What did you do after the war, daddy?

25 mars 2020 17:01

We are losing an important battle, that for our youth, especially for those generations which are, in public discourse, dubbed as "the ones not interested in politics and too young to remember the wars."

This year marks the 20th anniversary of Slobodan Milosevic's fall. People born in the year 2000 have long since become the part of our social and political life, having been exposed from their early youth to a horrific falsification and negation campaign with regard to our recent past through popular culture, formal education system and especially, through the media.

In the past 20 years Serbia has done practically nothing to calm the tensions that led our country to start four wars of aggression during the 1990s, which wreaked havoc leaving unimaginable devastation and destruction behind. Here we're talking about almost 96,000 dead in Bosnia, tens of thousands of victims of torture and rape, more than 13,000 killed in Kosovo, millions made into refugee and expatriated, along with millions of permanently physically and mentally crippled. Not even Serbian citizens under Milosevic were spared all this, however the numbers are incomparably smaller relative to others in the region. In this sense, inflation and poverty are most often brought up with regard to Serbia, along with NATO bombing, for which not even much older generations are actually sure why it happened in the first place.

This confusion is mostly present due to the fact that our state and its institutions haven't done anything to remorsefully acknowledge Serbia's responsibility for the wars in the former Yugoslavia, mass war crimes and its genocidal campaigns. On the contrary – the attitude of our state institutions and many other important social actors hasn’t changed since the wartime. Both during the wars and after they ended, mantras about "Serbian people being constantly endangered" which is the reason why "everything happened", but also that "all sides are to be blamed", to name just a few, are still dominating every, even the smallest parts of our public discourse.

The relationship between the state and generations growing in post-conflict settings is challenging even for much more serious, democratic and better organized societies than ours. But, when that relation is non-existent, or even worse, when it is exhausted in a systematic and well-designed campaign of lies, denial and perpetuating hatred and intolerance, all of which preluded the wars, than it is not that surprising that our youth, largely, share deeply right-wing and ethno-nationalistic attitudes.

On the other hand, many anti-war and non-governmental organizations still operating in Serbia, largely marked as traitorous, are actually doing heroic work since the state isn't – they are the ones counting victims, collecting testimonies and evidence, and trying to educate and inform the wider public which hates them, mostly because they are subjected to demonization and criminalization by every single ruling political elite, from that of Milosevic to that of Vucic. Nonetheless, these people persist in their decades-long work and their attempts to bring about the circumstances which would make sustainable reconciliation in the region at all possible.

These citizens associations and organizations which, among other things, are fighting for a more truthful culture of remembrance, currently also engage young people belonging to the second and third generations of post-conflict activists born in the midst of or after the wars. They are facing similar challenges as their predecessors. These young people too are regularly targeted as traitors by the media, but they also suffer a great deal of pressure and violence in their immediate surroundings – coming from their peers at schools and universities, often even their families.

We rarely, if at all, speak about these brave young people, except in the context of already established public discourse – that they're betraying their country for hefty sums of money. The truth, however, is much different – almost without exception, these activists work in hard and uncertain conditions akin to the precariat. Despite all that, they keep contributing to a seemingly pointless cause – spreading of facts and the truth about "what happened."

This is especially noticeable in the work of these young people and organizations when dealing with reconciliation and normalization of relations between Serbia and Kosovo, based on the truth and facts about the war Serbia led in Kosovo.

Over the past 20 years, numerous analyses have been published on this topic, and the common denominator among all of them is at least this one: based on all available data and evidence, Serbia led the war against Kosovo Albanians even in the early 1980s.

At first this war wasn’t armed, but it soon became one when Serbia introduced the police state and effectively ghettoized Kosovo in 1990, only to grow into the final outcome of the genocidal policy of Serbia under Milosevic implemented toward the end of that decade – organized and systematic extermination and "cleansing" of Kosovo from Albanians conducted by Serbian institutions – the army and the police – supported by the President, the Government, the Church, and the media.

The main pillars of Milosevic's Nazi-like policies are still standing strong among the Serbian public, however not in the form of random nationalistic outbursts, but as official policies of the state, current ruling coalition, as well as modern Serbian opposition.

In relation to Kosovo, a large part of Serbian contemporary opposition holds even more aggressive and toxic political views with regard to "the Kosovo issue" compared to Vucic, a former minister in the Serbian Government during the mass war crimes in Kosovo in the period 1998-1999. To make things even worse, this is followed by never-ending campaigns of hatred and racism against Albanians in our most circulated media.

All of this together makes a fertile soil for new conflicts, rather than reconciliation, which Serbian official institutions, led by President Vucic, support only formally. Their vision of reconciliation seems to focus on the political elites in Serbia and Kosovo, rather than the citizens, especially the young ones, because the policies and the behavior remain unchanged – “patriotism” is supported, which is only valid if it entails hating the others, while “traitorousness” is condemned when telling the truth about Serbian crimes committed in Kosovo, Bosnia and Croatia.

Like in any other place, the youth in our country are especially susceptible to these venomous trends which push them into hatred toward non-Serbs which they actually don't understand but are giving into out of fear that they'll be retaliated against if they behave differently.

According to the latest survey on youth in Serbia born between 2001 and 2003, the attitudes of young people confirm these depressing assumptions. [1]  More than 54% of young people in Serbia don't believe that reconciliation between Serbs and Albanians is even possible. It should be noted that 22% say that they don't have a clear stance on the issue. Only 23.5% of Serbia's youth agree that the reconciliation is possible. More than 53% think that Kosovo "should remain a part of Serbia". This is despite the fact that Kosovo has been an independent state for 12 years. Only 12% of young people aged between 17 and 19 in Serbia believe that Kosovo is an independent state.

All of this is disconcerting in light of already minimal efforts undertaken in the region, to achieve reconciliation and peaceful coexistence in the future, especially between young Serbs and Albanians. Official Serbian policies of negating the crimes, promoting convicted war criminals and allowing the hate speech to roam free in the media on a daily basis, seem to be preparing the new generations for some future conflict, rather than for sustainable peace.

These most recent data about attitudes among the youth should be analyzed in the context of general attitudes in our society, especially in terms of trust in state institutions among the citizens of Serbia.

In recent years, many surveys showed that top four institutions on the trustworthy list among Serbian citizens are the President, Serbian Orthodox Church, the Army, and the Police. If we add the media (the most trustworthy media outlet in Serbia is Radio Television of Serbia) we get the very institutions that either upheld or executed Milosevic's policies during the 1990s, and by doing so, participated in committing countless war crimes and genocide.

Without the radical change in policies, the rhetoric and positions promoted by these institutions that keep enjoying continuous trust of Serbian citizens, in war and in peace alike, regardless of who is leading them at any given moment in time, we cannot seriously talk about the reconciliation in the region, and particularly between Serbs and Albanians.

Even though this often unpleasant, but honorable fight is being led on the margins of public life, it is more important than ever to involve as many young people as possible in the programs that aim at improving relations among the ex-YU nations.

The late lawyer Srdja Popovic once said that "you can't wake up a person who pretends to be asleep" while explaining his thoughts about the relation of the majority of Serbian citizens towards the truth about our state's involvement in the carnage and misery it brought to the region in the 1990s. Unlike their parents, our young people are not pretending to be asleep, they are forced to pretend, and they need help to wake up. In this sense, it is now more crucial than ever to work with young people and expose them to the unpleasant truths which often spark heated, but necessary, debates.

During the last two decades the title of an American 1966 movie "What did you do in the war, daddy?" has often been repeated as a motto in conversations about reconciliation in the region among the first generation of anti-war activists who are the living witnesses of the wars and who are most directly affected.

This issue, although still relevant, isn't fully appropriate for the new generations who engage in anti-war activism, promotion of human rights and the reconciliation in the region, and it's not even relevant for the people we're trying to reach and address. Among other things, this is part of the reason why we're losing the battle for their attention and interests.

For us, post-conflict activists of the second generation and for generations which are coming after us, a more suitable question is "What did you do after the war, daddy?" In order to achieve sustainable reconciliation and long-lasting peace in the region we need to engage as many young people as possible in the process of reconciliation and fact-based revealing, and explain why this is not only in their own, but in the public interest as well.

In order to achieve such peace, enormous efforts need to be invested, but it is primarily necessary to expose the young people to the only things we may – truth and facts about the responsibility of our state and their institutions for wars, crimes, atrocities and hatred that we are still poisoned with. Without such efforts, which we owe to the victims in the first place, peace, open society and brighter future for all in the region will remain wasted opportunities.

[1] Radoman, M., "Vrednosne orijentacije srednjoškolaca u Srbiji, 2019", Helsinški odbor za ljudska prava u Srbiji i Institut za sociološka istraživanja, Filozofski fakultet u Beogradu, 2019


In cooperation of two web portals, Remarker and Sbunker, a series of analysis will be published in the upcoming period in order to promote a critical debate on the current situation in the region of the Western Balkans. 

After last messages received from one of the most influential members of the EU, France, the region has faced one of the greatest challenges in the last 30 years, when countries in the Western Balkans began their difficult path, first into conflicts and then in the process of democratization and european integration. 

The goal of Remarker and Sbunker is to support better understanding of the current trends in the countries of the Western Balkans and raise the awareness on necessity of european integration process, straightening the process of democratization and the rule of law as necessary preconditions for permanent peace and stability in the region. 


You may find the Albanian version here and the Serbian version here.

25 mars 2020

Milos Çiriç