fight. Their wishes were ignored. Members of the PeaceNet staff told me that they felt that the action was defensible.
* Integrity of information. The same public relations people who manufactured the incubator baby story also served the Bosnian government. PeaceNet, I felt, did little to protect voices for neutral reporting.
* Firm rejection of the absolutist, anti-Serbian line. The hypocrisy shown by many activists, at PeaceNet as well as elsewhere at the time, is well summed up by the remark one Serbian activist made in my presence. He said "We have been struggling with our government to end the killing of Croats and Bosnians. You respond by telling us and the whole world that the solution is to kill us. Whatever happened to peace?" I say "Exactly."
* Fair and impartial addressing of human rights violations. The movement failed to adequately address other human rights violations committed by the Bosnian and Croatian government, particularly the position of Serbs, the destruction of Serbian property, the denial of rights of conscientious objectors, repression of the opposition press, and acts by the Croatian government to ethnically cleanse itself of native-born Muslims.
Members of the PeaceNet staff undercut me as I weakly attempted to apply these principles. (Let me now thank George Gundry for his support.) I will acknowledge that at that time, I was feeling depressed. It does not erase the fact, however, that voices within PeaceNet tried to play to a popular audience of feminists and anti- Serb opposition who wanted military intervention against the Serbs. [For my position on the rape issue, please see #4 below.]
3.) The tendency to reject out of hand any Serbian claims of human rights violations or atrocity or manipulation of the media by Balkan activists.
I know for a fact that in Croatia, Serbian homes were dynamited, either by local zealots or the military. The explosions were often explained by the government radio as Serbian shellings. The leading opposition magazine in Croatia was suppressed by the Government, which held a monopoly on newstands.
Coupled with this was the ridiculing of Serbian voices for change, particularly by Zagreb-based activists.
4.) The most serious accusation being made in the early 1990s was, as you may recall, that of rape as part of the ethnic cleansing campaign. First, I do not doubt that rape was being carried out in a systematic matter by Serbian partisans in Bosnia. And I do not doubt that Croatian and Bosnian soliders also engaged in the rape of Serbian women. Some of my fellow activists too easily dismissed the claims of Serbian women. I say shame, shame on them. As a pacifist, I am on the side of all victims of war.
Second, many activists bought the hyperbole manufactured by the Croatian and Bosnian war propaganda machines, stating erroneously that rape was a new war crime. It was not. I have found it being used in several past wars. The Yugoslav conflict has finally awakened us to the fact that rape is a war crime, a crime against humanity that deserves our attention. But we must also recognize that it has been used by Balkan governments to promote war, the injury of human beings. Without public outcry, many of the witnesses who came forth to testify to rape would have been merely returned to refugee camps, their use by the Croatian and Bosnian governments at an end. Some Croatian activists did speak up against this misuse of victims in 1993. I thank George Gundry, again, for helping bring that statement to the attention of the peace movement.
5.) The failure of most Balkan activists to visit Serbia. The Serbian Government, I will note, has been dogmatic, obstructionist, and repressive towards Croats, Muslims, Magyars, and Serbs who have dared to confront it. In 1992, however, I noted that there were voices of opposition in Serbia, in contrast to the fear of their governments evinced by many Croatian activists. I saw them for myself.
6.) I was confronted by many Balkan activists who outright denied the existence of a Serbian peace movement! These tended to be informal operatives of the Bosnian and Croatian government. Opposition viewpoints were often not given time for rebuttal or for presentation of their side. These would often mark any Serbian claims as "suspect" while accepting Croatian and Bosnian accounts uncritically!
7.) Many forums served only to showcase bitter dissention and to put members of the Balkan community on the spot. People came to watch the Serbian, Croat, and Bosnian participants "fight"; they left with little hope of a solution other than military intervention. Later experience led me to suspect organizers of these affairs to be in complete, uncritical sympathy with the Croatian and Bosnian governments.
8.) Shortly after my return from former Yugoslavia, members of the local Croat community, who knew a surprising amount about my work in former Yugoslavia, met with me and tried to convince me that I had been brainwashed. In particular, they marked activists in the city of Osijek, Croatia as being "liars". To what degree, I ask, were members of the Croatian peace movement responsible for this contact? How did they know things about me that I did not publish on the Net?
9.) Centralization of the electronic peace process in Zagreb. A key listserver, Zamir-L, is located in Croatia. The European- based activists who set up this situation have failed to appreciate that Croatia is not neutral ground. This, as many conflict resolution and negotiation experts will point out, is psychologically important. (At this point, neither is most of Western Europe or the United States or Russia.)
10.) Members of the peace movement failed to speak to the fact that the disputed cities of Sarajevo and Mostar had been, before the war, the site of the final assembly lines for the Yugoslav arms business. Serbs, Croats, and Muslims, it could be argued, were fighting for control of an economic future based on the export of human suffering. This fact, interestingly enough, was well-covered in the anti-peace, arms trade press. This, I feel, has been insufficiently investigated by the peace movement.
11.) Activists too often bought into the media depiction of the conflict as something which "has been going on for six hundred years." I feel that this is a form of racial hatred. The present residents of former Yugoslavia, be they Serb or Croat or Muslim or Kosovar or Maynar or Makedonian are not responsible for the acts of their ancestors. Nor do these acts allow any of them an excuse for inaction or for war. The people responsible for what is happening now in Yugoslavia are the people who are alive today, who have in their lifetimes developed views which lead to them to violent conflict involving injury, dislocation, rape, and the taking of the lives of others. We have given the Yugoslavs a worthless gift when we attempt to "historically appraise" the situation, the gift of hopelessness. The peace movement must seek out the seeds of hope and bring about everyone's full awareness of the present.
12.) The worst mistake made by activists has been the uncritical belief in the cause of nationalist movements. Too many have failed to investigate stories which have appeared in the press and rejected outright any claims of atrocity by Croats, Muslims, and Kosovars. We have also, too often, accepted claims of atrocity against the Serbs and even United Nations peacekeepers without further investigation. It is a shoddy Peace indeed which is based on passions reached without crosschecks and further investigation. It is our job to reach out to all the victims of war, whether they be subjected to death by ethnic cleansing or bombing.
I think many things contributed to this state of affairs including the overworking of Balkan activists who faced the problem of assisting refugees, the overworking of Western activists who were handling too many wars at the same time on too little money, and the astute manipulation of the media, the peace movement, and the women's movement by public relations agents in the employ of Balkan governments. These red flags were evident to me in 1992 and I did speak up to them.
I have never stood with any of the governments of former Yugoslavia, except that of Makedonia which broke with Yugoslavia when the Yugoslav dream of ethnic harmony was destroyed by the Serbs, the Slovenes, the Croats, the Bosnians, and, perhaps, some outside powers such as Europa and the United States. (More than any other government, the Makedonia has sought to make peace with its neighbors and protect the rights and dignity of all its ethnic groups.) I stand and remain now on the side of the civilians, the people of all nationalities who have been made to suffer because of the hubris of nationalist politicians. During my 1992 travels, I often met with common people in war zones who blamed the conflict not only on the "madman in Beograd", but also the madmen in Zagreb and Sarajevo.

I applaud that IGC is now willing to question the stories that were circulated in 1992. I was told in 1993 that this particular cover story might have been manufactured. I did not feel that I had the support then to call for an investigation. The climate inside IGC and the associated networks at the time was decidedly pro-Croat and pro-Bosnian. (One IGC/APC employee informed me that I was "outvoted" in my calls against military intervention.) Now that the Kosovo conflict has yielded an American intervention, I applaud signs of change.

In October, 1992 I wrote:

"Many Croat sympathizers and the world press want inhuman Serbs. The noblest and most dangerous response to this war that any peace activist -- be he or she pacifist or anti-militarist by inclination -- can make is to challenge this myth. This is not to deny Serbian attacks on Vukovar and Sarajevo: rather it is to reject simplifications and to affirm the complexity of the situation. It is to insist on peaceful solutions instead of military ones. Zagreb has been a place of pilgrimage for the Western peace movement. Beograd sees nearly no one. Our vision cannot help but be distorted by one-sided "peace tours". As Americans, as Europeans, as Asians or Africans we must have the courage to visit Serbia, to engage her people, to challenge her politicians -- both the good and the bad -- to support those laboring for reconciliation, and to do all that we can to seek a peace that will come through means other than genocide."

I hope and pray that we might renew this struggle, on behalf on true peace for everyone in the Balkans, Serb, Croat, Muslim, Slovene, Makedonian, and Kosovar alike.

Joel GAzis-SAx

Politics are usually the executive expression of human immaturity.
-- Vera Brittain