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.

 

Srebrenica Remembered: 21 Years Later

Family members mourning in the compound at the Potocari Memorial Centre. Photo by: Marieke Zoodsma

 

Family members mourning in the compound at the Potocari Memorial Centre. Photo by: Marieke Zoodsma

Family members mourning in the compound at the Potocari Memorial Centre, July 2015. Photo by: Marieke Zoodsma

By Marieke Zoodsma

Yesterday, the people of Bosnia and Herzegovina and others all over the world remembered the genocide that took place in Srebrenica – a small town in Eastern Bosnia – in July 1995. As much as Srebrenica used to be famous for its thermal spa resorts in Yugoslav times, it is now known to the world as the place where one of the worst atrocities after the Second World War in the European mainland has taken place. During those dreadful days, approximately 8.000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys were systematically killed by Bosnian Serb forces in the days following the fall of Srebrenica. Under the auspices of an UN peace-force, which was there to protect the large Bosnian Muslim population that sought refuge in and around town, the troops of Ratko Mladić carefully sorted out the men from the women – the men to be executed in the nearby fields or warehouses and the women to be bussed to the Bosnian Muslim safe area around Tuzla.

 

Of the estimated 8.000 victims of the genocide, so far only 6.615 bodies have been identified and buried at the Potočari Memorial Centre. Each year new mass graves are found from which the bodies are exhumed and identified. In case of a positive identification, these victims are traditionally buried by their families during the mass funeral that is part of the commemoration on the 11th of July. This year 127 victims were brought to their final resting place. The fact that this process of searching the lost is already taking over twenty years is not only because of the time-consuming task the exhumation and identification of bodies from mass graves take, but also because many mass graves simply have not been localised yet. As I wrote before, the mass graves are a testament to the genocide that was committed in Bosnia, as well as to the failure of the authorities of the Republika Srpska, as part of their genocide denial, to reveal their location.

 

Last year, WHN-colleague Koen Kluessien and I visited the commemoration in Srebrenica – during its 20th “anniversary”.  Srebrenica and its surroundings were for a couple of days the stage of an international media circus, with the coffins of the victims and the tears of their families as perfect attributes for clean shots. During last year’s ceremony, Serbia’s Prime Minister Aleksander Vučić was chased away by a stone-throwing crowd because he – as well as many other Serbian officials – refused to acknowledge the massacre as genocide. This year, families of the victims demanded that those who deny the nature of the crime were not to be invited at the ceremony. As a result, no official from Belgrade or the Serbian part of Bosnia (Republika Srpska) came. Quarrels such as these turn the ceremony each year into a political game.

 

The events that happened in Srebrenica do not only keep a large part of the former Yugoslavia busy, but also those countries that were back then closely involved. Commemorations are being held in the United States, memorial sites are set up in the United Kingdom, law suits are started in the Netherlands against those that are deemed co-responsible, and investigations are conducted to shed more light on those crucial days in July. In March this year, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) sentenced ‘big fish’ Radovan Karadzić to forty years’ imprisonment in Europe’s biggest war crime trial since Nuremberg. The judgement clearly states Karadzić’s direct involvement in the killings:

 

“As the President of the RS [Republika Srpska, MZ] and Supreme Commander of the VRS [Army of the Republika Srpska, MZ], the Accused was the sole person within the RS with the power to intervene to prevent the Bosnian Muslim males from being killed. Yet far from intervening to prevent the killings from taking place at all, the Accused himself ordered that the Bosnian Muslim male detainees who were then being held in Bratunac be transferred elsewhere to be killed; they were then taken to Zvornik and killed.”
Karadzić’ Judgement Summary, 24 March 2016, p. 13

 

Karadzić’s appeal is currently under the jurisdiction of the Mechanism for International Tribunals, the follow-up of both the Yugoslav and the Rwandan tribunals.

 

For the people of Srebrenica, life goes on as a divided town under poor economic and social conditions (Bosnia has one of the highest unemployment rates in the world: 42%), with many abandoned skeletons of houses of those who didn’t return. Last year, I asked a restaurant owner – who earned his year income only during the commemoration – about his thoughts on the turmoil, media circus and political games that were being played. He told me: “We can turn Srebrenica into a museum which will only be opened around the 11th of July, that’s fine. But then we have to decide that that is the course we want to take”. That is what is happening now in Srebrenica.

 

Victims and reparations at the ICC

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Logo of the International Criminal Court

 

By Amani Chibashimba (guest writer) -

The International Criminal Court (ICC) was created by the Rome Statute of 1998 in a way to conclude the efforts that have been made to fight international criminality since the end of the Second World War. Its creation is considered to be a success as it derived from a diplomatic agreement between States, which differs from its predecessors, the International Criminal Tribunals (for the ex-Yugoslavia and Rwanda), which were ‘imposed’ by the United Nations. The ICC has jurisdiction over the gravest breach of international law, namely the crimes of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. Since it was established by an agreement between states, it does not have a police force and counts on the cooperation of member states to arrest the accused.

In its efforts to fight international criminality, the ICC has brought many new notions that are very likely to influence the development of international criminal justice and international law. The most interesting innovation though, would be the reparation for victims. This notion is framed in the Rome Statute in a very distinct way, as individuals are going to be obliged to provide reparations to victims, following their sentencing, as provided by article 75(2):

The Court may make an order directly against a convicted person specifying appropriate reparation to, or in respect of, victims, including restitution, compensation and rehabilitation

The challenges of the enforcement of the notion of reparation will be the purpose of this article. In international law, the notion of reparation is not new, but the individuation of the reparation will be quite an innovation. International law recognizes mainly the notion of reparation by states. This has been implemented in several cases, where states were to provide reparation following a judgment in which the states misdeed was proven by law. At the ICC only individuals are judged, therefore the ICC reparation will be imposed following the conviction of an accused individual. Reparation is thus linked to individual criminal liability. The first two convictions at the ICC in the cases of Lubanga (December 2014) and Katanga (May 2014) – both related to the situation in Congo – gave the ICC the opportunity to implement Article 75 for the first time.

On the 7th August 2012 Trial Chamber I of the ICC issued a decision in the case against Thomas Lubanga for the first time on the principles that would be applied to reparations for victims. Here, two challenges were already deplorable: Mr. Lubanga was declared bankrupt and individual reparation for his victims was impossible to conceive. Lubanga was convicted for conscripting and enlisting children under the age of 15 in armed groups and using them to participate actively in hostilities. He was accused to have done this in the district of Ituri, meaning we have countless potential victims from whom to draw those eligible for reparation. Since it was not possible to award individual reparation, it was decided that collective reparation should be awarded by creating activities that would be beneficial for the victims. On 3rd March 2015, the Appeal Chamber issued its final decision on this matter and decided that the Trust Fund for Victims (TFV) should present a draft for collective reparation in this case.

The Courts TFV has been involved in collective assistance projects related to child soldiers in the DRC. When the final decision will be issued, it will be most definitely drawn from those existing projects. Also for this case, since Lubanga is not financially able to provide reparation for its countless victims, the Court has decided that the TFV should be the one presenting a plan for reparation. However, we should be aware that neither the Rome Statute, nor the Rules of Procedure and Evidence (RPE), nor the TFV Regulation mention that the TFV should be a substitute body tasked to provide reparation for a convicted person declared bankrupt by the Court. Nevertheless, TFV regulation 42 states that the resources of the Trust Fund shall be for the benefit of the victims of crimes within the jurisdiction of the Court…”, this is why it was admissible for the Court to order the TFV to act as a substitute body and repair the victims of Mr. Lubanga.

On 27th August 2014, the Courts Trial Chamber II issued an order to the Registry to report on applications for reparation for the case against Germain Katanga, the second case. Unlike Lubanga, Katanga was convicted for crimes committed in a specific village (Bogoro) on a specific day (24th February 2003). Awarding reparation for this case will be dependent on those two elements. In 2003, some 364 victims were recognized to participate in the trial for the Katanga case. These are supposed to be people who have suffered acts for which Katanga was accused, meaning they have suffered from the attack which happened in the village of Bogoro in the morning of the 24th February 2003.

It is important to remember that Mr. Katanga was convicted for much less acts than he was charged. His charges included: willful killing, murder, directing an attack against a civilian population as such, destruction of property, pillage, using children under the age of 15 to participate actively in hostilities, sexual slavery, and rape. However, in his conviction, only four charges were retained: as an accessory for murder (as a crime against humanity and as a war crime), attack against a civilian population as such, destruction of enemys property, and pillaging. This means that not all the victims who participated in the proceedings as witnesses for the crimes he was charged with, will be included in the reparation process. This applies, for example, to women who were raped or enslaved following the attack of Bogoro village.

Looking at these two cases and thinking of what the reparation scheme is going to be, one can see already some challenging aspects which will come out in time of actually awarding reparations or implementing those decisions. We should keep in mind the nature of the crimes and their impact on the victims as well as the essence and meaning of the intended reparation. Despite the fact that the victims in both cases are entitled to reparation, it will be hard to apply the same rules in both situations, as the circumstances in both cases are fundamentally different. However, the reparations will depend on the same three key elements: conviction; definition of beneficiary, and applicability of the principles provided for by the Rome Statute and RPE.

Concerning the conviction in the case of Katanga, it is likely that there will be a lot of frustration as many victims will be excluded from the reparation process because the crimes for which they were victimized were not part of the conviction. It will be challenging to explain to a woman who was raped on the 24th February 2003 during the attack of Bogoro, that she is not a suitable’ victim for this case because the prosecutor did not prove his case beyond reasonable doubt. Does this mean they are not victims? How to recognize their victimhood? This is likely to influence the very essence of reparation and the perception of justice the Court has been striving for. Concerning the definition of victimwho will benefit from reparation, this will be very narrow. In the case of Katanga, only those inhabitants of Bogoro (or strangers who happened to be present there on the morning of the 24th February 2003) who suffered an injury (physical, moral or material) due to the misdeed of Mr. Katanga, shall be considered. However, proving that you were in the village that day will prove to be challenging, especially because everybody fled, some for good, some to return only after many years.

The case against Lubanga opens another practical question: who are victims? Lubanga was convicted for conscripting children in the whole district of Ituri, in which large number of people live. In addition, he committed this crime more than a decade ago, which makes it less likely for the victims to come forward now. Overall, it will be challenging to apply the principles, as laid down in the Statute and the RPE, to actual cases. With regard to, for example, the indigence of the defendants, adjustments must be made. The main reason why those rules have to be laid down is, to my opinion, to make sure that they lay down the path for the development of more adequate and inclusive principles. They should then be flexible.

The final decisions on the reparation for both cases are still pending. It will be interesting to see if there will be similarities between the two very different cases when it comes to applying those principles of reparation. We have already witnessed some of the shortcomings, namely the insolvency of the defendant, the enormous amount of destruction to be repaired, or the huge number of concerned victims. The challenge will be for the ICC to provide for a reparation scheme which will reinforce its legitimacy. Adding to its already controversial review, another failure in the form of ill-placed or unsatisfactory reparations will only serve to decrease its consideration and question its legitimacy.

No Place to Hide: War Criminals and Terrorists Among Refugees

Angelos Tzortinis / Getty Images - CC BY-NC
Angelos Tzortinis / Getty Images - CC BY-NC

Angelos Tzortinis / Getty Images – CC BY-NC

 

By Kari van der Ploeg -

This summer the world was shocked when a photo of a little Syrian boy went viral. He was pictured face down in the sand, drowned before the coast of Greece. In no time, the public opinion regarding the European refugee crisis turned emotional. A consensus was reached among the European population that a more empathetic approach to the problem was needed. However, as people started arriving in Europe and the local population saw the practical consequences of the crisis, public opinion soon shifted to anger.

As you can read in Marieke’s article, locals are mostly concerned about the large amount of new refugee shelters that are being set up and the presumed problems that come along with them. How is our government going to find money to feed these people, are the means present to give them social benefits, what if they ‘take our jobs’? Concerns about welfare are supressing the empathy some people once felt. The consequence is that the debate is polarizing and people are becoming increasingly scared. Moderation in the debate is being shunned as everyone needs to be pro or against refugees*. Fuelled by right winged politicians and media, many people no longer see refugees as people escaping war but stereotype them as troublemakers, freeloaders and war criminals. A dehumanizing rhetoric is taking over the debate by referring to refugees in terms such as a ‘tsunami of refugees’ (in other words: a deadly force of refugees).

While reading certain social media content such as the Dutch Geen Stijl’ or the Facebook page ‘NK vluchteling vangen met een vangnet’ (National Championship catching refugees with a safety net – recently removed by Facebook) one comes to believe that the majority of refugees are thugs and terrorists who have come to Europe to convert us to the Islam and rape little girls. Under the pretence of humour, people vocalize their frustrations, anger and fears and push each other into a more violent rhetoric against refugees. Some examples of these comments are: “To what extent are refugees armed exactly? I am reading more and more disturbing things about this”, “They work in groups, they don’t need weapons to rape little girls”** The continuous outpouring of venomous thoughts is  shocking to read. A lot of counter arguments are being heard as well but moderation is hard to find in the debate among common men. It made me wonder how it was possible that the debate has shifted to fast from empathy to concern and anger. Is there any truth to these worries, do we really have to be concerned about our own safety and welfare?

In September, the story of a Syrian man and his seven year old son headed the news when they were tripped by a Hungarian camerawomen as they were trying to escape from a collection point in Roszke village, Hungary. Abdul Mohsen’s life was turned upside down when it became public that he used to be a football coach back in Syria, and he was offered a place on a Spanish soccer coach academy. Mohsen and his son were welcomed personally in the Spanish capital by players of Real Madrid, including Cristiano Ronaldo. Soon after however, the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) accused him of being a member of Jabhat Al-Nusra, an offshoot of Al-Qaida in Syria. They released a statement holding Mohsen accountable for war crimes against Kurds and other civilian minorities since 2011. The PYD published a photo of Mohsen’s Facebook account where he identifies himself as a member of the Al-Nusra front, adding that he fought Kurds near Amudeh, Serekaniya and Afrin.

The incident of Abdul Mohsen poses an example of what many people in Europe are scared of. With a large amount of people streaming in to Europe it is nearly impossible to research the background of every single one of them. According to newspaper ´de Volkskrant´, the Dutch secret services (AIVD) claim that there is no indication to be scared for large numbers of terrorists among refugees. However, prominent public Dutch figures such as Geert Wilders and Bram Moszcowicz fuel fear with fictional numbers and simplistic statements. Wilders claims that 2% of the  refugees that arrive in Europe are radicalized. Moszcowicz added that he is scared that the people that find it normal to behead others are among refugees.  “They don’t allow us to live” he said at a meeting of the Dutch liberal party, the VVD, in September. The AIVD however does not recognize these numbers or sentiments. It is possible that in individual instances a radicalized person could be among the rest of the refugees, but the numbers are in no way as high as politicians claim, according to the AIVD. There is a sound procedure in place to screen those who are entering our country. Last year only a very small number of Syrians were arrested on the suspicion of being involved in possible war crimes. It is also important to note that ISIS actually warns its men not to travel to the West, away from the caliphate. Leaving the caliphate is considered treason and makes it therefore highly unlikely that there are large amount of ISIS members among refugees.

Cases such as the one of Abdul Mohsen focusses a large part of the discussion on the dangers of war criminals among refugees. What people do not realize is that this focus brings dangers of its own. Genuine refugees are being stigmatized and threatened by the local population, whereas the presence of war criminals among them is most dangerous for them. Rena Netjes, Arabic scholar and Middle-East expert spoke with Radio 1 on Tuesday and vocalized the sentiments among refugees. According to Netjes, refugees are scared for Assad’s power, even here. Most of them still have family back in Syria and fear that their family members will be hurt if the Mukhabarat (Syrian Military Intelligence Dictatorate) discovers their identity. Netjes confirms that members of the Mukhabarat are among those who are entering Europe right now. I have spoken with a Syrian refugee myself who told me about similar sentiments. She escaped Syria and the threat of being arrested by the government in 2011, leaving her family behind in Damascus. Knowing that the people she tried to get away from are still among her, makes her feel trapped, she tells me. She is not necessarily scared for herself, but more for what they might do to her family if they find out who she is and why she left Syria.

The debate in Europe has been consumed lately with the fear of the loss of welfare to the influx of refugees. Stereotyping them as war criminals seems like an easy way of channelling these fears, which are sparked by extremely right-winged politicians. It has to be taken into consideration though that the numbers are in fact much lower than for instance the 2% of war criminals among refugees that Geert Wilders claims. Since the 1990s a lot of procedures have been created to screen these criminals and even bring them to trial. This is not only important for our own safety but also for the safety of genuine refugees themselves. I believe it is important that the public debate incorporates a more moderate discourse in which questions will be answered to the European population based on facts instead of fears. It needs to become clear who we are giving refuge to and why we do not need to be scared of them.

 * In this article I define refugees as people that escape war, not to be confused with people that migrate due to economic reasons.

**“In hoeverre zijn asielzoeker/vluchtelingen/immigranten eingelijk bewapend? Lees en hoor hier steeds meer zeer verontrustende berichten over, ook bij mij in de buurt…..” en “Ze opereren vaak in groepjes. Dan heb je geen wapens nodig om dat jonge meisje je wil op te leggen.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“We Fought With Our Bodies and Voices, Not With Guns and Weapons” – Interview With the Cast of ‘A Syrian Love Story’

Jan Seftl/Flickr (CC BY/SA)

 

 

Jan Seftl/Flickr (CC BY/SA)

Jan Seftl/Flickr (CC BY/SA)

By Tayfun Balçik -

 

The IDFA-screening of A Syrian Love Story – a documentary depicting 5 years of the life of a troubled Syrian family filmed against the background of the war,– caused many emotional reactions among  Amsterdam’s Tuschinksi cinema visitors. Some people in the audience cried, some were obviously distressed. The main characters of the film, Raghda (mother), Amer (father), Ricardo, Bob (sons) and Sean McAllister (director) received a standing ovation. The discussion afterwards with journalist Marcia Luyten was too short to be really satisfactory. Therefore, it was great that Koen and I had the opportunity to have an interview with the crew the day-after. Both the family whose story is told in the documentary as well as some of the crew-members were present. It is exactly the visible tensed togetherness of the family which makes ‘A Syrian Love Story’ so moving. After all, we see how revolutionary parents in a dangerous context struggle between their ideals and normal family-life, forcefully catched in Amer’s lamenting phrase about Ragdha in the film ‘You cannot be Che Gueverra and a mother’. The whole audience was witness to a marriage crisis, so closely filmed by Sean that it even felt somehow wrong to watch the evolving drama between a husband and his wife. We saw their children trying to make sense of what was happening between their father, mother and the whole Syrian carnage altogether at the same time. In conversation with Sean, the teenager Ricardo reveals his true feelings about the situation in Syria: “In the beginning I was happy with the revolution. Now, I hate it.” And little Bob’s anger with Assad in his mother’s arms is heartbreaking and a simple but clear reminder to the rationale behind the armed opposition against the Assad-regime. Eventually, the family draws the same conclusion as thousands of other Syrian refugees and leaves their home. First from Damascus to Yarmouk Camp, and then their desperate flight to Lebanon and France. Raghda now lives in Istanbul and is part of the Syrian opposition. Amer lives in France with his children.

 

“Why does the West want Bashar to stay?”

 

Because of the focus on the situation of the family the political discussion somewhat degrades to the background but never fades away. In reaction to a question during the Q&A about the prospects for Syria, Sean McAllister remarked shortly: “I don’t really want to get in that discussion, but the removal of Assad would be one thing to start if you want to talk about future prospects for Syria”. The moderator looked surprised to hear that and asked, “who should remove Assad?” Raghda stepped in and responded with a question, “why does the West want Bashar to stay?” Amer said that he has no hope for Syria.  This interview can be seen as an in-depth follow-up of that short discussion.

The managing director of IDFA, Cees van ‘t Hullenaar, said that he sensed some sort of change in Europe with regards to the treatment of refugees and the Syrian crisis? Do you feel that too Amer?

 

“Not really, it’s getting worse actually.”

 

Yes, yesterday you said there is ‘no hope’ for Syria and there is also mentioning in the film that the Middle-East problem will eventually come to Europe. What do you mean exactly by that?

 

Amer: “I hope the problems won’t come to Europe, but what you see now is that everyday thousands of refugees are arriving in Europe. And those refugees have big problems inside them. There are another 5 million Syrians who are just waiting for their chance to come to Europe too. Why? Because they lost their chances, their homes and everything. So it’s a difficult situation over there, which cannot continue any further without causing bigger problems.”

 

In Europe people fear ‘jihadists’ coming with the refugees. They see this problem as a security issue.

 

Amer (defensively): “I don’t want to see it that way. Daesh (ISIS) comes, Daesh goes. After all, what is Daesh? Daesh’s origins lies in the USA. That problem is not here. The problem here, in Europe, is that families are coming with complicated psychologic troubles, because of the horrific things they saw. And these people will have to start a new life in Europe. But how? They need help. They need at least 10 years to dig ways. And what about the new generation that will come? The kids. How can they be in a school again after what they have seen in Syria? It’s a big problem.”

 

What do you mean with that ISIS originated in the USA?

 

Amer: “In just three months Daesh captured an enormous territory in Syria and Iraq! How could that happen? Where were the eyes of the world, with their big satellites. Really they can’t find Daesh? I cannot believe that. I think they could erase Daesh in one night.”

 

“As long as there are Syrians alive, there will always be hope.”

 

But what would be the interest of the USA in creating Daesh?

 

Amer: “How do you think these group came up? When the revolution in Syria started in 2011, we were the first peoples on the streets. And what did we want? We wanted freedom and democracy like the countries in the West. And still we need the right steps to be taken to have a good life and a good economy.”

 

But yesterday you said you have no hope for Syria?

 

Amer: “I just imagined how it would be if I were in Syria right now. If you have hope for Syrian people, OK, be there, and think about what now? If you are here, in Amsterdam, with girls, with beers, camera’s everywhere, then I can imagine one says I have hope. But if I’m a Syrian in Yarmouk camp near Damascus, or Homs, hope would not be the thing I would think about. In such a situation you just want to stay alive, just want to eat something, some grass or anything!”

Amer’s eyes gets wide open and he talks fast and passionately.

 

Clear. But Raghda reacted differently when you said you had no hope?

 

Amer: “Yes, we have different opinions about it.”

Raghda: “Amer only sees problems. My view is, also during my time in prison: as long as there are Syrians alive, there will always be hope. We will make a comeback as Syrians.”

 

You are from the Syrian opposition, situated in Turkey. What is it exactly that you are trying to accomplish?

 

Raghda: “Mostly I talk with different group representatives, and work together with them as Syrians. We prepare the ground for the day when we go back to Syria. We try to build something and be together.”

 

What about armed groups? Do you also represent them?

 

Raghda shakes her head and leans back: “No, no no.”

 

What should the world do for Syria?

 

Raghda: “We have hope because living Syrians are depending on us. We cannot know what the next steps will be, but we always try. I cannot say everything.” (Laughs).

 

But how do you envision a future Syria, with or without Assad?

 

Raghda (resolutely): “Without.”

 

How do you want to do that?

 

Raghda: “The world, all the governments, support Assad. If the world decides to let Assad go, the killing will stop. This is our message.”

 

Koen: But what about the changes that should take place within Syria? It’s a divided country.

 

Raghda: “The problem is the regime. All Syrians should work together to change the regime. Not just Assad. The Mukhaberat (secret services, TB), they control everything. It’s a big lie that half of the Syrian people support Assad. No, that is not true.”

Amer: “I think the world has no memory or there is a hole in the story. We fought with our bodies and voices, not with guns and weapons. That time we asked the world to help us, to be with us in our fight for democracy. And what did they do? They asked: ‘OK, where is the opposition, who can be a new government in Syria?’ We said: ‘We are the opposition.’ Than they asked to form a union. And we did! Than they said: ‘It’s not enough, do another one.’ We did another one. What after, what do you want? People were starting to get killed in Syria. And the world continued to make a picture, to make a video. And the people in Europe, they all watched on television. For this we died. What after?! Hope is not enough. The memory of the world is bullshit. They must remember when the laique (secular) people started the revolution in Syria. We wanted democracy. People who used religion, who fought in the name God, there are reasons to fight in the name of God, if you have the Islamic way, like we had before: fight for Syria, like a united country. For the people, that was our way. But nobody supported that, nobody moved to do that. How then can we talk about hope or democracy? There is no way you can do that. They put your head on the roof if you say that.”

 

So, the revolution was initially secular?

 

Amer: “There was no religion. There were people from Christian, Islamic, Sunni, Alawi, Shia, Druze, they were all together in the streets. But after that, when nobody supported them and left them weak, nobody gave them anything to continue against Bashar al-Assad.” Resentful: “They let us alone. Most of us died, is now in prison to die more or left the country.”

 

So, before the revolution in 2011, there were no tensions between Sunnis, Alawis and Christians?

 

Amer: “You have to believe me on this one. The ex-husband of my sister, I only knew after four years that her ex-husband was Shia.”

 

You really did not know?

 

Amer: “I never thought about it. It did not matter.”

 

Raghda: “We did not speak or know about whether a person was Christian, Muslim, Sunni or Shia.”

 

“If you were doing this interview in Damascus before 2011, you would have been taken away immediately.” 

 

What exactly was the problem then? (This question was received with laughter.)

 

Sean: “I think one of the problems was if you sleep at night, and you have a bang bang bang at two o’clock in the morning, and you get kidnapped, that is not an acceptable society to live in. That was fundamentally the problem.”

 

They were painting a picture of Syria as a nice multicultural society.

 

Sean: “Well, people were living in fear and they could get kidnapped at any point, fuck all the multiculturalism! She was taken and nobody knew anything were she was taken. The prisons were full of people without any trial. Fuck multiculturalism!”

 

So the multiculturalism before the revolution was a façade.

Sean: “The whole thing was bullocks!”

 

Amer: “If you were doing this interview in Damascus before 2011, you would have been taken away immediately.”

 

Sean: “How could people live like that? Why should anyone live like that?”

Amer: “You cannot write, you cannot move. All the problems are around you. You feel like you live in a cage, even in your bed. All the time you are being watched. You are not safe. All the time you dream about freedom outside. If you go to Lebanon you see more freedom, even though it’s tough sometimes. Yes, of course there were corrupt Alawi people around Assad, in the cities especially. But in the poor villages, Alawi or not, the regime was as oppressive as it was against everyone who was against the dictatorship.”

 

Raghda: “There is no problem between the different communities. The problem is the regime, if he goes, than Daesh and all other problems will go away.”

 

But I hear other voices. People who are afraid of a Islamist or Jihadist takeover. In Christian, Druze, but also Alawi communities. That Assad is protecting them and keeping Daesh down.

 

Amer: “Bullshit.”

Everybody starts laughing.

 

“Telling the truth in such a situation could get their family killed.”

 

Raghda: “People risk their lives when they speak the truth about the Assad regime. What would you do if you know that doors are slammed and people are taken away to get killed? I know many families who have three or four family-members who are taken away by the regime or Daesh. Telling the truth in such a situation could get their family killed.”

 

OK, what if Assad is gone and all the killings stop, how to build-up a community again?

 

Amer: “It’s too late to have a community. Because now, with the country crushed completely, and the opposition is bullshit everywhere, in Turkey and other countries, they are shit, they cannot do anything! There is no opposition actually. But to answer your question, if Assad is down, because his friends don’t support him anymore, I think that the fighting will continue without any goal. They will just fight on. Because they cannot forget their blood! If you are Alawi, and you kill my son, I want to kill you and never stop my war against you. It’s not about “community” now between Alawi, Sunni or Durzi. It’s about revenge in the streets, between neighborhoods. Everybody wants to continue.”

 

Well that is a reason for the international community to come between the warring sides and stop the killing.

 

Raghda: “When the revolution started..”

Amer: “Nobody had a plan..”

 

Raghda: “And we paid with our lives for that. Now people wake up, and try to make something…”

 

Amer (cynically): “I think now it’s a good time, for the big powers in the world like America, England to go and shoot Daesh. But there is nothing to shoot Daesh. They are big liars. They go with air forces and shoot Daesh. To crush more and continue the war. For what? For the time-after, so their companies can come and build a new Syria, which will be good for their economy. It’s a big game and everybody now know what’s happening. So how can I have hope? Who can do anything for Syria? Its not a country anymore. Its like a shape, everybody can touch it, everybody can put a finger everywhere.”

 

Yes, but the killing continues. And some countries in the West and Turkey said there should be a security-zone and no-fly-zone.

 

Amer: “Yes, I support the idea of a security-zone, not just around the Turkish border, everywhere in Syria, if they can support these kids with their families to stay alive and create some perspective for them, maybe so they can have hope later. But the big powers must do that. Not other players, who put their fingers everywhere.”

 

Koen: Do you think that Syria can be one united country again?

 

Sean: “The only way for Syria to be a united country again is to have another dictator. You cannot bring the country together democratically. It’s a divided nation now, it’s impossible to have it like it ever was. I think it will be like Yugoslavia. Carved up. The more interesting question for me was, if we had gotten involved, which was not cool, early on, if we had made that concerted effort and supported the Free Syrian Army to remove Assad, which we didn’t want. What would have been the outcome? Now we have 350.000 people killed. And ISIS is growing. People from Britain are joining them. For me the problem was one man. What do you think?

 

I am for military intervention. Especially after the chemical attack in Ghouta.

 

“I think that was the fundamental thing. We set the red lines and Obama let him go with a lousy deal. The green light was provided for him. And it’s a little line in the film, which goes unmissed (sic): The Middle East problem will come to Europe. We thought we could ignore their problems. OK, fine, ignore Syria. We did, we ignored it until it collapsed into massacre, but now the problems comes from two ways. In refugees, which we see, and in Daesh. Daesh is coming to Britain! And this is what they are going to do: they are gonna start targeting Europe and America. So when we think about Syria, we have to think in terms of our own security, and therefore we have to get involved. We should have gotten involved.”

Amer: “Actually they lie too much. When they say they want to help Syrian people, they want us to die more. They have never given anything. We know the games they play with us. Every day we lost many thousands people. Than we started to know that they lied.”

 

Last question. In the film we also see your struggles as husband and wife. And during one of these fights you explain what it means to be loved by someone and say ‘every man in his life seeks for that person’

 

Amer: “You want me to fight with her again?”

 

Everybody Laughs.

 

It was really beautiful.

 

Amer: “I think every man wants to be loved by the one who he sees as his heart, his love. Not like friends. You can’t remove that feeling, it comes along with love. I am like any man, I want to feel it. And it’s hard. Because I lost it.”