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A Letter From Serbia

A Letter From Serbia

Orly Freedman

I am jotting these lines while the TV is blaring with the coverage of the killing of the protestors and the house demolitions in Rafah. The other week the newspapers were full of descriptions of the killing of the IDF soldiers, the huge demonstration in Tel Aviv and the house demolitions in Rafah. Among others, I noted Ze'ev Sternahl who wrote: "The day will come when all of us, including the justices of the High Court of Justice, will be mortified at what is now being done in our names [Haaretz 18/05]. But I am already mortified today. I have been ashamed since I opened my eyes and realised what's happening around me.

[Well-known Israeli poet] Yitzhak Laor concluded his terrific review of Juliano Mer's "Arna's Children" by distinguishing between guilt and shame. "And me? Initially I intended to watch the screening of this film in Jenin. I didn't go. What defines me as an Israeli is the feeling of shame in face of the Palestinians. Not guilt, shame." His words remained with me and I'm trying to place them in the context of the place where I am.

I am in Belgrade, working on my doctorate thesis on Serbian refuseniks who refused to accept the wars that took place here in their name in the 'nineties. The dominant standpoint in those days was that these were unavoidable wars - the Serbs had to defend themselves.

Most people here in Serbia prefer to force the memories of the Serbian forces' siege of Sarajevo out of their mind. They feel the same about the wars in Croatia and Kosovo. But those are critical memories for coming generations, which will have to come to grips with the embarrassing question of responsibility for what happened in Vukovar, Dubrovnik, Srebrenica and Pristina. Few people here are trying to bring the issue of responsibility into the public discourse. Instead of raising the issue of what happened outside the borders of Serbia proper, they would rather discuss the future of Serbia. It is a society which is yet to be convinced of the need to bring to justice those war criminals accused of ethnic cleansing and mass murder.

Above all, the Serbian younger generation wants to forget and to live a normal life. Those who want to remember and remind others are perceived as an obstacle to normalisation. To be normal here is to be part of Europe: to sit in the coffee shop and talk of things that do not happen here. In the streets of the city in which a Prime Minister who wanted a meaningful change in Serbian behaviour, it means not wishing to know or hear of the war crimes that still threaten the sense of normality. It means excluding those who bring the subject into the public discourse. It means pigeonholing them on the periphery as driven at best by self-hatred and at worst by being "Muslim lovers".

Those voices that breach the thin veneer of denial are the very voices that were opposed to the wars in those far-off, less rational, days. Those were the days of hyperinflation and the scenes of hundreds of thousands of homeless refugees. Those are the alternative voices that are not frightened to touch on the issues of guilt, shame or responsibility.

At one part or another of the interviews, almost all the men and women I spoke to raised the subject of their first post-war visit to Sarajevo. I am wondering if what defined them was a sense of shame or of guilt.

Thus a professor who became an activist in the demonstrations against the war and Milosevic's rule (before she lost her position for her political activities) said: "I didn't know what really happened there. In 1996 I travelled to Bosnia, and nothing around had remained in one piece. I could see the war in every direction. I remember thinking that I had never imagined just how terrible it could be, she said. " If we were to organise mass transport, buses that would take people from Serbia to see what happened there, then certainly things will change. Even now, nearly a decade later, people are still denying what happened there. We are incapable of coming to terms with what happened and with the fact that it was done in our name."

A poster of the besieged Sarajevo hangs in another professor's room. He too lost his position in 1998. "It's hard to think or act creatively in the Belgrade of 2004.There are two options around me: extreme nationalists or escapist youngsters." He continued "I was offered work at Sarajevo University, but I couldn't take it. When I am in Sarajevo my sense of guilt is unbearable."

A lawyer I met at the offices of the Civil Rights Union in Belgrade told me about his first visit to Sarajevo in 2000. "When I passed through the hills that surround the city I appreciated for the first time what really happened there, the way in which the Serbs laid their siege. At that very moment I felt guilty. I never felt guilty during the war, I demonstrated against it but the visit to Sarajevo was a testing, a turning point. For all that we did, we did not do enough to stop what was being done there in my name - in ours."

The other week, hundreds of Israelis demonstrated at the Kissufim checkpoint. Maybe the Israelis, like the Serbs, need to get on buses to Rafah to see what has been done place there in their name - in ours.

[Orly Freedman is a PhD student at George Mason University. Translated by Sol Salbe from the webpage of Hagada Hasmolit (The Left Bank)]

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