Diaspora communities played a major role in feeding the fires of conflict in former Yugoslavia in the 1990s. As Paul Hockenos detailed in his book Homeland Calling, émigré communities of Serbs, Croats, Kosovars and others supported nationalist leaders, funded guerrilla armies, returned to fight in the wars and serve in the new governments, and even generated some of the more extreme ideas that shaped the genocidal agendas of the players on the ground.
Less attention has been paid to the émigrés who worked on behalf of peace and reconciliation in former Yugoslavia. These activists supported peace organizations in the region, helped to spread the word of human rights violations, and worked in large numbers for international organizations, including the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia at The Hague.
Sociologist Mira Oklobdzija is one of these latter émigré activists. When I met her in Zagreb in 1990, she was a human rights activist and active on feminist and anarchist issues. She left Croatia not longer after, but for personal reasons, not because of the war. Relocated to the Netherlands, she began to raise money to support independent media in former Yugoslavia.
“From Amsterdam, I’m sure that I did more than I could have done from Zagreb,” she told me when we met again 23 years later in Trieste. “I collected enormous amounts of money, including from the Dutch government, which went to Feral Tribune, Vreme, and so on. I couldn’t have done that kind of thing in Croatia, but it was possible to achieve it with a few others in Amsterdam.”
Still, she felt guilty. In the early 1990s, she wrote an unpublished essay entitled “Guilt as Destiny” that conveyed her feelings. “I just gave it to a few friends who were abroad, who also didn’t live in Yugoslavia any more,” she said. “They told me, ‘Oh yes, I feel the same.’ It talked about feeling guilty because you are somewhere else. I was feeling worse than people who were getting used to things in Belgrade and Zagreb, before things got worse there. For example, one day I was sitting in Amsterdam and calling my mother. This was when Zagreb was bombed a few times. I asked, ‘How are things today?’ And she said, ‘Peaceful.’ And then, all of a sudden, she says, ‘Oh my god, it’s coming again!’ Then you hear the air raid siren. You’re in Amsterdam and you can hear the siren over the phone, and they are afraid, and you can do nothing.”
It was not long before Oklobdzija began to address a different kind of “guilt as destiny.” She began to work for the Tribunal. She would end up spending more than a decade there before retiring and moving to Italy.
We met shortly after a series of controversial Tribunal verdicts exonerating top Serbian and Croatian military leaders. Those decisions had proven so exasperating to one Tribunal judge, Frederik Harhoff, that he distributed a letter to friends and associates in which he took issue with these verdicts. The letter was reproduced widely on the Internet, and Harhoff was disqualified from serving in the case against Vojislav Seselj of the Serbian Radical Party.
The verdicts were also disappointing for Oklobdzija. “You really have the feeling again that you are losing your life and time and energy, and for what?” she said. “I had a similar feeling in the 1980s. You were doing things for the common good and what you got was war. Then you work in an institution like the Tribunal and something like this starts to happen at the end of the mandate. Again, you have the feeling: did I waste my time trying to do this? It’s very unpleasant and frustrating.”
Do you remember where you were and what you were doing when you heard about the fall of the Berlin Wall?
No. I remember those times, but I don’t remember where I was when that event took place. I was probably traveling, and I didn’t hear about it immediately. It didn’t come as a shock. I heard about it two or three days after, so it was not as shocking. It looked like a very nice experience: things that should come down were finally coming down. Later, when someone asked me about what I felt, I was a little bit embarrassed because I didn’t remember.
Why do you begin your interviews with that question?
I want to see if there is any difference in people’s responses from country to country. Also, in the United States, people remember the fall of the Berlin Wall more than any other event in East-Central Europe, with the possible exception of the execution of Ceausescu. Here in this region, almost nobody in former Yugoslavia remembers the fall of the Berlin Wall the way that Americans or Germans do.
The other question I ask everyone: was there a moment when you were growing up that was the point when you decided to become political.
Yes, I remember this. I have a very good friend who lived in not such good circumstances. He wanted to study. At that time it was rather difficult to do so if you had to work. I thought it was very unfair. He was very bright, he had some family tragedies, and now he couldn’t study. I met a friend who was already involved in writing for Studentski list in Zagreb, and I talked with him about that. He said, “If you’re interested, then come join us.” So, I started to write about different things. At that time, some things that I noticed that were unjust were making me ready to act.
What were the things that irritated you?
For example, I never could understand nationalism. My late father was a Serb from Croatia. My mother is a Croatian from Dalmatia. They had nothing to do with nationalism. I was raised to believe that this was not important. Later I was a professor in a classical gymnasium in Zagreb. It was an elite school. There was only one boy in one of my classes who said something like, “We Croats….” That was in 1983 or 1984. All the other students just looked at him. They were not concerned with that topic: they still didn’t show any interest in the national background of people, which was known or unknown to them. The discussion in the class was about the tourism money going from Dalmatia in Croatia to Belgrade and how Belgrade was now built up better than Zagreb (according to the boy in question). And I said that this was not true. I was in Belgrade many times, and Zagreb had been built up much better.
I also remember the first time I had to go to the police in Zagreb, at the end of 1980s. A friend from Holland was staying at my place. I got an invitation to come to the police station because my friend had been stopped at the Slovenian border, and he’d given the police my address (and they saw I didn’t register him officially as you had to when a foreigner is in your house). So they called me, and I went to the station. It was a rather unpleasant experience, and my foreigner friend was just an excuse for them to call me. At the time, these inspectors were no longer stereotypically brutal cops. They were highly educated. The one who dealt with me had finished political science and knew everybody in town. We had a very interesting discussion. At the end of this, he wanted to ask me more questions, but I didn’t really want to talk to him any more so I told him, “You can read what I write, and that will save you time…and you can’t ask me about other people.”
He told me that a book we published about urban guerrillas in Italy was a very good book. He asked me about the sociologist Slobodan Drakulic, with whom I’d lived for seven years. He said, “I used to hear about him before, but his reputation seems to be on the decline. Is it because you left him?”
I said, “Sorry, that’s a private thing, I don’t want to talk about that.”
At the end of our interview, he said, “This is just my job: working with this small group of leftists. We’re really worried about these right-wing guys who are coming from Germany and so on.”
As I went out, he asked, “Would you like to have coffee?” I was curious what else he wanted to ask me. He added, “Only if you’re not embarrassed that the young people who study with you and look up to you are going to see you with me.”
“No,” I said, “You invited me in a normal way. So, let’s go.”
We passed one café, and I said, “Should we go here?”
And he said, “No, there are a lot of police people there.”
“Are you ashamed that they will see you with me?” I asked. We laughed and (almost!) became friends.
During our coffee break, we discussed the “dangers” of left groups and of right nationalism. The police knew, probably better than we (at least I) did, how things were going to change and how strong these nationalist groups were. I had no idea, for instance, that Croatian emigration in Canada was as strong as it obviously was.
This policeman was mostly interested in was Vojislav Seselj. I said I didn’t know anything about him. “But you know, he’s a member of the sociological society of Croatia,” he said.
“He’s also a sociologist and professor from Belgrade,” I said. “We accept anyone with correct qualifications who wants to be a member.”
Nationalism was something I could never understand: not only Croatian nationalism but nationalism in any other country. The first time I was in Paris in 1980-81, I was on the Metro and saw two beautiful, cheerful Moroccan girls just talking to each other. And there were two older French women looking at the Moroccans like “what are they doing in our nice Metro?” I couldn’t stand it. It’s really an organic reaction with me, like when the bull sees the red flag and goes mad.
In the 1970s, I started to write and meet with people at university who thought the same way as I did. I was lucky to have many professors from the Praxis Group. Soon I met people from Belgrade. In many respects Belgrade was closer to my way of thinking (or my sensibility) than Zagreb.
You started in university in 1971. That was just after the Croatian Spring. Was there still a ripple effect from then?
Yes. But all the people I knew were from the left side. Later I saw documentaries about the Croatian Spring. But I just wrote off all the people who were sympathetic to that. It was not a mass movement any more, just a few colleagues, like Zvonomir Cicak, who was relatively prominent at that time. I was in Sarajevo in 1989 for a meeting of the European Movement in Yugoslavia. Srdja Popovic was going to be the president of the organization that never really came to life. Cicak brought me from Zagreb. When he introduced himself at the meeting, he said, “I’m Ivan Zvonomir Cicak, a Croatian nationalist.” Everybody died of laughter. But that was much later. Back in the 1970s, we thought that these nationalists were all wrong. But, of course, some of them changed just as later some of the leftists became complete turncoats as well.
I wrote some things about patriotism. For me, these nice feelings stop rather quickly. I just don’t feel it. I can understand it, partially. But, after all, what’s patriotism? It’s very nice that you love your country. I can love Trieste. I can love Hong Kong (though I’ve never been there). One of the places I felt most at home was Crete. Even though I was there for the first time, I felt immediately like I was coming home. Many times returning to Zagreb, I haven’t felt like I was coming home at all. So it is not strange that I have problems understanding nationalism. I can give you definitions, but I can’t understand it.
What we mostly talked about in 1990 was feminism and anarchism. Up to that point, I had not really talked to anybody in the region who had identified as an anarchist and almost no one who identified as a feminist. How would you describe those influences coming into your life?
First it was feminism. I started to read about it. And I began to understand that the situation was comparatively much better in Yugoslavia than in many other countries, at least in terms of legislation. Then I started to write about it. I wrote four or five pieces. One was about the androcentrism of the New Left. I knew that Lydia Sklevicki, who studied with me, was really a feminist, like Vesna Pusic, Slavenka Drakulic, and so on. Lydia told me, jokingly, when I stopped writing about it, that I should not consider it as such a small topic. And I said I thought it was a topic of extreme importance. But I didn’t know what else to say about this topic that didn’t repeat what I’d already written. Later I wrote about women migrants and also about the role of women during the war in Yugoslavia. But on the specific topic of feminism and the rights of women, I’d said what I wanted to say and couldn’t continue writing about it academically.
As for anarchism, probably I first read something by Bakunin that I liked. Then I met some people and started living more actively in those circles. I met one friend from Trieste, a professor of modern history. We (Slobodan Drakulic, Claudio Venza, and I) started to work on a book on urban guerrilla in Italy. It’s only published in Croatian. We never published it elsewhere. I met many anarchists in Trieste but also in Milan. At that time, I felt like an anarchist. I wouldn’t say that now. When you analyze it, it’s one of the noblest social theories, not only dealing with politics but society and culture in general. But in the last 10-15 years, I’ve been working more on human nature, and these two things don’t fit together perfectly. Anarchism would work if people would be what they can never be. If I had to identify with something, I’m closest to anarchism. But that is where it stops. I wouldn’t say this in front of them, but the majority of anarchists have this naïve but deep and honest belief that they will overcome the system. They will not, ever, I’m afraid.
I always respected organizations where people can come to conclusions without being told what to think. It’s probably inborn. I’ve always hated authority that I can’t understand. I have a lot of respect for people who are great at what they do, who are natural authorities. But the majority of what we call authority is imposed. As I can’t stand nationalism and racism and xenophobia — and can tolerate patriotism only to a certain degree — it was natural that the kind of antiauthoritarian position typical of anarchism would make me more critical of things in society and bring me closer to anarchist circles.
Now I’m trying to get back into writing, and the first people I contacted were anarchists. Somebody asked me to write about the New Right in the Netherlands for a small magazine. So I did. It was posted on some French website. But anarchists from Milan also want to publish it. So it’s nice to do something for them again. These anarcho-syndicalists in Milan are still going on after 30 years. Their publication looks very good. My friend, the editor, told me that there are comrades here and there who offer to print for nothing or not much, who do layout for nothing. So, some people are still willing to do something for the “common good.” They still believe in that noble idea. And their review looks better than many bigger state-owned or commercial ones.
In the United States, anarchism has enjoyed something of a revival. The only people who were really organizing –and paradoxically the ones who display the most leadership – have been the anarchists.
No, it is not “paradoxically”! And, yes, I heard about that. There was an American who stayed in Zagreb in my house who told me more than I knew about the history of the anarchist movement in the United States. When I worked at the Institute for Migration in Zagreb in 1990, I was president of the Institute’s workers union and I prohibited the institute from celebrating International Women’s Day. Then I decided that my colleagues couldn’t have any more traditional First of May Day celebrations. The reason I gave them was that they didn’t even know how International Women’s Day started, with Clara Zetkin and so on. Then I asked them, “Does any one of you know how the celebration of the First of May started?” They didn’t know that either. They knew nothing about Chicago and the anarchists there. So – no party!
I studied in the Soviet Union in 1985. A couple of Americans went out to meet with Russians informally. “These Russians,” the Americans said, “keep lying about everything.” I asked them, “What were they lying about?” They said, “Well, for instance, they think that May Day is a celebration of something that happened in the United States. Can you believe that they think that?” I told them that the Russians were right.
There were things that irritated me about some of the anarchist meetings I attended. For instance, I was in Milan at one meeting. Something was wrong with the doorknob. They called in an anarchist comrade, a craftsman, to fix it. The rest of us continued our discussion. And the guy came, fixed it and left. “Sorry,” I said, “Are we better than him? Surely he must be interested in some of the things we’re talking about. He only does this manual work and goes away? I don’t think that’s right.” They were very ashamed. They said he was in a hurry.
I also remember a long discussion I had in Paris with an anarchist who was Argentinian by origin. We were quarreling about a conference that we were organizing. Later, a third person came over to me and said, “Why are you quarreling? Besides, he is speaking Spanish and you don’t know Spanish!” But I understood the Argentinian completely. I was angry because he said that the conference participants from Yugoslavia are going to speak only about self-management. “What’s this, colonialism again?” I said. The people coming from Yugoslavia were scholars in history, and they were supposed to speak about self-management exclusively? Nothing of more “general” importance? If I come from Africa, I’m only supposed to speak about bananas, because it’s natural I know about that? Probably 90 percent of people from Africa can’t tell you anything essential about bananas.
In the human rights community in the 1980s, how did people treat feminism and anarchism? Was there a degree of respect?
As for anarchism, it was joked about. I was writing academic articles about it, but it wasn’t a movement like feminism. With feminism, even the people I knew who were male chauvinists would not admit to it publically. They were supposed to fight against the chauvinism in themselves and never say, “I don’t like it, this feminism is stupid, these women are ugly, nobody wants them, so they have time to do this kind of work.” But the majority thought that it was important to change these chauvinistic attitudes. Women’s Studies were one of the first strong sections of the sociological society in Croatia.
The first conference about feminist issues was in Belgrade in 1978 or so. The Yugoslav delegation was the only one in which men also participated and spoke. One very violent French feminist was much against even the possibility of men speaking at “our” conference. One of my colleagues said, “But we want to hear something from the male side.” The French feminist was very much against it. Then I saw her standing with her friend, who was a typical example of a submissive woman: beautiful, much younger, standing back a little, not speaking at all. It looked exactly like the image of men’s treatment of women in a classic, stereotypical, but still very present sense.
In the 1980s, we all thought that a lot was going on in Yugoslavia: a lot of intellectual curiosity, many new and vibrant trends. In your opinion, what happened? Why did that trajectory suddenly hit a dead end with the rise of nationalism and then the outbreak of war?
The 1980s were a golden age for alternatives. Belgrade was the most vibrant center at that time. Whenever I would go there to see friends, my friends from Zagreb wanted me to take them there. There were good theaters and many alternative people offering new ways, calling for political action, more human rights, more freedom. It was not like Poland where there was a huge movement. (Although there had been a huge nationalist movement 10 years before in Serbia.) Leftists never became a power like that. They became a sort of social force with some influence as a sort of social corrective because they were intellectuals, actors, known people: persons whom people would listen to. We were writing petitions all the time. And we had a lot of good times!
Petitions related to something going on in Yugoslavia?
Yes, for changing laws, helping imprisoned dissidents, and the like. At the end of the 1980s, I was in the center of Zagreb gathering signatures for a petition and one of my activist friends said, “What is this? It’s public! There’s no mystery, no secrets, no danger anymore!” It was like my encounter with the police. In the final analysis, with our petitions and our activism, swimming against the tide, we had a very strong feeling that maybe we could change something. We didn’t change anything. We just got the war and lost 10-12 years of our lives.
We were not a movement. We were just a big family with a serious intention to change something. At the request of Nebojsa Popov, I wrote an article published later in Republika in Belgrade entitled “What Is To Be Done?” When he phoned me I asked him, “What is to be done by whom? You and me?” He said, “Our group of people.” I wrote a text, and at the end, I quoted Lazar Stojanovic, who said that the energies are gone and the terrain is rough. I said that the terrain was always rough, and let’s hope that not all the energies are gone. Many people continued in different ways. Some entered politics directly. Those who could do something useful got positions, which were sometimes used well, sometimes not. The 1980s were extremely interesting times in terms of social happenings in Yugoslavia.
When I came to Amsterdam, I had six months off from my Institute to prepare my doctoral thesis. I found a mentor in Amsterdam immediately. Then I started to feel guilty. One of the things I wrote then was “Guilt as Destiny.” It wasn’t published. I felt guilty. I stayed in Amsterdam for personal reasons — the father of my daughter was living in Amsterdam. I didn’t finish my doctoral thesis. Instead, I started working for an NGO focused on helping independent media in Yugoslavia.
I met Branko Horvat, the economist, at that point. He came to Amsterdam in 1992 as part of a reunion of intellectuals from Belgrade and Kosovo. I had a Tibetan cap on. One of the sociologists from Kosovo came to me and said that they, the other participants from Kosovo, thought I was a pro-Serbian sent to provoke them because I was wearing a Montenegrin cap. I said, “No, it’s Tibetan!” That was funny.
What was not funny was my encounter with Branko Horvat there. We were not close, but we knew each other rather well. He’d persuaded me to be the last president of the Association for a Yugoslav Democratic Initiative in Zagreb before the war. I wanted to greet him, but he just turned his head. I went up to him and said, “Professor, you don’t remember me?”
He said, “I do, but can you tell me why you left?”
I started to explain: “It’s not political and…” Then I felt stupid. Why should I explain my life to anyone?
From Amsterdam, I’m sure that I did more than I could have done from Zagreb. I collected enormous amounts of money, including from the Dutch government, which went to Feral Tribune, Vreme, and so on. I couldn’t have done that kind of thing in Croatia, but it was possible to achieve it with a few others in Amsterdam. And I didn’t finish my thesis. All my friends who stayed in Zagreb finished their doctoral theses. And they have academic careers. I originally didn’t want to work at the Tribunal, at the UN, because I knew when I finished working there I would be too old to start an academic career again. It was also not the money that attracted me, though I have to say that the salary was great. Rather, it was the feeling that we were doing something against the bad guys. I hope that we did at least something, though I often wonder if it was good enough. Especially nowadays, with a number of wrong Trial Chamber decisions.
When did you write the essay “Guilt as Destiny”?
At the beginning of my stay in Amsterdam, 1991 or 1992.
Why didn’t you publish it?
I didn’t know where to publish it. I just gave it to a few friends who were abroad, who also didn’t live in Yugoslavia any more. They told me, “Oh yes, I feel the same.” It talked about feeling guilty because you are somewhere else. I was feeling worse than people who were getting used to things in Belgrade and Zagreb, before things got worse there. For example, one day I was sitting in Amsterdam and calling my mother. This was when Zagreb was bombed a few times. I asked, “How are things today?”
And she said, “Peaceful.” And then, all of a sudden, she says, “Oh my god, it’s coming again!” Then you hear the air raid siren. You’re in Amsterdam and you can hear the siren over the phone, and they are afraid, and you can do nothing.
I was calling another friend a lot when Belgrade was being bombed by NATO. . She said, “For me it’s important that my sons are out of the country so that they can’t be mobilized. And maybe we Serbs deserve it.” She was sitting in New Belgrade in a 15-floor building. I didn’t feel better because of her philosophical approach to the danger of bombs. Some people wanted to stay, some wanted to go but couldn’t. You start to compare yourself to those who want to leave but can’t.
Did it ever occur to you that if you went back you might have had to leave again immediately?
Yes. In 1991 I was on my way back in fact and stopped in Italy. I was speaking with people here and there. The people from Yugoslavia were saying to me that I was crazy: “What can you do here that you cannot also do somewhere else? If we feel that there is something that you can specifically do here, then we’ll call you and you can come back.” If I had returned, I probably wouldn’t have left and would have worked with other people who were active during the war. It would have been harder and I could have done less, at least for independent media. But maybe I would have finished my doctoral thesis like the rest of them!
Did you start the thesis?
Yes, of course. But I would need six months or a year to finish writing it. It was on xenophobia. But later I changed what I wanted to do, so now it’s mostly about outsiders in history. It was just not the proper time to do it. I couldn’t focus on it. It just sounded selfish to me. If I had the opportunity to do something else – and in Amsterdam I did — then I had to do that. Since I decided not to return, I had to choose between finishing my thesis and entering the academic world or continuing to be active in Amsterdam. Otherwise I would have felt doubly bad that I hadn’t returned and just focused on my academic studies while the war was going on. It was not such a hard choice. I’d worked in institutes in Zagreb as a sociologist and ethnologist, but I always worked as an activist as well.
My daughter grew up in Amsterdam, and she speaks both Croatian and Dutch fluently. She eventually had difficulties because of my job. She didn’t like going back to Dalmatia. There were big posters of Croatian General Ante Gotovina — Gotovina “Is a Hero” — on the walls. My daughter was having difficulty finding friends even though she’s a very sociable person. One girl came up to her and said, “You live in The Hague, right? Do you ever see this Carla Del Ponte?”
“If I saw her, I’d spit on her.”
“Why? You know something about her?”
I told my daughter I couldn’t help her with that. The people there think all Croatians are good and the others are not. They think that Gotovina is not a criminal but a hero. And my daughter said, “Well, if that’s the way they are, I don’t want to play with them.” She was 10 at the time.
This was in Podgora, which is a very specific place. In the Second World War, it was the cradle of the Partisan navy. It is also now sort of divided. I remember a football match between Serbia/Montenegro and Croatia. It was warm; all the TVs were in front of the cafes. Before the game began, they first played the Croatian anthem and everyone was cheering. I was wondering what they would do when confronted with the old Yugoslav anthem (used by Serbia at that moment). They all looked embarrassed. There were no negative remarks. They all looked down — younger people, older people — just waiting for it to pass. They themselves didn’t know what they were feeling.
When you were at The Hague, when you heard about the creation of the Tribunal, did you imagine that you would work there?
No. I came to work there by chance. I didn’t plan to work there because I thought they mostly needed translators. I didn’t know for a long time that they have a research section. I was also very busy with my work in Amsterdam. A colleague who knew someone working there told me that they were looking for a sociologist. So I applied. It was 1999, and I’d managed to secure a lot of money from the Dutch government for independent media for the next two years. I thought I’d try something else. People from the Tribunal called me for an interview before a commission of five people. First they asked me whether I would be able not to speak about what was going on there, because I knew a lot of journalists and public figures. And I looked at the person who asked me and said, “I am a woman of a certain age. I know how to say ‘no.’!” The man was embarrassed. I got the job anyway.
Before the end of the conversation, I said, “Not so long ago you probably wouldn’t have been able to employ me because of my family ties. My brother-in-law was minister of justice of Croatia.” I thought it was correct for them to know. I told them that politically we were not on the same side, but that privately he was a very decent person, and I didn’t want to discuss him. Obviously they knew. One guy told me later that it was good that I said that because they were interested in whether I would mention it. I understand such things: they have to be cautious because a few years before that, there was a woman who was giving information directly to the Croatian secret services. She later disappeared. (To a better post, far away from the Tribunal). And she was not the only one.
In Carla Del Ponte’s memoirs, she talked about leaks. They would arrive at government offices to get the material, and there would be no material.
That’s why I say that they had to be cautious. Every prosecutor’s office in the world, not just an international one, has to have such rules. I didn’t think at the beginning that I would finish my career there. But it was great. For five or six years, I was working all day in an office, which I didn’t like. And I was usually writing at night. But I can’t remember a day when I didn’t go to work with pleasure. The majority of the people, not just people from the region but also American lawyers and so on, felt that it was their cause as well. We had a mission, so to speak.
But in the last years you could feel that it was closing down. Usually when you leave an office, you think you can come back and have a coffee with your friends. But not in this case. Everyone is preparing to go away. On the other side, it was also very heavy, spending your days looking at these horrors…. In the last 10 years, I probably published only three or four things, by chance really. Some people like Predrag [Dojcinovic] are very organized and they could come home from work and write. I was alone with my daughter. I couldn’t do all the house things and also write.
Predrag said that he became very interested in law when he was there. Did you have a similar interest?
No. I learned from my colleagues, in general terms. If I didn’t know something, I knew whom to ask. But I didn’t want to know much more than that. Predrag is a very studious type who wants to go through to the end of a problem, and these are now the topics on which he wants to work. And he is doing it exquisitely. I’m interested in outsiders, utopias, other things.
You talked about how your daughter encountered some skepticism about Carla Del Ponte and the work in The Hague. Did you encounter similar reactions?
Absolutely. Many people I know in Zagreb, Belgrade, Sarajevo were politically involved. Some became nationalists, like Mihailo Markovic from the Belgrade Praxis group. Some did not. But I also knew a lot of people who were not politically involved. One friend of mine, during the bombing of Zagreb, called me saying, “I know that you always try to see the world in nuance, that it’s not black and white. But when I am sitting here during this bombing, I hate all the Serbs.” And she is a reasonable, nice lady. Two weeks later, she called me back and she was dying of laughter. “I have fallen in love,” she said. “And he is a Serb.”
Even my mother would say, watching TV, “I really think they (Gotovina et al) are not guilty.” I’d tell her: “Look at the documentary Storm Over Krajina.” This documentary was produced by Nenad Puhovski, Zarko Puhovski’s brother, and it’s very good, with lots of interviews and video material. So, yes, you would hear that from the circles you would expect to be less enlightened and not really knowledgeable about the events during the war and politics in general. To the people I know who are not political, I would simply say that I didn’t want to discuss my job.
I was working at The Hague to prove whether these people were responsible or not. I fully entered this role, with satisfaction, if such a job can provide satisfaction in a more profound sense. I don’t know if you are following the controversy over this judge, Frederik Harhoff.
He wrote this letter claiming that the court’s president had pressured the judges to acquit several Serb and Croat defendants.
It was so sad. The last few sentences of his letter I just couldn’t understand. For some of the cases I don’t know. But for one of them I know the material evidence because I was working on that. It was absolutely just what Harhoff said. Everything was proven that could be proven. It’s just an absolute mystery to me how the judges came to their decisions.
I heard that everyone at the Tribunal is talking about that and nothing else. I didn’t dare to call my friends who were involved in the Jovica Stanisic case. I know about the case more than the average public. But they know everything. They probably closed the door and didn’t go out of their offices after the verdict. You really have the feeling again that you are losing your life and time and energy, and for what? I had a similar feeling in the 1980s. You were doing things for the common good and what you got was war. Then you work in an institution like the Tribunal and something like this starts to happen at the end of the mandate. Again, you have the feeling: did I waste my time trying to do this? It’s very unpleasant and frustrating.
Were you also surprised by the public reaction in Croatia after the Gotovina verdict?
I expected it because of previous verdicts. It was so pumped through the media over the years. Even for people who didn’t want to know more about him, he became a kind of symbol. Even my father, a Serb partisan from Lika who still has friends from that era, said that his Serb friends from Krajina claim that Gotovina was a soldier but not an unjust one. I didn’t expect this revision of verdict. But I did expect this reaction from the public, and I expected it to be short-lived. After a week or 10 days, it was less and less present in the media and then it almost vanished . It felt like a satisfaction for a portion of the population. It is very hard in people’s minds to separate his responsibility and Croatia’s responsibility. They can think of responsibility in terms of Croatian politicians, but the Croatian people? That’s too big a term. People felt that Croatia as a whole and the Croatian people as a whole were attacked unjustly. They felt that not just one person was freed with this verdict but that this was the end of the story: Gotovina is free, Croatia is clean, and let’s just go into Europe.
Do you think the verdict will have a longer-term impact on relations with Belgrade or Brussels?
No. It’s over. The politicians were as pleased as possible on television. Even some of the politicians who are not so bad managed to say that Croatia is now free. After the acquittal of Jovica Stanisic and Franko Simatovic, people in Croatia might have said, “Hey wait a minute, they were aggressors, this is no good.” But no, they said, “Aha, we see that The Hague is no good and it’s all finished.” No, I don’t think it will have longer-term implications.
Do you think it will complicate the few trials that are left?
It can potentially. Now the legal teams of the defense have the right to say, “Well, why our guy and not these others?”
And this legal doctrine of command responsibility…
Yes, it can have repercussions. And these discussions should lead somewhere. Many people at the highest level in the Tribunal couldn’t believe what’s happening. There has to be some comments from other judges. As one article put it, it would be interesting to see if all the other judges who were together with Harhoff are thinking the same way. Do they want to stay anonymous and just let him speak for them? Until now, they only let him speak for them. I hope it will be cleared up one way or another. It’s important not only for the Tribunal, which will finish its work in two or three years, but for other tribunals like the ICC, and for international justice in general.
And it leaves a bad taste in your mouth. We were not just working in a nice institution with nice people doing interesting research. We were dealing with horrible things for all these years: human misery and cruelty and victims. It looks like it’s beneath Tribunal’s President Meron to respond. There was a press conference at the Tribunal, and all the spokespersons had to say were things like, “In due time Judge Meron will say what he thinks. I don’t have anything to say more at this time.”
When you were talking about anarchism, you said that you thought that it was a very nice theory but human nature interfered with the theory. Did your experience at The Hague change your view of human nature?
No. I thought what I thought before. My thinking was just confirmed by what I saw there. It just showed that the brutality I knew about in theory or saw happen far away could take place much closer to home.
Do you think, as a result of your experience, that these kinds of institutions can have some kind of influence over the long term on human behavior, or are they just stopgap measures?
The second, unfortunately. Everybody expected that the Tribunal would provide justice and reconciliation. But justice doesn’t necessarily bring reconciliation. (In my opinion, on more than one occasion the Tribunal didn’t bring about even justice.) It’s rather that a social or political or juridical norm is made that established a line over which you can’t cross or you will be punished. One of the questions in the Harhoff affair is whether Americans applied pressure because they were afraid of the potential danger that some of American soldiers could be tried — and this was the reason for the American obstruction of the ICC in the first place as well. Again it’s the rule of the strong. I don’t think that this will change so easily or quickly or maybe ever. But these institutions do make at least some sanctions possible.
After the Gotovina decision and Harhoff letter, did you have to call anyone up and say, “I said this about my job and about the process. But because of these events I’ve had to adjust – ”
No. Usually I just talk to the people who work with me. For everyone else, I just said that I didn’t want to comment. These are things you cannot discuss when you are working in the institution and you have access to confidential evidence and witnesses. But I can discuss how I feel about the decisions. It just struck me as an injustice. You can say that Knin was not bombed, contrary to what the prosecutor claimed. It could be or not be a legal target according to military law. These are all discussions that can take place, and the defense or the prosecution can be better at describing the events to the judges. But some things were crucial to this case, like joint criminal enterprise and the fact that the Croatian government wanted the Serbs of Krajina out of Croatia. And everybody knew this! And it has been demonstrated in the courtroom.
The people I talked to about the case said that there could have been an argument about the sentence but the question of guilt was clear.
Yes. Part of my job was to analyze some of these documents and speeches and videos. The people who were there and were not politically involved still knew that one way or another the Croatian government wanted these people out.
Are there people in Croatia that you’ve been in touch with who want to continue the discussion about that time and about Croatian responsibility?
Yes, but not a lot. There are individuals like Zarko Puhovski. Even President Ivo Josipovic, when he was a professor at the university, was quite supportive of the Tribunal, encouraging his students to help. But for now, the only really serious effort is Documenta led by Vesna Terselic. They’re collecting all the memories, all the data, with the goal not to forget the past but to understand it. They are growing steadily, not enormously, and quite a lot of people are working on it, following all the trials taking place in Croatia or coming to The Hague when necessary. It’s very professional. I’ve known Vesna for a long time now. She’s a Slovenian sociologist living in Croatia. An early anti-war activist and a very hard worker, she was active in Pakrac during the war.
Did you follow the case of Neighbors, a controversial book published about a decade ago about the situation in Jedwabne during World War II where many Jews were killed not by Nazis but by Poles. Many Poles were in denial about this, insisting that they were victims during the war, which they were. But they said that therefore they couldn’t have been victimizers as well.
That’s what many Croats are saying — we were attacked so we couldn’t be victimizers as well.
Other than the collection of information, do you see anyone trying to have a discussion about this phenomenon of victims who are also victimizers?
I was in Zagreb a couple of times in the last period. When I’m there, I obsessively watch television to see the discussions. It’s not a big issue. And it’s the same small groups of people organizing alternative film festivals and so on. Maybe I’m wrong, but I didn’t notice a deep desire to go further with understanding. It’s the same with the Jews of Holland. Not everyone knows, even today, that 70 percent of the Jews of Holland never returned from the Nazi camps. Many people who were Dutch, and not Nazis, did what they were ordered to do. They were collaborators, out of fear or I don’t know what to call it. During the war in former Yugoslavia, many young people came to Amsterdam, especially from Belgrade, because they didn’t want to serve in the war. The Dutch enacted a law to give all of them a space to live and some money. Most of them are still there with the possibility to get permanent permission to work. On one occasion, an older Dutch lady said at a public meeting, “We must never forget what we did to our Jewish neighbors. These young people don’t want to fight, and now we need to help at least them.”
When I was in Amsterdam during the bombing of Belgrade, one Dutch left-wing party asked me what I thought about that choice of military operation. I said at one of their meetings, “I don’t think everything was tried before the bombing. If everything was tried, and it didn’t work, then you have to do it.” You can tell when you have the attention of an audience. And I saw their attention fading. So, I said, “I’m not from Belgrade. I’m from Zagreb.” Then I got their attention again. There was this basic surprise, from foreigners even if they were educated people, at how someone from Zagreb would react when it wasn’t Zagreb but Belgrade that was attacked. For me, it was the same. It was a question of principle.
When antigovernment demonstrations took place in Belgrade, there was an article in one of the biggest dailies in Holland. It was well written and true. But it covered only half of the page. The upper half was a photograph of a Serbian peasant with a big moustache and traditional cap. It’s very difficult to find a person like that in Belgrade nowadays. But this is what people see: all these stereotypes: wild Serbs, so different from other, civilized Europeans. And I am sure that the journalist (or editor) wasn’t ashamed at all.
You left your position at the Tribunal because your job was done?
No, because we had a downsizing. And they kept prolonging my contract by putting me on other cases. But after a while it couldn’t be done any more because two cases on which I was working were both finished. I was given advanced notice. To tell the truth, I didn’t try very hard to stay. I was tired.
Tired of doing that kind of work?
Yes. And also by the change in atmosphere. I got the feeling that I did what I could — like I did in Amsterdam on independent media and earlier when I was writing about feminism. I said what I had to say, I did what I could do. At the beginning of these institutions, you have this positive enthusiasm that helps you in conditions where it’s not easy to work. But this fades away with time. Then you are tired and you have the feeling that a lot is changing within the institution. It’s time to go. So, I took early retirement.
You’re looking now for other kinds of work on human rights issues?
I wouldn’t work in an office any more. I would work very gladly for projects connected to human rights. In the meantime I’m starting to write again on things that have nothing, or nothing directly, to do with that. It’s nice to remember the pleasure of writing, particularly on issues that don’t touch on all the negative subjects I was dealing with before.
Are you going to return to some of the topics you addressed back in your dissertation days?
Yes. I would like to make an overview of outsiders from heretics to dissidents. This was a multidisciplinary approach that I envisioned a long time ago. And the other thing I want to focus on is human nature, which is a rather heavy topic. That’s why I don’t want to work again from morning to evening in any office.
Have you thought about what role outsiders are playing today?
I wrote an article “Migrants, Marginals” a long time ago for a sociological magazine in Serbia. Are people marginal because they choose to be or because they had to be? Bohemians, for example, were not marginals because they had to be but because they wanted to be. But this is the final level of my work, so I haven’t come to the point of discussing it yet. I just transported some of these materials here to Trieste, and I haven’t looked at them in 20 years. They came with me from Zagreb to Amsterdam and then to here.
When you look at my bibliography, it looks like I haven’t done much in the last decade. In fact, I wrote some 100 reports for the UN, but they are confidential so I can’t do anything with them: they cannot enter my bibliography. The reports are part of the archive of the Tribunal. This is one of the things I didn’t like. It was never transparent who is working on this archive. I made a proposal to our deputy prosecutor offering a vision of a possible structure. It was and is my belief that the archive of the Tribunal is supposed to be a kind of institute, open for researchers, journalists, historians, families and friends of the victims — not like the Nuremburg archive, which is difficult even to find where it’s located. The structure was rather well done. But I never got any feedback. Then I heard that there was a commission at the UN that was half-confidential, so I couldn’t see what they were proposing — maybe because it was still in progress. So, I don’t know how this will be finalized and whether it will be transparent or usable. This legacy, good and bad, could be very helpful for similar international institutions and legal institutions in the countries in the region.
If you were to do human rights issues in Croatia today, what would you focus on?
There’s still the issue of the return or lack of return for people in Krajina. There’s also the issue of war veterans who fought because it was really an aggression and some of them are sick from what they saw or did. This is not only a human rights issue, but a social issue to deal with.
But first of all, on the human rights level, minorities still do have problems. To be a Gypsy in Croatia is not easy. I’ve also heard some remarks on TV against Jews. Human rights groups, especially the bigger ones, should be constant monitors of anything of this sort. Now is a good time. Croatia is so eager to prove that it is good and ready for Europe. So, there are better chances of doing something. But these are just impressions, nothing systematic.
Would you ever consider living again in Croatia?
I didn’t leave because of the war. I hated coming back to Croatia and hearing stupid remarks during the war, not against me, but in general, or about Serbs. Two friends of mine from Dalmatia married Serbs and had problems, but now they’re returning to Croatia. Many years have passed. For me, it’s not so important where I live. It’s more important whom I deal with, and my friends and colleagues come from everywhere. I don’t have a big wish to return. But I could go there maybe for longer periods. I am not sure.
It still lingers, this question of how all that happened there was possible. But then you also wonder how such things were done here in Italy or what Dutch soldiers did in Indonesia. Sometimes people don’t commit murder because they know someone is watching. Other people don’t do it because something inside them is preventing them. What stops one person doesn’t necessarily stop another.
When you think back to the positions you had when we talked in 1990, have you had any major second thoughts in your philosophy?
No, not in that respect. But I expected much more would be possible. I thought that maybe it was rough times but something good would come of it. When you’re younger, you’re fresher and surrounded by people exchanging energy. You get a little older, a little wiser, and you move a little further away from the people you once worked with. And there’s a lot more of skepticism.
There is still a lot of racism all over the world, and it’s growing. I wrote about it in my article about the Netherlands. The best book on this is Ian Buruma’s Murder in Amsterdam (I also read his Wages of Guilt and arranged for it to be published in Belgrade by B92). For a not-so-brief period of time, Ruud Gullit, the Dutch football player whose father was from Suriname, made everybody think that racism was bad, because he was a good player and our guys were winning. As Buruma put in The Wages of Guilt, a soap opera in Germany made people realize that they’d done bad things in the past. It wasn’t some high-level piece of culture. Brilliant intellectuals can be good with words and have access to the media but very often don’t have any sort of wider social influence.
That’s a good point. Intellectuals often have tremendous hostility to popular culture like soap operas, but these can have a profound impact. Probably the most important thing to transform people’s attitudes to gays and lesbians was the TV show Will and Grace.
Looking at the region as a whole, there’s been a lot of disappointment. Most people thought that they’d be living in a country at the economic level of Austria in a few short years. They’re also disappointed at the level of corruption, the quality of political leadership, the rise of extremism. There had been an assumption that the countries of East-Central Europe would follow a certain developmental model and achieve the boring stasis of Austrian society –
Boring is good!
So, why are we seeing the backlash?
Corruption is very present in all these countries. It’s logical. This abrupt structural change — abrupt in terms of history — opened up a space. The guys who knew how to arrange things entered this space and prospered. Politicians, at least the majority of them, pretend to be normal, civilized. But these guys who moved into this space were wild. The normal population sees some persons getting enormously rich. Everyone would like to get very rich. They think it’s a result of corruption, which it is. Then they see that these people are not prosecuted, and they accuse politicians and so on. At the same time, they would like to live like Austrians or Americans. But Croatians at least don’t work hard enough for that. Slovenians are different because Slovenians always were hardworking people. And the further south you go, the statistics show fewer productive working hours. And politicians all around that region leave much to be desired.
So, there was space and time for opportunists, people who were building something new, for better or worse. Only when the situation becomes more stable you can get a justice system that can prosecute people. At least in Croatia they’re doing this quite a lot nowadays. Every time I open up a newspaper I see a new person being accused and arrested. There’s obviously a big cleaning taking place, and the justice system is progressing. Improvements for minorities can happen too. Last time I looked at Belgrade papers, there seemed to be much less of this going on.
People think that progress can be achieved overnight. Only wars take place over night. But even wars were prepared beforehand, except that people didn’t know about it.
When you think back to 1990, and everything that has changed or not changed in Croatia, how would you evaluate all of that on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 most dissatisfied and 10 most satisfied?
Same period of time, same scale: your own personal life?
When you look into the near future, the next two or three years, how would you evaluate the prospects for Croatia on a scale from 1 to 10, with 1 most pessimistic and 10 most optimistic?
6 or 7. I think Croatia has changed, and there is potential. There are a lot of good people working there, like Vesna Pusic, who has a lot of energy and potential. They are capable of doing something. I wish them all the luck.
Trieste, August 2, 2013
A researcher, writer and anarchist, Mira Oklobdzija has worked on women’s issues, new social movements, urban guerrillas and, more recently, migration patterns. She is also a member of the human rights commission in Croatia. First we talked about women’s issues in Yugoslavia. I will paraphrase her comments before.
Ten years ago we had an international meeting in Belgrade. In the Yugoslav delegation were men and the feminists from the West were surprised. And these men had interesting papers on the subject of the education of men. Later, in Zagreb, we formed a group of feminist intellectuals in the Sociological Association. This was the only way to be organized because at the time we had an official, governmental women’s organization that was supposed to handle these issues.
The legislation here in Yugoslavia on women’s rights is very good. For example, we have equal rights, in every domain. You can’t be paid less for the same job if you’re a woman, which in America is quite possible. Also, people who live together after a year have the same rights as married people. And the children born of these couples also have equal rights. It’s not just legal recognition, but social acceptance as well. Well, in the countryside it is more patriarchal but this is at least the case in the cities.
There aren’t a lot of people active on women’s issues. But we are involved in high profile occupations, on newspapers and in universities. Ten years ago, feminism was a word that was laughed at. Now, however, it is accepted. But the recent government in Croatia is trying to change things. Because they want to boost the birth rate, there recently was an attempt to make abortion illegal. Until now it was very cheap and very accessible. But women within the Croatian Democratic Community were against it. Other parties, like the Christian parties, would like to put the women back in the family: a strong Croat family and lots of little Croat children. But I don’t think the changes will be successful. There will also be the economic factor. People might want to have more children but won’t be able to support them. And the economic situation will only get worse. Consciousness of women’s issues has permeated the society’s structures. But you have to remember the cultural differences here in Yugoslavia. In the north it’s one thing. In Kosovo, on the other hand, you still have the buying of a bride.
All the left-wing parties are mostly men [I think she was referring to the Communist party, etc.]. Only the Association of Democratic Initiatives has women involved at high levels. Now the Association will be participating in the elections in Serbia and Bosnia. But I didn’t want our Association to participate in elections: that is a result of my libertarian feelings.
The feminist group doesn’t meet as much as it did before. But it still has many projects, many books published on women’s issues. We don’t have Women’s Studies yet at the university but I think we will. The SOS telephone for battered women has been going on now for two years. For a long time, Yugoslavia was a country where there wasn’t much violence at all. In Zagreb, for example, as a women you could walk the streets at 3 a.m. and feel safe. I don’t know about now: violence is increasing but I’m not sure if it is increasing against women.
On human rights issues, some groups focus only on political oppression and many members of the present government, including General Tudjman, were part of this human rights group. Now every republic government has a human rights commission. But other groups, like the Helsinki Federation I work on, deal with a broader conception of human rights, including economic issues. For instance, dealing with people who were fired from their jobs for political reasons.
The language has changed in the newspapers, for instance. They are using all these Croatian words to differentiate as much as possible between Croatian and Serbian. There are regional dialects within Croatia and people within the republic sometimes can hardly understand one another. People from Belgrade and Zagreb, on the other hand, have no difficulty whatsoever. The difference between the two languages is probably similar to American and English. And at the Zagreb airport, there is only the Croatian flag, no Yugoslav flag.
In terms of anarchism, there are no formal groups in Yugoslavia, simply a collection of like-minded people who keep in touch with one another. They have published most of the key anarchist texts, Kropotkin, Bakunin. And many articles. In contrast to some other anarchist groups in Eastern Europe, Yugoslav anarchists have published their work in mainstream journals rather than in anarchist periodicals. For instance, I published an interview with Murray Bookchin in one of the glossy Croatian bi-weeklies.
New unions have appeared but they are still rather weak. They did succeed, however, in raising the very minimal wages of schoolteachers in primary schools to a normal level.
The national situation is dreadful. When there will be normal elections in Serbia, it will calm down. Milosevic is simply adding wood to the fire. But the Croatian government said to the Serbs here in Croatia, “OK, you can stay here.” Well, that was insulting since these Serbs have been living here for 500 years. It was like being told that you could live in the house you’ve been living in for 50 years. In 1971, part of the government more Croat-oriented tried to change the functioning of republic structures. Some of them were sent to prison, some are now members of the new government. There was nationalist euphoria back then, people walking around with the symbol of Croatia on their sleeve.
Finally, the attitude of Croatia toward the Third World. Before Yugoslavia was active in the Non-Aligned Movement. Now, everyone is saying that we have done enough for the Third World. These were political arrangements and economically not good for Yugoslavia. “They are speaking and looking only to the West. Non-alignment is not important. These countries are not important.” Students from the Third World came to study and at first were looked at strangely but then were gradually accepted. Many got married and stayed in Croatia and there are many mulatto children in the school system. Racism exists but is not very strong. The skinheads spend their time hating Serbian soccer teams and don’t bother with any people from the Third World.