Exposing “Ghosts” – An Online Hunt for Assad’s Thugs in Europe

A member of the Shabiha, with a tattoo of President Assad on his disproportionately large left arm
A member of the Shabiha, with a tattoo of President Assad on his disproportionately large left arm

A member of the Shabiha, with a tattoo of President Assad on his disproportionately large left arm

By Koen Kluessien -

 

“We love Assad because the government gave us all the power – if I wanted to take something, kill a person or rape a girl I could […]. The government gave me 30,000 Syrian pounds per month and an extra 10,000 per person that I captured or killed. I raped one girl, and my commander raped many times. It was normal.” This confession describes only one of many atrocities perpetrated by the Shabiha. According to a 2016 country report on Human Rights Practices conducted by the US State Department, these militias systematically perpetrated rape and other attacks on civilian populations. At least 7,672 incidents of sexual abuse were perpetrated since the beginning of the conflict. These predominantly Alawite pro-Assad death squads intimidate, rape, and kill Syrians who oppose the regime. It is no coincidence that Shabiha is Arabic for “ghost” or “shadow”. The militias feel untouchable. Some of these “ghosts” have now found their way to Europe, while their crimes have remained unpunished.

The Shabiha have been around for a long time. In the 1980s and 90s they smuggled food, cigarettes, and other commodities into Lebanon, selling these products with a huge profit. The smuggling was state sponsored and seemingly innocent. However, on the other side of the border luxury cars, guns, and drugs were smuggled from Lebanon into Syria’s state controlled economy. The Shabiha were nothing short of Syrian mobsters and were known for their brutal way of protecting their own business. When Bashar al-Assad came to power, the group was said to be disbanded. However, when the Syrian protestors took to the streets, the Shabiha gangs evolved into militia groups. This time not simply to smuggle products from and to Syria, but also to beat civilians into submission.

The Shabiha are Assad’s militia on steroids, literally. The members of the death squads are often described as wearing trainers and civilians clothes, added with a military style crew cut. What stands out most is their physique. According to one physician many of the members are recruited from bodybuilding gyms and are given steroids. This results in the militiamen resembling a somewhat chubbier and far more scarier version of Arnold Schwarzenegger. It must be added that many of the current Shabiha do not resemble this stereotypical look anymore. Still, they are far from ordinary men.

One question that immediately arises is: why are these fighters granted asylum? And more importantly, what are they doing here? There is not yet a clear cut answer to both questions, but open source research by human rights activists provides us with some answers. Humanitarian asylum is only granted to civilians, not to fighters. UNHCR clearly states that “military activity is incompatible with the very institution of asylum. Persons who pursue military activities in a country of asylum cannot be asylum-seekers or refugees.” Still, government militants are often not seen as a threat to the European way of life. Shabiha smoke and drink, are not devout Muslims, and wear Western clothes. With the authorities unaware of the crimes these militias committed, they are generally seen as people who would integrate into our society easily.

The militiamen are under close scrutiny of a special team within the Dutch police force. Still, even the police often has to rely on anonymous tips from refugees who have recognized war criminals. Militias have also been located by open source researchers in European countries such as Germany, Sweden, and the Netherlands. Still, they feel untouchable, even when they are not directly protected by the Syrian government. The alleged war criminals carelessly post photos of their whereabouts on Facebook and other social media. Luckily, this makes it easier for researches to locate them and link them to photos and videos of them wearing combat uniforms and committing war crimes. Already a number of researchers and organizations are posting the names and details of foreign fighters who have been geolocated in European cities. Combined with eyewitness accounts from victims who are now asylum seekers and human rights reports this information can counter impunity. More importantly, human rights activists have received intelligence that a number of Shabiha have been sent by Syrian regime intelligence (the Mukhabarat) to spy on refugees.

Layth Ayman Munshdi is one example of a fighter that sought refuge in Europe and was tracked down by open source researcher Ben Davies, simply using social media. Munshdi joined a pro-regime militia to fight in the armed conflict Moreover, he took part in executions. He also posted photos of himself standing on the bodies of the dead Sunni men he most likely murdered. Later he was located in Neustadt, Germany simply because he uploaded photos from his new life in Europe. He remained there for several months, until Syrians started posting about the crimes he committed. Munshdi consequently deleted his account, he was then lost out of sight for a while. He now resides in Damascus and rejoined the Shi’a militias in Damascus.

 

Layth Ayman Munshdi as a fighter and as an “asylum seeker” in Greece

Layth Ayman Munshdi as a fighter and as an “asylum seeker” in Greece

 

The human rights activists conducting the much needed open source research are often Syrian refugees themselves. Needless to say, these researchers are biased in one way or another. When one researchers was asked if he would also publish articles on war criminals from the Syrian opposition he stated that he had not yet found any. It is clear that there is a margin of error to the research. Still, they analyze every detail there is to be found about the individuals. The information is then corroborated with human rights organizations on the ground.

Much of the open source research is conducted by human rights activists that are not part of a police force. They provide us with some much needed awareness on the crimes of the Syrian regime, but they lack any form of judicial power. Luckily, some of the pro-Assad militias residing in Europe are now on the radar of police forces and intelligence agencies. Special war crimes units have started interviewing eyewitnesses and victims, in case a Syrian tribunal is ever established. This pro-active attitude is essential to build a case against war criminals. Still, it is unclear if such a war crimes tribunal will ever come to fruition. Many countries see Assad as the lesser of two evils, arguing that to fight ISIL they must maintain diplomatic relations with the Assad regime. Consequently ignoring that the atrocities committed by the regime forces are often as atrocious as those committed by the Islamic State. If the Shabiha escape any form of sentencing, they will forever haunt the minds of their victims.

 

Film Review: A Good Wife – The Family Life of a War Criminal

Film poster to A Good Wife (Dobra Zena)

 

Film poster to A Good Wife (Dobra Zena)

Film poster to A Good Wife (Dobra Zena)


By Koen Kluessien and Marieke Zoodsma 

 

Perhaps one of the most disturbing (moving) images from the wars in the former Yugoslavia are those shot on the so-called Scorpion Tape. The tape is named after the paramilitary unit that produced the video, Škorpioni – who curiously named themselves after their favorite weapon, the Škorpion vz. 61 machine pistol. The Scorpions, founded in 1991, were a Serbian nationalist paramilitary group consisting of several hundred armed groups who were involved in multiple combat operations during the wars. The full-length 2-hour tape depicts the activities of the unit between 1994 and 1995, with the Trnovo murders in July 1995 as its disturbing climax. It shows how members of the unit transport six Bosniak men who were captured after the fall of Srebrenica, physically and mentally abuse them, and finally execute them. In Serbia, where a culture of denial about (Serbia’s involvement in) the war crimes is widespread, the video caused huge commotion after it was made public in 2005 during the trial of Slobodan Milošević, leading to several arrests of those Scorpion members captured on the tape.


So, one might ask, who kept the tape for all these years? Who knew about its existence and why did that person come forward with it after ten years? A Good Wife (Dobra Zena)
, one of the featured films of the Movies that Matter Film Festival 2016 and now On Tour, questions such as these are cleverly intertwined in the storyline. The film shows the family life of one of the members of the Scorpion unit, several years after the war. It is reminiscent of the ordinary life of a mobster that is told in the HBO series The Sopranos, in which the story focuses on the criminal activity of mafioso Tony Soprano but primarily aims to depict the everyday life of his family. This is also the aim of A Good Wife: instead of outlining the life of Serbian paramilitary Vlado (who even has an uncanny resemblance to Tony Soprano: fat, slightly balding, and with an appearance that breathes authority) it focuses on his wife Milena. The film asks the question what the family members of a paramilitary – or a mobster for that matter – know, and more importantly, want to know.


According to sociologist Stanley Cohen, this paradox of both knowing and not-knowing lies at the heart of the concept of denial (read here Marieke’s article on current day examples of denial and Koen’s article on genocide denial by Serbian politicians). Denial is intrinsically partial as some information is always registered. What is important is what one does with that information. Milena knows her husband was in the military during the war and we see her watching the news about the aftermath of the mass atrocities committed by Serbian units. However, she does not ask him any questions, not even when she sees him getting heavily agitated after watching a human rights activist comment on the war crimes on the television. She has a suspicion but does not have an “enquiring mind”, as Stanley Cohen would call it.


Alienation and demonization are often heard reactions to distance oneself from the cruel actions of perpetrators of mass atrocities. It is easier to see perpetrators of mass violence as intrinsically evil people. They can thereby remain the so-called “Other”; something that stands so far from us that we do not truly have to understand it. A Good Wife excellently depicts the opposite. It provides the audience with a unique insight into the ordinary life of a war criminal, when the violence is over and life turns back to “normal”. Yes, Vlado is easily annoyed, has a bad relationship with his eldest (progressive) daughter, and is still an overt believer of the nationalist Serbian cause – but furthermore comes across as the average husband. We see him buying jewelry for Milena’s birthday, sitting at the head of the dinner table, and going out together with friends. As the film progresses, however, coping techniques cannot hold back his lingering trauma and it starts to affect his family life.


The key scene in the storyline of A Good Wife is the moment when Milena finds a copy of the Scorpion tape in one of her husband’s drawers. Unaware of what the tape actually contains, she turns it on and sees her husband and his comrades commit the above-described crimes. Heavily upset she turns it off. The leading question of the film remains, now that she cannot deny the involvement of her husband in these crimes, what will she do with the evidence?

 

The actual Scorpion tape was found by Nataša Kandić, a human rights activist from Belgrade, who tracked down one of the Scorpion members that was in possession of the tape. There had been twenty copies, but when Slobodan Medić Boca (the commander of the Scorpions) realized that the images could be used against him, he ordered the destruction of the footage. However, one Scorpion who was not present at the executions and did not have good relations with his former comrades made an extra copy and hid it in Bosnia. On the same day, the tape was sent to the Special Prosecutor for War Crimes in Belgrade and to the Office of the Prosecutor at the ICTY. When the video was played in Serbia, it was the first time Serbia was confronted with a crime committed by Serb forces in Bosnia.

 

Serbian politicians later acknowledged the crime. At that point it seemed like the Serbian “state of denial” was about to change and Serbians would be ready to deal with their past. Indeed, many people still give credit to the tape for “sending shockwaves through society”. Unfortunately, the truth is slightly different. Quickly the discourse changed back to usual statements showing the unwillingness to confront the past. The taped killings were relativized by pointing out crimes committed against Serbs that were still unpunished. When asked why the video had not had more effect, Dejan Anastasijević, a journalist for the newspaper Vreme, responded: “Public opinion [has been] cemented by now – it’s been 10 years. All I can say is that the capability of the human mind of refusing to face unpleasant facts keeps on amazing me”.

 

A Good Wife depicts the family life of a war criminal as if they were your neighbors. Hopefully, it will also prove to be not only a thought provoking film filled with well-written symbolism and moving actors but also a step forward in taking down the wall of denial in Serbia.

 

 

Mass Atrocities in the Digital Age – Can We Stop a Genocide With Our Cell Phone?

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Todd Lappin  (CC-BY)

 

By Koen Kluessien -

“Never again” is an oft-repeated quote at Holocaust remembrances and unlike the adagio “lest we forget”, it encompasses a call to action to prevent future mass atrocities. The idea is that through remembering past atrocities history will not repeat itself – a notion that was also echoed in international policies. For example, in 1948 the United Nations established the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a concept that arose directly from the experience of the Second World War. Still, the declaration’s thirty articles could not stop South Africa’s ruling National Party that was then introducing apartheid as an official government policy. This lack of direct action became exemplary for policies that followed.  In 2005 the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) was endorsed by all member states of the United Nations to prevent genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity. However, due to international political divisions, the Security Council has failed to uphold its basic function: the maintenance of international peace and security. Now it seems independent organizations are taking matters in their own hands to prevent and deal with mass atrocities How? Through technology.

Genocides do not happen over the course of a day, it is a long-term and deliberate process. This means that although only military intervention will stop the extermination, there are other means of ending the process before it reaches the phase of mass killing. This is especially important to note given the fact that most national governments and transnational organizations such as the United Nations are reluctant or do not have the resources to intervene. In ten stages Gregory Stanton has explained how the process of most genocides has to go through each of the phases before it can reach a new level. Stanton emphasizes that the ten stages are predictable and above all, can be stopped by preventive measures.

The Sentinel Project is one of many organizations attempting to prevent future genocides with the help of technology and Stanton’s ten stages of genocide. One of the obvious strategies of the organization is to gather information through social media. Twitter and Facebook have already demonstrated to be very successful assets to retrieve information from repressive regimes. A slightly more elaborate endeavor is to ‘crowdsource’ information through mobile phones. Ushahidi (meaning “testimony” in Swahili) is one application through which people have mapped reports of different crises. Through the app, users can retrieve, manage, and map data. This way researchers and policy makers will have a bulk of shared information instead of a number of individual entries. Or in the words of the creators of Ushahidi:

We built software to meet our own needs: the need to tell the story – the many stories – that were unfolding, spreading, exploding in an informational vacuum. We began as technology users who focused on making our own communities more resilient.

 

data-management

Source: https://www.ushahidi.com/

 

Still, these techniques predominantly focus on those phases in the genocidal process in which much of the harm has already been done. The Sentinel Project’s most exciting field of expertise is the area in which technology can play a role in the actual prevention of genocides. Even Hollywood actor George Clooney wants a part in it. Together with the Sentinel Project’s founder John Prendergast Clooney has conceived the Satellite Sentinel Project (SSP), during a joint visit to South Sudan in 2010. The Project produces reports on the state of the conflict in the regions between Sudan and South Sudan. Through satellite imagery and analysis, the project draws up reporting that is then sent to the press and policymakers. Clooney has jokingly referred to it as the “anti-genocide paparazzi”. Although the organization’s  subtitle “The world is watching because you are watching” has a Hollywood-like flair to it, it is a new form of research that is to be taken seriously. SSP has already located numerous human rights violations. The organization was for example the first to find evidence of the destroying of the villages of Maker Abior, Todach, and Tajalei in Sudan’s Abyei region.

 

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Satellite image of the burning of Tajalei, Sudan (6 March 2011). Source: Digital Globe/Satellite Sentinel Project

 

One does not have to be a spy anymore to use satellite imagery. These days, there are numerous companies that have half a dozen satellites orbiting around the globe for your viewing pleasure. Some images can display about 50 cm² in each pixel of your computer screen. To be more specific: it is detailed enough to tell the difference between cars and military trucks and track the movement of troops from space. Lars Bromley, a high-ranking UN imagery analyst, has described the private satellite imagery as “Google Earth on lots of steroids”.

Unfortunately, the SSP was disbanded in 2015. According to its founders this was due to the start of a new project in which Prendergast and Clooney try to dismantle the networks of perpetrators and facilitators of armed conflict through the analysis of their financial supporters. Yet it must be taken into account that a lack of success must have played a role in the disbanding of the organization. Although the organization was fairly successful in indicating human rights violations, it never led to any serious direct impact. Crisis mapping expert Patrick Meier states that one important reason for the lack of success is time. It takes between eight to twenty-four hours for the satellite imagery to develop, whereas raiding a village can be done in less than a few hours. More importantly, deterrence is a strategy that only truly works when governments threaten with direct and immense retaliation so that aggressors will suffer great damage as a result of their action. Clearly, this was not an option for the SSP, an independent organization without any military or police force.

The lack of direct impact on conflicts should not be a reason to simply stop using technology to end human rights violations. The problem is not the way in which the data is gathered, but the implementation of the information. Clearly, satellite imagery and information sent from mobile phones in the region should not be focused on the deterrence of genocidaires. Instead, it should be a way to hold our own governments accountable to their Responsibility to Protect. In the past, R2P as a mere commitment signed by UN member states has proven to be inadequate. Still, with more organizations finding ways to implement technology in their analyses and more people documenting what is happening on the ground, governments can be held accountable with more up-to-date and detailed reports of human rights violations. By all means, technology will contribute to R2P’s third pillar that focuses on the fact that

in a rapidly unfolding emergency situation, the United Nations, regional, subregional and national decision makers must remain focused on saving lives through “timely and decisive” action […].

We have to be tenacious in finding new tools for genocide research. Only then will technology play a role in winning the fight against genocide.

Two Steps Forward and One Step Back – The Dynamics of Denial in Post-Milošević Serbia

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During the 20th anniversary of the Srebrenica genocide, Bosnian Muslim protesters held up a banner with Aleksander Vučić’s war-time statement that for every dead Serb, 100 Muslims should be killed. Photo by: Marieke Zoodsma

 

By Koen Kluessien -

 

2015 marked the 20th anniversary of the Srebrenica genocide. Every year on 11 July the massacre is commemorated as on that day the Bosnian Serb forces took over the United Nations Safe Area in Potočari. For the past decade it seemed as though Serbia was moving forward in the process of reconciliation: the former president Slobodan Milošević was transferred to the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY); the former commander of the Bosnian Serb armed forces Ratko Mladić is currently on trial at the ICTY; former president of the Republika Srpska Radovan Karadžić has received his sentence; and official apologies by the Serbian government have been made. However, many Serbian politicians still relativize the events that have taken place and deny any relation of Serbia to the massacres. After the transfer of Milošević to The Hague, war propaganda made way for denial.

 

In 2013 I was fortunate enough to briefly ask a question to former President of Serbia Boris Tadić. Even though the former president is considered to be a progressive politician, he still relativized Serbia’s responsibility for the Srebrenica genocide when he made his public apology in Sarajevo in 2004:

 

I apologize to all those who suffered from crimes committed in the name of the Serb people. However, the Serb people did not commit these crimes but rather criminal individuals. It is impossible to blame one nation for this because the same crimes had been committed against the Serbs. In this context we all need to apologize to one another, and if I need to be the first to do so here I am.

 

When I confronted Tadić with his half-hearted apology he responded by saying that he was not able to answer my question at that moment. He explained that I needed to understand that he was no ordinary man. He drew a distinction between his private and public opinions; as a former statesman he could not share his views. Tadić unintentionally pointed out why the change in political rhetoric and diplomacy since the transfer of Milošević have been so fragile. Politicians have to please both the European Union and Serbia, making public apologies a double-edged sword that always have to be followed by a ‘but’.

Although after the transfer of Milošević to the ICTY the content and tone of the rhetoric changed from the  regime’s literal denial to a more interpretive form, the denialist mechanisms remained the same. Much of the rhetoric used by the post-Milošević politicians arose from a narrative constructed and used in the eighties and nineties. The Serb politicians still used the self-fabricated national myths with a clear political goal in mind. Before and during the Milošević regime this political goal was the restructuring of Yugoslavia to benefit Serbia’s national interest. After the transfer of Milošević, Serbian politicians strived to solidify the already existing narrative. Solidifying this narrative of the regime was needed as Serbian politicians entered a political battle for the support of the people. This meant that the few liberal attempts to reform the discourse were defeated in the battle for legitimacy by a political pattern that relied on the inherited nationalism.

After the transfer of Milošević, politicians had chosen an ‘opportunistic pacification of the past’. The core of these politics was formed by the idea that the national identity and dignity of Serbia needed to be defended. When the ICTY and the EU tried to break through this strategy, they applied a policy of combining Serbia’s compliance with the tribunal to its position in international politics. There was a strong urge among Serbian politicians to play a role in international politics through European Union membership and international economic aid. However, a change in politics and ideology would not be accepted by a considerable part of the Serbian people. The government’s pragmatic reasoning behind the efforts to co-operate with the ICTY made sure that the results just barely reached the requirements of the international institutions. Moreover, with the ICTY and EU being more interested in ‘streamlined justice’ than reconciliation, both parties seemed to have reached an unspoken agreement of a mere superficial change in Serbian policy and rhetoric.

From 2008 onward it became even more clear that the prospect of EU membership was not sufficient to win the legitimacy of the people anymore, resulting in a denialist rhetoric that resembled that of the Milošević-era. Serbia’s economy had made an uneven progress since 2000, but had come to a halt when the global crisis reached Serbia in the autumn of 2008. Eventually, the combination of the economic depression, the further rise of unemployment and the lack of a resolute EU accession policy resulted in the collapse of the coalition. The leading Democratic Party lost power in the summer of 2012, making way for a more nationalistic and radical coalition. Surveys have shown that the prospect of EU membership would not guarantee the legitimacy of the people anymore as there had been a dramatic drop in the support for accession from 73 percent in November 2009 to only 41 percent in December 2012.

This drop in support for EU membership seemed to coincide with the Serbian politicians ‘falling back into old habits’. In the past decade Serbia had worked towards the European norms of accession. However, with the majority of the Serb people no longer supporting accession to the European Union and the battle for legitimacy in the minds of the politicians, the denialist narrative was starting to resemble the rhetoric of the old regime. Serbia had obtained the formal status of an EU candidate state in 2012, but with the Serbian media being manipulated by politicians, a weak judiciary, and an economic crisis rearing its head, the political change seemed to have come to a halt. The political climate seemed to become more grim. As Sonja Biserko (founder of the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia)  stated:

 

[Current president and prime minister of Serbia] Tomislav Nikolić and Aleksander Vučić especially, it is primitive. Now this is overtaking the institutions in such a brutal way. The incompetence, the primitivism. Who is going to reset Serbia after them? I don’t know. They are a disaster, they are like the floods of Serbia.

 

The first Serbian president ever to visit the memorial site in Potočari was Boris Tadić in 2010. It took five years for another Serbian official member to attend the commemoration, Aleksander Vučić. However, when Vučić attended the ceremony his visit was overshadowed by the angry crowd pelting rocks at him. Many Bosnian Muslims had not forgotten Vučić’s war-time statement that for every dead Serb, 100 Muslims should be killed. Some people in the crowd held a banner with the quote to remind him of his past. Moreover, Russia had recently vetoed a United Nations Security Council resolution that would have described the Srebrenica massacre as a genocide. The Serbian President, Tomislav Nikolić, consequently called it a “great day” for his country.

The rhetoric of post-Milošević politicians may be a more ‘cleaned-up’ version of the nationalism from the nineties, it is still driven by a strong denialist undertone. Especially with the plummeting support for Serbia’s EU accession policy, it seems that Serbia’s path to reconciliation will remain a bumpy one for quite some time.

 

The Land of Blood and Honey – Western Media and the Framing of the Western Balkans

Srebrenica, the sight of one of the worst crimes since the Second World War on European soil, with left the Orthodox church and to the right the newly built mosque. Photograph by Marieke Zoodsma, 2015.
Srebrenica, the sight of one of the worst crimes since the Second World War on European soil, with left the Orthodox church and to the right the newly build mosque. Photograph by Marieke Zoodsma, 2015.

Srebrenica, the sight of one of the worst crimes since the Second World War on European soil, with left the Orthodox church and to the right the newly built mosque. Photograph by Marieke Zoodsma, 2015.

 

By Koen Kluessien -

 

It has often been stated that the history of the western Balkans is “written in blood”. With the assassination of archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo igniting the First World War, the occupation and resistance during the Second World War, and wars and genocide in the 90s, many people would agree with this statement. However, constantly portraying the region as a barbaric and bloody region has created the notion that war could break out again at any moment in time. Especially with the refugee crisis currently culminating in the western Balkans, many media outlets are connecting real problems in the region with the unrealistic idea of an immediate outbreak of armed conflict.

At a conference in Darmstadt earlier this month German chancellor Angela Merkel warned that closing borders within Europe could lead to military conflict in the western Balkans. “It will lead to a backlash,” she said. Referencing to the wars that raged in the region in the 90s, she added: “I do not want military conflicts to become necessary there again.” As a result many renowned online and print media outlets used clickbait-like headlines such as Foreign Policy’s article “Is War Going to Break Out in the Balkans?”. The Guardian contributed to the discussion with an opinion piece titled “We should heed Angela Merkel’s warning of a new Balkans war”. However, the bold title was immediately followed by a statement indicating that it would be an exaggeration to speak of a lingering armed conflict already..

Fed up with all the Balkan stereotypes, online platform Balkanist posted a poignant blog that does not explain what one should not write about the Balkans, but mockingly stating what you should write as a “Balkans expert”: “you should mention that this “friendly” and “vibrant” atmosphere makes it difficult to imagine that so much “barbarity” or “bloodshed” was visited upon the region so recently”. Where does this urge to frame the western Balkans as a region in which the imminent threat of armed conflict is ever present stem from? Because needless to say, this current journalistic trend that Balkanist is referring to is not new. Popular belief that was propagated by many journalists during the wars of the 1990s saw the cultural differences within Yugoslavia and the ancient animosities between the republics as the root cause of the dissolution of Yugoslavia and the ethnic conflict that followed. The 45 years of communism in Yugoslavia were seen as merely a hiatus in which the history and memory of the different people were suppressed. The idea of “ancient hatreds” among the Yugoslav people was promoted, with the dissolution of the communist state as the event that triggered the suppressed hatred and latent emotions.

Even Bill Clinton, at the time President of the United States of America, adopted this view: “how long has the war been going on? Since 1991, in essence. That’s 4 years. It’s tragic; it’s terrible. But their enmities go back 500 years, some would say almost a thousand years.” However, this explanation is problematic. There have for example never been any repressive measures initiated by the Yugoslav government against the ethnic groups. This was not needed as there was no violence or interethnic confrontation to repress. Granted, there were still memories of the Ustaše, the Croatian fascists who killed a large number of Serbs. However, there is an important gap between collective memories and open conflict. The suppressed memories will not be disruptive until they are, for instance, directed by an extremist leader. In the case of Serbia, that leader was Slobodan Milošević.

Milošević reconstructed the collective identity of the Serbs and in this reconstruction he added a collective sense of victimhood. This sense of victimhood would eventually direct the collective memories to the political goal and it would contribute to the outbreak of interethnic conflict. A speech given by Milošević to commemorate the 600th anniversary of the military victory of the Turks over the Serbians at the Battle of Kosovo on June 28, 1989 clearly showed how this idea of victimhood could feed the outbreak of conflict. At the time the other Yugoslav republics were already shocked by the messages Milošević tried to convey and it would later be seen as a warning signal of the violence that would later come:

 

Today, six centuries later, we are being again engaged in battles and are facing battles. They are not armed battles, although such things cannot be excluded yet. However, regardless of what kind of battles they are, they cannot be won without resolve, bravery, and sacrifice, without the noble qualities that were present here in the field of Kosovo in the days past.

 

This lost Battle of Kosovo was a chosen trauma, that had been passed on each generation. The memory of the Battle of Kosovo clearly shows how trauma can feed ethnic pride and eventually incite a group to avenge its ancestors. This becomes clear when the narrative is seen in the context of the war and massacres of the 1990s. For example, the Srebrenica genocide was put in this narrative of victimhood. According to Serbian politicians, the Srebrenica massacre had a symbolic purpose, the genocide was seen as an opportunity for the Serbs to take revenge. Various strands of national history became a source of inspiration for Serbian nationalists. General Ratko Mladić even mentioned this historical importance when he entered the empty streets of Srebrenica:

 

Here we are, on 11 July 1995, in Serb Srebrenica. On the eve of yet another great Serb holiday, we give this town to the Serb people as a gift. Finally, after the rebellion against the Dahis, the time has come to take revenge on the Turks in this region [emphasis KK].

 

This victimhood-centered propaganda continued when Milošević forcefully portrayed the Croats as Ustaše and Bosniaks as Islamist fundamentalists. Any opponent of a Yugoslavia where Serbia dominated was put down as a threat to Serbia.

The nationalist and radical rhetoric still echoes through the politics in the western Balkans. Indeed, one should not downplay the problems that are still very much present in the region and are a direct consequence of the wars of the 90s. As Dr. Jochen Töpfer, expert in South European politics at Berlin’s Freie Universität, stated: the wars of the 1990s are ‘dormant rather than solved.’ But especially because of this lingering nationalism it is unwise to dramatize current events and consequently alienate the western Balkans from the rest of Europe. Merkel is clearly trying to create fear among the politicians and stop them from closing their borders for refugees. However, it is dangerous to create fear among politicians in countries in which there is already widespread poverty and a struggle over the already few resources with half a million refugees added to these already existing problems. Both politicians and media outlets should refrain from these oversimplified statements as it clearly does more harm than good.