Slavenka Drakulić: violence, memory, and the nation

Writer and journalist Slavenka Drakulić reflects on the use of sexual violence in war, the psyche in conflict, and the gap between official history and personal memory in the former Yugoslavia.

Slavenka Drakulic Heather McRobie
7 October 2013

Heather McRobie: Filmmaker Jasmila Zbanic’s new film, ‘For Those Who Can Tell No Tales’, is set in Bosnia in the 2010s and refers to “the endangered memory of the Visegrad massacre”.  Do you think memory of the crimes of the 1990s is under threat in the Balkans?

Slavenka Drakulić: Those living in former Yugoslav republics, which are now new states, carry a heavy burden of a totalitarian society. The burden of this is a division, a gap between official history and personal memory. There, historical facts were often twisted according to the communist party ideology and its benefit. Memory was a private matter and it did not necessarily correspond with such “history.” Therefore, in some cases it was even dangerous to mention it. Nowadays the situation is, regardless of democratic political system, pretty much the same. National history is “adjusted” to suit the ruling ideology. Truth depends on which nation is presenting it. In this region we still do not agree on common history, there is no consensus about the minimum truth we can all accept in order to move on. So long as this doesn’t happen, memory will be in jeopardy and subject to political manipulation. But common history is not easy to establish – look at France and Germany and how long it took them to overcome the Second World War.


Still from 'From Those Who Can Tell No Tales' (2013). Rights reserved.

HM: You wrote in The Guardian in 2010 about the significance of Serbia’s apology for Srebrenica.  Do you feel things have moved forward since then?

Slavenka Drakulić: I doubt that. I think that reconciliation in the former Yugoslavia has to be initiated and organized from the very top – just as the wars themselves were.  It should be a systematic program implemented not only on the political level, but in education, economy, culture… Only then we would, maybe in two or three generations, achieve real understanding and accepting of each other. Providing, as I said, a minimum common history -- which means accepting truth and not “truths”.

HM: As Croatia joined the EU this year, do you think this is positive for the country and for the region as a whole?

SD: Joining the EU is important because of peace in the Balkans, even more than for economic reasons. I saw how wars in Yugoslavia started, surprising the whole world. I also saw the terrible consequences .Therefore, I consider peace the most precious aim.

But politicians here tend to paint a rosy picture of economic growth, although reasons for that in the whole Europe are meager, to say the least.  Unemployment of youth, growing nationalism and economic stagnation can not but to influence political decisions and a general move to the right in the whole of the EU is evident.

HM: You have written extensively about the use of sexual violence during the war in the 1990s.  Do you feel there has been recognition or justice, either formally or informally, for the use of sexual violence during the war?

SD: Let us not forget that there was a change, mainly thanks to women victims of rape in Bosnia who spoke and thus let the crime be known.  As of  2008, the U.N.Security Council adopted resolution 1820, which noted that “rape and other forms of sexual violence can constitute war crimes, crimes against humanity or a constitutive act with respect to genocide”.

This is a big achievement of international law and this year in a new resolution the UN has made another step forward. The first men on trial at ICTY according to the 2008 resolution  were three men in the so called “Foca case” in 2002.

HM: What are the main factors contributing to the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war?

SD: It was proven at the ICTY trials in The Hague that in the war in Bosnia mass rapes were tools of ethnic cleansing. How it works is very simple: it works that by shaming women, you shame men from the community who were not able to protect them. Out of fear and shame people flee, leave their villages, their territory – which is then “cleansed”.

HM: Do you feel there is sufficient recognition on the level of international law of sexual violence in conflict? Do you think there has been a shift towards relevant international organisations recognising the extent of the problem?

SD: Sexual violence happens in all wars, it has since time immemorial. It is part of every war. The only difference we have achieved so far is to differentiate between “ordinary” or random rapes where soldiers take advantage of a situation, and systematic rapes which have the aim of shaming away the enemy population. Of course there is not enough recognition, but it is hard to prevent such behaviour, not to even speak about consequences for women and a community.  But again, the steps forward were made legally, although what needs to be changed is the patriarchal mentality.

HM: Do you think women who have experienced sexual violence in current conflicts will see some form of justice?

SD: Justice in trials for war crimes is always symbolical. But it is important that the society helps victims afterwards – recognize their status of victims of war, for example, and financial aid that goes with that. For example, this was not the case in Bosnia and Heregovina until in 2006 Jasmila Zbanic, director of the film “Grbavica”, won a Golden Bear in Berlin and initiated a petition to change a law. They succeeded, but it took years to achieve that kind of legal recognition for victims. One should never give up fighting for one’s rights, this is the only way.

HM: Your novel ‘S’ has shaped public understandings and ways of handling issues such as wartime rape in narrative form.  Has the novel also shaped your experiences?  Were you affected by the strong responses to it?

SD: When you work with such sensitive issues, you are inevitably affected by it. My work addresses issues of shame and suffering, killing and dying, displacement and loss. War is immensely brutal when you see it so close by, when you examine its consequences on the human psyche, when you in your writing try to give voice to victims. Worse even, looking at both victims and perpetrators, you end up realizing that you do not know yourself. You can not guarantee your own behaviour because all of us have a potential for both good and evil. You just do not know what decision you would make until the moment comes, and it is a devastating realisation.

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